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Science versus Pseudoscience: Do You Know What You Think You Know? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr. Karen Koy   

The JREF is proud to announce a continuing series on featuring articles by skeptical teachers exploring critical thinking in the classroom, using the investigation of the paranormal, fringe science, and pseudoscience to teach methods of science and reason. We welcome feedback, discussion, and further suggestions from educators and parents in the comments section. If you would like to be involved in this project, please contact Bob Blaskiewicz.

Two years ago, looking to branch out from the life & earth sciences, I signed up to teach a class for our Honors program. As a part of their Honors requirements, students must take at least two Honors colloquia. These are small classes (maximum 15 students) that meet two hours a week. The topics are chosen by the instructor, and tend to be specific subjects not covered by classes within the course catalogue (for example, the Sixties alternative music scene or the life & philosophy of Charles Darwin). Having always wanted to teach a skepticism class, I thought this was the perfect chance to try it out.

Titled “Science versus Pseudoscience: Do you know what you think you know?”, the class covered subjects from cryptozoology to creationism to chiropractic. The subjects covered in class were chosen by the instructor and the students. There were several assignments that I will discuss in a moment. This fall I will be able to hold the class again. I will be able to take what I learned the first time around to improve the design of the class.

The class was divided into three sections: complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), paranormal/supernatural claims, and denialism. I put CAM up front because it seemed to have the most immediate and direct impact on the students’ lives. We started out by going over Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, and applying it to the more outlandish CAM, like reflexology and iridology. Then we went over more mainstream practices like chiropractic and applied kinesiology. In the upcoming class I will also get the students to discuss gene therapy and other frontier medicine.

In the second section of class we covered the really fun stuff: cryptozoology, psychic readings, and UFOs. The assigned readings consisted of articles and websites from both believers and skeptics. If I had personal experiences with any of these topics, I related them to the class. During the discussion students went over questions they had from the readings, looked for logical fallacies and discussed why people really want to believe these things. Some students also talked about their own paranormal experiences, with the class analyzing what may have actually happened.

I created several small assignments during this section of the class, hoping to help the students experience the woo for themselves. One assignment came during the discussion of psychic powers. The class read anecdotes of psychic readings, and watched the Bullshit! segment on TV psychics with Mark Edward. The students received a printout of WikiHow’s “How to Give a Cold Reading.” We went over the list as a group, giving examples of or performing each of the steps. Over the weekend, they were to give a reading (cold or hot) to one or more people, and write a report on their experience.

The sitters were mostly friends or family, since the students were uncomfortable approaching strangers. Most of the students got positive responses from their sitters, with one or two sitters being very impressed. Only one or two sitters had anything like a true skeptical response, pointing out the generalities in their statements, or that since they were friends, the student already knew the information they were “receiving” psychically. From this exercise, the students learned how easy it was to fool people, and how something which seems impressively personal and targeted is really very general. In this year’s class I hope to have a more in-depth discussion why people want to believe in psychics – what do they get out of it? What are the perceived and actual benefits and risks of using psychics? This will hopefully lead into a discussion about the morality and ethics of practicing psychics.

For the UFO segment, I gave the students links to images or videos of supposed UFOs. The images were a mix of known hoaxes, mistaken identifications or unknown. Among them were classic images such as the McMinnville Object, the Belgian triangles and the Gulf Breeze photos. The students rated whether each UFO was a mistaken identification, a hoax, or neither. They also had to discuss why they made each decision. During class I put up each photo/video, and the students went over their arguments with each other. They were often surprised by the solutions to the photos (for example, no one thought the Gulf Breeze photos were a model). We did not discuss the types of analyses that can be done with images, and what they can and cannot tell you. This next iteration I plan to go cover the pros and cons of image analysis techniques, probably prior to the UFO and cryptozoology weeks.

It was this assignment that lead to one of the final assignments. The students practically begged to have a project where they make their own UFO photos/videos to post online. Unfortunately we were only partway through the section and hadn’t gotten to ghosts or cryptozoology yet. Although I made those topics available, we hadn’t discussed them in any kind of detail so those groups had a harder time constructing their evidence. Students were allowed to work alone or in small groups. They had to create a video or series of photos, posted to a YouTube account. Then they had to analyze their viewership and comments and give a presentation to the class. This is where it got interesting.

The sole cryptozoology video involved some tongue-in-cheek acting and a cheaply made Bigfoot costume. This video did not receive any credulous comments (unsurprisingly). Several students posted orb photos or superimposed an image of a person against a spooky background to simulate ghost images. Luckily there are several “known” haunted spots in town, and students took full advantage. Two projects involved a local historic cemetery (Project 1, Project 2), and another a highway shoulder rumored to be haunted by the specter of someone who died in a car accident. The haunted highway video prompted a message from a producer of the TV show Fact or Faked? Paranormal Files. In this show, a team tries to recreate paranormal videos or photos, using studio techniques and mostly concluding that their recreation isn’t good enough to “explain” the image or video. The message exchange follows:

Producer: Hi, Are you the person who videotaped the footage in the following clip? If so, I would like to contact you to inquire if it's possible to license this footage to the Syfy channel for the show Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files?

Professor: Hello, The footage in the clip is a part of a student assignment for a class I taught last year. I would have to check with my University about licensing rights. I'm not sure if it belongs to the University or the students whose project it was. Regardless I (and the students) would love to see it on the show.

Producer: Thanks for responding. Would you please clarify whether this is a real paranormal sighting or a faked event? Would make a huge difference.

Professor: The students created & posted this clip specifically to see how viewers reacted to paranormal evidence. In that sense it is "faked", although I doubt it is any less supernatural than other paranormal clips posted to YouTube. If you are still interested, please let me know.  

Producer:Thanks. May be able to place in promo for show. How may I contact you?

I then gave the contact information for both myself and the University lawyer. We never heard back. Likely the producers are not as interested in using “fake” videos, especially if the hoaxers are willing and able to explain how they actually did it. My students used easy techniques and commonly available or even free software to achieve their effects. It is something anyone can do in their spare time. The producers probably didn’t want that to be the message of their show. An alternative explanation may be that they simply didn’t want to deal with a lawyer.

One of the simplest videos involved the creation of a poltergeist attack using the old standby, fishing line. This video elicited two direct personal responses. One was from someone who was very concerned about the spiritual well-being of the students (typos in the original).

That’s an interesting video. I’ve watched it a few times because I was sure, the first 2 times, that I seen someones shady and someone breathe in through their nose like it was stuffy

I do hear the sniff part still… were you out with your room mate when this was recording? I’ve been watching it over and over trying to see if I could find any foul play (IE someone screwing around with him or him screwing around with you), the only part that has be questioning the video is the sniff.

Assuming, however, that is legitimate you shouldn’t have to much to worry about. Not yet anyway. Anything from a ghost to a demon could be doing this. While demons are something to worry about they aren’t as “dangerous” as people on T.V. and in the movies make them out to be.

Take some Olive Oil and with the bottle in hand pray. Pray your God to protect you from anything evil in the room. Then take a dab on your finger and touch each opening in the room (doors and windows usually) going Top Bottom Left Right.

Normally I try to steer away from super-religious stuff like that but assuming that it is demonic in nature our own research has found that it does indeed help.

If it’s a ghost, just tell it to leave. DEMAND that it leaves. If it doesn’t, contact me further.

Another commenter attempted to explain the events in the video (typos in original): Ok. I just watched the video and here is what I observed.

First a box comes tumbling down but since it was out of view to begin with it could have been anything. Then there were two small objects popping out from back of the desk.

This too could have been flung by a mechanical device, the coffee can could have had a small vibrating motor in it that was set to vibrate hard enough to knock it down.

The poster probably came down because since it was on a smooth painted wall, either the tape was old, poor quality or humid conditions softened the glue.

The calendar moved as if a breeze hit it. I am assuming a stationary camera was set up so one guess it that there was a tremor.

However we do not know how the room was set up so the wall the desk was set against may not have been a complete wall and someone may have been throwing objects over the incomplete wall.

Another explanation is electrical malfunctions, faulty wiring sending jolts of electricity and creating static bursts to propel objects.

None of it seemed scary or unexplainable to me.

It is either hoaxed or explained through normal and mundane means.

Furthermore most of the movie was taken up with the showing of text so there was only a few seconds of video, this indicates to me that all these “happenings” which took place in just a few seconds was all a set up.

Several of the commenters’ explanations are themselves unlikely (faulty wiring propelling objects with “static bursts” and tremors moving a calendar like there was a breeze). Only one YouTube commenter correctly deduced the means of movement (and no, your comment will never be removed, dear sir). Most of the analyses assume that the students were being honest about how they made the video – setting up a camera to record when no one was in the room. From this assumption, people then explain the videos by more complicated means, such as mechanical devices or earthquakes. It is also interesting that instead of a single, simple explanation – someone pulling on fishing line – the commenter came up with multiple, unrelated explanations (some of which, like static bursts, are fantastic in and of themselves). Why do you need multiple mechanical devices, old glue, faulty wiring and an earthquake, when a person with fishing line explains it all? It seems that some people have learned to be debunkers without being truly skeptical.

The students really enjoyed putting together the videos and following the comments and views. My students not only learned some new techniques for altering video or still images, they also experienced firsthand how easy it can be to pass off something as a genuine paranormal event. They were continually impressed by how seriously the videos were taken by viewers – and how they themselves had to look at internet videos and images with a grain of salt. The videos are still receiving comments from YouTube users. As one might expect, many of the comments lean towards the snarky and/or profane, although believers are also well-represented. This final project will make its appearance again for my new class.

The third and final segment of the class was denialism. The first topic we covered was Holocaust deniers – something none of the students knew existed. Next we talked about the denial of anthropogenic global warming, which the students had thought was true controversy among scientists. Students were able to draw parallels between the methods of the Holocaust deniers, the tobacco industry, and AGW denialists. The very last subject covered was Creationism. This was the sticky wicket – I polled the class and most students considered themselves creationists. When we discussed their beliefs, several of the old Creationist saws appeared: no one has ever seen evolution happen, the fossil record has gaps, etc. I was able to counter each statement. We then discussed what it meant to be a Creationist. Most students did not realize that it is not a black and white issue, or that there is a group of Creationists that believe the Earth is flat. The discussion seemed to open the students up to a more nuanced view of the religion/science interface.

Upon reflection, I am going to reorganize the class so the topics the students most enjoyed are up front. This will allow the students to sharpen their teeth on sillier topics before diving into the more serious. When I introduce the make-your-own-evidence project, they will also have discussed all of the paranormal subjects and be better prepared to design their videos. My hopes for this new batch of students is that they walk away from the class able to recognize logical fallacies, poor use of analysis, and look at media and internet sources with a bit more skepticism than they had at the beginning.


Dr. Karen Koy is an Assistant Professor of Geology in the Department of Biology at Missouri Western State University. This is the first in a three-part series chronicling an ongoing college-level class that takes extraordinary claims as its topic.