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Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist cover art

Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist

Written by: Michael Shermer,The Great Courses
Narrated by: Michael Shermer
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Publisher's Summary

Despite our best efforts, we're all vulnerable to believing things without using logic or having proper evidence—and it doesn't matter how educated or well read we are.

But there is a method for avoiding such pitfalls of human nature, and it's called skepticism. By using rational inquiry and seeing subjects from a scientific perspective, we can approach even the most sensitive claims with clear eyes to ultimately arrive at the truth.

During 18 lectures that will surprise, challenge, and entertain you, you will learn how to think, not just what to think—and you'll come to understand why extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

You'll discover how skepticism can help differentiate between real science and pseudoscience, as well as between "scientific" history and pseudohistory—distinctions that have serious educational and political implications.

Fascinating case studies illustrate how you can apply the methods of skepticism to detect specious claims and faulty logic in any scenario you encounter such as:

  • The methodology employed by Holocaust deniers
  • Arguments made by proponents of creationism
  • The biology of near-death experiences and the sensed-presence effect
  • Psychic abilities and other "paranormal" phenomena.

As you learn how our brains work to form beliefs, you'll examine the classic fallacies of thought that lead us to experience mistakes in thinking and to form bad arguments in favor of our beliefs.

Is there a God? Is there life after death? Is there a basis for morality without God? Skepticism 101 doesn't shy away from controversial questions, nor does it give final answers. What it offers are methods and hard evidence for rationally evaluating various claims and positions, and an opportunity to understand why you believe what you believe.

©2013 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2013 The Great Courses

What listeners say about Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist

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  • mc2
  • 06-03-15

Dogmatic with little critical thought

There were a couple of good chapters, but for the most part full of inconsistencies and fallacies.

His delivery is mostly wooden, like he is reading a script. Otherwise, he is smug, condescending and arrogant. He assumes evolution is absolute truth, so much for critical thinking.

My background is science and engineering and his errors drove me crazy.

Bottom line: He does not address why people would take shortcuts in reasoning and critical thought. He misses on incentive analysis. A real waste of time

Read Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics. It is much better at critical thought and the means of investigation. Sowell is fair, entertaining and presents based on evidence and not wild conjecture and speculation like this guy.

The problems with this lecture are too numerous to mention but let me list a few.

He predominately falls into several logical fallacies and hypocrisies. His favorite fallacies are the Appeal to Authority, Appeal to Expertise, Bandwagon and Appeal to Ignorance and he maddeningly misuses the term Begging the Question. In addition, he does not have the same skepticism for evolution, climate change as he does UFOs, creation, etc. Nobody should get a pass. Otherwise, all they have to do is exclaim peer review and science and you salivate like Pavlov’s dog.

Error 1 - He conflates experimental with observational science as if the quality of the data is the same. Experimental science allows for control of the variables and repeatability. This allows for reruns to correct for critiques and errors. Observation science has no such control and is left to speculations and assumptions on the data collected.

Error 2 - Dogmatic respect for science and scientists surprisingly without any skepticism

For example, given the Climate Science data, models and prediction, a cursory review would raise huge red flags. Clues? Notice that any outcome cold weather, hot weather, more snow, less snow is always evidence of Climate Change? It is thus irrefutable, untestable and NOT science.

The same is true for macro evolution which he assumes is true. Anything that is found is attributed to evolution. Thus, how can it be refuted? So – not science.

He had a segment on the “god helmet” which uses magnetism to induce various experiences such as out of body experience and demons. This is to support that there is no soul, angels, or supernatural. Of course it really doesn’t. It is like saying that we found the parts of the brain that process vision so there is nothing external that imparts the images but simply a manifestation of the brain.

Taken to its conclusion, how do we know that a more sophisticated helmet does not induce our entire life experience?

This is a manifestation of Barkley philosophy where our experience is nothing but mind? Hmmm

He spends most of his time on arguments against UFOs, aliens, etc but very little on the important stuff. He assumes evolution is absolute truth, i.e. dogma. This is his religion, which he uses to explain and discount the other religions.

115 people found this helpful

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  • CARL V PHILLIPS
  • 15-04-16

By far the worst "Great" Courses I have listened

This is the only "Great Courses" recording I have listened to that I found to be bad; indeed, it is terrible. Perhaps I am biased by being more expert in the material than I am for history or literature courses I have listened to, though I do not think that is it. Unlike the other lecturers, that delve into interesting points with a good balance of deep insight and humility, this came across more like a Malcolm Gladwell book of just-so stories and sloppy reasoning. I suppose if you are a fan of that approach, and you know absolutely nothing about scientific reasoning, you might find this worthwhile. But if you are looking for something more insightful (a genuine great course!), this is not it.

Shermer (who is a fine narrator/speaker -- credit for that) grossly oversimplifies almost everything he talks about. He gets many scientific points out-and-out wrong. He plays it well, so you might not realize that (I have studied and taught a lot of the same material for decades), which makes it all the more hazardous. I suspect this is the result of him being accustomed to talking to people who deny or do not understand the most basic principles of scientific inquiry. The problem is that he is trying to replace their simplistic view with another simplistic view, which might be fine for an airport book or a grade-school class, but this is not supposed to be one of those.

I kept listening for two reasons. The first is the delicious irony of someone who claims to be teaching about skepticism reciting simplified interpretations of the science (e.g., lab psychology experiments) as if it were indisputable truth, and that the single interpretation of the results that is convenient for his story is the only possible interpretation. The second is to get inspiration to write a book about debunking the debunkers who recite a simplified view of scientific inquiry that may indeed help protect people against utter woo (which is Shermer's mission in life) but that create a layer of more subtle problems that can be just as dangerous.

Needless to say, neither of those upsides is worth getting this listen for most people.

Some examples for those familiar with the topics: He lists many of the standard "heuristics and biases" reasons for people drawing erroneous causal conclusions. But for about half of them he describes them incorrectly. For most all of them, he asserts they are real phenomena based on one or two artificial psych experiments whose results have many possible interpretations. Some of them he spins into just-so stories about why we have that bias, which is fine, except that he presents these as facts rather than the reasonable speculations that they are. He refers to "the scientific method" even though there is no such "the", which he actually acknowledges in passing at a few points. But this does not stop him from basing most of what he says on a notion that scientific inquiry is always about following a particular script (e.g., that particular research methods trump others, or that particular statistical rules-of-thumb are natural laws rather than just a different kind of heuristic).

I suspect that Shermer has a more sophisticated understanding than he presents here. But his approach in these lectures is to infantilize the listener and present a grade-school-level lesson. Even apart from the the out-and-out errors, this is a terrible way to teach a college-level course, telling people what to think rather than exploring the topic. It is completely out of place in the "Great Courses" series.

61 people found this helpful

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  • Feisty Donut
  • 11-11-13

A good start to critical thinking

Would you consider the audio edition of Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist to be better than the print version?

I've never seen the print version.

What did you like best about this story?

I liked each section delving more in depth with a good amount of background information.

What about Professor Michael Shermer’s performance did you like?

At the end he refers those more interested in the subject to checkout the magazine and even contact him with questions, which I've done and he responds. Even with the dumb stuff .

What did you learn from Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist that you would use in your daily life?

I'm still going to get nailed with my own cognitive biases but it's always good to remind yourself that they exist which is a good way to minimize the effect.

Any additional comments?

I've read some of the books he mentions, Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World was amazing and my first introduction to his baloney detection. This started out a bit of a rehash on those themes so I expected to not learn a whole lot of new information. A few sections in and the material was much more expanded upon with more background. I'm a fan of VS Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks so if you like those books I think this is a good diversion whilst waiting for their next. I would love to see volume 2 eventually.

38 people found this helpful

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  • SAMA
  • 12-01-14

Useful until presumptuous

If it wasn't for the professor's incessant jabs on religion, this would have gotten a better rating from me.

31 people found this helpful

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  • Dale
  • 23-03-15

Unfortunately has an agenda

This material had a slow start, but at least half of the content was rather enlightening, unfortunately, the rest of the content seemed tarnished by an agenda to encourage "God can't be proven, hence God does not exist" style of very UNscientific thinking. If you are an atheist trying to justify your ideals or lifestyle, then this is the material for you. :-)

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  • S.G.
  • 11-12-17

Certainly is '101'

Do not ignore this designation. This is a very basic and nearly simplistic course. It might be a good intro for a preteen or anyone completely unfamiliar with skepticism, thinking fallacies or cognitive studies. I was surprised at the sweeping generalizations in it, for instance the suggestion that all humans engage in monogamous relationships in which any infidelity would be considered amoral. He could at least recognize that this is not universally applicable.

29 people found this helpful

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  • Sam Motes
  • 10-02-14

Don't be deceived, this is a great listen

I had a true since of déjà vu moment while listening to this course by Shermer until I realized he was the author of "The Believing Brain" which I read a few months ago and this course was covering much of the same ground with many of the same stories. Shermer attacks reasons for bad thinking such as via confirmation bias, availability bias, the hind sight fallacy, and others that challenge our ability to think logically like a Scientist. The Feynman quote that went something along the lines of first you must not be deceived and you are the easiest to deceive summed up the premise of the course very well.

28 people found this helpful

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  • Heizenberg
  • 14-09-13

One Truely Great Course

Wow was this a great lecture! Shermer is an interesting speaker and I found it hard to stop listening. This course should be on the list of required freshmen courses for all college students. As a skeptic in training myself, this course helped equip me with some important new tools that I know I'll be able to use at home in everyday life and in business.

23 people found this helpful

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  • wsf246
  • 21-09-14

Terrible, don't waste your money

What disappointed you about Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist?

Poorly produced and the content was third rate. I had finished many good books before this and this simply pales in comparison to titles like The Righteous Mind, Automate This, Moonwalking with Einstein, or Wisdom of the Crowds. All of these are a much better use of your time. The author is very snooty and provides poor examples even when I agreed with some of his propositions.

Would you ever listen to anything by The Great Courses and Michael Shermer again?

No

How did the narrator detract from the book?

He was bad. At the very least, they should have gotten someone who could deliver the lectures better. I hated the fake applause.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

I guess if this is truly your introduction into "thinking critically", this could be a starting point, but you're really better off with a bunch of other books.

Any additional comments?

Waste of time.

22 people found this helpful

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  • drlcartman
  • 02-05-15

Great course, the applauselines are weird

I enjoyed this course very much. The only downside to it would be the weird applause lines that occur between lectures. I believe he is in a booth recording it, which works out fine, but do they really need to pretend he is talking to people?

19 people found this helpful

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  • Pod
  • 03-12-17

Mostly just an overview of skepticism

Was a bit disappointing. I was hoping for specific, actionable items that someone could use to, but instead it was mostly an overview of scepticism, some fallacies and conspiracy theories.

Still, it's interesting.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Patrick
  • 31-03-15

Highly recommended.

Would you consider the audio edition of Skepticism 101: How to Think like a Scientist to be better than the print version?

It is not yet available in print, but perhaps it should be to gather a wider readership.

What did you like best about this story?

This is a succinct and comprehensive run through of rational and scientific thinking and understanding as it is today. I would highly recommend it to every and anyone.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

No. Too much information to concentrate on and absorb .

Any additional comments?

It would be a shame if those of strong relgious faith were put off listening to (reading) this, but that would only prove some of the variuous cognitive biases contained therin.

4 people found this helpful

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  • mr Peter Mo
  • 18-11-17

Worthy listen

I have been a skeptic for over 10 years and this course was a good refresher. I also enjoy the work on Michael Shermer so all in all this was a well worth my time.

3 people found this helpful

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  • Robb
  • 24-12-18

Good book

Good book for making you think about how the brain really works. Gets you thinking.

1 person found this helpful

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  • SteveN
  • 30-05-20

A Skeptical View of Science and Sudo Science

I found this audio book to be a great source of information regarding the balance between how we view...well everything vs what we know empirically.

I was concerned that Michael Schermer was going to go to town on spiritualism, however I thought the balanced arguments for both perspectives was fair and well argued.

Overall, you will learn the differences between each approach in understanding the world/universe we live in and why you should believe in either or both.