Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal

by Martin Bridgstock

An original course prompting students to think critically about the paranormal

Dr Bridgstock was the winner of the 2006 Australian Skeptics’ Prize for Critical Thinking. This is the winning entry.

Introduction – the problem

Surveys in both Australia and the United States indicate that at least 80% of the population hold one or more paranormal beliefs, and the numbers seem to be increasing. My own work with students of science indicated that nearly 60% held, or were inclined to hold, some form of paranormal belief, such as ESP, telepathy and psychic healing. Smaller numbers believe in creation science, astrology and UFOs.

This widespread belief in the paranormal has produced many appalling outcomes. Children – such as Caleb Moorhead and Liam Williams-Holloway – have died when they could probably have been saved by orthodox medicine. People have starved themselves to death and committed mass suicide because of paranormal beliefs. In addition, many people have been relieved of large amounts of money by fake mediums, clairvoyants and channelers. Obviously, everyone has the right to their own beliefs. On the other hand, people should be able to acquire the ability to seek and evaluate the evidence for paranormal beliefs.

I convene a large first-year course at Griffith University, and became concerned at the lack of knowledge students showed about the nature of science, and the lack of capacity they had to evaluate paranormal claims. With this in mind, I set out to construct a course in Skepticism and the Paranormal, as an elective for second year students at Griffith University. It was clear that there would have to be an element of critical thinking for the course to be acceptable at university level.

However, there is a problem with courses of this kind. The students are mainly young adults, and there is much evidence to suggest that they strongly resent being indoctrinated, or having particular viewpoints thrust upon them. Therefore, a simple ‘debunking’ course would certainly fail. In addition, Griffith University is a publicly funded institution. It is therefore ethically questionable whether a teacher would have the right to impose a skeptical or critical viewpoint upon students, especially given that a large majority of the population accepts the existence of the paranormal!

The unique solution to the problem

The solution to the problem is unique and original. It does not infringe upon the students’ right to make their own judgments, and to believe as they will. The heart of the course is simply this: that students on the course are required to demonstrate that they understand and can apply key skeptical principles, but the conclusions at which they arrive are their own business. Thus, in 2004, a student cited several dozen double-blind experiments which appeared to show that acupuncture had genuine curative potential. He received the highest mark in the class, as he had clearly grasped the major concepts and had used them to arrive at his view. In 2006 another student also examined the evidence for acupuncture. He concluded that many of the studies with positive outcomes were small and badly-designed, and that there was insufficient evidence to accept the value of acupuncture. He, too, received an excellent mark.

I found that students greatly appreciated the freedom to make their own decisions, and the vast majority of each class have readily accepted the requirement to understand skeptical approaches. On the other hand, I now make it clear at the start of the course that the skeptical approach is more than a set of tools which can be discarded. It is a powerful perspective which, once understood, makes it impossible for students to look at the world in the same way again. I do explicitly warn people beginning the course about this: so far no-one has withdrawn at that point!

Constructing the Course

Several components of the course were needed. There would have to be a discussion of the nature of the paranormal. There is a whole range of definitions, mostly involving the idea that the paranormal involves phenomena contrary to science or to normal experience. This has the disconcerting effect of making the paranormal forever unknowable. After all, once a paranormal phenomenon – such as telepathy or clairvoyance – becomes scientifically known and established, from the definition it ceases to be paranormal!

There was also a substantial section explaining the origins and basis of modern skepticism, defined both by CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and the Australian Skeptics as the responsible scientific investigation of paranormal claims, and some key ideas spelled out. These included the Burden of Proof (the principle that if a paranormal claim is made, it is up to the claimant to substantiate it: non-believers do not need to refute it), Occam’s Razor (that explanations should be as simple as possible) and Sagan’s Balance (this is the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence). This was contrasted with older versions of skepticism, such as those of the ancient Greeks, which had different goals.

Another original feature of the course was its introduction of ethics. I introduced the argument of W. K. Clifford (and, more recently, the arguments of Jonathan Adler) that it is unethical to hold beliefs which are not supported by evidence. This is directly relevant to skepticism since, by its very definition, the paranormal is not adequately supported by evidence, Thus, the arguments of Clifford and Adler suggest that skepticism is an ethical approach, as well as an intellectual one.

Because I allowed a great deal of intellectual freedom in the course, I found that people used different skeptical approaches. I had indicated, with approval, Wayne Bartz’s CRITIC algorithm, and Schick and Vaughn’s SEARCH approach, and some students used these. I was totally dumbfounded, however, when one student used Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detector. He used it very well, and gained an excellent mark.

The key theme was that provided the students understood and were able to use the skeptical approach, there was great latitude in the selection of topics, the exact intellectual tools used and the conclusions reached. The core of the course, modern skepticism, was the foundation of everything else.

Teaching the course

The course took the form of 20 lectures on the nature of science, of the paranormal and of skepticism. Then there was work on major paranormal claims. I concentrated upon the controversy of Targ and Puthoff’s remote viewing, creation science and astrology. Then the course moved on to the ethics of belief, and the extension of skeptical approaches into non-paranormal areas: holocaust denial, evidence based medicine and evidence based practice.

At the same time, students began to give seminars on topics of their choice. There was a long list of topics, and also the opportunity to agree a topic of their own. Most of the topics I listed involved evaluation of evidence for such topics as faith healing, naturopathy, UFO abductions and creation. Some, however, chose their own topics, and I have learned about Applied Kinesiology, cattle mutilations, therapeutic touch and Roswell Rods.

For the most part the work was of good standard, with lively comment and questions from the other students. However, if someone appeared to be forgetting what the course was about, I could always bring them back with questions such as “Well, what would a skeptic say about this?” or “What would be the skeptical approach here?” Then we were back in the world of evidence and judgment.

Some consequences

A number of rather unexpected consequences followed from this approach. First, it was necessary to begin the course with an outline of the nature of science. This was necessary, simply because both modern skepticism and the paranormal have science as an essential component of their definitions. Thus, some explanation of science was necessary. I dodged the complexities of the philosophy of science, and simply explained science as a human activity composed of theorizing on the one hand, and evidence collection on the other. Theories guide the collection of evidence and the evidence, in turn, decides which theories stand and which are rejected. As the interchange goes on, the area understood by scientists steadily widens.

One can then add other concepts to this simple model. For example, technology enables the collection of different kinds of evidence – such as that from space probes, big telescopes and ocean floor drilling – and so drives theory into new and different areas of phenomena. One key requirement of this model is that scientific theory cannot be too dogmatic. If theories are held in defiance of the evidence, then the scientific process grinds to a halt. This was especially useful when I came to analyse creation science!

A second consequence was also unexpected. Because skepticism argues for the reliance of knowledge upon evidence, it also necessarily stresses that all knowledge is provisional. There is always the possibility of contrary evidence overturning any belief. I found my own ideas changing as I acknowledged that nothing could be known about the world with absolute certainty.

A third consequence was that skeptical thinking can easily be shown to extend to areas well outside the paranormal. For example, ‘holocaust denial’ can be analysed using the same tools as those applied to the paranormal. In addition, the important ‘evidence-based medicine’ movement, which is transforming the practice of medicine, relies heavily on a skeptic-style search for reliable evidence. The perspectives of the latter are also being felt in areas such as teaching, under the rubric of evidence-based practice.
Growth in enrolments

Outcomes

2006ctprizea1The course was first offered in 2003, and has run each year since. In the area within which I work – Science, Technology and Society in the School of Science – average enrolments in second and third year courses vary from about 15 to 25. As the enrolment chart shows, the skepticism course began at the top of the normal range, and has expanded every year since, with 50, 59 and 80 students.

It is clear that enrolments have grown very quickly year by year. Only about one-quarter of enrollees are based in the School of Science: others come from law, environment, education and humanities. In short, the course has very broad appeal, and seems to be expanding because of word-of-mouth recommendations. Clearly, though, a course cannot be judged purely by its enrolments. The impact upon the students and the quality of the results are at least equally important.

My first indication of the impact of the course came early in the first year, when one mature student told me “I’m having to re-think fifty years of belief because of this course.” A much younger student commented, at the end of the course that “This is the only course I’ve ever really learned anything from.” Another student, from the following year, put the impact in these terms (quoting some of my own words back at me):

I feel empowered with knowledge. I have learnt the skills that Martin promised; I have been “equipped with a cluster of intellectual skills and abilities” and I now “foster a questioning and investigative approach” to most aspects of life. But I also feel like I’ve lost out in something. I have lost the ability to believe for the sake of believing, a trait which may be scorned an academic circles, but gives a thoroughly liberated and boundless quality to the soul.

This phenomenon has caused me some concern. In the most recent intake, an anonymous student wrote, in capital letters, “Martin, you destroyed my fantasy world!” It is clear that the impact of the course upon some people can be quite devastating. Although I had always thought of skepticism as a set of ‘intellectual tools’ which could be used, or not, the reality is rather different. Once the skeptical perspectives are understood, then they become a part of people’s outlooks. Once you have seen matters in a new way, it is difficult to go back to the old ways. Often, students found themselves looking at their previous beliefs – or the beliefs of other members of their families – in new and critical ways.

An example of the latter occurred in 2006. A student was examining the evidence for alien abductions in her seminar. She reviewed some major cases, and concluded that the evidence was not strong enough to justify belief in abductions. Then, in discussion, she revealed that her aunt was an alien abductee, and had an entire room in her house devoted to the phenomenon. The student was clearly embarrassed at her aunt’s views: she was seeing them in a whole new way.

I had especial reservations about allowing first year students to take the course after several had had difficulty in being critical of paranormal claims. Then, in 2006, I decided to give a small prize to the student who gained the highest mark. After adding up the marks, I found that a young woman had the highest total. I was about to contact her when she wrote to me. She thanked me for the course, and said that as a first year student, she felt that the course was an excellent preparation for her other studies. (So that idea was discarded . . .).

Generally, student reactions have been very positive. Here are comments from the first class’s evaluation forms (there were no negative ones, beyond comments that I had tried to pack too much into the lectures):

  • Learning the basis of critical thinking and how to apply it i.e. the use of the skeptics’ tools in analyzing paranormal phenomena
  • Getting an insight into areas that are not skeptically taken apart often.
  • The broad range of topics discussed the depth that they are covered in, that Martin Bridgstock taught it, and the ease of understanding the flowing lectures.
  • Informal atmosphere, can ask a question, discuss in lectures and seminars etc.
  • The fact that lectures were interesting. I actually wanted to come to class.
  • Informal atmosphere, can ask a question, discuss in lectures and seminars etc.
  • The best things were the seminars which were enjoyable and interesting. I found that being able to access materials from website, weblink, reading and slides extremely helpful

Another measure of the impact of the course comes from student evaluations. In 2006 the students were asked what impact the course had had upon their thinking. The precise question, and the replies, are given in the diagram below:

2006ctprizea2

The meaning of the letters beneath the ratings are: UA Unacceptable; VP very Poor; P Poor; Av Average; G Good, VG Very Good and Ex Excellent. As can be seen, in this anonymous rating, no students rated the course below average, and the two most common ratings were Excellent and Very Good. It therefore seems that the course is succeeding in its basic object of enabling students to think in new ways about paranormal phenomena.

Academic results are another measure of how well the students do. In the first year of the course, I explicitly undertook to fail work which was unsatisfactory, and did so when I encountered it. However, when the assessment results were totalled up at the end, nobody had failed. An administrator showed me this, and also pointed to the results of one student in particular. He had failed all his other work, often catastrophically, but was sufficiently involved to pass this one. Since that time, failure rates have been low – a few percent – and the number of students producing good work is remarkably high.

Further Developments

It is worth mentioning several other developments. In the second half of last year I was on study leave. I spent the time writing a book – titled Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal – which covers similar ground to the course, though in somewhat more detail. The manuscript is currently with Cambridge University Press.

Another important development occurred in June of this year. I was part of a delegation from Griffith University Faculty of Science to the Innovative Universities of Australia conference at Macquarie University. I presented an account of the course and some evidence regarding its impact. The reception was very positive – notably by the Dean of Science at Griffith – and I am now being encouraged to apply for a university teaching grant. Using the textbook and online facilities, this will enable the course to be offered online, thus greatly enhancing its availability and impact.

Related to this is a proposal to make the course available as one component of the Master of Science in Education degree. This qualification is offered online by a consortium of universities, including Griffith and Macquarie, and is aimed at secondary science teachers. To become suitable for this degree programme, the skepticism course will need an additional component. It will require material directly related to teaching skepticism, and incorporating modern educational theory and relevant materials. This is an exciting challenge, and will probably require a national Carrick Institute grant to make it a reality. If it succeeds, then the imparting of skeptical principles to the general public will be greatly enhanced.

Addressing the Criteria

In their description of the award, the Australian Skeptics state that: “Entries will be judged according to originality, depth of critical thought and public benefit.” In this section, these criteria will be addressed.

Originality. Conceiving and running a course in skepticism and the paranormal is not entirely original. There has been, to my knowledge, one other such course in this country and perhaps twenty worldwide. This course, however, has a number of original features. First, it makes no attempt to indoctrinate the students. Quite explicitly, their beliefs are their own business: they will pass provided they understand and can apply skeptical methods of thought. Second, the course is original in that it recognises the necessary link between skeptical thought and understanding the nature of science. Third, the course is also original in forging an explicit link between skepticism and ethics through the ethics of belief.

Depth of Critical Thought. From the above description, it should be clear that the course has a strong ‘intellectual backbone’. Once they have grasped the basic ideas, students know about the nature of science, and how essential scientific principles are used by skeptics to investigate the paranormal. They are also aware of the ethical element in skepticism, and the possibilities of extending skeptical thought beyond the paranormal.

It should be clear, incidentally, that the design and delivery of the course does not only involve critical thought. The ethics of the course have also been carefully considered, and so has the educational theory which underlies it.

Public Benefit. All skeptics will be aware of the dire consequences of uncritical belief. There have been too many atrocities like the People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate cults, too many children mistreated because of their parents’ misguided beliefs, and too many foolish decisions made because of the poor quality advice offered by mediums, channelers and clairvoyants. The sheer scale of paranormal belief makes it difficult for one person to make a difference. However, the course currently acquaints several dozen young people a year with the elements of skeptical thought, and it is clear from the evidence quoted above that the course has major effects on their thinking. There is clear public benefit from the impact of the course and, over the years, it should be considerable.

In sum, the course is unique in the way that it requires students to understand and apply skeptical concepts while respecting their capacity to make their own judgments. It also introduces an ethical dimension to studies of the paranormal. It shows substantial originality and depth of critical thought – as well as good educational design. Further, it is clearly to the public benefit that this course be successful in its objectives.