The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Belief in the Supernatural is Natural

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 9, 2010

The more and more research I see on this particular topic, the more I become convinced that we skeptics are quite a freakish bunch.  I’m not referring specifically to the type of parties we throw (though there are some pretty trippin’ skeptic parties out there I’ve attended 🙂 ), instead I’m talking about what seems to be the fact that a belief in the supernatural & paranormal may be deeply embedded in many of us.  In short, the belief in the supernatural seems to be… well, quite natural.

This recent article by Discovery News go into much more detail, so I’ll just link to it below and pass it along to you…

Superstitious Beliefs Getting More Common

By Emily Sohn
Fri Oct 29, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Ghosts, goblins and other spooky characters come out from the shadows and into our everyday lives.

For most people, the thrill lasts for a few weeks each October. But for true believers, the paranormal is an everyday fact, not just a holiday joke.

To understand what drives some people to truly believe, two sociologists visited psychic fairs, spent nights in haunted houses, trekked with Bigfoot hunters, sat in on support groups for people who had been abducted by aliens, and conducted two nationwide surveys.

Contrary to common stereotypes, the research revealed no single profile of a person who accepts the paranormal. Believers ranged from free-spirited types with low incomes and little education to high-powered businessmen. Some were drifters; others were brain surgeons. …

The entire article is quite a fascinating read, and Dr. Michael Shermer of the Skeptic’s Society has a few revealing comments as well…

… Regardless of the person or the phenomenon, paranormal experiences are purely quirks of the human brain, said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, an educational organization, and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

Whether it’s hearing creaks in an old house or watching dots move randomly on a computer screen, he said, people tend to look for patterns and meanings in everything.

“The default condition in brain is that all patterns are real,” Shermer said. “It’s just what we do.”

In learning more about how we seem to be hard-wired for such belief in what skeptics would call pseudoscience, flummery, or nonsense, I think there is a lesson for us all.  As skeptics, we need to be aware of this fact of our basic human nature in order to be more productive in our encounters with believers.  And I think we need to take it into account in those interactions – that doesn’t mean that we agree with the woo-woo beliefs, but it does mean that we at least understand the basic drive behind why many believe what they do.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“The Secrets of Scientology” Documentary Exposes the Cult

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 30, 2010

I just finished watching a new documentary from the BBC titled “The Secrets of Scientology”, and I wanted to share it with you all here.  In it, investigative reporter John Sweeney interviews former members – from rank-and-file members to some of the most high-ranking church officials – about their time in the Church of Scientology, its practices, its secrets, and its abuses. After watching this documentary, I think it is safe to say the Church of Scientology is rightly classified as a dangerous & abusive, money-grubbing cult. See for yourself…

Posted in cults, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Research from the National Science Foundation: Scientific Consensus and Cultural Context

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 23, 2010

There has been an interesting study which came out from the U.S. National Science Foundation regarding the cultural context in which science is received by the public, and the results are simultaneously interesting and a bit depressing.  In short, when the scientific consensus on a particular topic is found to be in conflict with cultural values, the scientific consensus is often downplayed, dismissed, or viewed with excessive skepticism.  While it can be somewhat of a downer to read these results, it is also useful because it provides (or at least it should provide) the scientific community some clues about how to approach the manner in which it interacts with the public.

The example provided here deals specifically with the intersection of the consensus within the scientific community on climate change and the public perceptions of the same topic.  However, you can see how the results of this study can be extrapolated to a variety of scientific fields & related pseudosciences: evolution vs. creationism, science-based medicine vs. alt-med quackery, established physics vs. various New Age woo-woo, etc.  Here is more information about the study…

Why “Scientific Consensus” Fails to Persuade

Suppose a close friend who is trying to figure out the facts about climate change asks whether you think a scientist who has written a book on the topic is a knowledgeable and trustworthy expert. You see from the dust jacket that the author received a Ph.D. in a pertinent field from a major university, is on the faculty at another one, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Would you advise your friend that the scientist seems like an “expert”?

If you are like most people, the answer is likely to be, “it depends.” What it depends on, a recent study found, is not whether the position that scientist takes is consistent with the one endorsed by a National Academy. Instead, it is likely to depend on whether the position the scientist takes is consistent with the one believed by most people who share your cultural values.

This was the finding of a recent study conducted by Yale University law professor Dan Kahan, University of Oklahoma political science professor Hank Jenkins-Smith and George Washington University law professor Donald Braman that sought to understand why members of the public are sharply and persistently divided on matters on which expert scientists largely agree.

“We know from previous research,” said Dan Kahan, “that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.”

In the study, subjects with individualistic values were over 70 percentage points less likely than ones with egalitarian values to identify the scientist as an expert if he was depicted as describing climate change as an established risk. Likewise, egalitarian subjects were over 50 percentage points less likely than individualistic ones to see the scientist as an expert if he was described as believing evidence on climate change is unsettled.

Study results were similar when subjects were shown information and queried about other matters that acknowledge “scientific consensus.” Subjects were much more likely to see a scientist with elite credentials as an “expert” when he or she took a position that matched the subjects’ own cultural values on risks of nuclear waste disposal and laws permitting citizens to carry concealed guns in public.

“These are all matters,” Kahan said, “on which the National Academy of Sciences has issued ‘expert consensus’ reports.” Using the reports as a benchmark,” Kahan explained that “no cultural group in our study was more likely than any other to be ‘getting it right’,” i.e. correctly identifying scientific consensus on these issues. They were all just as likely to report that ‘most’ scientists favor the position rejected by the National Academy of Sciences expert consensus report if the report reached a conclusion contrary to their own cultural predispositions.”

In a separate survey component, the study also found that the American public in general is culturally divided on what “scientific consensus” is on climate change, nuclear waste disposal, and concealed-handgun laws.

“The problem isn’t that one side ‘believes’ science and another side ‘distrusts’ it,” said Kahan referring to an alternate theory of why there is political conflict on matters that have been extensively researched by scientists.

He said the more likely reason for the disparity, as supported by the research results, “is that people tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an ‘expert’ only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial.”

Understanding this, the researchers then could draw some conclusions about why scientific consensus seems to fail to settle public policy debates when the subject is relevant to cultural positions.

“It is a mistake to think ‘scientific consensus,’ of its own force, will dispel cultural polarization on issues that admit scientific investigation,” said Kahan. “The same psychological dynamics that incline people to form a particular position on climate change, nuclear power and gun control also shape their perceptions of what ‘scientific consensus’ is.”

“The problem won’t be fixed by simply trying to increase trust in scientists or awareness of what scientists believe,” added Braman. “To make sure people form unbiased perceptions of what scientists are discovering, it is necessary to use communication strategies that reduce the likelihood that citizens of diverse values will find scientific findings threatening to their cultural commitments.”

The Journal of Risk Research published the study online today. It was funded by the National Science Foundation’s division of Social and Economic Sciences.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF (703) 292-8070 bmixon@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
Dan M. Kahan, Yale University Law School (203) 432-8832 dan.kahan@yale.edu

Posted in psychology, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cracked.com: A Wonderful Combintation of Humor and Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 8, 2010

Do you remember a rag of a magazine way back in the day (well, way back in my day) called Cracked?  It was kind of like the unpopular wanna-be version of the more well-known and liked Mad Magazine.  Well, Cracked has come back with a vengeance, because now they have a really well-written & hilarious online presence over at Cracked.com – if biting satire & rough language is your thing, check them out 🙂

So why am I going on and on about Cracked.com?  Well, every now and then they come out with a really good skeptical article – and I mean really good.  I wanted to share with you one of my favorites which I ran across awhile back, called 5 Ways “Common Sense” Lies To You Everyday…

Albert Einstein said common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18. It is also a result of some pervasive and extremely stupid logical fallacies that have become embedded in the human brain over generations, for one reason or another. These malfunctioning thoughts–several of which you’ve had already today–are a major cause of everything that’s wrong with the world. …

I highly recommend this article as required reading for anyone who wants a quick primer on sloppy, uncritical thinking & how we fool ourselves.  Not to mention, it’s funny!  Read more: http://www.cracked.com/article_17142_5-ways-common-sense-lies-you-everyday.html

Posted in humor, internet, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The “Invisible Gorilla” and How Seeing is NOT Always Believing

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2010

We’ve all heard the oft-repeated phrase: “Seeing is believing” – as if our human senses (specifically that of sight) are somehow, magically infallible.  Of course, most people don’t want to admit just how fallible our senses can be – or, more to the point, most people aren’t willing to admit just how fallible their own senses can be (they’re more likely to admit that other people’s senses aren’t up to snuff).

As anyone who has experience with court cases & law enforcement can tell you, the least reliable kind of evidence is typically that of eyewitness testimony, because we tend to place an over-reliance upon our senses in place of other, more rational & consistent forms of evidence.  Not only that, but our tendency to over-emphasize the trustworthiness of our senses can lead us into fooling ourselves that we’re seeing ghosts, alien spacecraft, the Virgin Mary in a grill cheese sandwich, and similar deceptions.

The fallibility of the human sense of sight and the associated phenomenon of inattentional blindness is beautifully outlined in this recent Livescience.com article…

‘Invisible Gorilla’ Test Shows How Little We Notice

Charles Q. Choi
LiveScience Contributor
livescience.com
Tue Jul 13, 10:00 am ET

A dumbfounding study roughly a decade ago that many now find hard to believe revealed that if people are asked to focus on a video of other people passing basketballs, about half of watchers missed a person in a gorilla suit walking in and out of the scene thumping its chest.

Now research delving further into this effect shows that people who know that such a surprising event is likely to occur are no better at noticing other unforeseen events – and may even be worse at noticing them – than others who aren’t expecting the unexpected.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Live Blog of CFI Chicago’s “Dangerous Nonsense” Entry 5

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 24, 2010

First off, let me apologize in advance, because I’ll likely have to cut out before the end of this particular lecture.  That said…

Speaker #4: Dr. Dario Maestripieri, professor of evolutionary biology, on “What Primatology and Evolutionary Psychology Tell Us About the Evolution of Human Behavior”.  Some evolutionary biologists consider the study of behavior to be outside the realm of their field – this is because behavior is notoriously difficult to quantify and measure.  Another reason is that many think that behavior is an effect of environment and culture.  Then there is the dreaded “free will” problem, and some people are uncomfortable with the idea of their behavior being the product of some kind of deterministic evolutionary process.

The Lieberman Experiments: people were wired up to electrodes and asked questions, and the result was that the electrodes read that their brains had actually made decisions before they had consciously decided on the answer.  The point is that it seems that we have the illusion of control and that we make decisions even before we are aware of them!

Most evolutionary biologists study fruit flies, but Dr. Maestripieri studies monkeys and other primates, in order to study and make conclusions about human behavior.

Dr. Maestripieri also does research on humans in order to analyze the evolutionary processes which influence human behavior.  This sort of work is very controversial because of a variety of reasons, so not many evolutionary biologists do this kind of research.

In fact, some evolutionary biologists think that the field of evolutionary psychology is non-scientific.

Basic Outline:

*brief history of primatology

*some basic concepts

*primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, human behavioral ecologists, and their critics

*evolutionary psychology: science or bunk?

In 1872, Charles Darwin wrote “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” where he focused on the behavior & emotions of animals and how that reflects the psychology of man.  He felt that these behaviors in animals (primates) formed a continuum with human behavior.  In the process, like in his earlier research, he gathered evidence from around the world and attempted to formulate a theory of human behavior via evolution.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in psychology, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

131st Skeptic’s Circle @ Providentia

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 26, 2010

Well, it’s been a couple of weeks and now it’s time for another round of the biweekly Skeptic’s Circle. This installment is hosted at the Providentia blog – a place where the author takes “A Biased Look at Psychology in the World”.  And what’s the theme of the Circle this time around?  Let’s just say that court is now in session on the woo-meisters…

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Happy Skeptical Valentine’s Day!

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 14, 2010

In true Skeptical Teacher form, I wanted to wish everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day, but in a way that will teach a good skeptical lesson.  I was inspired by today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), which is of the gorgeous Rosette Nebula…

The APOD text displays why this is a nice, timely lesson in skepticism:

Explanation: What surrounds the florid Rosette nebula? To better picture this area of the sky, the famous flowery emission nebula on the far right has been captured recently in a deep and dramatic wide field image that features several other sky highlights. Designated NGC 2237, the center of the Rosette nebula is populated by the bright blue stars of open cluster NGC 2244, whose winds and energetic light are evacuating the nebula’s center. Below the famous flower, a symbol of Valentine’s Day, is a column of dust and gas that appears like a rose’s stem but extends hundreds of light years. Across the above image, the bright blue star just left and below the center is called S Monocerotis. The star is part of the open cluster of stars labelled NGC 2264 and known as the Snowflake cluster. To the right of S Mon is a dark pointy featured called the Cone nebula, a nebula likely shaped by winds flowing out a massive star obscured by dust. To the left of S Mon is the Fox Fur nebula, a tumultuous region created by the rapidly evolving Snowflake cluster. The Rosette region, at about 5,000 light years distant, is about twice as far away as the region surrounding S Mon. The entire field can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros).

Of course, there isn’t really a great big rose 5,000 light-years away in the sky – this is just another classic example of pareidolia, the phenomenon by which the pattern recognition programming in our brains makes familiar pictures out of otherwise random visual data (or audio data, as in the case with “electronic voice phenomenon”).  The whole point is that while our brains might dumbly fill in the gaps and give us the illusion of seeing a rose, we can think at a higher level and see past the illusion to the beautiful reality that lies beneath.

Posted in psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Skeptical Teacher on Skeptic Zone Podcast!

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 1, 2010

This past Labor Day weekend, I attended Dragon*Con 2009 in Atlanta, where there was a really groovy skeptic track. One of the panels in which I participated was “Psychology and Skepticism in the Classroom” – participating were me, Kylie Sturgess (author of the Podblack Cat blog), D.J. Grothe (new president of the JREF), Prof. Barbara Drescher, and Dr. Martin Bridgstock. During the panel we discussed a variety of topics related to skepticism, critical thinking, and education, and our panel discussion was followed up by a lively Q&A session.

The fine folks over at the Skeptic Zone Podcast have now hosted the audio of the discussion.  Go on over and check it out…

Posted in education, psychology, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hubble Space Telescope Sees Cosmic Christmas Ornament?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 18, 2009

Earlier this week, a news story made the rounds making the somewhat tongue-in-cheek claim that the Hubble Space Telescope had imaged a “cosmic Christmas ornament” in the sky.  Here’s the image…

The article then goes on to state:

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a festive view of the cosmos in time for the holiday season, with some saying the picture of a star nursery looks like a wreath, maybe a Christmas tree, or even Santa.

The spacecraft observed a group of young stars called R136, which is only a few million years old and inhabits the 30 Doradus Nebula, part of a relatively nearby satellite galaxy of our Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

In the photograph, hundreds of brilliant blue stars are surrounded by a ring of warm, glowing orange clouds of dust. The colorful portrait evokes a giant wreath of pine boughs studded with glowing jewels — sort of. And in the hollow center, the dark shadow has the distinct silhouette of a Christmas tree. Really!

Finally, if flipped 90 degrees clockwise, the image even resembles the face and beard of Santa Claus himself. Somewhat.

Well, whether or not this heavenly view actually has anything to do with the season on Earth, it does teach scientists about what’s happening up above.

This humorous story does a good job of hitting upon the point I wanted to make: what you see in such images, whether they are of “Santa” in a cosmic nebulae in the sky or “Jesus” in a rusty clothing-iron, is the result of a well-known phenomenon called pareidolia. We see familiar patterns because we are trained, by both evolution & our upbringing, to see familiar images even when there’s nothing more than random noise present.

In short, pareidolia is in your head, and different people “see” different things.  More than anything, pareidolia tells us a lot about ourselves and what we’re thinking rather than what we believe we’re looking at.

Posted in psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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