Philosophy 322
Sacramento City College

Critical Thinking About the Paranormal
 

Fall 2007  9:00 to 10:20 am TuTh
UC and CSU transferable - 3 Units

Prerequisite: ENGWR 300 with a C or better

 

Satisfies IGETC Area 1B: Critical Thinking - English Composition

Satisfies CSU General Education Area A3: Critical Thinking

Satisfies AA General Education II (b): Language and Rationality: Communication and Analytical Thinking

Instructor: Dr. Robert T. Carroll
 

Required Texts

 The Skeptic’s Dictionary by Robert Todd Carroll (John Wiley & Sons 2003) [Q172.5.P77 C37];

 The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena by Dean Radin (HarperEdge 1997) [BF1031 .R18], and

 The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death by Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D. with William L. Simon (Atria Books 2002) [BF1275.S3 S34].

Student Success Guide: Writing Skills by Robert T. Carroll (download for free). For more resources to help with your writing, you might try the SCC online writing lab (OWL) or the Purdue University OWL.

These books are available at the College Store, but used copies may be substantially cheaper from online bookstores such as Amazon.com. Check CheapestTextbooks.com for the best deals.

Course Description

The student will learn the fundamentals of critical thinking while evaluating the scientific evidence for the paranormal. Focus is on hindrances to critical thinking and on the unique challenges presented when evaluating experience, testimony, and scientific experiments in ESP, PK (psychokinesis), healing prayer, and survival of consciousness.

Course Requirements

There will be four research papers.*

Course Grade

Your grade will be based on your four papers. Each paper will count for 25% of your grade. Borderline grades will be determined by participation in and contribution to the class discussions.

Course Objectives

As a result of taking this course, a student should be able to

·        examine controversial ideas with an open mind and a healthy skepticism;

·        distinguish between cogent and unsound arguments;

·        recognize common hindrances to critical thinking such as selective thinking, confirmation bias, communal reinforcement, and self-deception;

·        understand cognitive and perceptual illusions and biases such as apophenia, confirmation bias,  ideomotor action, magical thinking, and pareidolia;

·        understand the techniques of cold reading and the process of subjective validation;

·        identify fallacies in reasoning such as begging the question, false dilemma, and the argument to ignorance;

·        identify proper and improper protocols in setting up controlled experiments;

·        understand the nature and importance of blinded, randomized experiments;

·        understand what a meta-analysis is and how to evaluate meta-analyses;

·        recognize the importance of clear criteria for identifying transfer of information in psi experiments;

·        understand the concepts of randomness, statistical anomalies, and statistical significance;

·        understand basic concepts in parapsychology such as psi, ESP, psychokinesis, remote viewing, clairvoyance, and precognition;

·        critically evaluate several scientific studies that claim to have found strong evidence for ESP, psychokinesis, the healing effects of prayer, and life after death;

·        demonstrate mastery of the above objectives in several research papers.

Course Outline

Unit One: Basic concepts in parapsychology; perceptual & cognitive biases; experience & experiment

Concepts

Paranormal

anomalous cognition, anomalous perturbation, clairaudience, clairvoyance, Clever Hans phenomenon, confabulation, ESP, near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, parapsychology, precognition, psi, psychokinesis, psychometry, remote viewing, and telepathy.

Logic, Perception, and Critical Thinking

apophenia, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, ideomotor effect, inattentional blindness, law of truly large numbers (coincidences), magical thinking, memory, pareidolia, selective thinking, self-deception, sympathetic magic, testimonials, unconscious mind, wishful thinking, and worldviews.

Themes

What are the problems with perception, memory, and cognition that lead parapsychologists to claim that scientific tests of psi are necessary even though there is very substantial anecdotal evidence for the existence of ESP and psychokinesis?

Week 1: Key concepts in paranormal studies: psi, ESP (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and remote viewing), and PK (psychokinesis).

Readings: Radin: Introduction and ch.1 “What is Psi?”; Carroll: entries for psi, ESP, telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, remote viewing, anomalous cognition, anomalous perturbation, paranormal, and parapsychology.

Podcast: Interview with Dean Radin (Skeptico, scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the play button.)

Weeks 2 and 3: Personal experiences and anecdotes: the convincing nature of paranormal stories; problems with anecdotal evidence; perceptual and cognitive illusions; how memory works; alternative explanations for seemingly paranormal experiences.

"The true critical thinker accepts what few people ever accept -- that one cannot routinely trust perceptions and memories." --Alcock, "The Belief Engine"

"...human beings, in trying to make sense of their world, must make mistakes. On the one hand, they miss things that are there and, on the other, invent things that are not." --Susan Blackmore "Psychic Experiences, Psychic Illusions"

...We prefer stories to statistics....We sometimes misperceive the world around us....Our memories are often inaccurate....We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events.... --Thomas Kida. Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking

Readings: week 2- Radin: ch. 2 “Experience;” week 3 - ch. 14 "Seeing Psi"

Week 2 Carroll: testimonials; memory.

Week 3 Carroll:
perceptual biases
: apophenia, pareidolia, inattentional blindness, clever Hans phenomenon
cognitive biases: confirmation bias, ideomotor effect, selective thinking, the law of truly large numbers (coincidences), communal reinforcement, magical thinking, self-deception, unconscious mind, wishful thinking and worldviews.

Online articles
Alcock (1995) The Belief Engine, Skeptical Inquirer. 19(3): 255-263; Blackmore (1992), Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions; Blackmore (1992); Lester (2000) Why Bad Beliefs Don't Die, Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec;  All in the mind. (The taxi problem). Problems with perception. Coincidences: Remarkable or Random? by Bruce Martin (1998).

The first paper will describe the popularity of paranormal beliefs and explain why anecdotal evidence, though powerful and persuasive, is not considered adequate for science. This paper will review common perceptual and cognitive biases and illusions that make it difficult to interpret experience accurately. The paper will review alternative explanations to apparently paranormal events: psychological, physical, coincidence, hoaxing, and fraud. Finally, the paper will indicate how scientific testing can help us find the best explanation for apparently paranormal events.

Unit Two: Science and controlled studies

Concepts

Parapsychology:

displacement, ectoplasm, experimenter effect, optional starting and stopping, parapsychology, the psi assumption, psi-missing, Soal Goldney experiment, and Zener cards.

Science and scientific experiments

ad hoc hypothesis, anomaly, chance probability, control group studies, meta-analysis, metaphysics, naturalism, Occam’s razor, pathological science,  randomization,  replication, and statistical significance.

Logical fallacies

appeal to authority, argument to ignorance, begging the question, clustering illusion, divine fallacy, file-drawer effect (positive outcome bias), post hoc fallacy, pragmatic fallacy, and the regressive fallacy.

Themes

Should science be restricted to naturalistic explanations of naturalistic phenomena or is the distinction between the natural world and the paranormal/supernatural world an artificial one?

Why are controlled studies and meta-analyses considered so important by scientists? The history of parapsychology demonstrates some of the difficulties with setting up proper scientific studies.

Week 4.  Science, scientific experiments and replication. (Note: research paper 1 due at the beginning of the first class during week 5.)

Readings: Radin ch. 3, “Replication;” Carroll: ad hoc hypothesis, anomaly, control group study (randomized, double-blind control group study; chance probability; statistical significance), metaphysics, naturalism, Occam’s razor, the psi assumption,  science, and Zener cards.

Week 5. Meta-analysis.

Readings: Radin Ch. 4. “Meta-analysis;” Video: National Geographic Channel: Naked Science - Telepathy. Video: "The Conscious Universe." This video may be checked out at the main desk on the 1st floor of the library. (BF1031.R18 1997).

Carroll: meta-analysis, file-drawer effect, positive outcome bias, and selection bias.
 

Weeks 6 and 7. A short history of paranormal research. From William Barrett to Robert Jahn, from Lady Wonder to Jaytee. Video: Secrets of the Psychics (This video may be checked out of the SCC Library at the main desk:  BF1042.S427 1993.) A preview may be seen by clicking here.

Readings: Radin: chapters 5 and 6 - Telepathy and Perception at a Distance;

Carroll: displacement, ectoplasm, experimenter effect, optional starting and stopping, Project Alpha,  psi-missing, the Soal Goldney experiment, and A Short History of Psi Research.

Week 8:  Fallacies and sophistries.

Readings: Carrollappeal to authority (website), argument to ignorance, begging the question, divine fallacy (website), false analogy, post hoc fallacy, the pragmatic fallacy, and the regressive fallacy.

The second paper will review some of the specific problems scientific investigators have run into over the past 150 years of scientific experimentation on the paranormal, such as cheating, self-deception, sensory leakage, and the like. This paper will review some of the methods introduced over the years by parapsychologists to reduce or eliminate these problems.

Unit Three: ganzfeld, psychokinesis, and healing prayer studies

Concepts

distant healing, ganzfeld experiments, intercessory prayer, Maharishi effect, nocebo effect, placebo effect, random event generators, andTexas sharpshooter fallacy.

Themes

Scientists have made great strides in designing studies to test hypotheses that are not open to the traditional criticisms of skeptics regarding poor controls, weak documentation, sensory leakage, faulty randomization procedures, misuse of statistical methods, and fraud. How well have the scientists met their goals and have they answered their critics adequately?

How should we deal with studies that that take the approach of examining 20-30 variables in search of a significant correlation?

How should we deal with studies that change their endpoint after the data is in but do not mention this in their publications?

Have the scientists justified their belief that finding statistical events that are not likely due to chance supports their various psi hypotheses?

Weeks 9 and 10.  Research paper 2. Controlled studies in telepathy: the ganzfeld experiments. Video: Penn and Teller: ESP.

Readings: Carroll: ganzfeld experiments.

Week 11: Controlled studies in psychokinesis: the dice and RNG (REG) experiments.

Readings: Radin Ch. 8. “Mind-Matter Interaction.”
Carroll: Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) experiments.

Week 12.  Scientific evidence for healing prayer.

Reading: Radin Ch. 9. "Mental Interaction with Living Organisms." Carroll: prayer, Sicher-Targ distant healing report, suppressed evidence, placebo effect, Maharishi effect, nocebo effect, and the Texas sharpshooter fallacy.

The studies:

  1. 1988: The Byrd study. Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population Randolph C. Byrd, MD, San Francisco. Southern Medical Journal (volume 81, pages 826-829, 1988); God in the CCU? A critique of the San Francisco hospital study on intercessory prayer and healing by Gary P. Posner, M.D. Spring 1990 issue of Free Inquiry.
  2. 1998: The Sicher/Targ  et al. study: “A Randomized Double-Blind Study of the Effect of Distant Healing in a Population With Advanced AIDS--Report of a Small Scale Study.” The Western Journal of Medicine. December 1998. by Fred Sicher, Elisabeth Targ, Dan Moore II, and Helene S. Smith; A Prayer Before Dying” by Po Bronson (Wired Dec. 2002); Is there scientific evidence that intercessory prayer speeds medical recovery? A Debate; and A Magical Death? (2003) by Phillips Stevens, Jr.
  3. 1999: The Harris Study (St. Luke’s Hospital)  (Mass Media Bunk).  "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit," The Archives of Internal Medicine; Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science's Reach by Benedict Carey, New York Times, October 10, 2004.
  4. 2001. MANTRA study: Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Green CL, et al: "Integrative Noetic Therapies as Adjuncts to Percutaneous Intervention During Unstable Coronary Syndromes: The Monitoring & Actualization of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) Feasibility Pilot." American Heart Journal, 2001;142:760-769; 'No health benefit' from prayer' BBC News; Effectiveness of prayer: Used in addition to medical treatment; Can Prayer Heal? Does prayer have the power to heal?  by Jeanie Lerche Davis WebMD.
  5. 2005. Mantra II Study published in Lancet.   (The Lancet article is available online (free registration required)).
  6. 2006. "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer," Herbert Benson et al., American Heart Journal. Abstract.

The third paper will describe and critically evaluate either the ganzfeld studies, the PEAR PK studies, or the healing prayer studies. This paper is due at the last class in week 13.

Unit Four: Cold reading, subjective validation, and the afterlife experiments

Concepts

cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, subjective validation (Forer effect), forking, Barnum statements, Rainbow Ruse, push statements, conditional probability, "cross-talk," "white crow," "dazzle shot," living soul hypothesis, network memory resonance, super-psi, conditional probability, sitter bias, the Russek Protocol (Schwartz, 129), the Campbell procedure, and soul science.

Themes

Skeptics and soul scientists like Gary Schwartz evaluate the role of cold reading in mediumship differently. Schwartz claims that cold reading can't explain the performances of some of the mediums he's tested. Schwartz and others agree that there are frauds but they claim that some astrologers, Tarot and palm readers, and mediums have genuine paranormal or spiritual gifts. Others disagree and claim that the gift, if any, demonstrated here is the gift of being good at cold reading and manipulating people to subjectively validate a reading.

Weeks 13-14: Cold reading. Research paper 3 due at end of week 13.
 Video: "Beyond Science? Scientific American Frontiers" [available for checkout at the SCC Learning Center main desk: [Q162.S427 1997] (Ray Hyman does palm reading). Video:  Ian Rowland on "Primetime". Video:  Penn & Teller "Talking to the Dead."

Cold and hot reading in palm, tarot card, astrological, and psychic readings.

Reading: Schwartz: Foreword (by Deepak Chopra), Preface (“Are Life and Love Eternal?”), ch. 1, “The Journey Begins,” and ch.2 “Bringing Soul Science into the University;”  chapters 3-8 (pages 31-118)

Reading: Carroll: entries on cold reading, hot reading, subjective validation, Barnum effect, Forer effect, palmistry, Tarot, and astrology.

Weeks 15-16.  Gary Schwartz’s afterlife experiments and criticisms of the experiments.

 Reading: Schwartz: chapters 9-19 (119-270).

 Criticisms of the afterlife experiments; Schwartz's replies.

The fourth paper will describe and critically evaluate the nature of cold reading and subjective validation while critically evaluating the Afterlife Experiments of Gary Schwartz. This paper is due on the day of the final exam, Tuesday, December 18, 8-10 AM.

Research Papers

Three 1,500-word (6 pages, typed and double-spaced) and one 2,000-word (8 pages, typed and double-spaced) research papers are required.

  • The first paper will describe the popularity of paranormal beliefs and explain why anecdotal evidence, though powerful and persuasive, is not considered adequate for science. This paper will review common perceptual and cognitive biases and illusions that make it difficult to interpret experience accurately. The paper will review alternative explanations to apparently paranormal events: psychological, physical, coincidence, hoaxing, and fraud. Finally, the paper will indicate how scientific testing can help us find the best explanation for apparently paranormal events.
  • The second paper will review some of the specific problems paranormal investigators have run into over the past 150 years of scientific experimentation on the paranormal, such as cheating, self-deception, sensory leakage, and the like. This paper will review some of the methods introduced over the years by parapsychologists to reduce or eliminate these problems.
  • The third paper will describe and critically evaluate either the ganzfeld studies, the PEAR PK studies, or the healing prayer studies.
  • The fourth paper will describe and critically evaluate the nature of cold reading and subjective validation while critically evaluating the Afterlife Experiments of Gary Schwartz.

Late papers will be downgraded one letter grade. A plagiarized paper will receive an “F”. If you aren’t sure what plagiarism is, I recommend you read the Georgetown University Honor Council paper on the subject.

Further Resources

Alcock, James E. (1981). Parapsychology: Science or Magic? – A Psychological Perspective. Pergamon.

Alcock, James E. et al. (2003). Eds. Psi Wars – Getting to Grips with the Paranormal. Imprint Academic. "Give the Null Hypothesis a Chance: Reasons to Remain Doubtful about the Existence of Psi"

Broughton, Richard S. (1991). Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. Ballantine Books.

Christopher, Milbourne. (1970). ESP, Seers & Psychics. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Hansel, C. E. M. (1989). The Search for Psychic Power: ESP and Parapsychology Revisited. Prometheus Books.

Hansen, George C. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris Corporation.

Hyman, Ray. (1989). The Elusive Quarry: a Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research. Prometheus Books.

Lilienfeld, Scott O. (1999). "New Analyses Raise Doubts About Replicability of ESP Findings," Skeptical Inquirer, Nov/Dec.

Marks, David. (2000). The Psychology of the Psychic. Prometheus Books.

Neher, Andrew. (1980). The Psychology of Transcendence.  Prentice-Hall.

Reed, Graham. (1988). The Psychology of Anomalous Experience: A Cognitive Approach. Prometheus Books.

Vyse, Stuart A. (2000). Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. Oxford University Press.

Wiseman, Richard. Matthew Smith, and Jeff Wisman (1995) Eyewitness Testimony and the Paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer. Nov/Dec.

Zusne, Leonard and Warren H. Jones. (1989). Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Other sites of interest

Online articles

last updated 11/06/2007