MISINFORMATIONLots of People Believe in Bigfoot and Other Pseudoscience Claims – This Course Examines Why

By Craig A. Foster

Published 26 January 2023

In an effort to combat misinformation, a new course looks at some of the common scientific reasoning failures which pseudoscience exploits. These include hand-picking anecdotes to support a belief, developing a set of beliefs which explain every possible outcome, promoting irrelevant research, ignoring contradictory information, and believing in unsubstantiated conspiracies. The course particularly highlights motivated reasoning, that is, the tendency for people to process information in  a way that helps them confirm what they already want to believe.

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course: “Psychology of Pseudoscience”

The Conversation: What prompted the idea for the course?
Craig A. Foster
:While teaching a course on research methods at the United States Air Force Academy, I concluded that the course needed a bigger emphasis on broad scientific reasoning skills.

So I incorporated material about the difference between science – the systematic process of evidence-based inquiry – and pseudoscience, which is the promotion of unreliable scientific claims as if they are more reliable than other explanations.

I wanted to understand why people promote claims that conflict with science. I jumped at the opportunity to develop this type of course at SUNY Cortland.

C: What does the course explore?
: We look at some of the common scientific reasoning failures that pseudoscience exploits. These include hand-picking anecdotes to support a belief, developing a set of beliefs that explain every possible outcome, promoting irrelevant researchignoring contradictory information and believing in unsubstantiated conspiracies.

We particularly highlight motivated reasoning, the tendency for people to process information in a way that helps them confirm what they already want to believe. For example, someone might accept scientific consensus about cancer treatments but question it with regard to vaccines – even though both are supported by strong scientific evidence and expert consensus.

We also review group polarization, in which people develop more extreme positions after interacting with similarly minded group members.

Some of the topics we examine include the flat-Earth belief, creationismBigfoot and other cryptozoology ideaspsychic abilityconversion therapyanti-vaccinationastrologyghosts and climate change denial.

Students complete two papers to reinforce their knowledge. First, students develop their own bogus scientific claims and a corresponding plan to convince people that their claims are legitimate. Allowing students to invent and promote novel forms of pseudoscience gives them a safe context in which to examine specious scientific arguments.

Second, students review old issues of Skeptical Inquirer, the leading national magazine about science and critical thinking, to summarize the topics that were being addressed at that time. Students also dive more deeply into a specific topic like unexplained cattle mutilations or the Bermuda Triangle. Then they write a paper based on an example I recently published in Skeptical Inquirer. I’m hopeful that future column installments will include students’ work.