Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Why People Believe Weird Things 101

By Mark Carter

A new university course is teaching students why normally sensible people believe weird things, and some of the tricks used by pseudoscientific practitioners.

More and more universities are offering courses on popular rather than scientifically valid subjects. Even top-rated establishments are prepared to offer questionable or pseudoscientific courses.

This is well-illustrated by the recent wave of interest in complimentary medicine and assorted questionable health care modalitie that are offered at tertiary level. Undergraduate degrees and even Masters degrees are now available in chiropractic, complimentary medicine and acupuncture. Plainly, universities can be tempted to court what is popular rather than promoting good science or educating the public about how easy it is to be fooled into believing in unproven and improbable health and educational therapies, the mystical and the paranormal.

We decided to offer an alternative at Macquarie University by developing a new course for first year undergraduates about the importance of critical thinking and the differences between science and pseudoscience. Mark’s background is in health science and special education. In the area of special education, parents and teachers often look for simple answers, and there has never been a shortage of untested and improbable interventions and miracle cures.

Part of Mark’s research program has focused on controversial educational interventions, and why teachers and parents adopt them. It is striking that, despite 4 years of compulsory high school science, many in the general public remain vulnerable to unscientific claims. Plenty of consumers seem willing to buy supposed “super foods”, expensive miracle age-reversing cosmetics with “sciencey” ingredients as well as dubious health products.

Education does not necessarily inoculate people against believing such claims. Even academics, who rely on scientific methods in their day jobs, sometimes suspend disbelief in their everyday health or financial decisions.

It seems that many do not consider the scientific process relevant to their everyday life, and in a sense this is understandable. Seemingly rigid and counterintuitive features of scientific methodology only make sense if you understand that they let us compensate for the many systematic flaws in human perception and cognition. When dealing with often-ambiguous and complex issues related to human behaviour, scientific methodology provides the best tool to compensate for our inherent perceptual and cognitive flaws.

The new undergraduate course – “Why People Believe Weird Things: Making Rational Decisions in an Irrational World” – provides an introduction to why people make irrational decisions and how understanding the scientific process can help to promote rational thinking and ward off belief in pseudoscience. The content covers the inherent but often mis­understood flaws in human information processing, such as memory, perception and reasoning, examining the characteristics of pseudoscience with examples from health, education and the paranormal. The course includes lectures on cognitive, biological and environmental factors that underlie belief in psychic phenomena, how our lack of understanding of statistics can influence our acceptance of bizarre claims, and how even the sharpest minds can be susceptible to suggestion, social influence and wishful thinking.

Above all the aim was to make it a fun and engaging course. Tutorial topics are varied and include such activities as a workshop on the art of cold reading, a demonstration and in-class experiment on the vulnerable nature of eyewitness testimony, and a chance to design a flagrant piece of “bad” science, with extra course credit awarded for the worst piece of pseudoscientific nonsense. Understanding how bad (and good) science is done will hopefully help students identify dubious claims in their everyday lives and become informed consumers of research.

The unit was first presented last year and around 650 students enrolled. Applications were higher this year but the university placed a cap of 560 students. The course’s future in 2016 is in doubt due to a revamp of the undergraduate program.

Mark Carter is director of the Special Education Centre at Macquarie University. Krissy Wilson is an Adjunct Lecturer at Charles Sturt University.