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    1. In Chapter 18 of Michael Shermer’s book, Why People Believe Weird Things, Shermer offers an explanation for why intelligent, educated, critically thinking people believe in crackpot ideas, superstitions, and paranormal phenomena, focusing particularly on how our intelligence operates independently of belief: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons” (283). (Shermer even calls out English instructors like me for our statistically greater likelihood to believe in ghosts! The nerve of that guy! )
      • What are some of those “non-smart” reasons to which he refers, and why do smart people like you and me get caught up in defending such beliefs?
      • To illustrate your case, use a specific example of a superstition or belief (excluding religious doctrines—the reasons for which should be obvious, I hope) that educated and/or intelligent people like you and me tend to defend.
    2. In the chapter, “Conspiracy Minded,” in Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, Brotherton argues, “I’m not saying conspiracy thinking is a product of the digital age. Both the mainstream media and its critics struggle to satisfy the conflicting demand for truth and the desire for quick answers. The Internet has simply made it quicker and easier than ever before to share information as events are still unfolding. […] On the other hand, the Internet allows conspiracy theories to be debunked as quickly as they are hatched.” Brotherton, of course, is talking about conspiracy thinking, not belief in the supernatural and paranormal. (Conspiracy thinking, however, will be a topic you will take up in Unit 4.) However, as social and cultural phenomena go, they are obviously closely related.
      • Do mainstream media and the Internet help to “debunk” pseudoscience and encourage skeptical thinking, or do they contribute more to the “struggle to satisfy the conflicting demand for truth and the desire for quick answers”?
      • Explain your answer using your own Unit 3 essay topic as a case example.
    3. (This next prompt is a little lengthy in its explanation, but it ends with a short and pretty straightforward task.)In the U.S., the accused are considered innocent until proved guilty. Why? Because of the importance of evidence. Science works the same way. In Chapter 8 of Michael Shermer’s book, he states, “Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty [is] fleeting” (Shermer 124). Those fluid and fleeting qualities are of central importance to science, but they are also the most easily abused by pseudoscientists and believers in the paranormal. Take, for instance, “evidence of absence,” the preponderant lack of evidence that allows one to inductively reason with high probability that something does not exist: “There are no literal remains, fossilized or otherwise, to recommend that mermaids ever existed, so it is unlikely they do.” When “evidence of absence” is corrupted to mean “ignorance of evidence,” confirmation bias tempts pseudoscientists away from good reasoning and critical thinking. The Latin term characterizing such shoddy reasoning is, argument ad ignorantiam (argument appealing to ignorance), better known as, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” To put it in plainer terms, if you can’t disprove something, that doesn’t automatically mean you’ve proved it. Here’s an example of such a specious argument: “Because we can’t find evidence to disprove the existence of mermaids, who’s to say they don’t exist somewhere and are merely awaiting discovery by some intrepid explorer?” (If he were alive, Carl Sagan would surely be shouting, “Baloney!”)
      • Pretend you are a hardboiled believer or pseudoscientist of the phenomenon you selected as your Unit 3 essay topic. Then, using the fallacy of appeal to ignorance explained above, defend your belief in that phenomenon. Consider the kinds of cognitive biases and fallacies of reasoning you might have to include to sound convincingly persuasive.
      • In the “Reply and Discuss” part of this exercise, when/if you reply to a discussion peer who answered this question, return once again to your clear-headed, reasonable self and try to identify the biases and fallacies in their arguments.
      • When it comes time to write your Unit 3 essay, keep in mind that this was a speculative exercise: you definitely don’t want to root for superstition and pseudoscience in your essay. Remember, you’re a skeptic. Instead, use the tools in your baloney detection kit and the lessons you have learned from your readings in this Unit to be a better and more demanding critical thinker.

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