• Let’s grade some papers on pseudoscience!

    So, when I teach General Psychology, I always make the course have a heavy writing component. In addition to several shorter exercises, the students write a final paper that is an exercise in critical thinking:

    This will be a critical thinking paper, where the student will take one of the below topics and examine the scientific evidence available on a specific area in it (e.g., if you choose Cryptozoology, you can write about Bigfoot, Thunderbirds, Loch Ness, etc.). You will then summarize your findings in a paper that should include 1) an operational definition of the topic (i.e., “What it is that I am writing about”); 2) The claims/assumptions/evidence of the topic (i.e., “This is what supporters/believers in this say”); 3) the scientific validity the topic (i.e., “Here’s what research/scientists have discovered/criticized/opined”); and 4) your reaction to your research (i.e., “I thought this before, now I think this”).

    The topics they can choose from are all pseudoscientific and include UFOs and aliens, cryptozoology, alternative medicine, the paranormal, the supernatural, ESP and psychic powers. It’s a great way for them to engage more with the critical thinking tools we have spent a large portion of the semester learning and applying, and it’s a much more interesting topic for most of them to write about than to do an article review or something else.

    Now inevitably, I have some outstanding work turned in. And just as inevitably, I have some just horrendous work turned in. For the last few years, I’ve been keeping my friends on Facebook entertained by publishing hilarious or cringe-worthy snippets of the papers at the end of each semester. This year, I thought “Why not share it with the world?” and so here we are. Now, on with the show!

    Please note, all the quotes are directly lifted from the papers, misspellings and all.

    From a paper on haunted houses:

    The people who firmly believe in haunted houses are called “Ghostbusters” or “Paranormal Guy’s.”

    Well I’m glad I finally know the correct terminology, I’d been calling them believers in the paranormal this whole time.

    Overnight campouts are some of the biggest mistakes made by these skeptics. Camping out overnight to see the paranormal behavior so far has a failure rate of 100%.

    You don’t even have to camp out to not see paranormal behavior, really, but apparently that’s the thing to do?

    Writing this paper has really made me to believe that ghost don’t exist.

    Yes, critical thinking mission accomplished! Not in a grammatically correct fashion or anything, but still…

    In the next paper, on telekinesis, there is a great wrap-up statement:

    I am a religious person, so I understand believing in something you can’t see, but I think they have taken it a little too far….People can’t even be trusted with their fake telekinetic powers, I would hate to see what would happen if they were expected to be trusted with powers of a real caliber.

    Yeah, all those fake telekinetics out there! In your face! Then, on a slightly different form of ESP we find these nuggets of wisdom:

    When the word telepathy was first verbally said it was by a man named Frederic W.H. Myers.

    When was it non-verbally said, I wonder?

    Even though most people claim to have telepathy abilities, they are wrong.

    Take that, most people! Wait…do most people think they are Jedi?

    I don’t believe that she was found because of the “telepathy” she has with her husband, I believe that God was looking out for her.

    Or, you know, the police that actually found her after she crashed her car….

    Those of you who are familiar with UFO lore and the story of Betty & Barney Hill may remember a slightly different story than the one this student relayed:

    In 1961 Betty and Barney, a couple, who were driving in hills of mountains of the New Hampshire, saw a bright object in the sky. They thought that it might be a plane or a helicopter but then they became worried because the bright thing in the sky seemed to be following them in highway. They stopped a few times and looked at the object with their binocular but then they got really concerned and drove home. Betty who was very concerned started reading a book about UFO and contacted the author to tell him her story. She used a compass to inspect the car and she realized that the aliens had zapped their car because of her compass needle waiver. After that she started dreaming about that night again. In her dreams, she saw that the UFO actually stopped them, kidnapped and did some examinations on them. When they calculated their travelling time, they realized that they should have arrived two hours earlier. So they came into the conclusion that aliens actually did stop them and kidnap them.

    Where are these “hills of mountains” of which you speak? And the use of compasses to detect zapping of cars does seem scientifically legitimate. At least she does bring it home with this statement:

    Researchers did some research based on abductees’ claims and found out that the reason for those experiences is not alien abduction.

    Which is accurate, if not very well written. It’s nicely parallel to this statement from a completely different paper and topic, though:

    Scientists of medicine state that scientific medicine has shortcomings as all other forms in humanity do.

    Non-scientists of medicine, though, state no such things.

    Next stop found me grading a subtly titled paper called “How Chiropractors Steal Your Money,” which was very good overall. I particularly liked how she set up the dismantling of chiro’s claims with:

    People who support chiropractic services and have gone through treatments claim they feel relief and pain free after their visits. Most people are going to agree more for chiropractic therapy just simply because they are a doctor and everything a doctor says and does is always true, right? Everyone generally just assumes that a doctor knows best always because they have a degree and went to school for a million years. Most people’s mentality is that “oh a doctor’s not going to fool or scam me!”

    Also, having gone to graduate school to get my doctorate, I can confirm that it did feel like it took a million years.

    Several of my students got some good “oooooh, burn!” comments in on their topics, such as this student discussing ghost “hunting”:

    All that is recorded in their show, I mean “scientific discoveries,” is a large amount of episodes of grown adults running around a old building or area breathing heavily and accusing every random noise and shadow of being from the dead…. There are a billion other explanations to an old building making strange noises and movements, like I don’t know…IT’S AN OLD BUILDING.

    Want to know about Ouija boards? We had that covered as well:

    There is absolutely no reason that such a believed way of talking to the dead and predicting the futures of people should be sold at a toy store with such an ease of availability to people. The only reason they are allowed to sell this product is because there is no scientific evidence behind it. If there was it would have to be done by a professional, who know how to exactly communicate with the dead. It would have to be regulated like a doctors visit, if your life was too demonic you could not return to the person trained to use this Ouija board until you got your life back into order.

    My opinion before actually diving into the information was that this was a scary thing and the people that participated with these so called spirits were surely doomed to hell, no going back….I am overjoyed that science has once again proven itself and I have nothing to worry about when it comes to talking to spirits.

    So are spirits not real, or are they just okay to talk to now? I am confused.

    Sometimes I have students not clear their topic with me beforehand (which encourage them to do over and over). This results in things like a paper about Jack the Ripper being turned in (as I had last year) or a paper on religious belief, like I had this year:

    Some people choose to put faith in something that can be selfish and harmful to others in order to scam money out of them or to become famous, but the belief in God doesn’t scam christians into anything but helping others.

    Is she saying that the church tricks people into helping each other? I honestly can’t tell.

    Churches can scam people, but God can’t. God is not a being nor is he completely non existent because God cannot be proven, nor disproven. God is a choice and believed to have given us the power of knowledge and science as a way to test our faith in what’s right and what is wrong whether it’s morally wrong, or just a scam artistry form of Pseudoscience, but what cannot be disproven, shouldn’t belong under pseudoscience.

    I can’t even parse this apart. And it’s even worse because they were supposed to write about the paranormal or ESP or Bigfoot or alt-med and were told NOT to write about religion.

    Want to completely miss the point of an article, and yet still use it to “support” your ideas? Take a cue from this writer, who literally uses quotes from an article on why evolution is hard for humans to understand to show that she doesn’t understand evolution. At all. In any way.

    Cameron Smith wrote through an article in the Skeptical Inquirer, “An acorn, for example, or a sturgeon: each is such a wonder of design…that we feel they must have been made, with intent, as humans make things with intent.”  Smith makes a really good point that skeptics don’t think about. If the world is made up with almost perfect fluency, everything has a system, and almost everything works smoothly within that system, how would it just be read off by coincidence? Something, Someone had to have a purpose, a plan, and a way to piece the entire world together. Smith also sates “And from the day we learn that a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich doesn’t just spontaneously assemble itself—that it must be assembled with intent”. As smith said, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches don’t assemble themselves, and many people believe the earth didn’t assemble itself either.

    Apparently she didn’t process the rest of the article, which was completely focused on showing WHY those statements are completely misguided. She also made it clear that “Christians don’t believe we come from monkeys.” I told a monkey this, and he responded as expected.

    oh no

    And then there are little turns of phrase that just jump out at you from the page, sentences so well crafted that they seem almost magical. These are not them, however.

    Every since the creation of Bigfoot’s existence people have argued if it truly does exist.

    In the field of modern medicine, alternative medicine emerged in recent years, and the “implied effect” mentioned above is inextricably linked to the implied effect.

    According to archive.archaeology.org it happens to be very hard to fing legit zombie evidence.

    But there are, always, nuggets of gold in the dung heap of papers. Many, many of my students have expressed to me how they have much better critical thinking skills now, or don’t fall for pseudoscience scams now, both in person and in their papers. Therefore, I leave you with this quote, to help cleanse your palate.

    It is amazing how a little investigating and critical thinking can change your entire view on the world.

    I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little foray into the mind-numbing and yet hilarious world of grading freshmen papers. Please tune in next time, for another edition of….


    Category: HumorPseudosciencePsychologySkepticismTeaching

    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com