1: The Necessity of Thinking about Thinking
Start by learning how to think about thinking itself (an act known as metacognition). Dr. Novella reveals how to distinguish good science from bad science; the individual steps involved in the critical thinking process; and how we can use critical thinking to break down topics such as the existence of UFOs.
2: The Neuroscience of Belief
Our brains are hardwired to believe in something. What is the neuroscience that drives this desire? What are the reasons behind the specific things you believe in? How can you use this understanding to mitigate the effects of your need to believe on your critical thinking skills? Find out the answers here.
3: Errors of Perception
A solid understanding of metacognition relies on an understanding of the nature of perception. First, examine the nature of how our brains acquire and process information. Then, investigate the ways we can be deceived by what we think we perceive in phenomena such as attentional blindness, change blindness, and optical illusions.
4: Flaws and Fabrications of Memory
Memory is tricky, to say the least. Here, unpack the vital role that memories-even inaccurate memories-play in critical thinking. Some of the many topics you'll explore: how memory recall works; the roots of source amnesia; the inverse relationship between confidence and accuracy in a memory; and how memories can even be manufactured.
5: Pattern Recognition-Seeing What's Not There
Pattern recognition is both a cognitive strength and a weakness; sometimes our brains can perceive patterns that aren't there. By seeing hyperactive pattern recognition at work in everything from data mining to superstitious thinking, you'll be better equipped to sort out what's real from what only appears to be real.
6: Our Constructed Reality
Explore how different parts of your brain work together-and sometimes in conflict with one another-to construct your aggregate consciousness and the illusion of a single reality. In the process, you'll examine a range of interesting topics, including out-of-body experiences, phantom limbs, and altered states of consciousness such as dreaming.
7: The Structure and Purpose of Argument
Focus on one of the most important reasoning tools you can use to override the flaws in neurological function: argumentation. What makes for a true argument? How is an effective argument built? What's the difference between inductive and deductive logic? What common logical fallacies are we most susceptible to-and how can you avoid them?
8: Logic and Logical Fallacies
Delve further into logical fallacies, including the ad hominem argument (attacking the person instead of the argument) and the genetic fallacy (assuming the historical use of something is relevant to its current use). Dr. Novella provides vivid examples to hammer home each fallacy's specific description and damaging implications.
9: Heuristics and Cognitive Biases
The worst biases are the ones you're not aware of. Avoid this pitfall of critical thinking by mastering the common biases in our thinking. After focusing on heuristics (mental short-cuts that can lead to erroneous conclusions), explore other powerful cognitive biases, including confirmation bias, familiarity bias, and optimism bias.
10: Poor at Probability-Our Innate Innumeracy
Unfortunately, our brains are horrible when it comes to probability-and that can often lead to a number of probability-based cognitive biases. See the effects of this flaw, known as innumeracy, in everything from numerology (the supposedly mystical meaning behind numbers) to hot-and-cold streaks in competitive games.
11: Toward Better Estimates of What's Probable
Continue your exploration of innumeracy by turning to the nature and perception of false positives, insignificant risks, and other manifestations in statistics and probability. Then, engage with some fun and revealing probability puzzles to discover just how lacking our intuition is when it comes to numbers.
12: Culture and Mass Delusions
The culture and people around you can also have a profound impact on your critical thinking. Using powerful examples such as the response to Orson Welles's 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s, Dr. Novella explains the hidden power and pervasiveness of mass delusion and hysteria.
13: Philosophy and Presuppositions of Science
Turn now to an in-depth examination of science, which serves as the foundation for critical thinking and can compensate for the tendency of human thinking to go awry. Specifically, you'll focus on and make sense of the philosophical interpretations of science (including Occam's razor), as well as probe some of the limits of scientific reasoning.
14: Science and the Supernatural
What are we to make of "supernatural" issues such as the existence of ghosts and the possibility of miracles? Approach these and other topics from a critical thinker's perspective. Along the way, examine the deeper issue at work here: what is-and what should be-the relationship between science and the belief in things we can't see.
15: Varieties and Quality of Scientific Evidence
Scientific studies are often used to provide evidence and support to a range of ideas and arguments. What questions should you ask when you are presented with an experimental or observational study? What specific biases should you be on the lookout for? What's the best way to compare studies with one another? Find out here.
16: Great Scientific Blunders
Learn how important skepticism is as a first response to scientific claims by surveying blunders that resulted from a lack of critical thinking. Among them: the claimed existence of "n-rays," cold fusion, Lord Kelvin's calculations for the age of the Earth, and a psychologist drawn into reports by patients convinced they were abducted by aliens.
17: Science versus Pseudoscience
Many claims label themselves as scientific-but are they really? Break down the concept of pseudoscience by exploring some of its most prominent features (or warning signs), including its tendency to work backward from desired results, its shifting of the burden of proof onto others, and its bold claims that go beyond evidence.
18: The Many Kinds of Pseudoscience
Deconstruct several specific examples of pseudoscience to see how its various features work. You'll investigate the pseudoscience behind iridology (the idea that our irises reflect our health), photographs that claim to capture ghosts, psychic abilities such as precognition, spontaneous human combustion, and more.
19: The Trap of Grand Conspiracy Thinking
Theories about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The existence and power of the Illuminati. The Roswell incident. Grand conspiracies such as these are cognitive traps that result from our attempts to make sense of our complex world. Examine both the compelling nature of conspiracy thinking and ways to determine which theories are true and which are just pseudoscience.
20: Denialism-Rejecting Science and History
Dr. Novella introduces you to denialism, a subset of pseudoscience that seeks to deny established science. By exploring the features and tactics of denialism, as well as extreme examples of it at work, you'll shed light on how critical thinking helps you sidestep the more subtle forms of denialism we're all susceptible to.
21: Marketing, Scams, and Urban Legends
Ever since its creation, the Internet has revolutionized our access to facts and become a veritable "Wild West of Information." Gain tips for using critical thinking to filter the wealth of information out there in chain emails, popular scams, and other everyday outlets that exploit human psychology.
22: Science, Media, and Democracy
How does one find sound, reliable information in today's world? Topics you'll explore include the strengths and weaknesses of science reporting in the media; traps reporters fall into when covering science topics; the intersection between science and ethics, politics, and social issues; and the important role of science literacy.
23: Experts and Scientific Consensus
How reliable is scientific consensus on hot-button issues such as climate change? What is the definition of an expert, and when should you defer to an expert's knowledge on important questions? Is there any characteristic that guarantees an expert's legitimacy? Probe these and other tricky questions related to the nature of scientific consensus.
24: Critical Thinking and Science in Your Life
In the course's final lecture, Dr. Novella leaves you with some final thoughts on thinking more critically in your everyday life. These include accepting humility in the face of your own knowledge; understanding-but not denying-your emotions and their influence on thinking; and accepting the need to be comfortable with uncertainty.
All of our beliefs are open to revision: When new data comes in, or maybe just a better way of interpreting data or looking at the way things work, we have to be open to revising what we thought we knew.
About Steven Novella
Dr. Steven Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University. Dr. Novella is active in both clinical research and in medical education at every level, including patients, the public, medical students, and health professionals. An expert in neuroscience, Dr. Novella focuses his practice on neuromuscular disorders. His personal blog, NeuroLogica Blog, is considered one of the top neuroscience blogs and covers issues in neuroscience as well as the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella is also the founder and senior editor of Science-Based Medicine, a medical blog dedicated to promoting the highest standards of basic and clinical science in medical practice. Dr. Novella is president and cofounder of the New England Skeptical Society, a nonprofit educational organization designed to further public understanding of science. As the host and producer of the organization's award-winning science show, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, Dr. Novella explores the latest scientific discoveries, the presentation of science in the mainstream media, and public understanding and attitudes toward science.