A Critical Thinking Course You Just Won’t Believe

I asked and received permission to share the following story. I was told that was fine, so long as I withheld the student’s last name, which I am glad to oblige…

Dear fellow atheists,

I’ve been having an ongoing issue in my Critical Thinking class that I’m taking this semester at college; it’s a private for-profit secular institution. The problem is not so much with the class itself, but with the professor who teaches it. I’ve brought up the issue casually with my academic department and they have expressed their belief that it is a non-issue. Unless I’m willing to withdraw from the course and have it appear on my transcript, I’m forced to stay in it for the remainder of the term. That’s why I’m coming to you in the hope that you could provide me with some coping advice. I’m not kidding; this class is driving me completely insane.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my professor along with another student during our class break. At one point she asked me to provide an example of a belief I had that I didn’t realize I had. Confused by the question, I asked her to elaborate. She gave me her own example of how she used to believe God was a punishing God, but then came to know Him as a loving and caring God. Right off the bat I informed her that I couldn’t think of anything as significant as her example, since I personally do not believe in anything supernatural or paranormal. It was then that she moved forward with the conversation by asking me, “You don’t even believe in the paranormal?” My adamant stance on the subject clearly bothered her, especially when I stated that many supernatural and paranormal claims could be easily refuted with scientific evidence. My professor’s adult son passed away several years ago, and she replied “My son is around me all the time and communicates with me every day”. I assured her that I was not intending to take away any personal experience she had.

The next day, she asked a couple of students what we had learned from Chapter 2 of our Critical Thinking textbook. The answer I gave was, “I interpreted the chapter to mean that beliefs are subjective truths and facts are objective truths”. For some reason my answer appeared to offend her. Out of all the students’ answers, she wrote mine on the board and asked me to give examples of beliefs and facts. I explained to her that my personal opinion on what makes something a “fact” is something that was observable, measurable, and testable. She then brought up the subject of ghosts and EVP recordings, and challenged me to refute the “evidence” shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures provide. “How do you explain the EVP recordings, and the fact that the voices respond directly to the questions!” I’ll be honest with you, I truly wanted to laugh and ask her if she seriously thought those shows were conclusive evidence of paranormal phenomena. In fact, I did, I just didn’t laugh. I explained to her that these shows were not reliable evidence for anything since they are entertainment programs. EVP’s were easily explained away by many sources of interference including the pareidolia effect. But she insisted on reminding me that I still could not prove that they were not, in fact, actual recorded ghost voices. I agreed and ended by saying that it was up to her and anyone else in the class to research natural explanations on their own if they wanted to.

The following week, one of the students felt the need to bring up a story of how she had seen a ghost in her house “last night”. Her totally unbelievable and laughable story included the ghost calling out her name, leaving a black hand-print on her shoulder which lasted for two hours (but no photographic evidence), and how her hair floated up in the air. Maybe it was just the way she told it that made it seem so unconvincing, nevertheless the entire class, including the professor, was captivated by her haunting story. So what does the teacher do? She looks right at me and asks me to explain her story. I guess being the only skeptic in the class meant I was the only one capable of dissecting it. “Do you believe her story?” I asked the professor to which she replied with a “yes”. I asked her what evidence she had to believe the claim, and she stated, “Because she told me. I have no reason to disbelieve her”. I then went into the whole spiel about how all claims are not created equal, such as someone telling you a ghost left a black hand print on their shoulder as opposed to her ordering pizza for dinner last night.

Sadly I never got a chance to provide alternative explanations for the student’s claim, as the teacher decided to interject with the story of her “astral projection” experience. She explained how in the middle of the night she awoke only to find that she couldn’t move a muscle. She couldn’t call out for help and felt completely paralyzed. Her “soul” (or whatever it is she called it) came out of her body and floated around the room and out the front door which is when she woke up. I explained that what she experienced was most likely an episode of sleep paralysis. This was a text-book case of SP in my opinion, and I have had a few episodes myself where I have had similar experiences. I explained to her what sleep paralysis was, both the physiology and psychology of what takes place during an episode. In fact, there was a student in class that worked for a sleep-study center that could back up my claim. Nevertheless, the teacher quickly dismissed my explanation and said that it “explained nothing”. She refuted by saying that science gets things wrong all the time and that “some guy in a white lab coat” could not disprove that what she experienced was not astral projection. Her claim was that it may be the current explanation in science but that this could change and eventually scientists would discover that these episodes were actually astral projection all along. I actually refused to counter her argument after 2 hours of going in circles and simply said “Okay”.

Now I really don’t care what she, or anyone else, believes. Everyone is free to choose whatever explanation makes the most sense to them, even if I do think it’s silly to ignore mountains of evidence. Nevertheless, this is a critical thinking class. What should have been a valid discussion of weighing evidence to support a belief was nothing more than the professor feeling that her beliefs were being threatened. Time and time again I reassured her that my intentions were never to disprove anything, only to provide alternative explanations. Throughout the course of the discussion science was ridiculed and only evidence supporting her belief was considered. Not once were any of my explanations validated or considered seriously. The entire experience left me feeling humiliated and aware of the fact that I really AM a minority with my anti-spiritual worldview. “Critical Thinking” has turned into “Magical Thinking”, and class time is now about sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories. Am I wrong for feeling just a tad pissed off about that? I actually thought this may have been the one class where skeptical thinking would be appreciated. Clearly I was wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, academics can do nothing about this situation. I can withdraw but having a “W” on my transcript is not something I want. I’m really left with no choice but to tough it out. I haven’t really been able to get any useful advice from anyone, and so that’s why I’m writing to you. I have five more weeks left of the term and although I don’t want to talk about ghosts anymore, I may find myself in a situation again where I am the target of debate. Is there any advice you can give me under these circumstances? My biggest fear is the impressionable minds in this class that are being poisoned with affirmation by the professor that her worldview makes more sense. After all, she is promoting it heavily. I know that confirmation bias and attitude polarization plays a huge part in all of this, but I’m not sure how I can present evidence without the receiver feeling threatened. And personally, I wish that she wouldn’t call on me to explain myself if she really doesn’t want to know my answers.

Thank you for any help you could provide,


I did offer Maya some advice. And offered to share the story here. She said she will be following comments, so please feel free to post to her here. I can’t promise she’ll respond, but she will be able to see your notes.

Ah, the righteous arrogance of crackpots

It all started when the Everything Else Atheist posted a somewhat scathing exchange between herself and a professor at her college. This professor had been bringing in students to participate in “psychology experiments” which were actually efforts to identify psychic premonitions.

EEA wrote to him with some extremely reasonable concerns about whether proper scientific rigor had been followed in a domain that is traditionally overrun with pseudoscientific hacks. Among other suggestions, the professor responded by asking EEA to read The Conscious Universe by Dean Radin. At that point there was another, somewhat more frosty exchange of emails.

It gets fun here, because Dean Radin apparently googles his name every single day to see who might be talking about him. A commenter found the Everything Else Atheist blog because Radin descended from his ivory tower to dismiss EEA on his blog for being an uppity atheist.

Of course, responding to clueless broadside rants against atheists is what us Tiggers do best, so away we go!

I remember

Ah, the righteous arrogance of youth.

Wait wait, stop right there. Oh, this is going to be too much fun.

So right away after just one sentence, Radin telegraphs his compulsion to latch on to superficial personal aspects of his target… the very definition of an ad hominem. We have a long way to go before we reach the end, but I want to point out that not once in this entire post does Radin ever actually respond to her criticism.

I remember what it was like to feel intellectually superior to my college professors, many of whom seemed to be dullards who understood nothing. I grew out of that phase when I started to apply genuine skepticism, not just to others’ beliefs, but to my own.

Radin mocks the temerity of those who would criticize a college professor, thereby offering an argument from authority, since those in high academic posts must never EVER be challenged. Which is a weird position to take, considering that Radin himself frequently has to explain that the scientific community doesn’t take him seriously because of a massive conspiracy against him. Uh, what is it that he grew out of, exactly? Beats me.

Here is a good example of a young person who fits the profile of adolescent certainty (some people never grow out of this stage). Once a Christian, she lost her faith, followed by a commonly observed flip-flop — she became a fervent atheist.

Atheists, especially young ones in the midst of existential crisis, do not yet appreciate that their strong stance against religious faith is just faith of another color (i.e., scientism). They are also unable to distinguish between beliefs based on empirically testable ideas vs. beliefs based on faith. And like most true believers in scientism, they become very concerned that one might conduct experiments where the underlying mechanisms are not yet understood. I wish I could say that most students grow out of an over-reliance on the certainty of prevailing theories, but as I mentioned in my previous post, unfortunately many don’t.

Oh, this is rich. First, like many apologists for woo striving to assert themselves as Real Intellectuals, Radin performs a little armchair psychology. His hypothesis is that nobody EVER disagrees with his point of view unless they are undergoing some sort of “crisis.”

Then he launches into a tirade about “scientism.” Now I don’t know about you folks, but the only context in which I ever hear this is from smarmy post-modernists who wish to appear clever by deriding science as a legitimate means for finding things out. Wikipedia helpfully supplies:
“The term scientism is used to describe the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences.”

Okay, so here’s Dean Radin, exuding scorn for EEA because she applies the concepts of science to a realm in which he implies that it does not belong, since presumably it is information of a “philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic” nature and not science at all. And you know, that’s cool with me. Radin’s under no obligation whatsoever to care in the slightest about silly concepts like “scientific method” and “peer review” and “academic honesty” or anything like that.

But wait a minute, let’s remind ourselves of the context which brought about this exchange. A professor in EEA’s science department was attempting to perform a science experiment in which he proved that precognition has scientific merit. And as support for this position, in lieu of offering up scientific research, he helpfully steered EEA towards Radin’s book. Gee, I think somebody might want to notify this professor about how Radin really feels about science.

Her angst centered on an experiment studying precognition. Impossible! Violates natural law! Must be pseudoscience! With that attitude, any evidence offered, however obtained, can only be fraud, or worse.

Of course precognition is not prohibited by physics. The laws of classical and quantum mechanics are time symmetric, and there are many serious articles (this link has just a few examples) available on the topic of retrocausation, which is far more interesting and complicated than a superficial scan might suggest.

I’d just like to point out that at no point in EEA’s post did she actually say any of this nonsense. She didn’t say “ZOMG precognition that’s like totally against the laws of NAYCHER!!!” Those hysterics are entirely from the voices in Radin’s head. What she said, rather, was that (1) parapsychology is not taken very seriously among the scientific community; (2) it’s had a really long time to produce the kinds of results that would make it worth taking seriously; and (3) the professor’s techniques are riddled with holes that even an undergrad can see.

What does Radin do to respond to these charges? Well, he makes fun of her, and simultaneously manages to confirm her issues by blowing off requests for scientific rigor as “scientism.” Good job, Dean.

Besides my own books (The Conscious Universe is finally in paperback!), I recommend Larry Dossey’s new book to get a feel for the art and science of precognition.

But doing one’s homework can be so taxing….

Hey, remember earlier when I said that Radin never bothers to actually address EEA’s arguments? Maybe I should apologize for that because here’s where he…

Oh wait, no. No, he’s just trying to peddle his books.

I remember the sanctimonious pride that accompanies feelings of certainty, and I’m glad I outgrew it.

Thank goodness Dean doesn’t have any lingering sanctimonious pride or feelings of certainty, because otherwise his post would have been really hard to read.