Many years ago I was asked to give a talk to incoming university students on the nature of psychology. As a social psychology professor, I had a lot of interesting material that I was sure students would find fascinating, from blind obedience to authority to the everyday persuasion techniques of salespeople. Yet to my surprise, at the end of my presentation, I had but two questions from the students: “Does The Secret really work?” and, “Can psychics really read minds?” For those unfamiliar with The Secret, it is a bestselling book and film that promotes the idea that we can have whatever we want merely by thinking about it, all couched in New Age terms and a gross misrepresentation of quantum physics. And as for psychics, there has yet to be any solid experimental evidence of extrasensory ability, even though there is $1 million on the line (more on that later). I initially thought that students asked these questions because they did not have much formal training in science at this point in their academic career, though I soon came to realize otherwise.
College and university students, from freshmen to seniors, have asked me similar questions, along with queries about aliens, ghosts, and a wide variety of New Age and alternative health and psychological treatments. Through countless questions on these topics, I’ve realized the need to teach scientific skepticism, and that using examples of pseudoscience — claims that appear to be scientific but are not — can be an invaluable resource for helping students become discerning consumers of real-world claims.