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April 3, 2003

A professor writes a guide to thinking like a psychologist

In his 30-plus years of teaching introductory psychology, Donald H. McBurney found that many of his students had misconceptions about science, and psychology in particular, that impeded their learning.

To help remove these stumbling blocks and encourage undergraduates to think critically, the Pitt professor would spend part of each class fielding students’ questions.

For example, a student who resented McBurney’s in-class dismissal of extra-sensory perception might ask: Can you prove that there is no ESP?

McBurney would reply: As a scientist, it isn’t up to me to disprove ESP. It’s up to those who believe in it to convince me that it exists.

But if you would just do the right experiments, another student might argue, maybe you could prove that ESP exists.

The fact is, people have been doing the right experiments for the last century, McBurney would counter. And despite some tantalizing results, the evidence isn’t there to convince scientists that ESP exists. It’s a pseudoscience.

But wasn’t hypnosis, too, once considered a pseudoscience?

Yes, McBurney would say, but just because hypnosis eventually developed into a science doesn’t mean that ESP, astrology and other areas now thought to be pseudosciences will do the same.

McBurney was hearing the same questions semester after semester. This prompted him to write a slim volume detailing — in crisp, easily accessible prose — his responses to students’ more common queries.

“It was a labor of love,” McBurney recalls. “I didn’t have a book contract when I wrote it. But then I shopped it around and found a taker” in Pearson Education, Inc., a subsidiary of Prentice Hall.

The second edition of McBurney’s 114-page book, “How To Think Like a Psychologist: Critical Thinking in Psychology,” was published in 2002. It’s used mainly as a supplementary text for introductory psychology courses.

In the book’s preface, McBurney writes: “Too many books, and too many students, appear to treat science in general, and introductory science courses in particular, as a collection of facts to be mastered for an exam. To be sure, one of the essential tasks of an introductory psychology course is to introduce students to a wide variety of technical terms, research paradigms, and empirical data. But the main goal of a psychology course should be to get students to think like psychologists; to apply the same skills to human behavior that scientists do.”

That means, among other things, thinking skeptically. Despite its frequent misuse as a pejorative, McBurney argues, there is nothing insulting about the label of “skeptic,” which comes from the Greek word skeptikos, meaning “to consider thoughtfully.”

Psychologists also must be willing to examine their most cherished beliefs through empirical testing. “Science challenges everyone’s beliefs, not just those of religious people,” McBurney notes.

And, like anyone else, psychologists shouldn’t believe everything they read. “Most sources of information available to the general public are produced by people motivated by profit and therefore should be considered entertainment,” he writes. “Scientific books and journals document the claims they make.” (Even so, beware of secondary sources even in scholarly works, McBurney advises.)

Some of the questions that McBurney’s book tackles really are targeted at introductory psychology students: “Why Do Psychologists Use So Much Jargon?” “Why Do I Need to Study Statistics?” “Why Do I Need to Learn All These Methods? I Just Want to Help People!”

But other questions are more generally intriguing, and not just for undergrads. Fans of AC/DC, Judas Priest and the Christian Right’s other heavy-metal whipping boys should enjoy reading the chapter entitled, “Can We Hear Satanic Messages in Music That Is Played Backward?”

When McBurney plays Queen’s song “Another One Bites the Dust” backward to his class, students invariably hear the phrase “It’s fun to smoke marijuana,” especially when McBurney suggests that that’s what they should listen for. He cites experiments in which other psychologists found that people heard intelligible, even satanic, messages while listening to the 23rd Psalm and Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” backward.

“Most people would consider it highly unlikely that the Bible contains satanic messages,” McBurney writes. “And ‘Jabberwocky’ presents an interesting case, because it consists of nonsense words when listened to forward….

“The fact is, we hear meaningful utterances in virtually any words played backward. We can’t help it. It is a manifestation of our tendency to make sense out of meaningless input.”

McBurney is illustrating the principle that scientists should test hypotheses not by trying to confirm them but by comparing them to rival explanations. “Which is more plausible,” he asks, “satanic messages placed in passages in religious texts written before recording technology existed or the well-known tendency to construct meaning from random stimuli?”

When the teaching of “critical thinking” came into vogue as a pedagogical panacea during the 1980s and 1990s, McBurney did some reminiscing and realized that he had been a critical thinker at least since the fifth grade, when he asked his social studies teacher why the man’s hair sometimes curled up, exposing his bald spot. “He showed a distinct lack of interest in this question,” McBurney recalls.

So, McBurney asked his father, who always answered his son’s questions patiently and in detail. His father suggested that humidity caused the teacher’s hair to curl up. Young Donald duly reported this hypothesis in class the following day.

“Perhaps it was this incident; perhaps it was because I corrected him publicly when he told the class that Niagara Falls faced the United States; perhaps it was because I was always asking questions in class,” McBurney writes in his book. “But one day, [the teacher] finally lost his temper when I asked one question too many.”

(In an interview, McBurney elaborated: “The guy slammed me up against a wall” — a detail that he left out of his book.)

McBurney hopes that “How to Think Like a Psychologist” will encourage undergraduates to free themselves from what he calls “the whole web of experiences, habits, social expectations, instructors’ body language and the like” which discourage them from publicly asking questions.

McBurney himself has never shaken the habit of questioning, or had it shaken out of him. He and other local pseudoscience “debunkers” have exposed the tricks of professional psychics during widely covered press conferences. More recently, McBurney has ridiculed UPMC’s embrace of alternative medicine.

While he encourages students to ask questions, McBurney rejects some undergrads’ blithe assumptions that their own, scientifically unfounded theories are just as valid as, say, evolutionary psychology.

“It’s a post-modern way of thinking,” McBurney suggests. “The assumption seems to be: ‘My truth just happens to be different from your truth. Everybody’s science and opinion are valid.’ It’s appealing because it seems to be open-minded and multi-cultural and non-judgmental — all of those good, happy things.”

McBurney showed his disdain for such thinking while sailing as a faculty member on Pitt’s spring 2000 Semester at Sea voyage. He protested when a guest lecturer claimed that practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine can diagnose some 200 diseases just by feeling a patient’s pulse.

McBurney says his fellow professors accused him of being narrow minded. According to McBurney, one faculty member admonished him: “You sound like you believe there’s only one kind of science.”

“You’re damned right,” McBurney remembers replying.

— Bruce Steele

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