Skip to main content

Effect of Critical Thinking Education on Epistemically Unwarranted Beliefs in College Students


The degree to which students hold epistemically unwarranted beliefs, beliefs not founded on reliable reasoning or credible data, can be used as a measure of critical thinking skills. To this end, college students (n = 806) were surveyed at the beginning and end of a semester. Epistemically unwarranted beliefs were pervasive. Several sections of a critical thinking class that specifically and directly addressed pseudoscience, taught by three different instructors, produced a large and significant reduction of those beliefs, but research methods classes and unrelated general education classes did not. Most likely to be reduced were beliefs in health pseudoscience and extraordinary life forms. Conspiracy theories were least likely to change. Demographic variables (gender, race, SES) were associated with beliefs at pre-test, but not related to reduction of belief as a result of the class. Similarly, academic indicators that suggest intelligence were related to belief at pre-test, but not change. The one exception was that reduction of belief in health pseudoscience was widespread in all groups at pre-test, but showed the greatest reduction among students with indicators of academic aptitude and achievement. We conclude that the educational approach of directly addressing pseudoscience is effective for changing beliefs, not just increasing knowledge, and that it works for most college students, not just a select subset.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  • Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M.S., Tamim, R., et al. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78, 1102–1134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Altemeyer, B. (1988). Enemies of freedom: Understanding right wing authoritarianism. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bader, C., Mencken, F. C., & Baker, J. O. (2011). Paranormal America. New York: University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dougherty, M. J. (2004). Educating believers: Research demonstrates that courses in skepticism can effectively decrease belief in the paranormal. Skeptic, 10(4), 31–35.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dyer, K. D., & Hall, R. E. (2015). How could an educated person believe that stuff? Correlates of paranormal beliefs among college students. Presentation at the 13th annual The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM13), Las Vegas, Nevada, July 19, 2015.

  • Franz, T. M., & Green, K. H. (2013). The impact of an interdisciplinary learning community course on pseudoscientific reasoning in first-year science students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(5), 90–105.

    Google Scholar 

  • Goode, E. (2002). Education, scientific knowledge, and belief in the paranormal. Skeptical Inquirer, 26, 24–27.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gray, T. (1985). Changing unsubstantiated belief: Testing the ignorance hypothesis. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 17(3), 263–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnson, R. M. (2003). Is knowledge of science associated with higher skepticism of pseudoscientific claims? University of Tennessee Honors Thesis Projects. Retrieved September 5, 2015, from

  • Kane, M. J., Core, T. J., & Hunt, R. R. (2010). Bias versus bias: Harnessing hindsight to reveal paranormal belief change beyond demand characteristics. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(2), 206–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E., & Oberauer, K. (2013). The role of conspiracist ideation and worldviews in predicting rejection of science. PLoS ONE, 8(10), e75637.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lobato, E., Mendoza, J., Sims, V., & Chin, M. (2014). Examining the relationship between conspiracy theories, paranormal beliefs, and pseudoscience acceptance among a university population. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28, 617–625.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lyons, L. (2005). Paranormal beliefs come (super)naturally to some. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from

  • Majumder, M. S., Cohn, E. L., Mekaru, S. R., Huston, J. E., & Brownstein, J. S. (2015). Substandard vaccination compliance and the 2015 measles outbrea. JAMA Pediatrics, 69, 494–495.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marin, L. M., & Halpern, D. F. (2011). Pedagogy for developing critical thinking in adolescents: Explicit instruction produces greatest gains. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 6(1), 1–13.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McLaughlin, A. C., & McGill, A. E. (2017). Explicitly teaching critical thinking skills in a history course. Science and Education. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from

  • McLean, C. P., & Miller, N. A. (2010). Changes in critical thinking skills following a course on science and pseudoscience: A quasi-experimental study. Teaching in Psychology, 37, 85–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Morier, D., & Keeports, D. (1994). Normal science and the paranormal: The effect of a scientific method course on students’ beliefs. Research in Higher Education, 35(4), 443–453.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mussel, P. (2010). Epistemic curiosity and related constructs: Lacking evidence of discriminant validity. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 506–5010.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nahin, R. L., Barnes, P. M., Stussman, B. J., & Bloom, B. (2009). Costs of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and frequency of visits to CAM Practitioners: United States, 2007. National health statistics reports, 18. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

  • National Science Board. (2010). Science and technology: Public attitudes and understanding. Science and Engineering Indicators. Retrieved September 5, 2015, from

  • Newport, F., & Strausberg, M. (2001). Americans’ belief in psychic and paranormal phenomena is up over the last decade. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from

  • Orosz, G., Kreko, P., Paskuj, B., Toth-Kiraly, I., Bothe, B., & Roland-Levy, C. (2016). Changing conspiracy beliefs through rationality and ridiculing. Frontiers in Psychology.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rohrbaugh, J., & Jessor, R. (1975). Religiosity in youth: A personal control against deviant behavior. Journal of Personality, 43, 136–155.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1997). The Demon haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tobacyk, J. (1984). Paranormal belief and college grade point average. Psychological Reports, 54, 217–218.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tobacyk, J. (2004). A Revised Paranormal Belief Scale. The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 23, 94–98.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wesp, R., & Montgomery, K. (1998). Developing critical thinking through the study of paranormal phenomena. Teaching of Psychology, 25(4), 275–278.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kathleen D. Dyer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Dyer, K.D., Hall, R.E. Effect of Critical Thinking Education on Epistemically Unwarranted Beliefs in College Students. Res High Educ 60, 293–314 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: