The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for January, 2009

What is the Limit on “Respecting Beliefs”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 31, 2009

I saw a recent post on another skeptical blog – PodBlack Cat – which mentioned a news story about a girl in Mississippi who claimed to be possessed in her high school classroom (read the news story here). Apparently, this young woman began to “speak in tongues” and began making predictions, some of which included predictions of other students’ deaths. Upon witnessing this event, some students got in touch with a local TV station, and now the whole thing has a kind of surrealistic feel to it.

I see three things with this story that are just plain silly. One, the claim by the girl that she was possessed (according to her, by God); two, the claims on the part of other students that she was possessed not by God but the Devil; and three, perhaps most importantly, the fact that a local news station actually treated this whole fiasco seriously. A modern 21st-century television station doing a news story on a kid who claims to have been possessed? Are you kidding me?! That must have been one slow news day.

Let me take each of these points on, one-by-one…

#1. The girl claims that she was transmitting the voice of God because, according to her mother:

… she believes God is using her daughter to touch students at Pelahatchie High School.

The supposed process by which “God’s voice” was transmitted was something known as “speaking in tongues.” According to some charismatic/evangelical Christian sects, this is a mark of being in direct touch with the divine, but scholars of anthropology & linguistics refer to such phenomena as glossolalia. From the Skeptic’s Dictionary, the entry on glossolalia states

When spoken by schizophrenics, glossolalia are recognized as gibberish. In charismatic Christian communities glossolalia is sacred and referred to as “speaking in tongues” or having “the gift of tongues.”

and…

Glossolalics behave in various ways, depending on the social expectations of their community. Some go into convulsions or lose consciousness; others are less dramatic. Some seem to go into a trance; some claim to have amnesia of their speaking in tongues. All believe they are possessed by the Holy Spirit and the gibberish they utter is meaningful. However, only one with faith and the gift of interpretation is capable of figuring out the meaning of the meaningless utterances. Of course, this belief gives the interpreter unchecked leeway in “translating” the meaningless utterances. Nicholas Spanos notes: “Typically, the interpretation supports the central tenets of the religious community”.

So it seems that “speaking in tongues” and the subsequent translation of this supposed divine language is dependent solely upon being a member of a specific religious sect which is privy to the Godly message. As a young man, I attended a church for a time that was into this sort of thing, and I have to tell you that not once did any bit of it make any sense to me. I had the distinct impression that whenever someone in that church either spoke in or translated the “divine language” that they were basically making it up in their heads in an effort to reinforce their belief system.

It is also interesting to note that it is very difficult to distinguish such behavior from that exhibited by some who are mentally ill. Ironically, many other Christians are very suspicious of those who “speak in tongues”, but not because they are concerned about mental illness.

#2. This brings me to my second point – the reaction from the other students, who were presumably also Christian, was universally negative. In fact, rather than believing the message from the “possessed” girl was from God, most thought it was Satanic in nature. In fact, some students reacted (or over-reacted) so strongly that, as the news article states

“It made some students cry and leave school,” Sparks [a student] said. “Some have not returned yet.”

Sparks and his classmates said they think an evil spirit possessed the girl. They were so convinced that Sparks and his friends brought Bibles to school and had a devotional.

possessed

So now we have a very interesting situation set up in that school. At least one student, the girl in question, seems to believe that she is a vessel for the “voice of God” while a number of other students believe that she is being possessed by Satan or demons of some sort. Note the dichotomous thinking here: the students (and presumably their parents) assumed that the voices were coming from either God or Satan. No one ever seemed to consider that perhaps these voices had another, less supernatural, source (e.g., the entire thing could just be made up). Why not?

#3. Which brings me to the third point – how the media used this non-story as a way to “fill the news hole.” This is one of my biggest problems with much of the media in the United States – rather than present news that has been responsibly vetted with the purpose of informing, too many in the media nowadays seem to be only interested in getting ratings. And that means taking non-stories and inflating them to over-sensationalize them. And what better way to get ratings in the buckle of the Bible Belt than to smear a story about kids & their parents squabbling over which supernatural entity supposedly possessed a girl in her high school classroom? And by covering the story in such a sloppy manner, the media lend an air of validity to it, reinforcing the nonsense.

The appalling lack of responsible reporting on the part of this TV station is so thick you could cut it with a knife (sadly, this isn’t the only example). First, they actually treated the story with a certain degree of seriousness; second, notice that nowhere in the coverage of this entire sordid affair is there any evidence that the journalists (if you can call them that) in question actually attempted to find a scientific/skeptical point-of-view on the whole question of glossolalia or demonic possession.

This kind of behavior on the part of the media only serves to perpetuate ignorance, because much of the time it is justified under the guise of “respecting the beliefs” of those people involved in the story. But at what point does “respecting beliefs” become silly, or perpetuate ignorance & lack of critical thinking, or even become outright dangerous?

For example, consider how some in the media give a platform to morons like Jenny McCarthy to rant on and on about how vaccines cause autism (they don’t – period). Or how the media allow douchebags like Kevin Trudeau to peddle their snake-oil “natural cures” while convincing the gullible to avoid scientific medicine for treatment of cancer? Or what about “respecting the beliefs” of those who would, rather than take their sick children to the hospital, pray for a miraculous healing – even if it results in the child’s death?

There is a fine line here that the media must walk. However, too many in the media have gone too far in one direction: “respecting beliefs” at the expense of an accurate & responsible portrayal of reality. There are good examples of the media covering a story on the paranormal responsibly, such as Anderson Cooper’s coverage of one of Sylvia Browne’s most high-profile blunders, but sadly that sort of good reporting is all too uncommon.

However, skeptics should not withdraw into frustration & cynicism and give up hope. Rather, we should get out there – through meetings, face to face discussion, blogs (like this one), media events, etc – and educate people and the media. If all we do is complain, then we can only blame ourselves for the inevitable spread of nonsense.

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Science & Democracy

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2009

Yesterday I read an amazing essay in the New York Times titled “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy” by Dennis Overbye about how the pursuit of science & governing by democracy are inextricably linked. By the time I’d read to the end, I almost had tears in my eyes – I cannot really do it justice, so I will simply recommend that you read it in its entirety. Allow me to share a few of the highlights.

How some criticize modern science:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Overbye’s response to those critics:

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

I especially like this part – science is a methodology employed by all people, regardless of tribe or creed:

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

How science & democracy go hand in glove:

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

Overbye’s point about science and democracy is well made. If you study the history of science, you will learn that it grew out of the Western tradition of natural philosophy handed down by the Ancient Greeks. Most historians of science trace the origins of natural philosophy to Thales of Miletus, who famously proposed a theoretical understanding of the basis for all things in the cosmos – Thales believed that everything was made of “water”. This idea may sound silly to us now, but the thought processes put in place in ancient Greek natural philosophy gradually evolved into what we now call modern science. Consider, if you will, that many physicists have drawn a page from Thales when they contemplate that all matter & energy in the universe is an expression of ultra-microscopic strings.

That same ancient Greek civilization is also the birthplace of democracy. It was the contemporaries of Thales who created the rudimentary institutions of democratic government, including electing representatives from the community to meet, debate, and vote about the politics of the day. Both modern science & modern democracy are the descendants of Thales and his fellow Greeks, and we have inherited both traditions.

In closing, I’ll leave you with one final thought from Overbye’s New York Times article. It’s a warning, echoed by most scientists, about placing limits on our explorations:

But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.

And, as Carl Sagan stated in the closing chapter (“Real Patriots Ask Questions”) of his famous book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen – or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for the Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

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Stars & Superstition

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 27, 2009

Today there was a solar eclipse – it was really only visible from the Indian Ocean and surrounding region.  But if you happened to be nearby, you would have been treated to some pretty spectacular sights, like this sunset over Manila Bay in the Philippines…

solar-eclipse

Whenever relatively rare events such as eclipses take place, they quite understandably draw our attention. All people seem to have, if you’ll pardon the pun, a universal interest in the stars & skies above us. Unfortunately, this sense of wonder that we have when viewing the heavens can all too easily lead us down the path to woo & uncritical thinking.

Leaving aside the fact that there are still a number of people who believe in geocentrism (the view that the Earth is the center of the universe), it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that somehow mysterious cosmic forces are influencing our daily lives. I am talking about, of course, that infamous bugaboo, astrology.

Aside: “Astrology” is NOT the same thing as “astronomy”. Astronomy is a real science, and it just kills science geeks like me when we hear people mix the two terms up. It’s like saying oil & water are the same thing…

Now, don’t get me wrong, given the evidence around us it’s easy to see that various celestial objects in the sky influence us. After all, our own Sun is a star, and it constantly bathes our planet in life-giving light. Our calendars, indeed our entire concept of time, is based upon motions & cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars. And if a dinosaur killer asteroid were to suddenly whip out of deep space and impact the Earth, I think we could all agree that would qualify as some kind of influence, right?

We accept that those sort of celestial influences upon our daily lives are real because there are understandable and have concrete physical processes behind them (such as the inverse-square law of light and Newton’s law of universal gravity). But astrology doesn’t provide any mechanism for explaining the supposed influence that it peddles – modern astrology merely makes random connections and inferences, much as any other form of prophecy or divination. Despite the implications & claims of its practitioners that astrological systems are scientific, there is no peer-review system for astrology. In fact, most “predictions” by astrologers are little more than guesses, overly-broad generalizations that anyone could make, or post hoc fabrications which seem to fit events after they’ve occurred. For example, this can be seen in this astrology blog entry where the writer attributes events such as 9/11 and the current economic recession to something called the “Cosmic Trigger.” My favorite line is this one…

When we see an activation of the Aries Point, we always get big news. This has happened a dozen times in the past decade — stuff like Sept. 11, the tsunami and other events. The Aries Point is like this bell waiting to be rung, only it’s not a bell, it’s like a crystal bowl that vibrates the universe.

Wow, it would sure be nice if these astrologers could actually predict something big like the stock market crash before it happened, wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, in all forms, astrology employs heavy doses of magical thinking in order for it to make sense to its adherents.

astrology

For a much more thorough analysis of astrology and why it doesn’t work, I refer you to an excellent article by Dr. Phil Plait, “The Bad Astronomer” – check it out here! I’ll give the last word on debunking astrology to that master of skeptics, James “The Amazing” Randi…

I want to close this post by telling you why I think it is important to beware of pseudoscientific nonsense like astrology. Everyone knows that we’re in quite an economic downturn now, but one thing you may not know is that a disturbing number of Wall Street traders & brokers have used astrology (called financial astrology) in their daily work! Really, I’m not kidding. And, sadly, astrology is not the only psuedoscience which influences the investment trade.

And if that wasn’t enough to give you a little thrill, think about this – former First Lady Nancy Reagan regularly consulted an astrological adviser, and she would use the astrologer’s advice to influence the schedule of events for President Ronald Reagan! So the daily activities of the most powerful man on the planet (with his finger on THE Button) were being set by a pseudoscientific crank. Wow, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

In uncertain times such as these, it is often comforting to take a night-time walk and gaze upon the heavens, drinking in the vast reaches of our cosmos. But in our desire to seek solace in the skies, we must be careful not to abandon our reason. As I like to say to my students, “It’s okay to keep an open mind, just not so open that your brain falls out.” :)

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The Importance of Being Wrong

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 26, 2009

I was initially planning on titling this post “The Importance of Being Right” – but then I thought that we all pretty much already knew that. We all know that if you don’t do the engineering calculations correctly, for instance, the car engine doesn’t work. Or if you don’t really know what you’re doing with biochemistry, the drug/vaccine/antibiotic you’re making doesn’t cure disease effectively. Clearly, because the universe functions according to a set group of natural laws we must make sure that our science & technology fits with those laws. To insist the universe adhere to our own preconceptions while ignoring how it really behaves is a sure path to self-delusion. Taken to its logical extreme, such thinking leads towards solipsism – also known as the philosophical idea that “My mind is the only thing that I know exists.”

Aside: I like to ask those espousing solipsism whether or not they look both ways before crossing the street – strangely enough, the answer has always been “yes.” The following cartoon also illustrates the silliness of taking solipsism too seriously…

solipsism

So, we all know that because there is an external reality beyond our own mind that functions independently of that mind, the importance of being right is unquestionable.

But what about the importance of being wrong? I will tell you this… it is very important to not only be wrong (to a certain degree) but, more importantly, how to learn about why we were wrong. I had the idea for this post because I was at my martial arts dojo today, and I was trying to help a less-experienced student with a technique which is a defense against mae-giri, also known as a front kicking attack. As I attacked him, he had a hard time avoiding my kicks, and he grew frustrated that he wasn’t able to perform the technique easily. I responded by telling him not to let it bother him, because he’ll do it wrong 100 times before he gets it right once. Hopefully, throughout the process of doing it wrong so many times, my junior student will learn how to do it correctly. We learn by making mistakes.

It is no different in my classroom – I’ve dealt with many a frustrated student who was having trouble learning how to do a physics problem or attempting to work their way through a lab. Only with constant practice, and by making a plethora of errors, can most students effectively learn what not to do. As I tell my students, the reason why I’m so good at physics is because I’ve had so many experiences making mistakes! :)

There is another issue – many students are stuck on always getting the “right” answer in science class, and sometimes teachers (myself included) are guilty of overly reinforcing this attitude. But to get the process – and not merely the facts – of science across to our students properly, I think we have to walk a fine line as educators. And this is where the importance of experimental lab work in science classes cannot be overstated.

In my classes I require my students to do a lot of lab work. Many times I purposefully set up scenarios in which the students are to draw conclusions from their data. A perfect example is when I ask them to make a series of measurements on the period of a simple pendulum, and they are to isolate three variables in the process – mass of the pendulum bob, amplitude of the swing, and the pendulum’s length. I then ask them to, based upon their data, determine how (or even if) each of these variables affects the period of the pendulum as it swings to and fro.

pendulum

The responses I get from my students are interesting, because despite the fact that they’ve collected the data, many answer the question incorrectly. Many will say that the more massive the pendulum bob or the smaller the amplitude, the shorter the period of the pendulum. And this is incorrect – under controlled conditions, the period of a simple pendulum is only affected by its length! That is, the longer the pendulum, the longer its period, and the mass & amplitude don’t affect the period.

Often, when I point this out to students, they don’t believe me at first. But then I point to the data which they collected, and then they see it – they allowed their preconceived biases of how they thought the pendulum should behave to creep into the scientific process. In so doing, they were giving me what they thought ahead of time to be the “right” answer, instead of gleaning out the proper answer from their data in a non-biased manner. Their conclusions were wrong, but when it comes to such a lesson I want them to understand why they were wrong – experimenter bias.

I mention all of this because it should be noted that science cannot be done in a vacuum – this is why we often speak of a scientific community. Scientists are just as human as anyone, and we all come to the process with our own biases & preconceptions, and – just like my students – we sometimes see what we want to see. But the scientific endeavor is different from all others in one critical way – peer-review. Peer-review is necessary in science precisely to make sure that our biases, preconceptions, mistakes, and sometimes outright fraud do not unduly influence the results of our explorations. Through peer-review we often catch each others mistakes, we demand that proposed hypotheses be falsifiable, we insist that experiments be repeatable and verifiable. As such, we get things wrong all the time in science, but we figure out why we get it wrong – and this puts us closer to the path of getting things right. Through this rigorous peer-review process, we see that science is self-correcting.

And that is a major distinction between science and pseudoscience. The scientific community does peer-review, learns from its collective mistakes, and employs a largely self-correcting process in its search for our understanding of the universe. Pseudoscientists of all stripes – astrologers, homeopaths, creationists, and conspiracy theorists to name a few – make this one fatal flaw: lacking adequate peer-review, they don’t learn from being wrong. Rather, they insist upon molding the universe to fit with their worldview, and in so doing they delude themselves & others. This cartoon illustrates the point rather well…

science vs. pseudoscience

Now I’m off to grade some exams. Hopefully my students have learned from earlier mistakes.

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Flight 1549 Follow Up

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 24, 2009

A few days ago I wrote a post about conspiracy theories related to last week’s story about U.S. Airways Flight 1549 crash-landing into the Hudson River (see “Miracle on the Hudson” Conspiracy Woo).

In that post I argued that it was entirely possible that bird-strikes could have brought down the plane, and this hypothesis was consistent with reports from the pilot about hitting a flock of birds shortly after takeoff. Well, it seems there is yet more evidence supporting the bird-strike hypothesis. Just yesterday, the Washington Post ran a story about new evidence uncovered by the NTSB, and here are some key excerpts:

The National Safety Transportation Safety Board yesterday said an external examination of the plane’s right engine revealed evidence of “soft body impact” damage on fan blades. The agency said its review showed that internal engine parts were either significantly damaged or missing.

John Cox, a former US Airways pilot and former safety investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association, said results of the engine probe so far were consistent with a bird striking the engine fan, damaging metal pieces that then broke loose. The pieces were pulled deeper inside the engine, causing further damage, he said.

The NTSB said the organic material was found inside the engine, on the plane’s wings and on other parts of the plane. Additionally, investigators found a single feather attached to a part known as a flap track of one of the plane’s wings.

So the bird-strike hypothesis seems more and more likely to be the explanation for the engine failure which led to Flight 1549’s desperation landing in the Hudson River. Now, allow me to take a moment to compare and contrast the methodologies employed by those who actually use critical thinking and those who are spinning conspiracy theories.

Those who are rigorously investigating this disaster are very frugal in their approach, making sure to look for evidence in a very deliberate & systematic manner. All hypotheses are considered, but once they are found to be in contradiction to the facts available, they are discarded or revised – this is common in the scientific method of investigation.

For example, I was supporting the bird-strike hypothesis in my earlier post. To test this hypothesis for validity, we would expect – upon further analysis of the engines – to see physical evidence that is consistent with bird-strikes on airplanes. And, according to recent news reports, this is indeed what we see (including feathers in the engine!). This gives us greater confidence that bird-strikes had something to do with the downing of Flight 1549.

Now, let’s look at the “reasoning” of conspiracy theorists – like those at the David Icke Forum. Much of their argumentation rests upon being suspicious of “coincidences”, making arguments from ignorance (“The NWO could be responsible for this, we just don’t know”), selective thinking, confirmation bias, and basically outright ignoring or dismissing any evidence contrary to their claims. In short, the CTists use anything to justify their worldview that…

conspiracy

As such, CT-thinking is non-falsifiable. And ideas which are not falsifiable are clearly unscientific; yet, ironically, many CTists claim to be employing science in making their arguments. This is a classic mark of what skeptics call pseudoscience.

In closing I’ll refer you to a great blog entry and discussion on this topic over at the SkepticBlog.org – the entry is titled “The US Airways Hudson River Conspiracy” and Brian Dunning deals with other aspects of the CTist claims that I have not yet addressed. Check it out.

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Creationism is Evolving Again

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 23, 2009

Well folks, those wacky creationists are at it again. Once more, their tactics to push their religious beliefs as science have evolved in response to the changing environment. Let’s take a brief look at the recent history of the creationist movement in the United States…

then a miracle occurs

1987 – In Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “scientific creationism” (SC) was not science, but a religiously-motivated concept which had no place in public school science classes. This is because SC was based upon literal interpretations of the Bible as espoused by certain denominations of Christianity, so policies pushing SC in public school science classes were clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

1987 to early 1990s – Shortly after this ruling, unable to thrive in the legal environment of the day, the creationist movement in the United States mutated to promote a new species of creationism, namely so-called “intelligent design” (ID). Interestingly, rather than formulate testable hypotheses, perform experiments, and publish the results in peer-reviewed scientific journals as a way of promoting their views, the creationists chose to simply re-label SC as ID (presumably because “intelligent design” sounded more scientific). The biggest push for ID came from an organization called the Discovery Institute, which clearly outlined its real goals (hint: it isn’t to teach science) in an internal memo – the now infamous Wedge Document (get an actual copy of the “Wedge” at this link). Among other things, the “Wedge” states…

Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

And the “Wedge” illustrates as its 20-year goals:

* To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
* To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
* To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.

[emphasis mine]

Hmmm – so the creationists specifically want to see their version of Christianity “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life”? Yup, that sure sounds like science to me!

1990s to 2004 – ID is pushed hard by the Discovery Institute, and the creationists publish numerous popular books (not peer-reviewed articles in science journals) in an effort to advance their religious agenda.

2004-2005 – The creationists finally attempt to push ID in the public schools in Dover, PA. This move backfires on them badly, as evidenced by the smack-down they received in the Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling by Judge John Jones in December of 2005. In part, Jones found that ID also violated the First Amendment by attempting to promote religion as science in public school classes. Here are some excerpts from the ruling (which can be found at this link in its entirety)…

“The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

“Throughout the trial and in various submissions to the Court, Defendants vigorously argue that the reading of the statement is not “teaching” ID but instead is merely “making students aware of it.” In fact, one consistency among the Dover School Board members’ testimony, which was marked by selective memories and outright lies under oath, as will be discussed in more detail below, is that they did not think they needed to be knowledgeable about ID because it was not being taught to the students. We disagree.”

And here’s the real money shot…

“After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.

[emphasis mine]

So what happened next? Did the creationists at the Discovery Institute admit their views weren’t scientific? Did they respond by publishing rigorous, peer-reviewed research in science journals which supported ID? Nope!

2007-2008 – After a little time flailing in the wilderness, the creationists realize that the phrase “intelligent design” is synonymous with “scientific creationism”, so their tactics mutate once again. They decide to cease actively promoting ID (that is, their religious beliefs) in public science classes, and instead they push to “teach the weaknesses of evolution.” Of course, this is an obvious logical fallacy, because even if there were fatal “weaknesses” in evolutionary theory (there aren’t), it would do nothing to actually promote ID-creationism.

The creationist attack on science took another turn in 2008 with the release of the creationist propaganda “documentary” named, ironically, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Starring Ben Stein, the movie is a horrid compilation of standard creationist gobble-de-gook, revisionist history (“Darwin was responsible for the Holocaust”NOT!), and outright strawman arguments regarding those who accept evolutionary science (“accepting evolution makes you an atheist”NOT!).

Aside: To show just how nutty Ben Stein got when promoting Expelled, check out this story where Stein says, “Science leads you to killing people.”

At the same time Expelled came out, so-called “Academic Freedom” laws were being pushed in many states in mid-2008. The argument was that teachers should have the “freedom” to teach “alternate views” – such as crappy notions like ID-creationism. Such a law did pass in Louisiana, so now I assume that in addition to teaching ID-creationism in biology class, it’s now acceptable in Louisiana to teach geocentrism & astrology in earth science/astronomy classes, psychics & ESP in physics class, the debunked theory of phlogiston and the Four-Element version of chemistry, and so on! See here for more humorous examples of “academic freedom” gone wild.

2008 to present day – The creationists have further pushed their current agenda in the state of Texas. Because Texas is such a huge market for textbooks, the state has a disproportionate influence on nationwide textbook selection. Unfortunately, the governor of Texas (a staunch creationist) has tried to stack the State Board of Education with enough creationists to push their agenda in the textbook selection process. This battle in Texas is ongoing, with some interesting developments (some good, some bad) taking place just today. (If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, I strongly encourage you to look up the Texas Freedom Network or the Texas Citizens for Science, who are both fighting against this anti-scientific nonsense)

texas BoE

Last Word: Lest you think those wacky creationists are done, they’re not. In recent days, I’ve seen indications that our pals at the Discovery Institute are evolving their anti-science rhetoric yet again. What was once “scientific creationism” mutated into “intelligent design” – and it now seems that ID is mutating into “front-loaded evolution” (FLE). Be on the lookout for this latest bit of creationist-speak – it could pop up at a school board meeting near you.

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Citizen Obama

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 20, 2009

On Tuesday, January 20th, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, the first African-American to ever attain that high office. Whether you voted for Obama or not, I think one thing all can agree on is that will be a historic day, to say the least.

President Obama

However, true to form, there are woo-meisters out there who insist upon pushing all manner of silliness in regards to President Obama. Specifically, I am referring to various conspiracy theories claiming that Obama is not a United States citizen and therefore not eligible to hold high office. There is a further implication that his presidency is an attempt by a foreign nation to install a real-life Manchurian candidate into the White House in an attempt to gain control over our government.

The primary examples of this stupidity are the claims pushed by Philip J. Berg (who also happens to be a “9/11 Truther”) and Robert L. Schulz, the founder of the We the People Foundation for Constitutional Education (a rabidly anti-tax organization).

Berg filed a lawsuit last August in federal court alleging that Obama was born actually in Mombasa, Kenya and that the “Certification of Live Birth” on Obama’s website is a forgery – the case was dismissed as being “frivolous and not worthy of discussion.” In December, he even petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for an injunction to prevent the seating of the Electoral College – his request was denied without comment.

For some more loony examples of similar litigation filed in U.S. courts challenging the legitimacy of Obama’s citizenship, click here.

Now let’s talk about Schulz and his claims – many of which are listed on his website. Here are some examples:

Despite the overbroad and erroneous claims of many news sources, Hawaii officials have NOT confirmed that Obama was born in Hawaii. Read the 10/31/08 official Hawaii Dept. of Health press release. Again, at NO time do state officials confirm that Obama was actually born in Hawaii.

Compounding the question surrounding Obama’s citizenship status is a subsequent statement of Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo (see Chicago Tribune, 10-31-08). Citing Hawaii state privacy laws, and guidance from the state attorney general, she said she, “was not permitted to confirm the authenticity of the certificate released by the Obama campaign.”

Among Berg’s arguments is that if Obama was born in Kenya, U.S. Immigration law in effect in 1961 barred Obama from U.S. citizenship at birth because his father was a Kenyan citizen and his mother, although a U.S. citizen, was not a resident of the U.S. for at least FIVE years following her 14th birthday. Obama’s mother was only 18 at the time of Obama’s birth, and thereby barred – by U.S. Immigration law – from passing U.S. citizenship to her child Obama — even though she was a U.S. citizen. See page 6 of the legal brief.

Read the Donofrio Supreme Court appeal: Mr. Donofrio’s arguments to the U.S. Supreme Court. (right-click to download). Donofrio’s primary legal argument is that Obama could never be a constitutional “natural born” citizen simply because his father was a legal citizen of another nation, i.e. a foreign national of Kenya, regardless of place of birth. See page 16 of the brief.

Schulz decided to bypass the courts and take his case directly to the American people. In early December, he took out ads in the Chicago Tribune – called “An Open Letter to Barack Obama” – directly challenging Obama’s citizenship and the legitimacy of his upcoming presidency. Ironically, on Dec. 3rd (the day the second round of the ad was run) the Chicago Tribune ran a story systematically demolishing every single claim made in the ad.

So, apparently, these CTists are claiming that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen because he wasn’t born in Hawaii (he was – see here for evidence of that fact) and even if he was born on U.S. soil he still isn’t a citizen due to their convoluted interpretation of the law. Thus, they are attempting to set up an argument where they win, no matter what – thus preserving their conspiracy-driven worldview.

These CTists have been rebuffed in their lunacy by independent non-partisan groups such as FactCheck.org, the press, the U.S. government, and the courts. Yet still they press on partly due to an extremist political faction and convinced with almost religious zeal that Obama’s ascendancy to the White House is part of a vast conspiracy – no matter what, to them everything is evidence of this conspiracy. As such, CTs such as this are not falsifiable, at least in the minds of the true believers.

Okay, so what? Why should we care about some goofwads running around making these claims? Well, I can give you a damned good reason why we should care – because there are some people out there who really do believe that President Obama is a Manchurian candidate, out to undermine the nation and should therefore be stopped. In fact, just this past weekend, a man was charged with threatening Obama’s life on a website. The man seems to have been a regular on a conspiracy website – Alien-Earth.org – and in his postings there stated that he would kill Obama “for the country’s own good.”

Hmmm… so, what do you think? Should we take these conspiracy theorists and their drivel seriously? Does the promotion of healthy skepticism & critical thinking in our society matter?

Posted in conspiracy theories | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Wisdom in a Cookie

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 19, 2009

My wife and I love Chinese food.  Often, after a long day, I like to drop by our favorite Chinese restaurant and pick up some dinner.  And I think it’s hard to find many things better than a good, relaxing meal at the end of the day – unless, of course, you’re talking about dessert.  And what is the classic dessert of such fare?  The fortune cookie…

fortune cookie

Just today, we had some Chinese take-out, and I chomped a fortune cookie for dessert. Now, while I’m not going to claim that anyone really takes these kind of fortunes seriously, I’m going to use them as a little lesson in critical thinking because there are related phenomena that some people do take seriously.

Let’s take that fortune revealed in my cookie:

A party with friends is in your near future

Now, it is true that there are a few events in the upcoming weeks where I’ll likely be getting together with friends. So should I conclude that this little cookie successfully predicted the future? Of course not!

Were I to conclude this party prediction a “hit”, I would be guilty of a common logical fallacy, namely observational selection (also known as “cherry-picking” or “counting the hits but discounting the misses”). Observational selection is a common fallacy employed by those who believe the messages of psychics – like Sylvia Browne or Nostradamus – can accurately predict the future.

Think about it, of all the people who receive fortune cookies every day, probably many people got the same message about an upcoming party with friends. Chances are, most were not going to have such a party (a “miss”), and those people would basically ignore the miss and just eat the cookie. But then I get this cookie which seems to successfully predict an upcoming gathering of friends (a “hit”?). You can see what’s going on here – it’s just basic statistics. Many more “party with friends” cookie predictions miss than hit, but those are ignored in favor of the hits.

With a psychic’s predictions, such as Ms. Browne’s predictions for 2008, as with a fortune cookie, most of the predictions fall flat as misses. Actually, to be fair to Browne, she got half of the predictions listed at that link correct, but many were extremely vague predictions that I think hardly count (when do we go through a year with no earthquakes?). But the true believers ignore these misses, and then they employ selective thinking to justify whatever hits they perceive of “proof” of the psychic’s powers.

Side note: If Sylvia Browne (or any other psychics) really had any powers she claims to have, you might think that she would have predicted the global economic meltdown. Funny that she didn’t, isn’t it? I mean, it was only the biggest financial crisis in the world since the Great Depression…

Oops, that’s a pretty BIG miss!!!

Now, can a fortune cookie (or psychic) get lucky, providing a “prediction” of a once-in-a-million hit? Certainly, it can happen. For example, here’s a story about a “fortune-cookie-payout” where many people won millions of dollars based upon the numbers on a fortune cookie…

Powerball officials initially suspected fraud, but it turned out that all the winners received their numbers from fortune cookies made by Wonton Food Inc., a fortune cookie factory in Long Island City, Queens, New York. The number combinations printed on fortunes are reused in thousands of cookies per day. The five winning numbers were 22, 28, 32, 33, and 39. The sixth number in the fortune, 40, did not match the Powerball number, 42.

Were those people just lucky or was there something psychic at work with the fortune cookies? The discussion about statistics above should give you a hint, and besides, there’s a reason why it’s a called once-in-a-million shot. With enough cookies handed out over enough years, and with enough people playing lottery numbers based on those fortunes, eventually someone will get lucky.

So where’s this “wisdom” I mentioned in the title of this entry? Well, dear reader, I think the wisdom given to us by those tasty little fortune cookies is a lesson in critical thinking – how not to be fooled and, more importantly, how not to fool ourselves.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“Miracle on the Hudson” Conspiracy Woo

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 17, 2009

No doubt that by now you’ve heard all about the “Miracle on the Hudson” – namely the crash-landing of a United Airways Airbus A320 into the Hudson River next to Manhattan island this past Thursday. The kicker is that, while there were some injuries and some suffered from exposure to the extreme temperatures, nobody among the 155 aboard Flight 1549 died. Through a combination of luck and the skills of the pilot, it seems this would-be tragedy gave everyone a bit of good news at the end of the week.

Miracle on the Hudson

The exact cause of the crash is still unknown, though early reports have been suggesting that the Airbus flew through a flock of geese and both engines were disabled by bird-strikes. There are reports that the pilot radioed air-traffic-control shortly after takeoff notifying them of the bird-strikes. However, until the NTSB releases its report we cannot be certain of what brought down the plane.

But, believe it or not, there are those who have spun the “Miracle” as some kind of conspiracy. Conspiracy theorists all over the Internet are making a variety of loony claims for the real reason Flight 1549 came down on Thursday. A perfect example is the budding “Water Landing Truth Movement” over at the David Icke Forums. Here’s just a sampling of what I’ve seen in the past two days while wading my way through the stupid over there…

All’s good to distract the sheeple’s attention from the carnage of Gaza.

Interesting, all the news outlets seem to be “waiting” to hear from the “HERO” pilot, BBC mentioned it, as did Sky News… I wonder what fictional account of what happened is being programmed into him?

Could be strange coincidences but it turns out the pilot allegedly ‘turned down’ two offers of emergency landings at airports in vicinity. The following is fact but a strange coincidence, it also turns out that the pilot, (who is keeping a low profile) also happens to own his own business advising airlines on airline safety and events such as how to keep the airline staff under control when a jet ditches in the sea.

In fact it has a NWO link, run some statistics on plane crashes and you’ll know why.

A plane just happens to crash land in the hudson river on the day israeli troops bomb another U.N. shelter without any justification whatsoever. Fucking bullshit! I wonder how difficult it would be for an experienced pilot to bring a plane down safely on water like that? Probably a lot less difficult than they would have us believe.

… landing a plane on water is easy. All the pilots of the world are part of the NWO order too. Fact.

I cant help but think this is a confirmation ad for the planecrash in wtcs. it sounds cartoonish taht a plane can actually land in the water like that , without a scratch or budge. it didnt even sink before evryone was evacuated (on camera). incredibly weird story but seeing more and more people question the wtc plane crash it may as well be just another psy op, just like any other news story these days.

Bush, Cheney & Co must be cacking themselves…a missed opportunity, surely…they must be thinking…!? The fact everyone survived, would be seen as a bad omen, by those in the “inside job” business…

Don’t forget Colin Powell’s “warning” for the 21st – 22nd of January “that we don’t know about yet…” lol I don’t think geese could take the engines off or that the plane could fly with no engines, sufficiently to glide onto a river perfectly. The level of coverage over something where not one person was even injured, shows it’s a distraction story. Gaza is being flattened as we speak and the Israeli’s are stepping it up yet further. Financial collapse on the 10th feb and Powell/Biden/Albright saying it’s about to go off on 21st – 22nd January. Hope you’re ready for some shit.

It’s clear that the plane crash was planned as a distraction story. like people in the thread are saying “the miracle plane crash”. and the fact the government chose someone that is an expert in water based landing and 20+ years experience in the raf backs it up even more

It gets nuttier from there. Conspiracy theorists are, to say the least, an interesting bunch – in many cases, they exhibit a kind of pseudo-magical thinking wherein they twist history and (in more extreme cases) the very laws of physics to fit with their conspiracy-driven worldview. Often these conspiracies (whether it is those espousing Holocaust denial, “9/11 Truth”, or “Big Pharma” conspiracies) invoke some kind of secretive, ultra-powerful entity such as the Illuminati & New World Order (NWO) which somehow has the capability to pull off such a deep & widespread deception.

In the case of the developing conspiracy of the “Miracle”, some of the CTists argue that it’s not possible that bird-strikes could cripple a jet engine. Either these folks have a profound ignorance of physics, or they are engaging in magical thinking – it is very easy for a bird-strike to damage a jet engine. Think about it… the turbine blades of a jet engine rotate really fast; because of this, even if there were no relative translational motion between the bird and engine, there would be a considerable amount of damage done in collision due to a massive transfer of kinetic energy. This is because the relative rotational motion between the turbine blade and bird is enormous (birds tend not to spin in the air at many hundreds or thousands of rpm). Plus, any pieces of turbine blade that might break off run into other parts of the engine, causing further damage.

And then there’s video footage of bird-strikes on jet engines…

So, it is pretty clear that bird-strikes can cripple jet engines. This fact alone should be enough to defeat the conspiracy theory that the “Miracle” was part of a larger NWO plan or “inside-job”. But the really sad thing about dealing with CTists and their arguments is that no matter what evidence you present against them, such as that given above, the hard core types (such as arch-CTist David Icke) will always dismiss it. They rationalize this in a variety of ways, from employing unhealthy doses of selective thinking or arguing from ignorance to claiming their critics are part of the wider conspiracy!

I have dealt with some people like this before, and they can be a frightening bunch. Many of the most devout CTists have an almost fundamentalist religious belief in their conspiracy-driven worldview, and it can be a journey into a very dark & scary place to go there.

Posted in conspiracy theories | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments »

Life on Mars? Not so fast…

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 16, 2009

I just found out about some very exciting news! It seems that the hypothesis that Mars currently harbors some kind of microbial life just got a boost. Check out this article from NASA…

Martian Methane Reveals the Red Planet is not a Dead Planet

Mars

The basic premise of the article is that there are unexpectedly high levels of methane gas in the atmosphere of Mars. Because natural processes on Mars destroy methane quite quickly, for this much methane to be in the atmosphere means that something is producing it. Based upon what we know about chemistry, there are only two possible sources for so much methane – esoteric geologic processes and microbes, as in lifeforms.

Couple this with what we’ve learned over the last decade about Mars having had a much wetter (as in water!) past than we once thought, and the evidence seems to point in the direction of life. However, we do not yet know anything definitive (this is merely circumstantial evidence), and a good skeptic attempts to avoid excessive speculation in favor of critically analyzing the evidence at hand.

We do know that life is much tougher than we once thought, even as recently as 10-20 years ago, and that it pops up in many places that would surprise us. In addition, we’ve learned much about extremophiles (those surprisingly tough little critters), and recent scientific research regarding the origins of life has brought us closer to understanding how life may have arisen from non-life (what scientists call abiogenesis).

But is all of this definitive evidence of life having evolved on our neighboring planet, Mars?

In my opinion, no… not yet.

Remember that we know of two possible processes that can account for the extra methane in the Martian atmosphere: geologic processes and microbial life. That means that in order for us to be sure that there are little Martian microbes living under the surface of the Red Planet, we have to be able to rule out the potential geologic origin of that methane.

This is a good lesson in applying skepticism & critical thinking, because though I may wish for there to be life on Mars (boy do I wish it), whether or not there really is life on Mars is not up to me to decide.

The universe operates according to its own rules, which don’t take into account the wishes & feelings of sentient beings such as you and me. As I tell my students, we have to change our preconceptions & beliefs to fit the universe on its own terms, not the other way around. Only then can we really learn something about the world around us, and the best method for learning – in an honest, objective, and useful manner – about our universe is to use science.

It is unfortunate that so many people allow their preconceived notions about how they think the natural world should behave that they fail to understand that it is they who have to conform their beliefs to fit nature, not insist that (magically) nature conform itself to fit their beliefs. This kind of magical thinking is the source of much pseudoscience and woo.

So, in conclusion, is there life on Mars or out there in the vast gulfs of space? The most honest answer is, “We don’t know.”

But someday, if we work at the problem really hard and perhaps get a bit lucky, I think we’ll find out the answer.

Posted in space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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