The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for February, 2009

New Phenomenon to Explain UFOs

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 28, 2009

I posted earlier – in Texas Fireball Mystery – about how many people use the default explanation of aliens to explain UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects), and this is often due to a tendency for people to argue from ignorance due to our lack of knowledge of the natural world. Well, according to new research, another naturalistic candidate to account for many UFO sightings has been discovered… high-energy electrical discharges called sprites.


According to the article on the sprite-UFO research…

“Lightning from the thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite,” said Colin Price, a geophysicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “We now understand that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft.”

Researchers have detected the flashes between 35 and 80 miles (56-129 km) from the ground, far above the 7 to 10 miles (11-16 km) where usual lightning occurs. Sprites can take the form of fast-paced balls of electricity, although previous footage has suggested streaks or tendrils.

The cause or function of the flashes remains murky, but Price suggested that they could explain some of the UFO reports which have cropped up over the years. That might provide some solace for UFO enthusiasts disappointed by human-caused hoaxes in the past.

Here is some really awesome slow-motion footage of a sprite discharge from In addition, here is a neat Youtube video…

And another good one of some video footage of sprites caught from the ground…

These are some pretty amazing discoveries concerning electricity & lightning in our atmosphere, and I think they are extremely cool! However, they aren’t alien. It is worth noting again that when confronted by something you see in the sky that is unknown to you (hence the Unidentified in UFO), it is best to simply state the obvious: you don’t know what it is.

To jump immediately from the unknown straight to aliens visiting the Earth and government conspiracies to cover up The Truth is bad not only because it promotes a lack of critical thinking & healthy skepticism, but it can also lead us away from real discoveries, such as the most recent research on sprites.

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Gov. Jindal’s Prime-Time Stupidity

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 27, 2009

I don’t usually blog about explicitly political topics, but I really feel that a response to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s idiotic anti-scientific comments this last Tuesday is in order. When our leaders, or potential leaders, make blatantly ill-informed statements concerning science, it is most definitely not a time to be quiet.

gov. jindal

To summarize, Gov. Jindal (of Louisiana) was responding to President Obama’s speech on the economy & budget. In his criticism of Obama’s budgetary proposals, Jindal was attempting to point out examples of wasteful government spending. Here’s where he really screwed up…

While some of the projects in the [stimulus] bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes … $140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring.’ Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC.

What Gov. Jindal is referring to is the U.S. Geologic Survey’s program (called the Volcano Hazards Program) to monitor volcanic activity in the Pacific Northwest as well as in U.S. territories such as areas around U.S. bases in the Pacific Ocean. It has been shown that these monitoring programs are most definitely a good use of resources because they have saved many lives! For a more detailed analysis of why this is the case, check out this post over at

I am stunned at the level of stupidity displayed by the Louisiana Governor’s comments, for two reasons:

1) They display an amazing lack of understanding of the utility in making basic investments in scientific programs and the desire to manipulate science for purely politically ideological reasons.

2) These remarks are an equally amazing exercise in hypocrisy. Gov. Jindal is the leader of a Gulf Coast state which is periodically slammed by monster hurricanes, which are monitored through a scientific network paid for with federal dollars. Perhaps if the Governor wishes to be consistent in his arguments, he should first willingly give up those hurricane tracking stations?

I think I have some idea of why it is that Gov. Jindal used the volcano monitoring stations as an example of “wasteful government spending” – he is a Young-Earth Creationist. We are, after all, talking about the guy who signed the nation’s only creationist “academic freedom” legislation into law. So to see him display a glaring lack of understanding of & respect for geological science isn’t surprising.

Posted in creationism, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Backlash Against Creationist Nonsense

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 24, 2009

As some of you may know, two of the recent hot-spots in the United States concerning the evolution-creationist wars are Louisiana & Texas. Last year, Louisiana passed a so-called “academic freedom” law, and the State Board of Education of Texas is now attempting to allow creationist woo into textbook selection.

Briefly, the Louisiana “academic freedom” law would allow public school teachers to supplement the biology curriculum on evolution with materials that teach about the “flaws in the theory”. Basically, this is creationist-speak for allowing the schools in Louisiana to use the Discovery Institute’s anti-evolution book Explore Evolutionan excellent review of Explore Evolution can be found here. Note that creationists will say the purpose of encouraging teachers to use this textbook is not to promote creationism (which is clearly illegal) but to rather promote “critical thinking” about evolution, which is a sugar-coated way of saying propagate creationist lies about evolution in the hopes that students don’t trust or accept modern science. This and other “academic freedom” laws (there are many being proposed nationwide) are merely the latest attempt by creationists to get around the court rulings that have stymied them in the past. I suppose they’re taking the view that if they cannot build their views up due to a lack of scientific credibility, then it’s simply time to tear well-established & trustworthy science down. Nice, huh?

**Aside: To get the flavor for just how stupid these “academic freedom” laws really are, check out this hilarious website on extending these laws to their logical conclusion! :)

As for Texas, there have been some interesting developments in the evolution-creationism wars. For a long time, the State Board of Education in Texas has been run by creationists & religious conservatives hell-bent on either promoting creationism or dumbing-down evolution (and other content, scientific & historical) in the textbook selection process. This is really bad because, unlike the situation in Louisiana, this would have a direct effect on schools nationwide – that is because since Texas is such a huge textbook market, the big publishers will tailor their books to the whims of whatever standard Texas sets. So, if evolution & science is given short shrift in Texas textbooks, chances are that your kids will get worse science textbooks as a result. Thus, the fundamentalists & creationists in Texas have effectively been holding textbook selection hostage over the years through this process. And now there is another round of science textbook selection.

texas textbooks

As a result, there has been a huge battle over the science standards recently in Texas. The Board is not completely dominated by the conservative creationists, but it’s close, so there have been some hard fought political battles in the last few months. Fortunately, in the end of January there was a win for science education when the “strengths & weaknesses” language was stripped out of the standards. This language was part-and-parcel of the same old creationist nonsense misrepresenting evolutionary science, and the fact that it was removed is a plus – a big plus. However, at the same time, the chairman of the Board arbitrarily introduced a move to introduce language calling into question the central tenet of evolutionary theory – common descent (of which there is abundant evidence). Here’s a good summary of the situation from the NCSE.

So the fight in Texas still goes on, with the final Board vote on these standards, and subsequent consequences for nationwide textbook selection, taking place on March 25-27. Stay tuned for updates – I suggest any of the following organizations & websites…

Teach Them Science
Texas Citizens for Science
Texas Freedom Network
21st Century Science Coalition

So what is this much-deserved backlash of which the title of this post speaks? Well, it seems that the creationists may have over-reached in both Louisiana and Texas, because people are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

In Louisiana, a state which is in poor economic shape even when times are good and one which is still recovering from the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina & Rita from 2005, there is a very real economic backlash against the creationists. As a direct result of Louisiana passing their “academic freedom” law, a major biology conference has decided to shun the state and take it’s business elsewhere. See the actual letter from the SCIB to Louisiana Gov. Jindal here – these are some highlights of that letter…

As President of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), I am writing to inform you of a recent decision by our Executive Committee. We will not hold the Society’s 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans even though the city has been a popular venue of us in the past, and we received a reasonable site and organization package for the meeting. The Executive Committee voted to hold the 2011 meeting in Salt Lake City in large pan because of legislation SB 561, which you signed into law in June 2008. It is the firm opinion of SICB’s leadership that this law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana. …

The SICB leadership could not support New Orleans as our meeting venue because of the official position of the state in weakening science education and specifically attacking evolution in science curricula. Utah, in contrast, passed a resolution that states that evolution is central to any science curriculum.

The 2009 SICB meeting that just closed in Boston brought over 1850 scientists and graduate students to the city for five days. Biological scientists and graduate students from around the world met to share the latest research within the broad interests of integrative and comparative biology. As you might imagine, a professional meeting with nearly 2000 participants can contribute to the economic engine of any community.

Ouch. Looks to me like Gov. Jindal and his buddies in the fundamentalist Christian creationist camp have screwed the people of the state of Louisiana out of a much needed economic boost in these hard times. It is also worth noting that there are other scientific & educational organizations that could be considering boycotts of Louisiana. Hopefully the leaders of Louisiana will get the message, but I’m not holding my breath.

Now, the backlash against the creationists in Texas is taking a more political form. It seems that two Texas legislators – state Senator Rodney Ellis and Representative Patrick Rose – have proposed legislation that would open up the Texas State Board of Education to greater transparency & scrutiny. The purpose of their legislation is to “to place the board under periodic review by the Sunset Advisory Commission and hold them accountable for their performance, just as we do the Texas Education Agency and other state agencies.”

This is because for a very long time the Board has been able to push its creationist nonsense behind closed doors away from the full scrutiny of the public. Despite all of their moaning & wailing about the desire for “open and honest discussion” on these issues – which is actually creationist-speak for “Let us push our woo unchallenged” – creationist activists are among the biggest hypocrites in that they will actively shut down discussion when it suits them. Specifically, the legislation proposed by Ellis and Rose is necessary because, in their words…

The decisions of the SBOE not only impact millions of young lives on a daily basis, but impact the economic progress of our state as well.

For these reasons and many others, the public has a right to full disclosure and oversight.

The board has escaped such scrutiny for far too long. The disregard for educators, instructional experts and scientists can’t continue. It’s time to take a closer look at the operations and policies of the State Board of Education.

Our state, and especially our kids, deserve better.

It’ll be very interesting to see just how far this legislation gets. If it passes – great! If it is shut down, then once again it will become obvious to everyone that when it comes to free inquiry & open debate, the creationists talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. Either way, it is a win for science & education, in my opinion.

As a way of thanking Ellis and Rose for their courage in taking the creationists on in Texas, there is now an online petition expressing support for their work. Please consider taking a few moments to read the petition, sign it, and then pass it on to others.

So, in closing, while the battle against creationist anti-science is long & ongoing, I think the forces of reason are, slowly but surely, winning the fight. But it is only because people like us, you and me, are getting informed & getting involved. Let that be a lesson to you.

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Three Must-See Skeptical Youtube Vids

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 23, 2009

I decided in this post to share with you three special Youtube videos that have come to my attention, all related to skepticism & the ongoing battle vs. woo. I encourage you to view and share every one of them.

The first is an awesome video by Dr. Richard Wiseman, whom I had a wonderful dinner conversation with at the latest TAM in Las Vegas. Dr. Wiseman illustrates just how easy it is for us to be fooled with his video, the “Colour Changing Card Trick”

Were you fooled the first time you watched this? I certainly was, and as an amateur magician & skeptic, I was looking for deception. It just goes to show how easily any of us can be fooled, plus it’s a really cool video. To learn more about the psychology behind this trick, take a look at Dr. Wiseman’s website – Quirkology.

Unfortunately, the next two videos aren’t as uplifting. However, the response by the skeptical & free-thinking community to these videos has been very encouraging.

The first video deals with a radio-show rant by anti-vaccine nut Jeni Barnett (who seems to be the UK equivalent of Jenny McCarthy in the United States) in the United Kingdom earlier this month. Here is the Youtube of Ms. Barnett’s broadcast (this is roughly 40 minutes long, if you can stomach it for that much time)…

When this radio broadcast came out, UK skeptical activist Dr. Ben Goldacre posted the video on his site – – and took Ms. Barnett to task for promoting her pseudoscientific garbage. It seems that Ms. Barnett, and the company for which she works, decided to threaten Dr. Goldacre with a lawsuit if he didn’t remove the video from his site, which he eventually did. The irony here is that if you listen to Barnett’s radio broadcast, she repeatedly states that she thinks there should be “open debate” about these questions, yet here she (and her company) was stifling any debate & criticism about her woo. The hypocrisy is so thick you can cut it with a knife!

The good news is that, like the now-infamous Tom Cruise Scientology video that was (for awhile) removed from Youtube, the Barnett broadcast has been splashed all over the Internet. And the skeptical community has certainly rallied around Dr. Goldacre – I actually think this entire affair could end up being a tipping point in the campaign to take down the anti-vax movement. Much more about this subject has been blogged about over at PodBlack Cat, so I encourage you to take a trip over that way for more details. And tell them I sent you :)

Last, but not least, is a video that deals with Youtube itself, and some unsavory practices that have been going on over there. There is a famous user at Youtube, who goes by the moniker “Thunderf00t”, who is well-known for his “Why do people laugh at creationists?” videos.

Well, it seems that the creationists have been engaging in a dirty trick called “voteboting”, in which they attempt to take down the rating of pro-science videos like those by Thunderf00t through an organized campaign. Essentially, voteboting is a form of censorship, as lower rated videos get less visibility. Fortunately, there is now a growing number of people in the Youtube community who are getting wise to this nasty trick and fighting against it – here’s a video showing how. Unfortunately, Thunderf00t recently made a video critical of Youtube for not addressing the problem of votebots, and he got suspended for it & his video was yanked.

However, the video is back because many people saved it and have posted it in multiple places, including other spots on Youtube. Here it is – Youtube vs. Users…

I guess the lesson from both Dr. Goldacre’s and Thunderf00t’s experiences is that it is pretty damn hard to censor information on the Internet, and that’s a good thing. It also displays the hypocrisy & dishonesty of many woosters – such as the anti-vaxxers and creationists referenced in this post – in that they constantly whine about how they “just want open debate”, and at the same time they’ll do everything to silence & censor their critics. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Anyway, I hope you found these Youtube videos educational and useful. Please pass them along!

Posted in free inquiry, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Science and Postmodernism

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2009

Just a few days ago, I received an email from a colleague of mine in the English department where I teach. The subject concerned the concept of falsifiability in science. The email read, in part…

I have a dim understanding of Popper’s falsifiability principle from History of Time and Wikipedia. Question: how do the string theorists… “get around” this, or is there something about what they do that renders the principle moot?

Note that there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the scientific process here. One of the hottest new scientific ideas – string theory – is implied to be scientific not because it is falsifiable, but because there must be some “trick to get around it.”

string theory

Nope. Sorry, there’s no trick to getting around it. In order for an idea to be considered scientific, one must be able to propose a way to test it that could potentially falsify it. Without meeting this basic criteria, science it isn’t. Here’s the highlights of my response to my English colleague…

The answer is that string theory meets the “must-have” standard of falsifiability and is thus a valid scientific idea. Falsifiability is the gold-standard: if an idea cannot meet this criteria, science it ain’t.

For more info on this, here are some proposals to, at least in principle, test string theory for validity:

The difficulty is that we don’t yet have the technology in hand to conduct these tests. Once the Large Hadron Collider comes completely online, we’ll have a better picture of this question. In addition, there are some proposals to use our knowledge of the cosmic background radiation to test out other aspects of string theory. There is the chance that the new Planck Surveyor probe could do just that –

The problem with string theory now is that it is in a kind of limbo state, much like Einstein’s theory of general relativity from 1915-1919. Einstein had this beautifully elegant mathematical theory, but many scientists refused to give it any validity until it had been tested. Unfortunately, the technology to test GR didn’t exist then, so they had to wait until the solar eclipse of 1919 to test the first predictions of GR. More on that here –

This point about falsifiability is one which many pseudoscientists screw up all the time. Many of them think that science is merely a set of cool ideas which The Establishment is defending dogmatically – not so. If you go to any scientific meeting and someone proposes a scientific idea, very quickly someone will demand to know how to test it. And if the person proposing the idea cannot answer that question, they will be given no validity at all. Science is a pretty harsh process when you get down to it, and the people who are toughest on scientists are often their scientific colleagues.

For example, creationists have a real problem here. They insist that “intelligent design” is a scientific concept (because they say it is!) yet they never propose any method at all for even testing it for falsifiability. They’ve had 15-20 years to develop some kind of testable hypothesis, yet all they can come up with are logical fallacies and claims of a conspiracy to cover up The Truth. And so it goes…

The thing that really bothers me about this exchange with my colleague is that we’ve been here before. He and I have collaborated extensively on subjects of science & philosophy, and I have pointed out the principle of falsifiability to him numerous times, yet he still doesn’t seem to get it. It’s not that he’s a dumb guy – far from it, he’s very well educated and I consider him to be pretty intelligent. I think it has more to do with his particular area of philosophical specialty: postmodernism.

One aspect of the postmodernist philosophy which has been way overblown by some of the more vocal postmodernists is the idea of relativism in relation to science. Loosely speaking, it is argued by these people that science is nothing more than a mere cultural phenomenon, one which naturally develops in all societies given enough time. Thus, they say, there is such a thing as “science” that belongs to a specific group – such as “traditional science” as done by the older, white, and male segments of Western society versus the “new science” done by others.

I cannot even begin to point out how screwed up this thinking is – if one studies the history of science, you learn quickly that science was essentially a lucky occurrence. All of the proper conditions existed in Ancient Greece which led to the rise of natural philosophical discourse, which in turn eventually led to the development of modern science. While it is true that anyone can practice science (in this sense, science is most certainly not limited to white, male Westerners), had the conditions not been just right the Greeks would have never started humanity on this path and there would have been no modern science.

**Aside: An excellent book on this topic is Alan Cromer’s Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science. I highly recommend it!

However, some postmodernist discourse on science gets really silly, and this comes through, albeit subtly, in my colleague’s email. It is the sense that science is merely “just another way of thinking” and that it has no real authority to say what the world around us is like. Often, postmodernists will say that science is merely an opinion.

This sounds goofy, but over the last few decades it has become very problematic. That’s because all manner of pseudoscientists & pseudohistorians have seized upon these concepts of postmodernism to promote their woo. If you pay close attention to the arguments of the woo-meisters – whether they be Holocaust deniers, New-Agers, alternative-”medicine” practitioners, or creationists – they will often make public arguments that make the postmodernist plea that science is “just another opinion” and out of fairness their ideas should be given just as much validity as those of the scientific community.

And, sadly, because many aspects of postmodernist thought have been widely disseminated throughout the Western world (where it is only natural to respect freedom of speech & expression), a lot of people are roped into accepting these arguments. The result has, over the last generation or so, been the gradual erosion of the status of science & the scientific community while postmodernist driven woo has been given “equal time”, so to speak.

The problem is particularly bad in many areas of academia. A perfect example of just how stupid the promotion of postmodernist woo-woo has gotten is outlined in an excellent book, Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.


Alan Sokal is a hero among many in the skeptical & scientific community for his hilarious debunking of the more extreme aspects of postmodernist anti-science in the mid 1990s via the now famous Sokal Hoax. Fortunately, after the public drubbing that many high-profile postmodernist anti-scientists received once Sokal revealed his deception, they lost a great deal of credibility in many areas of academia.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, Sokal’s excellent high-profile debunking came too late. By the mid 1990s, use of the postmodernist arguments had become widespread by woosters of all stripes. And we are now dealing with the consequences, whether it be having to fight off the “fairness & freedom” arguments of creationists in Texas & Louisiana or dealing with academic colleagues who, due to their embrace of postmodernism, cannot fathom the basics of the scientific method.

Posted in scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Why Do People Believe in Woo & Superstition?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 20, 2009

I have often wondered why it is that so many otherwise intelligent & educated people that I know buy into some of the weirdest woo that is out there. As famed skeptic Michael Shermer has said, “There are plenty of smart people who believe dumb things for non-smart reasons.” Why? What is it that makes so many of us so susceptible to accepting & believing in various kinds of woo and superstition?

A recent study from Northwestern University researchers may have found an answer, one which would corroborate the views of many skeptics who’ve pondered this question for years: control. The research was outlined at this Chicago Tribune article last October, and here are some key points of the study…

Now a new study by Northwestern University researchers has found that all such superstitions may have a common source: the feeling of a lack of control, which spurs people to concoct false patterns and meaning from the noise of life’s chance events.

The Chicago group found that making experimental subjects remember a time when they lacked control actually changed the way they viewed the world, and created a temporary need to see patterns where none existed.

The study in Friday’s edition of the journal Science represents the first experimental confirmation of a link that psychologists long suspected was behind superstitions, conspiracy theories, rituals and even some aspects of religious belief.

Conspiracy theories may be the most poignant example of the way lack of control can color perceptions and beliefs, said Jennifer Whitson, who co-authored the study with Northwestern professor Adam Galinsky as part of her doctoral thesis at the Kellogg School of Management.

For example, a universe of false conspiracy theories cropped up after the terrorist attacks of 2001, including the notion that the U.S. government masterminded the attacks. Whitson said the loss of power that terrorism can inflict on people helps explain the appeal of such theories.

As I said before, this study verifies the suspicions of many a skeptic. For example, renowned skeptic James “The Amazing One” Randi explains to a college class why it is that he thinks that so many people give the pseudoscience of astrology so much validity, despite the fact that it has been proven to be completely useless…

As Randi has said many times, when it comes to belief in woo & pseudoscience, for many people it’s not so much that they want to believe it, it’s that they need to believe it. And if you attempt to shake someone’s comforting worldview (even unintentionally) that gives them some sense of control, even if that sense of control is false & a complete illusion, they will often react negatively.

So, the next time you are discussing with friends or acquaintances some aspect of woo, take care how you come across with your skepticism. Be skeptical, and make your case, but also remember that you’re dealing with real people who have real emotional needs, some of which are satisfied with belief in woo, and tailor your message accordingly.

Posted in psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Texas Fireball Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2009

This last Sunday, there was an interesting anomaly in the skies over Texas, which appeared as a fireball in the morning over the Lonestar State – see the story here. In addition, here is some pretty cool footage of the event…

Now there is a lot of speculation about what caused the fireball. Some people think it was the debris of a recent satellite collision re-entering the atmosphere, but authorities have refuted this story since the path and timing of the fireball was inconsistent with the orbits of the two satellites. It seems, given the evidence at hand, that the best candidate for explaining this fireball is that it was simply a meteor.


However, true to form, there are already a number of woo-meisters out there coming up with all manner of nonsense to explain this event. These range from alluding to some kind of government conspiracy to cover up the falling satellite debris to insisting the fireball was aliens visiting the Earth!

For example, the folks over at are going overtime on this, spinning their CT wheels into a frenzy. Here’s just a taste of some of the nuttiness…

Same ol’ Tesla Flying Machine that been around for years now. The trail cover seems to be diminished at this low level pass. A ball of electrostatic discharge surrounds the craft in any case. In some ways its a flying radio antenna and who invented radio: Tesla. Unlock the books of electricity dudes before we hear more about global warming and have to be Illuminati jerkers.

So TWO Satellites and Two Nuclear submarines crash into each other in the space of a week while a plane carrying a 9/11 campaigner who’s husband was killed on 9/11 dies in an air crash because the plane was on autopilot.

Okay great…

Hope the fire in the sky was not a sign from the AC as predicted in the Bible.

so yeah, they probably wont make headline news because im sure there are government threats made to people, intimidation and what not. check out james gilliland iwebsite and look at the black helicoptor vids and what he says about them. so yes i believe there have been crashes, but the government just wont come out and say, “yeah we have retrieved crashed UFO’s from other planets, taken some technology..oh and have a good day” check out the links. i’ll i was trying to do with this thread was see if this could possibly be one of those incidents. does anyone have pictures of the debris that fell to substantiate the fact it is a satellite? if not, its still unidentified. Just because our government says thats what it is, doesnt always mean its true. Someone show me identifiable pics of fallen satellites and ill shutup

Can we talk about the video? Either my eyes are getting older, or, seconds before the object reaches the tree line, it is deflected off course.

Can a meteorite do that? Or something else that is trying to correct it’s course?

It’s very clear that it’s original line of trajectory was altered.

The reporter just concluded a live report with CNN and he mentioned that NASA just contacted the TV station
? He mentioned that right after CNN asked if any governement agency has asked for the video.

There was a report on one of the news stations that some debris had been located and was “turned over to government officials” but I doubt that will ever surface. Now all the reporters are telling everyone not to touch anything they find.

Now everyone this afternoon is saying it was a meteor???

I have a problem with the whole “meteor” theory.

A: We track these things. One astronomer being interviewed said it had to be the size of a pickup truck. We didn’t see this coming? Something the size of a pickup truck isn’t being tracked by NORAD?

B: It changes trajectory. It’s very clear in the videos and undisputable. I’m no physics expert, nor will I succumb to any stupid “magnetic deflection theory” or “thermal barrier wave theory” or “a tornado made it change course”.

Okay, to be fair there are some skeptics at that site who are calling the woosters to task for their nonsense, but sadly they aren’t in the majority. Note the mentality by those proposing a government cover-up or implying the fireball was somehow “intelligently driven” (i.e. an alien spacecraft).

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term “UFO”. A UFO is, by definition, an Unidentified Flying Object. This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is – it doesn’t mean that it’s a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus. It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is. Plain and simple.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic. Usually, the argument goes something like this: “Well, it couldn’t be anything else but an alien ship!” Right?

Wrong. Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the argument from ignorance or the god-of-the-gaps, and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. Times too innumerable to count have shown us the errors of this form of reasoning, and it is one of the most common mistakes made by pseudoscientists of all stripes.

In the past, strange & unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the “god-of-the-gaps”. In humanity’s ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly “miraculous” events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God. In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our faulty reasoning, but the bogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance. Rather than explain what we don’t know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more of us are using a new religion of “UFOlogy” to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology. Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the “god-of-the-gaps” argument but “alien-of-the-gaps” instead.

In exploring the universe around us, it is important that we employ a healthy balance of wonder & skepticism. Perhaps there are intelligent aliens out there (I’d like to think so), but wanting it to be true doesn’t make it so. Better to wait until there is solid evidence to reach that conclusion – besides, having the hard facts behind your convictions is so much better than wishful thinking.

So what’s the best response when confronted with something that we don’t understand, such as the Texas fireball? In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: “We don’t know.”

Posted in aliens & UFOs, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Woo Beliefs: What’s the Harm?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2009

As a skeptic, many times when I argue with people about various woo beliefs, I hear them say, “What’s the harm in believing X?” My answer: there can be plenty of harm in believing in X.

X could be homeopathy, creationism, psychic or paranormal phenomena, Holocaust denial, or all manner of other pseudoscientific or pseudohistorical woo.

The next time you are discussing any skeptically-oriented topic with someone (whether they’re a woo believer or not), and they ask you that now infamous question, refer them to this website –


That website is a collection of stories relaying just how harmful such woo beliefs can be. As the opening line of the website states:

368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages

That’s a lot of harm. The damage in these stories ranges from minor financial loss, such as when believers are swindled by TV psychics or faith healers, to the death of a loved one at the hands of a “natural cures” practitioner. If you take some time to read through just a few of the topics over at, you’ll see pretty quickly that it is worthwhile to keep tabs on those who push such nonsense and the role that some basic skepticism & critical thinking can play in protecting you from the damage that can be wrought by this woo.

I think it was best said by famous magician & skeptic Penn Jilette when he said…

Well said, Penn. People really do need to see how damaging & dangerous pseudo- and anti-scientific beliefs can be, not just for themselves but the rest of us & society as well.

Remember it, folks – – and refer people to it often. Knowledge is power.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Real Scientists vs. Wanna-Be’s

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 16, 2009

I just got finished attending a couple of days of the joint AAPT & AAAS winter meeting in Chicago, and I must say it was an interesting couple of days! It’s always nice to attend these conferences so that one can connect with the wider scientific & teaching community out there.

While I was at the conference, I attended a fascinating series of talks on some of the latest research coming out of FermiLab, the perfect material for a total physics geek like me. The most interesting stuff at that symposium was the work being done at FermiLab on attempts to detect the Higgs boson and even dark matter!


Briefly, the Higgs boson (also called the Higgs field) is a fundamental particle of nature which is believed by particle physics theorists to exist “beneath” all other particles. All the other fundamental particles of nature – from leptons to quarks to gluons and photons (plus many more) – interact with the Higgs field in a way which determines the mass of the particle. Those particles which interact more strongly with the Higgs have a higher mass. And the Higgs boson forms the last, big missing link in what is called the Standard Model of particle physics (kind of like a periodic table for the fundamental particles of nature). In order to complete the Standard Model, experimentalists need to find evidence of the Higgs in particle accelerators.

The speaker on the Higgs research openly stated at one point in his talk that if scientists at FermiLab or the Large Hadron Collider couldn’t ever find evidence of the Higgs, then that would be more exciting than if they did find such evidence. This is because if no evidence of the Higgs could ever be found, then it would call into question the entire structure of the Standard Model. This would then, in turn, lead to a new revolution in physics, just as Max Planck’s quantum hypothesis in the early 20th century led to the (then) new field of quantum mechanics.

The next really interesting moment came when I was listening to the scientist trying to detect dark matter at FermiLab. Briefly, of all the matter in the universe, only about 3% of it is what we call standard luminous (or baryonic) matter. Most of the rest, about 85-90%, is so-called dark matter (not to be confused with dark energy) – which is matter that emits no electromagnetic radiation at all. The only manner in which we can detect dark matter is through its gravitational influence upon normal matter. Incidentally, three big lines of evidence converge to convince us that dark matter is a reality – gravitational lensing effects, peculiar behavior of galactic rotation curves, and the motion of galaxies in galactic clusters.

However, for the physicist researching dark matter, this isn’t enough. In order for dark matter to really be established as the real thing, he and others in the scientific community want to find it in the lab. So he’s undertaking a series of bubble chamber experiments at FermiLab in an attempt to directly detect dark matter particles. And all physicists acknowledge that dark matter, as yet, has no place in the Standard Model – so this means the Standard Model only describes about 3% of all the matter in the known universe!

I’m not going to go into any more of the details of these talks, but I just wanted to mention something very important that I noted in them. In both cases, the scientists involved in this cutting-edge research were very clear to point out how little we really knew about these subjects. They also made a big point to note that they were perfectly happy to have their experiments fail to detect the Higgs and dark matter, because that would mean we have to completely rework many of our theories of physics.

Far from being rigid dogmatists, as many inaccurately portray the scientific community, these people displayed what real science is all about – putting your hypothesis on the line and letting the observations & experiments be the final arbiter of what’s right and what’s wrong. Real science continually questions its assumptions.

It has been my experience that the real dogmatists are the pseudoscientific cranks, who are basically wanna-be scientists. They latch onto an idea they think is cool, but in spite of all evidence to the contrary they’ll hold onto these discredited ideas. And, in many cases, after they are unable to offer proof of their ideas, the cranks will attack the scientific community for being “dogmatic” and – sometimes – even accuse it of a conspiracy to hide the “truth”. Worse yet, some pseudoscientists propose ideas which aren’t scientific at all – because they can never be falsified – yet they want these notions to have the elevated status of science anyway. They think that by putting on a lab coat and calling their ideas science, that somehow it magically becomes science!

No amount of woo will ever interest me as much as real science. Even if these attempts to detect the Higgs boson and dark matter fail utterly, we’ll have learned so much in going through the process of scientific exploration that it will have all been worth it. And that’s what makes real science so exciting – we don’t know what nature has in store for us!

In closing this post, I’ll reference the words of a great skeptic & advocate for science, Dr. Phil Plait – astronomer & the president of the JREF – when he said: “The universe is cool enough without making up crap about it!”

Posted in scientific method, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Final Word on Science Funding in the Stimulus

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 16, 2009

It’s been a good week. It seems that all the rabble rousing done over the last couple of weeks concerning science funding in the economic stimulus package has paid off. Our friends over at Science Debate sent me this email…

Thanks to your efforts and those of other individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. science community, science did not lose out in the final negotiations of the stimulus bill, which passed last night and is expected to be signed by President Obama on Monday.

When it became clear last Friday morning that the Senate was intent on cutting science, and planned to zero out new NSF funding entirely, you spoke up loudly, and by the end of the day many of the proposed cuts had been restored. When it seemed likely that science would get the short end in conference negotiations between the very powerful Senate version of the bill and the more desirable science targets in the House version, you spoke up again, and to some observers’ great surprise, the House version of the science targets won out almost completely, and science got an increase even as many other programs were cut.

While the principles of the stimulus package may be argued, it is clear that U.S. science has taken a small but important step toward being restored to its rightful place in the priorities of America. Thank you for your participation and support in that process.

You can view an analysis of the House, amended Senate, and Final versions of science spending in the bill here.

Thank you! As we said when we began this effort, we do not view Science Debate as a legislative advocacy organization, but that this was an exceptional circumstance where a broad grassroots effort could leverage a positive result.

Looking forward, while we will most certainly take exceptional actions like this in the future, we will be adopting your suggestions and concentrating the majority of our focus on the broad goal of continuing to “restore science to its rightful place” in three ways: championing science debates among policymakers and those running for office; combating the erosion of science and science policy in the media; and new efforts to involve young people in science policy discussions. More later.

I count this as a big win for science in the U.S. But as the Science Debate folks said, it was only possible due to the combined efforts of all of us, not just scientists themselves. Please consider getting more involved with the folks over at Science Debate as they continue to hold our policy makers accountable on issues of scientific importance. As you’ve seen, we can make a difference!

Posted in science funding | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »


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