The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for March, 2010

Skeptical App on the iPhone/Touch #1: Creationist Claims Index

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2010

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation with someone who brings up this or that annoying creationist talking point?  How many times have you lamented: “I wish I had something at my fingertips right now to respond to this malarkey!”

Well now you can reference a quick & handy guide on the spot: The Creationist Claims Index – a neat new app for the iPhone or iPod-Touch.  The app is essentially a copy of The Counter-Creationist Handbook by Mark Isaak. The app is easy-to-use, well laid-out, and another big plus is that it’s free!  So what are you waiting for?  Go download it now at the iTunes store…

Hat tip to The Friendly Atheist :)



Posted in creationism, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Walking Barefoot on Broken Glass – Not Paranormal, Just Physics

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 14, 2010

While at Skepchicamp 2010, one of the woo-busting physics demonstrations I performed was that of walking barefoot on broken glass shards.  Here’s a close up of the action…

This is a standard carnival trick, also used by various New Age gurus to display their supposed mystical, paranormal, or supernatural powers to their gullible followers.  Sorry folks, no woo is required to explain this (pardon the pun) impressive feat.  This is some video shot by a few of my students earlier this year when we were discussing the physics of pressure

It can all be explained with a simple understanding of basic physics: by walking flat-footed on the shards, I spread my body weight evenly over the entire surface area of my feet, which means that I’m touching a large number of glass shards at once. Thus, since my weight is distributed over so many points, the pressure (force per unit area) at any one of those points is so small that it isn’t enough to stab or cut through my skin.

Thus, through a simple application of Occam’s Razor, we can conclude that nothing paranormal is required to explain what’s going on, just good physics!

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Vaccine Court Finds No Link to Autism

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 13, 2010

Breaking news just in from CNN – good news for science-based medicine and skeptics, bad news for alt-med, anti-vaccine nutwads like Jenny McCarthy. It’s interesting what happens when these issues are hashed out in a court where evidence & logical reasoning are required for argumentation, as opposed to the usual overly-emotional & irrational nonsense spouted by the anti-vaxxers in public.  Of course, just wait until they start moaning about how the vaccine court is part of the Big Pharma / Big Medicine / Big Government conspiracy, and that’s why they lost (and definitely not because they are deluded or driven by ideology – nah, couldn’t be that!)

What is the vaccine court?

The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was established in 1988. Through the program, known as the “vaccine court,” people who believe they suffered injury as a result of compulsory childhood vaccines may petition the federal government for monetary damages. The claims are decided by the Office of Special Masters, a part of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Here’s the article from CNN…

Vaccine Court Finds No Link to Autism

A federal court ruled Friday that the evidence supporting an alleged causal link between autism and a mercury-containing preservative in vaccines is unpersuasive, and that the families of children diagnosed with autism are not entitled to compensation.

Special masters of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims released more than 600 pages of findings after reviewing three test cases and finding all the claims wanting.

“Petitioners’ theory of vaccine-related causation is scientifically unsupportable,” wrote Special Master Patricia Campbell-Smith in her conclusion about William P. Mead, whose parents, George and Victoria Mead, had brought one of the suits.

“In the absence of a sound medical theory causally connecting William’s received vaccines to his autistic condition, the undersigned cannot find the proposed sequence of cause and effect to be logical or temporally appropriate. Having failed to satisfy their burden of proof under the articulated legal standard, petitioners cannot prevail on their claim of vaccine-related causation.”

Read more…

But if you think this is the final word on the subject, think again – also a recent related story from CNN…

Supreme Court accepts appeal over vaccine safety

Parents who say that a range of preventive vaccines given their young children can cause serious health problems will have their appeal heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices Monday agreed to decide whether drug makers can be sued outside a special judicial forum set up by Congress in 1986 to address specific claims about safety. The so-called vaccine court has handled such disputes and was designed to ensure a reliable, steady supply of the drugs by reducing the threat of lawsuits against pharmaceutical firms.

The questions in the latest case are whether such liability claims can proceed, if the vaccine-related injuries could have been avoided by better product design, and if federal officials had approved another, allegedly safer drug. Oral arguments in the dispute will be held in the fall.

Read more…

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Texas Voters Give Creationist Don McLeroy the Big Texas Boot

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 12, 2010

It seems that our friend on the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy – who is infamous for his repeated attempts to water down the teaching of evolution in particular & science in general in Texas schools, has finally gotten his come-uppance… he has lost his seat on the Texas BoEd in the Republican primary.  The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has a good breakdown of what happened (below), but I think the long story short of it is that people in Texas are fed up with the creationists attempting to spread their extreme & divisive ideology through the public schools… at least, I hope that’s the case.

Here’s the take down by the NCSE…

In the March 2, 2010, primary election, avowed young-earth creationist Don McLeroy narrowly lost his bid to be the Republican candidate for the District 9 seat on the Texas state board of education. As the Dallas Morning News (March 3, 2010) reported, “The fiercely contested race pitted McLeroy, a dentist from College Station and member of the board’s social conservative bloc, against [Thomas] Ratliff, a legislative consultant and son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff,” who is viewed as likely to side with the moderates on the board. There is no Democratic candidate for the seat, so Ratliff is expected to be elected in November 2010.

Originally elected to the board in 1998, McLeroy was persistently determined to undermine the treatment of evolution in Texas’s public schools. During the debate over biology textbook adoption in 2003, he was one of the four members of the board who misused the state science standards to oppose adopting the eleven textbooks under consideration. His attacks on science education — including his endorsement of a book that described parents who want their children to learn about evolution as “monsters” — were in part responsible for the state senate’s refusal to confirm him as chair of the board in May 2009, as NCSE previously reported.

McLeroy’s assault on evolution came to a head during a meeting of the board in March 2009 when he declaimed, in a now notorious moment, “Somebody’s got to stand up to experts!” (Video is available on NCSE’s YouTube channel.) Unfortunately, a majority of the board did so, voting to amend the Texas state science standards to add a requirement that students examine “all sides of scientific evidence” and to add or amend various standards in a way that encourages the presentation of creationist claims about the complexity of the cell, the completeness of the fossil record, and the age of the universe.

The board’s revisions to the standards were widely deplored, with the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology describing it as “a step backward” and the Austin American-Statesman (April 1, 2009) editorially complaining, “Don McLeroy, Dunbar and others have turned the education board into a national joke. But when it comes to teaching Texas children, what they have done is not funny.” But McLeroy was unabashed. “Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution,” he told the Washington Monthly (January/February 2010), adding, “Evolution is hooey.”

Well, Don McLeroy may think that “evolution is hooey” but the voters of Texas have spoken, and McLeroy is history :)

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Skeptic Money: Guaranteed Mutual Funds?

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 12, 2010

This past weekend at Skepchicamp 2010, one of the most interesting presentations was given by Phil Ferguson, the author of the must-see Skeptic Money website. Phil specializes in applying skepticism & critical thinking to an area where I am admittedly very weak: money, finances, and investing.  During his presentation, Phil was gracious enough to give some very useful skeptical advice on “Guaranteed Mutual Funds”, and I’m reposting his blog entry on the topic below…

That’s Phil on the left, along with The Friendly Atheist :)

NOTE:  This post is part of an ongoing education series.  This information is for educational purposes only.  This information does not constitute investment advice.  No rational person would make investment decisions based on a blog post.  Please consult with your financial advisor before taking any action.  If you think it is OK to make investment decisions based on a blog post, then for the love of the FSM – Stop reading my blog.

Below is a description of an investment product.  This is based on real and available products but does not represent any specific product.  Numbers below are estimates and are only intended to show how this product works.

The Pitch.

There is a new product it is a combination of the best of bonds and the stock market.  It is a guaranteed mutual fund.  Part of the money is invested in an index fund and some is invested in Zero-coupon bonds issued by the US Government – AAA Grade.  You get the benefit of the stocks and bonds.  The best part of all is that in the next 10 years, you are guaranteed a 40% return.  That’s like getting 4% each and every year.  That’s right you will make at least 40% return on your investment and you have the unlimited potential to make more if the stock market goes up.  Just sign here and give me $100!

The Reality.

Now for all of the details that the sales person did not tell you about.  The odd thing is that they did not need to tell you verbally because all of the details are in the prospectus – 72 pages of 6 point font written in the best legalese.  You signed a form that said you read it.  Now they can do almost anything to you.  You thought if you invested $100 you would have $140 in 10 years.  Now we will get the details.

10 years – You will want to keep this investment for 10 years because if you sell it early you have to pay a 10% penalty.  Whoops… did we forget to tell you that.

4% per year - Actually it is closer to 3.3% per year compounded but hey it’s only money.

The Load - oh…  did we forget to tell you there is an 8% load.  A load is a sales fee that is collected from you and paid to the sales person.  8% is on the high side for mutual funds but, this is a really good investment so it is a small fee to pay.  The $140 after 10 years was based on an investment of $100 you only invested $92 ($8 covers the load).  You do not make $40 but $37 (remember you only invested $92).  So when it’s all done you have $129 – still really good.

Annual expense ratio – We told you the 40% return is guaranteed – and it is.  So is the annual expense ratio.  This is to cover the cost to the company that manages you money – and they deserve it for getting you such a great product.  The fee is just 1.8% per year.  Just above the industry average but your worth it.  Total cost is just $18 over ten years.  Your total return is still $111 that’s great.

Insurance – Your money is guaranteed, it’s a kind of insurance.  You pay for auto and home insurance – of course you have to pay a little something for this insurance.  The cost is just 1.5% per year.  Total over 10 years is about $15.  Your total return is $96 – isn’t this, a wonderful investment.

Taxes – The IRS does not want to wait and tax you on all the money you are going to make with the Zero Coupon Bonds.   So they created a thing called imputed interest. They collect tax on the money you are going to get.  Don’t think that you lost money.  You did not!  You made money but agreed to a lot of high expenses.  That’s your problem not the IRS’s.  So…. ya gotta pay the tax.  I will call it $6.  So now your awesome investment of $100 after ten years is now worth around $90.

Who wants to buy now?

Umm… not me, Phil.  Thanks for the tip.

Posted in economics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Skeptical Teacher Displays Awesomeness at Skepchicamp!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2010

Well, I’ve had a couple of days to process all that took place during the first Chicago SkeptiCamp, also known as Skepchicamp. In addition to outlining what I contributed, I’d also like to provide some of the thoughts & feedback from others in attendance…

My presentation, titled Bringing Skepticism into the Physics Classroom, was a display of my belief in “sacrificing myself for science” whereby I perform a variety of extraordinary and dangerous demonstrations in the hopes of dispelling any notions of paranormal woo.  Specifically, I performed three impressive physical feats: walking barefoot on broken glass, breaking five wooden boards with my fist, and laying between two beds of nails while a concrete cinder block is crushed on my chest. Talk about fun times! :)

As I told the audience, when I perform these demos for my students I’m not proving that there is no such thing as chi/ki/qi or whatever other New Age “life force” paranormal woo-woo is often invoked to explain these phenomena.  Instead, what I’m encouraging my students to do is simply apply Occam’s Razor to the scenario: their understanding of basic physics is all that is necessary to explain things… no woo required.

For a fuller view of the awesomeness I displayed, check out this great footage shot during my presentation (hat tip to the Bolingbrook Babbler)…

… and here’s another one from a fellow Skepchicamp organizer…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in physics denial/woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Updates From the Evolution & Creationism Battle Lines

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2010

There’s been a lot going on lately on the battle lines concerning evolution & creationism. In fact, there’s so much happening that I just wanted to provide a quick summary of all that’s been transpiring lately.  Some of it is funny, some of it is sad, some aggravating, but it’s all informative and worth reading.  So, with that, read on…

1. First Annual UpChucky Awards Announced

Our friends over at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) have been having a little bit of fun pointing out some of the most recent and egregious errors & misrepresentations by creationists…

Which creationist was the most nauseating?

When it comes to dissing evolution (and science in general) there’s no lack of volunteers. How to decide which among them is the worst?

Enter the intelligently designed UpChucky Award, which recognizes supreme achievement in the field of persistently rejecting evolution in the most stomach-turning way imaginable. This crown of cluelessness, this diadem of density, this badge of bullpucky isn’t awarded to just any Darwin doubter. The UpChucky is bestowed on that one creationist whose efforts in the preceding year would inspire Darwin (or any rational person) to “drive the porcelain bus”.

Read on for more details…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, global warming denial | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Homeopathic A&E: A Must-See Youtube Video!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2010

Every now and then a little nugget of skeptical humor comes my way, and I simply must share it with others.  Many times on my blog I’ve exposed various forms of medical pseudoscientific woo, and one of my favorite targets is simultaneously one of the most ludicrous & popular – homeopathy.

To give you an idea of just how silly the whole notion of homeopathy and their mantras of “like cures like” and “dilution is the solution” really are, check out this quick Youtube video by “That Mitchell and Webb Look” :)

Posted in humor, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Register for The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 in Las Vegas

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 8, 2010

I just wanted to give you a quick heads up that registration for The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 (a.k.a. TAM8) is now open.  This year’s event takes place in Las Vegas at the lovely South Point Hotel & Casino from July 8-11th.  There’s an all star lineup of speakers, a whole bunch of new & interesting workshops and other events, plus all the usual (or is it unusual?) TAM fun & weirdness.  Try to make it if you can – registration info here…

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

Photos from Skepchicamp 2010!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 8, 2010

All I can say is… WOW!!!

I’m still coming down from the high of the first ever Skepchicamp, and there is so much that went on that it will take quite some time to assimilate it all.  In fact, Skepchicamp kicked soooooo much ass that not even Chuck Norris will be able to sit down for a month :)

Stay tuned for more updates and post-camp thoughts from me.  But for now I want to share some photos taken by our official event photographer, Ivan Phillips… Enjoy!

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


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