The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for May, 2010

Memorial Day, President Obama, and Internet Nonsense

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 31, 2010

In this post, what I want to do is address a right-wing smear campaign which has been making the rounds on the Internet recently; it states how “Obama is the first U.S. President in history to not attend Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day”, with the implication being that he somehow “hates America”, I suppose.  Apparently, there are emails on this going around, as well as articles from various right-wing blogs & “news” outlets.  People who get snagged up in stuff like this don’t even have to receive the email directly, they just have to talk with someone who received it or heard about it, or they just have to hear/read about it from some other news outlet which merely repeats the story uncritically – that’s how memes like this propagate.  Basically, for bad or incomplete information to propagate, all it takes is gullibility & uncritical thinking, either on the part of individuals or the media.

For example, how many of those partisan emails or “news” outlets mention that Obama did indeed visit Arlington National Cemetery in 2009?  Here’s a photo of him at the event…

Not only that, but a quick search of Snopes.com – an excellent website for checking the validity of all manner of Internet nonsense – reveals plenty more information which the partisans who forward this garbage are omitting…

Claim: Mike Savage [a right-wing shock jock] stated that President Obama was not going to Arlington this Memorial Day but is sending VP Biden in his place. Obama is going to Chicago instead. Savage stated that this is the first time in history that a President has not laid a wreath at Arlington on Memorial day. Is this true?

No, it’s not true.  Specifically, the claim that Obama is the first U.S. president to not lay a wreath at Arlington on Memorial Day is not true.  Snopes.com elaborates…

Origins: Memorial Day, now observed on the last Monday of May, is the day of the year set aside for Americans to commemorate the men and women of the United States who died while in the military service. On Memorial Day the President of the United States traditionally visits Arlington National Cemetery, where America’s honored dead are interred, to deliver a speech in remembrance of those who died in service to their country and to lay a memorial wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

News that President Obama would be spending the 2010 Memorial Day weekend in Chicago rather than attending services in Arlington were attended by claims (like the example cited above) that he would thus become the first U.S. president to skip the Arlington wreath-laying ceremony since the inception of Memorial Day. This claim is inaccurate: On several occasions in just the last thirty years, U.S. presidents have been elsewhere on Memorial Day (either vacationing or attending to other presidential duties), while other administration officials represented them at the wreath-laying ceremony:

  • In 2002, President George W. Bush was in France on Memorial Day and participated in ceremonies at Normandy (site of the D-Day landings) honoring the U.S. soldiers who fought and died in World War II. In his place, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
  • President George H.W. Bush (himself a World War II veteran) attended no ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery during his four years in office. In 1989 he was in Rome on Memorial Day (where he led observances at an American military cemetery south of that city), and from 1990 through 1992 he spent the Memorial Day weekend vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine, while Vice-President Dan Quayle laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
  • President Ronald Reagan was away from Arlington on Memorial Day on four occasions during his eight years in office: In 1981, he (who had been seriously wounded in an assassination attempt six weeks earlier) spent the Memorial Day weekend at his ranch in Santa Barbara, California, while Vice-President George H.W. Bush laid the wreath at Arlington. In 1983, he attended a summit meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, while Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Thayer represented the administration at the wreath-laying ceremony. In 1987, he spent Memorial Day at the Camp David presidential retreat while Navy Secretary James Webb participated in the wreath-laying ceremony. And on Memorial Day 1988, he was out of the U.S., attending a summit meeting in Moscow.
  • (NOTE: President Bill Clinton has no entry in this list because he attended Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington each year throughout his eight years in office.)

On Memorial Day 2010, President Obama is scheduled to honor America’s fallen heroes with a speech at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago, while Vice-President Joe Biden takes his place at Arlington.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in internet, media woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Science Creates Artificial Cell and Creationists Spin, Spin, Spin

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 30, 2010

A couple of weeks back, a bombshell of an announcement hit the scientific world: the first artificial cell has been synthesized in the lab. Needless to say, this is a big deal, because it not only has vast implications for bio- & genetic engineering, but the discovery can help fill in gaps in our knowledge of how life evolved naturally from non-life (see my previous blog post on this issue – The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter)

What’s also interesting is the reaction from some religious & creationist circles concerning this discovery.  First, there is the response from the Catholic Church warning scientists not to “play God”…

Catholic Church officials said Friday that the recently created first synthetic cell could be a positive development if correctly used, but warned scientists that only God can create life.

Vatican and Italian church officials were mostly cautious in their first reaction to the announcement from the United States that researchers had produced a living cell containing manmade DNA. They warned scientists of the ethical responsibility of scientific progress and said that the manner in which the innovation is applied in the future will be crucial.

“It’s a great scientific discovery. Now we have to understand how it will be implemented in the future,” Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, told Associated Press Television News.

“If we ascertain that it is for the good of all, of the environment and man in it, we’ll keep the same judgment,” he said. “If, on the other hand, the use of this discovery should turn against the dignity of and respect for human life, then our judgment would change.”

I’m all for proceeding cautiously in this particular research, because there is the potential for abuse, just as there is with any kind of new technology.  But read between the lines of what the Vatican is saying – they seem to be implying that, somehow, this artificial life is fundamentally different from “normal” life simply because of the manner in which it was created.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Have Fun PWNing Anti-Vax Nut Wakefield: Add Your Own Caption!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 28, 2010

As if the whole debacle of anti-vaccination guru Andrew Wakefield’s pathetic attendance at his rally (only about 100 people showed up – some “rally”) wasn’t hilarious enough, the following photo was acquired from the Age of Autism website…

It seems that the Countering Age of Autism blog has a “fill in the caption” contest underway to see who can come up with the most snarky caption making fun of Wakefield.  Have at it! :)

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

The Skeptical PWNage of Darth Wakefield & His Anti-Vax Woosters Continues

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 28, 2010

I just want to provide a quick follow up to yesterday’s post about how the Women Thinking Free Foundation’s (WTFF) crew from the nascent Hug Me! campaign skeptically ninjaed the anti-vaccination rally hosting uber-douchebag Andrew Wakefield. It seems that since I blogged about it, the story has exploded all over the skeptical blogosphere, with the famous photo of Wakefield getting skeptically pwned making many appearances :)

The two skeptical ninjas shown here on either side of Andrew “Douchebag” Wakefield are Jamie Bernstein and Bruce Critelli.  In the words of another of my skeptical colleagues, these two “are the mayors of Balls City!”  Indeed :D

Jamie recounts her experience of the rally over at The Friendly Atheist – feel free to follow Jamie via Twitter .@UAJamie

and

Bruce shares some really interesting video he shot at the rally

Of Bruce’s video, the most unnerving part was, to me, a story that Wakefield told the “crowd” (less than 100 people is hardly a crowd) with one woman who was talking about her son…

About 15 years ago a mother from London approached him and said “Do not judge me too harshly Dr. Wakefield, but when I die I am taking my son with me. You see, I’m all he has. I’m the only one who loves him.”

“I didn’t judge,” said Wakefield. “I was moved by the love that a mother must have for her child that she would take his life rather than have him fall upon a society that really didn’t give a damn.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Skeptics PWN Anti-Vax Scumbag Wakefield at His Own Rally

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 27, 2010

**Update: Check out my follow-up post for more news, photos, and video of this event.

============

Well, congratulate me folks – I’m now officially part of a squad of skeptical ninjas :)

Today, there was an anti-vaccination rally in Chicago, and the king of anti-vax woo & nonsenseAndrew Wakefield himself – showed up.  I suppose he decided to hang with his anti-vax homies here in the U.S. seeing as how he’s essentially lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom because of his fraudulent work there.

Anyway, the new skeptical group I’m part of, the Women Thinking Free Foundation (WTFF), caught wind of this wave of woo headed our way (we’re based in Chicago) and we decided, with two days notice, to mobilize and counter protest… and we did!  I did not personally attend the counter protest, as I had to teach today, but I and many others were working behind the scenes to help organize it.

The word went out like wildfire across the Internet – via email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and message boards – and we were able to gather a group of about 10 people there.  In addition, our WTFF ninjas were able to hand out plenty of pro-vaccine literature to passers-by who might have otherwise thought that Wakefield and his ilk weren’t batcrap crazy.  Here are some examples of our handouts we whipped up as part of WTFF’s new “Hug Me, I’m Vaccinated!” campaign…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »

Cell Phone & Cancer Study Follow Up

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 27, 2010

Last October I posted about a really crappy piece of “journalism” in the New York Post regarding a supposed link between cellphone use and cancer.  The punchline was that the headline-grubbing morons at the NYPost ran their story before the actual study had been published!

Well, now the actual study by the real scientists & researchers involved has been published, and – lo and behold – it paints a very different picture from the fear-mongering goobers at the NYPost.  In part, their conclusion states:

“Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones.”

For reference, the entire study is available here in PDF format. Now of course I’m not surprised in the least by these results, seeing as how, based upon the laws of physics as we know them, there is no plausible mechanism by which such low-energy emissions from cellphones could cause cancer!

One would hope that various media outlets would take a lesson from this fiasco, but I suppose some people are more interested in selling paper than responsible news reporting.

Posted in environmental hysteria, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptical App on the iPhone/Touch 3: The Big Bang Theory Study Guide

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 27, 2010

In my never-ending quest to pass along all things skeptical, techie, and educational, I have discovered another very useful app for the iPhone or iPod-Touch.  If you are into physics & astronomy, or if you happen to ever get into conversation with people regarding cosmology, cosmic evolution, the big bang, and creationism, then this is the app for you!

It’s called The Big Bang Theory Study Guide, and it is a very well-indexed and laid out collection of facts and whatnot about the big bang cosmology.  I consider this to be the physics & astronomy version of the famous Creationist Claims Index, and it is a must have for any serious skeptic & science backer…

There’s one drawback: it’s not free – but it is cheap, at a cost of only $1.99 (well worth the cost).

Posted in creationism, internet, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Live Blog of WTFF Kickoff Event with Jen McCreight

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2010

**Addendum: If you’re interested in watching video of the presentation, check out this link to Vimeo. Hat tip to Bruce Critelli for shooting the video! :)

===============

Well, here we are at the inaugural kickoff event for the Women Thinking Free Foundation (WTFF) at the Galway Arms in Chicago.  Our featured speaker is Jennifer McCrieght, author of the Blag Hag blog and the savvy skeptic behind the infamous Boobquake of 2010 :)

We’re in the process of setting everything up, and we’ll be up-and-running in about 30 minutes.  The title of Jen’s talk is “What Boobquake Taught Us About Skepticism & Feminism”… stay tuned!

Btw, if you’re interested in following the event via live Tweeting with the Bolingbrook Babbler go to .@BolingbrookBabb

Our reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times just arrived!  The Bolingbrook Babbler just whispered in my ear: “Look at that, a press release that worked!” :)

It’s 7:25 and we’ll be starting the lecture in about 5 minutes.  We’re giving people time to settle, order drinks, and get some food…

Dr. Jennifer Newport, the Vice President of the WTFF, is now introducing the event officially, describing the WTFF and its mission.  She’s talking about how there seem to be not as many women in the skeptical movement as there should be, and part of what we’re doing is to get more female speakers in the skeptical movement.  She’s describing future WTFF events, such as our tour at FermiLab, the skeptrack at GenCon, Skepchicon at Convergence, and TAM!  There is also the WTFF Hug Me initiative, which is a campaign to promote vaccinations.

Dr. Jen is now introducing Jen McCreight – it would be Elyse Anders doing the intro, but she had her baby daughter, Delaney, just a day or two ago.  What a cute kid! :)

Read the rest of this entry »

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

The Verdict on the War on Drugs: It’s Useless

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2010

I don’t usually post on purely political topics, but some recent news is making me get out of my usual rut.  I want to talk in this post about the U.S. drug problem… specifically, about how the “War on Drugs”, a.k.a. Drug Prohibition, is beyond useless – it has actually done far more harm than good.

Take a look at this recent news article showing how Drug Prohibition is a complete waste of time, money, resources, and essentially a civil war against our own citizens…

U.S. drug war has met none of its goals

After 40 years, the United States’ war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.

Even U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske concedes the strategy hasn’t worked.

“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful,” Kerlikowske told The Associated Press. “Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

This week President Obama promised to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” with a new national policy that he said treats drug use more as a public health issue and focuses on prevention and treatment.

Nevertheless, his administration has increased spending on interdiction and law enforcement to record levels both in dollars and in percentage terms; this year, they account for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget.

Kerlikowske, who coordinates all federal anti-drug policies, says it will take time for the spending to match the rhetoric. …

Not only that, but at the high school where I teach there used to be a student supervisor who was a retired cop.  Over the years of his time on the force, he spent considerable time working the drug beat.  Just before he left the school, he confided in me a revelation he’d had: that all the work he and his colleagues had done in enforcing drug laws, fighting the dealers, and so on had done absolutely nothing to stop (or even limit) the drug problem.  Nothing.

That’s a startling revelation from someone whose profession it was to enforce the very laws and carry out the very War on Drugs which are supposed to protect us from this supposed scourge upon humanity.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2010

I wanted to toot my own horn a bit and repost a wonderful account of my recent talk at the Center For Inquiry Chicago titled “Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid”. The account comes from Alan, a.k.a. the Jewish Atheist, who was in attendance at the event.  Alan’s other musings regarding myth, magic, and how easily believers allow themselves to be fooled are worth considering.  So, with that, I refer to you to Alan’s post…

Creating Skeptics: Why Every Kid Should Have a Teacher Like Matt Lowry

May 18th, 2010 by Alan

“Science, I maintain, is an absolutely essential tool for any society with the hope of surviving well into the next century with its fundamental values intact — not just science as engaged in by its practitioners, but science understood and embraced by the entire human community. And if scientists do not bring this about, who will?”

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

“We must trust to nothing but facts: these are presented to us by Nature, and cannot deceive. We ought, in every instance, to submit our reasoning to the test of experiment, and never to search for truth but by the natural road of experiment and observation.”

Antoine Lavoisier

Matt Lowry is the teacher you wish you had (and some of us were lucky to actually have had), be it in physics or literature. In Matt’s case it is physics, which he teaches in high school and college in Lake County, IL. I recently attended, in Chicago, his Center for Inquiry presentation on how he cultivates skepticism in high schoolers, through science.

His scientific knowledge is hugely impressive, as are his demonstrations – walking on burning coals, broken glass; lying on bed of nails – which powerfully hook kids on curiosity and skepticism. He teaches them Carl Sagan’s “Dragon in the Garage” analogy and lets them draw their own conclusions.

At Halloween he stages an interactive Haunted Physics Lab (including demonstration of the magnetic forces that make the Ouija Board seem to work), once again teaching kids that all magic is done by someone just a little smarter than you.

His high school students come from various religious backgrounds. Some actually believe the world is only a few thousand years old. Some come away enlightened (“My grandmother should hear this – she’s really into that Bible stuff”), others with only a seed of doubt planted. As Matt says, you cultivate wonder and skepticism and “take what you can get.”

I’ll come back to Matt’s clientele later (and remember, they’re somewhat self-selected — lots of kids stay away from physics classes; it takes an outstanding teacher to bring them in)….

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 112 other followers

%d bloggers like this: