The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for June, 2010

Skepchicon: Skeptics at Convergence 2010

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 29, 2010

Every July 4th weekend, there is apparently a big science fiction & fantasy convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota called Convergence, and this year I’m going for the first time :)

That’s partly because in addition to being a science teacher/professor, I’m also a big fan of much science fiction, fantasy, and so on.  In addition, like what has happened in recent years at other cons like Dragon*Con, there has evolved a skeptical track at Convergence, specifically called Skepchicon.

Like other skeptic tracks at other cons, Skepchicon is geared towards presenting the skeptical & pro-science/pro-critical thinking point-of-view in a fun & friendly environment.  Actually, on a serious note, it is worth paying attention to the fact that these sorts of venues are perfect for spreading the skeptical message beyond hard-core skeptics; if we are to truly encourage others to think critically about paranormal & pseudoscientific claims, then we need to preach less to the choir and go more public.  This means exploring new venues such as these fun & freaky conventions, and it also means putting ourselves out there in more direct interaction with many people who harbor these nonsense beliefs.  Even though it can sometimes be quite galling to have to put up with various kinds of woo-woo nonsense & its adherents, we can all enjoy a good party :)

By the way, if you want to get a good look at the track & schedule of Skepchicon, head on over to Greg Laden’s blog entry on it.

I will be attending Skepchicon and participating in the “Physics or Fantasy?” panel, in addition to generally checking things out.  I’ll also be there as a representative of the Women Thinking Free Foundation, dedicated to promoting critical thinking & skepticism among women of all ages who are so often targeted by the woo-meisters.

Last, but not least, in case you are interested… I plan to live blog many parts of Skepchicon, so watch this space!

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A Skeptical Investigation of the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 25, 2010

Recently, I was contacted by the Independent Investigation Group (IIG) out of Los Angeles, California, concerning an impromptu skeptical investigation my wife and I had conducted of the Montana Vortex & House of Mystery back in the summer of 2006 during our vacation.  Apparently, a man named Nick Nelson (whom I had met briefly at the site) – somewhat of a pseudoscientific guru regarding all New Age “vortex” claims – had contacted IIG about taking them up on their $50,000 Challenge. IIG’s prize follows in the spirit of James Randi’s famous Million Dollar Challenge:

The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles offers a $50,000 prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The IIG works with the applicant in designing the test protocol, and defining the conditions under which a test will take place. IIG representatives will then administer the actual test. In most cases, the applicant will be asked to perform an informal demonstration of the claimed ability or phenomenon, which if successful will be followed by the formal test. The IIG conducts all demonstrations and tests at our site in Hollywood, California, except in special circumstances.

Well, it seems the folks at IIG could be actually going to the Montana Vortex site, outside of Columbia Falls, Montana, at the request of Nick Nelson to test out the various claims by the proprietors.  If Mr. Nelson can come up with the money to fly some IIG investigators out to Montana and put them up for a couple of days, then perhaps there will be some serious investigation of the supposedly “paranormal” phenomena at the Montana Vortex.  I’m not sure, as of this writing, whether or not IIG and Nick Nelson have finalized any plans, so stay tuned for more info.

**Note: the IIG investigators want me to make clear in no uncertain terms that Nick Nelson initiated discussion of their $50,000 Challenge with them, and not the other way around!

Anyway, as I stated earlier, the IIG folks contacted me, because they heard (probably through this post I made on the JREF Forum) about my desire to send the results of my off-the-cuff skeptical analysis to James Randi.  They wanted my notes to see what I thought of the tricks & optical illusions (that’s all they are, in my professional opinion as a physics professor) taking place at the Montana Vortex, and I eagerly shared them with IIG.  And I shall also share them with you here.  I hope you enjoy the read… :)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments »

Institute for Creation Research Loses Texas Lawsuit Over “Master’s” Degree in Creation Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 23, 2010

In a bit of good news from our friends at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), it appears that the young-earth creationist organization called the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) has lost its court battle in Texas against the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board.  Apparently, ICR was suing the Board for it refusing to recognize the ICR’s “Master’s” degree in science education.  If ICR had called it a Master’s degree in pseudoscience education, then perhaps things would have gone differently ;)

Anyway, read on for the full update from NCSE on this welcome development…

The Institute for Creation Research suffered a significant legal defeat in its lawsuit over the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board’s 2008 decision to deny the ICR’s request for a state certificate of authority to offer a master’s degree in science education from its graduate school. A June 18, 2010, ruling in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas found (PDF, p. 38) that “ICRGS [the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School] has not put forth evidence sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact with respect to any claim it brings. Thus, Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the totality of ICRGS’s claims against them in this lawsuit.”

As NCSE’s Glenn Branch explained in Reports of the NCSE, “When the Institute for Creation Research moved its headquarters from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, in June 2007, it expected to be able to continue offering a master’s degree in science education from its graduate school. … But the state’s scientific and educational leaders voiced their opposition, and at its April 24, 2008, meeting, the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board unanimously voted to deny the ICR’s request for a state certificate of authority to offer the degree.” Subsequently, the ICR appealed the decision, while also taking its case to the court of public opinion with a series of press releases and advertisements in Texas newspapers.

The issue was not, strictly speaking, about accreditation, but about temporary state certification, which would have enabled the ICR graduate school to operate while it sought accreditation. When in California, the ICR graduate school was accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, which requires candidate institutions to affirm a list of Biblical Foundations, including “the divine work of non-evolutionary creation including persons in God’s image.” TRACS is not recognized by the state of Texas, however, and after the ICR moved from Santee, California, to Dallas, Texas, the ICR expressed its intention to seek accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Finally, the ICR filed suit against THECB in 2009, accusing it and its members of imposing “an unconstitutional and prejudicial burden against ICRGS’s academic freedom and religious liberties.” The prolix style of the ICR’s initial complaint — which the Dallas Observer (April 20, 2009) quipped “reads kind of like stereo instructions” — was apparently continued in its subsequent documents; the court complained, “It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information” (p. 12).

In summary, the ICR claimed that THECB’s actions violated its rights to free exercise, free speech, and equal protection, its rights to procedural and substantive due process, and its rights under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as that “Standard 12″ — the civil regulation on which THECB’s decision was based (19 Texas Administrative Code sec. 7.4(14)) — was vague. The court found merit in none of these claims. With respect to the free exercise claim, for example, the court found that “the Board’s decision was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest, and there is no evidence the decision was motivated by animus toward any religious viewpoint” (p. 24).

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Happy Summer Solstice: Skeptical Egg-Balancing Fun!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 21, 2010

Happy Summer Solstice everyone! It might seem a strange thing to be celebrating, this specific position of Earth in its orbit around the sun, but we skeptics have our reasons. This, of course, has to do with the old myth of being able to balance eggs on their ends only during either the vernal (spring) or autumnal equinox – of course, all references are in regards to the northern hemisphere.

But wait, it’s not the equinox, so why bring up this myth now? To debunk it, of course. According to adherents of this myth, usually the same folks who are into astrology-related woo, during the equinoxes “things line up cosmically” (probably some misunderstood reference to the fact that the length of day & night are the same), and this should result in the capability to stand eggs on their ends.

The funny thing about this particular myth is that it contains a kernel of truth… you can stand an egg on its end on the equinox, just as you can at any time of the year – even the solstices, as far away from the equinox as you can get. Case in point, last summer (on June 21st, the summer solstice) I balanced three eggs on end in my kitchen…

Solstice Eggs

And this past winter solstice (well, close – on December 24, 2009), while visiting family for the holidays I balanced an egg on end in their kitchen…

These supposedly “cosmic events” took me all of just a few minutes to accomplish – with a little practice, it’s easy to do. To understand why it is that eggs can be balanced in this manner, it is more helpful to look to the science of physics rather than the pseudoscience of astrology – this link at the Bad Astronomy blog explains in more detail.

So, the next time you hear someone make this loony claim, have a little fun with it – whip out the eggs and balance away!

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

Freedom From Religion Foundation Bus Ad Campaign Hits Chicago

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 18, 2010

I’m just tooting my own horn a bit because apparently I’m achieving a measure of notoriety on the Internet (especially over at The Friendly Atheist blog) for some comments I recently made for a Chicago Tribune article on the new Freedom From Religion Foundation’s bus ad campaign in the Windy City…

Secularists spreading the word

When the Indiana Atheist Bus Campaign and American Humanist Association wanted to spark a public conversation last spring about the origin of religion, they plastered Chicago’s buses with a provocative twist on Genesis: “In the beginning, man created God.”

When the Chicago Coalition of Reason wanted to proclaim that no one needs God to be good, they posted a billboard a few months later above a LaSalle Street sandwich shop in Chicago’s Loop.

So when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation took its controversial slogan touting the benefits of sleeping in on Sundays to honor the day of rest, they came to Chicago first, a city where they knew they would be welcome.

After awhile, the article gets to me and my epic quote…

Matt Lowry, 37, a science teacher in Vernon Hills and the organizer of the North Suburban Chicago Freethinkers, said he never wore his beliefs, or lack thereof, on his sleeve. But the more it came up in conversation, the more he realized how the collective silence has caused atheists and agnostics to be misunderstood.

“Just because you’re a nonbeliever does not mean you’re kicking little old ladies down the stairs or eating babies,” Lowry said. “There’s this common misperception. For too long, the nonbelieving community in this country has basically allowed religious fundamentalists to define them that way.”

Yeah, that was all me – it was my humorous & snarky way of basically saying: hey, nonbelievers are good and moral people, too. Now that I see how much people like the quote, I’m considering having T-shirts made up :)

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

James Randi Educational Foundation has Grants for Teachers

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 17, 2010

In the ongoing effort to put more ‘E’ into the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation), there is a new grant available via the JREF Swift blog to teachers who wish to incorporate more critical thinking & skepticism into their lessons.  Read on…

Announcing The James Randi Grants for Educators

Written by Michael Blanford – Wednesday, June 9th

In its continuing efforts to provide resources to teachers and other educators, the James Randi Educational Foundation is proud to announce its grants for educators.  These grants are intended to help offset the cost of developing or improving critical thinking and scientific skepticism programs in the classroom and beyond. The grants will be awarded annually to educators of grades K-12 to help improve the education of their students, school and/or community in the methods of science and critical thinking through the examination of the paranormal and pseudoscience. Grants will allow teachers to:

  • Purchase materials and / or equipment for the classroom, school or community for use in skepticism and critical thinking education.
  • Begin new school and / or community skepticism and critical thinking outreach and educational programs.
  • Enhance and expand existing skepticism and critical thinking educational programs.
  • Attend courses, workshops or conferences related to scientific skepticism that will significantly enhance their teaching activities.

The James Randi Educational Foundation will award a limited number of grants of up to $500 each. In general, those educators selected to receive the grant are those whose applications are deemed to:

  • Have the greatest need.
  • Will have the most significant and widest impact.
  • Have submitted the most detailed proposal describing how the grant money will be spent.
  • Be most likely to succeed with their proposal.

We ask that curricula and other resources developed with the help of this grant be made available to other educators through the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Grant proposals should be sent to mblanford@randi.org and must include information about the educator’s school or institution, a detailed description of the critical thinking/skepticism project, biographical information about the applicant, and a project budget.  Grant proposals are due on or before July 31st, 2010 and recipients will be announced August 16th 2010.

The James Randi Educational Foundation’s grants for educators program is supported by our generous members. To help support this program click here.

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptical Education at the TAM8 Teacher’s Workshop

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 16, 2010

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working with some folks through the James Randi Educational Foundation to try putting more ‘E’ in JREF.  As such, we’ve landed some valuable workshop time at The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas this coming July.  Here’s some info from the latest issue of JREF Swift on the workshop…

Fine-tune your Skeptical Education Skills at the TAM8 Teacher’s Workshop

Written by Michael Blanford – Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Among the many highlights to be found in the jam-packed TAM8 schedule, is the robust lineup of expertly-led workshops offering practical, and often hands-on reviews of important topics relating to science, critical thinking, and skepticism. Many will be pleased to hear that among them is a teacher’s workshop focusing on some of the specialized skills needed to bring the tools of scientific skepticism into the classroom and beyond. I am very excited that the workshop is being presented by Barbara Drescher and a number of experts with many accumulated years spent learning the “ins and outs” of this sometimes tricky endeavor.  Below is a sneak peak at the workshop from Barbara.

The “E” in JREF at TAM8

You do not need to be a teacher to educate. Each of us takes on the role of educator when we promote critical thinking, science, and skepticism through private debate and public talks. So, you do not need to be a teacher to take home something of value from a workshop to be hosted by Michael Blanford, Director of Educational Programs for the James Randi Educational Foundation, at The Amazing Meeting 8.

Join us on Thursday, July 8, 2010 for tips, tricks, and practical advice for teaching critical thinking through classroom demonstrations, lessons and exercises, and mind opening mini lessons. Michael will give us an update on JREF’s educational efforts. Junior Skeptic editor and author of Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, Daniel Loxton, will discuss using concepts in evolution through natural selection to cultivate critical thinking in elementary school children. Matt Lowry, The Skeptical Teacher, will cover the secondary set with instructions on how to make a skeptical kid. Finally, I will demonstrate some easy, quick, and fun ways to jimmy open minds by showing that what we perceive does not always match reality. There may even be a surprise guest by proxy. *shhhh!*

So, sign up today, or treat yourself to an all-workshop pass. There will be plenty to take home from what we are confident will be an inspiring start to your TAM8 experience.

Fine-tune your Skeptical Education Skills at the TAM8 Teacher’s Workshop PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Michael Blanford
Tuesday, 15 June 2010 13:57
Among the many highlights to be found in the jam-packed TAM8 schedule, is the robust lineup of expertly-led workshops offering practical, and often hands-on reviews of important topics relating to science, critical thinking, and skepticism. Many will be pleased to hear that among them is a teacher’s workshop focusing on some of the specialized skills needed to bring the tools of scientific skepticism into the classroom and beyond. I am very excited that the workshop is being presented by Barbara Drescher and a number of experts with many accumulated years spent learning the “ins and outs” of this sometimes tricky endeavor.  Below is a sneak peak at the workshop from Barbara.

The “E” in JREF at TAM8

You do not need to be a teacher to educate. Each of us takes on the role of educator when we promote critical thinking, science, and skepticism through private debate and public talks. So, you do not need to be a teacher to take home something of value from a workshop to be hosted by Michael Blanford, Director of Educational Programs for the James Randi Educational Foundation, at The Amazing Meeting 8.

Join us on Thursday, July 8, 2010 for tips, tricks, and practical advice for teaching critical thinking through classroom demonstrations, lessons and exercises, and mind opening mini lessons. Michael will give us an update on JREF’s educational efforts. Junior Skeptic editor and author of Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, Daniel Loxton, will discuss using concepts in evolution through natural selection to cultivate critical thinking in elementary school chilren. Matt Lowry, The Skeptical Teacher, will cover the secondary set with instructions on how to make a skeptical kid. Finally, I will demonstrate some easy, quick, and fun ways to jimmy open minds by showing that what we perceive does not always match reality. There may even be a surprise guest by proxy. *shhhh!*

So, sign up today, or treat yourself to an all-workshop pass. There will be plenty to take home from what we are confident will be an inspiring start to your TAM8 experience.

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Big Butter Jesus is Toast!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 15, 2010

Okay, like everyone else on the Internet, I just cannot pass up the opportunity to write something about the “Touch Down Jesus” or “Big Butter Jesus” statue outside of the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio (technically, it was called the “King of Kings” statue).  Last night this six-story tall statue was destroyed after, of all things, lightning struck it and burned it to the ground, leaving nothing more than the metallic frame behind.

Leaving aside the obvious jokes, which – believe me – are legion and spreading like wildfire across the Internet, I have to say I’m glad that no one was hurt.

But on a more serious note, I have to ask two questions:

1. Isn’t there a Biblical commandment against worshiping graven images? Wouldn’t one think that “Big Butter Jesus” statue was a violation of said commandment? Putting my theology hat on, couldn’t one surmise that perhaps this was a sign from the Almighty to NOT have such a statue?  Somehow I don’t think many Christian fundamentalists will see it that way…

2. The damn thing cost $250,000 to build, and it was a bloody eyesore!  Couldn’t these folks find something more useful to do with the money – like feed & clothe the homeless, perhaps?

In any case, in a final tribute to our burned (melted?) buttery friend, I share with you all this Youtube video of a wonderful song written back in 2007 by comedian Heywood Banks :)

Posted in humor, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Skeptical Advice Column: Ask Surly Amy!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 14, 2010

In one of those “why didn’t I think of that?!!” moments, I just saw an awesome post over at Skepchick.org – one of the Skepchicks, Surly Amy, has decided to start an online advice column for skeptics.  Check it out! :)

Ask Surly Amy

June 14th, 2010 by Amy · 5 Comments

No Gravatar

Recently, Dear Abbey screwed up big time. Some poor lady wrote in asking for help because she was afraid that when her family died they’d follow her around watching her poop and stuff. Dear Abby’s response? Yeah, the ghost of her dead mother-in-law probably WILL watch her get it on with the MIL’s son, but just because she’s so frigging happy for them and not because she’s a giant ghost perv.

We need a new, more rational advice columnist and we need her NOW. That’s why we’re introducing a new feature: Ask Surly Amy. Send your questions using the contact form and be sure to choose “Ask Surly Amy” from the menu, and our resident surly girl will dish out skeptical advice on anything from relationship problems to etiquette questions to pervy hauntings.

Here’s our very first installment. Enjoy!

~Rebecca

Ask Surly Amy

Hello there.
I have a bit of a problem and it’s kind of a niche one and I don’t
have anyone really to ask so I thought someone here could help me?
I’m just gonna come right out and say it. This guy I’m sorta kinda
dating is a conspiracy theorist. I like him, but I have certain
standards that he’s not meeting. Namely being a skeptic.
Now, I know love is out there for me in the form of a skeptic man, and Rebecca taught me that.
Should I pursue a relationship? His conspiracy stuff
is gonna bother me and I’ll always be afraid that I can’t just let it
be. In a friend, I’ll tolerate ghost belief, alt med, and all other
forms of nonsense, but I don’t think I could have a boyfriend who
believes that stuff. I know people of different opinions can have a
relationship, my mother is jewish and my father is a lutheran, but
this is a big one.
Any advice? I know you can’t decide for me, but I’d like some
outside skeptical input.
Thanks so much!

First of all, thank you for being our very first Ask Surly Amy participant! Your prize is our gratitude and the following advice.

Explain Occam’s Razor to the guy this way:
Either you stop pursuing irrational belief systems or I am going to cut you (out of my life.)

The simplest explanation is usually the correct one and the simplest explanation here is for you to dump the con-nut.

Some things you can totally overlook. Like if your significant other enjoys listening to Barry Manilow, that’s completely fine. At least it is something you can deal with. But if your significant other likes to listen to Barry Manilow while trying to convince you that Lady Gaga conspired with George Bush to take down the twin towers to divert attention away from the war, well then it’s clearly time to move on.

My advice is to lose Mr. paranoid-delusion AND get yourself a ticket to TAM this year! You will be pleasantly surprised by how many hot skeptics will be hanging out at the bar and at the Skepchick party!

See you then!

~Surly Amy

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

*Ask Surly Amy is meant for entertainment purposes only. All advice should be taken with as much skepticism as anything else, really.

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

In a Sign of the Apocalypse, Jenny McCarthy Gets a TV Show

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 14, 2010

Wow… this is bad news, folks.  Uber anti-vaccine loon Jenny “Body Count” McCarthy is getting her own television show thanks to Oprah Winfrey.  We should all be on the lookout, because I think if we thought that McCarthy’s whacky alt-med, anti-vax, and just plain goofy views on medical science in general were getting a lot of press, just wait until her TV show hits the airwaves.  Ugh…

June 14, 2010, 12:19 PM EST

WENN

Jenny McCarthy is set to follow in the footsteps of talk show queen Oprah Winfrey after signing a deal to develop her own TV series with the media mogul.

The Playboy model-turned-actress has landed a development deal with Winfrey’s Harpo Productions.

Harpo executives have not elaborated on the content of McCarthy’s series, but they insist it won’t be in a similar format to the TV star’s current chat show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which will go off the air next year.

Executives have yet to confirm if McCarthy’s series will launch on Winfrey’s new TV network, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

A Harpo spokeswoman tells the New York Post, “We do not have anyone taking over for Oprah. We do have a development deal with Jenny McCarthy. We are exploring possibilities across a number of platforms.”

In response to Oprah’s utterly dumbfounding decision to grant McCarthy this broader platform to spread her nonsense, I can only say…

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

 
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