The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for July, 2010

Spiritualists’ National Union Kills ‘Psychic News’

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 27, 2010

Okay, I simply couldn’t resist passing along this little bit of humor.  Apparently, one of the longest running paranormal periodicals, the “Psychic News”, is going to come to an end soon, much to the lamentation of many of its readers…

Tragedy: SNU kills ‘Psychic News’

Tomorrow – Saturday, 17 July – the Spiritualists’ National Union will announce at its annual general meeting in Blackpool that it has decided to kill off the weekly newspaper Psychic News.

The editor and staff have received notice that the next issue, dated 24 July 2010, will be the last that will be published.

In making that decision, the SNU has allowed the guillotine to fall unceremoniously and with little warning on a publication that has been the global voice of Spiritualism, its phenomena and philosophy for the past 78 years.

I discussed this possible outcome on 10 July, but at that time I was hopeful that, behind the scenes, the supporters of Psychic News within the SNU would win the day, or at least buy enough time to allow others in the Spiritualist movement to offer support and come up with a solution.

That has not happened. For whatever reasons, those who have made this decision have viewed the dire financial situation that has faced Psychic News as a problem for the SNU only. They have, therefore, decided to cut their losses.

What is not understandable is why these dedicated Spiritualists have not taken account of the importance of Psychic News as an independent voice of Spiritualism, and sought help from other organisations within the movement to ensure that it continues to publish. …

So this begs the obvious question: Why is this a suprise at all?  Why didn’t they see this coming? :)

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

Skeptical Teacher to be Interviewed on Darkness Radio

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 25, 2010

**Update: It seems that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the interviewed may have to be postponed.  Stay tuned!

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As a follow up to my earlier post regarding Dave Schrader’s talk on paranormal investigation at Convergence/Skepchicon in Minneapolis, I wanted to let everyone know that Dave will be interviewing me for Darkness Radio in the next few days.  I’m not exactly sure when the interview will be airing (probably within the next week or so), but if you watch this blog I’ll be letting you know.

The nature of the interview will basically be me & Dave talking in general about the paranormal, ghost-hunting, and the role that science & skepticism play (or, as is often the case, don’t play) in such investigations.  Here are some points that I plan to bring up in my discussion with Dave…

1. What is a “ghost”?  Has anyone ever come up with any kind of quantifiable definition for such an entity?

2. What is the proposed mechanism by which ghosts interact with the physical world around us?  How can they be measured?  Why would ghosts interact in this manner with the world?

3. How can we distinguish a potentially legitimate “ghost signal” from other phenomena?

4. Do any ghost hunters conduct double blind experiments?

5. Are the investigations by some believing ghost hunters replicable by skeptics?

6. Is there any way to “catch” a ghost, or its essence (ectoplasm, etc), for study?

7. Why is it that much of ghost hunting seems to be arguments from ignorance (i.e., ghost-of-the-gaps reasoning, I call it)?

I’ll also tell some stories from my own experiences ghost hunting, going all the way back to my high school years, as well as why I’ve come to the conclusions that I’ve never seen any evidence for a ghost or anything supernatural or paranormal during my life.

I anticipate that this will be a fun discussion, and I eagerly look forward to it.  If you have suggestions for topics to discuss and/or questions for me to ask Dave Schrader, please let me know.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How I Use a Card Trick to Teach About Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2010

Every year when I start a new class, I always take some time on the first day to discuss science & the scientific method. But I have my own fun & unorthodox spin on it: I first tell the “Dragon in My Garage” story, and then I go on to describe the scientific method in a very fun manner.  In short, I do a card trick…

The way I start is to ask my students if they’ve ever been to a family reunion or other gathering where someone present is doing card or magic tricks (suppose this person is “Old Uncle Harry”).  And say Uncle Harry does a particularly impressive card trick (some kind of “mind reading” or mentalism trick); what is likely to be the first response from the children present?  If you said “Do it again!” that’s a pretty good guess, but second to that I’d say the next most common response is “How did you do that?”

“How did you do that?” – contained within this question is a lot of information, folks.  First, it shows that even little kids can think critically & skeptically, because if Uncle Harry responds “It’s magic, kid (wink, wink)” even children know something’s fishy.  Second, it shows that kids want to know some kind of plausible, naturalistic solution to the supposedly “magical” phenomenon they just witnessed.

Then I play off this curiosity & natural skepticism: I ask my students what a particularly curious kid might do to figure out Uncle Harry’s trick (because really good magicians don’t reveal their tricks too easily).  Invariably, they respond that perhaps the first step would be to do some research on card tricks by looking up info on the Internet or going to the public library.  Then, once they think they’ve got an idea of the process, what’s the next step?  “Experimentation” comes the reply – in other words, the student might try to replicate just how the trick is performed by getting their own deck of cards and trying to repeat the phenomenon they observed earlier.  Depending upon their relative success or failure at replicating the trick, they may have to go through this process multiple times before coming to a meaningful conclusion as to how the trick is done.

And that, as I tell my students, is the scientific method in action.  Scientists are going through the very same investigative process as are those kids attempting to figure out Uncle Harry’s magic card trick.  They are attempting to figure out the “tricks” that nature is playing upon us all the time, and to do so they must study, research, hypothesize, and experiment in order to form a coherent & naturalistic explanation for the phenomena we observe (sorry, no “magic” allowed ;) )

And then I ask the question I’ve been waiting to ask for the entire class: “So, having said all of that, do you want to see a trick?”  The answer is always yes, and it’s always a satisfying and enjoyable trick.  This very trick I performed at the “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop at The Amazing Meeting 8 for about 150-200 people, most of whom were teachers, and it was a real hit.  In fact, it was such a hit that I decided to write up the solution for it, and I share it with you here… enjoy… :)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, magic tricks, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Teacher Workshop – “Skepticism in the Classroom” – at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2010

**Update: If you’re interested in getting hold of some of the useful materials presented at the “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop, then check out this link to the Critical Thinking Education Group.

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In my last blog post concerning my time at The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, I wanted to take some time to outline the workshop called “Skepticism in the Classroom” which I helped to organize and run.  Led by Michael Blanford, the JREF’s new point-man on education, the presenters in the workshop consisted of myself, Daniel Loxton, Barbara Drescher, with a brief bit of material presented on behalf of Kylie Sturgess. I was pleased to see that our workshop was very well attended, with about 150-200 people present (most of whom were teachers!)  We started off with some comments by Michael, where he introduced all of us…

Read the rest of this entry »

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

The “Invisible Gorilla” and How Seeing is NOT Always Believing

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2010

We’ve all heard the oft-repeated phrase: “Seeing is believing” – as if our human senses (specifically that of sight) are somehow, magically infallible.  Of course, most people don’t want to admit just how fallible our senses can be – or, more to the point, most people aren’t willing to admit just how fallible their own senses can be (they’re more likely to admit that other people’s senses aren’t up to snuff).

As anyone who has experience with court cases & law enforcement can tell you, the least reliable kind of evidence is typically that of eyewitness testimony, because we tend to place an over-reliance upon our senses in place of other, more rational & consistent forms of evidence.  Not only that, but our tendency to over-emphasize the trustworthiness of our senses can lead us into fooling ourselves that we’re seeing ghosts, alien spacecraft, the Virgin Mary in a grill cheese sandwich, and similar deceptions.

The fallibility of the human sense of sight and the associated phenomenon of inattentional blindness is beautifully outlined in this recent Livescience.com article…

‘Invisible Gorilla’ Test Shows How Little We Notice

Charles Q. Choi
LiveScience Contributor
livescience.com
Tue Jul 13, 10:00 am ET

A dumbfounding study roughly a decade ago that many now find hard to believe revealed that if people are asked to focus on a video of other people passing basketballs, about half of watchers missed a person in a gorilla suit walking in and out of the scene thumping its chest.

Now research delving further into this effect shows that people who know that such a surprising event is likely to occur are no better at noticing other unforeseen events – and may even be worse at noticing them – than others who aren’t expecting the unexpected.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

“Mysteries of the Explained” Psychic Fair in Chicago

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2010

As a way of having some fun while raising money for a good skeptical cause – the Women Thinking Free Foundation – we’re going to be holding a “fake” psychic fair at a bar in Chicago on Friday, July 23rd (I put fake in quotes because, as near as I can tell, all psychics are fakes)…

Help support the Women Thinking Free Foundation by joining us for a night of psychic fun, including a pseudoworkshop teaching you how to impress your drunk friends by doing your own bad psychic readings!

Friday, July 23, the Women Thinking Free Foundation will introduce you to . . . your future! (And show you how we do it.)

Ask us any question you want! And we’ll answer it for you! We’ll have tarot cards! Palm readings! A crystal* ball! And dowsing pendulums (courtesy of SurlyRamics)!

You can even attend our pseudoworkshop “5 minute Google: How to impress your drunk ass friends with psychic readings”. Then you can hold your own psychic fair!

We’ll even have raffles (we already know that you’re a winner!) And a silent auction. And chairs! And an open bar! And a skeptical psychic face off!

You can even compete to prove your own psychic powers are the best in Chicago!

Be there!

Friday, July 23
8:00pm
Galway Arms
2442 N Clark
Chicago, Il

The event cost covers all of the mystical mental augmenting refreshments you can handle, including all tap beer as well as wine! We will have our own room on the second floor complete with bartender.

The Women Thinking Free Foundation will be showcasing a set of brand new Tarot cards signed but the latest and greatest skeptics who appeared at the James Randi Education Foundation’s The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 held recently in Las Vegas. Names on the Cards include the cast of the venerable Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast (Steven Novella, Jay Novella, Evan Bernstein, Bob Novella, Rebecca Watson), world renown psychic investigator Joe Nickell, the UK’s science writer and libel reform advocate Simon Singh, Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, Skeptic society founder Michael Shermer, Banachek: the world’s leading mentalist and television magic producer, the “honest liar” Jamey Ian Swiss, JREF president DJ Grothe, Australia’s own Richard Saunders, James The Amaz!ng Randi and many more!

Find out more information at: http://psychicfair.womenthinkingfree.org/
Purchase tickets at: http://shop.womenthinkingfree.org/Mysteries-of-the-Totally-Explained-Psychic-Fair-Psychic.htm

Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the door.

Discounted parking is available from the Children’s Memorial outpatient facility at 2515 N. Clark Street.

Posted in humor, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Feminism & Skepticism Panel at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2010

While at The Amazing Meeting 8 this past weekend in Las Vegas, one thing I did was attend the workshop on “Feminism & Skepticism” which was hosted by my pals over at Skepchick. Included in the discussion were Rebecca Watson, Carrie Iwan, Maria Walters, Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy), and Debbie Goddard. Included in the discussion were a variety of topics specific to women (most of which I honestly had never thought of, seeing as how I’m male), along with some fun related to what Rebecca called “Angry Vagina Craft” – LOLZ :)

In any case, I decided to attend partly because I am a board member on the Women Thinking Free Foundation, and also because I’m curious to see skeptical things from a female perspective.  I transcribed what I could of the discussion, and I include it below for your edification…

Feminist Skepticism Workshop @ TAM8

  1. What Skepticism is and isn’t
  2. Feminist topics that skeptics can love
  3. Angry vagina craft time
  4. Skeptical topics that feminists can love
  5. Group talk (w/ ray gun of verbosity)

Feminism: (dictionary definition) the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of sexual equality.  This is the kind of definition that Rebecca and many other women go by.

Myths:

  1. Feminists are man-hating assholes
  2. Feminism is incompatible with skepticism
  3. Feminism is obsolete

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Physics of Board Breaking & Karate at The Amazing Meeting 8

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 14, 2010

This past weekend I attended The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas, along with about 1300 other skeptics & supporters of science.  And, like last year, there was a talent show in which I participated.  Last year I performed the bed of nails demonstration and explained the physics involved, but this year I decided to do the hitting, so I gave another skeptical physics lesson – this time on karate & board breaking.  And, thanks to my colleague Dean over at the Blog of Phyz, I have some slow-motion footage of my grand finale break…

It might surprise many people to know that pretty much anyone can break boards with little training – in order to do more challenging breaks like that pictured here takes more training, though the basic principles are still the same. But in the end there is *nothing* mystical involved – no chi or “life energy” or any of that rot. With proper body mechanics and good use of mass (twisting the body), velocity (dropping to convert GPE into KE), and a low time of impact (solid supports that won’t give) one can make lots of kindling out of boards. Oh yeah, and the spacers are a nice trick as well :) For a fuller explanation, see my previous blog post on the subject.

And, just to put my money where my mouth is, I have to brag about one more thing: while at TAM8, I taught skeptic & paranormal investigator Joe Nickell how to break boards.  Joe had never before performed a board break, and – to my knowledge – has no formal martial arts training, yet I was able to get him successfully breaking boards with just 5 minutes of instruction.  Here he is successfully performing a palm-heel strike on a board I’m holding…

So, there you have it: if Joe Nickell, at his age & with no formal training, can employ the basic physics & body mechanics required to break a board, then pretty much anyone can do it… no special chi or paranormal powers required :)

Posted in physics denial/woo, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

Third Independent Inquiry into “Climategate” Vindicates the Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 14, 2010

As I’ve posted in the past, the so-called “Climategate” which supposedly threw the science behind global warming into doubt seems to have been little more than hot air, an apparent propaganda campaign by climate science deniers to sow confusion on the whole issue.

Well, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, there have been a series of three (count ‘em – THREE) independent investigations into whether or not the scientific data behind the climate science consensus are sound.  The conclusions of the first two investigations (here and here) were clear: there was nothing in the extensive investigation & analysis of the data to show the scientific community’s conclusions on human-influenced global warming to be in doubt.  In short, the science (and related conclusions) are trustworthy.

Now here’s the money shot: the verdict from the third independent investigation is in, and it is consistent with the first two – the climate science data are sound. In a moment of excellent media win, I was quite pleased to see that this news made headlines in a major media outlet over at MSNBC…

An independent report into the leak of hundreds of e-mails from one of the world’s leading climate research centers on Wednesday largely vindicated the scientists involved, saying they acted honestly and that their research was reliable. …

… The panel’s report said the e-mails contained nothing to overturn the case for man-made global warming put forward by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We did not find any evidence of behavior that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC,” it stated.

This points out to me the power of the scientific endeavor – while some deniers of climate science will still try to make some kind of hay out of these reports (probably by harping upon the less-than-glamorous language & behavior exhibited in the leaked emails, which shows that scientific researchers are, like the rest of us, human – duh), it should be apparent to any objective observer that the science behind the consensus on human-influenced global warming is now vindicated.  Far from attempting to engage in a cover up, the scientists & institutions involved readily submitted to the necessary investigations – as they should when big questions & controversies come up – and I think as a result the science is stronger than before.

But that won’t stop those with an ideological bone to pick with the climate science community – for them, such as with other science deniers (like creationists in regards to their mind-boggling denial of evolution), they will likely downplay or ignore the findings of these independent investigations in an attempt to cloud the science further.  Some may even go so far as to imply a vast conspiracy in a lame attempt to rationalize away the results.

On the plus side, as I said, the results of these investigations should put some spine in the backs of researchers within the climate science community.  In addition, they should carefully heed the lessons of the “Climategate” debacle in order to, in the future, protect themselves from those who would attempt to tear them down.

Posted in global warming denial, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

XKCD Pwns Homeopathy!

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 13, 2010

In a brief, but hilarious, bit of skeptical humor, the famous online comic XKCD chimes in on the pseudoscientific topic of homeopathy :)

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

 
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