The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for October, 2010

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 31, 2010

Every Halloween, when I’m not having fun at a party or handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, I like to take some time to listen to the 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” by Orson Welles. I do this for two reasons: 1) it’s a great story – full of suspense & the appropriate amount of spookiness for the season, and 2) it’s a wonderful lesson in skepticism.  In fact, it is perhaps the first, best example of a widespread media hoax (however intentional or unintentional it may have been) with ensuing mass hysteria that we have in the United States, because so many people tuned in and took the story of the Martian invasion of Earth literally.  Invaders from Mars?  It was no wonder there was a panic!

Having said that, I’d like to share with you two things:  the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and an excellent article by Joe Nickell on the various truths & myths concerning this event. Enjoy! :)

War of the Worlds by Orson Welles

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Time Traveler Caught on Film? More Like “Whackjob in a Youtube Video”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 30, 2010

Oh my… some days something crosses my email inbox, and while a part of me says “this is just too silly, let it go” another part of me insists that this is simply something which must be dealt with in the most appropriate manner: by mocking it for the laughing stock that it is :)

Case in point: there is a video circulating on the Interwebs of a filmmaker, George Clarke, claiming – seriously, believe it or not – that he’s seen old footage from a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie which “proves” the existence of a time traveler!  His evidence consists of his claim that he’s seen what appears to him to be a mobile phone in the hands of a woman in the film.  I’m not kidding, you just have to watch this stupidity in order to believe it…

At the 0:40 point in the video, he makes a blatant argument from ignorance: “Nobody can give me an explanation for what you’re about to see.” Using this sloppy reasoning, he goes on to state later in the video that the only possible explanation has to be that she’s a time traveler holding a modern day cellphone (presumably one which has been upgraded by The Doctor ;) )

I think the best response I’ve seen to this silliness came from a post on the JREF Forum regarding this claim via an appeal to Occam’s Razor. I share that post with you here…

So which is more likely? That someone figured out how to travel back in time and once doing that, figured our how to travel through space roughly 886,973,634,480 miles (based on the Galaxy’s speed of approx 552 Km/s and the travel of 82 years and not counting leap year days or current time vs time that the shot was filmed)? And mind you, that’s not counting in the orbital speed of the Sun in the Galaxy (220 Km/s) over that time.

-or-

That someone of advanced age (and possibly diminished hearing) is wearing and holding onto a hearing assist device of the era?

I know which one I’m putting my money on.

So, because MR. Clarke states that “it’s unexplainable” then he’s going to explain it by appealing to time travel?  Personally, I think that leprechauns are a much more valid explanation, because I simply cannot explain it any other way!  ‘Nuff said.

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Is There a Need for a National Center for Science Education on Climate Science?

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 30, 2010

The answer is YES! That’s because when you compare the tactics employed by climate-change deniers to those employed by creationists, they are practically identical.  Eugenie Scott, the director of the NCSE, elaborates in more detail…

Please consider supporting the NCSE and their important work. They are a valuable resource, one with whom I have consulted (and helped others consult) on numerous occasions.  Their experience in matters such as these is invaluable, so if you have any questions and/or concerns, contact them.

Posted in creationism, education, global warming denial, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

XKCD Uses “The Economic Argument” Against the Paranormal

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 29, 2010

I just ran across this today, and I think it’s a hilarious way to make the point about why it is that so much pseudoscientific & paranormal flummery is basically useless.  Note: make sure to go to the XKCD website and actually put your mouse over the cartoon to get a special, secret message :)

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

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 28, 2010

I want to share with you all a couple of Halloween-related lessons I give to my students every year.  That’s because this time of year is the perfect time to inject some explicit critical thinking & skepticism of all things spooky that go “bump” in the night.  I also tie it all in to scientific inquiry…

The first lesson I give my students is that I show them James Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics” video from NOVA. Though it was released in 1993, it is still one of the most well-done videos on the topic, and it is the perfect length & tone for a high school or college class.  Below is a link to Youtube where you can access the entire episode (50-60 minutes long), and I would also like to share with you the notesheet that I have my students fill in as they’re watching the video – Secrets of the Psychics Notesheet

Over the next few days, I will share with you part 2 of my Halloween lesson.  I’m certain you’ll enjoy it, so stay tuned :)

Addendum: In addition, I share some good Halloween & skeptically-themed weblinks with my students on the course website.  They are the Snopes.com page on Halloween urban legends and the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Halloween – I highly recommend sharing these with your friends, family, and students.

Posted in astrology, education, ghosts & paranormal, magic tricks, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Oops! Correction to Mayan Calendar Shows that 2012 Might NOT Be “The End of the World”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 22, 2010

Of course, the notion that the end of the Mayan “Long count” calendar predicts the end of the world is downright silly – does anyone get worried when December 31st on our modern calendars approaches?  But just to show how idiotic this whole notion really is, it seems that some archaeological research has – pardon the pun – dug up a correction to the Mayan calendar.  The result is that the big date, December 21st, 2012 according to various doomsayers & New Age gurus, is probably not the right date…

End of the Earth Postponed

It’s a good news/bad news situation for believers in the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. The good news is that the Mayan “Long Count” calendar may not end on Dec. 21, 2012 (and, by extension, the world may not end along with it). The bad news for prophecy believers? If the calendar doesn’t end in December 2012, no one knows when it actually will – or if it has already.

A new critique, published as a chapter in the new textbook “Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World” (Oxbow Books, 2010), argues that the accepted conversions of dates from Mayan to the modern calendar may be off by as much as 50 or 100 years. That would throw the supposed and overhyped 2012 apocalypse off by decades and cast into doubt the dates of historical Mayan events. (The doomsday worries are based on the fact that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, much as our year ends on Dec. 31.) …

This is hilarious!  Various folks have been jumping on the doomsday bandwagon ever since this 2012 nonsense became part of the social consciousness, claiming alternatively that it will be the end of the world or some kind of revelation of cosmic wisdom or other similar goofiness.  Charlatans have made a LOT of money selling books and all manner of claptrap to the gullible who are swallowing this stuff.  But even if they were right about the supposed apocalypse coming to destroy/enlighten us, they screwed up the date!

Of course, this is nothing new.  Historically, when those who make these kind of bold predictions are clearly shown to be wrong (and they’re ALWAYS wrong, because we’re still here), they simply tweak their estimates & calculations and make another set of predictions that the credulous folks want to believe in.  And so it goes… I wonder what the next end of the world fad is going to be?  Whatever it is, I’m going to make a prediction which I’m certain will come true: they’ll be dead wrong, again :)

Posted in astrology, doomsday | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Creationist Lawsuit to Force Universities to Accept Their Curriculum Ends at the Supreme Court

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 19, 2010

Here is some excellent news, folks!  In a twist of reality that was almost weirder than fiction, back in 2005 a group called The Association of Christian Schools International filed a lawsuit against the university system of California because they claimed that the university system violated the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college.  In other words, the Christian school coursework was pushing creationism as science (and not teaching evolution), and the university system said that was inadequate preparation and refused to accept the “science” credits of those students.

Aside: one can easily see the slippery slope here.  If creationists were to get away with this kind of malarkey, then how long until New Age gurus demand that their quantum flapdoodle nonsense be accepted as “physics” credits for universities?

Well, it all came to the end of the line recently for the creationists in this case, because a few days ago the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, essentially locking in lower court decisions against the creationists :)

Read more about it from the National Center for Science Education…

The end of ACSI v. Stearns

On October 12, 2010, the Supreme Court declined (PDF, p. 12) to review Association of Christian Schools International et al. v. Roman Stearns et al., thus bringing the case to a definitive end. The case, originally filed in federal court in Los Angeles on August 25, 2005, centered on the University of California system’s policies and statements relevant to evaluating the qualifications of applicants for admission. The plaintiffs — the Association of Christian Schools International, the Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, California, and a handful of students at the school — charged that the university system violated the constitutional rights of applicants from Christian schools whose high school coursework is deemed inadequate preparation for college.

Creationism was prominent in the case. The plaintiffs objected to the university system’s policy of rejecting high school biology courses that use creationist textbooks as “inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community.” Michael Behe, a proponent of “intelligent design” creationism, served as a scientific expert witness for the plaintiffs, although his defense of the creationist biology textbooks was unavailing. Wendell Bird, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, is a former employee of the Institute for Creation Research; he defended Louisiana’s 1981 “equal time” act all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled to violate the Establishment Clause in the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987).

Relying in part on the view of defendants’ expert witnesses Donald Kennedy and Francisco J. Ayala (a Supporter of NCSE) that the creationist textbooks were not appropriate for use in a college preparatory biology course, the trial judge in ACSI v. Stearns granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on August 8, 2008. The plaintiffs appealed the decision, but in a January 12, 2010, ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, which is now reaffirmed by the Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case. Documents from the case are available on NCSE’s website, in a special section devoted to ACSI v. Stearns.

Expect to hear the creationists moan on and on about “activist judges” and “religious discrimination” and similar goofiness.  While I relish this admittedly important victory in the courts, I am not going to fool myself that these folks will simply go away quietly – they’ll be back, with another frivolous lawsuit or some other angle to attempt to tear down good science education.  So keep your eyes & ears open…

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

The Question of Whether Skeptics Should “Accommodate or Confront” Religion is a False Dichotomy

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2010

Last weekend the Council for Secular Humanism held their 30th anniversary conference in Los Angeles, and it was attended by many of the greatest minds in the humanist & skeptical movement.  One of the headlining events of the conference was a panel on the topic of religion – titled “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” – and it has subsequently generated a great deal of discussion within the skeptical community.

The panel included such illuminaries as Jennifer Michael Hecht, PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Chris Mooney, and Victor Stenger.  Essentially, the entire discussion – which can be can be watched on U-Stream (part 1 and part 2) – revolved around one question:

How should secular humanists respond to science and religion? If we champion science, must we oppose faith? How best to approach flashpoints like evolution education?

There have been a couple of interesting things I’ve read and/or listened to on this question…

PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog - Confrontation all the way

Point of Inquiry’s episode - New Atheism or Accommodation?

… and I’ve either read online discussions about this or had personal conversations about it with other skeptics.  Thus, since it is now a focal point for discussion, I’d like to include my thoughts on this whole issue, because I think that in large part the skeptical/humanist/non-religious communities are missing the forest through the trees…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in religion, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

Pro-Science Resolution for the Illinois Federation of Teachers?

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 15, 2010

**Update: I’ve received word that the IFT resolution was accepted this past weekend!  I will post the full text of the amended resolution once I receive it.

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

I teach high school & college science in Illinois, and I’m also a member of both teaching unions here – the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association. I’m often proud to be a member of these organizations, though at times my patience is worn rather thin with them.  Specifically, I know some people who are trying very hard to get a resolution passed at the IFT conference this weekend concerning evolution & creationism.

Sadly, in the past the IFT (and, to my knowledge, the IEA as well) has taken no official position on the teaching of science in public schools.  Thus, stupid things happen like creationists are allowed to show up with a booth at IFT/IEA conferences (would they allow, say, Holocaust deniers to push their “alternate view” of history?)

The purpose of the resolution is to get the IFT to finally take a strong, pro-science stand against the pseudoscience & religiously-driven malarkey of creationism which has been pushed for far too long.  It is undoubtedly true that there are IFT members who are creationists, but that isn’t a reason to avoid addressing this issue – the scientific community has spoken, the federal courts have spoken, and now it is time for the IFT and other teachers’ unions to speak & stand up strongly for sound science education in our public schools.

If you are a member of IFT and are a delegate to this weekend’s conference, or you know someone who is, please encourage them to stand up  and speak in support of this resolution when it is presented.  For more information, you make contact Professor Gary Fritz at gnfritz@eiu.edu

The language of the resolution follows:

UPI House of Delegates 2009

Keep non-scientific ideas out of the science curriculum

submitted by

GARY FRITZ, EIU-UPI

WHEREAS, science is a systematic method for investigating natural phenomena through experimentation, observation, and measurement leading to falsifiable explanations that are open to continuous testing; and

WHEREAS, science proceeds on the basis of methodological naturalism and assumes observed phenomena of the universe are real, nature is consistent and understandable, and nature is explainable in terms of laws and theories; and

WHEREAS, a scientific theory is consistent with evidence from multiple and independent sources of evidence, explains many different facts, and allows predictions of subsequent discoveries; and

WHEREAS, the theory of evolution satisfies these criteria fully,  is the foundation of biological science, is supported by a coherent body of integrated evidence from other disciplines in science, and is consistent with theories from other scientific disciplines including anthropology, geology, physics, astronomy, and chemistry; and

WHEREAS, there have been attempts in some states to include non-scientific ideas, such as creationism and intelligent design, in the science curriculum as  alternatives to scientific explanations of nature, particularly as an alternative to evolutionary theory; and

WHEREAS, arguments grounded in religious or philosophical considerations outside the realm of science have been invoked in attempts to subvert the validity or teaching of evolutionary theory.  These attempts are also attacks on all scientific inquiry and, therefore, also attacks on the validity of using reason and experimentation to understand the universe; and

WHEREAS, legislation that incorporates unscientific ideas into the science curriculum, or limits, or prohibits the teaching of any scientific theory, negatively impacts our ability to make informed decisions; and

WHEREAS, it is the responsibility of the AFT to preserve the integrity of science in the classroom;

Therefore be it resolved, that the AFT affirm, through a positional statement on its website, the validity of science as a methodology for understanding the nature of the universe, and affirm the validity and foundational importance of organic evolution to science as a whole and biology, specifically; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the AFT affirm, through a positional statement on its website, that ideas such as creationism and intelligent design are not with  in the realm of science and, therefore, are inappropriate for inclusion in the science curriculum; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the AFT call upon its members to assist those engaged in overseeing science education policy to understand the nature of science, the content of contemporary evolutionary theory, and the inappropriateness of  including non-science subjects (e.g.,  intelligent design and creationism) in our science curriculum; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the AFT communicate to the local, regional, and national public media, to educational authorities, and to appropriate legislators its opposition to the inclusion of non-science approaches and subjects (e.g., creationism and intelligent design) into the science education curricula of our public school system; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the AFT members also promote these concerns and help resolve these issues in their home communities among educators, parents, school boards, and students in appropriate public forums.

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Good News: Large Majorities Support Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 11, 2010

I just wanted to share a bit of good news which came across my computer screen recently: it seems that, in a reversal from 10 years ago, large majorities of people in the United States (from across multiple demographics) support government-funded embryonic stem cell research.  In my opinion, progress on this particular branch of scientific research has been slow, but steadily public attitudes have been improving with science winning out over the more shrill, erroneous and Luddite-like voices out there who would like to compare it to abortion.  It just goes to show what can happen when the scientific community & its public supporters sticks to their guns – the fight may be long, but we can win :)

Most Americans Back Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Poll

Americans overwhelmingly support embryonic stem cell research, and that backing stretches across a broad range of demographic groups, including Republicans, Catholics and born-again Christians, according to a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll.

Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of the adults surveyed believe that scientists should be allowed to use embryonic stem cells left over from in vitro fertilization procedures to search for potential treatments or ways to prevent diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other conditions.

Only 12 percent oppose using stem cells for biomedical research, numbers that mirror those from a similar poll conducted in 2005.

“There is now overwhelming public support for using embryonic stem cells in biomedical research,” said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll, a service of Harris Interactive. “Even among Catholics and born-again Christians, relatively few people believe that stem cell research should be forbidden because it is unethical or immoral.” …

**Note: A more detailed breakdown of the poll results can be found here.

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

 
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