The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for January, 2011

“The Skeptical Teacher” Makes List of Top Paranormal Skeptic Blogs

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 31, 2011

Time for me to toot my own horn a bit :)

Recently, my blog was listed atop the list of Top 25 Paranormal Skeptic Blogs from the website.  Actually, another reason why I wanted to share this information with you is because the list contains a large number of very useful links to other skeptical blogs.  Here it is…

Top 25 Paranormal Skeptic Blogs

Do you believe? Whether you’ve had a firsthand experience with the paranormal or seldom believe the ghost stories you heard as a kid, these are the blogs to turn to when you want a major myth or paranormal experience debunked. Some paranormal historians have made a career out of this and now blog on the topic to prevent folks from being spooked by events and reports that can be explained with pure logic…

Click here to access the entire list of blogs

Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Bill O’Reilly’s “Tides = God” Argument is Demolished by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2011

As a humorous follow-up to my recent post called God, Gravity, and the Anti-Science Lunacy of Bill O’Reilly, I just wanted to share a hilarious clip from The Colbert Report with you.  In it, Colbert does a marvelous job of, in his satirical way, calling Bill O’Reilly to the carpet on his god-of-the-gaps argument when he says:

Now, like all great theologies, Bill’s can be boiled down to one sentence: “There must be a God, because I don’t know how things work!”

In addition, Stephen Colbert is surprised when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson drops by for a visit and explains why the tides actually work :)

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

Darwin Day & Evolution Weekend 2011 Approaches

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 26, 2011

Every year around February, skeptics & science boosters of all stripes join together to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin (February 12th) in a series of events outlining evolution & science in general.  I wanted to share with you a couple of good Internet outlets which try to help people connect & organize for these events.  So take some time to look for an event near you, or consider creating your own…

The Clergy Letter Project & Evolution Weekend — Despite what a lot of creationists claim, there are a lot of people out there who both believe in God and accept the science of evolution.  These people are organizing into a series of events during the weekend closest to Darwin’s birthday, and many of the events involve speeches and sermons at religious houses of worship.

The International Darwin Day Foundation — For those of a slightly more secular bent, events commemorating Darwin’s birthday and contributions to science  can also be found here.  In fact, the folks at the IDDF have put together a neat little video outlining why we should all celebrate Darwin Day…

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

Bogus Power Balance Bracelets Get PWNed

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 22, 2011

Have you heard about the “Power Balance” bracelet?  It is a supposedly amazing device which, when worn, apparently confers to the wearer greater strength, balance, and flexibility!  Amazing!!!  Just watch this video “proving” the wonders of the Power Balance technology!

The Power Balance technology is supposed to work by…

… harnessing naturally occurring frequencies by programing them into a Mylar hologram.

That’s a quote directly from the Power Balance video above, and it’s complete and utter garbage. Firstly, as a physics professor, I can tell you that the goober in the video peddling this nonsense (and his bosses manufacturing and marketing it) don’t know the first damn thing about “naturally occurring frequencies” or “holograms” – if they did they wouldn’t be putting them into the same sentence.

Second, it is quite easy to definitively show that this whole Power Balance scheme is just a big, fat scam.  Just take a look at how skeptic Richard Saunders and his crew at the SkepticZone demonstrate how the scam works…

Third, it’s not just skeptics like me and Richard Saunders pointing out the scam, but it seems the law in the United States is catching up with the Power Balance charlatans as well.  Just look at this article at the Podblack Cat blog :)

Power Balance Bracelet Facing USA Class-Action Lawsuit

It’s official – if you’re in the USA and brought a Power Balance bracelet, you can sign up at

And be a part of the nationwide class-action lawsuit against the makers of the Power Balance bracelet.

Wow, that’s a triple whammy.  Spread the word far and wide about this scam, because these charlatans are actively marketing & selling this bogus product to far too many gullible customers.  Folks, you might as well burn your money for all the good it’ll do you.  In short, I think it is appropriate to deliver the following message to the Power Balance company…

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

Media Fail & Lotteries

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 22, 2011

This past December 17th, I saw a headline in my local paper which stunned me with the level of irresponsibility it displayed.  Back then the Powerball lottery was getting a lot of attention because the jackpot was up to a potential $25 million, and when such numbers start getting thrown around, people’s critical thinking skills go right out the window.  And it doesn’t help when the media joins the chorus of unreason…

First, there is the fallacy that when the jackpots are high, more people play because they “feel lucky that they’re going to win the BIG one!”  Of course, when more people play the lottery it actually decreases the odds that any specific person will win, yet this doesn’t stop the gullible from scarfing up the lottery tickets.

Then, there’s this horrible headline:

Wanna win Powerball? Try these numbers

For 13 years, a red ball with the number “20″ printed on it has been whirling around with its numerical counterparts in an enclosed Powerball kettle waiting to potentially make someone a millionaire. That No. 20 red ball has made its way out of the kettle 49 times, the most of any of the numbered balls. No. 20 also is the second most common number on the five white balls that are selected in each Powerball drawing as well, behind 26 and ahead of 32, 16 and 42, a Daily Herald analysis of the numbers shows. …

This headline and the leading paragraphs of the article play directly into the gambler’s fallacy of “lucky numbers” – in reality there are no more or less “lucky” numbers.  In fact, the past performance of the lottery is in no way, shape, or form a predictor of the next random drawing of numbers.  The article cited above actually does attempt to be at least marginally responsible by interviewing a mathematician, though their discussion is buried in the article…

… While some gamblers may see that information as an edge, mathematicians and oddsmakers say it’s all just luck.

“The numbers and the pingpong balls have no memory,” said Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University. “So whether a given number has come up once or twice or 10 times or never, it is no more or less likely to come up today than any other number.” …

Exactly.  Unfortunately, the “news” article quickly followed up the math professor’s advice with some anecdotes from believers in these supposed lucky numbers.  So how did the Powerball drawing in question go?  Here were the results of the Dec. 18th Powerball drawing:

04-11-19-33-43 and 14 as the Powerball

And remember, the so-called “lucky numbers” referenced in the article were 16, 20, 26, 32, 42, and 20 for the Powerball.  Not a single one of these numbers appeared in the drawing – NOT… ONE. So much for “lucky numbers.”
So how should one win the lottery?  Simple: by not playing it at all.  To sum up the best way of dealing with this foolishness, I like this comment which appeared in response to the article:
You have much better chances of most things than of winning the lottery–getting struck by lightning, dying in a plane or car crash, etc. The odds are astronomically low of winning the big prize. Invest that money instead, and you’d end up with far more in the long-term, even with the low interest rates.
As for the “news” paper which so irresponsibly reported this article, I can only say one thing…

Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Ben Goldacre at Nerdstock on How Science Trumps Pseudoscience

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 18, 2011

I just received this from a friend, and I had to share it.  Skeptic Dr. Ben Goldacre expresses, with humor and verve, why it is that science is, as he puts it, “8 million metric f**k-tons more interesting than any flaky made-up facts reported by some flaky, New Age, pill-peddling quack!” :)

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

The Shifting of the Zodiac & Why Astrology Fails

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 15, 2011

For the last couple of days I’ve been getting questions from some of my colleagues about the “shifting of the zodiac” and today one playfully asked me if they were still a Cancer.  In fact, I’ve seen news headlines stating “Your horoscope could quite possibly be wrong” – this is humorous because I’ve always known horoscopes are wrong & useless :)

Some astrologers and other pseudoscientific goofballs are apparently making a lot of hay out of this (including some doomsayers who have bought into the 2012 hysteria), but I’m here to tell you that this is the effect of nothing more than simple physics.  What is going on is just the effect of the rotational axis of the Earth twisting around in a cone – this is a phenomenon called axial precession. Picture a spinning toy top on the ground – does it stay upright and keep spinning forever?  No, it eventually starts to wobble.  In much the same way, the Earth’s rotational axis wobbles, and it takes about 26,000 years for this cycle to complete.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

For example, many of us have heard of the North Star, also known as Polaris, as the star in the sky right above our north (geographic) pole.  That is, if you were standing at the geographic north pole of the Earth, Polaris would be directly overhead all the time with the rest of the sky appearing to wheel about it.  Well, believe it or not, Polaris hasn’t always been the North Star; in fact, about 13,000 years ago (halfway through our precessional cycle) our North Star was Vega!

Thus, if our North Star can be shifted over time due to precessional movement, then so too can other features of our night sky, such as the zodiac.  The zodiac is a collection of constellations which inhabit a band of sky called the ecliptic – the ecliptic is that region wherein we see the Sun, Moon, and all the planets move from our perspective on Earth, and it basically outlines the plane of our solar system.  The following image explains clearly the arrangement of the zodiac symbols along the ecliptic…

A band around the sky about 18° wide, centered on the ecliptic, in which the Sun, Moon, and planets move. The band is divided into 12 signs of the zodiac, each 30° long, that were named by the ancient Greeks after the constellations that used to occupy these positions; “zodiac” means “circle of animals,” and only Libra is inanimate. Over the past 2,000 years, precession has moved the constellations eastward by over 30° so that they no longer coincide with the old signs. Image Source

So what’s really going on is that, due to the long slow precessional cycle of the Earth, our old star maps which laid down the zodiac we’ve all come to recognize are now getting out of date.  That’s it, nothing more, nothing less.  So relax, it’s not the harbinger of cosmic disaster, it’s just simple physics.  And, I might add, where superstition & astrology have failed, science & astronomy have triumphed – what astrologer predicted the shifting of the zodiac? That is, without consulting the actual scientists first… ;)

If you’d like to see an excellent blog post on this same subject, I highly recommend this entry by Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy Blog.

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

The Shooting of Congresswoman Giffords & Skepticism When It’s Needed Most

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 12, 2011

I’ve waited a few days before making this post, partly because I wanted to give myself some time to reflect and partly because I wanted to see if cooler & more rational heads would prevail.  Of course, from the title, you can see that I’m making some remarks concerning the horrific shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona this past Saturday.  As we all know by now, the shooter – Jared Loughner – not only shot Giffords point-blank in the head, severely wounding her, but others were killed (including a 9 year-old girl & a federal judge) and many more were wounded.

Events moved fast on Saturday, and – in some cases – the media moved even faster, sometimes to the point of even getting major parts of the story wrong in a misguided effort to “get it first.”  For example, you can see how some outlets, such as National Public Radio, mistakenly reported that Rep. Giffords had died in the attack. But that isn’t the most unnerving thing…

Like many, I was shocked & dismayed when I heard the news, and I immediately went to the Internet to read more… and what I read shocked & dismayed me even more.  Within an hour of the reporting of the event, I saw all manner of accusations being slung around.  This pointing of fingers had a decidedly political slant on it, with some liberals blaming the Tea Party rhetoric and “loose gun laws” for the actions of the shooter, while some conservatives insisted that the killer “must have been an illegal immigrant” or that it “had to be a set up to make Republicans look bad.”  Not only that, but I saw that conspiracy theories were being spun faster than you could say “9/11 coverup”.

I decided to go to one of my favorite skeptical online forums – the JREF Forum – to discuss the situation, and I was sadly disappointed to find that the behavior among many of my so-called skeptical colleagues was no better than that which I saw elsewhere online.  Take a look at the JREF thread on the topic, and you’ll see what I mean.

One of the things which seemed lacking during the chaos of my Saturday afternoon, much of which was spent in online discourse & surfing the Web for news of the incident, was a willingness to step back, apply some basic critical thinking, and wait for reliable information from the proper authorities to come to light.  It was, and still is in many ways, a time of great fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and – unfortunately – in such times all too many of us will succumb to extraordinary arguments from ignorance in an attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.  I lost my cool a bit and said some pretty rough things, some of which I share here:

… Especially in this politically charged environment, the last thing we need to go doing right now is jumping to conclusions, pointing fingers at “the other side”, and basically engaging in rampant & irresponsible confirmation bias. From what I’ve seen on this thread so far, there are way too many so-called skeptics displaying blatant irrationality in this regard – you should be better than that. …

In addition to other criticisms, some people mentioned a very dubious argument in response.  They stated something to the effect that “when a politician gets shot, what reason for it is there besides politics?”  Of course, facts can be stubborn things, and I responded with a very important fact: that when President Reagan was shot in 1981 by John Hinckley, Jr., Hinckley’s motivation wasn’t political; instead, he was attempting to assassinate the President as a way of gaining the attention of actress Jodie Foster, with whom he was disturbingly obsessed.  Therefore, it is well within the realm of possibility that what motivated Jared Loughner’s actions is entirely non-political.

What this shows is, in my view, the fact that there is nothing inherently special about those who label themselves as “skeptics”.  We are irrational & emotional creatures just like the rest of humanity, and in times of great stress we also feel the sometimes overwhelming pressure to dismiss our better, more rational natures in a desperate attempt to grab onto something, anything which seems like it might provide us with some measure of comfort.  But, as we skeptics are wont to say, simply because something feels right doesn’t mean it’s real.  And thus, simply because there are those who view the world through an overly-political lens doesn’t mean that reality conforms to that view.

And now, as I write these words, it seems that we still don’t have any idea exactly why it is that Jared Loughner went on a rampage, spilling blood and scaring a nation.  The suspect himself isn’t talking, early indications from the investigation point to Loughner having some kind of mental instability.  Unfortunately, without more information, we may never really know why he did what he did.

In closing, I want to share with you some very important words from Jon Stewart of The Daily Show regarding this tragedy and how people are reacting to it. These are the most mature, rational, and – yes – skeptical words I’ve heard uttered on the matter, and I hope that we all take them to heart:

Posted in politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

God, Gravity, and the Anti-Science Lunacy of Bill O’Reilly

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 7, 2011

Oh man.  As a high school & college physics professor, I have to say that I’ve heard some pretty bad arguments regarding physics in my day, but I think this one is worth a mention: Fox News celebrity Bill O’Reilly displays his gross ignorance of basic physics by… well, by ignoring gravity.

Bill O’Reilly on Science: You Can’t Explain the Tides

Apparently, Bill O’Reilly has never heard of the moon. In a debate Tuesday with Dave Silverman, head of the American Atheist group behind this, the Fox host tried to prove the existence of God by citing the unknowable mysteries of the tides. “I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion,” he told Silverman. “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.” …

Yup, he’s ignoring gravity and replacing it with God.  Just watch the video for yourself (the relevant part begins at the 1:40 mark)…

Wow… just, wow.  Apprently, Mr. O’Reilly has never studied the universal law of gravitation (which is standard in any high school physics class) which explains quite clearly – without any mention of God, Zeus, Thor, or Santa Claus – where tidal forces come from.  Essentially, tides in Earth’s oceans exist because one side of our planet is closer to the Moon (or the Sun, both exert tides) than the other.  Thus, the side closer to the Moon (Sun) is pulled slightly more than the side further away from the Moon, resulting in the tidal bulges which lead to the rising and falling of the oceans.  This article on Wikipedia (ever heard of Google, Mr. O’Reilly?) and graphic can help illustrate the point I’m making:

Graphic of tidal forces; the gravity field is generated by a body to the right. The top picture shows the gravitational forces; the bottom shows their residual once the field of the sphere is subtracted; this is the tidal force. Source: Wikipedia

Essentially, O’Reilly is making a stunningly stupid argument from ignorance (in this case known as the god-of-the-gaps) by saying that just because he doesn’t know how the tides work, then that must mean that his version of God is real.  Of course, it might be interesting to ask Mr. O’Reilly’s feelings on the matter after he’s had a lesson in basic physics – would he then conclude that the tides are evidence against the existence of God?  That precarious position is precisely why serious theologians & philosophers do not engage in arguing from ignorance.

Such ham-fisted arguments are also why natural science separated itself from supernatural causes back in the 19th century as natural philosophy transitioned into what we now call modern science.  It seems that O’Reilly is still stuck in the 1800s.

In closing, despite my atheism, if Mr. O’Reilly or anyone wants to believe in God, that’s fine by me I suppose, just so long as they don’t piss all over science in the process.

Posted in physics denial/woo, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Religious in the United States… Aren’t So Religious, After All

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 4, 2011

To conclude my marathon posting of religious matters (see the first two posts here and here), I wanted to share with you something very revealing about religion in the United States.  By now, I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that the U.S. is the most overtly religious country in all of the industrialized, Western nations.  You hear this claim repeated long & loud, on both the right and left; it is a constant drumbeat which goes on and on… except, as I have long suspected, it may not be true at all.

In a recent article on the Slate website, a detailed analysis of various polls & surveys on this question is broken down, and it makes a key distinction: what is it that people say they do/believe versus what is people’s actual behavior/beliefs?  The results are very revealing, and seem to indicate that the U.S. probably isn’t as overtly religious as previously thought…

Walking Santa, Talking Christ

Why do Americans claim to be more religious than they are?

By Shankar VedantamPosted Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010, at 5:13 PM ET

Two in five Americans say they regularly attend religious services. Upward of 90 percent of all Americans believe in God, pollsters report, and more than 70 percent have absolutely no doubt that God exists. The patron saint of Christmas, Americans insist, is the emaciated hero on the Cross, not the obese fellow in the overstuffed costume.

There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: Americans are significantly more religious than the citizens of other industrialized nations.

Except they are not.

Beyond the polls, social scientists have conducted more rigorous analyses of religious behavior. Rather than ask people how often they attend church, the better studies measure what people actually do. The results are surprising. Americans are hardly more religious than people living in other industrialized countries. Yet they consistently—and more or less uniquely—want others to believe they are more religious than they really are. …

The bottom line is that church attendance in the U.S. may be drastically over-reported, by as much as twice the actual attendance rate!  This basically means that while about 40% of people in the United States claim they attend church weekly, only about 20% actually do so…

… Hadaway and his colleagues compared actual attendance counts with church members’ reports about their attendance in 18 Catholic dioceses across the country and Protestants in a rural Ohio county.* They found that actual “church attendance rates for Protestants and Catholics are approximately one half” of what people reported.

A few years later, another study estimated how often Americans attended church by asking them to minutely document how they spent their time on Sundays. Without revealing that they were interested in religious practices, researchers Stanley Presser and Linda Stinson asked questions along these lines: “I would like to ask you about the things you did yesterday from midnight Saturday to midnight last night. Let’s start with midnight Saturday. What were you doing? What time did you finish? Where were you? What did you do next?”

This neutral interviewing method produced far fewer professions of church attendance. Compared to the “time-use” technique, Presser and Stinson found that nearly 50 percent more people claimed they attended services when asked the type of question that pollsters ask: “Did you attend religious services in the last week?”

In a more recent study, Hadaway estimated that if the number of Americans who told Gallup pollsters that they attended church in the last week were accurate, about 118 million Americans would be at houses of worship each week. By calculating the number of congregations (including non-Christian congregations) and their average attendance, Hadaway estimated that in reality about 21 percent of Americans attended religious services weekly—exactly half the number who told pollsters they did. …

So, to the confirmation of many a non-believer (such as myself), it seems that there are a LOT of people out there who – for some reason – want to have people believe they are more religious than they really are, despite their actual beliefs (or non-belief).  This seems to indicate that the level of religiosity in the U.S. which has been so widely reported in the past is likely a convenient fiction, which activists of all stripes like to use to whip people up into a frenzy regarding issues of faith & politics.

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


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