The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for May, 2011

“Teach the Controversy” Argument Used by Climate Change Deniers

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 28, 2011

You may know that one of the most common arguments used by creationists as they attempt to push their fundamentalist religious beliefs in the public schools is the “teach the controversy” strategy.  In this argument, creationists claim there is some kind of scientific “controversy” about the theory of evolution, as if scientists are in disagreement about the theory when in fact quite the opposite is true – there is broad acceptance of evolution among biologists.  This style of argumentation is widely recognized for what it is: an attempt to delegitimize science in the public schools because of a rigidly held ideology.

Now it seems that recently there is another kind of anti-scientific ideology rearing its ugly head which is trying to use the same kind of “teach the controversy” approach: climate change denial.  And the use of “teach the controversy” in regards to climate change and global warming has now gone beyond mere rhetoric, because the climate change denialists are now pushing this tactic in public schools in the United States…

US school board teaches ‘the controversy’ on global warming

A school board in California has attracted headlines over the past few days for voting unanimously that a new environmental science class starting this autumn must include “multiple perspectives” on the science of global warming.

Four board members of the Los Alamitos Unified School District voted to list the class – which was taught to 15,000 public school students across California in 2008-09 (pdf of class description) – as a “controversial topic”, meaning the teacher must explain to the board annually how opposing views are to be taught.

Echoing similar efforts at school boards in other US states, the move has been criticised by some commentators. One parent of a pupil at Los Alamitos Unified School told the Orange County Register: “There is consensus in the field that we have global warming happening, it is getting warmer and it is related to what we are doing to the planet. That is not in dispute in the scientific community. It is in dispute in the political community. This is a science class. Teach science.” …

The writer of this article sat down to interview the architect of this anti-scientific move, Dr. Jeffrey Barke, and the conversation is very revealing.  I’ll include key excerpts below (the interviewer’s questions & comments are bolded and Dr. Barke’s follow) and follow them up with my comments.

What’s been the feedback since this news was first reported?

The feedback has been primarily from left-wing blogs and zealots who believe that to suggest there is a point of view to be discussed that is different to the dogma of global warming is, in and of itself, controversial. Our perspective simply was we had asked the teachers to present a balanced perspective to the children as it relates to a new course that we brought forward called Advanced Placement in Environmental Science. And this class is one that is most commonly offered at the universities, but some high schools offer it as well.
So, after reviewing the syllabus, we found a lot of information about global warming and man-caused effects on the environment etc. Our worry was the kids would be presented simply with one perspective and we wanted to make sure they had a balanced view so we simply updated a policy we already have on the books regarding controversial issues. It simply asks that when a class is taught containing potentially controversial issues that we ask the teacher not to get the kids to believe in a particular perspective or point of view, but simply that the teachers present both sides of the equation in a fair-and-balanced manner.

Ah, the “teach all views” argument.  The problem is that, in science, not all views are equal.  Science is not a process driven by simply expressing your point of view and then arguing over it, like in a high school debate.  In science, the most accepted views are those which are supported by experimental and observational evidence which can be explained by well-understood theories.  The opinion of the scientist (or in this case, the school board member) doesn’t really matter.  For example, read more here about how the climate science community is strongly in support of the consensus that global warming is happening and is heavily influenced by human activity.  When so many climate science experts are in such strong agreement, then it is a pretty fair bet the science is settled and there is no “alternate viewpoint” with any validity to present.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, global warming denial | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Real Reason Why the Rapture Didn’t Happen: “Macho Man” Randy Savage!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 23, 2011

Rather than waste any more electrons on seriously analyzing the most recent doomsday Rapture silliness and how the followers of that particular religious cult are attempting to rationalize away the spectacular failure of Judgement Day to manifest itself, I would like to offer up this humorous portrayal of why it is the Rapture did not come to pass this last Saturday… :)

Posted in doomsday, humor, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The May 21st “Rapture”: When Crazy Religion Meets Crazy Numerology

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 19, 2011

I know that I’ve blogged a couple of times already (here and here) about the supposed impending “Rapture” coming up this coming Saturday, May 21st.  But while I’ve written there about how loony of an idea this whole Christ-is-returning-so-it’s-the-end-of-the-world is – mostly because there are so many failed doomsday predictions that were supposedly ironclad before they failed epically – one thing I haven’t yet done is to actually seriously analyze the claims made by the would-be prophet of this weekend’s Armageddon festivities, the good Rev. Harold Camping.

It’s Judgement Day!!!

My oh my, that Jesus is one fine lookin’ dude!  I wonder who does his hair? :)

In the following Livescience.com article, the rationale (such as it is) for Camping’s predictions is outlined.  Let’s take a look at the argument and then take it seriously just long enough to show the logical flaws within it, right before we piss ourselves with laughter…

End Times Math: The Equation That Predicts May 21 Judgment Day

The May 21 Judgment Day meme is the brainchild of an 89-year-old radio evangelist named Harold Camping. Using a mathematical system of his own creation to interpret obscure prophecies in the Bible, Camping originally predicted that Sept. 6, 1994 would be Judgment Day, or the day of the “Rapture” when Christian believers will ascend to heaven, leaving the rest of humanity to its deservedly dreary fate.

Hold on, right there.   Camping has made such a prediction before?  Yes, he did – he predicted the world would end almost 17 years ago… and the world is still here.  Also note this key phrase: “… Using a mathematical system of his own creation…” – what this basically means is that Camping has created a system of numerology which would allow him to manipulate the numbers of his calculation in such a fashion as to give him whatever result he wants.  In other words, using such a system, folks like Camping can’t fail… that is, until they actually fail, which is what happened to Camping on Sept. 7, 1994 when we were all still here.  But that’s the beauty of using slipshod and ad hoc mathematical systems such as Camping’s:  since they are essentially made up out of whole cloth with the express purpose of “never failing”, a missed prediction can easily be discounted when “corrections” to the calculations are magically uncovered after the fact.  This, like the thinking driving conspiracy theorizing, shows that such a system is clearly unfalsifiable: it is always right, even when it’s wrong.

The article continues:

… Here’s the gist of Camping’s calculation: He believes Christ was crucified on April 1, 33 A.D., exactly 722,500 days before May 21, 2011. That number, 722,500, is the square of 5 x 10 x 17. In Camping’s numerological system, 5 represents atonement, 10 means completeness, and seventeen means heaven. “Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said on his Oakland-based talk show, Family Radio, last year. “It’s the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you’re completely saved.”

Okay, once again note that these numbers only make sense “in Camping’s numerological system” – which he made up.  What is the rationale which justifies Camping’s numerological system as being superior to that of other failed doomsday prophets (such as Nostradamus and those claiming the Mayan calendar portends The End on Dec. 21, 2012)?  And why does Camping settle on 722,500 days?  Why not 722,500 seconds, minutes, months, years, or centuries?  What is so special about days in Camping’s system which distinguishes them from any other unit of temporal measurement?  And, assuming there is some kind of reason (whatever that could be) for using days as units, why is it that you have to multiply and subsequently square 5, 10, and 17?  Why not simply add them up?  Or just multiply without squaring?  Or add them up and then square the result?  Why not raise the product of these numbers to the third power?  What is the rationale behind this calculation which explains why it could be considered trustworthy – other than, of course, the fact that it just happens to give a “prediction” of the world’s end, conveniently, during Camping’s lifetime?

And last, but not least, here’s a good question to ponder: if the Rapture is supposed to come on Saturday, May 21st, on which side of the International Date Line is that going to happen?  Will the Rapture follow the rotation of the Earth, seeing as how some parts of the planet will still be on Friday night time while other portions will be on early Saturday morning time?  Or is it supposed to just kind of go “poof!” all at once?  But if it does that, then it can’t all happen on the same day – and why doesn’t Camping take this into account in his calculations?  You can see the problem here.

Now that I’ve taken this stupidity seriously for a bit,  it is now time to treat it as the utter silliness that it most certainly is: I’m off to go get ready for the After Rapture Party & Looting ;)

Posted in doomsday, mathematics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

JREF Provides Educator Grants for 2011 – Apply Now!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 17, 2011

As a way of putting the ‘E’ in JREF, I wanted to pass along to you some info I received from my skeptical education colleague, Michael Blanford, that the James Randi Educational Foundation has opened up the application process for its 2011 Educator Grants.  These are grants provided to professional educators (elementary, middle, high school or college teachers as well as less formal educators) in the hopes that they will be able to develop and hone their teaching skills to help promote critical thinking.  Read on for more information…

Apply for 2011 JREF Educator Grants

The JREF awards grants to educators who are inspiring a new generation of critical thinkers. These grants help pay for developing and improving programs that teach critical thinking and scientific skepticism in the classroom and beyond.

We award grants to educators of children grades K-12 for projects that promote critical thinking through the examination of the paranormal and pseudoscience. Grants are not limited to traditional classroom teachers and those from museums, camps, community centers, and other informal educational institutions are encouraged to apply.

We’re accepting proposals for 2011 grants until July 1st, so please apply or share this information with a deserving educator you know. Here are the 2011 grant application forms and additional details.

So if you are an educator or know someone who is who might benefit from one of these grants, please pass the info along to them and encourage them to apply! :)

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

The Conceit of How We View the World

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 13, 2011

Just to toot my own horn a tad, I wanted to share with you all that I’m a guest blogger over at the JREF Swift Blog.  And I recently contributed a post of which I am quite proud concerning some of the real basics of science & our general philosophy of the world, so I wanted to share it with you all here.  Enjoy! :)

The Conceit of How We View the World

A student of mine was recently making up some lab work, and the lab was a simple analysis of the variables that affected the motion of a pendulum bob as it oscillated back and forth. In this inquiry-based lab, the student was to gather data on how the pendulum bob mass, the amplitude of oscillation, and the length of the pendulum affected the amount of time it took the pendulum to oscillate. They were to use these data to come to conclusions about how an oscillating pendulum behaved.

As usual many students come to this lab work with a certain pre-conceived notion (what I like to call “intellectual baggage”) of how they think the pendulum is supposed to behave – most think that all three variables (mass, amplitude, and length) will affect the pendulum period (time for a complete oscillation) pretty much equally. Imagine their surprise when they end up discovering, assuming they are true to the process and not “tweaking” the data, that the mass and amplitude have relatively little or no effect on the pendulum motion – a fact that might also surprise the reader of this article!

In fact, when the student making up the lab got to that point in the work, he asked me a question I’ve heard numerous times before in such inquiry-based lab work: “Mr. Lowry, this seems weird – is that what I should be getting for an answer?”

When I get that question I like to answer, summoning up as much a sagely wisdom-filled voice as I can muster, “What you think the answer should be is irrelevant. What is relevant is what the data tell you.”

This anecdote of mine is particularly illustrative, I think, concerning an issue that is at the heart of pretty much all science as well as much philosophy, especially regarding philosophical discussions regarding the nature of reality, existence of God, etc. It focuses in upon a key assumption that, in my opinion, is a fatal flaw in much reasoning concerning these (and other) topics: too many people assume that, usually based upon some kind of belief system, the universe should function or behave as we would have it and – even worse – appeals to this sort of reasoning should, without the need for any other analysis or argumentation, settle whatever matter there is in question. The idea that the universe is somehow limited in the same manner as our own thinking is downright laughable to me as a scientist, teacher, skeptic, and armchair philosopher. …

Read the rest of the blog post here

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

Armageddon on May 21st? Meh…

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 12, 2011

[**Update (5-19-11): If you want to take, just for a moment, a serious look at the flaws in the calculation which produced this prediction, see my latest entry on the topic.]

I just wanted to provide an update on the fundamentalist religious loonies who keep on preaching the message that the Rapture will take place on Saturday, May 21st.  According to these folks, the true followers of Jesus Christ will be magically whisked away to be with him in Heaven, leaving the rest of us poor shlubs to tough it out here on Earth.

And, apparently, these folks are serious… very, very serious: they are attempting to warn as many people as possible about the impending end-of-the-world…

Armageddon Weekend? It’s the end of the world as we know it (and they don’t feel fine)

One of my favorite places in Washington, D.C., is the National Mall. When you stand in the center with the U.S. Capitol on one end, the Washington Monument on the other and the Smithsonian museums flanking the sides, you can’t help but feel you’re having the quintessential D.C. experience.

Because the mall is so popular, it has become a type of free-speech zone. People often stand around hoisting signs with various political or religious messages and pass out literature.

Today’s Washington Post has a story about a group of fundamentalist Christians who are working the mall with an aggressive pamphlet campaign. These folks, who follow a radio evangelist named Harold Camping, are convinced that the world will end on May 21 at 6 p.m. Not surprisingly, they feel compelled to warn us all.

Call me a skeptic. A few years ago, I read an interesting book titled End-Time Visions : The Road to Armageddon(authored by an evangelical Christian) that chronicled a long list of failed end-of-the-world predictions. Somewhere around the house, I have a flier handed to me by a fellow who was convinced that the world was going to end in October of 1988. When it didn’t happen, the man who made the prediction, Edgar Whisenaut, insisted that his calculations had been off by one year, and it was definitely going to happen in 1989. … [emphasis mine]

Now I have to say – well, meh.  I mean, come on folks, people like these have been claiming the end-of-the-world is coming ever since there’s been religious belief.  And, as the bolded part above notes, there is one all important fact that every last one of these predictions have in common: they have all been dead, flat wrong.  Period.

Here’s my bottom line prediction: don’t worry about the Rapture on May 21st, because it isn’t going to happen.  I further predict that the true believers in this fairy tale will somehow attempt to rationalize away the glaring fact that they look like complete idiots because of how obviously wrong they were.  And, for the hat trick, I predict that the next time some nutty group comes up with a religious doomsday scenario based in some esoteric reading of the Bible or another holy book, there will be far too many people willing to gobble up the nonsense.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be enjoying a really big laugh on May 22nd :)

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

JREF Takes Political Action Against Homeopathic Quackery

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 8, 2011

I found out the James Randi Educational Foundation has started a campaign to get people to put political pressure on the United States Congress in an attempt to get them to reign in medical loopholes pertaining to homeopathy.  If you care at all about science-based medicine, then I encourage you to get involved in this campaign…

Close The Quack Medicine Loophole For Homeopathic Remedies

OVERVIEW

So-called homeopathic remedies may be the only products given a free pass to say they’re intended to treat disease, without any proof at all that they work. In fact, most homeopathic products are nothing but plain sugar pills with no active ingredients. Manufacturers take millions of dollars a year from unsuspecting customers who often think they’re buying real medicine.

Drugs have to be tested for safety before they can be sold. Nutritional supplements have to carry disclaimers, telling consumers that their claims have not been evaluated by the FDA. Homeopathy is exempt from these requirements because of a law passed more than 70 years ago. It’s time to close this loophole and make manufactures of these quack medications play by the same rules as everyone else.

The facts about homeopathic remedies:

  • No Ingredients: Homeopathic remedies are so extremely dilute that most do not contain a single atom of their claimed active ingredient. The most popular homeopathic remedy, oscillococcinum, is based on a dilution of one part duck liver to 10^400 parts of water. 10^400 is the number 1 with 400 zeroes after it. To make such a dilution, you’d have to mix a single molecule of duck liver with more matter than exists in the entire known universe.
  • No Testing: Homeopathic remedies are exempted from regulations requiring drugs to prove they’re effective and accurately labeled with respect to dosage and potency. What’s more, homeopathic remedies were never even tested by their inventors to make sure they work. Homeopathic remedies are invented by a process homeopaths call “proving”: they give a substance to a healthy person, observe the symptoms it causes, and then take it on faith that homeopathic doses of the same substance will cure those symptoms. For example, coffee causes sleeplessness—that’s all homeopaths need to know in order to prescribe homeopathically-diluted coffee as sleeping pills, called “coffea cruda.” According to homeopathic principles, there’s no need to test whether it actually helps anyone sleep.
  • No Facts: Major pharmacy chains like CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid sell useless homeopathic products right alongside real medicine, with no warning to consumers. Manufacturers and retailers profit by denying customers the facts they need to make up their minds. U.S. law exempts homeopathy from certain rules that govern drugs and nutritional supplements, so manufacturers can market homeopathic remedies for the treatment of illnesses despite the fact that reputable studies show homeopathy to work no better than dummy pills made of plain sugar.
Click here to sign the letter and send a message to the U.S. Congress on this issue.  Please act now and take some time to pass this along to your friends & family.

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

Creationists Try New Tactic in Texas

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 4, 2011

Well, you have to give creationists credit for one thing: they are incredibly persistent.  Despite the fact that in Texas the creationists were defeated at the election polls, and they were also defeated on the question of textbook selection, they still keep trying to come up with ways to minimize and/or erase good science education in Texas public schools.

Here’s the latest twist: when the creationists fail to get what they call “supplemental materials” (read: creationist literature & books) into the curriculum via textbooks and whatnot, they try exactly the same thing using a different medium – the Internet.

The National Center for Science Education has more details – read on:

Creationist materials submitted in Texas

Materials “laced with creationist arguments” have been submitted for approval by the Texas state board of education, charged the Texas Freedom Network and the National Center for Science Education in a joint press release issued on April 25, 2011. As the press release explains, “The Texas Education Agency has made available on its website science instructional materials — all of them web-based — that publishers and other vendors have proposed for high school biology classes across the state. Materials approved by the state board in July could be in Texas science classrooms for nearly a decade. An initial review by NCSE and TFN has revealed that materials from at least one vendor, … International Databases Inc., promote anti-evolution arguments made by proponents of intelligent design/creationism.” …

Folks, be on the lookout.  As I said, these creationists are persistent, and if you let your guard down for one second, they’ll take advantage of your schools at either the local or state level.

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Nick Nelson Fails IIG Test to Produce “Vortex Energy”

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 3, 2011

As I outlined mere days ago, the master spinner of all things having to do with so-called “vortex energy” – the notable Nick Nelson – had finally agreed to be tested by the Independent Investigation Group from Los Angeles.  Mr. Nelson traveled to IIG’s headquarters – claiming that he could bring his “vortex powers” with him from the Montana Vortex (a location that I investigated in 2006 and found to be hilariously full of woo & nonsense).  And after he got to IIG, he allowed himself to be tested according to the protocols that both he & the IIG team agreed to ahead of time.

The result: Nick Nelson failed.  Badly.  And he admitted it.

And it’s all on video:

Nick Nelson talks with the IIG’s Jim Underdown before the test begins.

In addition, Mark Edward – a member of the IIG team that tested Nick Nelson – put together a very nice & detailed blog on the whole experience at Skepticblog.  Here’s a couple of noteworthy excerpts…

… Hours of set-up, conferences and phone calls finally paid off with even more long hours of watching a grown man move magnets around the floor, stand stock still while swinging a pendulum over his hand and listening to albeit some great anecdotes about how his world has so many times “blinked” when he has experienced what he calls the “vortex phenomena.’

Unfortunately when the rules of science are applied, in this case careful measurements (really careful: using engineering calipers) of photographs; first before the creation of the fabled vortex using eight foot high wooden poles, then photos snapped and immediately developed, nothing showed up other than what would be expected from discrepancies consistent with human eye variation that were averaged mathematically and compared. …

… The best part for me as Lead Investigator was watching Nick get flustered and finally state to all present the he “…felt like a fool” when nothing happened. What did he expect?

It’s a freaking optical Illusion!

Well said, Mark.  While I must admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude at Nick Nelson’s failure (I had, after all, figured out five years ago, on an impromptu investigation of my own, how his tricks at the Montana Vortex worked), I also feel just a wee bit sad for Mr. Nelson.  I get the sense that he probably believes what he says, and that he has believed it for so long that he is going to have a helluva time trying to rationalize away the stone cold fact that his “vortex energy” claims simply don’t work.

Perhaps Mr. Nelson and others like him who have their paranormal claims tested by folks like the IIG and fail at those claims should consider the wise words of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick:

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

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

Putting “Birther” Stupidity Into Context: President Obama Gets Osama Bin Laden

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 2, 2011

This image, which seems to be getting spread around the Internet, puts the entire stupidity of the conspiracy-mongering “birther” movement into context…

‘Nuff said :)

Posted in conspiracy theories, humor, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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