The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for December, 2011

Resolve to Fight Deadly Anti-Vaccine Propaganda: Start with the NVIC’s New Years Ad

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 28, 2011

Just yesterday I learned that the National Vaccine Information Center, a deceptive title for one of the worst anti-vaccine propaganda groups out there, has a new ad playing in New York City’s Times Square.  Worse yet, this ad is going to be playing on the megatron screen there during the New Year’s Eve celebration on Dec. 31st!  Folks, this is bad, not just because of the content of the ad, which plays on the “pro-choice” mentality that parents are better equipped to make medical decisions than doctors and also directs viewers to the NVIC’s website, but because of the timing: due to the fact that millions (perhaps even billions) of people watch the Times Square festivities on television, this ad could easily get worldwide exposure.

The NVIC and other anti-vax groups would rather this kid get whooping cough or another deadly disease than take a life-saving vaccine.

We need to fight back, and we’ve already started.  Elyse Anders has already written a post at Skepchick on this, and I’ve also blown the whistle via the JREF Swift blog.  But more needs to be done, so here’s what you can do:

1. Direct people to reliable and trustworthy outlets for vaccine information – a quick and handy one is the Women Thinking Free Foundation’s Hug Me I’m Vaccinated FAQ.

2. Sign the new petition demanding that ABC Full Circle pull the NVIC Times Square ad.

3. Join our Twitter campaign: Tweet @DisneyChannelPR using #ABCsSickNYE. You can copy/paste one of these or write your own:

I resolve to end deadly anti-vaccine propaganda. @DisneyChannelPR Pull NVIC’s anti-vax Times Square ad  #ABCsSickNYE

Whooping cough is on the rise thanks to things like NVIC advertising on @DisneyChannelPR screens in NYC. #ABCsSickNYE

4. Go to the NVIC YouTube video link and “dislike” the video.

5. Share this information on Facebook and other social media outlets.

6. Contact Gerald Griffin at ABC Full Circle by emailing or calling 212.456.7389 to voice your displeasure with them playing the NVIC ad.

And this campaign needs to be mounted from the inside as well as the outside: it seems we in the skeptical and pro-science community need media connections within the companies which rent out space for these high-profile ads.  We need to inform and educate these companies about the part they are playing in spreading this dangerous anti-vaccination misinformation, and we need to raise such a fuss that they’ll simply refuse the NVIC the next time they come wanting to rent the space.

Of course, none of this will work without you, because we are going up against an organization that has literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on anti-vaccine propaganda.  So please take some time to get involved and take action now – it really is a matter of life or death.

Posted in environmental hysteria, media woo, medical woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Skeptical Teacher Interview on Token Skeptic

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 27, 2011

Based upon my recent blog post concerning using mythology as a critical thinking tool for children, I was interviewed a few days ago by my skeptical colleague Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast.  In the interview we discussed a variety of topics related to this issue, with a touch of fun thrown in for good measure.  Check it out! :)

Episode Ninety-Six — On Critical Thinking And Santa (Again) — Interview with Matt Lowry

Posted by Podblack on Sunday, December 25, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 27:59 — 25.6MB) | Embed

Recently Matt Lowry wrote a blog-post on Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids – just as Tim Minchin wrote a piece for the New Statesman about his own efforts to balance a pro-naturalistic worldview and living a life unencumbered by superstition, while raising kids and encouraging a love of fiction.

Matt Lowry is best known as the Skeptical Teacher - a high school physics teacher, plus a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, contributor to the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Group and awesome presenter for kids’ shows at Dragon*Con.

For this interview we talk about all of these things (and whether Santa might actually be a Time Lord with a sleigh made out of quantum-something-or-other).

During the discussion, we also talk about Barbara Drescher’s blog-post at the JREF Swift: An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even JesusHere’s another great link to the Physics of Santa!

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Merry Newtonmass!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 23, 2011

It’s almost December 25th, and while some people are celebrating certain holidays (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti!), one thing I like to do is take a little time to recognize one of the greatest contributors to modern science: Sir Isaac Newton.  Newton was born on December 25th, 1642 (according to the old-style Julian calendar)…

I totally stole this image from Skeptico :)

Isaac Newton was an English physicist and mathematician.  The son of a yeoman, he was raised by his grandmother.  He was educated at Cambridge University (1661-1665), where he discovered the work of Rene Descartes.  His experiments passing sunlight through a prism led to the discovery of the heterogeneous, corpuscular nature of white light and laid the foundation of physical optics.  He built the first reflecting telescope in 1668 and became a professor of mathematics at Cambridge in 1669.  He worked out the fundamentals of calculus, though his work went unpublished for more than 30 years.  His most famous publication, The Principia Mathematica (1687), describes his works on the laws of motion (now named for Newton), orbital dynamics, tidal theory, and the theory of universal gravitation, and is regarded as the seminal work of modern science.  He was elected president of the Royal Society of London in 1703 and became the first scientist ever to be knighted in 1705.  During his career he engaged in heated arguments with several of his colleagues, including Robert Hooke (with whom he argued over authorship of the inverse-square relation of gravity) and Gottfried Leibniz (over the authorship of calculus).

Of course, while Newton was certainly no saint (he had a reputation for being kind of a nasty guy, especially to his academic opponents, and he also dabbled in alchemy, Biblical numerology, divination, the occult and many other things we’d consider quite woo-ish today), we can see from his accomplishments listed above just why he is regarded as one of the greatest scientists of all time, and it is for those contributions to humanity that we remember him.

So this December 25th, take some time to raise a glass, and perhaps admire a falling apple, to toast Isaac Newton and his legacy.  Cheers! :)

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

More Twisted Thinking from Shroud of Turin Proponents

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 22, 2011

I shouldn’t be surprised to see this particular headline at this time of the year: The Shroud of Turin Wasn’t Faked, Italian Experts Say.  It’s just too easy, I assume, for the media to take a story like this and run with it during the Christmas season.  Going beyond the headline, I’d like to analyze a couple of specifics from the folks who are behind this latest “research” on the Shroud.

First, they claim – falsely – that it would have been impossible to fake the Shroud…

… Experts at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development have concluded in a report that the famed purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ could not have been faked. … [emphasis added]

Which is an interesting claim, based upon the fact that in 2009 researcher Luigi Garlaschelli published his methods for replicating the Shroud using only techniques which would have been available in the 13th and 14th centuries (dates to which all available evidence points as the time of origin of the Shroud).  Here’s what he came up with…

Replications of the Shroud of Turin — So much for the claim that it cannot be replicated (oops)

But the worst part of the analysis by the Shroud proponents comes from the next part of the ABC article:

… According to the Vatican Insider, a project by La Stampa newspaper that closely follows the Catholic church, the experts’ report says, “The double image (front and back) of a scourged and crucified man, barely visible on the linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin has many physical and chemical characteristics that are so particular that the staining which is identical in all its facets, would be impossible to obtain today in a laboratory … This inability to repeat (and therefore falsify) the image on the Shroud makes it impossible to formulate a reliable hypothesis on how the impression was made.” … [emphasis added]

Note the last line there.  It is essentially one big argument from ignorance – that’s what this entire “scientific” endeavor basically boils down to: we don’t know whether or not the Shroud is real, so therefore it really was the burial cloth of Jesus Christ!

So because you don’t know, you know???

Seriously?  That’s the argument?  Using such sloppy logic I could just as easily argue that the Shroud was created by invisible leprechauns, but somehow I don’t think the Catholic Church would go with that explanation.  And that’s the silly thing about arguments from ignorance: once you use such thinking as an acceptable method of argumentation, just about any kind of crazy idea (without any evidence to support it whatsoever) becomes fair game.

If this is the best the Shroud proponents can do, color me unimpressed.

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

Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, every year I do a quick physics lesson on Santa Claus, with the result being a devastation of the Santa myth (see my previous post “How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus for more on this :) )  Yeah, I admit it – I’m evil.

Of course, that lesson is more geared towards students who are in their late teenage years, because by then they already know that Santa isn’t real.  So, while the humor involved in my analysis is quite dark (Santa dies pretty spectacularly in the end), there isn’t going to be any real psychological trauma done to my students.

However, this year it got something of a debate going among some of my students.  Some wondered about the appropriateness of sharing such a lesson with young children, who might still harbor a sincere belief in Santa Claus.  Personally, I expressed the view that if I were to try to get my own children (if I had any) to think more critically about the Santa myth, I certainly wouldn’t do it using the same method in my physics classes where he ends up bursting into flames and squashed to jelly by atrociously large g-forces!

So, the question was put to me: “How would you deal with the whole Santa Claus thing if you had kids?”  It is a worthwhile question, because I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to be simply blindly believing in Santa just because all the other kids are doing it.  Chances are, when the kids are of the appropriate age (I’d think 5 or 6 would be about right), I would ask them some leading questions about the nature of Santa.

Specifically, if I were at the mall with one of my children and there were a worker there dressed as Santa meeting with kids (you know the usual scene), I would encourage them to observe Santa closely…

Image source

I would encourage them to note carefully details such as how big is Santa, exactly what is he wearing, and so on.  In order to help them with their observations, I would probably take photos for later analysis.  Then I would make sure to tell them to pay careful attention to Santa’s voice as they sit on his lap to discuss what Santa and kids discuss (I might also record video of the event for this reason).

After that, I would take my children to another mall (because, let’s face it, most of us do our shopping at more than one place, right?).  I would make sure to find the Santa at that second mall, and have my kid go through the entire process again.  And so on.

Then, at a later time, I would take some time to sit down and look over the evidence with my children, leading them through it and noting inconsistencies between the multiple Santas they’ve observed.  This would be especially interesting if we saw more than one in the same night! (“So Dad, how did Santa get from one mall to the other so quickly?” ;) )

The bottom line here is that I wouldn’t want to come right out and tell my kids that Santa is a myth (though a fun and jolly one at that).  Rather, I would use the entire experience as a lesson for my kids to try thinking it through on their own, making careful observations, weighing the evidence, and drawing the obvious conclusions.  I think this would be a far more useful way to introduce children to the reality that Santa isn’t real, and it would also be an excellent exercise in encouraging critical thinking and skepticism in youngsters.

For more on this topic and approach, I highly recommend reading my colleague Barbara Drescher’s well-written post at the JREF Swift blog titled An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Support the JREF’s “Season of Reason”

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 19, 2011

I just wanted to take a few minutes to pass along to you a fundraising campaign from the James Randi Educational Foundation’s “Season of Reason 2011″.  The poster boy for this campaign is none other than James Randi himself, because do you know any other skeptic who looks more like Santa?  See for yourself…

  Is Santa really James Randi?  Hmmm, I’m skeptical, but the resemblance is uncanny… (Images from Wikipedia and the JREF) ;)

All humor aside, I can say that the JREF is one of the most active of all the skeptical organizations out there, and they indeed serve the purpose of promoting reason quite effectively.  If you have a few spare dollars you’re willing to donate, please consider making an end-of-the-year tax deductible donation to the JREF – here is James Randi’s letter seeking donations for this worthy cause…


As we near the end of 2011, I’m pleased to say that this has been the JREF’s most productive and effective year on record.

We’ve made some major strides this year in standing up for rational thinking in a world of widespread belief in the paranormal and other harmful claims — our media work including our appearance on Primetime Nightline, our nationwide challenge to proponents of homeopathy and the pharmaceutical chains that peddle it, our zombie horde that made headlines at James Van Praagh’s “Spirit Circle,” our new free educational materials, the grants and scholarships we’ve awarded, our support for local grassroots activism, our new ebooks and mobile apps, the ever-increasing success of TAM, and much more!

None of that would have happened if not for the support we received from concerned and dedicated skeptics and science advocates like you during last year’s Season of Reason. Like most other nonprofits, the majority of our annual donations come in during this critical year-end period, and that largely keeps us going for the following year.

Now we at the JREF are focused squarely on 2012… and it’s beginning to look a lot like reason.

We’re gearing up to enter 2012 with some momentum – and thanks to the hard work and dedication of the JREF staff, we’re preparing exciting new initiatives for coming months, as well as expanding several current projects. But I must tell you that it is only with your generous support that we can possibly do this.

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

A Tribute to Christopher Hitchens

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 17, 2011

I was saddened to hear of the untimely death of Christopher Hitchens, who was a fearless skeptic, atheist, and critical thinker.  I won’t go into a long post about how his words influenced me, but suffice it to say that I have found few people like him in this day and age who could ask the really hard questions about life and demand well-reasoned, honest answers to those questions.  Likewise, I think, among the writers whom I have read over the years, Hitchens best embodied the notion that “there are no sacred cows.”  Whether it was religion or politics, Hitchens’s often polemical writings never ceased to make me think.  He will be missed, but thankfully his words will live on.

In closing, I wanted to share a funny poster I found online in honor of Christopher Hitchens’s memory.  I think it’s the kind of blasphemous humor he would have enjoyed :)

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

The Higgs Boson, The “God Particle”, and the March of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 14, 2011

You may have heard the recent news that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider may be narrowing their search for the Higgs Boson.  Here’s an update from The Guardian…

particle collision cern

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at Cern. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

We may have glimpsed the Higgs boson, say Cern scientists

Scientists believe they may have caught their first glimpse of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that is thought to underpin the subatomic workings of nature.

Physicists Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli were applauded by hundreds of scientists yesterday as they revealed evidence for the particle amid the debris of hundreds of trillions of proton collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. …

Let me just put a few things into perspective here on this potential (and I stress potential) discovery.  First, the data are rather preliminary, and in order to say for sure that there is solid evidence for the Higgs Boson, there need to be more observations to help shore up the statistical analysis.  In particle physics, it is not uncommon to see the occasional “discovery” that eventually ends up being merely a statistical anomaly, so more data is better to weed out the anomalies.  This section of The Guardian article helps to clarify this point:

… Particle physicists use a “sigma” scale to grade the significance of results, from one to five. One and two sigma results are unreliable because they come and go with statistical fluctuations in the data. A three sigma result counts as an “observation”, while a five sigma result is enough to claim an official discovery. There is less than a one in a million chance of a five sigma result being a statistical fluke.

Gianotti and Tonelli led two separate teams – one using Cern’s Atlas detector, the other using the laboratory’s Compact Muon Solenoid. At their seminar yesterday one team reported a 2.3 sigma bump in their data that could be a Higgs boson weighing 126GeV, while the other reported a 1.9 sigma Higgs signal at a mass of around 124GeV. There is a 1% chance that the Atlas result could be due to a random fluctuation in the data. …

So, by these data, while the 2.3 and 1.9 sigma signals are interesting, they don’t really rise to the level of a solid observation (which, recall, is set at a standard of 3.0 sigma), much less an official discovery.

Also, by “narrowed the search” for the Higgs Boson, what the CERN physicists mean is that they may have narrowed down the energy range in which the Higgs Boson might exist.  So, long story short, while these results are of interest, don’t go popping those champagne corks just yet :)

The “God Particle”?

I don’t know about you, but I get kind of annoyed at all of this labeling of the hypothetical Higgs Boson as the “God Particle”.  I see it as the kind of mushing of religion into science that leads to all manner of philosophically-challenged kind of muddy thinking.  First off, depending upon how one defines God (assuming the standard monotheistic version of the Abrahamic god), which is usually defined as a supernatural being, you run into trouble by trying to find natural evidence for a thing which is supposed to be beyond nature.

Second, even if we did discover the Higgs Boson, what would that supposedly tell us about this God?  Presumably various armchair theologians argue that such a discovery would be evidence for their view of God (which also begs the question of whether or not it is evidence for one God versus another God).  The logic here simply escapes me, and it smacks of the usual “everything is evidence for God” kind of argumentation that passes the lips of too many religious people.  And this also brings up a potentially sticky question for the advocates of the “God Particle” label…

What if the Higgs Boson isn’t discovered, despite years of detailed searching?  Will these same armchair theologians suddenly give up their belief in their God because the supposed “Particle” which is his/her/its/their fingerprint upon the cosmos was never there to begin with?  Somehow I don’t think so, because these believers will merely rationalize away the lack of evidence for the “God Particle”.  It is in this sense that I find some people who try to stick the round peg of religion into the square hole of science to be particularly annoying: they want to use science as a method of “proving” their religious beliefs when they think it will work for them, yet they completely dismiss science when it works against them.  It’s simply “heads I win, tails you lose” argumentation, and it is both intellectually lazy and disingenuous.

What if we don’t find the Higgs Boson?  Science will march on…

This is the thing I really like about science: it never ends.  The process of scientific investigation never ceases to ask questions, formulate ideas, and test out those ideas.  I think it is entirely possible that in the search for the Higgs Boson, it will never be found; and what then?  What if we never find it?  Well, that’s when I think things will get really interesting, because that means that much of what we think we know about the Standard Model of physics could very well be wrong.  And that would mean that we need to start looking at things differently; this is, to me, the antithesis of dogmatic thinking, and it shows how science is, collectively, the best mechanism we have for stimulating open and free inquiry of the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong – I would be quite excited if the Higgs Boson were discovered.  But I think I would be much more excited if it weren’t found.  That would certainly open up a lot more questions, wouldn’t it?

To science!  May it march ever onward…

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Mysterious Planet-Sized Object” Is… A Planet!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 9, 2011

A couple of days ago I came across this article titled “Mysterious planet-sized object spotted near Mercury” and it contained some shocking images.  I reproduce some of these images and related commentary from the article below…

The mystery image of a “cloaked alien ship”… the Romulans, perhaps?

… Theorists have seized on the images captured from the “coronal mass ejection” (CME) last week as suggestive of alien life hanging out in our own cosmic backyard. Specifically, the solar flare washing over Mercury appears to hit another object of comparable size. “It’s cylindrical on either side and has a shape in the middle. It definitely looks like a ship to me, and very obviously, it’s cloaked,” YouTube-user siniXster said in his video commentary on the footage, which has generated hundreds of thousands of views this week. Now, how this user was able to determine that the object was “obviously” a cloaked spaceship with no other natural explanation remains as much a mystery as the object itself. …

Note the staggering level of argumentation from ignorance here.  I like to call this sort of reasoning (if you can call it that) from various UFOologists the “alien-of-the-gaps”, because much like the related “god-of-the-gaps” argument from ignorance, what they do is find some kind of strange image and/or phenomenon for which they do not have en explanation and then they immediately give it an explanation unsupported by evidence.  In short, because they don’t know what it is, they know it’s aliens!  Huh?!

This, of course, is a direct contradiction and points out just how ludicrous the general argument from ignorance can be.  If the object is an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO), then by definition it is unidentified – which means that you admit right off the bat that you don’t know what it is!  So if you don’t know what it is then how can you suddenly turn around and, seemingly without any kind of scientifically-valid or evidence-based reasoning, state that it is an alien spacecraft?  Using such loose argumentation, I could just as easily claim the object in question is Santa Claus (but no, that would be silly).

Of course, a little more research shows that astronomers actually have figured out what this “mysterious planet-sized object” is hanging around next to the planet Mercury.  It seems the answer is that the object is… the planet Mercury itself.  Here’s a fuller explanation from the article…

Of course, there’s another scientifically sanctioned explanation for the curious images, though we’re not certain that skeptics and UFO enthusiasts such as SiniXster will endorse it. Natalie Wolchover of Life’s Little Mysteries put the question to scientists in the solar physics branch at the United States Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). They’re the people who analyze data from the Heliospheric Imager-1 (HI-1)–better known in this context as the camera that shot the footage in question.

Head NRL group scientist Russ Howard and lead ground systems engineer Nathan Rich say the mysterious object is in fact Mercury itself. And what we’re seeing in the footage is the equivalent of Mercury’s wake, “where the planet was on the previous day,” as it travels through the solar system on its natural gravitational path:

To make the relatively faint glow of a coronal mass ejection stand out against the bright glare of space—caused by interplanetary dust and the stellar/galactic background—the NRL scientists must remove as much background light as possible. They explained that they determine what light is background light, and thus can be subtracted out, by calculating the average amount of light that entered each camera pixel on the day of the CME event and on the previous day. Light appearing in the pixels on both days is considered to be background light and is removed from the footage of the CME. The remaining light is then enhanced.

So there you have it.  The object in question is basically an artifact that results from the combination of taking multiple images of that region in space over multiple days, the planet Mercury moving in that time, and processing the light in the image to enhance the coronal mass ejection to make it more visible.

What stuns me about situations like these is just how quickly so many people are willing to invoke magical thinking and jump to conclusions (the “cloaked alien ship” explanation) in the absence of any real evidence.  What is it about openly and honestly admitting that sometimes the most truthful answer is simply “we don’t know” that disturbs so many people?  That, to me, is the real mystery.


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

Jesus Toast: Pareidolia You Can Believe In!

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 3, 2011

As a fun way of sharing some skepticism of “miraculous vision” claims, I wanted to share with you a really funny YouTube a friend sent me.  It pokes fun at the phenomenon of pareidolia, wherein people claim to see all manner of wild things – Jesus, the Virgin Mary, aliens, Michael Jackson, etc – in everything from the clouds to their shower curtain.  Of course, we know from modern science that these are illusions of perception, because our brains are marvelous pattern recognition machines, causing us to sometimes see things that are not really there.

Okay, enough seriousness.  Time for some fun… check out the “Jesus Toast” video, and share it with a friend.  Enjoy! :)


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


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