Archive for February, 2012
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 27, 2012
It seems that in the United States we could be doing a much better job of teaching our young people about science (big surprise there). However, it doesn’t become apparent just how troublesome the situation is until you take a look at the standards for public science education laid down by the states. One look at this map gives you some idea of the challenge we face…
The well respected Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which regularly tracks issues related to science and education, has provided a summary of the survey of state science standards. You can read more about their summary, as well as a breakdown of the standards state-by-state, here…
American science performance is lagging as the economy becomes increasingly high tech, but our current science standards are doing little to solve the problem. Reviewers evaluated science standards for every state for this report and their findings were deeply troubling: The majority of states earned Ds or Fs for their standards in this crucial subject, with only six jurisdictions receiving As. Explore all the state report cards and see how your state performed. [emphasis added]
This is particularly problematic because the 21st century is going to be one of intensifying competition between the United States and developing nations such as China and India. If we cannot (or will not) beef up our science education then we are only hurting ourselves in the long run.
Why is it that the U.S., the most powerful and technologically advanced nation (so far) on the planet, seems to have this weird relationship with science where we appear to almost disdain it? My thoughts on that in a future blog post…
Posted in education | Tagged: America, biology, chemistry, curriculum, education, educators, evolution, Fordham, innovation, Institute, literacy, math, physics, public, reform, schools, science, standards, states, teachers, teaching, technology, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, United States | 7 Comments »
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 23, 2012
**Update (2-25-12): It seems the situation is a bit more complicated than previously thought, and there is another potential source of error that has been discovered. More details at this CERN link: http://press.web.cern.ch/press/PressReleases/Releases2011/PR19.11E.html
Last September you may recall quite a bit of buzz going around about the supposed discovery of faster-than-light neutrinos. While the media was going nuts about it, and while various cranks were crowing about “the physics establishment being overturned”, a number of scientists and science bloggers (including me) expressed great interest in this experimental result while also providing a cautious dose of skepticism about the entire affair. That’s because a theory that is so well-tested as Einstein’s relativity could be overturned or radically adjusted by such a result only if we were absolutely sure of the outcome; and, at the time, not even the scientists who announced the FTL result were very sure of it…
This tended to be the general view among physicists about the apparent “faster-than-light” neutrinos :)
Well, it seems our skepticism was well-founded. From a recent post on the Science Insider blog, it looks as if the “faster-than-light” neutrino signal (which amounted to a discrepancy of 60 nanoseconds or 0.000 000 060 seconds) was probably the result of a bad cable connection…
It appears that the faster-than-light neutrino results, announced last September by the OPERA collaboration in Italy, was due to a mistake after all. A bad connection between a GPS unit and a computer may be to blame.
Physicists had detected neutrinos travelling from the CERN laboratory in Geneva to the Gran Sasso laboratory near L’Aquila that appeared to make the trip in about 60 nanoseconds less than light speed. Many other physicists suspected that the result was due to some kind of error, given that it seems at odds with Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which says nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. That theory has been vindicated by many experiments over the decades.
According to sources familiar with the experiment, the 60 nanoseconds discrepancy appears to come from a bad connection between a fiber optic cable that connects to the GPS receiver used to correct the timing of the neutrinos’ flight and an electronic card in a computer. After tightening the connection and then measuring the time it takes data to travel the length of the fiber, researchers found that the data arrive 60 nanoseconds earlier than assumed. Since this time is subtracted from the overall time of flight, it appears to explain the early arrival of the neutrinos. New data, however, will be needed to confirm this hypothesis. [emphasis added]
If true (and my money is on it being true), it wouldn’t surprise me at all. When I was an undergraduate doing research work in a mass spectrometry lab, it took me and my lab mate a couple of days to figure out why the damn thing wasn’t working properly. After almost two days of checking everything (every setting, every seal on the chamber, every line of code), what was the error?
Answer: a bad BNC cable *facepalm*
And I was just working on a lousy table-top sized mass spectrometer. I can barely imagine the level of complexity in dealing with an experiment of the scale of the CERN-OPERA operation; the fact that they could have missed a lone, loose fiber optic cable doesn’t surprise me at all.
While I’m pretty certain that this error (or similar ones) will explain the situation, I still think it is worthy for some outside research group to attempt a replication of the original, apparent FTL neutrino result. I say that because it could be worth really nailing down exactly what went wrong in this whole experiment so that other researchers don’t make similar mistakes in the future. Of course, there is the outside chance (however infinitely remote that may be) that perhaps there is something legitimate to the FTL result.
Either way, science marches on and we learn something about the universe. Neat, eh? :)
Posted in physics denial/woo, scientific method | Tagged: 3x10^8 m/s, bad cable, c, cable, CERN, confirmation, Einstein, error, faster than light, fiber optics, FTL, general relativity, Large Hadron Collider, LHC, lightspeed, loose cable, mistake, neutrino, OPERA, oscialltion, paradigm shift, particle, particle physics, physics, relativity, reproducibility, science, Science Insider, skeptical, special relativity, speed of light, superluminal, supernova, Supernova 1987A, tachyons, theory, theory of relativity, warp drive | 2 Comments »
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 19, 2012
I’ve waited for awhile to chime in on this particular subject for a number of reasons: partly because it makes me so angry that I wish to be as calm and rational as possible when I finally write about it, and partly because I have some (apparently vain) hope that the primary actors involved will pull their heads out of their asses. Sadly, on that last point, it seems I am to be sorely disappointed.
“It’s all dudes.” The Congressional panel testifying on insurance coverage for women’s contraception. *Facepalm*
We all know the biggest social issue to flare up in recent weeks in the United States, which is the question of requiring insurance companies to cover birth control. Apparently, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops don’t like this much (never mind the fact that these insurance companies are secular businesses). I would like to reference an excellent article written by Robert Shrum at The Week. In his article, Shrum reveals the true motivation of the Bishops:
… The bishops could have welcomed President Obama’s compromise on insurance coverage for contraception — that religiously affiliated institutions don’t have to provide or pay for it, but insurance companies do. Insurers will finance the coverage but save money in the long run, since the cost of birth control is far less than the bills for unwanted pregnancies. Instead, the bishops reinforced their anathema, announcing that they were not “focus[ing] exclusively on the question of religious liberty” — the very cause that sparked the opposition to the original regulation, which required religiously affiliated organizations to provide employees with copay-free coverage for birth control. The bishops essentially revealed that their original cause was also a cover for opposing “the nationwide mandate of sterilization and contraception, including some abortifacients” — the morning after pill — which for them “remains a grave moral concern.” … [emphasis added]
So there you have it, folks; once the “religious liberty” question was addressed by President Obama by shifting the responsibility for covering birth control to purely secular insurance companies, the Bishops came out with their true intentions: to oppose ALL forms of contraception, not only for Catholics but for everyone, in the United States.
Holy… shit. I don’t know what is worse: the fact that these deluded old men think what they do, or the fact that they think they have a chance of pulling it off. Of course, perhaps that last point is probably related to the fact that the U.S. Republican Party has decided to grab onto this issue and take the Bishops’ side on it. Shrum continues in his article:
… The unholy alliance of the bishops and the GOP threatens the party’s ultimate presidential candidate and its House majority — and diminishes its chances of taking the Senate.
Let’s translate this ecclesiastical speak: Bishops believe that birth control services should be denied to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. The bishops can’t persuade their own flock — among whom contraception is a norm, not an exception — so they attempt to enforce their doctrine through public policy. They even huffed that they “were not consulted in advance” about the president’s revised policy — and then demanded a law that would entitle institutions and employers to forbid coverage for any health service to which they had a moral objection — even if they weren’t paying for it. (Should an employer who is a Jehovah’s Witness be allowed to delete any insurance for blood transfusions — which Witnesses regard as biblically prohibited?) … [emphasis added]
Note the bolded part. Believe it or not, the GOP has actually tried to introduce legislation that would allow any employer with a so-called “moral objection” to not pay for any insurance which covered things with which they disagree. I’m not kidding; Shrum outlines this:
… In Congress, Republican leaders propose to do the bishops’ bidding by attaching the dubiously named Respect for Religious Conscience Act to, of all things, a transportation and highway bill. Instead of working on jobs, they’re laboring to restrict birth control. …
But think carefully about this, folks. It isn’t just about contraception (the hot-button for the Catholic hierarchy, but apparently not for the 98% of U.S. Catholic women who have used contraception); if the legislation written by the GOP were to actually become law, there would be innumerable negative consequences beyond the cancellation of birth control coverage for employees of Catholic employers. Imagine, with such broad and stupid wording in the law (does it even define “moral objection”?), the following scenarios:
1. Blood transfusions wouldn’t be covered for employees who work for a Jehovah’s Witness.
2. If you work for a Scientologist, kiss goodbye any chance at getting coverage for any kind of psychiatric-related care.
3. Those who got food-poisoning from a batch of bad ham might not get coverage on their hospital visit if their Orthodox Jewish boss got wind of it.
4. Suppose you got an STD and you’re not married; would your evangelical Christian employer cover the insurance costs for the treatment?
5. What if you work for a rabid anti-vaccinationist? So much for your regular flu shot and vaccines for the kids.
6. Gay couples (married, in a civil union, domestic partnership) could easily see their health benefits evaporate simply because of the bigoted views of their bosses. And do I even need to ask about what would happen to atheists?
7. Christian Scientist employers could pretty much just cancel ALL health coverage for their workers since prayer works better than anything, right?
Need I go on? I think you get the picture, folks. This is the sort of stupidity that results when you get politicians, desperate to gain traction with the populace, allowing superstitious nonsense to guide their policy decisions. It is my hope that this backfires on the Republicans and Bishops both; to make that point loud and clear, the best thing to do is speak at the polls this coming November.
Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: abortion, birth control, Bishops, conscience, contraception, contraceptives, Council on Catholic Bishops, GOP, liberty, men, politics, privacy, RCC, religion, religious, Republican, Roman Catholic Church, separation of chruch and state, sex, sexuality, United States, women | 6 Comments »
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2012
One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi. He is a small man with a big laugh, an even bigger heart, and an even bigger love for the pursuit of skeptical analysis into all manner of paranormal, mystical, or odd-ball claims. For Randi, no questions are off limits and skepticism knows no bounds; he and his legacy are one of the primary reasons why I am here, doing what I do on this blog and in my daily life as a skeptic and teacher, and I know his work (through the James Randi Educational Foundation) has reached and inspired countless others. Now there is a movie being made about him, called “An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story”.
Watch the trailer, pass it on to your friends (even if they aren’t card-carrying skeptics), and consider helping to get this film made. As is stated early in the trailer, “This is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies…” :)
Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: An Honest Liar, biography, contribute, debunking, documentary, donation, film, fraud, investigation, James Randi, James Randi Educational Foundation, JREF, lies, life, magic, magicians, movie, paranormal, Randi, science, skepticism, story, The Amazing One, The Amazing Randi Story, trickery | 4 Comments »
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 17, 2012
My skeptical colleague Phil over at the Skeptic Money blog is attempting to get donations to the newly-formed Wichita Coalition of Reason in Kansas to hold their first FREE event – The Skeptics of Oz!
By the way, did I mention the event was FREE?! Yes, that’s F-R-E-E!!!
But Phil is doing more than that. Phil is literally putting his money where his mouth is because for the next week (that is, until February 25th) his company, Polaris Financial Planning, will be matching donations to help get this group and their event off the ground. Read more below (or at Phil’s blog entry), spread the word, and please consider donating…
Welcome to the official The Skeptics of Oz website. This is a FREE conference that will be held in Wichita, KS on April 21st and 22nd at The Forum Theater. We will be bringing in a number of speakers to talk on the subjects of science, skepticism, and atheism. Stay tuned for more information!
Registration is open! There is limited seating so please register so we know if you are coming!
Skeptics of Oz will feature several exciting speakers.
- James Underdown
Investigation and Conversation: Dealing with Paranormal Claims
Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles
- J Anderson Thomson
Why We Believe in Gods
Staff psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Student Health Services and the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia
- Darrel Ray
Sex and Secularism Author, speaker, and organizational psychologist
- Abbie Smith
Graduate student studying evolution of viruses
- Carol Fiore
Grieving without God
Environmental educator, writer, animal rights activist
- Amanda Knief
Atheism in the Workplace
Government Relations Manager at Secular Coalition for America and cofounder of Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers
- Phil Ferguson
Homeopathy – The Power of 10
Blogger at Skeptic Money, evangelical atheist, and owner of Polaris Financial Planning.
- James Croft
Good Without God
Research and Education Fellow at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard
Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: atheism, atheist, Bible Belt, conference, convention, donation, event, free, Kansas, KS, Polaris Financial Planning, skeptic, Skeptic Money, skepticism, Skeptics of Oz, Wichita, Wichita Coalition of Reason | Leave a Comment »
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2012
I wrote another article for the JREF Swift Blog recently, and this one focused on science, philosophy, and religion. It gets to a pretty fundamental question regarding those three endeavors, and I wanted to share it with you here. Enjoy!
Those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and supporters of science, and most especially those of us who are involved at some level in defending good science from the efforts of creationists to water down (or even eliminate) the teaching of evolution, will be familiar with this question. I think the answer is not simple and is much thornier, both philosophically and practically speaking, than many people (including many skeptics) would like to admit.
Let me first take a few minutes to outline some basics of the philosophy of science that are relevant to this discussion. This has to do with the nature of naturalism in science; more specifically, we need to make a very clear distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.
Methodological naturalism is the practice of naturalism in science; in other words, as it is most commonly stated, there are naturalistic answers sought for scientific questions, and the question of potential supernatural answers (“miracles” if you will) is not even considered. It was the application of methodological naturalism in what was in the 19th-century still referred to as natural philosophy, which helped to define and distinguish modern science as it is currently practiced. In the view of many scientists, science as practiced doesn’t necessarily speak to the validity or non-validity of the supernatural precisely because it is constrained to seeking only natural causes for the phenomena we observe in the universe. In the view of pure methodological naturalism, science is agnostic on such matters, and this gives many believers in the supernatural an “out” for accepting science while retaining their beliefs.
By contrast, philosophical naturalism is usually defined as a philosophical position that there is no such thing as the so-called “supernatural” because the natural world is all that exists. This view assumes, a priori, that there is no separate realm of existence, which is distinguished from the natural world. Thus, in this view, anything, which is claimed to exist within the “supernatural” realm, either doesn’t exist at all or is being confused for some other kind of natural phenomenon which isn’t necessarily well understood by the claimant. It should come as no surprise that in the world of the philosophical naturalist there is no such thing as a miracle and there are no gods per se. There is no comfort for the supernaturalists in the worldview of philosophical naturalism.
Having laid that foundation, let us now get back to the specific case of the entire evolution-creationism discussion, where we can see this distinction between the methodological and philosophical view of naturalism on display. There are many pro-science groups, such as the National Center for Science Education, which take the view usually credited to the late Stephen J. Gould called non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) when discussing the thorny issues of science, religion, their intersection, and their conflicts. Basically NOMA takes a kind of modified position of methodological naturalism and is described by Gould as follows: “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” 
Even the National Academy of Sciences in the United States takes a viewpoint based upon NOMA, wherein, in regards to the evolution-creationism issue, they state: “Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.” 
Note that in the cases of taking the NOMA stance, there is nothing said one way or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of gods, miracles, or any kind of supernatural phenomena. However, there are many for whom the position of NOMA is rather unappealing, most notably because it seems to have the effect of stacking the deck in favor of what are considered unfounded beliefs and claims. For example, while the Catholic Church can tell its followers that the science for evolution is ironclad and therefore acceptable, that same religious institution routinely turns its back on science and completely ignores it regarding questions related to the authenticity of supposed religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin (which is, in case you didn’t know, a fake). This is merely one example where the believers and purveyors of the supernatural will try to have their cake and eat it too, the critics of NOMA would say, as they with one hand embrace science while with the other hand reject it. …
Click here to read the rest of the article
Posted in philosophy, religion, scientific method | Tagged: blog, creationism, empirical, empiricism, evolution, God, God particle, ID, James Randi, James Randi Educational Foundation, JREF, materialism, methodological naturalism, miracle, naturalism, NOMA, non-overlapping magisteria, philosophical naturalism, philosophy, religion, science, scientific method, skeptic, supernatural, Swift, testing | Leave a Comment »
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 10, 2012
I know I’m a little late to this party, but better late than never. I’m very happy to spread the news about a new secular, skeptical organization which will cater to a highly under-served minority in the skeptical community: African Americans for Humanism! Check out their announcement and website, and pass it along…
Black Nonbelievers Are Speaking Out
African Americans for Humanism (AAH) has launched an advertising campaign highlighting the rise in religious skepticism among African Americans. Coinciding with Black History Month, this national multimedia effort showcases religious skepticism in the African American community and features prominent African American humanists from history along with contemporary activists and organizers.
“African Americans who question religion often feel rejected by religious family and friends, and by the greater black community,” said Debbie Goddard, director of AAH. “But there is a rich heritage of religious skepticism and humanism in black history. By featuring the historical faces as well as the modern in our ad campaign, we show people that questioning religion is not new and that there are many of us here.”
The ads began appearing January 30 and January 31 in New York City; Washington, DC; Chicago; Atlanta; and Durham, North Carolina. This week, the campaign is being launched in Dallas and Los Angeles. Advertisements will be found on roadside billboards and in public transit sites. The Stiefel Freethought Foundation provided substantial creative and financial support for the campaign.
AAH hopes that the campaign will bring attention to the presence of and increase in religious skepticism within the black community, encourage those who have doubts about religion to share their concerns and join other freethinkers in their local communities, and educate many about the history of black freethought.
All of the ads display the same message: “Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.” In the ads, images of writer-anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, poet-activist Langston Hughes, and social reformer-publisher Frederick Douglass are paired with contemporary freethinkers. Representing their respective hometowns are activists leading the way for African American nonbelievers, including Mark D. Hatcher of the Secular Students at Howard University, Mandisa L. Thomas of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. (Atlanta), Kimberly Veal of Black Nonbelievers of Chicago, Jamila Bey of African Americans for Humanism–Washington, DC, Veronique Matthews of the Triangle Freethought Society, Leighann Lord of the Center for Inquiry–Harlem, Alix Jules of the Dallas–Ft. Worth Coalition of Reason, and Sikivu Hutchinson of Black Skeptics Los Angeles.
For more information, including ad images, information about historical African American freethinkers, photos, and videos, please visit We Are AAH.
AAH supports skeptics, doubters, humanists, and atheists in the African American community, provides forums for communication and education, and facilitates coordinated action to achieve shared objectives.
In an irrational world, those who stand for reason must stand together.
Please stand with us by making your most generous tax-deductible contribution to African Americans for Humanism today.
Posted in religion, skeptical community | Tagged: AAH, African American, African Americans for Humanism, atheism, atheist, black, Council for Secular Humanism, CSH, Debbie Goddard, humanism, humanist, minority, non-religious, nonreligious, secular, skeptic, skeptical community | Leave a Comment »
Posted by mattusmaximus on February 4, 2012
I found this image via a skeptical Facebook friend, and it just screams “skeptical teacher”! I’m just jealous that I didn’t think of it first :)
Three words: FOR THE WIN!!!
Image source: Reddit
The solutions (pardon the pun) to these questions reveals one glaring fact: homeopathy, there’s nothing in it, except water.
**Update (2/5/12): For those interested, I have calculated the actual answers to these questions. Contact me if you would like to see the math; here are the answers:
a) 3.46 x 10^21 or 3,460,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms
b) 3.46 x 10^15 or 3,460,000,000,000,000 atoms
c) 3.46 x 10^-39 or 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 00346 atoms (a number so stupidly small we can safely say that there are effectively NO arsenic atoms remaining within the solution!)
Posted in education, medical woo | Tagged: alt-med, alternative medicine, chemistry, class, dilution, homeopathy, homework, physics, question, Reddit, skeptic, solution, teacher, teaching, woo | 6 Comments »