The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for June, 2012

SkepchickCon 2012 Coming Your Way!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 28, 2012

SkepchickCon at Convergence 2012 in Bloomington, MN is coming up next week from July 5-8!  For those who don’t know, Convergence is a big science fiction and fantasy convention which takes place annually in the upper Midwest, catering to all manner of sci-fi/fantasy fans, as well as those who just like to dress up and have a good time :)

I’ll be going to SkepchickCon again this year, because in addition to being a high school and college physics professor, I’m also a big fan of much science fiction, fantasy, and so on.  Like other skeptic tracks at other cons, SkepchickCon is geared towards presenting the skeptical and pro-science/pro-critical thinking point-of-view in a fun and friendly environment.  Actually, on a serious note, it is worth paying attention to the fact that these sorts of venues are perfect for spreading the skeptical message beyond hard-core skeptics; if we are to truly encourage others to think critically about paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, then we need to preach less to the choir and go more public.  This means exploring new venues such as these fun and freaky conventions, and it also means putting ourselves out there in more direct interaction with many people who harbor these nonsense beliefs.  Even though it can sometimes be quite galling to have to put up with various kinds of woo-woo nonsense and its adherents, we can all enjoy a good party :D

Also, I plan to do as much live blogging as possible from SkepchickCon, so stay tuned to this page for info as I can upload it.  In addition to the live blogging, I’ll be on two panels at SkepchickCon and running a workshop at Connie’s Quantum Sandbox:

Thursday, July 5th @ 10pm, Atrium 7

Final CONvergence: Doomsday Scenarios – The zombies are right outside the door. Which geeks do you keep close and which to you push into the parking lot as bait. Surviving apocalyptic scenaries convention style! Panelists: Jason Thibeault, Adam Whitlatch, Robert Smith?, Matt Lowry, PZ Myers

- AND -

Friday, July 6th @ 5pm, Bloomington

Ask a Scientist: A general Q & A with expert scientists from a variety of fields. Panelists: Lori Fischer, Matt Lowry, Brianne Bilyeau, Matt Kuchta, Robert Smith?, Miriam Krause

- AND -

“Magnets: How Do They Work?” workshop at Connie’s Quantum Sandbox Sunday @ 2pm

Come to the Magnet Lab with Professor Lowry, and he’ll show you all kinds of cool demonstrations with magnets. We’ll explore how magnetism originates and what you can do with it, plus you get to make-and-take your own electromagnetic motor!

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

Creationists Push for the Loch Ness Monster: How Pseudoscience Cross-Pollinates

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 25, 2012

I’ve written here before about the state of Louisiana’s so-called “academic freedom” law which is essentially a backdoor attempt to push creationism as science in public school science classes.  As many critics of the law pointed out when it was passed, this would serve to dumb-down science standards and inevitably harm the education of students in Louisiana by placing pseudoscientific notions such as creationism on an equal (or better) footing than accepted evolutionary science.  Well, as predicted, the consequences of this law are now becoming realized, and I’m sorry to say that things in Louisiana are getting even more stupid than I had predicted.  Read this article for more detail:

Christian fundamentalist textbooks touting the Loch Ness Monster as proof of Creationism

For the 2012-2013 school year, thousands of Louisiana students will receive state-funded vouchers to attend private schools, many of which hold religious affiliations.

One of these schools — Eternity Christian Academy, in Westlake, Louisiana — utilizes the A.C.E. Curriculum Program, a Christian fundamentalist course of study that teaches students to “see life from God’s point of view.” And unbeknownst to most theologians, scientists, and amateur monster hunters, the Lord’s viewpoint apparently incorporates Scotland’s favorite cryptid.

Herald Scotland reports that a certain textbook in the A.C.E. curriculum transcends standard Creationist teachings and instead informs students that the Loch Ness Monster is proof positive that evolution never happened. (And here I always assumed Nessie was The Great Beast from the Book of Revelations.) Explains Herald Scotland:

“One ACE textbook – Biology 1099, Accelerated Christian Education Inc – reads: “Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.”

Another claim taught is that a Japanese whaling boat once caught a dinosaur. It’s unclear if the movie Godzilla was the inspiration for this lesson.

Jonny Scaramanga, 27, who went through the ACE programme as a child, but now campaigns against Christian fundamentalism, said the Nessie claim was presented as “evidence that evolution couldn’t have happened. The reason for that is they’re saying if Noah’s flood only happened 4000 years ago, which they believe literally happened, then possibly a sea monster survived.”

The Loch Ness Monster as “evidence” of creationism?!!… Oh… my… FSM.

So it’s come to this, folks.  As a direct result of the “academic freedom” law in Louisiana, some versions of creationism which are probably even too extreme for many creationists are being seriously pushed as part of the “alternate science” curriculum available to teachers and students…

Apparently, this is the new cover for biology textbooks in Louisiana – image source

I wish I could say that I was surprised, but honestly I’m not.  This sort of development is the inevitable result of making science standards so loose (through the invocation of so-called “academic freedom”) that just about any kind of stupid, pseudoscientific nonsense which is completely unsupported by the scientific community can pass muster and be taught as if it were science.  As I wrote recently, perhaps this is just the kind of thing we need to have happen in states like Louisiana that try to give a thinly veiled wink and nod to creationists under the auspices of “academic freedom”; perhaps it is time to advertise far and wide that any kind of nonsense can be taught in Louisiana schools.  And perhaps there will be a point where the politicians in Louisiana may become so terribly embarrassed at what is passing for “education” (after all, one has to wonder how amenable they would be to Islamic creationism, for example) in their state that they might act to remedy the situation.

Until that day comes, however, I think we should be prepared for much more silliness to come out of Louisiana.  One thing’s for sure, it will be entertaining.

Posted in creationism, cryptozoology, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

“Teach Alternate Views” Humor from Non Sequitur

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 19, 2012

In some of my recent blog posts, I wondered about the utility of calling the bluff of creationists and going with their argument of “teaching all views” regarding evolution, creationism, etc.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, this June 18th cartoon from Non Sequitur just nails it :)

Image Source

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

“Skeptical About Climate Skeptics” from NCSE

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 17, 2012

As many of you know, one of the best pro-science groups out there is the National Center for Science Education; they specialize in defending the teaching of evolutionary science while simultaneously battling attempts by creationists to push their non-scientific ideas into the public schools.  However, in recent months the NCSE has brought its expertise into a new fight: the climate science wars.  Many climate science deniers employ the same kinds of tactics in their denial of global warming as creationists apply in their denial of evolution, and the NCSE decided it was time to start exposing these pseudo-scientific tactics.  So, to help facilitate this process, I wanted to share with you a talk by NCSE’s climate expert Mark McCaffrey wherein he dissects climate change denial; the use of doubt, delay, and denial; myths and misperceptions deniers push, and more…

Posted in creationism, education, global warming denial | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Thoughts on the Skeptical Movement, Sexism, and Misogyny

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 16, 2012

In recent weeks, it seems the controversy within the skeptical movement over misogyny and women’s issues appears to have heated up somewhat (that’s putting it mildly, I think).  While I do welcome this discussion and the debate it has kick-started, I wanted to comment on the one thing which really, REALLY chaps my ass about the whole thing: misogynistic Internet trolls.

Whether we’re talking about so-called Elevatorgate or the creation of sexual harassment policies by various skeptical conferences (which I fully support, because I think it is needed), it seems to me that these sort of discussions bring out the worst in some people.  And by “some people” I mean some men.  And by “some men”, I mean, specifically, the misogynistic Internet trolls who are basically bullies who want to slap a woman (or women) down for having the gall to publicly disagree with what they think women should accept.

Some of these men think that women speaking up about issues that concern them is somehow a threat to them, or a threat to what they perceive as their manhood, or a threat to their “freedom” and society in general; and some of these men decide to express their disagreement with these women through the worst kind of insults, ranting, and trolling I’ve ever seen.  It is a bully tactic intended to shut these “uppity” women up for having the audacity to hold an opinion contrary to their own.

And it makes me sick.  In fact, it makes me so sick that rather than continue in my own words, which would doubtless be laced with rage and profanity at these sorry excuses for men, I would like to reference an excellent source on the issue (many thanks to Jason Thibeault for posting this video on his blog):

AnimalNewYork.com Video by Jay Smooth — Ill Doctrine: All These Sexist Gamer Dudes Are Some Shook Ones

While this video isn’t explicitly about the skeptical movement, it is about the broader issue of misogynistic Internet trolls.  My favorite part is right at the end of the video (at the 3:21 mark) where Jay Smooth says:

“No matter what scene on the Internet is your scene, if you are a dude on the Internet and you see other dudes in your scene harassing women or transgender people or anyone else who’s outside of our little privileged corner of the gender spectrum, we need speak up, we need to treat this like it matters, we need to add some extra humanity into our scene to counteract their detachment from their humanity.”

You said it, brother.  Gentlemen, let’s not allow these trolls, these pathetic excuses for men, these losers speak for our gender and represent us to the wider community.  Let them speak for themselves in their sad little corner of the Internet, and let us follow Jay Smooth’s excellent example and call them out for their lack of humanity.  Only by enough of us doing that can we hope to bring a more respectful tone to these important discussions.

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Guerrilla Skepticism and Wikipedia

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 15, 2012

I wanted to take a few moments to update you all about a really worthwhile endeavor regarding how to more effectively spread the skeptical message: editing Wikipedia.  As you probably know, Wikipedia – the world’s largest and most extensive encyclopedia – is edited pretty much solely by volunteers.  This means that the people who express the most interest in a topic typically end up editing it.

Now, sometimes this is a good thing, as when those who are experts in a particular field take the time to reasonably and thoughtfully edit a Wikipedia entry on a particular topic.  However, sometimes this is a bad thing, as when those with an agenda edit various Wikipedia entries in an effort to distort the facts.

Enter the brainchild of my skeptical colleague Susan Gerbic: Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.  As Susan once told me, why shouldn’t skeptics start getting more involved in the editing of Wikipedia?  After all, it is the largest and most easily and readily accessed source on just about any subject, and when people go search for something related to skepticism or pseudoscience, why wouldn’t we want as much factual information available to them as possible?  If skeptics don’t step up and take on the task of getting more involved in this editing process, then are we not simply ceding this fertile ground to the peddlers of woo and nonsense?

The Wikipedia Logo

For more information or to get involved, take a look at Susan’s blog: Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.

And I have to say, I agree with Susan.  Fortunately, a lot of other people have agreed with her as well, and it appears to be having a positive impact.  For instance, take a look at techophile and skeptic Tim Farley’s post on how a Google search tool, the Google Knowledge Graph, is benefitting from this form of guerrilla skepticism…

Google Knowledge Graph benefits from skeptic Wikipedia efforts

Last week Google introduced a new feature to their flagship search product, which is called Google Knowledge Graph. I believe it has only rolled out for users in the United States so far, so you may not see it if you live elsewhere, yet.

There are several interesting aspects of Knowledge Graph, and I encourage you to read more about it. The technology behind modern search engines is surprisingly complex, and this is the latest advancement.

But one of the main user-visible features of this product is a panel that you will see on the right side of many search results. This panel shows a summary of what Google believes you are looking for.  The aim is that many times the answer you seek will be right there on the results page.

Because this new feature draws a great deal of information from Wikipedia, all the great effort by Susan Gerbic and the other skeptics who work on her skeptic Wikipedia project is now paying off in yet another big way. …

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

Spread the Vaccine Love!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 13, 2012

Well, we’re ramping up again for another summer of skeptical awesomeness (including SkepchickCon at CONvergence, The Amazing Meeting 10, and Dragon*Con), and as in years past I am assisting with vaccine promotion.  Along these lines, I wanted to pass along to you a recent blog post over at Skepchick by my colleague, Elyse Anders.  Read on and please consider donating to help support this worthy cause:

How to Help Vaccinate Everyone!

From the Vaccine Clinic at TAM9: Who’s that handsome guy next to me?  Oh yeah, it’s just Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer :)

Right now, we are in the middle of a severe pertussis (whooping cough) epidemic. In Washington state alone, cases over tentupled (which is a word that I made up for up more than times) since last year. In 2011, there were 146 confirmed pertusis cases through the first 20 weeks of the year. This year? 1738. That’s really bad, people. Really bad. And Washington, frankly, I’m a little disappointed in you.

Pertussis is a disease that, if contracted, often kills infants. And once they contract the disease, the only treatment they receive is to stop them form spreading it. There is no shortening of the illness. There is no medicine to help the body fight it. There’s just medication to stop you from spreading it.

And that “whoop” that gives whooping cough it’s name? That’s the sound of the sufferer struggling for air, being suffocated from inside their own body.

But worst of all, where they usually catch it is from an adult who hasn’t been vaccinated against pertussis.

So over here, in my little corner of the internet, with my tiny organization, we’re trying to fix this in every way we can… which is the only way we can, and that’s by vaccinating people against pertussis. If you can’t get infected with it, you can’t spread it.

The Women Thinking Free and the Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated campaign have partnered with the JREF and will be bringing yet another Tdap clinic to TAM2012. …

Read the rest of Elyse’s post at http://skepchick.org/2012/05/how-to-help-vaccinate-everyone/

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

Creationism 25-Years After Edwards v. Aguillard

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 9, 2012

As a quick follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share with you all the following YouTube video from a symposium on the topic of how creationism has mutated and spread around the world in the last 25 years, after the famous Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision which found that teaching creationism as science violated the U.S. Constitution.  Give it a look…

Symposium | Why Does the Debate Matter?

On May 11th, 2012 Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center, along with the Center for Law and the Biosciences and the National Center for Science and Education (NCSE) hosted the symposium, “Science and Religion in the Classroom: Edwards v. Aguillard at 25.” Nathan Chapman (Stanford) moderated the panel, “Why Does the Debate Matter?” featuring Michael McConnell (Stanford), Hank Greely (Stanford), Ronald Numbers (Wisconsin), Michael Ruse (Florida State) and Eugenie Scott (NCSE).

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

Is It Time To Call Creationists’ Bluff And Push For “Teaching All Views”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 6, 2012

[**Note: The following post is a guest post hosted over at the James Randi Educational Foundation's blog.  Enjoy! :) ]

Is It Time To Call Creationists’ Bluff And Push For “Teaching All Views”?

Many readers of this blog are no doubt, like me, a bit disappointed (though not entirely surprised) that a creationist-friendly law protecting so-called “academic freedom” of teachers is now on the books in Tennessee. The “Monkey Law”, as has been labeled in honor of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial from 1925 , would seek to encourage teachers in the state’s public schools to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics that arouse “debate and disputation” such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

Indeed, as the National Center for Science Education notes:

“Maybe it has a no-religion clause,” the Tennessean characterized the law’s critics as arguing, “but it gives a wink to teachers looking to promote their beliefs in the classroom — a move that would launch costly lawsuits that history shows school districts tend to lose.” Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, told the newspaper that her group is in touch with concerned parents across the state, “waiting for one to report First Amendment violations teachers could make under the mistaken notion that they now have full protection.”

A very similar law promoting this somewhat Orwellian notion of academic freedom was enacted in Louisiana in 2008. Of course, anyone who has followed the creationist movement for any amount of time sees quite clearly what is going on here: after their high-profile defeat in the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial in 2005, where they tried to push for explicitly including creationism (under the re-labeling of “intelligent design”), creationists are now falling back on an old, but tried and true, tactic – attacking and attempting to weaken the teaching of evolution. [Aside: Note that when I mention “creationists” I am referring to the usual, fundamentalist Christian variety so common in the United States, the young-earth variety. This is quite important, for reasons you’ll see later.]

My guess is that the thinking from the creationists is probably along these lines: we have these children in our churches where we can teach them the “truth”, so all we need to do is discourage the schools from teaching evolution. By keeping these children ignorant of evolution (and science in general), the creationists win by default; hence the language in the “Monkey Law” emphasizing the teaching of the non-existent “scientific weaknesses” of evolution. This is basically code telling the creationists to make up whatever fiction they wish about evolution and teach these straw man notions in public school science classes. And by doing so, the creationists then automatically steer the students in the direction of non-scientific alternative explanations.

Speaking of non-scientific alternatives, let us note that the new Tennessee law also makes specific references to the science of global warming and human cloning, both increasingly hot-button issues for social and religious conservatives in the United States. But, interestingly, the language is more open-ended and doesn’t stop explicitly at those topics; in fact, the language states that “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics that arouse “debate and disputation”. Note that the law doesn’t specify among whom these topics can arouse debate and disputation. And I think it is on this point that the Tennessee lawmakers may end up getting hoisted by their own petard. I’m not referring to the inevitable lawsuits which will come along once some teacher starts to teach creationism explicitly (lawsuits which the state will, in all likelihood, lose). Rather, I am referring to the potential lawsuits that other wacky and non-scientific ideas are not being taught in Tennessee public school science classes. …

Click here to continue reading the entire post

Posted in creationism, education, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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