The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for July, 2012

Obama Campaign Commits to Address Top American Science Questions

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 31, 2012

As I recently blogged, the folks at Science Debate 2012 came up with a list of Top Science Questions for the United States presidential candidates.  The good news is that the campaign for President Obama has committed to addressing these questions; we are now waiting on the Romney campaign to respond.  No matter which candidate you support, please contact them to encourage them to give these scientific and technological issues more emphasis as the election season ramps up…

Why Science Is a Non-Issue in the Election… Again

David Gergen, Michael Lubell and I had a very important conversation with Ira Flatow on this week’s Science Friday about why the science debate project is critical to the country and why it’s nevertheless an uphill battle that will take leadership from everyone receiving this email.

I strongly encourage you to listen in, and then lead.  Speak out about it, especially if you are in a leadership position.  Elected leaders need to hear from you.  Blog about it.  Share it everywhere you are able – particularly with members of the mainstream media.

We are making progress.  I’m happy to report that the Obama campaign has committed to respond to the Top American Science Questions.  That’s a great start.  Hopefully the Romney campaign will soon follow suit.  Please consider making a donation to help us continue to move the ball forward toward written answers, then then actual debate discussion of these critical issues.

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Science Debate 2012 Questions for the Presidential Candidates

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 26, 2012

Last March I passed on the news that Science Debate 2012 was looking for questions to ask the U.S. presidential candidates, and now the questions are here!  In case you don’t know, the whole purpose of Science Debate is to put questions of scientific, engineering, and technological importance into the political debate; considering as how important these issues are and will be in the 21st-century, I think it is more than appropriate to hold our political candidates accountable on such matters.  Take a look at the Science Debate press release and questions:

Science Debate 2012 Press Release

The Top American Science Questions in 2012

“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking. invited thousands of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens to submit what they felt were the the most important science questions facing the nation that the candidates for president should be debating on the campaign trail.

ScienceDebate then worked with the leading US science and engineering organizations listed at left to refine the questions and arrive at a universal consensus on what the most important science policy questions facing the United States are in 2012.

Innovation | Climate Change | Research and the Future | Pandemics and Biosecurity
Education | Energy | Food | Fresh Water | The Internet | Ocean Health
Science in Public Policy | Space | Critical Natural Resources | Vaccination and Public Health

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Psychic Charlatan Sylvia Browne Gets a Dose of Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 21, 2012

While at TAM2012, I saw some fine folks engage in some skeptical activism.  It ended up that at the same time TAM was taking place in Las Vegas, the queen of psychic scammers and charlatans – Ms. Sylvia Browne - was scheduled to do her show.  Well, the activist crowd thought it would be altogether appropriate for people to make an informed decision about Browne and her claims before attending her show, and they caught it on video…

**Note: I totally stole everything below this point from my skeptical colleague Kylie Sturgess - Thanks Kylie! :)

A group of skeptics organized by mentalist Mark Edward and Wikipediatrician Susan Gerbic gather to protest the presence of Sylvia Browne at the Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on July 13, 2012. Recording by Susan Gerbic; editing by Ross Blocher.

The group handed out a list of cold reading techniques that psychics use to give the illusion of knowing intimate details about their subjects. Another handout listed some of Sylvia Browne’s worst mistakes as a psychic. We encourage people to look them up: Opal Jo Jennings, Holly Krewson, Shawn Hornbeck, the Sago Miners, Terrence Farrell, Lynda McClelland, and Ryan Katcher.

Posted in psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

“Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated” Clinic a Success at TAM2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 21, 2012

One of the most rewarding things I did at TAM2012, which was full of rewarding things, was to help run and staff the Hug Me! vaccination clinic.  Hug Me! is a campaign by the Women Thinking, Inc to educate women and parents (and pretty much anyone else) on the importance of vaccinating their children and themselves.  While at TAM2012, we gave 161 free TDaP – that’s Tetanus, Diptheria, and Pertussis (whooping cough) – booster shots to attendees of the conference.  If you are interested in learning more and possibly supporting our work, by donating or buying a Hug Me! shirt, click here :)

**Update: if you want to buy a Hug Me! shirt (as pictured below) send an email to marsmattus [at] yahoo [dot] com

The volunteers from the Women Thinking, Inc posing with James “The Amazing One” Randi (note our mascot, the sloth)

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

Birthers Hit a New Low…

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2012

So there’s this nutjob… err, I mean law enforcement officer… named Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona who has apparently taken it upon himself to “prove” that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen (a conspiracy theory known as “birtherism“).  This has consisted of basically engaging in rampant conspiracy mongering that President Obama’s birth certificate (which you can see here) is a forgery, despite the fact that it has been certified as authentic repeatedly.  Well, in their quest to pursue their bigoted… err, I mean intense and serious… investigation of the citizenship of the POTUS, they have hit a new low.

And here it is:

The Globe Magazine… that bastion of journalistic excellence.  *Sigh* ‘Nuff said.

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

“How to Save the Polar Bears” Global Warming Panel from SkepchickCon 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 17, 2012

Now that I’m back from TAM 2012, I am finally catching up on some blogging.  In this post, I wanted to share a rough transcript I made of another panel I saw the weekend before TAM at Convergence/SkepchickCon 2012 titled “How to Save the Polar Bears” – as the name implies, the subject was on how to address questions of the effects of global warming as well as climate change denialism.  Read on…

How to Save the Polar Bears

with Greg Laden, Shawn Otto, Maggie Koerth-Baker, John Abraham, and Desiree Schell (moderator)


Desiree: Let’s all commit now that climate change is indeed a real thing that is occurring. Greg, can you start with telling us the effects of climate change?

Greg: I’ll first talk about the effects of all the CO2 being released. The first effect is that it is warmer. For example, we are now experiencing the warmest year on record (so far). There are also likely to be drastic shifts in the weather patterns due to the amount of heat the atmosphere can hold. It probably means in more areas more rain in short bursts – so more droughts interrupted by heavy rains.

Also, the oceans will become more acidic, so organisms which are affected by high acid water will be hurt.

Finally, see level rise… glaciers melt, water expands, so the ocean level goes up. It could be a big factor in the short term.

Desiree: there are other more tangible effects like on agriculture.

Greg: yes, for example, many trees are getting killed by parasites because those parasites valve moved into regions (due to climate change) they never were before. Also, plants are drying out due to drought and this is leading to a lot of nasty wildfires.

People think that climate change effects is a future thing, but since the 1970s we have seen agricultural failures and desertification which are likely already linked to climate change. It is currently occurring.

Desiree: one thing that might change is disease patterns.

Greg: yes, many disease patterns have changed. Most epidemic diseases we as humans experience are due to things we have changed about our environment.

We have become a bit complacent about diseases, because in the 1930s we developed antibiotics. The problem is with the changes we are making now due to climate change, these disease effects are not so easily fought.

Desiree: Maggie, can you speak to power usage?

Maggie: the biggest energy usage we have now is buildings, more than transportation, and we use most of that energy to perfect our indoor climate (AC) which affects the outdoor climate, and so on. This also affects our power grids, because there is an increase in demand for electricity due to the higher temperatures. And the grid is much more sensitive than people think, and in these extremes you can get blackouts.

Desiree: Shawn, what was the political response to these issues?

Shawn: Nothing. An attempt was made in 2010 to address these issues, but about 500 million dollars was poured into Congress by the energy lobbyists to defeat any kind of climate bill. And the Obama administration had to make a calculated decision to go with healthcare reform instead.

There have been many on the right who have attempted to downplay climate change mitigation. Many people are pushing a “teach the controversy” argument against the teaching of climate change science. They wish to replace political opinion with actual science. There have been political attempts to make sea level rise “illegal” – North Carolina almost passed a bill making it illegal for communities to consider the effect of sea level rise unless the legislation gives prior permission, and if they do the community cannot go with the science
(about 1 meter in a century) but instead about 8 inches.

Virginia recently followed suit, saying we cannot talk about “sea level rise” but “frequent flooding” instead. This kind of throwing up political smokescreens is what is going on now.

In a way, you cannot blame the (public) corporations for this so much because they are required by law to pursue profits for shareholders on quarterly basis. So money drives a lot of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in global warming denial | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Misogyny in the Skeptical Movement: “Don’t Feed the Trolls” Panel from SkepchickCon 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 11, 2012

While at Convergence/SkepchickCon 2012 this past weekend, I did a lot of things, but one of the most fruitful and important was to attend the “Don’t Feed the Trolls” panel on the second day of the Con.  The panel consisted of a number of prominent female skeptics (Rebecca Watson, Christina Rad, Stephanie Zvan, and Heina Dadabhoy) along with a couple of male colleagues (Greg Laden and Jason Thibeault) discussing the issues of gender attitudes, sexism, and misogyny in the skeptical movement.  I think having these discussions in an open, public format is important, because there are a number of trolls out there who are not interested in reasoned, calm discussion on these issues; instead they are interested in intimidating those with whom they disagree and are attempting to silence them.

So, in an effort to light candles rather than curse the darkness, I wanted to share with you the discussion I was able to (very roughly – I was not able to get every word down) transcribe.  The talk was extremely well-attended (about 300-400 people were present) and the audience Q&A was very useful.  If you are at all concerned with these issues, please read my transcription and pass it along…

Don’t Feed the Trolls

with Greg Laden, Rebecca Watson, Jason Thibeault, Christina Rad, Stephanie Zvan, and Heina Dadabhoy


Rebecca: Rebecca is told that she should be raped, that she’s a prude, that she’s a whore, and so on.

Some emails from men have included how they would like to service her regularly. These kinds of comments have come through email, YouTube, Facebook, her Wikipedia page.

In short, the Internet is no longer a safe, fun place for Rebecca. It is where she works.

Greg Laden: one of the things that bothers him about Elevatorgate is that a friend of his was recently sexually assaulted on an elevator. So it happens. His main experience with trolls started in dealing with the evolution-creation debate online. Even more serious troll issues began two years ago in June when he and other bloggers were blogging about “rape month” (in the Congo). There were a lot of guys who were upset with him, because some of these men didn’t like the fact that he was pointing out that a lot of men do bad shit.

There are also trolls regarding the climate change discussion. There were people threatening to sue in England due to the libel laws. Greg points out that much of the stuff that goes to these blog comments is filtered and most of us never see the truly nasty stuff.

Definition of trolling (Stephanie): it started out years ago as goofy silliness, but in many ways it has now morphed into behavior towards trying to silence discussion. It is no surprise that many of the panelists are atheists and feminists, because those are groups a lot of people want to shut down.

Christina: there is a difference between trolls and haters. Eventually, I tried to go about ignoring the haters with their death and rape threats, but it gets very hard to continue. And sometimes you want to quit just to make it stop.

Stephanie: there is an idea that these trolls are just people in the Internet who are not dangerous. However, some of these people actually do try to find you in the real world. I put up a “do not talk to this person” post and this person ended up having restraining orders put on them.

Rebecca: in the past several years, there have been many high profile examples of men murdering women. In many cases, the offending males have a history of online misogynistic ranting. When she sees men doing this online, including very dehumanizing language, it makes her think of the potential danger.

Jason: one potentially probable death threat can be enough to stop you from going to a conference, for example.

Heina: I used to be Muslim, and once people figured out how I was blogging online, I was receiving threats about it. And I ended up taking down my blog due to the threats.

Least helpful advice in dealing with trolls…

Rebecca: “Don’t feed the trolls”
I now refer people who give this advice to a link on which why this is not helpful. It’s kind of like saying that a woman who doesn’t want to get raped shouldn’t wear a mini-skirt. Many people think that the trolls want attention, but what they really want is to silence me and other women like me. And it worked for awhile, because all the emails and comments started to pile up and it was wearing me down. Once I shared this stuff with my friends, it helped lift a weight off me.

Now, with haters on Twitter, I now simply RT and block. And now the haters have to spend their time blocking people who are pushing back against them. And if we can make this an issue for our community, we can increase the social cost of trolling. Now there are going to be consequences, and they will be put on a stage and be made to go on the defense.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in internet, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Convergence 2012 Day 2: “Ask a Scientist” Panel

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 9, 2012

During Day 2 of Convergence/SkepchickCon, I was fortunate enough to (once again) be on the “Ask a Scientist” panel for the third year in a row :)

The whole point of this particular panel is to get a small team of scientists from a variety of backgrounds (physics, geology, biology, mathematics, medicine, forensics) together to hold an hour-long Q&A session with the audience.  And boy what an audience it was – the room was packed, standing room only, with roughly 400 people in attendance!  I recorded the entire discussion and you can access it all at the link below – enjoy!

Ask a Scientist – Convergence 2012

Image Source

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

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

Convergence 2012 Day 1: “Final CONvergence: Doomsday Scenarios” Panel

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 6, 2012

The first day of Convergence 2012 involved the usual… checking into the hotel, getting registered for the Con, and so on.  But for me it also included a very fun, late-night panel about various doomsday scenarios, including killer asteroids, massive solar flares, outbreaks of deadly infectious disease (think the Black Plague), the potential failure of the Internet, release of so-called “grey goo” nanites, nuclear war, and everyone’s favorite – zombies!

While it was a serious discussion, there was also much humor involved (I will never forget Jason Thibeault’s quip: “I tried to start a nuclear war, until I took an arrow to the knee” :) ), and the audience Q&A was very lively.  If you’d like to listen to the panel discussion, just click the link below to hear my recording:

Final CONvergence Doomsday Scenarios – Convergence 2012

Image Source

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

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

Women Thinking Free Has Morphed Into Something… Even… MORE Awesome!

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 3, 2012

Some of you might be aware that in addition to all the work I do regarding skepticism and education, I am also proud to declare that I’m on the board of the Women Thinking Free Foundation… except that the WTFF no longer exists.  But that’s just because it’s now even MORE awesome, and it has been renamed to Women Thinking, Inc.  :D

We’ve been really busy behind the scenes with our rebranding and some amazing stuff we’ve been working on for the last year-and-a-half regarding vaccine survey research in conjunction with the James Randi Educational Foundation.  This research is REALLY a big deal, and there’s no doubt you’ll be hearing all about it in the weeks and months to come – stay tuned for that.

But rather than tease you anymore, I’ll refer you to this post over at Skepchick where our fearless mofo leader, Elyse Anders, has dished out all the info on our big switchover.  Check it out…

Women Thinking Free is no more…

When we started this organization back in 2010, we never dreamed that we’d be presenting ourselves far outside of the skeptical movement. Our goal was always to bring more women into organized skepticism, if not just to encourage women to think more critically. The Women Thinking Free, or WTF, was a name that said that we were free thinking women who didn’t take ourselves too seriously and that we had a sense of humor in our mission. As an organization with roots deep in the Skepchick community, I felt that the WTF was a name that expressed a lot of my persona, and reflected the tone of the community.

But the Women Thinking Free is growing. And we’re growing up. We’re doing more work on a national level and putting ourselves out to organizations who are less or maybe totally un-familiar with skepticism and the skeptical community. We do great work, and we intend to keep on doing that great work.  And while I loathe to take myself seriously, it is time to take my organization seriously. We have a hardworking core of board members and volunteers who work tirelessly, and they deserve to be taken seriously. And we need to tell those who don’t know us that we are an organization worth investing in and believing in. We’re not a dopey bunch of girls who don’t know what WTF means… and we’re not a group who doesn’t care how your organization will look being affiliated with “WTF”.

So we’re changing our name.

We’re still a fun group. We still don’t take ourselves too seriously. The only thing that’s changed is that we’ve realized we’ve created something good enough to present in a way that won’t be dismissed out of hand… and without having to argue over adverbs.

We are now Women Thinking, inc. See? Not a lot has changed. Just a couple of words. We’re still women. We’re still thinking. We’re just a little classier.

We also still need your help in raising funds to do all the great stuff we have planned over the next year.

Click here to read the rest of Elyse’s post at Skepchick!

Oh yeah, and one last thing… we still have our groovy Hug Me I’m Vaccinated! campaign where we promote vaccination and help to run free vaccine clinics, but our mascot is no longer a cute n’ cuddly teddy bear.  Our new mascot is a cute n’ cuddly sloth, because sloths love to hug and hang on… but only if you’re vaccinated ;)

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