The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for October, 2012

Solving the Mystery Behind “Mystery Houses”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 28, 2012

Years ago I performed an impromptu investigation of the Montana Vortex, a roadside attraction whose proprieters claim that there is actually some kind of weird adjustment to the laws of physics in order to account for the strange goings on there.  Like many such attractions, the folks who run the Montana Vortex have a “mystery house” where the effect of gravity seems to be lop-sided.  But while this is obviously an illusion, it certainly feels real…

Thanks to a follower of this blog (@denatureSD on Twitter), I saw this recent Science Friday video from YouTube which nicely explains this phenomenon.  Enjoy! :)

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Lesson in How NOT to be Skeptical: The Fake Neil deGrasse Tyson Quote

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 24, 2012

Many times we self-described skeptics and critical thinkers do not live up to our own rhetoric.  Case in point: How many skeptics/atheists/freethinkers/etc do you know who have shared the following quote, or perhaps you have shared it yourself?

Well, here’s the rub… this quote attributed to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is…


Ouch.  I have to admit that I probably would have fallen for it, too; maybe I did, I cannot remember seeing this on my Facebook wall, but who knows?  It’s a good lesson for those of us who call ourselves skeptics to make sure that we’re taking care to walk the skeptical/critical thinking walk and not just talk the talk.  Here’s a good YouTube video expanding upon this lesson:

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

Congressional Answers to Science Debate 2012 Questions

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 16, 2012

As many of you know, I have been touting the Science Debate effort for many months now, because issues of science, technology, and science education are too important to be sidelined in our political discourse (especially in an election year!)  This year, the fine folks at Science Debate have not only been holding the presidential candidates’ feet to the fire, but they have also been putting Congressional candidates on the spot.  And now some Congressional candidates have answered the challenge :)

Congressional Answers to the Top American Science Questions and Scientific American asked 33 leaders of science-oriented congressional committees to respond.


Washington — October 16, 2012. Americans have all heard about the scandalously anti-science comments made by certain members of the House committee on Science, Space and Technology. and our media partner, Scientific American, the nation’s oldest continuously published magazine, wanted to see what other members of congress in key leadership positions relative to the nation’s science policy had to say about science.

We prepared a subset of eight of the fourteen Top American Science Questions which President Obama and Governor Romney have answered, ranging from climate change to science in public policy, and asked thirty-three members of congress in leadership positions on the nation’s science-oriented congressional committees to respond.

Six of them declined outright, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who were asked to participate because of their overall responsibility for the flow of legislation through congress. Several more ignored numerous requests from ScienceDebate and Scientific American. Nine of the thirty-three responded.

“Americans should be concerned that only nine of the thirty-three key leaders on science-related congressional committees feel the need to let the public know their views on science,” said Shawn Otto, CEO of “As to the nine who did respond—members of both parties—their leadership should be applauded.”

Senators who responded

Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, Chair, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Tom Harkin, D-IA, Chair, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Jay Rockefeller, D-W, Chair, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Representatives who responded

Timothy Bishop, D-NY-1, Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

Ralph Hall, R-TX-4, Chair, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

John Mica, R-FL-7, Chair, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Nancy Pelosi, D-CA-8, House Minority Leader

Chris Van Hollen, D-MD-8, Ranking Member, House Budget Committee

Henry Waxman, D-CA-30, Ranking Member, Energy and Commerce Committee

Their responses, including those who declined or failed to respond, can be found at and at Scientific American.

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

Secularism on the Rise: 1 in 5 Americans is Religiously Unaffiliated

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 12, 2012

All I can say is: wow.  I knew the ranks of the non-religious and religiously-unaffiliated in the United States was on the rise, but I didn’t know it would be taking off like this so soon. According to a recent Pew Research Poll, the number of Americans self-identifying as part of the so-called “nones” is now at nearly 20%!

The summary from the Pew Report is quite telling:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 –are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%). …

This chart, from the Pew Report, says it all I think:

Note the one key feature of this chart: the fact that the core of the religious right in America, white Protestant evangelicals (19%), is now actually outnumbered by the decidedly secular “nones” (19.6%)!

And further, the trends are also looking very positive for the “nones”: as the chart above shows, they are easily the fastest growing religious (or non-religious) demographic in the U.S.A.

I must say, the future is looking brighter :D

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

Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, Member of House Science Committee, Says “Evolution, Embryology, Big Bang Theory are ‘Lies Straight from the Pit of Hell’ “

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 8, 2012

But don’t take it from me, take it straight from his mouth…

First, allow me to state the obvious:

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system… we see two things from this idiotic tirade from Rep. Broun:

1. He engages in the typical creationist fear-mongering about evolutionary science that it is inherently evil, etc (hence the “Pit of Hell” reference).  I suppose we needn’t bother Rep. Broun with the annoying fact that many of his Christian brethren think evolution is just fine.

2. He, like far too many of his conservative colleagues in our government (I’m talking about YOU, Rep. Todd Akin), seem to have gone out of their way lately to declare war on any form of science they deem contrary to their ideology.  This includes not only denying evolution and denying climate science, and apparently basic info on human reproduction, but also rejecting certain pesky historical facts along the way.

Folks, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want people like this running my federal government.  This is why I so strongly support efforts like Science Debate, and why I think you should, too.  It is also why those of us who are defenders and advocates of science and skepticism should be involved in our political process.

Posted in creationism, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Confronting Anti-Vaccine Nonsense Effectively

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 8, 2012

I’m a bit late in posting this, seeing as how it was time-sensitive, but I would still like to share it because it is an excellent example of how to engage in effective skeptical activism.  My skeptical colleague – and general badass mofo – Elyse Anders, recently wrote an article at Skepchick regarding the appearance of actor Rob Schneider on a radio show.  Who cares about Rob Schneider? (It’s an honest question, in one sense, because I’ve never been a fan, but I digress)

Well, in this case we skeptics should care about Schneider, because it seems he has become one of the newest celebrity darlings and spokesmen for the anti-vaccination movement.  Elyse elaborates in her Skepchick post…

… Tomorrow [this was Friday, Oct. 5th], he’s going to be on the KXRK 96.3 in Salt Lake City to promote his new… oh, I honestly don’t know. Who cares? It’s probably more awful than measles. But the measles thing we can at least do something about.

Last time he was on the show, he was promoting something related to his “career” and decided the best way to fill that time was to start yelling about how Big Vax is in bed with Big Brother. Full-on foil hat style.

Reader Atropos provided a clip of the show you can listen to here (or by clicking the poster from his Oscar Winning Drama Hot Chicks which I’ve provided in place of an embedded player.)

Favorite points/quick and dirty highlights:

  • Polio just runs its course. It infects a few million people, gets bored, then stops infecting people. And eradicates itself. But then comes back again… maybe to avenge it’s eradication. Exactly how evolution works.
  • Vaccines are not tested. Ever. On anyone.  Or anything. A bunch of wild-haired men in lab coats run around making vats of Big Pharma’s HAHAHA WHATEVER patented mix then they stick it into vials and inject it into you then PROFIT!
  • Vaccines are not tested. And don’t work. And we know they don’t work despite not testing. Ever. On anyone. Or anything.
  • THE GOVERNMENT PAYS YOU TO GET AUTISM! Because??? Autistic people are easy to control? It seems like a poor long term government investment.
  • Rob Schneider can read. Why is no one talking about this? …

Yup, a lot of the usual anti-vax talking points and conspiracy mongering.  But what I wanted to point out isn’t so much that Elyse was venting her spleen about some idiot celebrity spewing nonsense on the radio, it was that she was willing to DO SOMETHING about it!!! (Which is one reason I love her :) )

… If you’re local, tune into X 96 (96.3 FM) tomorrow morning at 7 am local time. If you’re not near Salt Lake City, listen online at 7 am MDT which is 10 am 9 am EDT. Call in during the show to talk to Mr. Schneider* and confront him with weird ass facts that he’s discussing.  877-602-9696

Brush up on your anti-vax arguments here:

CDC’s common vaccine misconceptions

Google Scholar: vaccine clinical trials (for reference, not for reading)

Anti-Anti-Vax’s The Truth About The Evils Of Vaccination and the Costs of Treating Vaccine Preventable Diseases

Oh… and a little site I like Hug Me, I’m Vaccinated.

So yeah, I missed the boat on this one.  But take a moment to learn from Elyse’s activism, and read her links.  The next time you hear that Rob Schneider (or Jim Carrey or Jenny McCarthy or any celebrity whack-a-loon) is going to be on a program where he could spew his anti-vaccine garbage, consider calling/emailing/texting in and holding him accountable.  If more and more skeptics take their cue from Elyse and act in a like manner more often when some pseudoscientist or conspiracy theorist spews their nonsense in a public forum, it will help go a long way towards countering that nonsense.

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

Carl Sagan Day 2012 Approaches!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 7, 2012

In the next few weeks, supporters of science and secularism will be celebrating the 78th anniversary of the birth of Carl Sagan, scientist, astronomer, skeptic, and popular advocate for science and critical thinking.  For many of us who are in our 30s and 40s, we were inspired to become interested in science as a direct result of Carl Sagan’s public advocacy of science (most especially through his ground-breaking book and TV-series Cosmos).  In honor of Carl Sagan and his accomplishments, as well as a way of promoting the public acceptance of science, we in the Chicago area will celebrate Carl Sagan Day on Thursday, Nov. 1st – look here for more information!

**Aside: To find a Carl Sagan Day event in your area, just use Google.  If there isn’t one, consider holding your own :)

Carl Sagan at The Planetary Society in 1980.  Image source

You’re invited to Chicago’s Carl Sagan Day 2012! Chicago’s secular community is gathering once again to celebrate the life and legacy of the great science popularizer, the beauty of discovery, and the fun of exploration. The event will be held in Schmitt Academic Center Room 161, on DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus. The building is handicapable accessible, and accommodation can be provided upon request. …
Apple pie (made from scratch, of course) and cosmos will be served.
Speakers: “Carl Sagan’s Life and Legacy” Dr. Peter Vandervoort, Professor Emeritus, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and a former colleague of Carl Sagan
[Topic Undetermined] Dr. Angela Olinto, Chair of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department at the University of Chicago
“Citizen Science” Dr. Bernhard Beck-Winchantz, Associate Professor of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Studies Department at DePaul University
Emcee: Matt Lowry High School Physics Teacher, writer at The Skeptical Teacher.

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

“Creation Evidence Expo” Exposed

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 3, 2012

Recently, one of my skeptical colleagues – Louise Kellar – attended the Creation Evidence Expo in Indianapolis, IN and she wrote up a guest blog on it over at Freethought Blogs.  I wanted to share it with you here for two reasons: 1) it is a really thorough (and funny!) write-up of the whole event, and 2) Louise must have a much stronger stomach than me, because I don’t think I could have managed to attend this thing without rage-facing my brains out.

The entire post is quite long, but I wanted to emphasize one section which I considered to be very important…

Creation Evidence Expo Report

Louise Kellar – kickin’ it at the Creation Evidence Expo :)

… Dye kept putting up slides about education. “The aim of education should be to convert the mind into a living fountain and not a reservoir” and “Education makes a people easy to lead but difficult to drive, easy to govern but impossible to enslave.” After that he went on about how god was taken out of school in 1963 and shared some statistics with us. Now bear in mind these statistics are all the direct result of God being taken out of school. (Also this is the short list)

  • Violent crime up 995%
  • Suicide up 300%
  • Single parent families up 117%
  • STDs up 226%
  • Average SAT score down 80 points
  • Assaults on teachers up 7000%
  • Birth rate of unwed 10-14 year olds up 325% *last year he claimed it was 553%
  • 84% of cities are in financial trouble
  • 4000 churches close annually
  • No new members added to 50% of churches
  • 1400 pastors quit each month.

My mind was reeling from all these phony statistics, and of course he didn’t stop there. I am not even sure how he segued into the next topic. It was all about how evolutionists will try to trick you into not believing and he began explaining all the ways animals try to kill humans. He kept talking about how evolutionists will show up to your events and try to trick you. They will also stalk you and they will try their best to lead you away from god. “They kill, steal, and destroy.” He repeated that phrase about every minute. It appeared very much to be an attack on anyone who didn’t believe in creationism and how evil those people are. At one point he even mentioned that people will write bad things about him on the internet. I wonder if he saw what I said about him last year?

ZOMG – BEST FLOWCHART EVAR!!! Really, you can’t make this stuff up… even though the creationists kind of DID just make it up :)

This goofy flowchart (and the meme behind the statistics that Dye quoted above) were what I really wanted to make the focus of my comments in this post.  Those things clearly show what we who call ourselves skeptics and defenders of science are up against when we fight against creationism: namely, we are up against a worldview which is completely devoid of any scientific understanding at all.  Creationists are not only ignorant of scientific facts, they are ignorant of the entire process of science itself; and not only that, in many ways they are outright anti-scientific in their views because they have been convinced (likely through a lifetime of brainwashing in church and at events like the Creation Expo) that to accept evolutionary science will automatically turn one into a raving, immoral, baby-eating, murdering, AIDS-infested atheist intent on destroying all that is good and decent in society.  Hence, stupidity like the flowchart above *facepalm*

And, quite frankly, when you’re up against that kind of crazy, all the science in the world won’t help you win these folks over.

Which is why, in many cases, I don’t try to fight a creationist with whom I’m arguing solely with scientific facts (since they seem to be largely impervious to such facts); instead, while I mention scientific information, I also try to engage them in a bit of a different manner, one which I think is more effective… I use religion.  Specifically, I point out that the “evolution = atheism = evil” argument is completely bogus for one simple reason: there are numerous Christians (and people of other religious faiths) who accept evolution!

That one fact alone destroys their entire argument.  Showing them that people of their own religion (Christianity, usually) disagree with their views on creationism is a killer, and it can lead to – pardon the pun – quite a lot of soul-searching on the part of more thoughtful creationists.  In addition, I also engage them on the entire morality argument by challenging the assertion that atheists are inherently immoral and evil; this can, and often does, lead into deeper philosophical discussions on the nature of good, evil, ethics, etc.  While they may be ignorant of science, they’re all about morals, so why not engage them on those terms using language they can understand?

I’m not saying that it will win them over to the PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins camp of evolution, but one thing it will get them to do is THINK.  And that’s the first step.

Posted in creationism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »


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