The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for November, 2012

How Secularism Should Move Forward in the United States

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 26, 2012

I have posted before on the emergence of a more secular demographic within the United States and what appears to be a concurrent decline in religious fundamentalism.  However, I listened to a recent Point of Inquiry podcast which got me to look at the question in a different manner, and there appears to be much more work advancing a secular worldview to be done.  I especially agree with the idea that atheists should be attempting to find common ground with moderate religious believers and building broader political coalitions, as opposed to alienating those believers simply because we have differences on belief(s) in God.  I encourage you to give it a listen…

Jacques Berlinerblau – How to Be Secular

November 12, 2012

Host: Chris Mooney

On this show, we often debate the state of American secularism—covering topics like the rise of the so-called “nones,” or the unending battle to rescue the country from the pernicious influence of Christian right.

Our guest this week, Jacques Berlinerblau, has a provocative thesis about all this. He says that American secularism has clearly and distinctly lost major ground. And to recover from that loss, well… he’s got some suggestions that might not go down well—but it’s important to hear them.

Even if, you know, you’re not quite ready for a political allegiance with religious moderates.

Jacques Berlinerblau is author of the new book How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. He’s an associate professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, where he directs the Program for Jewish Civilization.

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Carl Sagan Day 2012 in Chicago – Audio Recording

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 21, 2012

This past Carl Sagan Day celebration in Chicago was a wonderful experience: the room was packed, the speakers were quite inspiring, and I left the evening with my enthusiasm for science and reason elevated!  The audio of the entire event was recorded, and I wanted to share that with you below.  Enjoy :D

Carl Sagan Day – Chicago 2012

Image Source

“We wait for light, but behold darkness.” Isaiah 59:9

“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Adage

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Skeptical Teacher Blog Now on Facebook

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 20, 2012

In what is little more than a shameless plug, I would like to announce that the Skeptical Teacher blog now has a Facebook page :)

If you’re on Facebook, go check it out.  And if you like the blog, then please display your appreciation with  a “Like” and possibly some “Shares” if you are so inclined!

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The Denver UFO: Yup, It’s Unidentified… So What Does That Mean?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 18, 2012

Over the last few days there has been a media sensation built up around a UFO in the Denver, Colorado area.  Here’s a closeup of the object in question:

Image source

The story has garned a great deal of attention, as evidenced by this video clip from a local news station…

Indeed, the news team does a so-so job of investigating this UFO, though there is a lot of sensationalizing in the report (surprise, surprise!), but there is one point I would like to emphasize in greater detail which this report totally glossed over.  That is the fact that this thing, whatever it is, is unidentified… as in Unidentified Flying Object.  Repeat after me three times: unidentified flying object… Unidentified flying object… UNIDENTIFIED flying object!!!

I want to be very clear on this point because, as I expected, the Internet is already abuzz with talk of alien spacecraft, government cover ups, and conspiracies galore.  And those leaping to this dubious conclusion (that the thing is “obviously not of this world”) are committing what is known as an argument from ignorance – that is, in one breath they will admit that we don’t have enough information to conclude what it is, but then in the next breath they will say, quite emphatically, that it HAS to be an alien spacecraft.

And such thinking contains a direct contradiction: the argument basically says that because we don’t know, then we know.  With reasoning as loose as this, one can “justify” the existence of leprechauns, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or Invisible Pink Unicorns!  What the heck is wrong with saying “We don’t know” and just leaving it at that?

Incidentally, while the possibility of a plane or helicopter has been ruled out, it is likely that the object in question is a bug of some kind.  There is a very good article on this point over at the Illuminutti blog…

… OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. …

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Demise of the Religious Right?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 16, 2012

In a recent post, I outlined how secular Americans are starting to make inroads into the political process, partly due to the rise of a non-religious demographic in the United States.  On a related note, I find it worth pointing out the fact that the power and influence of the socially and religiously conservative movement known as the “religious right” seems to be on the decline.  Evidence for this can be found by looking at the results of the 2012 elections.  The following article from The Atlantic magazine goes into more detail; I shall share my thoughts on a few excerpts…

An ‘Evangelical Disaster': What Happened to the Religious Vote?

… “I think this [election] was an evangelical disaster,” Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told NPR. He’s right, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

The late Falwell’s Liberty University gave former Gov. Mitt Romney its keynote spot at its 2012 commencement and backed off previous language calling Mormonism a “cult.” Billy Graham uncharacteristically threw his support behind the Republican candidate, and his evangelistic association bought full-page newspaper ads all but endorsing Romney. Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition spent tens of millions in battleground states to get out the religious vote.

As a result, 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Romney on Tuesday. That’s the same percentage that Bush received in 2004, and more than Sen. John McCain received in 2008. The evangelical vote was 27 percent of the overall electorate — the highest it’s ever been for an election.

Their support wasn’t enough. Not only did President Obama win soundly, but four states voted to allow same-sex marriage. …

So why is it that the religiously conservative vote didn’t win out?  Here are some reasons:

… First, the size of the evangelicals’ base is a limitation. While white evangelicals comprised a quarter of the electorate, other religious groups that lean Democratic have grown substantially. Hispanic-American Catholics, African-American Protestants, and Jewish-Americans voted Democratic in overwhelming numbers. Additionally, the “nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation — are now the fastest growing “religious” group, comprising one-fifth of the population and a third of adults under 30. Seven out of 10 “nones” voted for Obama.

Second, evangelicals’ influence is waning. Conservative Christian ideas are failing to shape the broader culture. More than 3,500 churches close their doors every year, and while Americans are still overwhelmingly spiritual, the institutional church no longer holds the sway over their lives it once did. The sweeping impact of globalization and the digital age has marginalized the church and its leaders. …

… Third, evangelical leadership is wanting. A quarter-century ago, Christian mobilization efforts were rising, Christian advocacy groups were sprouting, and charismatic Christian leaders were popping up in every corner of the country. This is no longer the case.

Politically influential pastors like Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have died, James Dobson retired, and Pat Robertson has been relegated to the fringes of his own community. By any reckoning, few charismatic figures are able or willing to fill these voids.

The leadership vacuum became painfully obvious during the Republican primaries, when 150 “high-powered” evangelical leaders, including Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer, met behind closed doors in Texas to determine which candidate should receive their endorsement. They chose Rick Santorum, but in the South Carolina primaries a week later, Newt Gingrich and Romney split two-thirds of the state’s evangelical vote.

Additionally, organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are either defunct or defunded, while Focus on the Family has made clear its intention to move in a less political direction. The number and influence of evangelical organizations shaping the public square is greatly diminished. …

Will the religious right end up dying off?  I’m not sure, but whether or not you view this as a good thing (personally, I see it as a positive development that fundamentalist religion is having less influence on our modern society), I think it is safe to say that things are changing in the United States.

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Dealing With Different Views: An Interview on the Secular Buddhist

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 10, 2012

While at Dragon*Con 2012 this past Labor Day weekend, I did many things (check them out here and here) but one of the things of which I was most proud was an interview I did with Ted Meissner, who runs the Secular Buddhist website and podcast.  In the interview with me and Ted was Melissa Kaercher and Melissa “Missy” Lee, and we had a wide-ranging and fruitful discussion of how skeptics can have productive and civil conversations with believers in woo and the paranormal.  Whether you call yourself a skeptic, a believer, or something else entirely, I think this podcast is well worth a listen…

Episode 142 :: Melissa Lee, Matt Lowry, Melissa Kaercher :: Dealing with Different Views

| November 10, 2012

How often do we have conversations where all participants agree, completely, on all points? Just shy of never. Every day, we are going to run into an expected variety of thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. Some of these will be held quite strongly, others not so much. It gets difficult when the passion about ideas is fierce, and the divergence between ideas is wide.

When we do find ourselves in situations where the discussion is going to happen, how can we engage in ways that not only leave doors open, but actively create bridges? Today’s episode is based on a situation that occured at DragonCon, during the science track in a panel discussion about evolution and creationism. It was recorded in a crowded bar, so I thank you for your patience with the background sounds and ask for your understanding that we don’t always have the benefits of quiet, Skype based conversations.

Matt Lowry

Matt Lowry is a high school physics teacher with a strong interest in promoting science education & critical thinking among his students and the population in general. He is a self-described skeptic, someone who believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” His blog The Skeptical Teacher is to allow Matt to expound upon various topics related to skepticism, science, and education.

Melissa Kaercher

Melissa Kaercher is a professional colorist, letterer, and web designer from Minneapolis. She is an active part of the skeptic community, participating in Mad Art Lab events, and is a frequent panelist in conventions across the country. Melissa is also co-host of The Geek Life podcast.

Melissa Lee

Melissa (“Missy”) Lee is the head of Minnesota Skeptics, and is what you might call a “convert” skeptic: once a true believer in all kinds of assorted woo. She values critical thinking skills, and hosts the MN Skeptics Newbie Nights and monthly Drinking Skeptically get togethers in Minneapolis.

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

Kyrsten Sinema: First Open Non-Theist Elected to Congress

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 8, 2012

Wow… this was one hell of an election!  I just want to point out a couple of notable races.  In this post, I want to focus on Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat in Arizona’s 9th Congressional District who looks to be the first openly non-theistic (atheistic?) person elected to Congress!  I say “looks to be” because 1) the race hasn’t officially been concluded (votes are still being counted, but Sinema has a lead which only seems to be growing), and 2) Pete Stark, Congressman from California, is openly non-theistic, but he didn’t originally run as an out-of-the-closet non-theist.  Here’s more on Kyrsten Sinema:

Kyrsten Sinema: ‘We’re Optimistic’ in Arizona

… Election for Sinema would be no small feat in the state that produced U.S. senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and Gov. Jan Brewer, whose exceptionally conservative immigration policies have regularly made national news. In many ways, Sinema, who is also an open nontheist and was raised Mormon and attended Brigham Young University, is an anomaly in Arizona politics. But she’s ahead in some polls in the final stages of her race against Parker, though it’s one of Congress’s tightest races. …

As I’ve stated before, this is the wave of the future, folks.  With the rise of a more openly secular demographic in the United States, coupled with the inevitable decline (read: dying off) of the most religious demographic, the good ol’ U.S. of A. will move towards more diversity in both popular culture and political representation.  And that includes non-theists :)

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

EVP Patrol Squad: When Parody is Indistinguishable from Woo

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 3, 2012

I just ran across this parody of the “History” Channel by some folks calling themselves the EVP Patrol Squad.  They are spoofing the various pseudoscientific “experts” that are regularly paraded out on that channel in favor of various ancient alien, paranormal, and ghostly claims.  The funny thing is that if you actually watch some of the stuff on the History Channel, it is so goofy that it almost seems that this is straight from one of their shows – so this is good evidence of Poe’s Law.  Enjoy! :)

I don’t know about you all, but I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to look a sporks the same again.  The horror… THE HORROR!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal, humor, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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