The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for the ‘astrology’ Category

Weird Al’s Horoscope Song

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 23, 2013

In honor of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s birthday, I wanted to share with you one of his songs which has a funny skeptical and cynical slant to it… “That’s Your Horoscope for Today” (lyrics here).  Enjoy!  :)

Incidentally, here’s my favorite section of the lyrics:

Now you may find it inconceivable or at the very least a bit unlikely
that the relative position of the planets and the stars could have
a special deep significance or meaning that exclusively applies to only you, but let me give you my assurance that these forecasts and predictions are all based on solid, scientific, documented evidence, so you would have to be some kind of moron not to realize that every single one of them is absolutely true.

Posted in astrology, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

NASA Debunks Mayan Doomsday Prophecies… AGAIN

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 10, 2012

*Sigh* I’ve said it before, but it is worth saying again…

The World is NOT Going to End on December 21st!!!

[In case you know anyone who thinks it will, please refer them to :) ]

Incidentally, if common sense isn’t enough, and you happen to have some poor deluded family member or friend convinced they cannot come out of the basement until after the planet has been turned into a mutant-populated, radioactive hell, you could consider sharing this well-written article with them:

NASA says world won’t end in 2012 despite Mayan  calendar

mayan calendar

We’re less than a month away from the so-called end of the world, but NASA  says you don’t have anything to worry about.

Earlier this month, NASA posted a list of frequently asked questions about  why the world won’t end in 2012, like some believe the Mayans calendar  indicates.

The post explained that Earth has been getting along fine for the last 4  billion years and there is no threat to our planet this year. …

But how can those egghead geeks at NASA be so sure?  Well, there are these things called “logic” and “reason” which tend to give validity to arguments such as this:

… But just as your desk calendar ends on Dec. 31 and world keeps going on, the  same goes for the Mayan calendar, NASA explained. Just before you run out of  pages doesn’t mean life as we know it will cease to exist. …

Personally, I cannot wait until December 22nd.  Because then there are going to be a LOT of people with a LOT of egg on their faces, just like all the other times the world was predicted to end and it didn’t.

In fact, regarding all the doomsday predictions ever made in the past, there is one thing they all have in common: They were all dead wrong.

Posted in astrology, doomsday, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

NASA Video Crushes Mayan Doomsday 2012 Predictions

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 14, 2012

The fine folks at NASA have put together a nice, quick video debunking the claims of doomsday related to the supposed end of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, 2012.  Check out the video over at Life’s Little Mysteries…

NASA Crushes 2012 Mayan Apocalypse Claims

by Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have put out a new video to address false claims about the “Mayan apocalypse,” a non-event that some people believe will bring the world to an end on Dec. 21.

In the video, which was posted online Wednesday (Mar. 7), Don Yeomans, head of the Near-Earth Objects Program Office at NASA/JPL, explains away many of the most frequently cited doomsday scenarios. [See video]

Addressing the belief that the calendar used by the ancient Mayan civilization comes to a sudden end in December 2012, and that this will coincide with a cataclysmic, world-ending event, Yeomans said: “Their calendar does not end on December 21, 2012; it’s just the end of the cycle and the beginning of a new one. It’s just like on December 31, our calendar comes to an end, but a new calendar begins on January 1.” …

Read the rest at Life’s Little Mysteries


Posted in astrology, doomsday, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

It’s Equinox Time, So Balance Some Eggs for Science!

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 22, 2011

Tomorrow, September 23rd, is the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, and it is on this occasion that I like to inject a little skeptical and critical thinking fun into my physics classes.  Most of us have heard of the urban legend about balancing an egg on its end during the equinox – the thing is, this is true!  The myth is the implication that one can only do this on the equinox, when – in fact – you can balance an egg on end pretty much any time you want.

Case in point, here’s a couple of photos of me balancing eggs on their ends during the time of year exactly opposite to the equinoxes…

During the summer solstice…

And during the winter solstice…

In addition, here’s a nice Youtube video showing some tips on how to accomplish this trick:

The reason why this trick works boils down to simple physics: it’s called unstable equilibrium.  If you have a flat and level surface on which to perform this trick, and there aren’t a lot of vibrations around, then chances are you can balance a number of eggs in a standard dozen pack.  As long as the eggs are relatively smooth on their ends (look closely and you’ll see some bumps on some of them) and you are very patient, then with some practice pretty much anyone can perform this trick.  The Bad Astronomy blog has a pretty good rundown on the physics as well.

So the next time you hear someone pass along the “eggs can be balanced only on the equinox” myth, whip out some eggs and balance away.  It’s a quick, easy, and fun way to advocate for skepticism and science :)

Posted in astrology, magic tricks, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

More Media Fail and Silliness: Lunar Effect Babies

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2011

This week there’s been a story going around the media about a supposedly huge jump in births in a Sacramento hospital where “45 babies were delivered in 48 hours.”  Now that may or may not sound very unusual (it ends up it isn’t that strange – read on), but the really weird aspect of this is the claim made by the hospital officials with nary a skeptical thought:

“The human body is 80 percent water, after all. And, given that both menstruation and ovulation roughly follow a lunar cycle – occurring on a monthly basis – it doesn’t seem too far off to think that the moon could have a say in childbirth as well,” hospital officials said.

And, of course, the supposed mechanism for this “lunar effect”, as espoused by the hospital spokesman, is gravitational in nature:
According to the news release, the moon’s gravitational pull “can control a woman’s body” the same way the moon’s gravity controls tides.
*Cue spooky music…
Image courtesy of

First of all, the fact that 45 babies were born in 48 hours is not that significant.  Note the article states that there have been a total of 325,000 babies delivered at the hospital since 1937.  If you do the math, then this comes out to an average of about 12 babies per day – compared to the claim in the article (which basically averages out to about 22 or 23 babies in one day), this seems not very extraordinary because it shows that there was a weekend where the hospital had only double the average number of births!  100 times the average number of births would be statistically significant, but not 2 times the average.

Then there’s the stupid claim about the “lunar effect”.  Not only is this a bogus claim – click here to see why not – but it is also implausible from the standpoint of basic physics.  The hospital spokesman makes a common claim about the “lunar effect” being gravitational in nature, like the tidal effects on the Earth’s oceans.  However, if one takes a moment to work through the mathematics, this arguments falls apart pretty quickly.  For example, I perform the calculations for the tidal effects of the moon (whether it is full or not is irrelevant) on a person in my physics classes, and it ends up the tidal forces that act upon a person are stupendously small – about one-billionth the weight of a paperclip!  So whether or not you decide to wear a hat or use hair gel on any given day has more gravitational influence on you than does the tides from the moon!

That’s because the strength of the tidal forces that act on an object are proportional to the size of that object.  In the case of a large planet, like the Earth, the relative difference between gravity from one side of the planet to the other (this difference is the tide itself) is pretty big since the Earth is big.  But humans are so small on this size scale that the difference in gravity (tide) on us is miniscule.

So the next time you gaze upwards and see the full moon, appreciate it for all its beauty and wonder.  But don’t worry about it making you crazy; the failure of the media to accurately report science is a bigger threat of making you nuts ;)

Posted in astrology, mathematics, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Double-Whammy of Stupid Regarding the Japanese Earthquake

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 25, 2011

I’ve been sitting on this a bit, but I can’t take it anymore.  Beyond the idiocy being bantered about much of the media concerning the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, there is an entire other layer of stupid superimposed atop that: it’s about what caused the earthquake in the first place and future effects (i.e. “mega”-quakes) resulting from the Japanese quake.

The first bit of pseudoscientific flummery comes from various physics cranks & astrological weirdos who seem to have been going on and on about something called the “Supermoon”.  Here’s a great Bad Astronomy article (written March 11th, 2011) taking down why this Supermoon nonsense is Super-Stupid…

No, the “supermoon” didn’t cause the Japanese earthquake

… The idea of the Moon affecting us on Earth isn’t total nonsense, but it cannot be behind this earthquake, and almost certainly won’t have any actual, measurable effect on us on March 19, when the full Moon is at its closest.

So, how can I be so sure?

The gravity of the situation

Here’s the deal. The Moon orbits the Earth in an ellipse, so sometimes it’s closer to us and sometimes farther away. At perigee (closest point) it can be as close as 354,000 km (220,000 miles). At apogee, it can be as far as 410,000 km (254,000 miles). Since the Moon orbits the Earth every month or so, it goes between these two extremes every two weeks. So if, say, it’s at apogee on the first of the month, it’ll be at perigee in the middle of the month, two weeks later.

The strength of gravity depends on distance, so the gravitational effects of the Moon on the Earth are strongest at perigee.

However, the Moon is nowhere near perigee right now! [Note: This article was written on March 11th, the same date as the Japanese earthquake]

The Moon was at apogee on March 6, and will be at perigee on March 19. When the earthquake in Japan hit last night, the Moon was about 400,000 km (240,000 miles) away. So not only was it not at its closest point, it was actually farther away than it usually is on average.

So again, this earthquake in Japan had nothing to do with the Moon…

The second bit of nonsense which is making the rounds on the Internet is an article published in Newsweek magazine stating that the Japanese earthquake makes it more likely there will be a super-duper “mega-quake” which will, among other things, flatten California & the west coast of the United States.  Sadly, this is yet another example of media fail on a scientific topic, because had the writer (supposedly a “journalist”, but actually someone who doesn’t deserve that title) of the Newsweek article taken just a little time to check his facts, he would have seen that such an idea is nonsense. has a great take down of this fiasco…

Bogus Claim: Japan Earthquake Won’t Trigger a California Quake

An unfounded scientific assertion by a nonscientist has swept across the Web like a tsunami over the past few days. In an article in Newsweek, writer Simon Winchester claimed that the 9.0-magnitude Japan earthquake, following close on the heels of recent quakes in New Zealand and Chile, has ratcheted up the chances of a catastrophic seismic event striking in California.

In his article, “The Scariest Earthquake Is Yet to Come,” Winchester pointed out that all three of those recent earthquakes occurred along faults on the edge of the Pacific Plate — the giant tectonic puzzle piece under the Pacific Ocean — and that this also butts up against the North American plate along the San Andreas Fault.

“[A] significant event on one side of a major tectonic plate is often … followed some weeks or months later by another on the plate’s far side,” he wrote. “Now there have been catastrophic events at three corners of the Pacific Plate — one in the northwest, on Friday; one in the southwest, last month; one in the southeast, last year. That leaves just one corner unaffected — the northeast. And the fault line in the northeast of the Pacific Plate is the San Andreas Fault, underpinning the city of San Francisco.” …

Of course, the actual journalists (not the hacks who seem to pump out useless bilge called “science reporting” at Newsweek) at check with real scientists on the question, and here’s what they found:

… “There is no evidence for a connection between all of the Pacific Rim earthquakes,” Nathan Bangs, a geophysicist who studies tectonic processes at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, told Life’s Little Mysteries. “I don’t know what the basis is for the statements and implications in the Newsweek article, but there is no evidence that there is a link.”

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) earthquake geologist David Schwartz, who heads the San Francisco Bay Area Earthquake Hazards Project, concurred. “Simon Winchester is a popular science writer, not a scientist,” Schwartz said. “I’m not saying we won’t have an earthquake here in California at some point in the future, but there really is no physical connection between these earthquakes.” …

… Rich Briggs, a USGS geologist whose work focuses on how earthquakes happen, explained another way in which earthquakes can cascade. “The other way earthquakes affect their neighbors is that when a fault ruptures, it sends out seismic waves that in the case of large earthquakes can even circle the globe. In some cases, this ‘dynamic stress transfer’ increases seismicity,” Briggs told Life’s Little Mysteries. “But that only happens as waves go by, in the minutes that it takes the waves to travel out from the fault zone.” …

… So when will a major earthquake strike California? “Based on models taking into account the long-term rate of slip on the San Andreas fault and the amount of offset that occurred on the fault in 1906, the best guess is that 1906-type earthquakes occur at intervals of about 200 years,” Robert Williams, USGS seismologist, wrote in an email. “Because of the time needed to accumulate slip equal to a 20-foot offset, there is only a small chance (about 2 percent) that such an earthquake could occur in the next 30 years.” …

The Japanese earthquake, subsequent tsunami, and all the related pain, suffering, and death is a horrible tragedy that the world will no doubt be grappling with for many years to come.  However, in order for us to deal with these inevitable & uncontrollable tragedies, we must use the best tools at our disposal.  These tools include addressing things from a careful, rational, scientific, and fact-based view, not by appealing to our more primitive notions of superstition & fear-mongering.  One works, the other doesn’t: take a guess which is which.

Posted in astrology, doomsday, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Shifting of the Zodiac & Why Astrology Fails

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 15, 2011

For the last couple of days I’ve been getting questions from some of my colleagues about the “shifting of the zodiac” and today one playfully asked me if they were still a Cancer.  In fact, I’ve seen news headlines stating “Your horoscope could quite possibly be wrong” – this is humorous because I’ve always known horoscopes are wrong & useless :)

Some astrologers and other pseudoscientific goofballs are apparently making a lot of hay out of this (including some doomsayers who have bought into the 2012 hysteria), but I’m here to tell you that this is the effect of nothing more than simple physics.  What is going on is just the effect of the rotational axis of the Earth twisting around in a cone – this is a phenomenon called axial precession. Picture a spinning toy top on the ground – does it stay upright and keep spinning forever?  No, it eventually starts to wobble.  In much the same way, the Earth’s rotational axis wobbles, and it takes about 26,000 years for this cycle to complete.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

For example, many of us have heard of the North Star, also known as Polaris, as the star in the sky right above our north (geographic) pole.  That is, if you were standing at the geographic north pole of the Earth, Polaris would be directly overhead all the time with the rest of the sky appearing to wheel about it.  Well, believe it or not, Polaris hasn’t always been the North Star; in fact, about 13,000 years ago (halfway through our precessional cycle) our North Star was Vega!

Thus, if our North Star can be shifted over time due to precessional movement, then so too can other features of our night sky, such as the zodiac.  The zodiac is a collection of constellations which inhabit a band of sky called the ecliptic – the ecliptic is that region wherein we see the Sun, Moon, and all the planets move from our perspective on Earth, and it basically outlines the plane of our solar system.  The following image explains clearly the arrangement of the zodiac symbols along the ecliptic…

A band around the sky about 18° wide, centered on the ecliptic, in which the Sun, Moon, and planets move. The band is divided into 12 signs of the zodiac, each 30° long, that were named by the ancient Greeks after the constellations that used to occupy these positions; “zodiac” means “circle of animals,” and only Libra is inanimate. Over the past 2,000 years, precession has moved the constellations eastward by over 30° so that they no longer coincide with the old signs. Image Source

So what’s really going on is that, due to the long slow precessional cycle of the Earth, our old star maps which laid down the zodiac we’ve all come to recognize are now getting out of date.  That’s it, nothing more, nothing less.  So relax, it’s not the harbinger of cosmic disaster, it’s just simple physics.  And, I might add, where superstition & astrology have failed, science & astronomy have triumphed – what astrologer predicted the shifting of the zodiac? That is, without consulting the actual scientists first… ;)

If you’d like to see an excellent blog post on this same subject, I highly recommend this entry by Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy Blog.

Posted in astrology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

New Years Psychic Prediction Failures: 2010 Year in Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 1, 2011

Among the New Year traditions that seem to get bantered about these days are psychic predictions for the upcoming year.  Of course, psychics are a bunch of hooey – ever seen a newspaper headline titled “Psychic Wins Lottery, Gives Money to Starving Kids!”?  You never will, because psychic & other related paranormal phenomena just don’t work, period.

However, there are all too many faithful followers of psychic woo who want to believe that it works.  One of the primary ways in which believers fool themselves is to cherry-pick the predictions & results; in skeptic-speak, we call this “counting the hits and ignoring the misses”.  And there are a LOT more misses than hits, folks.  In addition, many of these psychics tend to make very vague & ambiguous predictions which can be twisted and interpreted in a number of ways.  This creative interpretation of misses or vague predictions after-the-fact as hits is well documented in the history of psychic woo.

As a way of illustrating this, let us take some time to examine a series of predictions made one year ago by a number of famous psychics, shall we?

What the Psychics Are Predicting for 2010

By , Guide

THESE ARE THE people who are supposed to be able to tell us the future, right? Okay, so here are 2010 predictions from psychics, astrologers and mentalists from around the U.S. and around the world about the economy, politics, Hollywood – and a few very weird things.

Christopher St John, Psychic

  • Another crash in the stock market… maybe a little bit later in the year.
  • Increased recording and reporting of sightings of UFOs will place pressure on world governments to admit “the truth” of extra-terrestrial life. …

Another stock market crash?  Hmm, let’s see how the ol’ market did this year.  According to Yahoo News Finance, it seems like it was a pretty damn good year for the market, specifically the Dow Jones:

Of course, if Mr. St. John wants to call the dip in the market from May to July (which amounted to ~1000 points over the course of two months) a “crash”, I suppose he could do that.  But given what the markets went through back in 2008, I think this two-month-long dip could hardly be called a “crash”.  I’m going to call this one a miss.

As for the supposed “pressure” put on world governments to release “the truth” of ET-life, I don’t seem to recall any major headlines on that front.  In fact, a brief search of Google News using the terms “extra terrestrial life ufo governments” revealed pretty much nothing; well, nothing except for this headline: ‘Cosmic masters’ call for Govt investigation into UFOs

I suppose this is marginally interesting, but the prediction was that world governments (note the plural there) would have these UFO files released and facing pressure.  As it is, it seems that this has only occurred in New Zealand, not worldwide as predicted.  Not to mention, in the last few years we have seen the release of a number of formerly secret files on supposed UFO sightings by a number of governments, so this sort of “prediction” comes as no big revelation.  If this is a psychic hit, it is a really vague & lukewarm one.

Who is our next psychic? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in astrology, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Eclipses, Moon Myths & Lunacy

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2010

This winter solstice, the night of December 20th and early morning of the 21st, will bear witness to a full lunar eclipse. It seems to me that every time such an event takes place it brings forth all manner of myths & misconceptions regarding the moon and its supposed effects.  So, in the spirit of this evening lunar eclipse, I wanted to pass along to you all the straight science regarding some of the more loonie (pardon the pun) claims regarding the moon.

First, here is some scientifically reliable information regarding lunar eclipses…

Now, on to some of the myths regarding the moon: I want to share with you two good articles that examine many of the pseudoscientific claims regarding the moon, one from and the other from the Skeptic’s Dictionary

Moon Myths: The Truth About Lunar Effects on You

The moon holds a mystical place in the history of human culture, so it’s no wonder that many myths — from werewolves to induced lunacy to epileptic seizures — have built up regarding its supposed effects on us.

“It must be a full moon,” is a phrase heard whenever crazy things happen and is said by researchers to be muttered commonly by late-night cops, psychiatry staff and emergency room personnel. …

Full moon and lunar effects

The full moon has been linked to crime, suicide, mental illness, disasters, accidents,  birthrates, fertility, and werewolves, among other things. Some people even buy and sell stocks according to phases of the moon, a method probably as successful as many others. Numerous studies have tried to find lunar effects. So far, the studies have failed to establish much of interest. Lunar effects that have been found have little or nothing to do with human behavior, e.g., the discovery of a slight effect of the moon on global temperature,* which in turn might have an effect on the growth of plants. Of course, there have been single studies here and there that have found correlations between various phases of the moon and this or that phenomenon, but nothing significant has been replicated sufficiently to warrant claiming a probable causal relationship. …

Posted in astrology, psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 28, 2010

I want to share with you all a couple of Halloween-related lessons I give to my students every year.  That’s because this time of year is the perfect time to inject some explicit critical thinking & skepticism of all things spooky that go “bump” in the night.  I also tie it all in to scientific inquiry…

The first lesson I give my students is that I show them James Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics” video from NOVA. Though it was released in 1993, it is still one of the most well-done videos on the topic, and it is the perfect length & tone for a high school or college class.  Below is a link to Youtube where you can access the entire episode (50-60 minutes long), and I would also like to share with you the notesheet that I have my students fill in as they’re watching the video – Secrets of the Psychics Notesheet

Over the next few days, I will share with you part 2 of my Halloween lesson.  I’m certain you’ll enjoy it, so stay tuned :)

Addendum: In addition, I share some good Halloween & skeptically-themed weblinks with my students on the course website.  They are the page on Halloween urban legends and the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on Halloween – I highly recommend sharing these with your friends, family, and students.

Posted in astrology, education, ghosts & paranormal, magic tricks, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »


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