The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for the ‘internet’ Category

“Legends, Hoaxes, Frauds, and Frauds of Science” by Eugenie Scott

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 26, 2013

I just watched the following video by Dr. Eugenie Scott, formerly of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), wherein she goes over a variety of stories in an entertaining and enlightening SkeptiCal talk about urban legends, science frauds (like Piltdown Man), out-and-out silliness (like Australia’s Drop Bear), and more.  It is at times funny, serious, and challenging, even for die-hard skeptics.  Enjoy!  :)

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

Rumors and Misinformation in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 17, 2013

As you well know by now, there was a horrific bombing of the Boston Marathon yesterday on Boston’s Patriot Day.  Like many people, I spent much time last night discussing the situation online.  And, of course, in the aftermath of such an emotionally charged and upsetting situation, rumors, speculation, and – sadly – conspiracy mongering will run rampant.   However, I am of the feeling that knowledge is power, and it is better to say “I don’t know” than to speculate wildly; after all, as I told someone online last night: “rumors =/= knowledge”

So, in the spirit of spreading accurate information and squashing rumors, misinformation, and conspiracy mongering regarding the Boston Marathon Bombing, I would like to refer the reader to this collection of rumors and junk debunked from our friends at Snopes.com:

snopeslogo

Please take a few minutes to check that link, and by all means spread it far and wide over the Internet and via social media, because we do ourselves no favors by giving into our fears and allowing them to make us act irrationally.

Posted in conspiracy theories, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

“God’s 10%” and the Applebee’s Fiasco

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 2, 2013

I don’t feel like making a serious post, so this one’s just for fun. In case you haven’t heard, restaurant chain Applebee’s is creating for itself a media nightmare due to the fact that they fired a waitress for posting a photo of a receipt online from Alois Bell a.k.a. the “no tip pastor”…

A waitress at a St. Louis Applebee’s lost her job for posting online the receipt upon which a pastor had declined to leave a tip, with a snarky note saying she gave God 10 percent.

After her dinner on Jan. 25, Pastor Alois Bell crossed out the automatic 18 percent tip charged for parties of more than eight. “I give God 10% why do you get 18,” she wrote above her signature.

Employee Chelsea Welch — a colleague of the stiffed server — took a picture of the receipt and uploaded it to the online site Reddit. She subsequently lost her job, an Applebee’s spokesman confirmed to TheSmokingGun.com, for violating a customer’s privacy.

I went to dinner last night with some friends and got to talking about the situation and the snarky note from the pastor.  As a way of making a statement, this was what we wrote on our receipt to our waitress :)

IMG_0116What the hell does God need with money anyway?  Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful?  Omnipotence – that’s like the best ATM ever!!!

Posted in humor, internet, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Skeptical Teacher Blog: 2012 in review

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 31, 2012

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 220,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 4 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

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

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!

Posted in internet | 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…

FAKE!!!

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 »

EBay Bans Witchcraft and “Supernatural Sales”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 16, 2012

Okay, sometimes you run across a story so outlandish that it just seems too goofy to be true, kind of like those headlines you see in The Onion… then you find out they ARE true and you get whiplash from the double-take.  Case in point, this little gem from the LA Times:

EBay bans supernatural sales of magic spells, potions, hexes

By Tiffany Hsu This post has been updated. See note below.August 16, 2012, 10:58 a.m.
Making a profit on the occult arts? Cultivating a loyal customer base for potions, magic spells and psychic readings? Not on EBay, you’re not.

In its 2012 Fall Seller Update, the online marketplace said it was banning all sales of supernatural goods and services, exiling its witchy and wizardly clientele to the wilds of Craigslist and other Web-based Diagon Alleys.

Among the prohibited items: “advice; spells; curses; hexing; conjuring; magic services; prayers; blessings; Psychic, Tarot, Reiki, and other metaphysical readings & services; magic potions; healing sessions.”

EBay representatives did not immediately respond to questions as to why Harry Potter wannabes were no longer welcome or whether they contributed substantially to EBay transactions.

[Updated, 12:00 p.m. Aug. 16: EBay said in an email that it regularly reviews categories and updates policies based on customer feedback and was "discontinuing a small number of categories within the larger Metaphysical subcategory."

Spokeswoman Johnna Hoff said that buyers and sellers have complained to EBay that such transactions "often result in issues that can be difficult to resolve."

"It's important to note that items that have a tangible value for the item itself and may also be used in metaphysical rites and practices (ie  jewelry, crystals, incense, candles, and books) are allowed in most cases," Hoff wrote."]

Beginning Aug. 30, attempts to list such enchantments for sale will be blocked, according to the website. …

Oh dear evil Jebus… you’ve got to be kidding me.  Not “you’ve got to be kidding me” in the sense of “you’ve got to be kidding me that EBay banned witchcraft” but “you’ve got to be kidding me that they even sold witchcraft in the first frakkin’ place!!!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that EBay woke up and smelled the coffee, so to speak.  But why did they even sell this crap in the first place???

I would also just like to note that, despite showing a semblance of sanity and relation to reality by banning these so-called “supernatural sales”, EBay will still have a subcategory titled “Metaphysical” after August 30.  The mere fact that such a subcategory even exists on EBay just makes me cringe and forces me to seriously question the ethics of those who operate the company.  Selling such nonsense purely for the sake of making a buck just strikes me as wrong; or will the operators of EBay be willing to take “metaphysical money” in place of the real, materialistic cash for these purchases?

Ah well, EBay, this one’s for you:

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

Introductions

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 »

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 »

The “Kony2012″ Meme and the Need for Cautious Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2012

So this week the Internet basically exploded with a massively-popular viral video titled “Kony2012″ by the non-governmental organization Invisible Children.  Apparently, it is about a brutal Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony, who leads the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Africa and has perpetrated horrendous crimes (think mass rape, kidnapping children and forcing them to be soldiers, and that sort of monstrous stuff) in the name of doing the sort of nasty crap that warlords do in their pursuit of power.  The purpose of the video is, according to Invisible Children, to aim “to make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.”

Here’s the video in question; it’s long (~30 minutes), but a visit to the Invisible Children website will fill you in on the basic idea behind the video.

However, while bringing scumbags like Joseph Kony to justice is no doubt a laudable goal, the fact that this video and related message seemed to spread so quickly (and uncritically, it seems) across the Internet and Twittersphere made me express some cautious skepticism about the whole thing.  And it seems that my skepticism was not without some validity – check out this interesting article from Time.com on the whole “Kony2012″ meme because I think it provides a bit of perspective that should be appreciated…

Why You Should Feel Awkward About the ‘Kony2012′ Video

Stuart Price / AFP / Getty Images
Leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, answers journalists’ questions in Ri-Kwamba, southern Sudan, Nov. 12, 2006.

Most Americans began this week not knowing who Joseph Kony was. That’s not surprising: most Americans begin every week not knowing a lot of things, especially about a part of the world as obscured from their vision as Uganda, the country where Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commenced a brutal insurgency in the 1980s that lingers to this day.

A viral video that took social media by storm over the past two days has seemingly changed all that. Produced by Invisible Children, a San Diego-based NGO, “Kony2012″ is a half-hour plea for Americans and global netizens to pay attention to Kony’s crimes — which include abducting over 60,000 children over two decades of conflict, brutalizing them and transforming many into child soldiers — and to pressure the Obama Administration to find and capture him. Within hours of the slick production surfacing on social media, it led to #StopKony trending on Twitter, populated Facebook timelines, was publicized by Hollywood celebrities and has been viewed some 10 million times on YouTube. Suddenly, a man on virtually no Westerner’s radar became the international bogeyman of the moment. …

… Yet for the video’s demonstrable zeal and passion, there are some obvious problems. Others more expert in this arena have already done a bit of fact-checking: the LRA is no longer thought to be actually operating in northern Uganda, which “Kony2012″ seems to portray still as a war-ravaged flashpoint — instead, its presence has been felt mostly in disparate attacks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a nation with its own terrible history of rogue militias committing monstrous atrocities. Moreover, analysts agree that after concerted campaigns against the LRA, its numbers at this point have diminished, perhaps amounting to 250 to 300 fighters at most. Kony, shadowy and illusive, is a faded warlord on the run, with no allies or foreign friends (save perhaps, in one embarrassing moment of blustering sophistry, for American radio shock jock Rush Limbaugh.) The U.S. military’s African command (AFRICOM) has deployed its assets against Kony since at least 2008— a fact that goes conveniently unmentioned in Invisible Children’s video. …

… Not once in the half-hour film do we hear the name of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, whose quasi-authoritarian rule has lasted over 25 years. Arab Spring-inspired protests last year were ruthlessly suppressed and the country’s opposition complains bitterly about the entrenched corruption of the Museveni state. The U.S. State Department voiced its concern over Uganda’s rights record last November. Speaking to the Washington Post, Jedediah Jenkins, a member of Invisible Children, shrugs off charges that the NGO is too much in bed with the status quo in Kampala:

“There is a huge problem with political corruption in Africa. If we had the purity to say we will not partner with anyone corrupt, we couldn’t partner with anyone.”

So I guess the take-away from this one is pretty simple: just like with those chain emails that everyone used to get (and no doubt still does, in all likelihood), when you get a Tweet from someone about ‘an amazing new video’ or whatnot, perhaps it might be worthwhile to spend some time to investigate the issue before you re-Tweet.  Food for thought, folks.
———–

Posted in internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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