The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

Help Donate to Fund LogiCon in Arkansas

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 29, 2014

In my most recent post, I mentioned the biggest and most famous of skeptical conferences, The Amaz!ng Meeting 2014; however, we in the skeptical community should also be aware there is much being done at the local and regional level that deserves our support.  And sometimes this is happening in places you’d not normally expect… like in Arkansas.


There is a free skeptical/atheist conference called LogiCon taking place at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR over the weekend of April 19-20th, and they need our help.  Their funding fell through and they need only $3000 to keep this conference running.  And if you are wondering what will take place at this event, just take a look at their page and you’ll see why I’m advertising this request for donations on my blog.

Whether it’s hosting Dorian Sagan (yes, that’s Carl Sagan’s son) or premiering a new documentary about atheism called “A Scarlet Letter”, I think you can agree with me that this is a worthwhile endeavor… all the more so since it is taking place right in the middle of the Bible Belt, where critical thinking can often go by the wayside.

If you can help with a cash donation, please contribute here.  Otherwise, please spread the word – thanks! :)


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Skeptical Lesson Plans from the JREF!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 13, 2013

Over the last few years, one of the things I’ve done is to work on the Educational Advisory Board of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).  One of this board’s functions is to help assemble a variety of lesson plans and modules which emphasize skepticism and critical thinking that can be distributed to teachers everywhere.

I am happy to pass along to you some of the latest lessons from our work at the JREF.  Please feel free to share these as you see fit :)

New “JREF in The Classroom” Lesson Plans!

The James Randi Educational Foundation is pleased to announce the release of four new additions to our JREF in the Classroom offerings:

New JREF in The Classroom Lessons

Pareidolia: Do You See What You Think You See?
Teacher Edition [PDF] | Student Edition [PDF]

Illusions: Our Visual System
Teacher Edition [PDF]

Cognition: Are You Rational?
Teacher Edition [PDF]

Power Balance: Sports Enhancement, or Placebo?
Teacher Edition [PDF] | Student Edition [PDF]

These are downloadable lesson plans for use in high school and junior high school science and psychology classes that use topics in pseudoscience and the paranormal to teach critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific inquiry. Each lesson is designed to expose students to concepts identified in the National Science Content Standards and AAAS science literacy benchmarks.

These free lesson plans for teachers (and parents) are additions to JREF’s growing catalog of grade-specific standards-focused resources including lesson plans, activity guides, multimedia materials, and more. JREF’s aim with these free resources is to inspire an investigative spirit in the next generation of critical thinkers, providing the intellectual toolkit needed to navigate a life full of difficult decisions, confusing information, and conflicting claims.

Teachers can contact for a free printed classroom kit for any of the eight topics available so far, and to get more information on ways to incorporate JREF’s critical thinking materials into their classrooms.

More information on these and other classroom resources can be found here ≫

And don’t miss JREF President D.J. Grothe’s appearance on the syndicated radio show America Weekend where he discusses JREF’s new free classroom resources. Listen now ≫

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Hilarious Lesson in Critical Thinking: “Why Can’t You Use Phones on Planes?”

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 18, 2013

I just wanted to share a hilarious video from the folks at titled “Why Can’t You Use Phones on Planes?” or, as I like to call it, “Airplanes are magic!”  It is, in my opinion, I neat and quick little lesson on critical thinking and how we often accept the most silly explanations without much thought.  It’s also really damn funny (note there is a little strong language).  Enjoy :)

Why Can’t You Use Phones on Planes?

Why Can't You Use Phones on Planes

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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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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 »

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 »

“Educating/Debunking: What’s the Difference?” Video from Dragon*Con 2011

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 24, 2012

This past September I attended Dragon*Con in Atlanta, and I participated in many events and interviews, etc.  However, in my role as both a skeptic and a teacher, one of the most fruitful things I did was to participate in the Skeptrack discussion of how to approach the question of debunking in the context of education.  The panel was an important discussion moderated by JREF President, D.J. Grothe on the topic of Education vs. Debunking, how they are different and when and how each should be used to the greatest effect.  The discussion dealt with the issue in the context of the classroom as well as beyond in the broader culture.  Below is the video footage of the discussion; I hope you find it useful…

Image and video footage courtesy of the fine folks at :)

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Questions vs. Answers

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 7, 2012

I recently wrote another guest post for the James Randi Educational Foundation over at the Swift blog, and I just wanted to share it here as well.  I hope you find it thought-provoking…

Questions VS Answers

Anyone who knows me knows that I have no children of my own, and in all honesty I try to avoid little kids when I can.  However, there is one thing I find really endearing about kids, especially the younger ones: their unbridled curiosity and willingness to ask questions.

I think the reason why I like this curious nature in children is pretty simple: to them the world is so new and fresh, everything is wondrous and interesting.  In addition, they come at things so much more openly and honestly than most adults, because they are ignorant in the truest sense of the word and have no embarrassment whatsoever about asking direct questions about pretty much anything.  To them, no subject is off limits or taboo; they manifest the spirit of free inquiry in its most unblemished sense.

And this sense of free inquiry and curiosity usually comes out in the form of asking question after question on all manner of topics.  I think it is most especially interesting when it is related to topics regarding mythology, religion, life, death, the afterlife, etc.  And how many times have you been interrogated by a particularly precocious young child, only to be bombarded by more questions once you’ve provided what you thought were adequate answers?  I have had this happen to me more times than I can count, both as an educator and an uncle.

Sadly, this wonderful behavior of kids doesn’t often last into their adult years.  Somewhere between those wonder-filled years of curiosity and college age, a lot of kids are too often encouraged by the adults around them to specifically not ask questions, especially on certain topics (often on the most important topics).  Why this is I’m not sure, but I have a few guesses…

I think part of the problem is that some adults are made quite uncomfortable by the questions that little children can ask, precisely because they tend to break those social taboos which have been conditioned into the adults.  Another thing that happens is that some adults tend to discourage children from asking questions because the adults don’t have the answer to the question, or they’re just tired of the kid asking questions, so rather than admit ignorance (or frustration) they tell the child to stop asking questions.  And while kids are innately curious, if they get exposed often enough to the adults in their life telling them not to ask such questions, then they’ll eventually start to believe that they shouldn’t be asking such questions.  And that’s a sad thing to see.

For example, I witness something along these lines a couple of years ago as I was traveling to Utah with some of my family.  One of my nieces, a little girl of six years of age, and I were looking out over the gorgeous scenery of Bryce Canyon, admiring all of the columns, stratigraphy, and erosion patterns within the canyon walls.  And, in accordance with that curiosity of young children, my niece asked me where the canyon came from.  I proceeded to explain to her about the idea of erosion due to rainfall and the flow of water, pointing out to her some very small rivulets in the dirt off to the side of the trail due to a recent rainstorm.  I further explained that given enough time, these erosive processes can eventually produce wondrous geologic structures such as the canyon which stretched out before us.

I eagerly awaited her next question, when something very interesting happened.  My little niece’s older sister (a teenager) came along and told her that “God did it, just like we learned in Sunday school and the Bible says in Genesis”.  I wasn’t surprised by this reaction from my older niece, seeing as how the members of her immediate family tend to be young-earth creationists who believe the Earth was created in six literal days about 6000-10,000 years ago.  But what did surprise me (and delight me greatly) was my younger niece’s response to her older sister’s “explanation”; she looked up at her older sister and, without skipping a beat, simply asked: “Yeah, but how did God do it?” …

Click here to read the rest of the post at

Posted in education, free inquiry | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptical Teacher Interview on Token Skeptic

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 27, 2011

Based upon my recent blog post concerning using mythology as a critical thinking tool for children, I was interviewed a few days ago by my skeptical colleague Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast.  In the interview we discussed a variety of topics related to this issue, with a touch of fun thrown in for good measure.  Check it out! :)

Episode Ninety-Six — On Critical Thinking And Santa (Again) — Interview with Matt Lowry

Posted by Podblack on Sunday, December 25, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 27:59 — 25.6MB) | Embed

Recently Matt Lowry wrote a blog-post on Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids – just as Tim Minchin wrote a piece for the New Statesman about his own efforts to balance a pro-naturalistic worldview and living a life unencumbered by superstition, while raising kids and encouraging a love of fiction.

Matt Lowry is best known as the Skeptical Teacher - a high school physics teacher, plus a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, contributor to the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Group and awesome presenter for kids’ shows at Dragon*Con.

For this interview we talk about all of these things (and whether Santa might actually be a Time Lord with a sleigh made out of quantum-something-or-other).

During the discussion, we also talk about Barbara Drescher’s blog-post at the JREF Swift: An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even JesusHere’s another great link to the Physics of Santa!

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, every year I do a quick physics lesson on Santa Claus, with the result being a devastation of the Santa myth (see my previous post “How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus for more on this :) )  Yeah, I admit it – I’m evil.

Of course, that lesson is more geared towards students who are in their late teenage years, because by then they already know that Santa isn’t real.  So, while the humor involved in my analysis is quite dark (Santa dies pretty spectacularly in the end), there isn’t going to be any real psychological trauma done to my students.

However, this year it got something of a debate going among some of my students.  Some wondered about the appropriateness of sharing such a lesson with young children, who might still harbor a sincere belief in Santa Claus.  Personally, I expressed the view that if I were to try to get my own children (if I had any) to think more critically about the Santa myth, I certainly wouldn’t do it using the same method in my physics classes where he ends up bursting into flames and squashed to jelly by atrociously large g-forces!

So, the question was put to me: “How would you deal with the whole Santa Claus thing if you had kids?”  It is a worthwhile question, because I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to be simply blindly believing in Santa just because all the other kids are doing it.  Chances are, when the kids are of the appropriate age (I’d think 5 or 6 would be about right), I would ask them some leading questions about the nature of Santa.

Specifically, if I were at the mall with one of my children and there were a worker there dressed as Santa meeting with kids (you know the usual scene), I would encourage them to observe Santa closely…

Image source

I would encourage them to note carefully details such as how big is Santa, exactly what is he wearing, and so on.  In order to help them with their observations, I would probably take photos for later analysis.  Then I would make sure to tell them to pay careful attention to Santa’s voice as they sit on his lap to discuss what Santa and kids discuss (I might also record video of the event for this reason).

After that, I would take my children to another mall (because, let’s face it, most of us do our shopping at more than one place, right?).  I would make sure to find the Santa at that second mall, and have my kid go through the entire process again.  And so on.

Then, at a later time, I would take some time to sit down and look over the evidence with my children, leading them through it and noting inconsistencies between the multiple Santas they’ve observed.  This would be especially interesting if we saw more than one in the same night! (“So Dad, how did Santa get from one mall to the other so quickly?” ;) )

The bottom line here is that I wouldn’t want to come right out and tell my kids that Santa is a myth (though a fun and jolly one at that).  Rather, I would use the entire experience as a lesson for my kids to try thinking it through on their own, making careful observations, weighing the evidence, and drawing the obvious conclusions.  I think this would be a far more useful way to introduce children to the reality that Santa isn’t real, and it would also be an excellent exercise in encouraging critical thinking and skepticism in youngsters.

For more on this topic and approach, I highly recommend reading my colleague Barbara Drescher’s well-written post at the JREF Swift blog titled An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

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


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