The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘investigation’

“An Honest Liar” Headed to Indie Film Festivals!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 17, 2014

As many of you know, there has been an effort to make a movie documentary of the life of one of the greatest skeptical icons, James “The Amazing One” Randi, in recent years.  The film is now made, and it will soon be making the rounds on the indie film network.  Despite that fact, those who made and now promote the film still need your help; read on to see how…

An Honest Liar Film Festival

We are thrilled and proud to announce that AHL was accepted to premiere at the prestigious  2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City!

It is thanks to YOU our great supporters that we were able to make this film and we are so thankful for everything you’ve done for us!

The schedule has not yet been announced, but when it is we will pass it along. The Festival runs from April 16 – 27, and AHL will screen several times in that period. AHL is showing in theViewpoints section of the fest.

It will be possible for the general public to buy tickets, but it’s likely the numbers will be limited. Have no fear! We will have additional festival and screening announcements coming soon, and there’s a good chance we’ll be showing the film near you. Keep an eye on our website and sign up for updates if you haven’t for the latest news. …

… We are slaving away – working day and night – to finish the film! We barely eat or drink. We are doing our best to make ourKickstarter backers proud by making the best film you’ve ever seen! We have little to look forward to in these agonizing days of constant headaches, technical issues, archival footage houses sending us the wrong clips. We know it’ll be worth it, but we need a boost. Something to pick us up, to help drive us over the finish line.

Well, YOU can help us – help make all our hard work pay off, help us sleep better at night, and have sweet happy dreams. And it won’t cost you a penny.

How?

MAKE US INDIEWIRE PROJECT OF THE YEAR!!!

Tell all your friends, pass the word around - VOTE FOR AN HONEST LIAR!

http://www.indiewire.com/vote-for-project-of-the-year

For Randi – for the film – for us poor filmmakers – WE CAN DO IT!!!

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

“An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi” Project is in the Home Stretch

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 17, 2014

One year ago, I wrote a post about a kickstarter project to help fund a film on the life of that skeptical giant, James Randi.  The film is titled “An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi”, and I’m happy to report that it is nearing completion!  But in order to bring it across the finish line, the film’s producers need a little more financial help.  Read on for details, and please consider donating if you are able…

an-honest-liar

The finish line is approaching and we wanted to let you, our supporters, know about our progress. We’ve now completed a fine-cut of the documentary and will be locking it in shortly.

We have now scheduled our post-production (conform, color correct, audio mix, final output etc.) for mid-March and are officially going to complete the film by the end of March, with the aim to premiere An Honest Liar at film festivals beginning in April.

Between now and then, we’ll be refining the edit, working with our composer on the score, sourcing the archival footage we use (there’s a TON…) transferring it and re-inserting it into the cut, completing graphics, animations, and titles, and when it’s all done, popping open a bottle of champagne.

(BTW – if you have any videotapes of old Randi shows, let us know!)

EXCEPT for people getting the digital download/DVD/Blu-ray and movie posters, everyone should have gotten their Kickstarter rewards. We have gotten a number of returned packages for people who may have moved, so if you haven’t gotten your reward please message us.

We still need additional support. The licensing of some of the archival footage is incredibly expensive, but it’s rare and great material that we can’t pass up. If you missed out on donating or know someone who wanted to, we can still use help. Plus, you can still get many of the Kickstarter rewards we offered – while they still last. Just go to our website to donate and choose rewards.

Finally, below is a bonus clip that isn’t going to be in the final film, but we just couldn’t leave on the edit room floor.

Thanks again to all our supporters!

The Honest Liar team

https://vimeo.com/84064979

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

“An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi” Kickstarter Campaign

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 27, 2013

One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi.  He is a small man with a big laugh, an even bigger heart, and an even bigger love for the pursuit of skeptical analysis into all manner of paranormal, mystical, or odd-ball claims.  For Randi, no questions are off limits and skepticism knows no bounds; he and his legacy are one of the primary reasons why I am here, doing what I do on this blog and in my daily life as a skeptic and teacher, and I know his work (through the James Randi Educational Foundation) has reached and inspired countless others.  Now there is a movie being made about him, called “An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story”.

However, such an undertaking requires money, so please consider donating at the Kickstarter page to help get this movie made.  Click the picture below for more information, and please spread the word…

An Honest Liar

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

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 »

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 »

An Honest Liar – The Story of James “The Amazing One” Randi

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2012

One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi.  He is a small man with a big laugh, an even bigger heart, and an even bigger love for the pursuit of skeptical analysis into all manner of paranormal, mystical, or odd-ball claims.  For Randi, no questions are off limits and skepticism knows no bounds; he and his legacy are one of the primary reasons why I am here, doing what I do on this blog and in my daily life as a skeptic and teacher, and I know his work (through the James Randi Educational Foundation) has reached and inspired countless others.  Now there is a movie being made about him, called “An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story”.

Watch the trailer, pass it on to your friends (even if they aren’t card-carrying skeptics), and consider helping to get this film made.  As is stated early in the trailer, “This is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies…” :)

James Randi – An Honest Liar

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 24, 2011

I’ve blogged here before about “professional” ghost-hunters and their woo.  And in many cases I have taken such “professionals” to task for not really following any kind of decent, consistent protocols (such as knowing how their instrumentation works, duh) but instead favoring stories that seem to be a combination of the Blair-Witch Project and various kinds of techno-babble.  But now I just have to mention a couple of things about how many ghost-hunters just seem to get basic physics (pardon the pun) dead wrong.

My skeptical colleague Ben Radford recently wrote an article for LiveScience.com on this very point…

Do Einstein’s Laws Prove Ghosts Exist?

… Despite years of efforts by ghost hunters on TV and in real life, we still do not have good proof that ghosts are real. Many ghost hunters believe that strong support for the existence of ghosts can be found in modern physics. Specifically, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, offered a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts. …

Now hold on a minute.  As we’ve seen before, it is not uncommon for pseudoscientists and cranks of all kinds to try glomming onto Einstein’s coat-tails as one of the most well-known and respected scientists of the 20th century as a way of trying to gain traction for their ideas.  It is as if they think that by simply invoking Einstein’s name and theories, despite the fact that they have no real understanding of those theories, that it will somehow, magically make them correct.  Of course, this simply displays a fundamental flaw in the thinking of ghost-hunters, because it shows they have no real knowledge of how science (much less physics) works.

Specifically, in this case the ghost-hunters are claiming that Einstein’s theory of relativity “proves” the existence of ghosts:

… For example, ghost researcher John Kachuba, in his book “Ghosthunters” (2007, New Page Books), writes, “Einstein proved that all the energy of the universe is constant and that it can neither be created nor destroyed. … So what happens to that energy when we die? If it cannot be destroyed, it must then, according to Dr. Einstein, be transformed into another form of energy. What is that new energy? … Could we call that new creation a ghost?”

This idea shows up — and is presented as evidence for ghosts — on virtually all ghost-themed websites as well. For example, a group called Tri County Paranormal states, “Albert Einstein said that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. When we are alive, we have electrical energy in our bodies. … What happens to the electricity that was in our body, causing our heart to beat and making our breathing possible? There is no easy answer to that.” … [emphasis added]

Actually, the answer is pretty easy, as long as you understand how energy is related to matter as outlined in Einstein’s theory.  It can all be summed up in what is probably the most well-known, but one of the least understood, equations in all of science… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments »

Study by “Independent Climate Skeptics” Actually Confirms Global Warming

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 24, 2011

[**Update (10-30-11): It seems the deniers have already started to respond to this news.  One interesting response is apparently to accuse Prof Richard Muller, the skeptical physicist behind the Berkeley Earth Project, of a Climategate-like scandal (I guess the deniers now view him as a "traitor"): http://news.yahoo.com/skeptic-finds-now-agrees-global-warming-real-142616605.html ]

In a bit of news which kind of goes into the “truth is stranger than fiction” category, I wanted to share with you all the latest in the ongoing drama that is the “Climategate” fiasco.  (If you need to get up to speed on the whole “Climategate” thing, just see some of my earlier blog posts here, here, and here)

To date, there have been multiple investigations into the allegations that the worldwide community of climate scientists is somehow conspiring to cover up “the truth” that global warming is really just a hoax, and all of these investigations have shown the exact opposite.  However, in true conspiracy theorist fashion, many ideologically-driven climate change deniers (I refuse to call them “skeptics”, because they are not skeptical in the positive sense of that word) have clung to the idea that somehow there is a vast plan on the part of scientists all over the planet to deceive the rest of us into believing that the Earth is warming and that humans are contributing significantly to it.

As such, it seems that there was an effort by many of these deniers to prop up their conspiracy theory by performing their own independent analysis of the climate data.  However, in an interesting twist, it seems that upon completing their analysis, the researchers tapped by the deniers actually concluded the opposite of what they had hoped: global warming is indeed real!  It’s all outlined in this recent BBC article…

Global warming ‘confirmed’ by independent study

The Earth’s surface really is getting warmer, a new analysis by a US scientific group set up in the wake of the “Climategate” affair has concluded.

The Berkeley Earth Project has used new methods and some new data, but finds the same warming trend seen by groups such as the UK Met Office and Nasa.

The project received funds from sources that back organisations lobbying against action on climate change. …

That’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?  The climate change deniers decide that all the science on the topic isn’t trustworthy, so they hire a group of their own investigators to look at the data, and they end up getting exactly the same conclusions as has been stated for years by the international climate science community.  It gets better…

… The project was established by University of California physics professor Richard Muller, who was concerned by claims that established teams of climate researchers had not been entirely open with their data.

He gathered a team of 10 scientists, mostly physicists, including such luminaries as Saul Perlmutter, winner of this year’s Nobel Physics Prize for research showing the Universe’s expansion is accelerating.

Funding came from a number of sources, including charitable foundations maintained by the Koch brothers, the billionaire US industrialists, who have also donated large sums to organisations lobbying against acceptance of man-made global warming.

“I was deeply concerned that the group [at UEA] had concealed discordant data,” Prof Muller told BBC News.

“Science is best done when the problems with the analysis are candidly shared.”

The group’s work also examined claims from “sceptical” bloggers that temperature data from weather stations did not show a true global warming trend.

The claim was that many stations have registered warming because they are located in or near cities, and those cities have been growing – the urban heat island effect.

The Berkeley group found about 40,000 weather stations around the world whose output has been recorded and stored in digital form.

It developed a new way of analysing the data to plot the global temperature trend over land since 1800.

What came out was a graph remarkably similar to those produced by the world’s three most important and established groups, whose work had been decried as unreliable and shoddy in climate sceptic circles. [emphasis added]

In fact, below is a copy of that graph: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in global warming denial | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Science & Skepticism Triumph in the New Jersey Courts

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 29, 2011

It’s not often spoken of, but I think perhaps one of the most critical reasons why it is that we need to have a populace that is well educated in basic critical thinking and reasoning skills can be summed up in how our court system works.  In the United States, many trials in court are decided by juries, which are composed of everyday folk like you and me.  And, as is sometimes the case, juries that are tasked with making major decisions – such as in murder cases – can all-too-often fall victim to sloppy thinking.  And, unfortunately, sometimes this sloppy thinking is actively encouraged by rules set by the courts themselves!

However, recently there as a welcome challenge to the status quo: the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued new guidelines and regulations for how to take into account the validity of eyewitness testimony and the fallibility of human memory regarding identification.  Read the following article from The Innocence Project for more information…

New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Landmark Decision Mandating Major Changes in the Way Courts Handle Identification Procedures

Today the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark decision requiring major changes in the way courts are required to evaluate identification evidence at trial and how they should instruct juries.  The new changes, designed to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions by taking into account more than 30 years of scientific research on eyewitness identification and memory, require courts to greatly expand the factors that courts and juries should consider in assessing the risk of misidentification. …

… The court’s decision requires judges to more thoroughly scrutinize the police identification procedures and many other variables that affect an eyewitness identification. The court noted that this more extensive scrutiny will require enhanced jury instructions on factors that increase the risk of misidentification. These factors include:

• Whether the lineup procedure was administered “double blind,” meaning that the officer who administers the lineup is unaware who the suspect is and the witness is told that the officer doesn’t know.
• Whether the witness was told that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that they need not make a choice.
• Whether the police avoided providing the witness with feedback that would cause the witness to believe he or she selected the correct suspect.  Similarly, whether the police recorded the witnesses’ level of confidence at the time of the identification.
• Whether the witness had multiple opportunities to view the same person, which would make it more likely for the witness to choose this person as the suspect.
• Whether the witness was under a high level of stress.
• Whether a weapon was used, especially if the crime was of short duration.
• How much time the witness had to observe the event.
• How far the witness was from the perpetrator and what the lighting conditions were.
• Whether the witness possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification, such as age of the witness and influence of alcohol or drugs.
• Whether the perpetrator possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification.  Was he or she wearing a disguise?  Did the suspect have different facial features at the time of the identification?
• The length of time between the crime and identification.
• Whether the case involved cross-racial identification.

Folks, this is a big deal, because there is a mountain of strongly-supported research which shows just how untrustworthy and malleable memories can be and how this can lead to all manner of mistakes regarding the positive identification of suspects in court cases.  For example, take a look at some of the work done by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus on this subject of the misinformation effect and false memories.

Th main point here that I want to emphasize is that the new Jersey Supreme Court took a huge step in the right direction by relying on the most well-tested science to guide its decision.  And that is important, because science – more than any other human endeavor – has allowed us to collectively sort out the good ideas from the bad ideas regarding how the world works.  And how the world works includes how we, as fallible beings, interact with it and each other.

In closing, I want to emphasize my point about critical thinking in the courts, and specifically in the jury box and deliberation room, by encouraging you to watch one of the best movies ever on the subject: 12 Angry Men.  The original was made in 1957, but it was remade in 1997, and I think either version is excellent viewing.  If you have never seen either version, take some time to check them out on Youtube or rent them, because I can only hope that every jury in the world is as rational as this one…

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

Another Spectacular Example of Psychic Fail in Texas “Murder” Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 12, 2011

It seems that in Texas an anonymous “psychic detective” tipped off the police to the fact that there was a gruesome scene in a farmhouse which contained the remains of about 30 people, including the dismembered bodies of multiple children.  Unfortunately, the police of the Liberty County’s Sheriff’s Office actually took these tips seriously, because after they mobilized a massive amount of resources, they found absolutely nothing at the site…

A false tip from a psychic prompted Texas authorities to swarm a rural home searching for a nonexistent mass grave and up to 30 bodies, including those of dismembered children.

A few hours later it was clear the tip was nothing more than a gruesome wild goose chase.

“There’s no crime scene,” Liberty County Judge Craig McNair told reporters as deputies, Texas Rangers and FBI agents wrapped up a fruitless search that gained national media attention. [emphasis added]

Yup, you read that right.  Not only did the local Sheriff’s Office get into the mix, but the Texas Rangers and FBI were also involved in this fiasco!  I think these agencies have opened themselves up to some much deserved derision, because it has been shown conclusively in great detail that, despite numerous claims to the contrary, psychics do not do anything to help with police investigations.  In fact, most police and detectives do not use psychics because they know the track record of such “help” (i.e. it doesn’t work), and they know that chasing down false leads provided by these morons would just be a waste of time and resources (as it was in the spectacular failure of the case in question).

So why is it that these alleged “psychic detectives” keep on cropping up?  Because they are very good self-promoters, and they are playing off people’s desire to have closure on certain topics – it is, after all, very difficult when dealing with certain crimes (especially child abductions) to be patient and follow established and well-tested investigatory procedures.  These psychics play on this sense of unease on the part of the family in question (or perhaps the community) to swoop in and offer a measure of hope (however empty it is) while  also garnering some fame for themselves.

In his article in Skeptical Inquirer magazine titled “The Case of the ‘Psychic Detectives’”, I really like how skeptical investigator Joe Nickell puts it…

Although mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability, self-styled clairvoyants, diviners, spirit mediums, and soothsayers continue to sell their fantasies—and in some cases to shrewdly purvey their cons—to a credulous public. Particularly disturbing is a resurgence of alleged psychic crime-solving.

In fact, the media—especially Court TV’s Psychic Detectives, NBC’s Medium, and various programs of Larry King Live—have shamelessly touted several self-claimed psychic shamuses as if they could actually identify murderers and kidnappers, or locate missing persons. Here is an investigative look at five such claimants. (Another, Phil Jordan, was featured in an earlier SI [Nickell 2004].) …

… psychics do not solve crimes or locate missing persons—unless they employ the same non-mystical techniques as real detectives: obtaining and assessing factual information, receiving tips, and so on, even sometimes getting lucky. In addition to the technique of “retrofitting,” psychics may shrewdly study local newspaper files and area maps, glean information from family members or others associated with a tragedy, and even impersonate police and reportedly attempt to bribe detectives (Nickell 1994). It is bad enough that they are often able to fool members of the media; detectives, if they do not know better, as most do, should learn better. They should, well, investigate their alleged psychic counterparts.

Well, in the Texas case, there is a silver lining.  It seems the agencies in question disliked being deceived by the supposed psychic tipster, and they have decided to try charging them with filing a false police report – perhaps if more of these charlatans were actually held to account, then there would be fewer of the psychic glory-hounds clamoring for their 15 minutes of fame.  We can only hope.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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