The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘research’

Anti-Science and Science Denial: It Isn’t Just for the Political Right?

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2014

I have used up many electrons on this blog discussing the problem of anti-science and science denial regarding creationist and climate science denier movements.  I have also discussed many times about how those movements seek to destroy the credibility of science in order to prop up either their religious or political worldviews, which usually tend to be quite right-wing in nature.

However, lest we cease to be critical thinkers about the problem of anti-science and science denial, let us not over simplify the issue in to being a problem of only the political right.  Case in point: many of the worst of the anti-vaccination movement (AVM) are strongly left-leaning in their politics.  This is emphasized rather hilariously in this recent Daily Show segment:

An Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy

vaccines

 No, this chart isn’t the idiocy.  The idiotic part is that anyone would seriously deny that vaccinations are the reason why these deadly diseases went away.

In the segment, the Daily Show interviewer discusses the topic of vaccines with someone who can only be described as an ideological science-denier… who is on the political left.  I really like how Orac at Respectful Insolence breaks this down:

In the piece, in particular Bee makes fun of a crunchy lifestyle blogger, Sarah Pope, who, after establishing her liberal-crunchy bona fides (after Bee’s amusing prompts, of course), rattles off pretty much every antivaccine trope and bit of misinformation and pseudoscience in the antivaccine canon, claiming herd immunity is myth, that vaccines cause autism, that they don’t work, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Yesterday, Pope wrote about the interview thusly:

” “The Epidemic of Idiocy” that The Daily Show segment labels the no-vaccination movement is head scratching given that the anti-vaccine movement is being led by the most educated in our society.

Are all those parents with college degrees, master’s degrees, PhDs and, yes, even many MDs that are saying no to shots for their kids complete idiots?

Highly doubtful!

No-vax parents aren’t the real “science deniers”. In fact, they the ones most interested in the science because they are digging into the research and demanding unbiased, objective data to support vaccination, not the slanted version presented by the CDC and conventional pediatricians like Dr. Offit who makes millions supporting the very industry that handsomely maintains his lifestyle.”

Uh, no.

No matter how much Ms. Pope wants to claim the mantle of science through the University of Google, she and her fellow antivaccine activists are just as antiscience as anthropogenic global climate change denialists and creationists (a.k.a., evolution denialists). They also share another important trait with people holding those antiscience beliefs. They’re just really, really good atmotivated reasoning, and one reason they’re so good at motivated reasoning is because they are educated and smart, which is why vaccine denialists and other science denialists are sometimes referred to as “smart idiots.” It’s a very apt term. I do, however thank The Daily Showfor making me aware of Ms. Pope. Her blog looks like—shall we say?—a highly “target-rich” environment for potential future blog posts.

However, we should take care to not oversimplify the AVM and the political affiliations of its adherents, because while there are many AVMers who are left-wing, there is also a strong (and apparently growing) right-wing element to vaccine denial.  More from Orac:

However, there is also a very strong strain of antivaccine views on the right as well, including General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation, far right libertarians, and others who distrust the government, including government-recommended vaccine schedules.

Indeed, many of the the antivaccine people and groups whom I monitor tend to be anything but liberal politically. For example, The Canary Party, a rabidly antivaccine group that pushes the idea that toxins in vaccines are responsible for autism and all sorts of health issues and that autism “biomed” quackery is the way to cure vaccine injury recently teamed up with the East Bay Tea Party to oppose vaccine mandates in California. Moreover, the Canary Party has also recently been sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers, Jennifer Larson, contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Fortunately, Issa’s hearing in 2012 was a bust.

So what are we to conclude about this question of anti-vaccination and political affiliation?  Well, the answer appears to be “not much” because it seems the question hasn’t been rigorously studied…

Unfortunately, there aren’t actually a lot of good data examining whether there is a correlation between political affiliation and anti-vaccine views. I blogged about this very issue a three years ago, discussing an article by Chris Mooney looking at polling data and doing the best he could to characterize the politics of vaccine denialism.

At this point, about the only thing I can say is that regardless of the political motivations of those who buy into and promote the dangerous nonsense espoused by the AVM, their lies and pseudoscience must be countered.  So how do we do that?  How do we in the skeptical and pro-science movement formulate an effective message to counter the AVM’s noise and misinformation?  Well, I am happy to say that last year a study was published (via the JREF and Women Thinking, Inc.) on this very question.  Please give it a look :)

Posted in medical woo, politics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Evolution and Creationism in 2013: The Year in Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 4, 2014

If you know anything about the evolution-creationism battle in the United States, you know that it is a long-running one.  You also know that the issue is heavily influenced by religious outlook (or lack thereof) and politics.  Some recent polling data has provided some very revealing information about trends in the U.S. on these issues: and a deeper analysis yields bad news for the creationists.

First, the poll itself: the Pew Research Center released their poll, titled “Public’s Views on Human Evolution” on Dec. 30th.  And it contains some interesting take-aways:

evolution2013-1

According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” …

One of the most interesting things to see in this poll is the breakdown of religious and political affiliation:

… These beliefs differ strongly by religious group. White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Roughly two-thirds (64%) express this view, as do half of black Protestants (50%). By comparison, only 15% of white mainline Protestants share this opinion.

There also are sizable differences by party affiliation in beliefs about evolution, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved, a 24-point gap. … [emphasis added]

Perhaps it’s no surprise that evangelical Protestants are the ones who reject evolution the most while the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”) embrace evolution.  The thing that is so surprising about this particular survey is the part I put in bold above: self-identifying Republicans are rejecting evolution in higher and higher numbers.  I think this presents a big problem for the Republican party, and my next discussion point illustrates why. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in creationism, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptical Teacher Interviewed on The Pink Atheist

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2013

This past Sunday evening, I was interviewed on The Pink Atheist podcast/radio show.  The topics of discussion were the vaccine survey research I was involved with and the importance of promoting a good pro-vaccine message, as well as talking about some of the physics behind various crazy demonstrations I perform both in and out of the classroom.

Click the link below for the full audio of my interview, which starts at the 20:25 mark.  Enjoy! :)

The Pink Atheist

pink atheist

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

Opinion Survey on Vaccines Published by JREF and WT,Inc

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 18, 2013

I am very pleased to announce that a ground-breaking survey conducted on the issue of people’s opinions regarding vaccines and vaccination has been published; the work was a joint project of the James Randi Educational Foundation and Women Thinking, Inc. and it gets to the heart of how those of us who support good science-based medicine can communicate a more positive message on vaccines.

In addition, I am happy to say that I took a personal role in this research during my time with the Women Thinking, Inc. organization :)

[**Addendum: My skeptical colleague, Jamie Bernstein, wrote a wonderful piece on this survey research over at Skepchick, and she outlines there just how many people were involved in this process over the last few years.  Check it out!]

So, without further ado, I would like to link to the JREF’s press-release on the survey; please note that you can download the full paper at this link, so please share it!

Opinion Survey by JREF and Women Thinking Free Foundation Supports Childhood Immunization

The James Randi Educational Foundation and Women Thinking, Inc. have come together for an opinion survey aimed at better understanding the spread of the unfounded “vaccine panic” that prevents some parents from getting important immunizations for their children. The project, Immunization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation, explores better ways to communicate a “vaccine-positive” message.

“Vaccine misconceptions have been running rampant, which should not only be concerning to science advocates but to parents and the greater public,” said WTinc President Louise Kellar. “Previously it had been unclear which misconceptions had been taking a toll on parents. Through this survey that the JREF funded, we hope that that science advocates and educators will be able to focus their outreach efforts, thereby helping children have the best start in life and hopefully saving some lives in the process.”

The joint project is an opinion survey that includes data from hundreds of parents of young children. The survey data was collected by volunteers at events where parents may be especially vulnerable to “anti-vaccine” messages. The JREF and Women Thinking, Inc. is happy to make the results freely available to public health and science advocates to help inform their efforts to support childhood immunity.

“There are some provocative conclusions that may be drawn from the survey data,” said JREF President D.J. Grothe. “Although the scientific community has done a good job refuting the misinformation of the most vocal anti-scientific anti-vaccine campaigners, the survey data suggests that most parents do understand the importance of ‘herd immunity,’ but just consider this a greater risk than possible harm to their children coming from vaccination. We hope the information from the survey will help science educators and activists better understand parents’ concerns in order to help them make the healthiest choices regarding childhood immunity from dangerous diseases.”

The JREF-WTinc survey, conducted over the last two years and released to the public today, aims to help science advocates fill gaps in the public’s understanding of the vaccine panic. The opinion survey asked specific questions about parents’ beliefs and fears about immunization, their media consumption, and their conversations with friends, family, and doctors. From the report: “The most effective anti-vaccination arguments are those that induce fear in parents by naming frightening ingredients and by greatly exaggerating the risks of vaccinations. The best pro-vaccination arguments were those that focused on a good-parenting message, such as suggesting that not immunizing your child is equivalent to putting them in a car without a car seat.”

You may download a copy of Immunization: Myths, Misconceptions, and Misinformation here.

Click here to read the rest of the press-release

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

Is Secularism Making a Comeback?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 22, 2013

As I’ve written before, it seems that there is a growing secular and non-religious demographic in the United States that is starting to speak up.  This topic is the subject of a recent opinion piece that I read on the Washington Post’s Guest Voices blog, and I found the analysis by the author, Jacques Berlinerblau, to be worth noting…

Is secularism making a comeback?

By Jacques Berlinerblau

 When it comes to not making optimistic, pie-in-the-sky pronouncements about American secularism I have almost unparalleled street cred. For years I have rued and bemoaned and lamented the fate of this poor mangled –ism.

But in the past few months there have been some positive and unexpected developments both here and abroad as well.The first is far less obvious than it might seem. By far, the best thing that has happened to American secularism in about half a century was that the reactionary 2012 iteration of the Republican party, while not McGovernized, was pretty thoroughly thrashed. To the long list of those in this country who were perplexed and repulsed by this aberrant version of the GOP (e.g., Latinos, African-Americans, gays, women) let us add secular Americans. …

… I want to stress that Republicans, historically, have not been anti-secular nor should the same be said about many of their core convictions. The shift occurred with the synergies that developed between Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the  late 1970s. In fits and starts the relation between the Christian Right and the Republicans has grown for three decades. Did it crest in 2012? Will a humbled GOP shuck the divisive God-botherers in its midst? That is the question that secularists are eagerly—nay, gleefully—posing. …

Indeed, I can be counted among those secularists who are hoping quite strongly that the Republican party can finally free itself from the stranglehold of the religious right.  Unfortunately, the religious right is dug so deeply into the GOP that they will not go quietly nor easily; methinks the Republican party is in for a long and nasty internal fight.

However, there is a note of caution to be heard…

… I am a pessimist by nature so let me raise a few caveats about the political potency of the nones. The first is that their Election Day turnout was somewhat underwhelming (they were 12 percent of the electorate though they are nearly 20 percent of the population). They actually gave less of their ballot to Obama in 2012 than they did in 2008 (70 percent down from 75 percent).

Most crucially, they are not an organized, disciplined, well-funded political juggernaut like the Christian Right, but a category on a demographer’s clipboard. The Democrats will need to organize and mobilize them (and perhaps this is why Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast gave them a shout out when he referred to “those of no faith that they can name”).

This is why I want to note, buzzkillingly, that 2012 was more a victory for secularism than a victory by secularism. But a victory nonetheless! Moreover, secularists can’t help but wonder if the pope’s recent resignation signals, at the very least, a set back for the global anti-secular platform.

So, long story short, the “nones” should be happy to celebrate this victory, but we should not be so naive as to think that progress on those secular issues important to us will simply march along all by itself.  The moment that we take our eye off the political ball, I think the religious right – which is more well-funded and organized than the secular movement – will swoop in and attempt to drag us all back to the Dark Ages.

Rather than rest on our laurels, this moment should serve to motivate us to become more involved in secular issues.  We need to make sure to defend church-state separation, stand up for strong science education, and seek to curb the influence of sectarian religious groups upon our government.  My suggestion is that you take some time to learn more about groups like the Secular Coalition for America and consider signing up with them.  Get involved, get active, and we can make a more secular nation a reality! :)

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Speak Up for Science: Stop Sequestration!

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2013

If you’ve been paying attention to the U.S. political news of late, then you know that a crucial fiscal deadline is approaching: the dreaded sequestration cuts across the board to all federal programs.  As a supporter of strong science education and scientific research programs, this alarms me quite a bit.  To make such deep and long-lasting cuts in our most basic science research and education programs would be like eating our seed corn, with the result that scientific and technological innovation and education would be starved of critical funding at a time when we need it the most.

So I encourage you to read, sign, and pass along the following petition from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) imploring Congress to seek a bipartisan solution to this problem:

Petition

On behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), we—as researchers, professionals, students and interested citizens in the science, technology, engineering and math fields—write to ask both branches of government to work together to achieve a bipartisan compromise that moves the country on to sound fiscal footing without sacrificing our nation’s crucial investments in science and technology. Almost every national priority—from health and defense, agriculture and conservation, to hazards and natural disasters—relies on science and engineering. As another fiscal cliff approaches, placing a significant burden on federal research and development investments, as sequestration would do, is nothing less than a threat to national competitiveness. Support for science is support for economic growth, innovation, and technological progress. Please consider this as you seek to address our nation’s pressing fiscal challenges.

Click here to sign the petition!

Posted in education, politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Non-Religious on the Rise… In Congress!

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 7, 2013

If you’ve followed the blog for any amount of time, then you know that I’ve touched on the topic of a rising secular and non-religious demographic in the United States; in fact, now 1-in-5 Americans label themselves as non-religious.  I also wrote about Kyrsten Sinema, a newly elected Congresswoman who has openly identified herself as atheist.  Well, it seems that there is now a convergence between these two things emerging, because this new Congress now contains the highest number of openly non-religious members in history!

US-Congress

It’s not just for religious fundamentalists anymore :)

This Politico story has more details:

Non-believers on rise in Congress

By CHARLES MAHTESIAN | 1/5/13 2:34 PM EST

The number of members of Congress who don’t identify with any particular religion is on the rise, according to an analysis by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In the 96th Congress (1979-80), not a single member of the House or Senate said they didn’t belong to any particular faith, didn’t know or refused to disclose their religion. But in the new 113th Congress, 10 members fall under that category.

That’s twice as many as in the 111th Congress (2009-10).

Pew notes there’s still a great disparity between the percentage of U.S. adults and the percentage of members of Congress who don’t identify with any particular religion. …

… The numbers here caught my eye, not because of the disparity between non-believers in the general population and in Congress, but because I was surprised so many members actually admitted to it. … [emphasis added]

Exactly.  I, and many others, have long suspected that there are a good number of closeted “nones” in our Congress, but up until now they’ve been cautious about self-identifying as non-religious for fear of electoral backlash.  However, it seems that, slowly but surely, those days are drawing to a close :)

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Save the Field Museum!

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 6, 2013

I wanted to pass along to everyone a call-to-arms which hits really close to home for me… literally.  As a science teacher, I am especially concerned with seeing that public institutions that promote good science education are protected.  This usually means that I am defending our public schools from creationism or other nonsense, but there is another insitution which often goes overlooked: museums.  Case in point: the Field Museum of Natural History, perhaps one of the best public educational/research institutions in the country, is in real trouble.  Please take a few minutes to read this excellent Skepticblog post by Donald Prothero and consider taking action!

Save the Field Museum!

by Donald Prothero, Jan 02 2013

Field_Museum_of_Natural_History1-300x200

Buried in all the news of the end of the world, the “fiscal cliff”, and the holiday season was another item that probably escaped most people’s attention. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, one of the world’s foremost natural history museums, is planning huge cutbacks in their scientific staff in the next few weeks. Details of who will be cut are sketchy, but the news raced through my professional community and made us all very upset. This is not only because many people who are our personal friends will be losing their jobs because of mismanagement at the top, but also because such a disastrous move would hurt science in many ways that the general public may not appreciate. …

… Most people think a museum is just a bunch of exhibits of fossils or art on display, but don’t realize what goes on behind the scenes. As Jerry Coyne also points out in his post, a top museum like the Field is also one of the most important research institutions in the country, with curators who are among the top scientists in their area of research. Just like university research professors, these curators must pursue research grants and find funding to do important scientific projects. Unlike most university research scientists (who don’t have a place to store too many specimens if they find them), museum curators tend to focus on research that recovers new specimens, and adds to the total resource base for scientific research. Without this material, our data base for research and understanding topics in the fossil record would dry up, because there is no else out there to perform such an important role. I’ve known nearly all the vertebrate paleontology curators at the Field Museum (both past and present) for many years, and most are among the sharpest minds in our field, doing essential science that few others could perform. …

Click here to read the rest of Donald’s post

Click here to take action!

Posted in education, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Bigfoot DNA Claims: Big Discovery or Big Bullsh*t?

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 4, 2012

Okay, no doubt by now some of you have heard all about the news that some “scientist” claims to have sequenced the DNA of Bigfoot, concluding that Bigfoot is at least partially human.  Specifically, according to the following LiveScience.com article by my skeptical colleague Benjamin Radford

‘Bigfoot’ Is Part Human, DNA Study Claims

Genetic testing confirms the legendary Bigfoot is a human relative that arose some 15,000 years ago — at least according to a press release issued by a company called DNA Diagnostics detailing supposed work by a Texas veterinarian.

The release and alleged study by Melba S. Ketchum also suggests such cryptids had sex with modern human females that resulted in hairy hominin hybrids, but the scientific community is dubious about her claim.

“A team of scientists can verify that their five-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called ‘Bigfoot’ or ‘Sasquatch,’ living in North America,” the release reads. “Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago.”…

Ooh!  Bigfoot-human hybrid freaky furry sex!  Are you interested yet? ;)

Seriously, this is just beyond stupid, folks.  And a little deeper look at the article points out exactly why this whole thing is, at best, viewed with a decidely skeptical eye and, at worst, deserves to be roundly derided in every corner of the Internet for the cryptozoological flummery it most likely is:

… So where’s the evidence? Well, there is none. Not yet, anyway: Ketchum’s research has not appeared in any peer-reviewed scientific journal, and there’s no indication when that might happen. If the data are good and the science is sound, any reputable science journal would jump at the chance to be the first to publish this groundbreaking information. Until then, Ketchum has refused to let anyone else see her evidence. … [emphasis added]

So let me get this straight: she puts together a press-release claiming that she’s made this amazing discovery that could very well change most everything we know about human/hominid anthropology and evolution, yet she is unwilling to allow her scientific peers to see the evidence and examine it for themselves?

That’s kind of the opposite of the way science is supposed to work, Dr. Ketchum.  You would think that a supposedly serious researcher would know that – that is, assuming that she’s a serious scientific researcher and not just some kind of glory-seeking pseudoscientific crypto-hack.  When making such an extraordinary claim, not allowing your scientific peers to examine your evidence is tantamount to saying “I’m right because *poof* magic!”  In other words, it is not convincing at all, and it speaks to your credibility being somewhat minimal.

Last, but certainly not least, there is a very well-worded criticism by Ben Radford about how one is, exactly, to know that the DNA sequenced is actually that of a previously uncataloged Bigfoot-ish creature (a question which I had in mind when first hearing the claim):

… How did the team definitively determine that the samples were from a Bigfoot? Did they take a blood or saliva sample from a living Bigfoot? If so, how did they get that close, and why didn’t they simply capture it or photograph it? If the samples were found in the wild, how do they know it wasn’t left by another animal — or possibly even a hunter, hiker or camper who left human genetic material?

Previous alleged Bigfoot samples subjected to DNA analysis have been deemed “unknown” or “unidentified.” However, “unknown” or “unidentified” results do not mean “Bigfoot.” There are many reasons why a DNA sample might come back unknown, including that it was contaminated or too degraded by environmental conditions. Or it could simply mean that the animal it came from was not among the reference samples that the laboratory used for comparison. There is no reference sample of Bigfoot DNA to compare it with, so by definition, there cannot be a conclusive match. …

Of course, I suppose the answers to these and similar questions will have to go unanswered because we expect Dr. Ketchum to act like a real scientist and share her samples, data, research, and methodology for actual peer review and analysis.  Hah – silly us! :)

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

How Secularism Should Move Forward in the United States

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 26, 2012

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

Jacques Berlinerblau – How to Be Secular

November 12, 2012

Host: Chris Mooney

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

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

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

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

Posted in politics, religion, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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