The Skeptical Teacher

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

“Quantum Nonsense” at the Chicago Skeptics

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 2, 2015

On April 18th I gave a presentation to the Chicago Skeptics on the topic of what I call Quantum Nonsense. For example, have you ever been talking to a friend who starts going on about how great a movie “What the Bleep?!” was because it proved water has feelings? Or perhaps a family member saw a show where Deepak Chopra explained that they could balance their checkbook and achieve financial security using quantum jumping? Let’s face it, quantum physics is both fascinating and confusing, and many pseudoscientists and charlatans play upon this fascination and confusion to peddle all manner of nonsense to the unwary. In this talk I try to help people learn how to separate quantum fact from fiction.

Download the PowerPoint of the presentation (one with the audio of the talk embedded) below. If you want to be able to flip through the slides, which I recommend since there are many good visuals, I suggest downloading both files and listening to the audio while flipping through the other presentation. Enjoy! :)

Quantum Nonsense Presentation

Quantum Nonsense with Audio

Posted in physics denial/woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Chicago Skepticamp 2015 is Seeking Speakers!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 2, 2015

This year’s Skepticamp in Chicago is looking for speakers; the event takes place on Sunday, May 31st at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. I’ve presented at numerous Chicago Skepticamps in the past, and I’ll be at this one, too. If you or anyone you know is interested in giving a skeptical presentation at this years’ event, see the info below; you can also register for the event. Spread the word! :)

scc2012_full_300x1

Can I give a talk?

Can you ever! To indicate your interest in giving a talk at Chicago’s 2015 Skepticamp, please complete our speaker registration form by May 1. Your talk/topic must be research-able with scientific and empirical data (no pseudo-science, homeopathy, or conspiracy theories), and related to skepticism and critical thinking. Priority will be given to new speakers with unique topics.

Can I help?

Yes! Skepticamp is a collaborative event, and we literally can’t do it without you. Watch our Events pageFacebook and Meetup for upcoming planning meetings,  shoot us an emailTweet at us, just let us know you’re interested and we’ll find the best way for you to help.

What is a Skepticamp?

Skepticamp Chicago is a free, all-day event consisting of a series of short lectures on topics of skeptical interest. Speakers are everyday local folks sharing their knowledge, and we invite all attendees to ask questions. This informal “unconference” is now in its fourth year, promoting critical thinking and skeptical inquiry in and around Chicago.

Skepticamp is an opportunity for us to get together to learn about different areas of skepticism from our fellow group members. These talks give an opportunity for individuals to delve into particular areas of skepticism…both the tried and true topics as well as those that may not get as much attention in the regular blogs and articles we read. Skepticamps encourage as many people as possible to give a talk…and certainly encourages first-time speakers to try their hand at presenting in a friendly, supportive atmosphere.

Skepticamp is FREE – you ‘pay’ by helping to organize the event, by giving a short talk on a topic of skeptical interest demonstrating critical thinking, or simply by offering your help on the day of the event. We are already having planning committee meetings, and interested parties can still help. Other ways to help will be announced as we get closer to the date…setup and cleanup crews, distributing publicity, etc. (Nobody is going to be turned away because they don’t have a specific job, though.)

And since Skepticamp is FREE, it is entirely a participant-supported event. If you’d like to help offset some of the financial costs incurred by the organizers, please consider making a donation below. We’ll also be accepting donations at the event.

If you’d like to help, please do!

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

Skeptical Panels & Discussions at Chi-Fi Con

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 11, 2015

At Chi-Fi 2015 in Chicago this past March, the Skepchicks ran a track on issues related to skepticism, critical thinking, and science (and, I might add, ours was one of the more well-attended tracks :) ). I was honored to participate in a number of these panel discussions, and I recorded the audio of them all to share with you here. To access the audio files, simply open up the PowerPoint linked below; each panel recording is on its own page.

Chi-Fi 2015 SkepchickCON Track

Chi-Fi Bigfoot 2

One of our panels at Chi-Fi’s SkepchickCON. I’m making a cameo appearance as Bigfoot :)

For reference, the panels in which I participated were:

Ask A Scientist: Ever wonder how black holes work? Want to know why we get brainfeeze? Do you really know why the sky is blue? We have you covered from asteroids to zoology as our panel of science experts answer your burning questions.

Star Trek, the Skeptical Paradox: Boldly go where no SkepTrekker has gone before as we discuss the unusual, yet amiable marriage between secular humanism, religion and spirituality within the Trekverse.

Science of Stargate: Black holes, wormholes, naquadah, and symbiotes. It’s fantastic science fiction, but how do the stories of Stargate fit in with real science? Find out!

Science of the Apocalypse: This is the way the world ends! Or is it? We’ll explore some of our favorite ways the “end of the world as we know it” might happen and the science behind these fantastic scenarios.

Science vs. the Humanities: Some people think that science and the humanities are destined to be in conflict. From postmodernist nonsense to looking at science as “the only way to know anything about the world,” there are many times when the two fields of study appear to be at odds. But does it have to be that way, and how can they get along? Come to this panel to hear a variety of perspectives on this question.

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

Ken Ham’s “Ark Encounter” Sinking Under the Weight of Heavy Lies?

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 11, 2015

In the ongoing drama that is Ken Ham’s halting and sadly hilarious attempt to get the Kentucky state government to fund his creationist propaganda debacle, also known as “Ark Encounter”, time and time again it seems that he cannot avoid both controversy and the law. Now it seems as if Ken Ham and his Answers In Genesis organization (the creationist parent organization of both the floundering Creationist Museum and Ark Encounter) are mired in even more controversy: they apparently lied about the number of people who would be attending the new park attraction when they applied for an $18.25 million tax rebate through the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has more details…

Boatload Of Lies: Ark Encounter Gave Ky. Officials Inflated Attendance Projections

Americans United has long been skeptical that Ark Encounter, a proposed theme park in Kentucky that will feature a 510-foot replica of Noah’s Ark, could ever live up to the enormous projected attendance figures claimed by its leadership in order to secure public assistance. As it turns out, the numbers submitted by Ark Encounter were indeed wildly inflated. …

… Now, thanks to an open records request by Ed Hensley of the Kentucky Secular Society, we know that AiG was less than truthful in at least a portion of its application. Ark Encounter claimed it would have 1.2 to 2 million visitors annually. This included an estimate of over 1.6 million visitors in the park’s first year.

But the reality is nowhere near that high. Kentucky sent AiG’s application out for review, and Hunden Strategic Partners in Chicago determined that if the Ark Park remained a purely religious attraction, it would generate about 325,000 visitors its first year, rise to 425,000 in its third year and eventually fall to 275,000 by its seventh year in business. This would mean the Ark Park could create about 514 jobs, Hunden said.

Were AiG to pursue “a mainstream approach to the attraction,” Hunden estimated it could draw just under 500,000 visitors in year one, 640,000 visitors in year three, then drop off to about 400,000 by year seven. Hunden estimated 787 jobs would be created if that scenario played out. … [emphasis added]

At this point, one might think the claim that Ham and AiG were lying is overly harsh, but then there are more details that have been revealed which seems to lend credence to the claim of outright lying (or even fraud). It ends up that there was a potentially huge conflict of interest between Ham and the firm which generated the initial (and wildly inflated) attendance estimates…

… Hunden also noted that AiG’s estimate was provided by the South Carolina-based America’s Research Group, which has ties to AiG head Ken Ham.

“The president of America’s Research Group is Britt Beemer, who is also a co-author with Ken Ham on the book Already Gone,” Hunden said in its report. “Furthermore, research by Beemer and America’s Research Group is featured in Already Compromised, another book authored by Ken Ham.” …

Wow. At this point, I’ll let the reader decide on whether or not the state of Kentucky made a good decision to not award the tax rebates to AiG. It seems that Ham isn’t above skirting both ethics and the law to “do the Lord’s work” in an attempt to get his hands into the public coffers – whatever happened to him being an honest Christian?

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

Skepchick at Chi-Fi in Chicago

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 5, 2015

I’m excited to say that many of my friends at Skepchick will be coming to Chicago for Chi-Fi 2015! Chi-Fi is a celebration of geekdom (akin to CONvergence and Dragon*Con) at which scientists and skeptics are making their presence more known in order to spread our message of science, skepticism, and critical thinking. I will be participating, along with the Skepchicks, in a number of panels at this con. For more details, I recommend reading the following post by my skeptical colleague and friend, Jamie Bernstein :)

Skepchick is Coming to Chicago for Chi-Fi

skepchicks

You’ve probably heard of SkepchickCON where all the Skepchicks descend upon Minneapolis as part of CONvergence, but this year we’re expanding to Chicago. The weekend of March 19-22, 2015 the Skepchicks will be doing a Chicago version of SkepchickCON at Chi-Fi, Chicago’s newest geek con.

A ton of your favorite writers here at Skepchick and on Skepchick Network sites like Mad Art Lab, Grounded Parents and Queereka will all be coming to Chi-Fi for a series of Skepchick track panels on science, skepticism, intersectional feminism and geek topics. We will also be hosting an evening party room so you can come hang out with us every night. Plus, we’re currently finalizing details for Rebecca’s famous Quiz-o-Tron on the Sunday night of Chi-Fi.

All of the following Skepchick Network writers will be at Chi-Fi (most of them in cosplay): Rebecca Watson, Amy Davis Roth, Ashley Hamer, Anne Sauer, Julia Burke, Emily Finke, Olivia James, Kavin Senapathy, Cassandra Phoenix, Nicole Gugliucci, Jamie Bernstein, Melanie Mallon, Emily Sexton, Jenny Splitter, Topher Hunter, Erich Bacher, Brianne Bilyeu, Benny Vimes, and Ryan Consell.

Chi-Fi will be taking place March 19-22, 2015 at the fancy schmancy Palmer House in Chicago. Registration costs $70 in advance and $80 at the door (with a $10 discount for students or military). Kids 12 and under are free. You can find all information about registering for Chi-Fi at Chi-Fi.org.

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

New JREF eBook: Magic in the Classroom

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 25, 2015

I’ve been teaching physics, astronomy, and math at both the high school and college level for about 18 years. And in that time I’ve made a number of contributions to the intersection of skepticism and education. I’m proud to say that one of them is a my part in a new ebook published by the James Randi Educational Foundation, available for free download. Please pass this along to any educator whom you know is interested in preserving and encouraging scientific and critical thinking in the classroom :)

New eBook: Magic in the Classroom

Magic in the Classroom

The JREF is pleased to offer a new eBook for educators

Magic in the Classroom is a collection of essays by educators across the curriculum who are using extraordinary claims to teach critical thinking. Editor Robert Blaskiewicz gathers the contributions of fourteen authors from the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift Blog who write on topics ranging from popular culture, psychology, linguistics, evolution, exobiology, history, folklore, and many more. Together these essays represent the work of a vibrant skeptical culture in education that is bringing critical thinking skills to students across the curriculum.

DOWNLOAD FOR FREE!

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

“Teaching Critical Thinking” Panel at FtBConscience3

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 25, 2015

I just got done participating in a wonderful panel on teaching critical thinking via the online FtBConscience3 event. On the panel with me was Jason Thibeault (who moderated), Chana Messinger, and Dan Linford. The panel was recorded and the video is now posted on Youtube. Enjoy! :)

Teaching Critical Thinking

How can teachers use their role as educators to instill critical thinking and ideas like rationalism and empiricism? Are such approaches intrinsic to teaching or separate? We could also go into the ethics of where to draw the line between instructing and “preaching” but I’d actually prefer to stick to the praxis and methodology of bringing critical thinking into the classroom. How do we adapt assessments and assignments? How do we model thinking behaviors we’d like to see?

Panelists: Chana Messinger, Hiba Krisht, Matt Lowry, Dan Linford

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

The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 18, 2015

**This post will also appear as a guest post at the Wrest In Peace blog. Go check it out :) **

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, there has been much soul searching regarding free speech, religion, what is and isn’t offensive, and public safety. In my first blog post here at Wrest In Peace, in the spirit of battling with words and not weapons, I wanted to take this topic head-on and without apology. So here goes…

First, I think that there has been a fundamental error in how much of this discussion has been framed. Too many people, mostly those who wish to not have their “religious sensibilities” offended and their weak-kneed allies, are asking the question of what are limits to free speech and should “offensive” speech which attacks and/or ridicules religion be allowed? This viewpoint isn’t to be dismissed as trivial in light of the fact that almost 20% of Americans think religion shouldn’t be satirized.

I think this is entirely the wrong question to be asking, for the simple reason that it appears to place the onus for responsibility of religious violence in the wrong place: on people whose only crime is to speak their mind openly and freely. There is an implicit and dangerous naivety behind such framing: it makes the assumption that if only people wouldn’t be critical of religion or poke fun at religious figures then murderous violence such as that on display recently in Paris would be curbed.

Really?! Not mocking religion means that there’s going to be a reduction of religiously-motivated violence? Try telling that to the thousands upon thousands of Muslims (and others) who are, even now, being enslaved, victimized, and barbarically killed by the extremists in ISIS. I’ll wager that the vast majority, if not all, of those being brutally oppressed and killed by ISIS never said or wrote one offensive word about Islam or Muhammad. Yet they are being slaughtered in the name of radical Islam none-the-less.

In my mind, a much more proper question to ask is this: What is it that it can so easily generate such a murderous certainty among the most ardent, fundamentalist believers of religion? The right way to respond to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and atrocities committed by ISIS isn’t to demand less scrutiny of religion but quite the opposite; we must demand more scrutiny of religion, especially radical, fundamentalist variations.

Second, in order to have any reasonable discussion of these topics, we must ask ourselves who defines what is offensive? Something which offends one person may be little more than humor to someone else. For example, much attention has been paid to the depiction of Muhammad in pictures and how this offends many Muslims; some even go so far as to argue that such depictions should be regarded as “hate speech”!

Would some consider the following depiction of Muhammad as a suicide-bombing terrorist to be offensive?

Undoubtedly, the answer to that question would be “Yes!” But consider this fact: there is a long, rich history of images of Muhammad being displayed within Islamic culture. For instance, this website shows numerous examples, most of them many centuries old, of Muslim artists showing Muhammad in their work. In 1999, Islamic art expert Wijdan Ali wrote a scholarly overview of the Muslim tradition of depicting Muhammad, which can be downloaded here in pdf format. In that essay, Ali demonstrates that the prohibition against depicting Muhammad did not arise until as late as the 16th or 17th century, despite the media’s recent false claims that it has always been forbidden for Muslims to draw Muhammad. Until comparatively recently in Islamic history, it was perfectly common to show Muhammad, either in full, or with his face hidden. Even after the 17th century, up to modern times, Islamic depictions of Muhammad (especially in Shi’ite areas) continued to be produced.

And even the U.S. government has incorporated an image of Muhammad as one of the traditional law-givers on the frieze of the Supreme Court building in Washington, DC…

And there are plenty of other examples available.  My whole point here is that it seems the modern-day Islamic radicals are on a crusade to crush dissent, free expression, and free inquiry not only among the secular critics of Islam in the West, but also those whom would dissent within Islam itself.

And that brings me to my third point: if we allow “offensive” speech to be curbed or outlawed, we run the risk of letting these vague notions of what is offensive to be defined by the most extreme members of religion. Take, for example, the case of Saudi Arabian blogger and dissenter Raif Badawi, who is undergoing a brutal punishment involving receiving 50 lashes a week for 20 weeks, followed by years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. His crime, according to the Saudi Arabian authorities, was “insulting Islam”; Raif had the audacity to run a website called Free Saudi Liberals (now closed down) where he advocated for a secular government in Saudi Arabia. Yes, political dissent is viewed as an insult to religion, justifying – in the minds of the extremists – the most brutal of tortures and disproportionate punishment. Raif Badawi’s torture makes the case that, if anything, religious sensibilities need to be questioned, and if that makes some people uncomfortable or offends them, so much the better!

Now, lest you think this discussion is exclusively about Islam, think again. It has become clear of late that many more than just some Muslims are jumping aboard the “curb offensive speech” bandwagon. Consider, for example, the reaction from various branches of Christianity to the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

Famous religious right and fundamentalist Christian broadcaster Bryan Fisher suggested that God allowed Islamic terrorists to carry out their attack in Paris as punishment for blasphemy. Further, in his radio broadcast he stated “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… They [Charlie Hebdo] made a career out of taking the name of God, the God of the Bible, the father of the Lord Jesus [in vain].” So, according to Fisher, it wasn’t the satire of Islam that led to the attacks, it was the satire of Christianity and Jesus that is to blame! It should also be no surprise that Fisher is among those who would impose so-called anti-blasphemy laws in the United States.

Not to be outdone, prominent radical Catholic and head of the Catholic League Bill Donohue stated that the victims of the Paris attacks only had themselves to blame for insulting religion and angering people. “Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated,” he explained in a press release. “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”

Now one would expect such nutty rhetoric from commonly-known Christian fundamentalists such as Fisher and Donohue, but what is more disturbing is that the most widely known religious figure on the planet, Pope Francis, who is regarded by many as a “progressive Pope” appears to agree with these sentiments! “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith,” the Pope stated on a recent trip to the Philippines. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” he continued. Wow, so much for that “turn the other cheek” nonsense that Jesus espoused.

What I see now is an emerging unholy alliance between right-wing extremists and naïve left-wing multiculturalists against secular critics of religion. The former want little more than power and control, and they view silencing criticism of religion and its related power structures as a way of attaining these goals. The latter are often well-meaning but clueless and unrealistic idealists who believe that sitting in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” will result in less religiously-motivated power grabs and violence. Both groups view secular critics of religion as either an enemy of the faith or callous and disrespectful loud-mouths who are somehow a threat to a healthy society. And this is not simply an academic debate; political correctness, introduced by the naïve among the multicultural left, has now been co-opted by right-wing fundamentalists to justify everything from the denial of contraception to women to the inclusion of pseudo-scientific notions of creationism in public schools. Under the guise of “religious liberty”, these fundamentalists insist that not allowing them to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of society is offensive.

What needs to happen is that it needs to be shown that an increased secularization of society, as Raif Badawi advocates, is needed to make it more free and prosperous for everyone, believer and non-believer alike. But in order to show the importance of secularism, it is necessary to simultaneously question religion; and as Voltaire famously wrote, “We must have laughter on our side,” because there is often no more powerful force to tear down the high and mighty than laughter. And laughter is the chief weapon of the satirist.

So you see, even if it is considered offensive or blasphemous, the satirical lampooning of religion and religious belief is necessary for a healthy and free society. If we accept a situation where there really are sacred cows that cannot be questioned or made fun of, then that leads to the collection of unquestioned and absolute authority (it’s hard to get much more authoritative than claiming you speak for God). And, as the saying goes, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

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

Satanic Temple Convinces Florida School District that Church-State Separation is a Good Thing

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 17, 2015

In recent years, the Satanic Temple has been getting more and more attention as they have been attempting to make themselves more visible in the public eye. In fact, they’ve taken a page from the tactics employed by many Christian churches, and they have begun to demand a place in erecting holiday displays, advocating for religious monuments on public land, and even distributing literature at public schools.

And it’s that last point which is so interesting and ironic: last fall a judge ruled that religious pamphlets could be handed out in public schools in Orange County, Florida. School officials seemed just fine with this scheme as long as it was only Christian literature and Bibles that were handed out to kids, but then along came the Satanic Temple…

Satanists victorious in wild scheme to disrupt Florida school district’s Bible plan

In September of last year the Satanic Temple revealed plans to disseminate the “Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities,” to kids in a Florida school district.

The Satanic Temple along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) were responding to a ruling, which let the Orange County school district allow religious and atheist organizations to distribute materials — including bibles and other pamphlets — in public schools.

Since religious and atheist materials could be handed out, the Satanic Temple made a request to hand out the aforementioned activity book, while the Freedom From Religion Foundation planned to hand out a pamphlet describing the bible as an “X-rated book.”

Now, the Satanic Temple’s request has the school district rethinking its policy, and the district is currently putting the distribution of all religious paraphernalia on hold, according to WFTV-TV.

“We don’t want our schools to become religious battlefields,” David Williamson, of FFRF, told WFTV-TV. “We’ve advocated all along to close the forum.”

So in a hilarious and embarrassing turnabout, the school district did what they probably should have done all along: they decided that in order to respect the separation of church and state they should probably just not allow any religious organizations to distribute literature in the public schools.

In closing, I think it’s fair to say that a picture is worth a thousand words :)

prayer-in-school

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

The Physics of Santa 2.0

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2014

Years ago I posted here about how I kill Santa with science, and it goes without saying that doing so can get quite a reaction out of people. Some reactions have been negative, but a surprising number of people have contacted me actually thanking me for killing the Santa myth.  In fact, I was recently commissioned to write a formal article on killing Santa with science for TESConnect, an educational magazine and networking organization centered in the UK.  I am happy to share with you the full article in all of its colored glory, along with explicit physics calculations, below… Happy Holidays! :)

lowry1

lowry2

lowry3

lowry 4

Posted in education, humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers

%d bloggers like this: