The Skeptical Teacher

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

These are the dumbest Clinton conspiracy theories. Ever.

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 10, 2016

It wouldn’t be a true U.S. presidential election season without the obligatory failure of logical and skeptical thinking on the part of those arguing for or against this or that politician. And one of my favorites of failed reasoning is the conspiracy theory, that go-to argument that a die-hard fanatic (of any political leaning) can fall back on when all their other arguments get blown apart. This article from RationalWiki does a good job of outlining the flawed thinking among conspiracy theorists and how to counter their arguments. (Hint: don’t try converting a committed conspiracy theorist, because they’ll likely just dismiss you as being part of the conspiracy. But it’s worth knowing how to identify and counter their nonsense for the benefit of others watching the conversation.)

This year, it seems that politically-oriented conspiracy theories abound. In this post I’m not talking specifically about the rampant conspiracy-mongering espoused by Donald Trump, though there is ample evidence of it (if you’re interested, check out his birther views or his denial of global warming science) and, no doubt, “The Donald” will oblige by providing more such nonsense in the future.

Right now I’m talking about the conspiracy theories that seem to swirl around Bill and Hillary Clinton. There are a lot of them, but my two favorites include one of the oldest and also one of the newest: the first is the claim that Bill Clinton “did away with” a number of people who had evidence of his numerous crimes, while the second is the claim that Hillary Clinton’s current campaign is somehow in cahoots with Google to manipulate Internet searches (ostensibly to cover up her supposed crimes).

Clintons

[Full disclosure: I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton in either 1992 or 1996 (I voted for Ross Perot both years), and this election season I have been a supporter of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.]

If you come across either one of these conspiracies, here’s a couple of resources to reference in countering them. The first deals with the “Bill Clinton body count” claim (which I’ve seen morphing into a similar claim about Hillary Clinton), and it’s from our skeptical friends at Snopes.com:

FALSE: Clinton Body Bags

Decades-old political rumor claims Bill Clinton quietly did away with several dozen people who possessed incriminating evidence about him.

… We shouldn’t have to tell anyone not to believe this claptrap, but we will anyway. In a frenzied media climate where the Chief Executive couldn’t boff a White House intern without the whole world finding out every niggling detail of each encounter and demanding his removal from office, are we seriously to believe the same man had been having double handfuls of detractors and former friends murdered with impunity? …

The claim about Hillary Clinton working in conjunction with Google to manipulate Internet searches is even more silly, because it is so painfully easy to debunk. This article at Vox.com does an excellent job of quickly and easily dispatching this particular bit of nonsense:

There’s no evidence that Google is manipulating searches to help Hillary Clinton

There’s a video making the rounds purporting to show that Google is suppressing the phrase “Hillary Clinton crimes” from autocomplete results, thereby boosting Clinton’s candidacy.

The video points out that if you type the phrase “Donald Trump rac,” Google will suggest the word “racist” to complete the phrase. But if you type “Hillary Clinton cri,” Google will suggest words like “crime reform” and “crisis” but not “crimes.” This despite the fact that Google Trend results show that people search for “Hillary Clinton crimes” a lot more than “Hillary Clinton crime reform.”

So what’s going on here? The folks behind the video suggest that this reflects an unholy alliance between the Clinton campaign and Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and current chair of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. But there’s a simpler explanation: Choose any famous American who has been accused of a serious crime and Google their name followed by the letters “cri,” and in no case does Google suggest the word “crimes.” That’s true even of people like Kaczynski and Madoff, who are famous only because they faced prosecution for serious crimes.

Apparently, Google has a policy of not suggesting that customers do searches on people’s crimes. I have no inside knowledge of why it runs its search engine this way. Maybe Google is just uncomfortable with having an algorithm suggesting that people search for other people’s crimes.

In any event, there’s no evidence that this is specific to Hillary Clinton, and therefore no reason to think this is a conspiracy by Google to help Clinton win the election.

Now whether or not you plan to vote for Clinton this year is not the point of this post. The point is that you don’t have to make up stupid conspiracy theories to justify your political beliefs. Argue your political point of view, but don’t buy into or spread lies and deceit to justify it.

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The Unexplained: A Skeptical Perspective

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 29, 2016

Recently I was interviewed via Skype by Dan Schneider, author of the long-standing Cosmoetica Blog. I joined Dan and my skeptical colleague James Underdown of the Center For Inquiry and the Independent Investigations Group to discuss the question of the unexplained and how both skeptics and believers approach unexplained phenomena. It was a very fun and wide-ranging interview, and below is the link to the Youtube video that Dan uploaded. Check it out, and feel free to leave any feedback in the comments section below this post:)

Posted in aliens & UFOs, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology, ghosts & paranormal, internet, psychics, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Ultimate Easter Quiz

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 27, 2016

Easter is upon us, and while I do not celebrate the holiday (seeing as how I’m not Christian) I think it is worth noting it due to its out-sized presence in U.S. society and around the world. Specifically, in the spirit of educating about the various mythologies and misconceptions surrounding Easter, I would like to share with you the Ultimate Easter Quiz from my friend Phil Ferguson’s Skeptic Money blog (at the appropriate time, feel free to also check out his post about the related Ultimate Christmas Quiz).

For the full details, as well as the answers to the questions, you’ll have to click here. But before you do, try your hand at the questions below, then check your answers and see how well you did. Then share the Quiz with others to test their knowledge!:)

[Addendum: for those interested, you might like my related, earlier post that asks What is the Physical Evidence for the Existence of Jesus?]

The Ultimate Easter Quiz

By David Fitzgerald

1. When did Jesus get crucified?

a. At the 3rd Hour (9am), on Friday, the morning of Passover.
b. Shortly after the 6th Hour (noon), on Friday, the day before Passover.
c. He didn’t really get crucified, his identical twin Thomas Didymus did.
d. He didn’t really get crucified, he only appeared to be crucified.
e. We don’t know for sure, since the gospels disagree irreconcilably.

2. What supernatural events occurred at his death?

a. An earthquake hits Jerusalem (actually, two); strong enough to break stones.
b. Supernatural darkness covers all the land.
c. The sacred temple curtain spontaneously rips in half.
d. A mass resurrection of all the Jewish holy men, who crawl out of their graves and appear to many in Jerusalem.
e. All of the above, depending on which Gospel you read.

3. What historical evidence do we have for those supernatural events?

a. Every major ancient writer of the time worldwide mentioned them.
b. Many important writers in Judea discuss them.
c. Several writers in Jerusalem mention them.
d. No one mentions them, but we do have archeological evidence for them.
e. There is not a single lick of evidence for any of them, written or otherwise.

4. How many women went to the tomb?

a. Three: Mary Magdalene, James’ mother and Salome.
b. Two: Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”
c. Lots:  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, James’ mother Mary and other women.
d. Just one: Mary Magdalene.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

5. What did they find there?

a. A young man, sitting inside the tomb on the right.
b. Two men, standing inside.
c. Two angels sitting on each end of the bed.
d. An armed guard of Roman soldiers standing watch, when suddenly a great earthquake occurs, and an angel descends from heaven, his face blazing like lightning and his clothing white as snow; the Roman guards are utterly terrified and all faint dead away; the angel rolls away the stone and sits on it.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

6. What happened after the visit to the tomb?

a. The women ran away in terror and never told anyone what they saw.
b. Jesus appears, is initially mistaken for the gardener, and then is tenderly reunited with Mary.
c. The women tell the disciples, who don’t believe them.
d. Peter runs and beats everyone to the tomb; or possibly gets beaten by one of the other disciples.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

7. Where/when did the risen Jesus first appear to the disciples?

a. On a mountain in the Galilee (60-100 miles from Jerusalem), just as the angel told them he would.
b. We don’t know; we aren’t told anything after the women run from the tomb.
c. He appears to two followers (not disciples) on the road to Emmaus (seven miles from Jerusalem)
d. He materializes in a locked room in Jerusalem as the disciples are at dinner.
e. No way to know, since none of the Gospels agree.

8. When/Where did Jesus ascend back to heaven?

a.  Jesus returns to heaven on the same day he arose, right after dinner, from a room in Jerusalem.
b. We don’t know exactly, but it’s at least 8 days after the resurrection, when the despondent apostles have gone back to being fishermen on the sea of Tiberias.
c. After his resurrection, Jesus spends at least 40 days of teaching his disciples in Jerusalem before ascending to heaven from the Mt. of Olives.
d.  Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven; he met his disciples in the mountains of Galilee and told them he would be with them always.
e. We don’t really know; Luke is the only gospel writer who actually mentions the ascension.

9. Who wrote these gospels, anyway?

a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – I mean, come on, it says so right there.
b. Actually, none of the gospels even claim to be written by eyewitnesses – all were originally anonymous and written at least a generation later.
c. Well, it’s more like the end of first century for Mark and sometime in the early to mid 2nd century for the others, if you must know.
d. Hold on – Not only that, but Matthew and Luke just reworked Mark gospel, adding their own material and tweaking Mark’s text to better fit what they thought it should say.
e. Get this – if all that weren’t enough, all the Gospels have been edited and added to by later editors, and for the first 200 – 300 years, we have no way to determine how faithfully the originals were preserved.

10. Where does the word “Easter” come from?

a. From the Aramaic word for Passover.
b. It originally was “Eastern Holiday” – referring to the Passover celebrated by Jews in the eastern part of the Roman empire.
c. From est ova, Latin for “Where are the eggs?”
d. From an ancient Celtic pun that means both “Bunnies” and “Chocolate.”
e. from Eastre/Eostre, the pagan Goddess of Spring.

Click here to see the correct answers (scroll down the page)!

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SkepchickCon 2016

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2016

Coming up this Fourth of July weekend (June 30-July 3) in Minneapolis, MN is that annual gathering of sci-fi and geek fun: CONvergence.  And where there’s CONvergence, there’s also SkepchickCon!

1-56b365207ad02

My skeptical pals Ashley and Ryan have some advice for you: “Don’t blink!”😉 — Image source

I’m happy to announce that the usual fun science and skeptical endeavors will be on full display at this year’s SkepchickCon events.  This includes a number of panels and discussions related to all things science, skepticism, and feminism; and yes, yours truly will be participating on some of these panels!

In addition, the Skepchicks are planning a variety of interesting “skeptical salons” and other activities related to learning some fun skepticism and science while also partying like you’re at CONvergence.

But putting on all of these activities requires some cash, so we’re asking for donations. However, donating some money to the skeptical and scientific cause will earn you something in return (besides good feels). My colleague Olivia James elaborates:

Please Donate to SkepchickCon 2016

We know it’s hard to part with your hard earned cash, even for something as awesome as SkepchickCon, so we’ve got some amazing incentives to make things a little more fun.

  • $25 donation: receive a pair of Star Wars cross stiches (one dark side, one light side) by Mindy.
  • $50 donation: receive a lasercut coaster with your choice of molecule (from a selection of 6 available designs) by Ryan and Jim.
  • $75 donation: CHOOSE a custom doll with lab coat by Niki OR a custom cross stitch from the fandom of your choice by Olivia.
  • $100 donation: you are invited to join the Skepchicks for a private party at SkepchickCon, or a Google Hangout if you are unable to attend.
  • $125 donation: receive a blog post or round table from the Grounded Parents contributors on a topic of your choice.
  • $150 donation: receive a full set of 6 molecule coasters by Ryan and Jim with a bonus Skepchick logo coaster AND an invitation to the Skepchick private party.
  • $175 donation: CHOOSE either a private physics lesson with Dan or Matt OR a private astronomy lesson with Nicole AND an invitation to the Skepchick private party.
  • $200 donation: receive a cosplay photoshoot at CONvergence with Jamie AND an invitation to the Skepchick private party.
  • $500 donation: ALL OF THE ABOVE

You all make this geekiness possible! Thank you!

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“An Honest Liar” Comes to PBS

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 14, 2016

One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi.  I’ve read many of his books (I highly recommend them – here’s a good list), I have had the good fortune to meet him a few times, and for a time I even worked with his organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation. 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 has reached and inspired countless others. Now a movie, called “An Honest Liar”, which documents his life and his legacy will be coming to the Public Broadcasting Service on March 28, 2016…

An Honest Liar

HONESTLIAR_KeyArt_1920x1080

About the Film

For the last half-century, James “The Amazing” Randi has entertained millions with his dazzling feats of magic, escape, and trickery. Along the way he discovered that faith healers, fortune-tellers, and psychics were using his beloved magician’s tricks to swindle money from the credulous. Fed up with the fraud, he dedicated his life to exposing con artists with a wit and over-the-top showmanship all his own. An Honest Liar is part detective story, part biography, and a bit of a magic act itself.

An acolyte of Harry Houdini, Randi became a famed magician-turned-debunker of psychics and mediums in his own right with a series of unparalleled investigations and elaborate hoaxes. These grand schemes fooled scientists, the media, and a gullible public, but always in service of demonstrating the importance of skepticism and the dangers of magical thinking. Randi was a frequent guest on TV variety and talk shows, most notably The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, uncloaking high profile scams, like the “spoonbending” of illusionist Uri Geller. Eventually Randi’s efforts won him the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Award.

When dealing with a master deceiver, however, the truth can be elusive. A sudden and shocking revelation threatens to bring down Randi’s own house of cards, and the magician who spent his life exposing phonies may be the victim of a devastating deceit himself.

An Honest Liar is told through interviews with Randi, vintage footage of his TV appearances, and interviews with illusionists, performers, and skeptics alike, including Adam Savage, Penn & Teller, Bill Nye, Geller, Alice Cooper, and more.

Watch the trailer, pass it on to your friends (even if they aren’t card-carrying skeptics), and spread the word. This is a film which everyone should see, because as Randi himself states, “No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.” :)

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The Tenth Anniversary of Dover & the Demise of Intelligent Design’s Wedge Strategy

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2015

Ten years ago today, on Dec. 20th 2005, skeptics, scientists, and science-boosters celebrated a huge win in the perpetual creationist war against evolutionary science: the historic ruling in the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial. The ruling by federal judge John Jones in the Dover case was a no-holds barred beat-down against the notion of so-called “intelligent design” (ID) as science.

Judge Jones

Judge John Jones – my hero:) (image source)

For those who don’t know, it is important to understand the historical context: in the early 1990s, creationists were trying to figure out a way to move forward after having suffered a major setback when, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that creationism wasn’t science and therefore could not be taught as such in public schools. Through the 1990s on into the early 2000s, creationists came up with a new way of branding their ideas, which they called Intelligent Design (ID). The Intelligent Design Movement (IDM – which is just another way of saying “creationist movement”) put together a slick and well-funded think tank known as the Discovery Institute, whose sole purpose at the time was to write about and promote the whole notion of ID as a scientific concept. However, some digging revealed that ID was simply a thinly-veiled attempt to rename and relabel the old-fashioned creationism that had been defeated time and time again through both scientific analysis and courtroom rulings; further investigation also showed that the IDM’s motives were explicitly religious in nature and had little or nothing to do with science. In fact, the IDM’s own stated goals were to, among other things, completely overturn and re-define the entire endeavor of science so as to be in keeping with their narrow religious worldview; in fact, the IDM explicitly stated as much in their now-infamous Wedge Document (an actual PDF of the original document can be found here) in the section titled Goals

Governing Goals

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

Five Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
  • To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
  • To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life. [emphasis added]

The IDM pushed the idea of ID in the popular press, trying to avoid any religious overtones, attempting to make it look like a scientific concept. But all along, the real goal of the IDM and Discovery Institute was to get a federal court ruling in their favor stating that ID itself was a scientific concept so that they could “push the thin edge of their Wedge” into public school science classrooms as part of their larger goal to, in their own words, have their narrow religious beliefs “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.”

In 2004 the IDM got what it wanted in the form of a federal court case wherein ID was put on trial after the school board of Dover, PA tried to force science teachers in the town’s public school district to teach ID as science. The IDM and Discovery Institute thought this case was going to be a slam dunk for them, partly because Judge Jones was both a Republican and appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and they thought he would be sympathetic to their worldview, but also partly because they really believed they had good arguments. As it turned out, they were wrong on both counts. Here’s just a taste of what Judge Jones had to say in his ruling of Dover v. Kitzmiller (a more thorough break down, including the all-too-predictable reaction from creationists, can be found here)…

(from p. 63 of the ruling):

“After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position,ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.”

(from p. 88-89 of the ruling):

“After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents’, as well as Defendants’ argument that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum. Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”

(and the money quote, from p. 136 of the ruling):

“The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

More juicy quotes from Judge Jones can be found here and here.

So after this high-profile defeat of their pet “theory”, what did the IDM do? Sadly, they kept on doing the same thing: misrepresenting evolution and science in an attempt to give ID some thin veneer of credibility. But it was too late, because Dover clearly showed the emperor had no clothes, and only those already committed to the creationist cause kept up their attempt to promote ID as science.

Some years after the Dover ruling, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Casey Luskin, who at the time worked for the Discovery Institute, and I was interested in seeing whether or not ID’s biggest proponents had lived up to their talk of ID being science. That’s because actual science adapts and evolves, refining theories as a result of observation and experimentation. But I saw no evidence of this in Luskin’s talk; in fact, I saw quite the opposite: little more than a sad rehashing of the same tired old creationist arguments against evolution, lame attempts to label ID as science, ranting against the evils of materialism, and a  general collapse of all arguments under even the barest scrutiny. Here is my more detailed account of Luskin’s talk, and here is his response to my criticism. Lastly, in the spirit of throwing Luskin and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute a bone, I even came up with an experimental method for testing a key aspect of ID, but – ironically – they have yet to take up that (or any other) challenge and actually test out this supposedly scientific concept.

Of course, to say that creationism is dead and buried would be incorrect. After all, once the IDM could no longer promote ID as science, they fell back on the time-honored creationist tactic of attacking evolution and science in general, and these attacks still continue; a great way to keep track of attempts by creationists and others to tamper with science education is to stay tuned to the National Center for Science Education. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that creationists are, slowly but surely, losing the fight as more and more Americans become accepting of evolutionary science and view creationism with suspicion. It’s been a long, hard fight, but it’s one well worth having, given the stakes. And we’ll continue the fight as long as it takes.

Last, but not least, I cannot help but point out the irony of the timing: right around now is when the writers of the Wedge Document stated that they had hoped to have ID “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life”, and – thanks in large part to the Dover ruling – that certainly hasn’t come to pass.

Happy 10th birthday, Dover v. Kitzmiller:)

 

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

Santa, Skepticism, and the Holiday Season

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 19, 2015

A recent article posted by skeptical writer Greta Christina titled No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus over at Freethought Blogs caught my eye. In it, she makes a compelling argument for why it is that children should be skeptical of some adults’ attempts to hoodwink them…

… You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

I agree wholeheartedly with Greta’s thoughts on this matter, and I recommend that you read her entire post on the topic. That said, I’d also like to take this opportunity to share (or re-share) some of my previous work on the entire matter of skepticism, education, Santa Claus, and the Holiday Season in general.

1. If Santa ever existed, he didn’t live for long

This is perhaps what I’m most famous (or infamous) for on this topic: I use physics to kill Santa Claus; to be more accurate, I use physics to kill the idea of Santa Claus (because it’s impossible to kill something that doesn’t exist in the first place). Originally, I made a post years ago outlining how, assuming the jolly old elf existed in the first place, Santa would be simultaneously fried to a crisp and squashed into jelly in his attempts to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.

Then, last year, I decided to up my game a bit. I got commissioned to write an article for a UK Education periodical on the topic, and I went so far as to perform the explicit calculations showing that not only would Santa have to absorb the equivalent  energy of 20 Tsar-Bomba nuclear weapons every second due to air drag, but he’d also experience roughly 192 million g’s worth of acceleration in the process – more than enough to make short work of him!

Now, I’d like to share with you the specific PowerPoint I use to annihilate the Santa Claus myth. Feel free to download and use it as you will :)

Physics of Santa 2.0

Physics of Santa

2. The Santa Myth isn’t all bad and can serve a skeptical purpose

I’ve argued before that I think the myth of Santa Claus can actually be a very useful tool to promote skepticism and critical thinking in young children. Please note that my argument here is not in any way, shape, or form in opposition to Greta Christina’s well reasoned post above; I simply think that it is good for children to work out for themselves that Santa isn’t real, and once they’ve done that they should give the stink-eye to anyone who tries to give them grief or make them feel bad for not believing in the fairy tale. Even better, once kids figure it out, they should go forth and argue with their peers about the existence of Santa; what could be better than skeptical children promoting critical thinking to other kids?

3. It isn’t all about Santa

While it is perhaps true that Santa Claus is the most popular aspect of the Holiday Season, it certainly isn’t the only myth of the Holiday Season. Once children become skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus, then why not encourage them to ask questions and become more critical of other aspects of the season? For example, they can take the following myths and misconceptions quiz on the issue, examining everything from the more pagan aspects of Christmas to blatant falsehoods regarding the Gospels in the Bible. After all, once one starts to question one myth, then why not another?…

santa-dear-children

 

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Progress on Evolution… Slowly But Surely

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 30, 2015

Over the years, I’ve spent much time on this blog discussing science education and the need to combat pseudoscientific notions in the sphere of public education. In the United States, this fight is most evident in the seemingly endless attempts by creationists (and by “creationists” I mean young-Earth creationists, though there are many other kinds of creationism) to insert their religious ideology into the public school science classroom by either trying to disguise it as science or by undermining the teaching of evolutionary science.

Fortunately, due to many high-profile defeats (such as court decisions like Edward v. Aguillard and Dover v. Kitzmiller), the creationist movement has failed utterly in trying to convince anyone who isn’t already one of their followers that their ideas are in any way scientific – the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) does a good job of explaining why creationism shouldn’t be taught as science.

This failure on the part of creationists to push their ideas as science leaves them only one route: to tear down or block the teaching of evolutionary science in public schools. Often this takes the form of trying to pass so-called “academic freedom” laws to demand “equal time” for creationism or by advocating for “teaching all views” (which is easily refuted with a witty counter-argument), though those efforts have been met with, at best, mixed success. Another tactic employed by creationists is to try dumbing-down science textbooks by using various political and procedural maneuvering – such as ignoring expert scientific advice and even by watering-down the definition of an “expert” like the Texas Board of Education has done.

But, over time, it seems the creationist movement in the United States has suffered defeat after defeat, and all they appear able to do is adopt a bunker mentality wherein they attempt to keep the teaching of evolutionary science away from their children and others within their immediate sphere of influence.

Well, it appears that they are failing even at that, because – according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center – the number of Americans who accept evolution is at an all-time high. But the best news in this poll is the breakdown of who is most accepting of evolution: the youngest demographic…

evolutioninamerica1

… That idea [rejection of evolution] appears to be changing according to recent data released by the Pew Research Center. According to the most current survey, around 73 percent of young people now believe that species evolved over time as opposed to beginning in their actual state at the dawn of time.

Young people aren’t the only ones drifting away from an opposition to evolution. In every age group, a majority of people said that they believed the genetic makeup of species had undergone change. In the 65 and older range, which had the smallest margin, 54 percent agreed that evolution had taken place. …

Now I, for one, view this as a positive development, because as this younger generation, which is most accepting of evolution and least accepting of creationism, ages and matures it will signal a significant demographic shift in favor of good science education and against the creationist movement. Whether or not this has to do with wider societal trends regarding the rise of the non-religious in the United States is an open question, but regardless I think the creationist movement is going to have an even harder time of promoting their nonsense in the future. And that’s good for all of us:)

 

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Religious Extremism, the ISIS Attacks on Paris, and the Need for Honest Dialogue About Religion

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 14, 2015

**UPDATE (11-21-15): For those wishing to get informed about the way ISIS thinks (as in “know your enemy”), take a serious look at this article; it provides solid evidence that, yes, they really are an apocalyptic, fundamentalist religious cult. And you might want to pay particular attention to point #3 regarding what ISIS *really* fears (hint: it isn’t death).**

Like many, it was with both great sorrow and frustration that I read this morning about the attacks in Paris, France by members of ISIS. As I’ve argued many times before on this blog and elsewhere, such as on my post about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Draw Muhammad Day and my numerous posts regarding creationism plus the one about the religiously-motivated attacks on Planned Parenthood, I think it is absolutely critical for us to openly and honestly examine religion and religious belief and their roles in our modern society in a critical manner.

Let me begin by stating that I am not inherently anti-religion, though I openly declare myself to be an atheist. I can and do see how religious belief can serve to give many people a feeling of purpose or hope where they might otherwise have none, and I understand how it can help motivate many others to do works of great good. That said, too often I hear people speak of religion in terms that are only positive, as if things like religious belief and faith can only be good. For example, how many times have we all heard some believers state that one cannot be moral without a belief in God? I view this argument as detrimental for two reasons:

  1. It argues that people who either don’t believe in God (or who believe in the wrong god, whatever that may be) are inherently immoral. The counter to this argument is that there are many forms of useful and functional secular morality, so one can be moral without religion. This is, I think, especially relevant given the fact that secularism and non-religiosity is on the rise here in the United States (up to ~25% by some recent surveys).
  2. It seems to implicitly assume that religion necessarily promotes morality. Given the recent events in Paris, I think this assumption is highly questionable, not to mention the fact that recent studies have shown that the religious are no more moral in their daily behavior than are the non-religious.

I think we should stop placing religion and religious belief on a pedestal, and we should take a reasoned and critical look at religion just as we do with any other human endeavor. We need to understand that there is nothing inherently special or moral about religion, and it can be used for good or ill regardless of the beliefs espoused by the faithful; yes, the reality is that religion doesn’t lead to any kind of objective morality. Some people think this critical analysis of religion is not only not necessary, but they say they are offended by it. To that I respond the same way I did in my post titled “The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year:

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. …

… 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.

In closing, allow me one more criticism of religion and religious believers; but this criticism is not directed at the fundamentalists, it is directed at the moderate religious believers who, either knowingly or not, provide cover for the fundamentalists and their dangerous ideologies. As author Sam Harris argued so eloquently in his essay “The Problem with Religious Moderates”:

… While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.

Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question-i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us-religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness. …

… Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience. …

… With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more and more of the data of human experience? If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of what we know about the world. By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward. It cannot survive the changes that have come over us-culturally, technologically, and even ethically. Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world-to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish-is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.

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The World Ends… Again? Meh.

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 26, 2015

You have to hand it to the end-of-the-world doomsayers: they certainly are persistent. After a long and rich history of always getting it wrong, such as with the much-hyped Mayan Prophecy from December 2012, these seers and prophets just keep coming back for more. Case in point: apparently, this past September 23rd, the world was supposed to end… again. But don’t take it from me, take it straight from the prophets themselves:

Beware September 2015! A Great Deception is Brewing! I Know What is Going to Happen and it is Not What You Think!

The Mystery Of September 23: Why Does 9/23 Keep Popping Up All Over the Place?

And the Internet is full of a whole bunch of other “September 23rd” doomsday sites. I swear every year or two these things pop up like roaches; with the true believers, it’s like a game of perpetual whack-a-mole, because no matter how many times these predictions are wrong (which is EVERY TIME), they just keep coming back for more.

Our skeptical friends over at Skeptoid do a nice take down of this latest doomsday prediction:

Skeptoid: The September 23rd Apocalypse

prophecy-of-sept-23

Image Source

Let’s start with what’s being predicted for September 23, 2015 – and for September 2015 in general. According to various conspiracy, prophecy, and prepping websites, the following things will happen on the date itself:

• Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

• President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the White House. Of note is that Francis is the 266th Pope, September 23 is the 266th day of the year, and the average length of human gestation is 266 days.

• The Autumnal Equinox.

• The First day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, also known as “the Feast of the Sacrifice.”

If you add in days either just before or just after 9/23/15, you also get a number of apocalyptic events:

• A range of dates that Comet 67P is scheduled to make an extremely close passage of Earth, September 15-28.

• The September restart of the CERN Large Hadron Collider will open a portal to another dimension.

• The end of Jade Helm 15 on September 15.

• The September 25th launch of a new UN initiative, Agenda 2030, which signals the end stage of Agenda 21 implementation.

• The date of the last of the “Four Blood Moons” heralding the End Times, on September 28.

• The approximate date of predicted economic collapse.

• The end of a Shemitah year in the Jewish Calendar, the last year of the seven year agricultural cycle, that traditionally brings with it great tribulation.

All of these events have been prophesied to form a combination that will bring on the End Times. What are the sources of these predictions?

• The obvious confluence of the three major world religions on September 23.

• Biblical prophecy, specifically the “Four Blood Moons” prophecy.

• The End Times prophecy of Sir Isaac Newton.

• A dire warning from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who claimed on May 13, 2014 that we have “500 days to avoid climate chaos.” 500 days after May 13, 2014 is September 24, 2015.

• Prophetic dreams and visions by people attuned to such things.

• Predictive programming in Hollywood entertainment – specifically, many uses of the numbers “9” and “23” in films and TV.

Hmm, that’s quite a lot of scary End Times stuff, isn’t it? Except that the End didn’t come. But that won’t stop the apocalyptic fanatics from continuing to make their doomsday predictions; indeed, a quick Google search for “the coming apocalypse” will yield a mountain of Internet fodder to feed all the Bible-thumping, paranoia-inducing, hide-in-your-basement, conspiracy-mongering that you could ever want regarding future end-of-the-world predictions.

Here’s a prediction that you can take to the bank: the next apocalyptic prediction will pan out like all the previous ones… it will be dead, flat wrong.

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

 
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