The Skeptical Teacher

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

Book Review: “Sharing Reality – How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World”

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 3, 2018

Many of you know that for some time now I’ve been particularly interested in how we skeptics (i.e. those of use who take an evidence-based view of the world) can engage those of a non-skeptical mindset. In fact, I’ve been explicit about this in past musings wherein I discuss how to have meaningful dialogue with creationists or self-declared ghost hunters. Now I am happy to report that there is a book out – Sharing Reality by Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan – which tackles exactly this topic in great detail.

As a professional high school and college science educator of 20+ years, and as a self-professed skeptic of all things supernatural, I found that Sharing Reality provided something that many of my colleagues have struggled with: a method for effectively communicating science and critical thinking without alienating people who are reachable. Sharing Reality is a must-read for those proponents of science, adherents to an evidence-based worldview, and defenders of secularism, because it provides a road map for how to engage in productive discussions with those who don’t necessarily share that worldview. If we are serious about advancing science, secularism, and evidence-based critical thinking in general (what the authors refer to as “evidism”) beyond our own echo chambers into wider society, then we would be wise to follow the advice contained within Sharing Reality to start engaging people in broader discussions of these issues.



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The Pentagon Acknowledges UFO Program

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 30, 2017

There was some interesting news a few weeks ago regarding a secret government program run by the Pentagon which was, apparently, researching UFOs. According to the New York Times…

… The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties.

The shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.

On CBS’s “60 Minutes” in May, Mr. Bigelow said he was “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist and that U.F.O.s have visited Earth. [emphasis added]…

I both agree and disagree with the last, bolded statement. I disagree that this is evidence of aliens existing; to me, the bar for accepting the existence of extra-terrestrial life is much higher than simply seeing things in the sky that are of unknown origin, which leads me to question leading into my second point.

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term “UFO”.  A UFO is, by definition, an unidentified flying object.  This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is – it doesn’t mean that it’s a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus (but I highly doubt it is Santa Claus, for reasons outlined here).  It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic.  Usually, the argument goes something like this: “Well, it couldn’t be anything else but an alien ship!”  Right? Wrong. To claim that a UFO is an alien spacecraft is to identify it, which is a direct contradiction; you cannot claim that something is both unidentified yet identified simultaneously.

Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the argument from ignorance or the god-of-the-gaps, and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. In the past, strange and unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the god-of-the-gaps.  In humanity’s ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly “miraculous” events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God. But now we know better… or do we?

In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our reasoning, but the boogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance.  Rather than explain what we don’t know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more and more of us are using a new pseudo-religion of UFOology to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology.  Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the god-of-the-gaps argument but “alien-of-the-gaps” instead.

Therefore, in the end, all this Pentagon program illustrates is something that really shouldn’t be that surprising: sometimes fighter pilots see things in the sky that are of unknown origin. That’s it.

So what’s the best response when confronted with something that we don’t understand, such as a funny object in the night sky?  In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: “We don’t know.”

For some reason, those three words are very unsettling to many, but the acknowledgement of what we do not know is often the first step to attaining new knowledge.

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The Mythology of Mother Teresa

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 4, 2016

Chances are that if you mention the name “Mother Teresa” to a random person, they will associate her with all manner of great and wonderful activities, such feeding the poor and aiding the sick and dying. Indeed, MT is almost universally accepted as the model of a good and selfless person. But, as with all myths, the reality is quite different and not so rosy.

Since the Vatican is about to declare Mother Teresa a “saint”, I think it’s appropriate to remind people of some unpleasant facts about her. One of MT’s earliest and harshest critics was Christopher Hitchens, who authored this article for Slate in 2003, wherein he refers to her as a “fanatic, fundamentalist, and fraud.” Here’s an excerpt:

… MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?

And if that isn’t bad enough, check out this investigation of MT and the con job of her mythology and its propagation by the Vatican from Penn & Teller’s show Bullshit (warning: some of the images are disturbing).

Last, but not least, there are critics of MT from within India, who have been demanding accountability from her organization for years. One such critic is Dr. Aroup Chatterjee, who grew up in Calcutta amid MT’s organization that supposedly helped the sick and dying poor of the city. His article in the New York Times is scathing:

Over hundreds of hours of research, much of it cataloged in a book he published in 2003, Dr. Chatterjee said he found a “cult of suffering” in homes run by Mother Teresa’s organization, the Missionaries of Charity, with children tied to beds and little to comfort dying patients but aspirin.

He and others said that Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity in her work to extremes, allowing practices like the reuse of hypodermic needles and tolerating primitive facilities that required patients to defecate in front of one another.

Wow. That’s pretty rough stuff. It almost makes one want to question the motives of the Vatican, doesn’t it? Why would the Catholic Church create and propagate this myth of Mother Teresa, her “saintliness”, and the supposed miracles she performed? Maybe it has something to do with the institutional corruption and scandal brought on by rampant sexual abuse and related cover-ups?

Ah well, nothing like that old-time religion to distract one from some unpleasant facts.

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Ask the U.S. Candidates to Debate Science!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 16, 2016

Last summer I posted about how Science Debate is gearing up for the 2016 elections in the United States, in order to encourage the presidential and Congressional candidates to publicly debate science policy and science-related issues.


Now that the heat of the 2016 U.S. campaign season is upon us, with the first public debates between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump (and possibly Libertarian Gary Johnson) a bit over a month away, it is imperative that we speak out to get the debate hosts and these campaigns to make science a part of these debates. In fact, it isn’t just science geeks like me calling for such a debate, as – according to this 2015 poll – vast majorities of Americans (of all political stripes) wish for such a debate…


“An overwhelming majority of Americans (87%) say it is important that candidates for President and Congress have a basic understanding of the science informing public policy issues, including majorities across the political spectrum (92% of Democrats, 90% of Republicans and 79% of Independents). Americans also say the presidential candidates should participate in a debate to discuss key science-based challenges facing the United States, such as healthcare, climate change, energy, education, innovation and the economy, with  91% of Democrats, 88% of Republicans and 78% of Independents agreeing.”

So please pass the word, sign the Science Debate petition, or donate to the cause. One of the best ways to spread the word is to push for a ground-swell of support on social media and by contacting the campaigns directly. Toward that end, here is some advice from Shawn Otto, the founder of Science Debate…

Please alert your networks. Here is sample tweet language:


or mine:

or Sigma Xi’s

Separately, here’s a tweet from MediaMatters emphasizing our urging of the press to do a better job of covering science, engineering, tech, health & environmental issues this cycle:

When using social media use the #ScienceQs hashtag (hint: search here for other tweets). You may also reference the twitter handles of ScienceDebate and the candidates: @HillaryClinton @realDonaldTrump @GovGaryJohnson @DrJillStein @SciDebate @ShawnOtto @Sheril_ @aaas @theNASEM



A sampling of some of the initial domestic coverage on the questions (which should also be shared on social media – the more this is out there, the more pressure candidates will feel to respond promptly):

News releases by some of the partners:

All best,

Shawn Otto



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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).


[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

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 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.

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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!


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


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 🙂


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