The Skeptical Teacher

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

Science Debate is Back and Gearing Up for the 2016 Elections!

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 24, 2015

You may recall that in the 2008 and 2012 national election cycles, a new and extremely important effort to inject some serious discussion of scientific topics was introduced: Science Debate. The whole point of Science Debate is to get the presidential candidates (as well as other politicians) talking about science and science-related topics, so that the public can make informed decisions. And with the 2016 elections coming up next year, it’s time to get the word out about Science Debate and its place in the political discourse of the country. So please, read more about Science Debate below, sign their petition, submit questions you’d like addressed, spread the word, and donate to support this worthy cause!

uncle_sam_sd

About Science Debate:

Science Debate is a 501(c)(3) organization cofounded and run by volunteer citizens from a variety of walks of life who share the common vision of Thomas Jefferson that “Whenever the people are well-informed, the can be trusted with their own government.” In an age when science influences every aspect of life and lies at the heart of many of our thorniest policy challenges, we believe that candidates for office should be debating and discussing these issues, just like they debate and discuss economics, foreign policy, and even faith. Science Debate is dedicated to elevating science and engineering questions in our national civic dialogue.

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

The Pope Tries to Have It Both Ways on Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 24, 2015

Like many, I was pleasantly surprised when Pope Francis recently made public comments about climate change, wherein he stated that a) it was real, and b) it is largely due to human activity. This is good news because, rightly or wrongly, the Pope is looked up to by billions of people around the world, and when someone of his stature speaks, people listen; and it seems his words are having a positive effect. It is also interesting that so many global warming deniers are beside themselves, even going so far as to label the Pope’s stance as off base and that he should (get this) leave “science to the scientists” (pardon me while I laugh at the irony of that comment). Of course, what do you expect from people who continually confuse weather with climate?

Now, while I’m happy to see these developments, I also urge caution. It’s not like Pope Francis is suddenly a big booster for science. Like too many high-profile public figures, he is a science-booster when it works for him and a science-denier when it works against him. Case in point: I was also a tad disappointed when the Pope visited Turin, Italy a few days ago, and he took some time to pray before the much-revered Shroud of Turin.

italy_turin_pope_francis_visit_tur31_50953173

(Image source)

So why does this matter? It matters because, to put it bluntly, it has been shown rather conclusively that the Shroud of Turin, which many claim is the burial shroud of Jesus Christ, is fake. For instance, there is the historical evidence which dates it to a time (around the year 1300 C.E. – roughly 13 centuries after Christ’s supposed burial) when supposed “holy relics” abounded in Europe; then there is the radio-carbon dating which dates it conclusively to the same time frame; then there is the evidence that, despite claims by the Vatican to the contrary, that it is actually rather easy to fake the phenomenon of the Shroud. All of this evidence pointing to the fakery that is the revered Shroud is nicely summed up in this entry at the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Which leads to an obvious question: If Pope Francis is such a science-booster, why is he avoiding the entire question of the Shroud’s authenticity? Why are his statements regarding the Shroud little more than veiled references to Jesus and the Christian faith? Could it be because he wants to have it both ways, like Sen. Rick Santorum, and leave “science to the scientists”, except when he doesn’t like the answers science reveals?

Officially, the Vatican hasn’t taken a stance on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, but apparently that won’t stop the Pope from giving every indication that he believes it is real and thus influencing millions of Shroud-believers. Taking this stance is essentially to make one big argument from ignorance – that’s what this entire endeavor basically boils down to: we don’t know whether or not the Shroud is real, so therefore it really was the burial cloth of Jesus Christ!

So because you don’t know, you know???

Seriously? That’s the argument? Using such sloppy logic I could just as easily argue that the Shroud was created by invisible leprechauns, but somehow I don’t think the Catholic Church would go with that explanation. And that’s the silly thing about arguments from ignorance: once you use such thinking as an acceptable method of argumentation, just about any kind of crazy idea (without any evidence to support it whatsoever) becomes fair game.

Ah well, at least the Pope got it right on climate change.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, global warming denial, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

No, Facebook is NOT Banning Atheism

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 7, 2015

Lots of nonsense and misinformation gets spread around the Internet; it was true back in the “AOL days” (wow, now I feel old) when fake email chains got blindly forwarded, and now it’s still true in this age of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc). I and many of my skeptically-minded friends and colleagues also identify as atheists, extending our skepticism of pseudoscience into the realm of religion, but that doesn’t necessarily make atheists think any more critically than many of the religious believers whom we often criticize.

Case in point: this morning I opened Facebook to see the following post from one of my atheist Facebook friends; the last comment is particularly relevant:

FUFBatheistban

Of course, there could be a number of reasons why Facebook would block a specific link, but note how quickly this comment thread jumped to the assertion that Facebook was banning atheist pages and links. You see similar comments all the time from many religious believers, which ties into the oft-emphasized (and completely false) claim from pastors and politicians alike that there is a “War on Religion” on Facebook or the Internet. Fortunately, someone else jumped into the thread rather quickly and corrected this erroneous claim by linking to the following article from Snopes.com :)

FBbansAtheism

On 24 May 2015, the fake news web site IFLScience.org (a spoof of the popular IFLScience.com site) published an article titled “Facebook to Ban Atheism from their Social Network over Cyber Bullying.” Echoing earlier fake news claims that Facebook was banning religious content…

… Of course, the statement (and claim) were cut from whole cloth, as IFLScience.org is one of many fake news peddlers making hay out of outrage-based shares on social sites such as Facebook. As noted in an earlier snopes.com article, the IFLScience.org site has successfully duped readers into mistaking their “satirical” content for that of its more credible doppleganger by way of initial visual similarities. However, there are a few notable differences:

  • IFLScience.org uses the tagline “100% Mostest Official and More Sciencey.”
  • As of May 2015, IFLScience.org only has a few hundred likes on Facebook, while IFLScience.com has millions.
  • The IFLScience.org Twitter icon links to the satirical Christians Against Dinosaurs Twitter page.
  • The logos used on IFLScience.org and IFLScience.com are only similar to one another on first glance:

For more tips on spotting fake news sites, check out our article on its most common tells.

And if you stop and think about these false claims in more detail, they make no sense given the broader societal context: recent surveys show that secularism is on the rise in the United States (and Facebook is centered in the U.S.) and that the religiously unaffiliated comprise roughly 23% of the population now. So if nearly a quarter of the population in the country which is home to Facebook identifies as non-religious, then how does this claim that “Facebook is going to ban atheism” make any sense? It doesn’t.

The lesson here is that whether or not you are religious, it is far too easy for us to believe satirical stories and spin them into conspiracy theories which seem to target things we hold dear. When it comes to something that means a lot to us, we often emote first and think rationally later, and the tools of social media make it far too easy for us to continue spreading such misinformation. So before you hit “Share” or “Forward”, take a moment to investigate a little bit and be certain that claim you’re passing on is accurate.

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

“Quantum Nonsense” at the Chicago Skeptics

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 2, 2015

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

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

Quantum Nonsense Presentation

Quantum Nonsense with Audio

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

Chicago Skepticamp 2015 is Seeking Speakers!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 2, 2015

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

scc2012_full_300x1

Can I give a talk?

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

Can I help?

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

What is a Skepticamp?

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

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

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

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

If you’d like to help, please do!

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

Skeptical Panels & Discussions at Chi-Fi Con

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 11, 2015

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

Chi-Fi 2015 SkepchickCON Track

Chi-Fi Bigfoot 2

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

For reference, the panels in which I participated were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skepchick at Chi-Fi in Chicago

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 5, 2015

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

Skepchick is Coming to Chicago for Chi-Fi

skepchicks

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

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

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

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

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

New JREF eBook: Magic in the Classroom

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 25, 2015

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

New eBook: Magic in the Classroom

Magic in the Classroom

The JREF is pleased to offer a new eBook for educators

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

DOWNLOAD FOR FREE!

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

“Teaching Critical Thinking” Panel at FtBConscience3

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 25, 2015

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

Teaching Critical Thinking

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

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

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

 
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