The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for March, 2009

Jenny McCarthy: When Ignorance Kills

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 31, 2009

When it comes to woo & pseudoscientific nonsense, there are times when it is just an annoyance. And then there are times when such ignorance can literally kill. Such is the case with the anti-vaccination movement (AVM).

The anti-vaxxers have found a celebrity spokesperson in Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy playmate and squeeze of actor Jim Carrey. Jenny’s son, Evan, was diagnosed with autism and she has since blamed his being vaccinated as the cause of his autism. Never mind that there is no evidence whatsoever that vaccines cause autism or the other horrible things espoused by the AVM, Jenny continues her anti-vax crusade, appearing on talk shows and in other venues spouting her nonsense.

**Aside: Keep a watchful eye out for an organization which McCarthy promotes – Generation Rescue – because this group is essentially a front for the AVM and other dangerous medical woo-woo.

Well, this is really bad, because the ignorance that Jenny McCarthy and the AVM spreads can be lethal. As an illustration of this fact, there is a new website online called Jenny McCarthy Body Count.

jenny mccarthy

While this site does not blame her directly for the deaths accounted for there, it does state (and I think correctly) that her actions as the public face of the AVM has contributed to the hysteria against vaccinations and hence the spread of diseases which would otherwise be kept in check.

As the website states on its front page…

In June 2007 Jenny McCarthy began promoting anti-vaccination rhetoric. Because of her celebrity status she has appeared on several television shows and has published multiple books advising parents not to vaccinate their children. This has led to a dramatic increase in the number of vaccine preventable illnesses as well as an increase in the number of vaccine preventable deaths.

Jenny McCarthy has a body count attached to her name. This website will publish the total number of vaccine preventable illnesses and vaccine preventable deaths that have happened since June 2007 when she began publicly speaking out against vaccines.

Is Jenny McCarthy directly responsible for every vaccine preventable illness and every vaccine preventable death listed here? No. However, as the unofficial spokesperson for the United States anti-vaccination movement she may be indirectly responsible for at least some of these illnesses and deaths and even one vaccine preventable illness or vaccine preventable death is too many.

Since June of 2007 and as of this writing, the website documents the following numbers – verified through the Centers for Disease Control

Number of Preventable Cases: 720
Number of Preventable Deaths: 142

Fortunately, not everyone in Hollywood is as ignorant & dangerous as Jenny McCarthy in their promotion of woo – there are those who are willing to take her and her AVM ilk head on and call them out on their deadly nonsense. I’m speaking specifically of actress Amanda Peet, who in an article last year publicly took the AVM to task…

Peet’s analytical urges are comical when she’s talking about kids’ gear, but not when she’s discussing a subject she feels is among today’s most pressing public-health issues: infant vaccinations. “As soon as I was pregnant, the neuroses kicked in,” says Peet, 36, who is married to screenwriter David Benioff. She began calling her older sister’s husband, a Philadelphia pediatrician, “every five minutes” with all kinds of questions, especially about shots. “I asked him, ‘Why are all of these necessary? Why are some people staggering them?’?” Eventually her brother-in-law arranged a series of phone calls between Peet and his own mentor, Paul Offit, M.D., who is chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and a board member of Every Child by Two, a pro-vaccine organization cofounded in 1991 by former first lady Rosalynn Carter.

“Once we had spoken, I was shocked at the amount of misinformation floating around, particularly in Hollywood,” says Peet, who quickly boned up on the hot-button controversies surrounding the topic, including the unproven link between certain vaccines and autism; the safety of preservatives like mercury-based thimerosal; and the fear that the relatively high number of shots kids receive today can overwhelm young immune systems. Her conclusion? Well, not only is Frankie up-to-date on her vaccines (with no staggering), but her mom will soon appear in public-service announcements for Every Child by Two. “I buy 99 percent organic food for Frankie, and I don’t like to give her medicine or put sunscreen on her,” says Peet. “But now that I’ve done my research, vaccines do not concern me.” What does concern her is the growing number of unvaccinated children who are benefiting from the “shield” created by the inoculated—we are protected from viruses only if everyone, or most everyone, is immunized: “Frankly, I feel that parents who don’t vaccinate their children are parasites.”

Incidentally, here are two great websites out there on this whole vaccination issue – one is called Stop Jenny McCarthy, and it has more info about the AVM & autism specifically, and the other is Every Child by Two, a pro-vaccination group which Amanda Peet supports and promotes. If you are at all interested in getting more informed about the AVM and how to tackle its bogus & dangerous woo, I suggest you check them out.

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Keep Your Feet on the Ground: Physics Denial Woo

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 29, 2009

Awhile back I made a post called “Gravity: Only A Theory” – it was about a spoof which used fake criticism of the physics of gravity to make fun of creationists and their pseudoscientific arguments. Believe it or not, there actually are some people who attempt to apply the same nonsensical thinking to the laws of physics (like gravity). A perfect example of such folk are those who cater to Transcendental Meditation (TM) – a New-Age cult which, among other things, teaches its followers that if one meditates hard enough you can actually fly in defiance of gravity!

yogic flying

To give you an idea of just how silly this “yogic flying” (as the TMers call it) really is, take a look at this video footage…

One of these physics/gravity deniers, a Mr. Anirudh Kumar Satsangi, contacted me through the comments section of my earlier blog entry. Though I don’t have direct evidence of it, from his methods of argumentation and his claims, I think he might be a dedicated practitioner of TM. What ensued was his attempt to convince me that Einstein’s theory of relativity, including the mass-energy equivalence relationship E=mc^2, was completely wrong and that he had a “theory of everything” to replace it. His “theory” was supposed to be based upon meditation (sound familiar?) and is also completely impervious to testing – wow.

I wanted to share with you all the back-and-forth he and I had on the comments, because it is very instructive to see that most pseudoscientists use the same flawed arguments & logical fallacies to justify their nonsense. Here you go…

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 13, 2009 at 9:38 am e

kindly let me know that in E=mc2 (famous eqs given by Einstein) whether c2 (c square) stands only for denoting some numerical value in the equation or there is some evidence of a speed equal to the square of speed of light?

mattusmaximus said
March 13, 2009 at 2:14 pm e

This link to Wikipedia should help you out on this…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_%3D_mc2#Background

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 14, 2009 at 6:45 am e

Thank you very much Mattusmaximus for your kind response. It means c2 is a conversion factor only. It has no other function. How this conversion factor has been derived? How does c2 differ from v2 of ½mv2 ?

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 15, 2009 at 5:50 am e

I have written following two papers which may lead to the realization for a higher theory of everything:

(i) Gravitation Force is the Ultimate Creator,
(1st Int. Conf. on Revival of Traditional Yoga, Lonavla Yoga Institute, Lonavla, January, 2006)
(ii) In Scientific Terminology, Source of Gravitational Wave is God
(2nd World Congress on Vedic Science, BHU, Varanasi, Feb 2007)
I have presented these two papers at the two different International Conferences. I am now submitting some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory

From Scriptures: (Prem Patra by His Holiness Huzur Maharaj)
The Current which manifested in the beginning of the creation is the Current of Sabda (Sound) and of Chaitanya (Consciousness). From whom that Current issued forth is known as Soami (Supreme Being). This Current, by turning back can merge again in the Holy Feet of Supreme Being. The entire creation manifested from this current and is sustained with its energy and when the Current of the Holy Feet is withdrawn, the creation ceases to exist.This Current of the Holy Feet is the Reservoir of all energy, tastes and pleasures, knowledge, skill, shapes, forces and light etc. etc. and of the entire creation, is also the Creator of all of them.

From Science:
Gravitation Force is the cause of manifestation of the creation (birth of planets, stars), its sustenance and when it is withdrawn towards centre or source the entire creation ceases to exist. Photons have originated from gravitons. In black holes photons merge into gravitons. In Black Holes, Gravitational Force is so high that it does not allow even light to escape. What does it mean then? It simply means that the gravitational force at black-holes attracts light towards it with much greater velocity than the speed of light. In fact, all forces including electromagnetic force, material force (strong and weak nuclear force) all merge into gravitational force in black-holes and becomes one force there and when the creational process starts again from a Black-Hole all the forces appear (manifest) again and descends downwards to create billions of stars, planets, satellite, asteroids and various life forms.

Hence it can be assumed that the Current of Chaitanya (Consciousness) and Gravitational Wave are the two names of the same Supreme Essence (Seed) which has brought forth the entire creation.

All cosmological researches should be conducted keeping in view of the following philosophical facts:
It has been stated in Bible (John I-1) “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,”
Mohammedans hold that God uttered ‘Kun’ (i.e. ‘Came into being’) and the creation came into being (Holy Quran, Sur. Bakr (II.117).
In Chhandogya Upanishad it is written “Tadaikshat bahu syam prajayeyeti” (VI-2-iii) i.e. “It thought (desired) Would that I were many! Let me procreate myself!” The Aitareya Upanishad says,”Sa ikshat ‘lokannusrija’ iti (I-1-i) i.e. “He bethought himself (desired) – ‘Let me create worlds’, etc. etc.
It is written in Chapter VII of Srimad Bhagavadgita : Sri Bhagwan said, “Arjun, now listen how with the mind attached to Me and practicing Yoga with absolute dependence on Me, you will know Me in entirety and without any shadow of doubt” (1). I shall unfold to you in its entirety this wisdom alongwith the Knowledge of the qualified aspect of God, having known which nothing else remains yet to be known in this world (2). Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, reason and also ego; these constitute My nature eightfold divided. This indeed is My lower (material) nature : the other than this, by which the whole universe is sustained, know it to be My higher nature in the form of Jiva, O Arjuna. (4-5). Arjuna, know that all beings have evolved from this twofold Prakriti, and that I am the source of the entire creation, and into Me again it disappears.(6)
The Radhasoami Religion also tells that, the ‘Word’ mentioned above is in fact Current of Sound or Current of Consciousness or Prime Current of Spirituality which was issued forth from its Source, or Creator or God. This Current has later on produced light and other forces. The scientists are discussing these days about dark energy which constitute about 96% of the entire universe which is not known to us. Only 4% part of the universe is known to us by all scientific means. In fact this 96% invisible portion of the universe is the vast expanse of spirituality which can be designated as field of gravitational waves in scientific terms. Visible portion of the universe (4%) consists of consciousness (gravitational force), mental force (electromagnetic waves) and material force (strong and weak nuclear force).
Body = Nuclear Force (weak as well as strong)
Mind = Electromagnetic Force.
Consciousness = Gravitation Force.
According to Radhasoami Religion the whole Universe can be sub-divided into three grand divisions viz.
1. Region of Pure Spirituality
2. Region of Subtle Maya
3. Region of Gross Maya
Nuclear forces dominate Region of Gross Maya (Gross Material Region), Electro-magnetic forces dominate Region of Subtle Maya (Subtle Material Region) and Gravitational Force dominates Pure Spiritual Region.
This is the only Truth which can be verified scientifically and can be termed as ‘higher theory for everything’. This also supports the statement of Sir Sahabji Maharaj that ‘the goal of science – Truth; the goal of philosophy – Ultimate Reality; and the goal of religion – God’ are the three names of same supreme essence.
Many things are common between Current of Consciousness and Gravitational Wave.
1. Current of consciousness can not be seen by any means and gravitational wave can also not be seen.
2. Current of consciousness is the weakest force on earth. Its strength goes on increasing on higher regions. Gravitational force is also very weak on earth and strong on Sun and even more stronger on black holes.
3 Tendency of both current of consciousness and gravitational waves are towards their source or centre.
4. Current of consciousness and gravitational force are both regarded as the creater of all the celestial and terrestrial bodies of the whole universe. They are also sustainer of these and when they turn back towards their source or centre the whole universe will collapse.
Hence it can be assumed that the source of current of consciousness and gravitational wave is the same i.e. God or ultimate creator.
This theory is based on scientific deduction. In scientific terms it can be said that the ‘gravitons’ are the elementaryparticle which was issued forth in the beginning of the creation accompanying with sound ‘Radha’.

mattusmaximus said
March 21, 2009 at 8:21 pm e

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

I have written following two papers which may lead to the realization for a higher theory of everything:

Mr. Satsangi, if you really believe that your “theory” has any kind of merit, then by all means submit it to a qualified, peer-reviewed physics journal for possible publication. That is how modern science is done, not by posting walls of text to blogs on the Internet.

By the way, one question for you – how does one go about testing your “theory”?

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 24, 2009 at 9:23 am e

Dear Mattusmaximus

Thanks for your response. As I have mentioned above that the above two papers I had already presented at two different International Conferences where thousands of academicians participated. I have also received very encouraging remarks to these papers from eminent Professors of Physics.

How E=mc^2 can be tested ? There is lot of confusion.

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 24, 2009 at 1:56 pm e

Dear Mattusmaximus

Refer to your question- how does one go about testing your “theory”?

Certainly it needs power of intuition developed by practice of meditation to test my “theory”. Kindly refer to Blog site “Fighting of the cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology” by Rohedi Laboratory,The Best Science on the World. Rohedi observed to my comments : “Congratulations you have develop the hihger theory of everything more wonderful than which has been developed by Stephen Hawking. Hopefully your some views for being considered for Unified Field Theory are recognized by International Science Community”

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 24, 2009 at 2:04 pm e

Certainly it needs the power of intuition developed by the practice of meditation to test my theory. Rohedi has appreciated my views on theory of everything stating that it is more wonderful than the theory of Stephen Hawking. Kindly refer to his Blog site “Fighting of the cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology”

mattusmaximus said
March 25, 2009 at 3:12 pm e

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

Certainly it needs the power of intuition developed by the practice of meditation to test my theory. Rohedi has appreciated my views on theory of everything stating that it is more wonderful than the theory of Stephen Hawking. Kindly refer to his Blog site “Fighting of the cause of Allah by Governing a Smart Mathematics Based on Islamic Teology”

Making statements such as “Rohedi has appreciated my views on theory of everything” is not an outline for an experimental protocol – it is nothing more than a psuedoscientific argument from authority.

You mentioned meditation as a “test” for your “theory” – please outline exactly how your “theory” can be experimentally falsified. That is, what measurement(s) would show that you are wrong?

mattusmaximus said
March 25, 2009 at 6:54 pm e

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

How E=mc^2 can be tested ? There is lot of confusion.

E=mc^2 is tested all the time in particle accelerators, such as at FermiLab which is just down the road from me. Also, you might want to read about this recent, high-profile experiment at MIT which tested out E=mc^2 and found it to be accurate.

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 26, 2009 at 9:54 am e

excuse me, mattusmaximus, neither my arguement is psuedoscientific nor I have any intention of arguing with any authority. If you are authority in some field I also do enjoy authority in my field of work. Some of my questions are still un-answered. When speed has no role in E=mc^2, how this conversion factor (c^2) had been arrived at in the formula by Einstein. Had this formula (E=mc^2) was tested and verified experimentally during the life time of Einstein. If not, whether it was termed as psuedoscientific?

mattusmaximus said
March 26, 2009 at 4:31 pm e

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

excuse me, mattusmaximus, neither my arguement is psuedoscientific nor I have any intention of arguing with any authority. If you are authority in some field I also do enjoy authority in my field of work. Some of my questions are still un-answered. When speed has no role in E=mc^2, how this conversion factor (c^2) had been arrived at in the formula by Einstein. Had this formula (E=mc^2) was tested and verified experimentally during the life time of Einstein. If not, whether it was termed as psuedoscientific?

I have provided you with information on how E=mc^2 was derived – here it is again…

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E_%3D_mc2

Now whether or not you choose to do some basic homework and read the info I provide is up to you. If you want to be lazy and not do the research, fine by me – but don’t sit there and keep implying that E=mc^2 hasn’t been tested experimentally when it very clearly has been tested. This line of argumentation is the same as employed by creationists all the time: they ask for evidence of evolution, it is provided to them, and then they ask “Why isn’t anyone able to show evidence for evolution?” It is disingenuous and dishonest.

And whether or not E=mc^2 was immediately tested right after Einstein proposed it is beside the point, because in the intervening time mass-energy equivalence has been tested and found to be valid in a huge number of experiments.

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 27, 2009 at 2:11 pm e

mattusmaximus said quoting: ‘E=mc^2 passes tough MIT test by Elizabeth A. Thomson New Office, Dec.21, 2005.

1. “The team found that the formula predicting that energy and mass are equivalent is correct to an incredible accuracy of better than one part in a million. That’s 55 times more precise than the best previous test”.

2. Despite the results of the current test of E=mc^ Pritchard said:”This doesn’t mean it has been proven to be completely correct”.

3. “It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing – a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind”.

All the above statements indicate that E=mc^2 was not tested and verified experimentally during the life time of Einstein and even perhaps today it is in the process of experimentation. Till such time we reach at one hundred percent precise accuracy we should term Theory of Relativity as Pseudoscientific.

And Dear mattusmaximus, kindly let me know what is this ’same thing’ from where both mass and energy maninfested? I am quite sure you will find the reply for this question of mine in my comments which you have termed as ‘pseudoscientific’. Thank you

mattusmaximus said
March 27, 2009 at 3:36 pm e

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

1. “The team found that the formula predicting that energy and mass are equivalent is correct to an incredible accuracy of better than one part in a million. That’s 55 times more precise than the best previous test”.

Yes, this shows that E=mc^2 has not only been tested, but as it is tested out more and more it is found to be even more accurate! How is this any kind of argument in your favor?

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

2. Despite the results of the current test of E=mc^ Pritchard said:”This doesn’t mean it has been proven to be completely correct”.

Nice quote mine – another dishonest tactic often used by pseudoscientists, btw. The full quote is: “This doesn’t mean it has been proven to be completely correct. Future physicists will undoubtedly subject it to even more precise tests because more accurate checks imply that our theory of the world is in fact more and more complete.”

So what Pritchard is actually saying is that because he expects more and more accurate tests in the future, if E=mc^2 stands up to that experimental scrutiny, as it has so far, then our confidence in this theory will be even greater. By quote mining in this manner, you are disingenuously attempting to give the opposite impression of what he’s actually saying.

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

3. “It followed from the special theory of relativity that mass and energy are both but different manifestations of the same thing – a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average mind”.

Yes, many aspects of modern physics are counter-intuitive and difficult for people to understand. So what?

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

All the above statements indicate that E=mc^2 was not tested and verified experimentally during the life time of Einstein and even perhaps today it is in the process of experimentation. Till such time we reach at one hundred percent precise accuracy we should term Theory of Relativity as Pseudoscientific.

Now you’re just moving the goalposts, another dishonest pseudoscientific tactic and logical fallacy. Before you claimed E=mc^2 wasn’t tested, and I proved you wrong. Then you claim that it wasn’t tested in Einstein’s day, which though it might be correct is irrelevant because it has (and continues to be) tested to higher and higher precision and found to be accurate as time goes on. So now you move the goalposts again and say that unless we have 100% precision & accuracy – which is impossible in any kind of experimental science – then you’ll just call E=mc^2 pseudoscience.

And you then imply that because E=mc^2 hasn’t met your impossible criteria that then your ideas must be correct. This is yet another pseudoscientific tactic and logical fallacy called a false dichotomy. Even if E=mc^2 was shown to be wrong, which it hasn’t yet, then that would do nothing to support your ideas. You must provide positive evidence of your ideas, rather than tearing down accepted science.

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

And Dear mattusmaximus, kindly let me know what is this ’same thing’ from where both mass and energy maninfested? I am quite sure you will find the reply for this question of mine in my comments which you have termed as ‘pseudoscientific’. Thank you

I’m not exactly sure what the “same thing” really is, but I will venture to say that it is all energy – it’s just that mass is a specific manifestation of energy. A “solidified” form of energy, so to speak.

Now you answer my previous question & challenge:
You mentioned meditation as a “test” for your “theory” – please outline exactly how your “theory” can be experimentally falsified. That is, what measurement(s) would show that you are wrong?

Answer my question, or the next time I will block your posts.

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said
March 28, 2009 at 9:35 am e

I am working to establish my theory as a perfect blend of science and philosophy (religion). It is ridiculous to ask such question “how your theory can be experimentally falsified”. Please try to defend “theory” of Einstein which is facing the greatest challenge .

mattusmaximus said
March 29, 2009 at 5:01 am e

Anirudh Kumar Satsangi said:

It is ridiculous to ask such question “how your theory can be experimentally falsified”.

So you admit there is no way to test your ideas? Can’t say I’m surprised – this is par for the course when it comes to pseudoscience, it is ultimately unfalsifiable and therefore completely non-scientific. The fact that you don’t see this as a problem just goes to show how you really have no clue how modern science works. If you wish to call your ideas philosophy, knock yourself out. But don’t call them scientific because you aren’t interested in meeting the criteria of science – you just want to leap past all the work and get the credit of science. Sorry, that’s just not good enough.

In accordance with my earlier ultimatum, I will be blocking your further comments to this blog. However, I would like to thank you for providing me with an excellent example of how pseudoscientists attempt to push their bogus claims. Our running conversation should make good fodder for a future blog post.

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Quick Update: Texas Science Standards

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 28, 2009

Well, it seems that the entire Texas Board of Education ordeal is over… for now. In general, I’m pleased with the results: the anti-science fundamentalist creationists didn’t get what they really wanted, but then neither did we on the pro-science side. All in all, I’m willing to call this one a win, mostly because the highly damaging “strengths and weaknesses” language was struck out of the standards!

For a much more detailed account of how the final day of voting (and what a day it was!) for the Texas BoEd on the science standards went, take a look at the live blog of Friday’s meeting over at chron.Commons Blog. It’s a lot to read, but here’s the upshot at the end of the blog post…

What is the bottom line? Did we win or lose? Neither. We got rid of the worst language, but a great deal of qualifying language remains. I am not going to claim either victory or defeat. I realize that Casey Luskin of Discovery Institute will declare complete, unqualified victory, but it is not that for them. Neither is it for us. The standards adopted were generally good, but there are several that are flawed, fortunately most in minor ways that textbook authors and publishers can deal with. I think we can work around the few flawed standards. But the point is that there shouldn’t be ANY flawed standards. The science standards as submitted by the science writing teams were excellent and flaw-free. All the flaws were added by politically unscrupulous SBOE members with an extreme right-wing religious agenda to support Creationism. …

… The policy (science standards) that resulted are not the best they could be. They are acceptable but could have been pseudoscience- and Creationism influence-free. However, I can also say the standards could be much worse. The votes were so close, and several members switched their votes back and forth several times, sometimes voting with the antiscience radical right wing members and sometimes with the pro-science members, that anything could have happened. I suppose I should be grateful the results are not worse.

I, for one, am very grateful that we won the votes we did, especially regarding the biggie – “strengths & weaknesses”. Of course there is room for improvement, especially regarding the big bang & cosmology, but this is a much better situation than it could have been. Given the recent history of how wacky things have been in Texas, I call this progress…

Stuttering, two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of progress, but progress none the less.

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Win for Science Education in Texas!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 26, 2009

Hooray! :D It looks as if the creationists on the Texas Board of Education have been defeated in their efforts to insert “strengths and weaknesses” language into the Texas state science standards! Read more at my recent post: The Textbook Saga in Texas Continues.

This means that Texas textbooks – and, by extension, science texts nationwide – will not be watering down good science in the name of pushing pseudoscientific flim-flam as espoused by the fundamentalist creationist whackjobs on the Texas BoEd.

The vote was extremely close: it was a 7-7 tie with one board member, who fortunately opposes the creationists, being absent. The Dallas Morning News elaborates…

A last-ditch effort by social conservatives to require that Texas teachers cover the “weaknesses” in the theory of evolution in science classes was rejected by the State Board of Education Thursday in a split vote.

Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a long-time curriculum rule that “strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – be taught in science classes and covered in textbooks for those subjects.

Voting for the requirement were the seven Republican board members aligned with social conservative groups. Against the proposal were three other Republicans and four Democrats.

The tie vote upheld a tentative decision by the board in January to delete the strengths-and-weaknesses rule in the new curriculum standards for science classes that will be in force for the next decade.

I don’t think we on the pro-science side are completely out of the woods just yet, as I wouldn’t put it past the creationists to try some kind of last-minute shenanigans. But for now we can celebrate this big win! :D

If you’re interested in staying informed on these and similar topics, I strongly urge you to get connected with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

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

Psychic Failure in Investment Scams

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 26, 2009

I wanted to pass along an excellent article from Joe Nickell, skeptical investigator for the Center For Inquiry, concerning a recently revealed Ponzi scheme and the role that psychics played in it. In an earlier post, called Psychic Parasites, I outlined how many psychics are playing off people’s fears in these tough economic times, and Nickell’s article shows very nicely why this is dangerous.

You can read the entire article here, but allow me to summarize some of the key points…

Now we know: Buffalo-area investment manipulator Guy Gane Jr., who has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of operating a 5.8-million-dollar Ponzi scheme, regularly sought advice from “psychics.” …

… One of Gane’s self-professed psychics was Ellen Bourn, who is a past-president of the Lily Dale Assembly, the world’s largest center for spiritualism (the belief that one can communicate with the dead). Her Web site bills her as an “incomparable metaphysician, psychic, master astrologer, healer and teacher.” In actuality, her real name is Ellen Bornstein, and she—like Sylvia Browne and many other “psychics”—has traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality. …

… Gane’s other psychic [James F. Lagona] has an even longer list of claimed powers—or fantasies: He is a self-described Christian mystic, dowser, spiritualist medium, healer, tarot reader, etc., including exorcist. He also describes himself as a Bishop of the Western Rite Orthodox Catholic Church and “renowned metaphysician,” as well as a bankruptcy attorney—although the home he practiced from has suffered foreclosure and is presently boarded up.

psychic-accuracy

I really like the manner in which Joe finishes his article. I can’t say it any better, so here it is…

I would just ask the two alleged psychics: Couldn’t you get an inkling of what was going on? Catch a glimpse of those millions of dollars disappearing from people’s retirement funds? Feel the vibrations from the impending scandal and misfortune that you yourself were caught up in? Were your psychic colleagues at Lily Dale and elsewhere unable to warn you? Now do you understand the consequences of living in a fantasy world?

Sadly, I don’t think either of these supposedly “gifted” individuals (nor their gullible believers) will even take the time to consider that their “powers” are non-existent and reside purely within their own personal fantasy lands. More’s the pity.

Posted in economics, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Media Math

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 24, 2009

I saw this over at Wheat-dogg’s world, and I simply had to share it :D

media math

Posted in humor, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Textbook Saga in Texas Continues…

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 23, 2009

This week is a very important one for science education in the United States because the Texas State Board of Education is finalizing textbook selection. The importance of paying attention to textbook selection in Texas cannot be overstated, especially since creationists in Texas are attempting to influence science textbooks. It’s also a big deal because the state of Texas has a disproportionate influence on textbook availability across the country – since Texas is such a large market for textbooks, publishers will tend to cater the manner in which subject matter is presented to the whims of the Texas Board of Education.

So, when the Texas BoEd is stacked with (mostly) creationists, who know they have the power to influence how science texts around the country treat topics such as evolution, climate change, and stem-cell research, it is worth paying attention to how they plan to pick textbooks. That’s because even though Texas may be far away, these anti-scientific religious fundamentalists in the Texas government could have a very real, and negative, effect on the quality of science education in your school.

texas textbooks

Fortunately, there are those who favor good science education over complete nonsense in Texas, and they are doing their best to monitor and correct the situation. For example, there’s the Texas Freedom Network, the Texas Citizens for Science and the National Center for Science Education. The NCSE writes in a recent update on the Texas situation…

With evolution sure to be a hotly debated topic at the next meeting of the Texas state board of education, with a bill just introduced in the Texas legislature aimed at restoring the contentious “strengths and weaknesses” language to the standards, and with a different bill aimed at exempting the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from the regulations governing degree-granting institutions in Texas, there’s no shortage of news from the Lone Star state. NCSE, of course, continues not only to report on the antics of creationism in Texas but also to help concerned Texans to combat them: Texans wishing to express their concerns about the standards to the Texas state board of education, which is expected to have its final vote on the standards at its meeting in Austin on March 25-27, 2009, will find contact information and talking points in the Taking Action section of NCSE’s website and on the Texas Freedom Network’s website.

To give you some idea of the stupidity that the good citizens of Texas (and indirectly the rest of us) have to deal with from these creationist nuts, check out some of this revealing – and embarrassing – information which recently became public about Don McLeroy, the chair of the Texas BoEd and staunch creationist…

With Texans still reeling from the detailed profiles of the chair of the Texas state board of education, avowed creationist Don McLeroy, published in the Austin American-Statesman (March 8, 2009) and the Texas Observer (February 20, 2009), Texas Citizens for Science (March 14, 2009) recently disclosed that McLeroy endorsed a bizarre creationist screed entitled Sowing Atheism: The National Academy of Sciences’ Sinister Scheme to Teach Our Children They’re Descended from Reptiles — aimed, of course, at Evolution, Creationism, and Science, issued by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine in February 2008 to general acclaim. McLeroy, however, praises Sowing Atheism for showing “how the NAS attempts to seduce the unwitting reader by providing scanty empirical evidence but presented with great intellectual bullying — both secular and religious.”

Okay, so once again we see the creationist conspiracy theory claim made: scientists are nothing but a bunch of godless heathens who want to destroy religion (specifically Christianity) and thus spread immorality, atheism, communism, and presumably all manner of evil in the world while leading to the destruction of all that is good. Thus, anyone who wants to teach kids evolution in school must be on the side of EEEVIIIILLLLLLLL!!!!

The NCSE goes on to outline more lunacy from Don McLeroy…

On its blog (March 18, 2009), the Texas Freedom Network summarized the themes of the book — “Scientists are ‘atheists.’ Parents who want to teach their children about evolution are ‘monsters.’ Pastors who support sound science are ‘morons’” — and pointedly asked, “Is that the sort of message Chairman Don McLeroy and his cohorts on the State Board of Education have in mind for Texas science classrooms if they succeed in their campaign to shoehorn ‘weaknesses’ of evolution back into the science curriculum standards?” Mavis Knight, a member of the Texas state board of education who supports the integrity of science education, wryly commented to the Dallas Observer (March 18, 2009), “So much for neutrality in the chairman’s position.” Looking forward to the board’s impending vote on the standards, she added, “I am confident several of us will hold firm, but it’s the swing votes you have to concern yourself with — and I don’t know how much pressure is being put on the swing voters. … It definitely won’t be boring.”

So, the leader of the creationist whackjobs on the Texas BoEd isn’t content to say that just scientists are evil in their desire to teach good, sound science – he has to go on and state that all religious people who are pro-science (such as those supporting the Clergy Letter Project) are doing so as well.

The thing which is so revealing about this kind of mentality is its exclusivity – from their point of view, these fundamentalist whackjobs view anyone who doesn’t agree with them 100% as the enemy. Creationists have, for many years, attempted to get away with claiming the mantle of morality for themselves, but their efforts are particularly ineffective when many religious people come out against their anti-science. Personally, I’m an atheist, but I more than welcome any allies to the pro-science cause, religious or not. And I must admit that it gives me a certain degree of pleasure to see the Don McLeroy’s of the world squirm & froth when confronted by other religious folk who call them to task for their pseudoscientific ravings.

If you care about good science education in our public schools, I encourage you to get involved. When enough of us stand up for science, we all win!

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

“Creation Science” Degree in Texas?

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 21, 2009

Wow, just when you think that creationists couldn’t get any more crazy with their arguments and tactics, they surprise you.  According to this article, there is a bill that has been introduced in the Texas House which would allow the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research to actually grant science degrees!  And guess what they want these degrees to be in?  Could it be actual science based upon evolution?  Nope, the ICR wants to be given the right to grant science degrees based upon creationist pseudoscientific nonsense.  You can’t make this stuff up.

According to the article…

If House Bill 2800 is enacted, it will make ICR exempt from state regulations thereby allowing them to grant science degrees. As put by NCSE, the bill will “exempt institutions such as the Institute for Creation Research’s graduate school from Texas’s regulations governing degree-granting institutions.”

In other words, the creationist nutjobs at ICR are attempting to get special privileges which would allow them to get the benefit of granting science degrees without actually meeting the requirements of science. I guess their strategy is that if you can’t win the game, just try to change the rules.

But there’s more…

According to ICR’s Web site, they “[equip] believers with evidence of the Bible’s accuracy and authority through scientific research, educational programs, and media presentations, all conducted within a thoroughly biblical framework.” To that end, it seems, they take discoveries and force them into current biblical understandings of… things.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at statements like these. These creationist nutjobs literally believe that evidence in nature should be ignored if it contradicts their view of the Bible! Wow, talk about being disconnected from reality.

The bad news is that this bill (House Bill 2800) has actually been introduced in the Texas House. The good news is that it has only one sponsor, Rep. Leo Berman, so far, not to mention the fact that the situation is providing a lot of entertainment for skeptics & science allies. :D

In closing, I really like how Dr. Phil Plait – the “Bad Astronomer” and President of the James Randi Educational Foundation – put it…

stupid it burns

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

Doomsday Comes to the Movies

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 20, 2009

A recent article by Ben Radford provides an excellent skeptical analysis of a doomsday pseudoscience being popularized in the new movie “Knowing”, which stars Nicolas Cage as a professor who decodes a string of numbers that supposedly predicted past disasters and also predicts an upcoming apocalypse.

knowing

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the trailer for the movie which pretty clearly lays out the plot and the pseudoscience behind it…

The skeptic shown briefly in the trailer (the guy who tells Cage’s character to “just step back a moment”) hits it dead on – given enough random data, pretty much anyone can find pretty much any pattern for which they are looking. As Ben Radford goes on to elaborate in the article…

Though the plot is fictional, this scenario has occurred many times in the real world. In 1997 Michael Drosnin published a best-selling book titled “The Bible Code,” in which he claimed that the Bible contained a code (hidden in numbers and letters) accurately predicting past world events. Drosnin’s work was later refuted, with critics demonstrating that the “meanings” he found were simply the result of selectively choosing data sets from a vast sea of random letters.

Similar “hidden codes” were found in other books such as “Moby Dick” and “War and Peace,” demonstrating that any sizeable text can produce such codes if you look long enough.

In psychology, the tendency for the human mind to find coincidences, patterns, and connections in random data is called apophenia.

The main problem with the pseudoscientists & conspiracy theorists who cater to this style of doomsday thinking is common among the woo crowd… they count the hits & ignore the misses, and in order to count the “hits” as true hits, they have to massage and arrange the data!

So, while I find Nicolas Cage to be a good actor and enjoy a good disaster flick, I anticipate an unfortunate amount of woo-related activity due to this movie, the recent economic downturn, and prophecies of impending world doom related to the year 2012. All of this put together makes for a nice mix of irrational fear out of essentially nothing. And while fantasy does make good movies, it makes lousy real life.

Posted in media woo, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Scientists Speak: Why Is Science Important?

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 18, 2009

I wanted to take a few minutes to share with you a really neat online film about the question of the importance of science. I will share my own, very personal, thoughts about this in a future post, but for now I will turn it over to Alom Shaha, the creator of the “Why is Science Important?” video.

In Alom’s own words…

“Happy is he who gets to know the reasons for things”. I wish this 2000 year-old statement from Virgil was enough to deal with the question that must plague teachers all over the world — “what’s the point of this?” But, as someone who’s just returned to the teaching profession after a seven-year break, I can assure you it’s not.

I teach at an inner city comprehensive school where science, as in all UK schools, is compulsory for all students up to the age of 16. As well as trying to get my students to understand electrical circuits or Newton’s Laws, I make an effort to convey to them that science is important, that it’s something worth doing for reasons beyond the need to pass exams.

Anyone who knows me will confirm that I wear my passion for science on my sleeve, but I don’t think that’s enough to convince all my students that science is important. Nor do I think, like some in my profession, that the importance of science is implicit in the courses we teach, that it will somehow seep into my students’ consciousness through the sheer number of hours they spend doing “science” at school.

So, I’ve started this film and blog project in which I want to ask the question “why is science important?” to people who feel the importance of science so deeply that they have dedicated their lives to it — working scientists, science writers and, of course, science teachers. I’m making a documentary, funded by The Wellcome Trust, and running this “collective blog” as I work on the film. Bits from the blog will appear in the film and bits of the film will appear on the blog. The idea is that the two will inform and enrich each other.

I’m hoping that this project will help me arrive at an answer to this question; an answer that speaks to readers of this blog, as well as my students, and convinces them that science is important. Furthermore, I want this project to reach people who don’t think science is important and convince them otherwise. I want it to demonstrate that science is absolutely crucial to the future wellbeing of our world, that its contribution to culture is as significant as that of music, art or literature and, most important of all, that a sound appreciation of science is vital to realising your potential as a human being. I want this project to make it far, far easier for any science teacher to be able to answer that inevitable question, ‘what’s the point of all this?”

So please take a look and, if you’ve got something to add, please get in touch.

With that, here’s the video…

why-is-science-important

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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