The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for May, 2010

The God-of-the-Gaps Just Got Smaller: Link Found Between Life & Inorganic Matter

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 20, 2010

If you’re familiar with various creationist arguments, you will no doubt recognize the infamous god-of-the-gaps argument. This is basically a variation on the classic logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance, which basically states that if we don’t understand some phenomenon with 100% clarity (such as the origins of life), then that must mean that “Poof! God did it”…

There is one fatal flaw with this kind of argument, which begs an interesting theological question: what happens to the god-of-the-gaps when we do come up with evidence & naturalistic explanations for the gaps in our knowledge?  Most scholarly theologians disdain the god-of-the-gaps argument precisely to avoid this trap, because they don’t want their god somehow diminished as science marches ever forward.

But not creationists, who usually take the intellectually lazy & dishonest route by simply dismissing the evidence filling in said gaps.  Only by ignoring and distorting the science can their god-of-the-gaps be maintained, so while the rest of us learn more and more about our universe and our place within it, creationists insist upon wallowing in their ignorance, content that their twisted reading of a 2000 year-old holy text (only one of many different supposedly “divinely inspired” holy texts out there) has revealed to them the truth.

So here’s the big news, and why the god-of-the-gaps just got a lot smaller: scientists have discovered a missing link between life and inorganic matter…

Philosophers and scientists have argued about the origins of life from inorganic matter ever since Empedocles (430 B.C.) argued that every thing in the universe is made up of a combination of four eternal ‘elements’ or ‘roots of all’: earth, water, air, and fire, and that all change is explained by the arrangement and rearrangement of these four elements. Now, scientists have discovered that simple peptides can organize into bi-layer membranes. The finding suggests a “missing link” between the pre-biotic Earth’s chemical inventory and the organizational scaffolding essential to life.

“This is a boon to our understanding of large, structural assemblies of molecules,” says Emory Chemistry Chair David Lynn, who helped lead the effort, which were collaborations of the departments of chemistry, biology and physics. “We’ve proved that peptides can organize as bi-layers, and we’ve generated the first, real-time imaging of the self-assembly process. We can actually watch in real-time as these nano-machines make themselves.” …

… The research is part of “The Center for Chemical Evolution,” a center based at Emory and Georgia Tech, for integrated research, education and public outreach focused on the chemistry that may have led to the origin of life. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy have funded the research.

Many groups studying the origins of life have focused on RNA, which is believed to have pre-dated living cells. But RNA is a much more complicated molecule than a peptide. “Our studies have now shown that, if you just add water, simple peptides access both the physical properties and the long-range molecular order that is critical to the origins of chemical evolution,” Childers says.

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

Would-Be Governor of Alabama Disses Evolution

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 18, 2010

Oh… my… FSM… I thought that I’d seen a lot of really stupid political ads (from all sides of the political spectrum), but this is one of the worst: a Republican candidate for governor of Alabama, Bradley Byrne, is being bashed for (gasp!) actually having once said that we should teach science (specifically, evolution) in science classrooms.  In addition, he apparently had the audacity to state that perhaps not every part of the Bible is “literally” true as many fundamentalists claim – at least, “literally” true in their own interpretation.  Here’s the ad…

As bad as that is, what’s worse is the fact that Byrne (in an obvious attempt to cater to the more extreme elements who have hijacked the GOP) is actively denouncing any of his previous advocacy for teaching evolution or questioning fundamentalist’s interpretations of the Bible.  His campaign released this statement on the matter…

As a Christian and as a public servant, I have never wavered in my belief that this world and everything in it is a masterpiece created by the hands of God. As a member of the Alabama Board of Education, the record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school textbooks. Those who attack me have distorted, twisted and misrepresented my comments and are spewing utter lies to the people of this state.

Wow… that deserves one of these…

What’s really sad here isn’t so much the bent towards fundamentalist Christianity (it is, after all, the Deep South in the U.S.).  Rather it is the blatant & almost gleeful public bashing of science in which these goons are engaging, for no other reason than to cater to the lowest common denominator in their quest for political power.  Hell, they’re downright proud of their ignorance!

Whether or not Byrne actually believes one way or the other is irrelevant to me… I’d just like to see more politicians stand up for science vs. superstition.  I have to wonder where all the moderate Republicans are on this issue?  Are they really going to continue to allow these American Taliban to hijack their once reasonable party?

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

AAP Follow Up Statement on Female Genital “Cutting”

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 17, 2010

I blogged a few days ago, in my post Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Women & Science, about how I thought the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) really frakked up by appearing to give cover to some doctors who want to cater to some parents that want to engage in female circumcision (what I and others refer to as FGM – female genital mutilation).  It is worth noting that this new position on the part of the AAP is particularly striking, seeing as how FGM is against federal law in the United States.

Well, thankfully, the AAP has come out with a statement clarifying its position…

The traditional custom of ritual cutting and alteration of the genitalia of female infants, children, and adolescents, referred to as female genital mutilation or female genital cutting (FGC), persists primarily in Africa and among certain communities in the Middle East and Asia. Immigrants in the United States from areas in which FGC is common may have daughters who have undergone a ritual genital procedure or may request that such a procedure be performed by a physician. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that pediatricians and pediatric surgical specialists should be aware that this practice has life-threatening health risks for children and women. The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes all types of female genital cutting that pose risks of physical or psychological harm, counsels its members not to perform such procedures, recommends that its members actively seek to dissuade families from carrying out harmful forms of FGC, and urges its members to provide patients and their parents with compassionate education about the harms of FGC while remaining sensitive to the cultural and religious reasons that motivate parents to seek this procedure for their daughters.

It looks as if saner heads have prevailed over at the AAP.  You don’t put an end to a destructive, misogynistic practice based upon superstition like FGM by kow-towing to the people who engage in the superstition, and I’m glad the AAP has realized that.

Posted in medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Man Claims to Have Survived 70 Years Without Food or Water

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 13, 2010

There’s a story running all over the Interwebs like wildfire… about a man who is making the seemingly miraculous claim that he has survived for 70 years without food.  Essentially, the man – an Indian mystic named Prahlad Jani, is claiming that he can live on “spiritual energy” in the form of air & meditation.  These claims are equivalent to those made by a form of New Age nonsense called breatharianism.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Mr. Jani and his followers are basically lying, because there is no physical way that a person can live for a month, much less 70 years, without food & water.  Skeptic Ben Radford has a really good take down on this nonsense…

As remarkable as his story is, Jani is not the first, nor the only, person to claim such a supernatural power. The claim that people can live without food or water is called inedia, and is actually somewhat of a common claim among religious fakirs and godmen of India. Unfortunately none of the cases have withstood scientific scrutiny. The human body needs both food and water to function; it’s as simple as that.

It’s easy for anyone to claim that he or she has not had anything to eat or drink for the past few weeks or months (or years). But unless the person has been carefully and continuously watched during that time, it’s impossible to prove the assertion true.

Several people who have claimed to survive without food or water were later caught eating and drinking. It can take only a few seconds to eat something, and other than in specific areas such as prisons, conducting a close around-the-clock surveillance on a person is not easy. Often the person will ask for privacy to sleep or go to the bathroom (which is suspicious in its own right) – and then snack surreptitiously. One well-known breatharian advocate in the 1980s, a man named Wiley Brooks, claimed he did not eat yet was caught consuming junk food.

And here’s a very interesting point that Radford brings up regarding the fact that Mr. Jani apparently lost weight during the time he was being observed…

This is not the first time that Jani has made this claim. He was examined in 2003 for about a week, during which time, he apparently did not eat or exercise – but he did lose weight. If Jani’s abilities are real, it seems odd that he would lose weight during the time that his food intake was being monitored. If he truly gets all the sustenance he needs from air and meditation, there’s no reason he would lose weight when he doesn’t eat.

What’s worse is this: it seems that some people in the Indian Armed Forces are actually spending time & money on researching the “secrets” behind Mr. Jani’s supposed miracle.  I’m not kidding… there are high level Indian military people who want to learn how Jani pulls this off so they can apply it the techniques to soldiers in the field who could supposedly go for long periods of time without food and/or water.  What a colossal waste!  This lunacy reminds me of the, now infamous, debacle by the U.S. military when they wasted millions of taxpayer dollars researching “psychic warfare” – as outlined in the recent movie The Men Who Stare At Goats.

If Mr. Jani wants to convince skeptics of his supposed paranormal powers, I have a simple solution: round-the-clock observation by multiple watchers, including via constant video recording and even live-streaming over the Internet, where he is locked away in an empty room with no access to any food or water at all… for a month or two straight.  If he survives, then maybe we’re onto something.  My guess is, for obvious reasons, he would never submit to such a test – I wonder why not?

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Women & Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 11, 2010

This post is going to be one of those stereotypical “I’ve got some good news and some bad news” kind of stories.  Since I can do nothing to avoid the cliche, I shall sally forth…

Good News! America’s favorite birth control method turns 50 🙂

A world without “the pill” is unimaginable to many young women who now use it to treat acne, skip periods, improve mood and, of course, prevent pregnancy. They might be surprised to learn that U.S. officials announcing approval of the world’s first oral contraceptive were uncomfortable. …

But on the flip side, there is also Bad NewsGroup Backs Ritual ‘Nick’ as Female Circumcision Option 😦

In a controversial change to a longstanding policy concerning the practice of female circumcision in some African and Asian cultures, the American Academy of Pediatrics is suggesting that American doctors be given permission to perform a ceremonial pinprick or “nick” on girls from these cultures if it would keep their families from sending them overseas for the full circumcision.

The academy’s committee on bioethics, in a policy statement last week, said some pediatricians had suggested that current federal law, which “makes criminal any nonmedical procedure performed on the genitals” of a girl in the United States, has had the unintended consequence of driving some families to take their daughters to other countries to undergo mutilation.

So let me get this straight… within a few days of celebrating the 50th anniversary of “The Pill”, probably one of the greatest inventions for sex education of women ever & a great triumph for medical science, the AAP is recommending that its pediatricians consider endorsing superstitious, misogynistic nonsense (female “circumcision” – read “genital mutilation”) as a way of somehow appealing to people who want to mutilate their daughters?  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

Wow… sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Michael Specter: The Danger Of Science Denial

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 11, 2010

In a recent TED Talk Michael Specter, a science & technology journalist and author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives”, expresses quite eloquently the dangers of buying into various forms of nonsense such as anti-vaccination, opposition to genetically-modified foods while embracing “organic food”, and alt-med herbal woo

Hat tip to Phil at Skeptic Money 🙂

Posted in environmental hysteria, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Oppose Texas Theocratic Threats to Nationwide Education

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 11, 2010

I just wanted to pass along a very well-worded action alert from the folks over at the Secular Coalition for America


Don’t Let a Few Theocrats Have a National Effect on Public School Curricula

A few theocratic members of the Texas State Board of Education—already infamous for their moves to indoctrinate Texas students with creationism in science classes—are falsely asserting a theocratic basis to America’s founding and removing, of all people, Thomas Jefferson from a list of influential thinkers. [Read more about this situation at the Texas Freedom Network’s website]

A handful of religious extremists can affect schools across America. Because other big states like California and New York do not impose statewide standards in the same way, Texas is one of the largest statewide textbook markets. Texas uses some of its $22 billion education fund to buy or distribute a staggering 48 million textbooks annually—which strongly inclines educational publishers to tailor products to fit Texas standards.

The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association have developed (and the Obama administration has embraced) common core educational standards, but they apply only to math and English language arts. As the New York Times recently noted, some basic, factual subjects, such as evolution may be deemed “controversial” in the 21st Century’s educational environment. If standards are to exist, federal financial incentives must apply with equal force to science and history just as they do for math and English. To do otherwise is to succumb to the pressure of religious extremists.

Let’s make sure our community’s voice is heard.

Write your Member of Congress now! Tell them that if they support national education standards and incentives for math and English, they should support standards that are just as strong for science and history, regardless of pressure from religious extremists.

Secular Americans believe that every student deserves to learn science and our nation’s history as they actually are, with no bias for or against any ideology or religion. Religious creation myths have no place in science classes, and religiously-based revisions and indoctrinations should be equally unwelcome in history classes. We should not be afraid to set standards because of religious extremists.


Amen to that 🙂

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

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 6, 2010

Okay, shameless plug time 🙂

On Sunday, May 16th, I will be speaking to the Center For Inquiry Chicago on the topic of freethought, skepticism, and education.  Basically, I’ll be talking about my experiences as a science teacher & skeptic and how to promote critical thinking among high school & college students…

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid!

Sunday, May 16th 1-4pm

Location: Our usual place: Room 613 (behind elevators), University Center East building, 750 S. Halsted (UIC campus), Chicago

Teaching Freethought: How to Create a Skeptical Kid!with Matt Lowry, high school teacher and skeptic at large

Matt spends a lot of his in-class time teaching the art of meaningful skepticism to high schoolers.  He will give us some insight into his method of doing this!  He will also share his view of the many challenges that both science teachers and their students face when confronted with religious objections to the pursuit of scientific objectives.

Today’s presentation will be a stimulating follow-on to our recent day-long conference, “Dangerous Nonsense: Exploring the Gulf Between Science and its Impostors!”

Matt Lowry is a familiar face to many CFIers in Chicago. He is a high school physics teacher in the north suburbs, a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, and emphasizes critical thinking among his students at every opportunity. When away from the classroom, he also serves as the president of the North Shore Illinois chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church & State, the leader of an online pro-science group titled Darwin’s Bulldogs, and the leader of the Vernon Hills Freethinkers meetup group.

A self-described skeptic, he believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!”  He blogs at:

Please come to this most interesting AFTERNOON meeting!  We provide the hot coffee, and we very much appreciate pastry and snack donations.

Non-CFI Members will be asked for a modest contribution.

Questions? Just call our (part time) office phone: 312-226-0420

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Women Thinking Free Foundation Kickoff Event!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 6, 2010

There’s a groovy new skeptical group in the Chicago region called the Women Thinking Free Foundation (or WTFF) which has the following mission: Our goal as an organization is to bring science, skepticism and critical thinking to the women of the Midwest. We’re planning some great events, campaigns and outreach programs to help provide women with the tools to fight pseudoscience.

Our first event is to host skeptical activist Jen McCreight, the author of the Blag Hag blog and creator of Boobquake…

Saturday, May 22 @ 7pm

Galway Arms – upstairs banquet room

2442 N Clark St

Chicago, IL

No ticket will be issued, names will be added to the guest list.

Limited metered parking available, $13 unlimited parking available in the Children’s Memorial Hospital Parking Garage at 2515 N Clark.

Tickets will be available at the door, as space permits, and may be purchased with cash or credit.

Questions? Please contact Elyse Anders –

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

85th Anniversary of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 6, 2010

As a reference to the long & twisting history of the evolution/creationism conflict in the United States, I just wanted to point out that today is the 85th anniversary of the infamous Scopes “Monkey” Trial. This trial was an American legal case that tested the Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach any thoughts on the origin of man other than the Biblical account of man’s origin – in other words, it was illegal to teach evolution.  John T. Scopes had the audacity to actually teach his students science (the horror!), and he was fined and put on trial for doing so…

Ah, how far we’ve come in 85 years.  Not only is evolution now recognized as the unifying principle in biology – as well as being confirmed & connected via geology, archaeology, anthropology, chemistry, physics, and cosmology – but across the world the notion of creationism is widely recognized by educated & thinking people as thinly-veiled religiously motivated pseudoscience.

However, despite this progress, the forces of ignorance and anti-science continue their crusade to hold us back.  While their attempts to force creationism in its varied forms – from Young Earth Creationism to so-called “Intelligent” Design – into science classes have been thwarted time and again, they still fight against the teaching of evolutionary science at every turn.  They can’t make it illegal, but they can (and do) pressure teachers, principals, and school boards to dumb down, or even delete completely, the teaching of evolution in schools.

But we’ll fight on.  We have to.  If you’re interested in joining the fight on the side of science & reason, I suggest you get in touch with the National Center for Science Education.

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

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