The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for November, 2010

Do You Have ESP? A Lesson in Skepticism from the JREF

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 9, 2010

As a member of the organization’s educational advisory panel, I’m happy to announce that the James Randi Educational Foundation has released its first free, online module for use in the classroom!  It’s called “Do You Have ESP?” and addresses the common perception that extra-sensory perception (ESP) is real.  Here’s the announcement from the JREF website…

First JREF in the Classroom Module Now Available Free

Written by Michael Blanford
Friday, 05 November 2010

Do You Have E.S.P.? is a downloadable lesson module for use in high school and junior high school science and psychology classes that allows students to explore the scientific method, critical thinking and parapsycholological research through an examination of the history of possibly flawed research methods of E.S.P. claims. Students can come to their own conclusions about the existence of paranormal abilities as they conduct E.S.P. experiments and learn first-hand about the pitfalls of bias, experimenter error and fraud in the laboratory. Classes may share their results with the James Randi Educational Foundation for publication online and view cumulative data from schools around the country on our website. …

I highly recommend that you check out this lesson!  If I have some time this year, I plan to try it out in my own classroom – download it here. And if you’re a teacher, make sure to tell your colleagues about it 🙂


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Belief in the Supernatural is Natural

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 9, 2010

The more and more research I see on this particular topic, the more I become convinced that we skeptics are quite a freakish bunch.  I’m not referring specifically to the type of parties we throw (though there are some pretty trippin’ skeptic parties out there I’ve attended 🙂 ), instead I’m talking about what seems to be the fact that a belief in the supernatural & paranormal may be deeply embedded in many of us.  In short, the belief in the supernatural seems to be… well, quite natural.

This recent article by Discovery News go into much more detail, so I’ll just link to it below and pass it along to you…

Superstitious Beliefs Getting More Common

By Emily Sohn
Fri Oct 29, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Ghosts, goblins and other spooky characters come out from the shadows and into our everyday lives.

For most people, the thrill lasts for a few weeks each October. But for true believers, the paranormal is an everyday fact, not just a holiday joke.

To understand what drives some people to truly believe, two sociologists visited psychic fairs, spent nights in haunted houses, trekked with Bigfoot hunters, sat in on support groups for people who had been abducted by aliens, and conducted two nationwide surveys.

Contrary to common stereotypes, the research revealed no single profile of a person who accepts the paranormal. Believers ranged from free-spirited types with low incomes and little education to high-powered businessmen. Some were drifters; others were brain surgeons. …

The entire article is quite a fascinating read, and Dr. Michael Shermer of the Skeptic’s Society has a few revealing comments as well…

… Regardless of the person or the phenomenon, paranormal experiences are purely quirks of the human brain, said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, an educational organization, and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

Whether it’s hearing creaks in an old house or watching dots move randomly on a computer screen, he said, people tend to look for patterns and meanings in everything.

“The default condition in brain is that all patterns are real,” Shermer said. “It’s just what we do.”

In learning more about how we seem to be hard-wired for such belief in what skeptics would call pseudoscience, flummery, or nonsense, I think there is a lesson for us all.  As skeptics, we need to be aware of this fact of our basic human nature in order to be more productive in our encounters with believers.  And I think we need to take it into account in those interactions – that doesn’t mean that we agree with the woo-woo beliefs, but it does mean that we at least understand the basic drive behind why many believe what they do.

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Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 4, 2010

If you recall, last week I posted the first of two skeptical lessons with a Halloween theme to them, and now I share with you the second one: the Haunted Physics Lab. I cannot take credit for this idea, as I borrowed it years ago from my colleagues in the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). What I did differently is to add a number of skeptically-oriented twists to it, such as why Ouija boards don’t work and why “ghost-hunters” are full of hooey when they claim EMF meters are detecting ghosts.

But don’t take my word for it, take it from an article by a local news outlet that interviewed me and some of my students about the Lab 🙂

Haunted Physics Lab Stirs Lake Forest Students’ Interests

Mix in the spirit of Halloween with some physics concepts and learning occurs.

By Jim Powers | Email the author

Jenna Schmidt considers herself to be a logical person.

So on Halloween, the Lake Forest High School senior walked into physics teacher Matt Lowry’s classroom dressed in a gorilla suit last Friday.

Compared to the rest of the advanced placement physics students in her class, she blended right into the backdrop. For the past six years at the end of October, Lowry has transformed his classroom into a Halloween-themed dedication to the world of physics.

Carrying her gorilla head in one hand, Schmidt took a look around the classroom and noted, “There is a lot going on. Usually it’s just one lab, but this is a lot to get through. It’s a lot of different types of physics topics.”

Lowry created 37 stations, each one devoted to a principal of physics from a Theremin which creates some of the eerily, high-pitched creepy sounds from horror movies to optical illusions to even disproving the aura of an Ouija board. …

I especially like how the article ended:

… Many students have seen an Ouija board before, but it’s hard to tell if it holds the same prominence it once did for slumber parties. Lowry’s station tests the opposing forces of magnetic fields using a magnet and a magnetic board underneath the Ouija board. Remove the Ouija board and the magnet and magnetic board continue to oppose one another.

“The demonstration is specifically set up to not only demonstrate a good physics concept about electro-dynamic induction, but it also shows the Ouija board does nothing,” Lowry said.

Crushing news for the spirit world.

Epic win 😀

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

The James Randi Educational Foundation Announces a New Education Advisory Panel!

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 2, 2010

I’m very happy to announce that one of the largest & most active skeptical organizations out there – the James Randi Educational Foundation (also known as the JREF) – has formally put together an education advisory panel. Allow me to reference their blog post announcing the panel, and allow me to further toot my own horn a bit, because I’m on the panel! 🙂

Before referring you to the official JREF announcement, let me first say that I’m perfectly willing to entertain any and all feedback on issues related to education and the JREF. After all, that’s why I’m on the advisory panel – so my email inbox is open…

The James Randi Educational Foundation announces formation of Education Advisory Panel

Written by Michael Blanford
Monday, 01 November 2010 15:16

The James Randi Educational Foundation is pleased to announce the formation of a new education advisory panel. The JREF’s mission includes educating the public and the media with reliable information about the paranormal, the supernatural, and the pseudoscientific, while promoting critical thinking as a tool for making reasoned and reliable decisions about such unproven claims. The JREF is committed to expanding the impact of its educational programs through innovation and a focus on effectiveness and accessibility. We think this new educational advisory panel, which will focus primarily on the JREF’s K-12 educational initiatives, will be a valuable tool to help us better achieve our mission.

The panel will be made up of individuals with broad experience in areas at the intersection of skepticism, critical thinking, and education. Its primary function will be to provide the foundation’s president and director of educational programs with informed opinions and recommendations related to the JREF’s efforts in the educational arena, focusing on resources for teachers to advance critical thinking in their classroom. …

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

Illinois Federation of Teachers Awesome Resolution on Science vs. Supernaturalism

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 2, 2010

As some of you may know, I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in a blog post that the Illinois Federation of Teachers was working to pass a strongly worded resolution on science & creationism. Well, now that I’ve seen the actual text of the adopted resolution, I have to say that it is stronger than I expected (a very good thing indeed!)  I find it worthwhile to point out one section in particular – thanks to RBH over at The Panda’s Thumb for bringing this section to my attention…

WHEREAS, attempts to subvert the validity or teaching of evolutionary theory are also attacks on all scientific inquiry and, therefore, also attacks on the validity of using reason and experimentation to understand the universe;

Wow!  That’s pretty much a right cross straight into the teeth of not only creationists, but pretty much anyone else who wants to push their pseudoscientific, religious or supernatural beliefs as science in Illinois public schools.  Count me as a happy camper 🙂

But there’s more, so without further delay, here is the full text of the adopted resolution:


Adopted at the 2010 Illinois Federation of Teachers Convention

WHEREAS, science is a systematic method for investigating natural phenomena through experimentation, observation and measurement leading to falsifiable explanations that are open to continuous testing; and

WHEREAS, science proceeds on the basis of methodological naturalism and assumes observed phenomena of the universe are real, nature is consistent and understandable, and nature is explainable in terms of laws and theories; and

WHEREAS, a scientific theory is consistent with evidence from multiple and independent sources of evidence, explains many different facts and allows predictions of subsequent discoveries; and

WHEREAS, the theory of evolution satisfies these criteria fully, is the foundation of biological science, is supported by a coherent body of integrated evidence from other disciplines in science and is consistent with theories from other scientific disciplines including anthropology, geology, physics, astronomy and chemistry; and

WHEREAS, there have been attempts in some states to include supernaturalism in the science curriculum as an alternative to scientific explanations of nature, particularly as an alternative to evolutionary theory; and

WHEREAS, arguments that invoke supernaturalism are grounded in religious or philosophical considerations outside the realm of science; and

WHEREAS, attempts to subvert the validity or teaching of evolutionary theory are also attacks on all scientific inquiry and, therefore, also attacks on the validity of using reason and experimentation to understand the universe; and

WHEREAS, legislation that conflates supernaturalism, or limits, or prohibits the teaching of any scientific theory negatively impacts our ability to make informed decisions; and

WHEREAS, it is the responsibility of the Illinois Federation of Teachers to preserve the integrity of science in the classroom; therefore be it

resolved, that the Illinois Federation of Teachers affirm, through a positional statement on its website, the validity of science as a methodology for understanding the nature of the universe, and affirm the validity and foundational importance of organic evolution to science as a whole and biology, specifically; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the IFT affirm, through a positional statement on its website, that supernaturalism is not a scientific endeavor and, therefore, is inappropriate for inclusion in the science curriculum; and be it further

RESOLVED, that this resolution does not make it the official position of the IFT that there is no God and should not be interpreted as a statement either for or against religion or belief in God; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the IFT call upon its members to assist those engaged in overseeing science education policy to understand the nature of science, the content of contemporary evolutionary theory and the inappropriateness of including non-science subjects (e.g., intelligent design and creationism) in our science curriculum; and be it further

RESOLVED, that the IFT communicate to the local, regional and national public media, to educational authorities and to appropriate legislators its opposition to the inclusion of non-science approaches and subjects (e.g., creationism and intelligent design) into the science education curricula of our public school system; and be it finally

RESOLVED, that the IFT members also promote these concerns and help resolve these issues in their home communities among educators, parents, school boards and students in appropriate public forums.

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