The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for June, 2011

Science Debate 2.0 – The 2012 Version!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 29, 2011

You may recall that back in 2008 during the U.S. presidential season there was an effort by scientists and lay-supporters of science – called Science Debate – to get the presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, to seriously address various science related issues.  In general, the effort was pretty successful, with both candidates addressing their stances on a number of science-oriented issues, from evolution in the schools to climate science and more.

Now the Science Debate folks are ramping up for the 2012 election season.  If you think science is something important (and who wouldn’t in this day and age?) in terms of being an informed voter, then take some time to head over to Science Debate 2012 and see how the candidates stack up…

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

Help TalkOrigins Bid for the Rights to “Expelled”

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 25, 2011

In my recent post regarding the bankruptcy of the company behind the factually-challenged creationism film “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”, it was briefly mentioned that the rights to the movie were going up for auction.  If you know anything about the history behind how this film was made and edited, you know that there were interviews with prominent scientists (such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers) which were selectively edited in order to distort the science behind evolution and play into the whole “expelled” meme of the film.  The kicker is that if we – the skeptical and pro-science community – could get our hands on those movie rights, then we could show the world just how badly the producers of “Expelled” misrepresented the science.

Enter the attempt by TalkOrigins to do just that: win the bidding war for the “Expelled” rights.  Read the following post over at the Panda’s Thumb and please consider making a donation to this worthy cause; and spread the word!

As most of you already know, the production company Premise Media went bankrupt. Their execrable propaganda film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”, is on the auction block. The online auction is proceeding now, and will end on Tuesday, June 28th.

The auction promises that besides all available rights and interests in the finished film itself (there is an existing distribution contract), the winner will get all the production materials and rights to them. Want to know what was in the rest of the interviews with Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers? I know I would like to have that material archived and made available to the public, among other things that Premise Media found inconvenient to include in their film.

There was talk among individuals on “After the Bar Closes” about the auction. Kristine Harley pointed out that, depending on exactly what is in the production materials, there may well be “Wedge Document 2” in there somewhere. When the “academic freedom” label on religious antievolution goes to court, it could be very handy to have those materials on hand.

But any one individual is unlikely to have the wherewithal to make the winning bid on this.

Today, the TalkOrigins Archive Foundation approved a resolution to use our funds on hand to put in a bid on “Expelled”. We hope to make many of the materials freely available and to collaborate with other groups seeking to produce rebuttals to claims made in “Expelled”. To that end, we would like your help. Our final bid amount will be determined by funds on hand and what has come in via our PayPal donation button by Monday, June 27th. This is because there are delays in transfers between PayPal and the bank, and (hopefully!) we’ll need to pay out of our bank account.

Ken Fair, our secretary and treasurer, wrote a detailed discussion of donations and bidding. The short of it is that while we hope to bid and win the auction, we don’t know what the bid prices will be come the 28th, and cannot guarantee that we will win the auction, especially since it has an unknown reserve price on it. We cannot refund donations, so even in the case of us making the winning bid, donations that take us beyond that amount would remain part of the TOAF funding. On the other hand, contributions to the TOAF are tax-deductible for USA residents and will be used in accordance with the TOAF’s mission.

I hope that by providing a single point at which we can pool our resources, we’ll have a better chance to put in the winning bid on “Expelled”. Even if we don’t manage to make the winning bid, every bit that we can do to raise our bid helps in that the other side will have to take even more money out of their current projects in order to beat the bid.

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

SkepchiCON at Convergence 2011!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 24, 2011

It’s time for SkepchiCON at Convergence 2011 in Minneapolis!  Actually, it will be time in a week for SkepchiCON (specifically June 30-July 3).  For those who don’t know, Convergence is a big science fiction and fantasy convention which takes place annually in the upper Midwest, catering to all manner of sci-fi/fantasy fans, as well as those who just like to dress up and have a good time :)

I’ll be going to SkepchiCON again this year, because in addition to being a science teacher/professor, I’m also a big fan of much science fiction, fantasy, and so on.  Like other skeptic tracks at other cons, SkepchiCON is geared towards presenting the skeptical & pro-science/pro-critical thinking point-of-view in a fun & friendly environment.  Actually, on a serious note, it is worth paying attention to the fact that these sorts of venues are perfect for spreading the skeptical message beyond hard-core skeptics; if we are to truly encourage others to think critically about paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, then we need to preach less to the choir and go more public.  This means exploring new venues such as these fun and freaky conventions, and it also means putting ourselves out there in more direct interaction with many people who harbor these nonsense beliefs.  Even though it can sometimes be quite galling to have to put up with various kinds of woo-woo nonsense and its adherents, we can all enjoy a good party :)

I will be attending SkepchiCON and participating in a number of panel discussions, in addition to generally checking things out.  I’ll also be there as a representative of the Women Thinking Free Foundation, dedicated to promoting critical thinking and skepticism among women of all ages who are so often targeted by the woo-meisters.  If you get a chance, find me and say hello!

Last, but not least, in case you are interested… I plan to live blog many parts of SkepchiCON, so watch this space!

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

Stephen Colbert Pokes Skeptical Fun at WHO Cell Phone Claims

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 21, 2011

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization rather irresponsibly scared the hell out of a lot of people when they reported a link between cell phone use and cancer.  Of course, as I’ve mentioned in the past, we know of no plausible physical mechanism by which cell phones (or low frequency EMFs in general) can cause cancer; for a really detailed article on this issue, I highly recommend Orac’s post at Respectful Insolence.

But, while Orac’s article is excellent from a technical and medical standpoint, I think the best response to this scaremongering from the WHO comes from satirist Stephen Colbert :)


Posted in environmental hysteria, humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific at it Again: This Time They’re Selling an “ESP Lamp”

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 20, 2011

You may recall that I made a blog post in 2009 – titled Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific Sells “Ghost Detectors” & Other Woo – wherein I strongly criticized the science teaching outlet called Edmund Scientific for caving in to the “ghost hunter” fad. They started to sell all manner of goofy things: ghost detectors (which are actually just electromagnetic field meters) and even DVDs on remote viewing. And all of this from a science teaching catalog – you might as well turn to the biology section and see creationist materials for sale!

[**Addendum (6/28/11): to get a good look at why I view such claims about EMF meters "detecting ghosts" so skeptically, take a look at this post - Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review - which outlines that so-called ghost hunters, when pressed, basically admit they aren't doing any serious science.  But they want to look like it]

Well, not to be outdone in their tumble down the rabbit hole, Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific now has for sale an “ESP Lamp”.  I kid you not – they claim this thing can actually read your thoughts… as in extra-sensory perception… as in psychic woo-woo… and it only costs about $200!  But don’t take my word for it.  Read their own description of the product:

Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific’s “ESP Lamp and Money Burner” :)

Lead your own experiments in the mind’s possible influence on machines, PSI testing, and more with this colorful LED lamp. Four different color LEDs are lighted dependent upon a random number generated from a miniature Geiger counter included on the back. You may even figure out how to use it to tell the future. And, when you need a break from the lab, it makes a very interesting lamp too.

I’ll agree that it makes an interesting lamp, but that’s about the only thing in the description that’s factual.  Everything else is pretty much pseudoscientific gobble-dee-gook because many decades of research has clearly shown that no such phenomenon as ESP exists.  And that part about “telling the future”?  I suggest just saving your money and buying a Magic 8-Ball, because it would cost a LOT less and give you just as accurate results! ;)

But, sadly, that won’t appear to stop Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific from catering to the lowest common denominator in their quest for a quick buck off the gullible.  Unfortunately for them, they don’t seem to have done the math on the other side of things: how do they think science teachers across the country are going to react when they see this sort of garbage for sale in their catalog?  I know that I’ve spoken to a large number of science teachers who are quite upset about this (and justifiably so) and who are boycotting Edmund.  I’m among them, and I encourage all of my skeptical colleagues (especially those teachers among us) to do likewise: until Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific pulls products like this “ESP Lamp” and their “ghost meter” from their shelves – or at least until they advertise them in an honest and scientifically-accurate fashion – we should refuse to give them any business.

Posted in education, ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Women Thinking Free Hosts an Un-Psychic Fair in Indianapolis!

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 19, 2011

I just wanted to pass along to you some news which might interest those of you in the Midwest next weekend: another Un-Psychic Fair!  You may recall the first WTFF Un-Psychic Fair in Chicago last year, and we hope that this one will be even more fun, more skeptic-y, and more un-psychic-y!!!  Read on for details…

John Edward, un-psychic douchebag, endorses this event :)

… This event launches our presence in Indianapolis, a city where we’ve found great skeptics and the potential for a truly bad ass skeptical mofo community. Our only option was to invade Indy and bring some mofos together to help us save them from their little notch on the Bible Belt.

Come out to the Unpsychic fair this weekend and be a part of WTF Indy! We’ll give you all you can eat food and buy your first drink. Then, we’ll be raffling off an entire bottle of alcohol. And we’ll do unpsychic readings… by real fake psychics!

The Women Thinking Free Foundation has arrived in Indianapolis!

Please join us on June 25, 2011 for our first ever Indy event: Mysteries of the Totally Explained, an Unpsychic Faire.

Tarot card readings!

Psychic predictions!

Discover your fate with a oujia board!

You will be amazed at the occasional accuracy of your readings!
We can already sense your presence!

Tickets are $20 and include all you can eat appetizers, cash bar with drink specials and your first drink is on us!
FREE admission for ghosts entering through the Ouija board or other spiritual portal.
We predict an awesome time!

Register to attend


Louise Kellar
Women Thinking Free Foundation


Saturday June 25, 2011 at 6:00 PM EDT


Loughmillers Pub
301 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN

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

Clergy Letter Project to Fight Creationism Now Has Muslim Imam Letter

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 18, 2011

I write a lot of posts about creationists and creationism, and in most cases I’m talking specifically about Young-Earth Creationism – that particular brand of creationism which is described as a kind of Biblical literalism often espoused by fundamentalist Christians in the United States (it is also the most common form of creationism in the U.S.).  Of course, there are many different kinds of Christian creationism – as evidenced in my post “Creationism is True!” – Okay, Which Version of Creationism?  But beyond that, there are versions of creationism which are rooted in Jewish and Islamic beliefs as well.

And it is on that last point that I wish to focus the rest of this blog entry.  The now famous Clergy Letter Project, started back in 2005-2006 by Michael Zimmerman, has as its explicit goal to show that religious believers don’t necessarily have to choose between their religion and an acceptance of modern evolutionary science (and, hence, science in general).  Since that time, the famous letter has garnered over 12,700 signatories, but these are all from Christian denominations, and a single-minded focus upon Christianity seemed to be a bit at odds with the broader message of the CLP.  So Zimmerman added a letter for Rabbinical leaders (which has gained 470+ signatures) and Unitarian Universalists (230+ signatures), both of which have enjoyed just as much success as the letter for Christian clergy.

Now Zimmerman has added a letter for Islamic Imams, because it is an unfortunate fact that creationism and the rejection of evolutionary science runs rampant in Islamic cultures.  This will fill a hole in addressing the issue of creationism, but doing so from a religious perspective.  Here is the text of the Imam Letter…

The Clergy Letter – from American Imams
– An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science

Literalists of various religious traditions who perceive the science of evolution to be in conflict with their personal religious beliefs are seeking to influence public school boards to authorize the teaching of creationism.  We, the Imams of the mosques, see this as a breach in the separation of church and state.  Those who believe in a literal interpretation of scriptural account of creation are free to teach their perspective in their homes, religious institutions and parochial schools.  To teach it in the public schools would be indoctrinating a particular religious point of view in an environment that is supposed to be free of such indoctrination.

We, the undersigned Imams of the mosques, assert that the Qur’an is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us, though not for everyone, in our country.  We believe that the timeless truths of the Qur’an may comfortably coexist with the discoveries of modern science.  As Imams we urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution.  We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Once again, let me say that despite my personal philosophical outlook of naturalism and atheism, I am more than happy to have religious allies in the fight against those who would distort and damage the teaching of science for their own ideological ends.  I think that a member of a religious community who accepts evolutionary science is a far better ambassador to that community on these issues than an atheist like me.  And my general goal as a science teacher and skeptic is to get people to think more critically in all aspects of their lives, and both religious and non-religious people can contribute constructively towards that goal.  But it will only work if we work together.

So, if you are religious, please pass along this news about the expansion of the Clergy Letter Project.  Even if you aren’t religious, pass along the word!

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

Creationist Production Company Behind “Expelled” Goes Bankrupt

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 15, 2011

You may recall that a few years ago, there was a major “documentary” (and I use that word in its loosest possible sense) released about creationism and evolution ironically titled “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”. The movie starred actor Ben Stein, who in my view totally jumped the shark by attaching himself to this film, and argued – among other things – that Darwin’s theory of evolution was responsible for Nazism and the Holocaust.  The implication was, of course, that modern proponents of evolutionary science are somehow the moral descendents of Hitler and the Nazis – nice… I’ve heard of Godwinning an argument, but having an entire frakkin’ movie dedicated to a Godwin is a first.

Of course, this film was nothing short of a creationist oriented propaganda hit-piece against evolution, long on paranoid conspiracy mongering and short on pretty much anything factual. (**Aside: for more info on the myriad flaws in this movie, see the Expelled Exposed website)

I recall that at the time numerous creationist outlets (most notably the Discovery Institute) were feverishly promoting the movie, claiming that it was going to be another “death knell for evolution”.

Well, two things are now clear: evolutionary science is still very much alive and kicking, and the legacy of Expelled and those behind it is looking rather grim. That’s because the production company behind the film, Premise Media, is going bankrupt. Here’s more news on this…

Sad legacy for Ben Stein’s failed creationist screed

The production company behind Ben Stein’s shaggy god story ‘Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed’ has a sequel to its intellectual bankruptcy: financial bankruptcy. Premise Media has filed for Chapter 7 and is selling off any asset it can find. The fact that somebody still thinks this movie is an asset could be a clue to what went wrong. Survival of the fittest is a bitch for the unfit.

Critics far and wide trashed the film, with Time magazine stating that he “makes all the usual mistakes nonscientists make whenever they try to take down evolution,” and the New York Times (Stein’s former employer) calling the film “one of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time…a conspiracy-theory rant masquerading as investigative inquiry.”

But what really drew the ire of critics and scientists was Stein’s claim that Darwin’s theory of natural selection could be the cause of “euthanasia, abortion, eugenics and—wait for it—Nazism,” according to Time. But perhaps the most notorious pan came from noted film critic Roger Ebert:

“Stein…takes a field trip to visit one ‘result’ of Darwinism: Nazi concentration camps. ‘As a Jew,’ he says, ‘I wanted to see for myself.’ We see footage of gaunt, skeletal prisoners. Pathetic children. A mound of naked Jewish corpses. ‘It’s difficult to describe how it felt to walk through such a haunting place,’ he says. Oh, go ahead, Ben Stein. Describe. It filled you with hatred for Charles Darwin and his followers, who represent the overwhelming majority of educated people in every nation on earth. It is not difficult for me to describe how you made me feel by exploiting the deaths of millions of Jews in support of your argument for a peripheral Christian belief. It fills me with contempt.”

But, if I know anything about the mindset of some of these creationist organizations, they’ll find a way to rationalize their spectacular failure.  My guess is, in keeping with their conspiracy-minded worldview, their rationalization will somehow involve blaming “Darwinists” for the company’s downfall.  In short, they’ll go back to their old standby:

Posted in creationism, Holocaust denial, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

Creationism Creeping into Mainstream Geology?

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 14, 2011

I just received the following update from the National Center for Science Education, which states the newest tactic that creationists are attempting to employ in pushing their ideas as “science”.  The latest tactic is to have some creationists attend professional geology conferences and sometimes host a field trip afterward where they use cleverly disguised creationist language (meant to hide their overtly non-scientific notions) and then “Voila!” declare after the fact that they “presented creationist ideas at a geology conference.”

Of course, this is just plain silly, because they aren’t really presenting creationist ideas at these conferences; in fact, they are actively trying to conceal their creationist ideas except by making the most subtle references (so subtle that most people miss the references entirely!)  Had they actually presented creationist ideas, such as the so-called “evidence” for Flood Geology, they would have likely been laughed out of the room because – as this link to Talk Origins shows – mainstream geological science has found creationism to be wholly flawed.

The NCSE elaborates on this latest trick up the sleeves of the creationists…

“Creationism creeps into mainstream geology,” a report by NCSE’s Steven Newton, is the cover story of the July 2011 issue of Earth, published by the American Geological Institute. In his article, Newton discusses a geological field trip conducted during the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in 2010. He explains, “it was an example of a new strategy from creationists to interject their ideas into mainstream geology: They lead field trips and present posters and talks at scientific meetings. They also avoid overtly stating anything truly contrary to mainstream science. But when the meeting is over, the creationist participants go home and proudly proclaim that mainstream science has accepted their ideas.”

“During the trip,” Newton relates, “the leaders did not advertise their creationist views, but rather presented their credentials in a way that minimized their creationist affiliations,” adding, “the field trip leaders were careful not to make overt creationist references. If the 50 or so field trip participants did not know the subtext and weren’t familiar with the field trip leaders, it’s quite possible that they never realized that the leaders endorsed geologic interpretations completely at odds with the scientific community.” But clues — such as referring to Cambrian outcrops as rocks that are “called Cambrian” and hinting at the continental extent of a “massive marine trangression” — were abundant “if you knew what to listen for.”

I particularly like the last section of the article, for it points out how open and accommodating scientific conferences can be.  Even though mainstream scientists may ridicule and roll their eyes, believe it or not, the argument is made that creationists should actually be welcomed to come present their ideas openly at these meetings.  Just because they are heard, however, doesn’t mean they should expect to be taken seriously…

Creationists love to boast about their participation in scientific meetings, Newton observed, even when it consists only of conducting field trips or presenting unrefereed papers and posters. But he suggested that it would be counterproductive for societies such as the GSA to exclude creationists from participation in their meetings, however, arguing, “We let a thousand flowers bloom, weeds and all. The best ideas from the meetings are further subjected to peer review in journals, which is where theories are built; conferences are more freeform. Geology will not suffer if creationists participate in our meetings, but the public relations damage from the misperception that we are systematically hostile to any view — especially religious views — is real.”

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

Another Spectacular Example of Psychic Fail in Texas “Murder” Mystery

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 12, 2011

It seems that in Texas an anonymous “psychic detective” tipped off the police to the fact that there was a gruesome scene in a farmhouse which contained the remains of about 30 people, including the dismembered bodies of multiple children.  Unfortunately, the police of the Liberty County’s Sheriff’s Office actually took these tips seriously, because after they mobilized a massive amount of resources, they found absolutely nothing at the site…

A false tip from a psychic prompted Texas authorities to swarm a rural home searching for a nonexistent mass grave and up to 30 bodies, including those of dismembered children.

A few hours later it was clear the tip was nothing more than a gruesome wild goose chase.

“There’s no crime scene,” Liberty County Judge Craig McNair told reporters as deputies, Texas Rangers and FBI agents wrapped up a fruitless search that gained national media attention. [emphasis added]

Yup, you read that right.  Not only did the local Sheriff’s Office get into the mix, but the Texas Rangers and FBI were also involved in this fiasco!  I think these agencies have opened themselves up to some much deserved derision, because it has been shown conclusively in great detail that, despite numerous claims to the contrary, psychics do not do anything to help with police investigations.  In fact, most police and detectives do not use psychics because they know the track record of such “help” (i.e. it doesn’t work), and they know that chasing down false leads provided by these morons would just be a waste of time and resources (as it was in the spectacular failure of the case in question).

So why is it that these alleged “psychic detectives” keep on cropping up?  Because they are very good self-promoters, and they are playing off people’s desire to have closure on certain topics – it is, after all, very difficult when dealing with certain crimes (especially child abductions) to be patient and follow established and well-tested investigatory procedures.  These psychics play on this sense of unease on the part of the family in question (or perhaps the community) to swoop in and offer a measure of hope (however empty it is) while  also garnering some fame for themselves.

In his article in Skeptical Inquirer magazine titled “The Case of the ‘Psychic Detectives’”, I really like how skeptical investigator Joe Nickell puts it…

Although mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability, self-styled clairvoyants, diviners, spirit mediums, and soothsayers continue to sell their fantasies—and in some cases to shrewdly purvey their cons—to a credulous public. Particularly disturbing is a resurgence of alleged psychic crime-solving.

In fact, the media—especially Court TV’s Psychic Detectives, NBC’s Medium, and various programs of Larry King Live—have shamelessly touted several self-claimed psychic shamuses as if they could actually identify murderers and kidnappers, or locate missing persons. Here is an investigative look at five such claimants. (Another, Phil Jordan, was featured in an earlier SI [Nickell 2004].) …

… psychics do not solve crimes or locate missing persons—unless they employ the same non-mystical techniques as real detectives: obtaining and assessing factual information, receiving tips, and so on, even sometimes getting lucky. In addition to the technique of “retrofitting,” psychics may shrewdly study local newspaper files and area maps, glean information from family members or others associated with a tragedy, and even impersonate police and reportedly attempt to bribe detectives (Nickell 1994). It is bad enough that they are often able to fool members of the media; detectives, if they do not know better, as most do, should learn better. They should, well, investigate their alleged psychic counterparts.

Well, in the Texas case, there is a silver lining.  It seems the agencies in question disliked being deceived by the supposed psychic tipster, and they have decided to try charging them with filing a false police report – perhaps if more of these charlatans were actually held to account, then there would be fewer of the psychic glory-hounds clamoring for their 15 minutes of fame.  We can only hope.

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


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