The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for June, 2011

Diversity in Skepticism: One White Guy’s Perspective

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 8, 2011

Like many within the skeptical community, I have been reading with interest the recent discussion which has been waged (or, should I say, raged?) on the topic of diversity within the skeptical movement.  Apparently, it all goes back to this article – Why White Men Should Refuse to be on Panels of All White Men – which led to this blog post over at Skepchick.  It also seems that there is a bit of a “storm” of controversy swirling as a result of the discussion generated by these articles.  I think Amy Roth, the author of the aforementioned Skepchick article, articulated it well with the following commentary:

What do you think? Are women and minorities just being ridiculous? Are the majority of public panel seats going to white men because they are the authorities on the topics and have the most interesting and valuable things to say? Should the members of minorities politely and quietly wait in the shadows until someone asks us to be on a panel? Should white men in positions of power speak up and refuse to sit in these circumstances? Is this favoritism, racism or ignorance?

So, since I suffer from the delusion that people care what I think, I shall share my thoughts on the matter here.  To begin with, here are a few reasons why I think some might give a rat’s ass what I think about this issue:

1. I am a skeptic, some would say a slightly prominent one (I remain skeptical of this, but whatever).  As such I sometimes appear on discussion panels at skeptical events.

2. I am white (actually, there’s a surprise here – read on), and I am male.

3. I am on the board of the Women Thinking Free Foundation, a skeptical organization dedicated to skepticism in regards to women’s issues.

4. I am a high school and college teacher, and as such I am in a profession which includes (compared to many other professions) a relatively high percentage of women and ethnic minorities.

I think the question of diversity within the skeptical movement is one we, collectively, should be addressing right now (however messily and/or noisily), especially given the demographics of the wider population and related generational issues.  That is, a generation ago when the modern skeptical movement was in its infancy, it was no surprise that the leaders were white men.  At that time in pretty much any walk of life (on the professional level), most leaders tended to be white men – I’m not saying this was right or wrong, I’m simply stating it as a fact.  As time went on, more and more women and ethnic minorities rightly concluded that they could do the work and contribute to society in a positive manner just as much as the standard white male.  Since that time, society has evolved (in a positive way, in my view) on these issues.

Now there are those who think that perhaps the skeptical movement is a bit behind the times in this sense, while there are those who think there is no issue to discuss.  Personally, I find myself agreeing with certain aspects of both these views (the notion that one must be “on one side of the issue or the other” is a false dichotomy, I believe, as such complex issues are not black-and-white).  Allow me to clarify…

I do think that those of us who are beginning to take more of a visible leadership role should be encouraging diversity within the skeptical movement.  I say this for multiple reasons, some which are idealistic and others which are simply pragmatic.  I agree with the idealistic egalitarian notion that all people – without regard to gender, race, etc – should have a fair chance to rise through the ranks and present their viewpoints, because someone from a different ethnic background or with different gender experiences than me will be able to approach various skeptical topics from an angle that I, as a white male, simply cannot do.  Please note that I am not endorsing a woo-filled post-modernist notion that “all views are equally valid”; that’s not what we’re talking about here, folks.  We are all still bound by the idea that there must be some kind of objective reality out there that we can interact with and understand using the tools of critical thinking, science, and skepticism.

What I mean is that I must, as a reasonable skeptic, to be willing to consider that I have an inherently limited perspective on certain topics that is the result of my cultural upbringing.  Thus, on topics related to issues of sexuality, gender, culture, and so on I would do well to interact with those who have a broader and different cultural perspective.  In fact, of the times I have participated in various skeptical panel discussions over the years, I have found the most diverse ones to be the most fruitful.

There’s also a practical side to the issue as well: if we wish to spread the skeptical message effectively, then we need to be able to reach out beyond that stereotypical audience from one generation ago – the white male.  As society has become more diverse, so must the skeptical movement become more diverse in order to keep up and avoid being viewed as an anachronism.  For this reason, because I believe in the broad message of the movement, we must encourage more diversity in terms of attendees to conferences and – yes – for participants in speeches, panels, and workshops.

However, in our desire to become more diverse, I must add a note of caution: this has to do with the surprise that I mentioned about my ethnicity above.  We must be very, very careful about making assumptions and snap judgments regarding the background of, say, potential panelists because we skeptics all fall victim to the same biases as everyone else.  Specifically, I am referring to the question of the ethnicity (or, shall I say, the apparent ethnicity?) of a person.  Case in point: I have identified myself as a “white” guy all throughout this article, and – truth be told – I typically self-identify as white/Caucasian when I fill out paperwork and whatnot.  After all, don’t I look white?…

Well, here’s the surprise: I’m about 1/16 Native American, specifically Choctaw Indian.  But I’m betting that you never would have guessed that about me if I had never told you, right?  I certainly don’t look like what many of us might assume a Native American might look like, and there’s the rub.  We skeptics are humans first, and as such we have all the failings of our fellow humans – including the tendency to make unfounded judgments about people based upon their appearance.  Food for thought, folks.

In closing, I would like to share one more observation on this matter: the fact that the skeptical community appears to be having a lively discussion of this topic is a very good thing.  That is because it speaks to the fact that we are a growing demographic, and as a growing demographic we are pushing beyond the once comfortable boundaries into uncharted territory.  That makes some people a little apprehensive, but personally I welcome this development because as skeptics we should be willing to push the edge, especially when it makes some (and even us) a tad edgy.

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Secret Mars Base Discovered? Hmmm, No…

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 7, 2011

According to this story over at, there is an amateur astronomer claiming that he has discovered what he calls a “Base on Mars” in the following image that he downloaded from Google Mars…

All I can say is… are you kidding me?!  A grainy, fuzzy, and heavily pixelated image from Google Mars shows… what exactly?  Why couldn’t this be some kind of geological feature on Mars, or couldn’t some of the features be artifacts of the imaging process?  Why the rush to jump to “alien base on Mars” without any supporting evidence?  This sort of thing is on par with people using similar crappy-quality images to claim they’re looking at Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or seeing Jesus in the clouds.  Folks, it all boils down to that well documented phenomenon called pareidolia, because if there were decent high-resolution images available then it would be harder for people to see what they (consciously or not) want to see in the pictures.

Some more reasonable possibilities are suggested by some experts in the article:

“It looks like a linear streak artifact produced by a cosmic ray,” said Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona and the director of the Planetary Imaging Research Laboratory. McEwen is the principal investigator of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a powerful telescope currently orbiting Mars.

Cosmic rays are extremely energetic particles emitted by the sun and other stars. For the most part, the Earth’s protective magnetosphere blocks them from hitting the planet’s surface, McEwen explained. “But with space images that are taken outside our magnetosphere, such as those taken by orbiting telescopes, it’s very common to see these cosmic ray hits. You see them on optical images and a lot of the infrared images too,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries. …

… The digital compression software that converts the image into a JPEG file then “sort of smears out the image, giving it that pixelated look,” McEwen said. What started as a clear streak in high-resolution turns into a streak that, in the armchair astronaut’s words, looks like it is “made up of cylinders.”

That, or this guy actually did discover an alien base on Mars.  I think you’d have to have a particularly dull Occam’s Razor to accept that conclusion, however.


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Why We Need to Fight the Anti-Vaccinationists

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2011

[**Note: This is a guest post I made over at the Women Thinking Free Foundation’s blog, WTF Is Going On?!, and I thought I would share it with you]

by Matt Lowry, WTFF Secretary

As another part of the WTFF’s effort to simultaneously inform the public about the benefits of vaccines while also countering anti-vaccinationist propaganda, we make an effort to keep tabs on what the anti-vaccination movement is doing.  This includes having some of our Skeptical Ninjas attend anti-vaccinationist conferences, such as last week’s Autism One Conference in Lombard, Illinois.

You know how we often hear pseudoscientists and other folks make the claim that skeptics are not interested in allowing dissenting views or that “they” (academia, the establishment, Big Pharma, whatever) are “expelling” those brave scientists and activists who dare to challenge the orthodoxy of scientists, etc?  Yes, we’ve all heard this tired old argument many, many times and rolled our eyes at the overly melodramatic and irrational nature of it (which is simply a blatant attempt to avoid the facts of the argument in favor of making an emotional appeal).  Well, the interesting thing is that some pseudoscientists, such as the anti-vaccintationists, appear to want to have it both ways: they wish to make this argument while simultaneously “expelling” their critics.

Case in point: two Skeptical Ninjas – the WTFF’s very own VP Jamie Bernstein and journalist Ken Reibel – were “expelled” from the Autism One Conference because… they paid for their registration and showed up.  Yup, that’s it – these anti-vaccination loons kicked them out of the conference, even though they had paid to be there and were not causing any disruptions whatsoever.  In fact, they not only kicked them out, but the organizers actually had seven (seven!) security personnel escort Jamie and Ken off the premises – the hypocrisy is so thick you can cut it with a knife!

To read more about the incident in question, here are a variety of perspectives from various skeptical blogs on the matter:

Jamie’s views — Skeptics will be Prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law (via Skepchick) and How I Got Kicked Out of the AutismOne Con: Part 2 (at The Friendly Atheist blog)

Ken Reibel’s perspective — Expelled 2.0

Orac of Respectful Insolence blogs here — Expelled!, anti-vaccine style, 2011 edition

Jamie is interviewed by the SGU Rogues

Now, I’ve never met Ken Reibel, but I personally know Jamie Bernstein and I have to say that she is about the most least intimidating person I know.  In fact, here is a photo of her standing next to James Randi (who is about 5 feet tall)…

The ultra-menacing Jamie Bernstein next to James Randi – if you add their heights together, they might reach up to the usual person’s knee ;)

So the obvious question is: WTF Autism One?!!  Why are you throwing Jamie and Ken out simply because they attended the conference?  Folks, this sort of mindless Orwellian crap doesn’t occur at skeptics’ conferences, I know that for a fact.  Last year at TAM8 I met both a renowned self-declared psychic and one of the world’s leading Moon hoax conspiracy theorists.  Both were perfectly welcome at TAM8 and, while there were understandably a lot of skeptics rolling their eyes and laughing at these folks, nobody was entertaining the idea of having them thrown out.  We don’t play that game.

And there’s the rub: when it comes to questions of real free inquiry and open discussion, the skeptics such as those represented by the JREF and WTFF practice what they preach.  While we may not agree with them, we welcome our critics and allow them to participate within our discussions.  On the flip side, pseudoscientific scare-mongers like the anti-vaccinationists at Autism One openly display their hyprocrisy by saying one thing and doing another, and in so doing they show that they’re not driven by an objective search for truth but rather an ideological zeal which is dangerously disconnected from reality.

And that is why they must be opposed at every turn: because in the distorted reality-challenged worldview of the anti-vaccinationists, a lot of innocent people will die of perfectly treatable and curable diseases if they get their way.

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

SHARE Relief Effort for Victims of the Joplin Tornado

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 1, 2011

In an effort to continue lighting candles in the darkness, I wanted to pass along the following announcement from SHARE, the Skeptics and Humanist Aid and Relief Effort – please consider helping out…

SHARE Joplin, Missouri Tornado Relief

We are deeply saddened by the loss of life and suffering caused by the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri on Sunday with at least 117 known dead.

We are launching a drive through SHARE (Skeptics and Humanist Aid and Relief Effort) to raise charitable funds to assist displaced families in this devastated city.  Donations will be sent to the American Red Cross.  The Red Cross has already opened shelters in the distressed area to assist families who have lost their homes.

The needs of those who’ve lost their family members, their homes, and their livelihoods will be very great. Your assistance is very important and together as skeptics and humanists we can make a difference for the victims of this tragic disaster.  Please join with us to help out in this crisis.  Your support is greatly appreciated!  Thank you.

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

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