The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for August, 2012

Farewell Neil Armstrong, and Thanks for That “One Small Step”

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong died today.  The first human being to ever set foot on another world – the Moon – died today.  It is with more than a hint of nostalgia that I write this, because as I reflect back upon my 40 years of life I have to marvel at the fact that humans walked on another world before I was even born!

Let’s hope we can get back “out there” even more, for the sake of Neil’s memory and the future :)

In closing, I can think of no better way to close than by referencing this amazing obituary for Neil Armstrong from The Economist Magazine:


    Neil Armstrong 

Aug 25th 2012, 20:38 by T.C.

ASTRONAUTS do not like to be called heroes. Their standard riposte to such accusations is to point out that it requires the efforts of hundreds of thousands of backroom engineers, mathematicians and technicians to make space flight possible. They are right, too: at the height of its pomp, in 1966, NASA was spending about 4.4% of the American government’s entire budget, employing something like 400,000 workers among the agency and its contractors.

But it never works. For Neil Armstrong, who commanded Apollo 11, the mission that landed men on the moon on July 20th 1969, the struggle against heroism seemed particularly futile. The achievement of his crew, relayed live on television, held the entire planet spellbound. On their return to Earth, the astronauts were mobbed. Presidents, prime ministers and kings jostled to be seen with them. Schools, buildings and roads were named after them. Medals were showered upon them. A whirlwind post-flight tour took them to 25 countries in 35 days.

As the first man to walk on another world, Armstrong received the lion’s share of the adulation. All the while, he quietly insisted that the popular image of the hard-charging astronaut braving mortal danger the way other men might brave a trip to the dentist was exaggerated. “For heaven’s sake, I loathe danger,” he told one interviewer before his fateful flight. Done properly, he opined, spaceflight ought to be no more dangerous than mixing a milkshake. …

Read the rest of the obituary here

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

Good News from Science Debate: Both U.S. Presidential Candidates Accept!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 25, 2012

As I reported last month, President Obama’s campaign has accepted the Science Debate 2012 challenge to address their Top Science Questions.  I am now happy to report that Mitt Romney’s campaign has also accepted the challenge :)

For your reference, here are the Science Debate questions:

Innovation | Climate Change | Research and the Future | Pandemics and Biosecurity
Education | Energy | Food | Fresh Water | The Internet | Ocean Health
Science in Public Policy | Space | Critical Natural Resources | Vaccination and Public Health

Let us hope these candidates take the time to make it a priority to seriously consider these important issues of science, engineering, technology, and education.  Stay tuned to the Science Debate website for the candidates’ responses!

In addition, the folks over at Science Debate have also now launched a Congressional version of their candidate challenge:

House Committee on Science, Space & Technology member Rep. Todd Akin’s recent remarks regarding a woman’s body’s natural ability to “shut that whole thing down” and prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” help illustrate why science needs to be a higher priority in the national dialogue when selecting candidates for office.

Working with America’s leading science organizations, we’ve developed the Top American Science Questions: Congressional Edition to help address this need.

Working with us, Scientific American has asked key Members of Congress who have influence over science policy to answer these eight critical questions.  So far, only a handful have indicated they will.

If you are a constituent of one of the following Members of Congress, please contact the Member’s office and ask them to respond to the ScienceDebate and Scientific American questionnaire immediately.  Be respectful, and tell in your own words why this is important.  Ask them to send their responses back to

Thank you!


Lamar Alexander: Tennessee (R)—ranking member, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Barbara Boxer: California (D)—chair, Committee on Environment and Public Works

Jim DeMint: South Carolina (R)—member, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchinson is retiring)

Michael Enzi: Wyoming (R)—ranking member, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Dianne Feinstein: California (D)—chair, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Tom Harkin: Iowa (D)—chair, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

James Inhofe: Oklahoma (R)—ranking member, Committee on Environment and Public Works

Mitch McConnell: Kentucky (R)—Senate minority leader

Patty Murray: Washington State (D)—member, Committee on the Budget (Chairman Kent Conrad is retiring)

Lisa Murkowski: Alaska (R)—ranking member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Harry Reid: Nevada (D)—Senate majority leader

Pat Roberts: Kansas (R)—ranking member, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Jay Rockefeller: West Virginia (D)—chair, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Jeff Sessions: Alabama (R)—ranking member, Committee on the Budget

Debbie Stabenow: Michigan (D)—chair, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Ron Wyden: Oregon (D)—member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (Chairman Jeff Bingaman is retiring)

House of Representatives

Timothy Bishop: New York State–1 (D)—ranking member, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

John Boehner: Ohio–8 (R)—speaker of the House

Scott Garrett: New Jersey–5 (R)—vice chair, Committee on the Budget (Chair Paul Ryan is the Republican vice presidential candidate)

Bob Gibbs: Ohio–18 (R)—chair, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

Ralph Hall: Texas–4 (R)—chair, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Doc Hastings: Washington State–4 (R)—chair, Committee on Natural Resources

Eddie Bernice Johnson: Texas–30 (D)—ranking member, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Frank Lucas: Oklahoma–3 (R)—chair, Committee on Agriculture; member of Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Edward J. Markey: Massachusetts–7 (D)—ranking member, Committee on Natural Resources

John Mica: Florida–7 (R)—chair, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Nancy Pelosi: California–8 (D)—House minority leader

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Todd Akin Fiasco: When Scientific Ignorance and Religious Extremism Rule Politics

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 22, 2012

Unless you’ve been sitting under a rock for the last few days, you know about the brouhaha surrounding the comments by the Republican candidate for the Missouri U.S. Senate seat, Congressman Todd Akin.  Just in case you haven’t heard/seen them, here are his comments on abortion and rape which (rightly so) have created a storm of controversy:

Wow… the words almost escape me… almost.  At the very least, Congressman Akin displays an appalling lack of scientific knowledge regarding rape and pregnancy (this despite the fact that he is on the U.S. House Committee on Science *facepalm*).  To understand just how scientifically ignorant he is with his “legitimate rape” and “women’s bodies can shut that [pregnancy due to rape] down” comments, take a look at this medical study on the issue (Hint: pregnancy due to rape isn’t “very rare”, as Congressman Akin asserts).

So how is it that a Congressman on the House Science Committee (did I *facepalm* already?) has such an out-of-touch and ignorant view of science?  I think part of the answer is Akin’s religious ideology, which he shares with a number of social/religious conservatives in the United States.  It ends up that this “legitimate rape” and related myths are not that uncommon among that demographic; take a look at these examples:

‘Legitimate Rape’? Todd Akin and Other Politicians Who Confused Science

The Official Guide to Legitimate Rape

‘God’s Little Shield’: A Short History Of The False No-Pregnancy-From-Rape Theory

Doctor behind Todd Akin’s rape theory was a Romney surrogate in 2007

And my absolute favorite, religious right-wing groups such as the American Family Association and the Family Research Council are fervently defending Congressman Akin’s ignorance in favor of their twisted religious worldview:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

California Takes on Climate Science Deniers

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 19, 2012

In a welcome development, the state of California has taken climate science deniers head on.  At the website of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, there is a link titled “Climate Change: Just the Facts”.  The thing which makes this such a welcome development isn’t that the California governor, Jerry Brown, is promoting the science of climate change and global warming, but this website also takes on the climate science deniers and their claims directly.  Take a look and encourage your state government to act in a like manner:

Climate change poses an immediate and growing threat to California’s  economy, environment, and to public health. California’s groundbreaking efforts  are helping reduce greenhouse gases emissions, which are warming the planet.  The state is also taking action to prepare for the unavoidable impacts of  climate change, including the increased likelihood of both flooding and  drought.

While California is taking action, some of those who oppose the move to  renewable energy and cleaner transportation have mischaracterized the science  of climate change in an effort to create artificial uncertainty about the  existence and causes of climate change.

The fact is that on the key  issues, the science is clear: climate change is real and happening now;  human-made greenhouse gas emissions are affecting our planet; and we need to  take action. Just as we reached a point where we stopped debating whether  cigarette smoke causes cancer, we need to end the climate change debate and  focus on how to solve the problem.

We have compiled the key facts about climate science, the expert  consensus, and some of the common arguments from and responses to those who  spread doubt and confusion to prevent action:

The Climate Science

The Scientific  Consensus

The Deniers

Common Denier Arguments


Posted in global warming denial, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

EBay Bans Witchcraft and “Supernatural Sales”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 16, 2012

Okay, sometimes you run across a story so outlandish that it just seems too goofy to be true, kind of like those headlines you see in The Onion… then you find out they ARE true and you get whiplash from the double-take.  Case in point, this little gem from the LA Times:

EBay bans supernatural sales of magic spells, potions, hexes

By Tiffany Hsu This post has been updated. See note below.August 16, 2012, 10:58 a.m.
Making a profit on the occult arts? Cultivating a loyal customer base for potions, magic spells and psychic readings? Not on EBay, you’re not.

In its 2012 Fall Seller Update, the online marketplace said it was banning all sales of supernatural goods and services, exiling its witchy and wizardly clientele to the wilds of Craigslist and other Web-based Diagon Alleys.

Among the prohibited items: “advice; spells; curses; hexing; conjuring; magic services; prayers; blessings; Psychic, Tarot, Reiki, and other metaphysical readings & services; magic potions; healing sessions.”

EBay representatives did not immediately respond to questions as to why Harry Potter wannabes were no longer welcome or whether they contributed substantially to EBay transactions.

[Updated, 12:00 p.m. Aug. 16: EBay said in an email that it regularly reviews categories and updates policies based on customer feedback and was "discontinuing a small number of categories within the larger Metaphysical subcategory."

Spokeswoman Johnna Hoff said that buyers and sellers have complained to EBay that such transactions "often result in issues that can be difficult to resolve."

"It's important to note that items that have a tangible value for the item itself and may also be used in metaphysical rites and practices (ie  jewelry, crystals, incense, candles, and books) are allowed in most cases," Hoff wrote."]

Beginning Aug. 30, attempts to list such enchantments for sale will be blocked, according to the website. …

Oh dear evil Jebus… you’ve got to be kidding me.  Not “you’ve got to be kidding me” in the sense of “you’ve got to be kidding me that EBay banned witchcraft” but “you’ve got to be kidding me that they even sold witchcraft in the first frakkin’ place!!!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that EBay woke up and smelled the coffee, so to speak.  But why did they even sell this crap in the first place???

I would also just like to note that, despite showing a semblance of sanity and relation to reality by banning these so-called “supernatural sales”, EBay will still have a subcategory titled “Metaphysical” after August 30.  The mere fact that such a subcategory even exists on EBay just makes me cringe and forces me to seriously question the ethics of those who operate the company.  Selling such nonsense purely for the sake of making a buck just strikes me as wrong; or will the operators of EBay be willing to take “metaphysical money” in place of the real, materialistic cash for these purchases?

Ah well, EBay, this one’s for you:

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Where Art Meets Science & Skepticism: Surly-Ramics by Amy Davis Roth

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 13, 2012

Sometimes those of us who call ourselves skeptics or science-nerds are pigeon-holed in the sense that we are thought of as non-artistic or appreciative of the arts.  Not so, I say!  There are a number of ways in which skepticism and science are expressed artistically, and I can think of no better way to illustrate that fact than by referring you to my skeptical colleague, Amy Davis Roth a.k.a. “Surly Amy”.

Amy is the brains behind Surly-Ramics, a small company which fuses science, skepticism, art, and fashion all into a neat and innovative package.  She makes and sells science and skeptically-oriented jewelry in the form of necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and cufflinks.  Her work is of very high quality as well as reasonably priced, and I am proud to say that I’ve purchased a number of pieces for both myself and my wife over the years.  Check it out:

If you have a science or skeptic nerd among your circle of family or friends (or if you happen to be one yourself), Amy’s work makes the perfect gift! :)

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

Happy Birthday to Robert Green Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic”

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 11, 2012

I just wanted to pass along this announcement from the fine folks at the Center For Inquiry regarding one of the most valuable orators and activists for freethought, science, and rationality: Robert Green Ingersoll.  This past Saturday (August 11th) was his birthday, and I think it is worth letting you know more about him:

Happy Birthday to “The Great Agnostic!”

Back before blogs, opinion-based news programs, talk radio, and even amplified sound, the American public gathered by the thousands to listen to professional orators calling out their opinions from train platforms, outdoor stages, and the steps of city hall. Oratory was wildly popular in the 1800s, and there was no lecturer more popular than Robert Green Ingersoll, a.k.a., “The Great Agnostic.”

Ingersoll continually championed science, reason, and secular values in the public square. He was an early popularizer of Charles Darwin and a tireless advocate for women’s rights, racial equality, and birth control decades before others would pick up the cause. He often poked fun at religious belief, and he defied the religious conservatives of his day by championing secular humanist values.

Ingersoll’s work and his words are highly relevant to our day, too, so the Center for Inquiry and its sister organization, the Council for Secular Humanism, work to bring his wisdom and insights to a broader audience.

— Learn more about Robert Green Ingersoll —

Happy Birthday, Colonel Bob!

Posted in free inquiry, philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Private School Vouchers in Louisiana and the Dumbing Down of Curricula: Not Just for Creationism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 8, 2012

This past June, I reported that the science curriculum in Louisiana was on its way to going down the proverbial tubes, and evidence of this fact was made available through the uncovering of a creationist curriculum which wants to seriously teach the “reality” of the Loch Ness Monster.  Well, as I predicted over a year ago, due to the stupidity of Louisiana’s so-called “academic freedom” law, the state will now be funding (with taxpayer dollars) private school vouchers which will be used to push all manner of nonsense, far beyond your usual garden-variety young-earth creationism, in Louisiana schools.  It seems that the door to all manner of flummery and idiocy has been thrown wide open, and the students of these Louisiana voucher schools will be subjected to some truly unbelievable “facts” in their education; just get a load of these (from Mother Jones)…

14 Wacky “Facts” Kids Will Learn in Louisiana’s Voucher Schools


Separation of church and what? Currier & Ives/Library of Congress

Thanks to a new law privatizing public education in Louisiana, Bible-based curriculum can now indoctrinate young, pliant minds with the good news of the Lord—all on the state taxpayers’ dime.

Under Gov. Bobby Jindal’s voucher program, considered the most sweeping in the country, Louisiana is poised to spend tens of millions of dollars to help poor and middle-class students from the state’s notoriously terrible public schools receive a private education. While the governor’s plan sounds great in the glittery parlance of the state’s PR machine, the program is rife with accountability problems that actually haven’t been solved by the new standards the Louisiana Department of Education adopted two weeks ago.

For one, of the 119 (mostly Christian) participating schools, Zack Kopplin, a gutsy college sophomore who’s taken to to stonewall the program, has identified at least 19 that teach or champion creationist nonscience and will rake in nearly $4 million in public funding from the initial round of voucher designations.

Many of these schools, Kopplin notes, rely on Pensacola-based A Beka Book curriculum or Bob Jones University Press textbooks to teach their pupils Bible-based “facts,” such as the existence of Nessie the Loch Ness Monster and all sorts of pseudoscience that researcher Rachel Tabachnick and writer Thomas Vinciguerra have thankfully pored over so the rest of world doesn’t have to.

Here are some of my favorite lessons:

1. Dinosaurs and humans probably hung out: “Bible-believing Christians cannot accept any evolutionary  interpretation.  Dinosaurs and humans were definitely on the earth at  the same time and may have even lived side by side within the past few  thousand years.”—Life Science, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2007

2. Dragons were totally real: “[Is] it possible that a fire-breathing animal really existed? Today  some scientists are saying yes. They have found large chambers in  certain dinosaur skulls…The large skull chambers could have contained  special chemical-producing glands. When the animal forced the chemicals  out of its mouth or nose, these substances may have combined and  produced fire and smoke.”—Life Science, 3rd ed., Bob Jones University Press, 2007

3. “God used the Trail of Tears to bring many Indians to Christ.”—America: Land That I Love, Teacher ed., A Beka Book, 1994

4. Africa needs religion: “Africa is a continent with many needs.  It is still in need of the   gospel…Only about ten percent of Africans can read and write.  In some   areas the mission schools have been shut down by Communists who have   taken over the government.”—Old World History and Geography in Christian Perspective, 3rd ed., A Beka Book, 2004

[And, believe it or not, it actually gets worse from here... :( ]

Click here to read the rest of the Mother Jones article

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

The Mars Science Laboratory Landing: Science – It Works!!!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 6, 2012

I, like many of my fellow humans on planet Earth, am simply bursting with joy, excitement, pride, anticipation, and (pardon the pun) curiosity after the successful landing of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory on the Red Planet.  This was a big deal, for a number of reasons outlined at this link, but for me this remarkable acheivement can be summed up in one quick phrase:

Science – It Works!!! :)

Image source and caption: In this image from NASA TV, shot off a video screen, one of the first images from a second batch of images sent from the Curiosity rover is pictured of its wheel after it successfully landed on Mars. The video screen was inside the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team inside the Spaceflight Operations Facility for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California August 5, 2012.The rover landed on the Martian surface shortly after 10:30 p.m. Pacific time on Sunday (1:30 a.m. EDT Monday/0530 GMT) to begin a two-year mission seeking evidence the Red Planet once hosted ingredients for life, NASA said. REUTERS/Courtesy NASA TV/Handout

Image source and caption: Aeolis Mons (unofficially Mount Sharp), as seen from Curiosity.

And if that isn’t cool enough, check out this Youtube video of the descent of the MSL towards the surface of Mars taken from the lander itself!

**Note: I want to give a shout out to my FB friend Rob for inspiring the title of this blog entry :)

Posted in scientific method, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Biblical “Inerrancy”

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 5, 2012

Recently, while on vacation, my wife and I went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  For those who don’t know, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known writings of the Old Testament of the Bible in existence.  They are roughly 2000+ years old, and written in a variety of languages; plus, the story of their discovery and excavation is quite fascinating.

Image Source

A few things in particular struck me about the entire exhibit, which included some of the actual scroll fragments (and their translations); specifically, these things I observed about the scrolls seemed to come into direct conflict with the notion of Biblical inerrancy espoused by so many religious fundamentalists these days…

First of all, the fragments were just that… fragments.  The scrolls were terribly decayed and incomplete, which is to be expected after over 2000 years of exposure.  Now this wouldn’t seem to be that much of a big deal, were it not for my other observations…

Second, there was a lot of material within the Dead Sea Scrolls which doesn’t appear within the Old Testament Bible.  In other words, the Old Testament Bible seems to be a whittled down version of these more original writings.  Which begs a question: why did some of this original material make it into the Bible and other material was excluded?  The obvious answer is that at some point, someone (that is, people) had to decide what to include and what to exclude.  In other words, even at the very formation of what we call “The Bible”, it was going through a very real editing process by very real human hands.  And this leads me to my third, and probably most damning, point…

The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves give differing, and even contradictory, accounts of various Old Testament Biblical stories.  That is, they are not even consistent within their own writings, and these are the earliest (and therefore most original) Biblical writings we have!  Why would this be, if the Bible is supposed to be error-free?  The answer is simple, yet difficult for some to accept: the scholars who have painstakingly analyzed the scrolls for decades have found that these writings were written in a variety of different communities by a variety of different authors (most likely local priests or community leaders).  As a result, each author had their own “spin” they wanted to place on various stories, which led some accounts to conflict with other accounts.

The conclusion is obvious: far from being inerrant in nature, the Bible is, and apparently always has been – even back unto the days of the Dead Sea Scrolls before “The Bible” even existed - a work of wholly fallible humans.

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


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