The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for April, 2013

Purveyor of Fake “Bomb Detectors” Found Guilty of Fraud

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 25, 2013

Wow, sometimes the good guys win one. In case you didn’t know, there has been a long-running skeptical campaign against a pseudoscientific fraudster, James McCormick, who sold bomb dowsing kits to the Iraqi military. Yes, you read that correctly, dowsing kits – as in “water witching”! And no, dowsing doesn’t work. And yes, it resulted in a lot of people getting killed, because these things didn’t do squat to detect bombs. And yes, it pleases me greatly to see this criminal finally receive justice…

James McCormick guilty of selling fake bomb detectors

James McCormick arrives at the Old Bailey
McCormick’s fake bomb detectors were used at Iraqi checkpoints staffed by the British military

A millionaire businessman who sold fake bomb detectors to countries including Iraq and Georgia, knowing they did not work, has been convicted of fraud.

James McCormick, 56, of Langport, Somerset, is said to have made £50m from sales and sold more than 6,000 in Iraq, the Old Bailey heard.

Police said the devices, modelled on a novelty golf ball finder, are still in use at some checkpoints.

One Iraqi bomb victim described him to the BBC as a “morally bankrupt” man.

During Tuesday’s hearing at the Old Bailey in London, the court was told McCormick’s detectors, which cost up to $40,000 (£27,000) each, were completely ineffectual and lacked any grounding in science.

Richard Whittam QC, for the prosecution, said: “The devices did not work and he knew they did not work.”

McCormick’s claims

McCormick had claimed the devices could bypass “all forms of concealment”, detecting drugs and people along with explosives, the court heard.

He claimed they would work under water and from the air, and would track an object up to 1km (3280ft) below the ground.

The bomb detectors came with cards which were “programmed” to detect a wide array of substances, from ivory to $100 banknotes.

Other substances could be detected, it was claimed, if put in a jar with a sticker which would absorb its “vapours” and was then stuck on a card that would be read by the machine.

In reality, McCormick’s device was based on $20 (£13) golf ball finders which he had purchased from the US and which had no working electronics.

Police said McCormick showed a complete disregard for the safety of those who used and relied upon the device for their own security and protection. …

Serves this scumbag right.  I hope they throw the book at him, not only for his crimes but also to send a clear message to the other fraudsters and charlatans out there: we’re watching you.  Skepticism matters.

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Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

CNN Taken to Task Over Its NON-Critical Thinking on the Boston Bombing

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 19, 2013

As I mentioned in my last post regarding this past Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing, there has been a huge amount of rumor, misinformation, and innuendo floating all over the place, and we should do what we can to combat it.

Of course, one would hope that our media outlets, such as “The Most Trusted Name in News” CNN, would take such a task to heart, making certain to get their facts straight before they report the news.  But, sadly, in the era of the 24-hour “news” cycle, it appears that getting it right takes a back seat to getting it first.

I can think of no other way to illustrate this point more clearly than to reference The Daily Show’s incredible smackdown of just how badly CNN botched some major news regarding the bombing:

CNN-The Human Centipede of News

Yup, that’s CNN… the most busted name in news.

Posted in humor, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Rumors and Misinformation in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 17, 2013

As you well know by now, there was a horrific bombing of the Boston Marathon yesterday on Boston’s Patriot Day.  Like many people, I spent much time last night discussing the situation online.  And, of course, in the aftermath of such an emotionally charged and upsetting situation, rumors, speculation, and – sadly – conspiracy mongering will run rampant.   However, I am of the feeling that knowledge is power, and it is better to say “I don’t know” than to speculate wildly; after all, as I told someone online last night: “rumors =/= knowledge”

So, in the spirit of spreading accurate information and squashing rumors, misinformation, and conspiracy mongering regarding the Boston Marathon Bombing, I would like to refer the reader to this collection of rumors and junk debunked from our friends at Snopes.com:

snopeslogo

Please take a few minutes to check that link, and by all means spread it far and wide over the Internet and via social media, because we do ourselves no favors by giving into our fears and allowing them to make us act irrationally.

Posted in conspiracy theories, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

God on a Goldfish Cracker?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 8, 2013

Every now and then, just when you think things cannot get too silly, they do.  Case in point: the fact that the news media is actually giving some attention to a woman’s claim that her goldfish cracket is a “sign from God”…

Florida woman finds ‘sign from God’ on Goldfish cracker

GoldfishGod

It’s a fishy story, but the woman telling it believes it’s pure gold. The Florida resident says the markings she found on a Goldfish cracker are a direct message affirming her Christian faith.

“I believe that it’s a sign, a sign from God,” Patti Burke told Florida Today. “He is still in our life every day, and he wants to show that to his people.”

It’s not quite manna, but in Burke’s eyes it’s a manifestation of her faith.

The cracker in question has two markings, or imperfections, on its surface. Burke says the first marking is of a cross with a circle around it. The second marking, near the head of the fish, represents a golden crown.

“When I picked this one up, I knew he was special,” she said. “Something I’ve never seen before out of all the Goldfish I’ve eaten.”

Burke admittedly has been working from a large sample size, consuming between two and three pounds of the crackers per week. She says she eats the small crackers individually, examining each one for the optimal amount of savory coating. … [emphasis added]

Umm… yeah.  Pardon me, but… IT’S A CRACKER!!! Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system.  Come on folks, is it really any surprise that the person making this “miraculous discovery” (which has all the markings of a modern-day “religious relic” such as the infamous Virgin Mary Grill Cheese Sandwich) is a devout Christian?  That is the classic marker of pareidolia – our evolution-wired brains are developed for pattern recognition, and one of the most recognized patterns for a Christian is the cross. Throw into the mix a bit of religious fervor (i.e. in this case, devout Christianity) and viola! you have a “miracle” appearance of the cross on a cracker.

Here’s another interesting bit of pareidolia to get you thinking.  Years ago a man cut into a melon, and he saw this…

So what, if anything, do you see?  If you’re like me, you see some wavy lines which are essentially meaningless.  But if you are a devout Muslim who can read Arabic, you will likely see “Allah” (God) written out in Arabic.  And, before you roll your eyes, there are people who treat this as seriously as our lady does her cross-marked cracker.  So, what this shows you is that the interpretation of these “miracles” is strongly context and culturally specific.

In conclusion, what this all really teaches us about these kinds of “miraculous events” is this: it’s all in your head, folks, and people who believe strongly enough can find amazing ways to validate those beliefs – even if to the rest of us it’s utter gibberish.

It also seems to teach us something about God’s powers, namely that as time goes on the kind of “miracles” that God apparently performs become increasingly mundane, as this graph displays 🙂

Gods Power vs Time

Posted in psychology, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Climate Change Science Coming to U.S. Classrooms

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 7, 2013

Recently I made a blog post about the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which will likely be adopted by most states in the United States over the next few years, and how these standards placed heavy emphasis on both evolution and climate change.  To drive this point home further, the National Center for Science Education’s Mark McCaffrey was recently on NPR discussing just how widespread and sweeping will be these changes…

Climate change education on NPR 

NPR

National Public Radio highlighted climate change education in a segment of its Morning Edition show broadcast on March 27, 2013, featuring NCSE’s Mark McCaffrey. “By the time today’s K-12 students grow up, the challenges posed by climate change are expected to be severe and sweeping,” the segment began. “Now, for the first time, new nationwide science standards due out this month [i.e., the Next Generation Science Standards, now expected in April 2013] will recommend that U.S. public school students learn about this climatic shift taking place.”

McCaffrey told NPR, “the state of climate change education in the U.S. is abysmal,” citing survey data indicating that only one in five students “feel like they’ve got a good handle on climate change from what they’ve learned in school” and that two in three students feel that they’re not learning much about it at all in their schools.  NCSE’s recent report “Toward a Climate & Energy Literate Society” (PDF) was cited as offering recommendations for improving climate and energy literacy in the United States over the course of the next decade.

The politicization of climate change education is a barrier, however. Besides the spate of legislation, such as the bills considered in Arizona, Colorado, and Kansas in 2013, NPR observed, “educators say the politicization of climate change has led many teachers to avoid the topic altogether. Or, they say some do teach it as a controversy … The end result for students? Confusion.” And the NGSS may provoke a backlash from climate change deniers: a representative of the Heartland Institute indicated that his organization was prepared to be critical of their treatment of climate science.

Heidi Schweingruber of the National Research Council, which developed the framework on which the NGSS are based, said, “There was never a debate about whether climate change would be in there,” adding, “It is a fundamental part of science, and so that’s what our work is based on, the scientific consensus.” She emphasized that climate change presents pedagogical challenges: teachers need to avoid (in NPR’s words) “freaking kids out”. McCaffrey concurred, adding that teachers will need not only training on the science but also preparation to deal with the pressure that comes with teaching it.

Posted in education, global warming denial, science funding, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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