The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for May, 2013

The Self-Correcting Nature of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 29, 2013

Often I get asked what I think is so special about science. Many times people criticize my science-oriented worldview by saying that “science is just one view” or that “science is only ‘one way’ of knowing” and so on; it goes without saying that most often I hear this criticism of science and its methodology from those who are running counter to that methodology, usually in an effort to promote some brand of pseudoscience or similar nonsense.

Well, the purpose of this post is to point out one of the most valuable aspects of science: that particular aspect of its methodology which displays the self-correcting nature of science.

First, allow me to admit, right up front, that science isn’t necessarily about finding “Truth” with a capital “T”; as much as I and my fellow scientists support science, we must acknowledge that it, at best, offers us a kind of provisional truth. That is, the “truth” (note the lower-case “t”) that science offers us is always open to revision based upon new information, and this is – contrary to what some might think – one of its greatest strengths. And, as such, what science can do is approach, however slowly and asymptotically, a more and more accurate view of the world around us as a result.

This ability of science to be open to new information, to be capable of being revised, to be self-correcting, is precisely in opposition to the kind of dogmatism which is offered by so many other modes of thought. Too often, other modes of thought, whether they be grounded in religion or some kind of rigid ideology, start with the “Truth” (capital “T”) and work from there; I like to reference the following cartoon in order to illustrate the difference…

creationism vs science

Of course, the example of creationist pseudoscience is but one example, but I think my point is made.

Something which should be added to this discussion is the fact that, just as in any human endeavor, science is prone to making mistakes. In fact, the history of science is full of errors, failed experiments, and even outright fraud; but the self-correcting nature of modern science once again comes to bear as a great strength in these cases.

For example, it was scientists who discovered the fraud behind the cold fusion fiasco in the late 1980s, wherein a pair of researchers publicly claimed (fraudulently) that they had produced fusion in a chemical reaction on a lab bench; it was careful and persistent application of scientific methodology which pointed out the errors in the claims that “faster-than-light” neutrinos had indeed gone superluminal (it ended up, at least in part, being a mistake in the experimental design); and this process continues to this day with doubts raised (yes, by scientists) about recent claims of stem-cell cloning.

This self-correcting, self-policing nature of science to peer into its own processes, methodology, and motivation is more than admirable, in my opinion; it is vitally necessary to have a mode of thought that incorporates this kind of inquiry in our world. That is because all too often when we convince ourselves of some kind of “Truth” (note that capital “T” again), it leads to the shutting down of inquiry, doubt, and analysis so necessary to see whether or not the “Truth” is just a lie.

Give me that kind of humility over the smug, self-assuring claim to “Truth” any day.

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Posted in scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Announcing Educator Grants for The Amaz!ng Meeting 2013

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 24, 2013

I am very pleased to announce that the James Randi Educational Foundation is now accepting applications for educators to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 2013 in Las Vegas this summer. I have been involved in many previous TAMs on the educational outreach side, and one thing I can say is that we need to get more teachers, at all levels and from both science and non-science backgrounds, to events like this as much as possible. So, if you are interested or know someone who is, please spread the word and take a look at the information below; alternately, you could also consider donating to the educator grant fund.

TAM 2013 EDUCATOR GRANTS

Are you an educator who would like to bring more skepticism and critical thinking into your classroom? Would you like to be inspired, energized, and informed? The Amazing Meeting is a great place to meet and network with other educators, get educational resources (including printed copies of the JREF’s education modules for classroom use), pick up tips, and be inspired.

In addition to three days of superb talks and panel discussions, TAM 2013 offers a full day of workshops, including one which will focus on incorporating skeptical thinking lessons into non-science classes.

The Amaz!ng Meeting is attended by people from all walks of life and all over the globe. Speakers include scientists, philosophers, journalists, educators, activists, and even entertainers. Simply put, TAM is the James Randi Educational Foundation’s yearly celebration of science, education, and critical thinking.

Veteran TAM goers know the feeling of community and inspiration that a weekend with skeptics provides. The yearly meeting recharges our batteries and sparks new ideas for projects to promote skepticism and scientific thinking.

Educators are in a unique position to reach our target audience, but they need good resources, the opportunity to discuss methods, and the kind of inspiration that events like The Amaz!ng Meeting provide. Educators who attend TAM will be able to bring what they have learned into their classrooms.

Click here for more information

Donate to the Educator Fund here

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The Evolution of Gay Marriage Views

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 21, 2013

I’ve been stupidly busy of late, but I figured I would take a few moments to pass along this humorous picture which happened across my email inbox.  I like to call it the “evolution of gay marriage views” – Enjoy! 🙂

Evolution of Gay Marriage

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

When Psychics Fail: The Sylvia Browne and Amanda Berry Fiasco

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 7, 2013

I make no bones about how I feel about various psychic charlatans who take advantage of the desperate, grieving, and bereaved: they’re pretty close to scraping the bottom of the barrel, in my view.  At the top of this list is none other than the queen of psychic charlatans: Sylvia Browne.

Ms. Browne has made a career, literally, out of taking advantage of any opportunity, no matter how sleazy, to get in front of cameras in order to promote herself and her supposed “psychic powers”.  In many cases, this takes the form of her going on a popular daytime television show, such as the Montel Williams Show, and giving readings to various audience members.  And sometimes, she has stooped so low as to give authoritative-sounding psychicly-guided advice to people who have lost loved ones.

Of course, such psychic predictions can backfire when people actually take the time to examine them critically (such as keeping track of the New Year predictions made by prominent psychics which are complete and total duds).  But sometimes, especially when dealing with those who are really going for the gusto (like Ms. Browne), these predictions can fail in a truly spectacular and despicable manner, as it did with what is turning out to be a huge fiasco regarding the discovery and rescue of kidnapping victim Amanda Berry in Cleveland, Ohio.  It just so happens that not long after their daughter went missing over 10 years ago, Amanda’s parents went onto the Montel Williams Show to consult with Ms. Browne, who told them – rather unequivocally – that their daughter was dead…

… yup, dead.  Which is kind of exactly the opposite of what Amanda really was… you know, alive and hoping someone would find her?  Whoops…

Sylvia Browne: TV Psychic Under Fire For Telling Family Kidnapping Victim Was  Dead

Sylvia Browne: TV Psychic Under Fire For Telling Family Kidnapping Victim Was Dead

Sylvia Browne is coming under fire after the television psychic told the  family of Cleveland kidnapping victim Amanda Berry that their daughter was  dead.

The case made national headlines this week when Brown and two other kidnapped  girls were found safe in Cleveland. But for the family of Amanda Berry,  that does not undo the heartache caused by Sylvia Browne.

Browne was a weekly guest on The Montel Williams Show, and in 2004 Berry’s mother  Louwana Miller appeared to talk about the case.

As Miller pleaded for her for information on her daughter’s whereabouts,  Sylvia Browne, got  it completely wrong:

Miller: Can you tell me if they’ll ever find her? Is she out  there?

Browne: She’s — see, I hate this when they’re in water. I  just hate this. She’s not alive, honey. And I’ll tell you why, here we go again.  Your daughter was not the type that would not have called you.

Miller: So you don’t think I’ll ever get to see her  again?

Browne: Yeah, in heaven, on the other side.

Brown was correct on the last prediction, though it does not appear to be  intentional. Berry’s mother would die of heart failure two years later — her  family said she died of a “broken  heart” after her hopes of a rescue were dashed by Browne’s vision.

Now Sylvia Brown has come under assault, with commentators calling her a “grief vampire” and her Twitter page coming under assault. [emphasis added]

And to me that is one of the real tragedies of this whole sordid affair.  Not only have Ms. Browne and similar psychic charlatans used the grief of people to take advantage of them in their most vulnerable moments to promote themselves and their cheesy, pseudoscientific agenda, but they have also propped themselves up as some kind of authority with no evidence to support their claims.  And then they go making terribly irresponsible statements such as what Ms. Browne did regarding Amanda Berry; sadly, because Louwana Miller gave some kind of credence to Ms. Browne and her psychic claims, because she trusted Browne, she was horribly and terribly deceived… eventually dying thinking that her daughter was dead.

[ **Side note: Lest you think I’m being a bit too hard on Ms. Browne, it should be noted that this isn’t her first high-profile grade-A screwup.  For more history, check out her involvement in the Shawn Hornbeck fiasco. ]

I’m not one to say there should be a law against being a douchebag, especially such a self-aggrandizing and deceitful one such as Ms. Browne and her psychic ilk, but I do think it is incumbent upon those of us who call ourselves skeptics and critical thinkers to call these charlatans out on their lies and douchebaggery.  We need to call them out long and loud on their lies and deceit, and we need to use these sad episodes as a lesson in teaching others the use of thinking a bit more critically about such extraordinary claims.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments »

 
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