The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for July, 2014

“The Limits of Skepticism?” Panel from Dragon*Con 2013

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2014

In honor of the upcoming Skeptrack at Dragon*Con 2014, I wanted to share the video of my favorite panel from last year’s Skeptrack, titled “The Limits of Skepticism?”  In this panel, we discussed a variety of heady topics related to skepticism, philosophy, religion, God, politics, cultural issues and how far skepticism can and cannot go.  I served as the moderator of the panel, which included philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci, astronomer Pamela Gay, president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) DJ Grothe, Center For Inquiry activist Debbie Goddard, freethought activist Margaret Downey, and author of “What’s the Harm?” website Tim Farley.

And, with that, here’s the video.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Limits of Skepticism?

The Limits of Skepticism 2 - DragonCon 2013


Posted in philosophy, religion, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Creation Museum’s Faith-Based Investment in “Ark Encounter” Appears to be Sinking

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 11, 2014

The saga of uber-creationist Ken Ham’s Creation Museum continues, and it isn’t looking good for him or his followers.  If you recall, Ham and his creationist organization Answers In Genesis (AiG) have, in recent years, gone all-in on an investment scheme to fund what they call a life sized replica of Noah’s Ark named Ark Encounter.  For years, I and others have reported on the continuing financial troubles and ethically questionable revenue sources for Ken Ham’s enterprise, and now things seem to only be getting worse for Ham, AiG, and the Creation Museum.

Ken Ham Ark Encounter

Ken Ham looking over his model of Ark Encounter… the irony is that, according to myth, Noah didn’t need lots of investment capital, the backing of the government, and huge construction teams to build his Ark. (image source)

Back in February, there was a big debate between Ham and Billy Nye the Science Guy at the Creation Museum; after the debate, Ham reported that this debate had brought in a huge amount of much-needed financial support for Ark Encounter and that construction would begin on the much publicized project in May of this year (after repeated delays due to insufficient funds).  At the time, I and others were skeptical, speculating that perhaps Ham wasn’t being completely truthful because while he said money was coming in, he didn’t provide any specifics.  This led me to believe that Ham was continuing his habit of not only bending (or breaking) the truth on issues of science but those of economics and finance as well.

Well, now it appears that the other shoe has dropped… as reported in June by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, it seems that Ham is resorting to all sorts of shenanigans and obfuscation to give the impression that his enterprise isn’t sinking:

1) First, there’s the issue of the time-table on Ark Encounter continually being pushed back, at taxpayer expense

The main problem with Ham’s overtly religious pet project is it seems to be a magnet for taxpayer dollars. First, Kentucky officials committed more than $40 million in tax incentives to the Ark Park. Sadly that was just the beginning. Later, the Kentucky legislature planned to spend $2 million on a road project in a rural area, seemingly for the sole benefit of the proposed Ark Park.

But even those generous incentives weren’t enough for misguided lawmakers. The city of Williamstown, which had already granted a 75 percent property tax break for the park, decided last year that it would sell $62 million in municipal bonds on behalf of AiG affiliates.

All told, various government entities in Kentucky have planned to give the Ark Park, which was originally supposed to cost about $175 million, an astounding $100 million (or more) in various types of public support. Recent reports, however, cast serious doubt on just how much of that money, if any, will reach the project.

It seems Ham’s ever-changing timeline has finally caught up with him. He said in January 2011 that work would begin on the Ark Park that spring; then in May of that year, AiG said groundbreaking would be over the summer; in June, AiG said construction would begin in August; and by early August 2011, AiG still had not broken ground but promised that it would happen “in the next few months.”

Then in late August 2011, AiG bumped the timetable way back, saying groundbreaking would begin in the spring of 2012. That did not happen, either.

2) Then there’s the problem of the expiration date attached to the public funding (the one smart thing the KY lawmakers did in this whole fiasco)…

Louisville’s LEO Weekly reported last week that the large tax incentive package promised to the Ark Park back in May 2011 by Kentucky’s Tourism Cabinet came with one little catch: an expiration date. The agreement says that AiG can receive a 25 percent tax rebate on the cost of construction once the park opens, provided construction began by May 2014. The discount would be capped at $43 million.

Gil Lawson, a spokesman for the Tourism Cabinet, told LEO Weekly that Ark Encounter quietly withdrew its old application for a $172 million project on March 28 and instead submitted a $73 million proposal. If that application is approved, and if it is built within the allotted timeframe, that would mean AiG is eligible for $18.25 million in tax incentives, LEO Weekly said.

But the shrinking tax package doesn’t appear to be Ham’s only problem. In April, the Cincinnati Enquirerreported that the local road improvements needed to handle all the traffic that will supposedly rush to Ark Encounter (if it ever opens) will be pushed back to 2017. That’s a bit of a problem for Ham, who last claimed that the park would open in the summer of 2016. Perhaps he wants park visitors to have an authentic Bible experience by walking or riding camels to see the ark.

There is also some mystery surrounding the $62 million in municipal bonds that supposedly rescued Ham’s project. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported in January that while $26.5 million in bonds had been sold, the city needed to sell an additional $29 million by Feb. 6 or else those who already bought bonds would be able to collect on their investment immediately.

The city would not say exactly how much money was raised, the Courier-Journal reported in late February, but AiG’s website claims the bonds actually yielded $73 million. AiG also claims it has raised $15 million on its own.

Hmm… when “there is some mystery” about how public funds are allocated and being used, especially on a legally and ethically questionable project such as this, then that’s kind of a problem.  KY lawmakers and politicians would be wise to distance themselves from this slow-motion train wreck.  But there’s more!

3) Ham has claimed that ground breaking and construction did indeed begin this past May, except that it didn’t actually happen…

Despite these setbacks, Ham presses on. His latest ploy appears to be keeping up the hoax that the Ark Park is under construction. In February, he said groundbreaking would begin in May. On May 1, AiG hosted a “groundbreaking ceremony” at the site where the park is supposed to be built, but the “groundbreaking” consisted of a handful of men in suits using wooden mallets to hammer wooden pegs into wooden boards. This all took place inside an auditorium, which doesn’t look much like a theme park. (You can watch this exciting video here, but be warned – it’s over 40 minutes long.)

It is now June, and it remains unclear whether or not construction has actually started on Ark Encounter. AiG’s website says its “construction management team” is still soliciting bids from contractors, suggesting that no real progress will be made anytime soon.

Whoops!  I thought that “construction” meant that earth-moving machines were actually, I don’t know, moving earth and digging holes and that carpenters were actually nailing pieces of wood together and so on.  Apparently, in Ken Ham’s universe, “construction” means… something else.

Well, one thing is for sure: this story won’t end here.  I think Ken Ham is going to try to string both investors and politicians alike along for as long as possible on his sinking Ark Encounter, despite the fact that it should be obvious by now to any reasonable observer that his grasp of finances is about as trustworthy as his grasp of science.

Too bad for the folks who invested in this debacle that they didn’t use a little evidence-based thinking. That’s what you get for faith-based investing, I suppose.

Posted in creationism, economics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

BBC Will No Longer Provide False “Balance” in Science Stories

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 9, 2014

For far too long, the media landscape has increasingly gone down the rabbit hole when discussing science-oriented topics.  Often, the notion that journalists and editors should provide balanced coverage and diverse viewpoints has been abused to the point where pseudo-scientists, cranks, and charlatans are given equal time and (implicitly, at least) equal validity on various news shows and in print.  And this gives the general public a false impression of what is and isn’t science.

This demand by pseudo-scientists for “equal time” is a real problem.  Creationists have been at it for decades in the U.S. public school system, thankfully with little to no success, and many other pseudo-scientists are starting to employ the same tactic.  For example, many news stories in recent years on climate change often include at least one token “skeptic” of global warming.  In addition, this kind of demand for “equal time” pops up in other venues: on at least two occasions, when participating in skeptical and science panels at Dragon*Con and Convergence, our panel was challenged on “why we didn’t include a believer?”  In one case, creationists were demanding a seat on a science panel about evolution and why creationism was problematic, and in the other case, believers in ghosts were demanding a seat on a panel of skeptics who were there to specifically discuss the scientific and cultural reasons why people still believe in ghosts.

The implication by believers in pseudo-science is, I think, that scientists and skeptics have an “ivory tower” mentality and are just trying to talk down to people when, in fact, we are simply attempting to educate them in science and good critical thinking.  And, unfortunately, for far too long the media landscape has given folks like these way too much air and print time to spew their nonsense… until now.

Recently the BBC announced that they will no longer tolerate pseudo-scientific abuse of the idea of providing diverse viewpoints:

BBC staff told to stop inviting cranks on to science programmes

BBC Trust says 200 senior managers trained not to insert ‘false balance’ into stories when issues were non-contentious

BBC journalists are being sent on courses to stop them inviting so many cranks onto programmes to air ‘marginal views’

The BBC Trust on Thursday published a progress report into the corporation’s science coverage which was criticised in 2012 for giving too much air-time to critics who oppose non-contentious issues.

The report found that there was still an ‘over-rigid application of editorial guidelines on impartiality’ which sought to give the ‘other side’ of the argument, even if that viewpoint was widely dismissed.

Some 200 staff have already attended seminars and workshops and more will be invited on courses in the coming months to stop them giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion.’

“The Trust wishes to emphasise the importance of attempting to establish where the weight of scientific agreement may be found and make that clear to audiences,” wrote the report authors.“Science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views but depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given.”

The Trust said that man-made climate change was one area where too much weight had been given to unqualified critics. …

Read the rest of the story here

This is welcome news indeed!  It is my hope that this will be the beginning of a trend by more media outlets to do away with the facade of false “balance” on scientific matters and more good science will be presented as a result.  Stay tuned and we’ll see.

**Hat tip to Tim Farley at for the heads up on this story!  🙂

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

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