The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Ask the U.S. Candidates to Debate Science!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 16, 2016

Last summer I posted about how Science Debate is gearing up for the 2016 elections in the United States, in order to encourage the presidential and Congressional candidates to publicly debate science policy and science-related issues.


Now that the heat of the 2016 U.S. campaign season is upon us, with the first public debates between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump (and possibly Libertarian Gary Johnson) a bit over a month away, it is imperative that we speak out to get the debate hosts and these campaigns to make science a part of these debates. In fact, it isn’t just science geeks like me calling for such a debate, as – according to this 2015 poll – vast majorities of Americans (of all political stripes) wish for such a debate…


“An overwhelming majority of Americans (87%) say it is important that candidates for President and Congress have a basic understanding of the science informing public policy issues, including majorities across the political spectrum (92% of Democrats, 90% of Republicans and 79% of Independents). Americans also say the presidential candidates should participate in a debate to discuss key science-based challenges facing the United States, such as healthcare, climate change, energy, education, innovation and the economy, with  91% of Democrats, 88% of Republicans and 78% of Independents agreeing.”

So please pass the word, sign the Science Debate petition, or donate to the cause. One of the best ways to spread the word is to push for a ground-swell of support on social media and by contacting the campaigns directly. Toward that end, here is some advice from Shawn Otto, the founder of Science Debate…

Please alert your networks. Here is sample tweet language:


or mine:

or Sigma Xi’s

Separately, here’s a tweet from MediaMatters emphasizing our urging of the press to do a better job of covering science, engineering, tech, health & environmental issues this cycle:

When using social media use the #ScienceQs hashtag (hint: search here for other tweets). You may also reference the twitter handles of ScienceDebate and the candidates: @HillaryClinton @realDonaldTrump @GovGaryJohnson @DrJillStein @SciDebate @ShawnOtto @Sheril_ @aaas @theNASEM



A sampling of some of the initial domestic coverage on the questions (which should also be shared on social media – the more this is out there, the more pressure candidates will feel to respond promptly):

News releases by some of the partners:

All best,

Shawn Otto



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

These are the dumbest Clinton conspiracy theories. Ever.

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 10, 2016

It wouldn’t be a true U.S. presidential election season without the obligatory failure of logical and skeptical thinking on the part of those arguing for or against this or that politician. And one of my favorites of failed reasoning is the conspiracy theory, that go-to argument that a die-hard fanatic (of any political leaning) can fall back on when all their other arguments get blown apart. This article from RationalWiki does a good job of outlining the flawed thinking among conspiracy theorists and how to counter their arguments. (Hint: don’t try converting a committed conspiracy theorist, because they’ll likely just dismiss you as being part of the conspiracy. But it’s worth knowing how to identify and counter their nonsense for the benefit of others watching the conversation.)

This year, it seems that politically-oriented conspiracy theories abound. In this post I’m not talking specifically about the rampant conspiracy-mongering espoused by Donald Trump, though there is ample evidence of it (if you’re interested, check out his birther views or his denial of global warming science) and, no doubt, “The Donald” will oblige by providing more such nonsense in the future.

Right now I’m talking about the conspiracy theories that seem to swirl around Bill and Hillary Clinton. There are a lot of them, but my two favorites include one of the oldest and also one of the newest: the first is the claim that Bill Clinton “did away with” a number of people who had evidence of his numerous crimes, while the second is the claim that Hillary Clinton’s current campaign is somehow in cahoots with Google to manipulate Internet searches (ostensibly to cover up her supposed crimes).


[Full disclosure: I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton in either 1992 or 1996 (I voted for Ross Perot both years), and this election season I have been a supporter of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.]

If you come across either one of these conspiracies, here’s a couple of resources to reference in countering them. The first deals with the “Bill Clinton body count” claim (which I’ve seen morphing into a similar claim about Hillary Clinton), and it’s from our skeptical friends at

FALSE: Clinton Body Bags

Decades-old political rumor claims Bill Clinton quietly did away with several dozen people who possessed incriminating evidence about him.

… We shouldn’t have to tell anyone not to believe this claptrap, but we will anyway. In a frenzied media climate where the Chief Executive couldn’t boff a White House intern without the whole world finding out every niggling detail of each encounter and demanding his removal from office, are we seriously to believe the same man had been having double handfuls of detractors and former friends murdered with impunity? …

The claim about Hillary Clinton working in conjunction with Google to manipulate Internet searches is even more silly, because it is so painfully easy to debunk. This article at does an excellent job of quickly and easily dispatching this particular bit of nonsense:

There’s no evidence that Google is manipulating searches to help Hillary Clinton

There’s a video making the rounds purporting to show that Google is suppressing the phrase “Hillary Clinton crimes” from autocomplete results, thereby boosting Clinton’s candidacy.

The video points out that if you type the phrase “Donald Trump rac,” Google will suggest the word “racist” to complete the phrase. But if you type “Hillary Clinton cri,” Google will suggest words like “crime reform” and “crisis” but not “crimes.” This despite the fact that Google Trend results show that people search for “Hillary Clinton crimes” a lot more than “Hillary Clinton crime reform.”

So what’s going on here? The folks behind the video suggest that this reflects an unholy alliance between the Clinton campaign and Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and current chair of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. But there’s a simpler explanation: Choose any famous American who has been accused of a serious crime and Google their name followed by the letters “cri,” and in no case does Google suggest the word “crimes.” That’s true even of people like Kaczynski and Madoff, who are famous only because they faced prosecution for serious crimes.

Apparently, Google has a policy of not suggesting that customers do searches on people’s crimes. I have no inside knowledge of why it runs its search engine this way. Maybe Google is just uncomfortable with having an algorithm suggesting that people search for other people’s crimes.

In any event, there’s no evidence that this is specific to Hillary Clinton, and therefore no reason to think this is a conspiracy by Google to help Clinton win the election.

Now whether or not you plan to vote for Clinton this year is not the point of this post. The point is that you don’t have to make up stupid conspiracy theories to justify your political beliefs. Argue your political point of view, but don’t buy into or spread lies and deceit to justify it.

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Assault on Planned Parenthood is an Anti-Science Attack by Religious Fundamentalists

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2015

For the last month a manufactured controversy has raged about the health-care provider Planned Parenthood. Extremists within the supposed “pro-life”/anti-choice (PLAC) movement (you’ll see why I put “pro-life” in quotes soon enough) have waged a thoroughly discredited campaign to deny Planned Parenthood funding because they claim that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts for profit. Yes, you read that right… and that isn’t the only bone-headed and debunked conspiracy theory from the “pro-life”/anti-choice movement. In this post I will argue that not only is the majority of this movement anti-choice and anti-woman, but it is also driven by religious fundamentalism and is anti-scientific as it attempts to impose a narrow, religiously-based worldview on all of us.

The heart of this manufactured controversy is a series of deceptively edited sting videos from a group misleadingly named the Center for Medical Progress purported to show Planned Parenthood doctors/employees selling baby parts for money. Of course, these videos have been thoroughly analyzed and debunked, and numerous investigations into the matter have provided no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. But in addition, the so-called Center for Medical Progress isn’t what they seem; on this last point, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reveals who is really behind the videos:

…The group behind the manufactured outrage, CMP, is really a front for Live Action, an anti-abortion outfit long associated with the more extreme fringes of the Religious Right. It’s headed by David Daleiden, an associate of Live Action founder Lila Rose; Live Action is responsible for a number of other deceptively edited “stings” that attempted to catch Planned Parenthood staffers engaged in illegal activities.

And Troy Newman, the current president of Operation Rescue, is a CMP board member. Newman once defended Paul Jennings Hill, executed in 2003 for murdering a Pensacola, Fla., abortion provider. Another current Operation Rescue staffer, Cheryl Sullenger, served time in prison for scheming to bomb an abortion clinic in San Diego, Calif. According to watchdog site Media Matters for America (MMFA), Sullenger also corresponded regularly with Scott Roeder, who later murdered Dr. George Tiller for providing abortions. …

So there’s the connection to religious fundamentalism. Of course, one of the more embarrassing things about the religious nature of the PLAC movement is that it’s supposed “pro-life” stance isn’t consistent with the Bible; for example, take a look at numerous sections of the Bible where God apparently condones abortion or how the PLAC movement has attempted to edit the Bible to make it more in line with their ideology.

As for the anti-science side of things, there is evidence aplenty to show how the PLAC ignores and distorts science in an attempt to push its religious dogma. For example, they conveniently ignore the fact that the family planning and birth control services that Planned Parenthood offers significantly reduce the need for abortion in the first place

PP birth control

Not only that, most of the PLAC movement is fervently opposed to the use of birth control; in fact they’ll make crazy and thoroughly false claims that birth control actually increases the need for abortion. But don’t take it from me, take it from a former insider with the PLAC movement who left when she realized they were more about controlling women’s sexuality than anything else:

The Real Solution: Birth Control

But if banning abortion does not decrease abortion rates, what does? Why do some countries have low abortion rates while others have much higher rates? The answer, I found, was simple.

“Both the lowest and highest subregional abortion rates are in Europe, where abortion is generally legal under broad grounds. In Western Europe, the rate is 12 per 1,000 women, while in Eastern Europe it is 43. The discrepancy in rates between the two regions reflects relatively low contraceptive use in Eastern Europe, as well as a high degree of reliance on methods with relatively high user failure rates, such as the condom, withdrawal and the rhythm method.”

As I sat there in the student union reading over my lunch, I found that making birth control widespread and easily accessible is actually the most effective way to decrease the abortion rate. Even as I processed this fact, I knew that the pro-life movement as a whole generally opposes things like comprehensive sex education and making birth control available to teenagers. I knew this because I had lived it, had heard it in pro-life banquet after pro-life banquet, had read it in the literature. The pro-life movement is anti-birth-control. And opposing birth control is pretty much the most ineffective way to decrease abortion rates imaginable. In fact, opposing birth control actually drives the abortion rates up.

As I mulled this over, I realized how very obvious it was. The cause of abortions is unwanted pregnancies. If you get rid of unwanted pregnancies the number of people who seek abortions will drop like a rock. Simply banning abortion leaves women stuck with unwanted pregnancies. Banning abortion doesn’t make those pregnancies wanted. Many women in a situation like that will be willing to do anything to end that pregnancy, even if it means trying to induce their own abortions (say, with a coat hanger or by drinking chemicals) or seeking out illegal abortions. I realized that the real way to reduce abortion rates, then, was to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And the way to do that is with birth control, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies by allowing women to control when and if they become pregnant. …

Beyond opposing birth control, the PLAC movement is also anti-scientific in the sense of their opposition to Planned Parenthood having any relation to fetal tissue research. Despite the noise and gross rhetoric coming from the PLAC, what is happening is that sometimes, with the consent of the patient, Planned Parenthood will donate fetal tissue to research organizations for the purposes of finding medical cures. Fortunately, while some in the PLAC movement are calling for such research to be outlawed, the record is clear that even many of their political allies support such research, and the scientific community is rallying around protecting the vital, life-saving work.

Last, but not least, is the inherent hypocrisy of the supposed “pro-life” side of the PLAC movement (hence the quotes). If the PLAC were really about “saving the unborn”, the following facts show how empty and vacuous are their real intentions. First, they do not care to advocate for any research into saving zygotes from miscarriages (what can arguably be called a “natural abortion”); again, from a former PLAC insider:

… A few months after reading Sarah’s article I came upon one by Fred Clark. In it, he argues that if those who oppose abortion really believe that every fertilized egg is a person we ought to see 5K fundraisers to save these zygotes. This is very much like what I said above, except that the focus here is whether the 50% of all zygotes – 50% of all fertilized eggs – that die before pregnancy even begins could be saved. Fred suggests that if the pro-life movement really is about saving unborn babies, and if those in the pro-life movement really do believe that life begins at fertilization, then pro-lifers really ought to be extremely concerned about finding a way to save all of these lives. But they’re not. …

… Reading Fred’s article compounded what I had felt reading Sarah’s article. The pro-life movement is not about “saving unborn babies.” It can’t be. As someone who as a child and teen really did believe that life – personhood – began at fertilization, and who really was in it to “save unborn babies,” this is baffling. If I had known all this, I would have been all for this sort of research. I would have been all for sexually active women using the pill to cut down on “deaths.” But I didn’t know any of this. The adults of the anti-abortion movement, though, and certainly the leaders, they surely must know these things. This isn’t rocket science, after all. They must know these things, and yet they are doing nothing.

And if that isn’t enough, there’s this another, utterly damning fact: if “human life begins at conception” and “all [human] life is sacred”, then why isn’t the PLAC doing anything to save all the frozen embryos left over after in-vitro fertilization sessions? I would argue that the answer is disturbingly simple: the PLAC movement isn’t truly “pro-life” as it proclaims, it’s about controlling women’s sexuality…

… The disparity between how the law treats abortion patients and IVF patients reveals an ugly truth about abortion restrictions: that they are often less about protecting life than about controlling women’s bodies. Both IVF and abortion involve the destruction of fertilized eggs that could potentially develop into people. But only abortion concerns women who have had sex that they don’t want to lead to childbirth. Abortion restrictions use unwanted pregnancy as a punishment for “irresponsible sex” and remind women of the consequences of being unchaste: If you didn’t want to endure a mandatory vaginal ultrasound , you shouldn’t have had sex in the first place. …

Fortunately, despite the manufactured outrage on the part of the PLAC movement and its political allies, there is reason to hope. As I’ve stated, upon closer analysis the arguments and the methods of the PLAC movement are utterly falling apart. In addition, contributions to Planned Parenthood have skyrocketed and poll after poll show that far more Americans approve of the work done by Planned Parenthood than those who oppose it. Last, but not least, political support for a government shutdown over this issue is losing steam in Congress, and the Obama administration is investigating potentially illegal denial of funds to Planned Parenthood.

So, apparently the forces of reason, rationality, and science are fighting back vigorously. Whether you personally support or oppose abortion, I think one thing we can agree on is that distorting science, sensationalizing, and lying is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse.

Lastly, I would argue that to be pro-active against this sort of nonsense we should all be more politically active, and we should demand that our elected leaders are held to account for their non-scientific views; a good resource for this is the Science Debate initiative. Then, vote. Then, pay attention to whether or not those leaders are sticking with good science or pushing a non-scientific, religiously-driven agenda. And hold them accountable.

Now get out there and fight.

Posted in conspiracy theories, medical woo, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Science Debate is Back and Gearing Up for the 2016 Elections!

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 24, 2015

[**Update (8-16-15): The recent manufactured controversy over the funding of Planned Parenthood is an excellent example of how anti-science has crept into U.S. politics. For more details on that, see this more recent post🙂 ]

You may recall that in the 2008 and 2012 national election cycles, a new and extremely important effort to inject some serious discussion of scientific topics was introduced: Science Debate. The whole point of Science Debate is to get the presidential candidates (as well as other politicians) talking about science and science-related topics, so that the public can make informed decisions. And with the 2016 elections coming up next year, it’s time to get the word out about Science Debate and its place in the political discourse of the country. So please, read more about Science Debate below, sign their petition, submit questions you’d like addressed, spread the word, and donate to support this worthy cause!


About Science Debate:

Science Debate is a 501(c)(3) organization cofounded and run by volunteer citizens from a variety of walks of life who share the common vision of Thomas Jefferson that “Whenever the people are well-informed, the can be trusted with their own government.” In an age when science influences every aspect of life and lies at the heart of many of our thorniest policy challenges, we believe that candidates for office should be debating and discussing these issues, just like they debate and discuss economics, foreign policy, and even faith. Science Debate is dedicated to elevating science and engineering questions in our national civic dialogue.

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

Satanic Temple Convinces Florida School District that Church-State Separation is a Good Thing

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 17, 2015

In recent years, the Satanic Temple has been getting more and more attention as they have been attempting to make themselves more visible in the public eye. In fact, they’ve taken a page from the tactics employed by many Christian churches, and they have begun to demand a place in erecting holiday displays, advocating for religious monuments on public land, and even distributing literature at public schools.

And it’s that last point which is so interesting and ironic: last fall a judge ruled that religious pamphlets could be handed out in public schools in Orange County, Florida. School officials seemed just fine with this scheme as long as it was only Christian literature and Bibles that were handed out to kids, but then along came the Satanic Temple…

Satanists victorious in wild scheme to disrupt Florida school district’s Bible plan

In September of last year the Satanic Temple revealed plans to disseminate the “Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities,” to kids in a Florida school district.

The Satanic Temple along with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) were responding to a ruling, which let the Orange County school district allow religious and atheist organizations to distribute materials — including bibles and other pamphlets — in public schools.

Since religious and atheist materials could be handed out, the Satanic Temple made a request to hand out the aforementioned activity book, while the Freedom From Religion Foundation planned to hand out a pamphlet describing the bible as an “X-rated book.”

Now, the Satanic Temple’s request has the school district rethinking its policy, and the district is currently putting the distribution of all religious paraphernalia on hold, according to WFTV-TV.

“We don’t want our schools to become religious battlefields,” David Williamson, of FFRF, told WFTV-TV. “We’ve advocated all along to close the forum.”

So in a hilarious and embarrassing turnabout, the school district did what they probably should have done all along: they decided that in order to respect the separation of church and state they should probably just not allow any religious organizations to distribute literature in the public schools.

In closing, I think it’s fair to say that a picture is worth a thousand words🙂


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

Anti-Science and Science Denial: It Isn’t Just for the Political Right?

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 4, 2014

I have used up many electrons on this blog discussing the problem of anti-science and science denial regarding creationist and climate science denier movements.  I have also discussed many times about how those movements seek to destroy the credibility of science in order to prop up either their religious or political worldviews, which usually tend to be quite right-wing in nature.

However, lest we cease to be critical thinkers about the problem of anti-science and science denial, let us not over simplify the issue in to being a problem of only the political right.  Case in point: many of the worst of the anti-vaccination movement (AVM) are strongly left-leaning in their politics.  This is emphasized rather hilariously in this recent Daily Show segment:

An Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy


 No, this chart isn’t the idiocy.  The idiotic part is that anyone would seriously deny that vaccinations are the reason why these deadly diseases went away.

In the segment, the Daily Show interviewer discusses the topic of vaccines with someone who can only be described as an ideological science-denier… who is on the political left.  I really like how Orac at Respectful Insolence breaks this down:

In the piece, in particular Bee makes fun of a crunchy lifestyle blogger, Sarah Pope, who, after establishing her liberal-crunchy bona fides (after Bee’s amusing prompts, of course), rattles off pretty much every antivaccine trope and bit of misinformation and pseudoscience in the antivaccine canon, claiming herd immunity is myth, that vaccines cause autism, that they don’t work, etc., etc., ad nauseam. Yesterday, Pope wrote about the interview thusly:

” “The Epidemic of Idiocy” that The Daily Show segment labels the no-vaccination movement is head scratching given that the anti-vaccine movement is being led by the most educated in our society.

Are all those parents with college degrees, master’s degrees, PhDs and, yes, even many MDs that are saying no to shots for their kids complete idiots?

Highly doubtful!

No-vax parents aren’t the real “science deniers”. In fact, they the ones most interested in the science because they are digging into the research and demanding unbiased, objective data to support vaccination, not the slanted version presented by the CDC and conventional pediatricians like Dr. Offit who makes millions supporting the very industry that handsomely maintains his lifestyle.”

Uh, no.

No matter how much Ms. Pope wants to claim the mantle of science through the University of Google, she and her fellow antivaccine activists are just as antiscience as anthropogenic global climate change denialists and creationists (a.k.a., evolution denialists). They also share another important trait with people holding those antiscience beliefs. They’re just really, really good atmotivated reasoning, and one reason they’re so good at motivated reasoning is because they are educated and smart, which is why vaccine denialists and other science denialists are sometimes referred to as “smart idiots.” It’s a very apt term. I do, however thank The Daily Showfor making me aware of Ms. Pope. Her blog looks like—shall we say?—a highly “target-rich” environment for potential future blog posts.

However, we should take care to not oversimplify the AVM and the political affiliations of its adherents, because while there are many AVMers who are left-wing, there is also a strong (and apparently growing) right-wing element to vaccine denial.  More from Orac:

However, there is also a very strong strain of antivaccine views on the right as well, including General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation, far right libertarians, and others who distrust the government, including government-recommended vaccine schedules.

Indeed, many of the the antivaccine people and groups whom I monitor tend to be anything but liberal politically. For example, The Canary Party, a rabidly antivaccine group that pushes the idea that toxins in vaccines are responsible for autism and all sorts of health issues and that autism “biomed” quackery is the way to cure vaccine injury recently teamed up with the East Bay Tea Party to oppose vaccine mandates in California. Moreover, the Canary Party has also recently been sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers, Jennifer Larson, contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Fortunately, Issa’s hearing in 2012 was a bust.

So what are we to conclude about this question of anti-vaccination and political affiliation?  Well, the answer appears to be “not much” because it seems the question hasn’t been rigorously studied…

Unfortunately, there aren’t actually a lot of good data examining whether there is a correlation between political affiliation and anti-vaccine views. I blogged about this very issue a three years ago, discussing an article by Chris Mooney looking at polling data and doing the best he could to characterize the politics of vaccine denialism.

At this point, about the only thing I can say is that regardless of the political motivations of those who buy into and promote the dangerous nonsense espoused by the AVM, their lies and pseudoscience must be countered.  So how do we do that?  How do we in the skeptical and pro-science movement formulate an effective message to counter the AVM’s noise and misinformation?  Well, I am happy to say that last year a study was published (via the JREF and Women Thinking, Inc.) on this very question.  Please give it a look🙂

Posted in medical woo, politics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

How Secularists Should Respond to the SCOTUS Ruling on Sectarian Prayer at Government Meetings

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 7, 2014

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard the news about Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows sectarian prayers at government meetings.  My skeptical colleague Hemant Mehta at the Friendly Atheist has an excellent breakdown on the background of this case – check it out here.

Essentially, the SCOTUS ruled that explicitly Christian and other sectarian prayers are allowed in the opening of local government meetings (just as they have been for years in the federal and state legislatures) under the Constitution.  Regarding this ruling, I think the devil is in the details; specifically, the SCOTUS did not rule that only Christian prayers were allowed.  It ruled that sectarian prayers are allowed… from any religion (or non-religion)… which means that anyone can make a motion to pray at such meetings.  Further, Justice Kennedy stated in his opinion that:

“If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

Whoops, that’s already happened; just look at how there are some self-righteous fundamentalist religious jerks who misinterpret this ruling as saying that “only Christian prayers are allowed” – which is exactly the kind of thing more reasonably-minded members of the SCOTUS noted might happen.  Indeed, the problem here is that this ruling has a huge potential to cause even greater religious animosity and division at the same time our country is becoming ever more (non)religiously diverse (with as many as 20% claiming “no religion”).  Specifically, Justice Kagan said:

“The monthly chaplains appear almost always to assume that everyone in the room is Christian. … The Town itself has never urged its chaplains to reach out to members of other faiths, or even to recall that they might be present. And accordingly, few chaplains have made any effort to be inclusive; none has thought even to assure attending members of the public that they need not participate in the prayer session. Indeed, as the majority forthrightly recognizes, when the plaintiffs here began to voice concern over prayers that excluded some Town residents, one pastor pointedly thanked the Board “[o]n behalf of all God-fearing people” for holding fast, and another declared the objectors “in the minority and … ignorant of the history of our country.””

So… what is a secularist to do?  Shall we bemoan our fate, lamenting that “this was another win for the religious right”?  I think not.  In fact, I think this ruling can lead to a really big problem for the religious right; but don’t take it from me, take it from an evangelical Christian writer (and constitutional scholar) for Christianity Today magazine:

“So what’s the harm of government prayer? First, it leaves a few deeply resentful, with hearts hardened to Christianity. One need look no further than the two complainants here. Many more of our fellow citizens are confused about evangelical methods and motives when we hitch our wagon to Caesar, and they are misled about the nature of Christ’s invitation and a person’s freedom in response to him. Moreover, because what goes around comes around, municipalities in less friendly territory than Greece, New York, will seize this newly approved legality and use it to offer up invocational prayers that will be unrecognizable to evangelicals. Already this is occurring in the Town of Greece, where a Wiccan priestess has offered up prayers to Athena and Apollo. An atheist has also petitioned, by appealing to “inclusion,” that she be allowed to take a turn at rendering the invocation. She did so, not because she wanted to pray, to protest the city policy by rendering it absurd. The Supreme Court’s ruling means we will be seeing more of this mischief.” [emphasis added]

Did you hear that?  Mischief!  :)


At the next county board meeting, ask if you can get a “Hail Satan!” (image source)

And he’s right.  Now that the SCOTUS has explicitly opened the door to sectarian (note, that’s a different word that “Christian”) prayers, then all those Christians who so badly wanted to win this case had better be prepared for people of other religious (or non-religious) beliefs to come calling for their turn to give invocations at local government meetings.  I’m guessing they won’t be too happy to have a Muslim imam, Jewish rabbi, Hindu priest, or humanist/atheist open with a prayer or statement; just look at how they threw a hissy-fit when a Hindu priest opened a session of the U.S. Senate with a prayer:

Well, these conservative Christians had better get used to it, because plenty of highly non-Christian folks are now more than ready to start attending local government meetings with the express purpose of opening them with non-Christian prayers/invocations.  For example:

**The American Humanist Association is planning to launch a program to “provide resources for atheists and humanists to deliver secular invocations during legislative meetings.”

**The Freedom From Religion Foundation has already announced “Nothing Fails Like A Prayer”, a nationwide contest for the best secular invocation delivered at a government meeting.

**And the Satanic Temple (yes, the same one that is petitioning to erect a statue of Satan outside the Oklahoma state house under their “religious monument” law) is getting in on the act, too.  In fact, they’ve already got the following prayer/invocation ready to go:

“Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds in darkened times. Let us embrace the Luciferian impulse to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and dissipate our blissful and comforting delusions of old. Let us demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms and illusory categorizations. Let us reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things, holding fast only to that which is demonstrably true. Let us stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens the personal sovereignty of One or All. That which will not bend must break, and that which can be destroyed by truth should never be spared its demise. It is Done. Hail Satan.”

I have a message for all the conservative Christians hailing this ruling: Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it  :)



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

Four Big Tax Myths

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 17, 2014

Here in the United States we just finished tax season (the deadline for filing passed on the 15th of April). I don’t usually talk about economic issues here, because I’m a science guy not a money guy, but my skeptical colleague and friend Jamie Berstein from Skepchick knows money, economics, and taxes way better than me, and she recently wrote a killer blog post on tax myths. Read on🙂

4 Myths about Taxes

If you’re living and working in the U.S. then you know today is that most infamous of “holidays,” Tax Day. You are either rushing to finish your taxes and get it to the post office before they close or are smugly sitting back and relaxing because you finished your taxes ahead of time to avoid the last-minute rush.

As one of the latter who already received and spent most of my refund weeks ago on new clothes and buying the geeky t-shirt quilt Mary made to raise money for SkepchickCON (which my cat has since claimed for himself — See featured photo), I thought today would be a perfect day to bust some myths about taxes. These are meant to apply only to tax system of the U.S. though there may be parallels to systems used in other countries.

Myth #1: Progressive income tax systems encourage people to work less or avoid promotions because if you make enough more money to cross into a higher tax bracket, you’ll actually be taking home less money after paying taxes.

Myth #2: Flat taxes are fairer because everyone pays the same amount.

Myth #3: No-income tax states have low taxes and still manage to get by just fine. They are proof that we can still have a thriving economy while keeping taxes low.

Myth #4: Tax Deductions are a way for the government to save people money without spending any money.

For full details and explanations, read Jamie’s full post at Skepchick.

Posted in economics, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fight Against Cancer Quack Burzynski Goes to Congress

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 8, 2014

Last year I blogged about how this blog has joined a coalition of skeptical blogs titled the Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients (SPCP).

The impetus for this is a particularly loathsome man – Stanislaw Burzynski – who is a quack that promises to cure people of their cancer, despite the fact that decades of research show that his claimed cancer cures don’t work.  Unfortunately, Burzynski has been able to skirt common decency, good medical science, and the FDA regulators and continue to practice his quackery, resulting in an unfortunate number of people going to him in the hopes that he can cure them.  A good rundown of Burzynski’s history of fraud can be found by listening to this recent podcast of Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the SPCP has decided to take down Burzynski due to the particularly flagrant manner in which he practices his dangerous pseudoscience; it will also serve as a message to all other medical quacks and charlatans to be on notice because we in the skeptical community are watching.

Burzynski SI Title

Well, now things are going to the next level – straight to Congress.  Burzynski has been able to get away with so much for so long because he has political allies in high places, so we’ve decided to fight fire with fire.  My skeptical colleagues at the SPCP have put together a petition asking Congress to step in and force the FDA to do its job and properly investigate, regulate, and (hopefully) put out of business Burzynski and his quack clinic.

Please consider signing and passing along this petition; the text of the petition follows – click here to sign:

Protect Desperate Patients from the Houston Cancer Quack

Petition by Skeptics for the Protection of Cancer Patients

We are writing to request your urgent attention to a matter that involves the exploitation of cancer patients, their families, and their communities.

For nearly 40 years, Houston cancer doctor Stanislaw Burzynski has been treating cancer patients with an unproven chemotherapy he calls “antineoplastons.” Following an agreement in the 1990s with the FDA, he has recently only been able to administer the drug under the auspices of clinical trials. For this questionable treatment, he charges patients exorbitant fees (often hundreds of thousands of dollars) to participate in a trial, and he claims to cure the most difficult, almost uniformly fatal pediatric brain cancers. His claims are not supported by science and evidence; despite opening more than 60 trials in the last 15 years, he has not published the results of a single completed clinical trial.

On Friday, November 15, 2013, many concerning issues about Dr. Burzynski were detailed in a front-page exposé in USA Today, including his past use of antineoplastons as an AIDS and Parkinson’s treatment. Sickeningly, critics of the Clinic have found a pattern going back 20 years of patients publicly celebrating unambiguous signs of disease progression as signs that antineoplastons were working.

The FDA recently released site inspection notes about Stanislaw Burzynski’s clinic. Their findings were horrific:

— Burzynski “failed to protect the rights, safety, and welfare of subjects under your care.”
— “Forty-eight (48) subjects experienced 102 investigational overdoses“
— Burzysnki allowed overdoses continue: “Overdose incidents have been reported to you [….] There is no documentation to show that you have implemented corrective actions during this time period to ensure the safety and welfare of subjects.”
— All baseline tumor measurements were destroyed: “Your […] tumor measurements initially recorded on worksheets at baseline and on-study treatment […] studies for all study subjects were destroyed and are not available for FDA inspectional review.” Without any measurement there is no way to determine any actual efficacy of the treatment, making Burzynski’s claims unsupported and unpublishable.
— Burzynski’s reported success rates are inflated: He “failed to comply with protocol requirements related to the primary outcome, therapeutic response […] for 67% of study subjects reviewed during the inspection.” Nonetheless, these inaccurate outcomes are used to convince dying patients antineoplastons can save them.

Other issues cited by the FDA included:

— Paying patients who failed to meet the inclusion criteria for the study were admitted to Burynski’s trials;
— Burzynski did not report all adverse events as required by his study protocols, and many exhibiting toxic effects were not removed from treatment;
— Adverse events were not reported in a timely fashion (in one case 7 years);
— The FDA received two different versions of a pediatric patient’s records during an inspection, especially significant because the child apparently died of a known side effect of antineoplastons.

Shockingly, these observations were made after a decade of abysmal site reviews by the FDA. Currently, Burzynski’s trials are subject to a partial clinical hold, which means Burzynski is still treating patients already on his protocol.

We are asking that you:

— Encourage the FDA to dissolve the Burzynski Research Institute’s clearly deficient Institutional Review [ethical oversight] Board and toplace a permanent hold on any more cancer patients receiving antineoplastons;
— Investigate how Burzynski has been allowed to conduct experiments on pediatric cancer patients while repeatedly cited for violating rules designed to prevent uncontrolled human experimentation.
— Investigate why the FDA allowed this abysmal researcher to advance to phase 3 clinical trials without publishing a single phase 2 trial;
— Protect cancer patients from abuse through legislation and FDA oversight reform.

Please help end a medical ethics scandal that involves eight times as many patients as the Tuskegee Experiment. I look forward to your response on this important matter.

Click here to Sign the Petition!

Posted in medical woo, politics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Evolution and Creationism in 2013: The Year in Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 4, 2014

If you know anything about the evolution-creationism battle in the United States, you know that it is a long-running one.  You also know that the issue is heavily influenced by religious outlook (or lack thereof) and politics.  Some recent polling data has provided some very revealing information about trends in the U.S. on these issues: and a deeper analysis yields bad news for the creationists.

First, the poll itself: the Pew Research Center released their poll, titled “Public’s Views on Human Evolution” on Dec. 30th.  And it contains some interesting take-aways:


According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” …

One of the most interesting things to see in this poll is the breakdown of religious and political affiliation:

… These beliefs differ strongly by religious group. White evangelical Protestants are particularly likely to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Roughly two-thirds (64%) express this view, as do half of black Protestants (50%). By comparison, only 15% of white mainline Protestants share this opinion.

There also are sizable differences by party affiliation in beliefs about evolution, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats has grown. In 2009, 54% of Republicans and 64% of Democrats said humans have evolved over time, a difference of 10 percentage points. Today, 43% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats say humans have evolved, a 24-point gap. … [emphasis added]

Perhaps it’s no surprise that evangelical Protestants are the ones who reject evolution the most while the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”) embrace evolution.  The thing that is so surprising about this particular survey is the part I put in bold above: self-identifying Republicans are rejecting evolution in higher and higher numbers.  I think this presents a big problem for the Republican party, and my next discussion point illustrates why. Read the rest of this entry »

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


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