The Skeptical Teacher

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

Archive for the ‘scientific method’ Category

Book Review: “Sharing Reality – How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World”

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 3, 2018

Many of you know that for some time now I’ve been particularly interested in how we skeptics (i.e. those of use who take an evidence-based view of the world) can engage those of a non-skeptical mindset. In fact, I’ve been explicit about this in past musings wherein I discuss how to have meaningful dialogue with creationists or self-declared ghost hunters. Now I am happy to report that there is a book out – Sharing Reality by Jeff T. Haley and Dale McGowan – which tackles exactly this topic in great detail.

As a professional high school and college science educator of 20+ years, and as a self-professed skeptic of all things supernatural, I found that Sharing Reality provided something that many of my colleagues have struggled with: a method for effectively communicating science and critical thinking without alienating people who are reachable. Sharing Reality is a must-read for those proponents of science, adherents to an evidence-based worldview, and defenders of secularism, because it provides a road map for how to engage in productive discussions with those who don’t necessarily share that worldview. If we are serious about advancing science, secularism, and evidence-based critical thinking in general (what the authors refer to as “evidism”) beyond our own echo chambers into wider society, then we would be wise to follow the advice contained within Sharing Reality to start engaging people in broader discussions of these issues.



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The Unexplained: A Skeptical Perspective

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 29, 2016

Recently I was interviewed via Skype by Dan Schneider, author of the long-standing Cosmoetica Blog. I joined Dan and my skeptical colleague James Underdown of the Center For Inquiry and the Independent Investigations Group to discuss the question of the unexplained and how both skeptics and believers approach unexplained phenomena. It was a very fun and wide-ranging interview, and below is the link to the Youtube video that Dan uploaded. Check it out, and feel free to leave any feedback in the comments section below this post 🙂

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“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


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Darwin Day 2014: Science Marches Forward While Creationism Fumbles – Part 2

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 17, 2014

In my previous post, I outlined how creationism got quite a public trouncing in the recent debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham.  Apparently, it’s not only the pro-science crowd that thinks Ham lost hands down; it is worth noting that one of the most infamous modern creationist outlets, the Discovery Institute, has some harsh words for Ham as well.  And if that isn’t enough for you, even conservative evangelical Pat Robertson gets in on the act, criticizing Ham’s idiotic arguments.  Last, but not least, a poll over at the Christianity Today website very clearly states that Bill Nye was the debate winner (by 92 to 8% !!!).

Now, as if this weren’t embarrassing enough for the creationist movement, let us take some time to visit the progress of one of its most touted efforts in recent decades: the Wedge Strategy from the Discovery Institute.


Image source

Josh Rosenau at the National Center for Science Education gives a really nice breakdown of the utter and complete failure of the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Strategy since its inception over 15 years ago:

A Crystal Anniversary for the Wedge Document

… The Wedge Document [an original copy is available here], as the packet came to be known, laid out a bold plan by which the Center would “re-open the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature,” and “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” From its first sentence, the document proclaimed its sectarian goals, stating: “The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.”

In order to achieve this religious revival, the creators of the CRSC proposed a five-year plan, with three phases: “Research, Writing and Publication,” “Publicity and Opinion-making,” and “Cultural Confrontation and Renewal.” Of these, they insisted that the first was most crucial: “Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.”

On this fifteenth anniversary of that five-year plan, it’s worth asking just what the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture has accomplished. They promised at the time, “we can accomplish many of the objectives of Phases I and II in the next five years (1999-2003), and begin Phase III (See ‘Goals/Five Year Objectives/Activities’).”

The Five Year Goals:

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Of these, the first has certainly not happened within science. The second is immeasurable, but hasn’t happened in any obvious way, and to the extent there are new debates in the fields described in the third item, the CRSC seems to have no role to play (aside from sitting on the sidelines and carping). …

These five-year objectives outlined seven topics, of which there are two I’d like to emphasize from Rosenau’s article:

Topic #3. One hundred scientific, academic and technical articles by our fellows [i.e. research fellows with the Discovery Institute]

Rosenau elaborates…

… Unless you count articles published in the various unimpressive and intellectually incestuous ID journals that have come and gone over the years, or include papers that have nothing to do with ID creationism, they haven’t met this standard, either. Even the CRSC’s own list of publications only hits about 75 items, and most of those are not in credible journals, or don’t mean what the Center claims they mean.

Again, the Wedge document opened by insisting that “Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.” By their own standard, the ID creationists have to be judged as engaged in “just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.” …

Ouch, so much for the actual science, of which there appears to be none in favor of so-called ID.  However, as anyone who has followed the Discovery Institute knows, their real goal is to promote so-called “cultural renewal”.

Topic #5: Spiritual & cultural renewal:

  • Mainline renewal movements begin to appropriate insights from design theory, and to repudiate theologies influenced by materialism
  • Major Christian denomination(s) defend(s) traditional doctrine of creation & repudiate(s) Darwinism
  • Seminaries increasingly recognize & repudiate naturalistic presuppositions
  • Positive uptake in public opinion polls on issues such as sexuality, abortion and belief in God

Again, time has shown that on this point the ID-creationists have had no luck, as Rosenau points out…

… Many mainline Protestant churches (and their seminaries) have issued policy statements in favor of evolution in recent years, and against IDC, while the CRSC’s allies in the older creationist organizations have backed away from IDC since its failure in the Dover trial. Public opinion polls show increasing acceptance of marriage equalityviews on abortion are quite stable, and belief in God is declining. …

Rosenau concludes:

… In short, on this crystal anniversary of the Wedge Document, it appears that the C(R)SC staff’s crystal-gazing skills were awful; they essentially achieved none of their goals. …

Or, as I like to put it… Message to the Discovery Institute:


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Darwin Day 2014: Science Marches Forward While Creationism Fumbles – Part 1

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 12, 2014

This Darwin Day, in celebration of the birthday of Charles Darwin, I would like to pause and reflect upon two recent bits of news related to the ongoing battle against creationism.  In this first of two posts, I want to note that our friends from the National Center for Science Education have highlighted the recent debate between Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and Ken Ham.

darwin change

The NCSE’s Josh Rosenau gives a quick breakdown of the Nye vs. Ham debate.  Honestly, this was a debate of which I was highly skeptical, seeing as how I tend to come from the “don’t debate creationists” school of thought; however, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how well Nye handled it.  I shall post below some select parts of Josh’s analysis; for the full story check out Josh’s post on it…

How Bill Nye Won the Debate

In tonight’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the Science Guy went on stage equipped with the most vital tool of all in any oral debate over evolution and creationism: a showman’s flair, developed over three decades of experience explaining science to the broad public.

Of course, he also had the science on his side, which doesn’t hurt. But it isn’t a guarantee of anything in a stage debate: competitive debaters are judged by their ability to argue either side of a question. Debate is a tool for showing who’s a better orator, not necessarily who’s right. … [emphasis added]

The text in bold above is one of my primary criticisms of the typical debate format; that and the fact that it, by default, elevates the two sides to apparent levels of equity (i.e., it gives the uninformed observer the impression that creationism is just as scientifically valid as evolution).  However, what Josh reports next is the saving grace of the entire debate, in my opinion, and can serve as a model for how scientists can and should debate creationists (or pseudoscientists in general) in the future…

… He [Nye] opened by undercutting the core of Ken Ham’s claim to authority, emphasizing that Ken Ham bases his claims not on the empirical evidence, but on a very particular reading of Genesis. And that way of reading Genesis is very specific to Ken Ham, not to most of the world’s religious people, or even Ham’s fellow evangelicals. He never stopped emphasizing that Ham’s theology is an outlier, and that he doesn’t speak for religious people, Christians, evangelicals, or even all creationists.

Throughout, Nye did a great job keeping the focus on the failures of Ken Ham’s creation model, and the key ways in which it fails to provide any sort of viable explanation for the world around us. A good, viable model has to make real predictions, he emphasized; those predictions can’t be wrong, and a viable model has to be of practical value. In various ways, Ken Ham’s creation model fails on all three prongs. … [emphasis added]

The two lines of bold text are critical points: they show that Nye absolutely refused to play into the typical creationist debate gambit of being pushed to “defend evolution”.  Instead, Nye chose to attack creationism as an extreme form of theology (especially Ham’s variation) which is only one kind of creationism among many, and he then went on to point out the fundamental flaws in Ham’s creationist model, namely that creationism isn’t science at all!

This two-pronged attack on creationism was, in my view, devastating to Ham’s arguments in particular and creationism in general.  That is because it shifts the argument away from evolution having to justify itself to creationism having to justify itself.  I especially like how Nye emphasized the connection of aspects of evolutionary science to important and practical uses in our everyday lives with this…

… Then he [Nye] made the crucial point that Ken Ham’s creation model requires us to reject basic science we all rely on every day. The radioisotope dating methods Ken Ham dismisses are based on the same basic physics that nuclear medicine relies in to save lives. Is it a coincidence, Nye asked, that there are no training programs in nuclear medicine available anywhere in Kentucky? …

Or, as I like to put it, if there really is something to creationism as a “science”, then why hasn’t it been used to develop any medicines, vaccines, or other practical technologies?  And, just to stick it to the creationists even more, I’d like to point out that evolutionary science has done all that and more!

I won’t call the debate a slam dunk for science, because – as we all know – many creationists tend to be unsinkable ducks; no matter how much evidence you amass against their position, no matter what fatal flaws are exposed within their arguments, many of them will simply fall back upon the ol’ “God did it!” routine as a line of last defense.  However, I think that Bill Nye has shown us a road-map of how to proceed in future public engagements with creationists and give those people on the fence some serious food for thought.

Perhaps I will debate a creationist in public, after all 🙂

In part 2 of “Science Marches Forward While Creationism Fumbles”, I will explore the massive failure of the Discovery Institute’s Wedge Strategy

Posted in creationism, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

DragonCon 2013 Skeptrack Panel – Limits of Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 6, 2013

The second panel in which I participated this past Labor Day weekend at DragonCon was a Skeptrack panel titled “Limits of Skepticism”.  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.  In this discussion we ranged far and wide on the question of what is skepticism, what are the tools of skepticism, what are the limits of skepticism, and how skepticism can apply beyond the so-called “traditional” topics (UFOs, Bigfoot, creationism, etc).  I recorded the audio of the panel and share it with you below – enjoy!

DragonCon 2013 Skeptrack – Limits of Skepticism

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Ken Ham Drops All Pretense and Admits Creationism Isn’t Scientific

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2013

Wow.  Advocates of science and skepticism have been saying it for a really, really long time: creationism (including its latest variation, “intelligent design“) is not scientific and therefore has no place in the public school science classroom.

Well, get ready for a bombshell.  Now one of the most prominent young-Earth creationists out there, Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis fame, has openly admitted that creationism is not science.  In fact, he basically goes on to say that if you are given a choice between science and (his particular interpretation of) the Bible, then you should choose the latter.

Read on for more details, including a video wherein Ham says as much in his own words:

Creationism Advocate Admits That Science Proves Evolution, But Says We Should Believe The Bible Anyway (VIDEO)


They are doing this because they oppose the scientifically supported process known as evolution. Creationism advocates usually contend that evolution is full of holes. Of course, the great majority of scientists, nearly all of them in fact, support evolution. Supporters of creationism believe that every word in the Bible is the only factual description of reality, therefore blatantly ignoring reason and logic.

But a radio ad for the Creationism Museum in Kentucky operated by Answers in Genesis President Ken Ham blew a major hole in the creationism effort on Thursday. Ham admitted that there is ZERO scientific evidence to support creationism, although he still contends that the Bible is evidence enough to force people to learn about it.

“We have solid proof in our hands that evolution is a lie: the Bible. You see, we can’t depend solely on our reasoning ability to convince skeptics. We present the evidence and do the best we can to convince people the truth of God by always pointing them to the Bible.”

Here’s the video via Raw Story:

All I can say now is two things: 1) this shows, clearly and for all to see, that at its heart creationism is fundamentally anti-science.  It seems that Ken Ham and his ilk see science as “the enemy”, so this confirms what I and many others have said for a long time: the spread of creationism is a threat not only to evolution but to all of science.  Think about the implications of that for a bit before you blithely dismiss creationists as random nutters.

And 2) this admission by Ken Ham is going to play hell with the attempts by outfits like the Discovery Institute to try promoting “intelligent design” or any other variation of creationism in public school science classes.  I have to think that Ken Ham’s open and honest admission is probably not going to be liked much by those who have tried a variety of cynical strategies in the past to try dressing up creationism in the language of science.  This might even cause a bit of a dust-up in creationist circles, which is fine by me 🙂

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SkepchickCON-CONvergence 2013 Day Three – Ask A Scientist

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2013

On my third and final day at  SkepchickCONCONvergence 2013, I participated in the “Ask A Scientist” panel.  This was a general Q & A between the audience and expert scientists from a variety of fields.

I moderated the panel, and my co-panelists for this discussion were Laura Okagaki, Lori Fischer, Tom Mahle, Siouxsie Wiles, PZ Myers, Indre Viskontas, Nicole Gugliucci, Bridget Landry, and Bug Girl.  Check out the audio of the panel below, and enjoy!  🙂

SkepchickCON-CONvergence 2013 – Ask A Scientist


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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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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 


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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