The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘analysis’

The Dead Sea Scrolls and Biblical “Inerrancy”

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 5, 2012

Recently, while on vacation, my wife and I went to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  For those who don’t know, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest known writings of the Old Testament of the Bible in existence.  They are roughly 2000+ years old, and written in a variety of languages; plus, the story of their discovery and excavation is quite fascinating.

Image Source

A few things in particular struck me about the entire exhibit, which included some of the actual scroll fragments (and their translations); specifically, these things I observed about the scrolls seemed to come into direct conflict with the notion of Biblical inerrancy espoused by so many religious fundamentalists these days…

First of all, the fragments were just that… fragments.  The scrolls were terribly decayed and incomplete, which is to be expected after over 2000 years of exposure.  Now this wouldn’t seem to be that much of a big deal, were it not for my other observations…

Second, there was a lot of material within the Dead Sea Scrolls which doesn’t appear within the Old Testament Bible.  In other words, the Old Testament Bible seems to be a whittled down version of these more original writings.  Which begs a question: why did some of this original material make it into the Bible and other material was excluded?  The obvious answer is that at some point, someone (that is, people) had to decide what to include and what to exclude.  In other words, even at the very formation of what we call “The Bible”, it was going through a very real editing process by very real human hands.  And this leads me to my third, and probably most damning, point…

The Dead Sea Scrolls themselves give differing, and even contradictory, accounts of various Old Testament Biblical stories.  That is, they are not even consistent within their own writings, and these are the earliest (and therefore most original) Biblical writings we have!  Why would this be, if the Bible is supposed to be error-free?  The answer is simple, yet difficult for some to accept: the scholars who have painstakingly analyzed the scrolls for decades have found that these writings were written in a variety of different communities by a variety of different authors (most likely local priests or community leaders).  As a result, each author had their own “spin” they wanted to place on various stories, which led some accounts to conflict with other accounts.

The conclusion is obvious: far from being inerrant in nature, the Bible is, and apparently always has been – even back unto the days of the Dead Sea Scrolls before “The Bible” even existed – a work of wholly fallible humans.

Posted in religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Skeptical Teacher Interview on Token Skeptic

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 27, 2011

Based upon my recent blog post concerning using mythology as a critical thinking tool for children, I was interviewed a few days ago by my skeptical colleague Kylie Sturgess of the Token Skeptic podcast.  In the interview we discussed a variety of topics related to this issue, with a touch of fun thrown in for good measure.  Check it out! 🙂

Episode Ninety-Six — On Critical Thinking And Santa (Again) — Interview with Matt Lowry

Posted by Podblack on Sunday, December 25, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 27:59 — 25.6MB) | Embed

Recently Matt Lowry wrote a blog-post on Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids – just as Tim Minchin wrote a piece for the New Statesman about his own efforts to balance a pro-naturalistic worldview and living a life unencumbered by superstition, while raising kids and encouraging a love of fiction.

Matt Lowry is best known as the Skeptical Teacher – a high school physics teacher, plus a part-time physics and astronomy college professor, contributor to the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Group and awesome presenter for kids’ shows at Dragon*Con.

For this interview we talk about all of these things (and whether Santa might actually be a Time Lord with a sleigh made out of quantum-something-or-other).

During the discussion, we also talk about Barbara Drescher’s blog-post at the JREF Swift: An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even JesusHere’s another great link to the Physics of Santa!

Posted in education, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, every year I do a quick physics lesson on Santa Claus, with the result being a devastation of the Santa myth (see my previous post “How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus for more on this 🙂 )  Yeah, I admit it – I’m evil.

Of course, that lesson is more geared towards students who are in their late teenage years, because by then they already know that Santa isn’t real.  So, while the humor involved in my analysis is quite dark (Santa dies pretty spectacularly in the end), there isn’t going to be any real psychological trauma done to my students.

However, this year it got something of a debate going among some of my students.  Some wondered about the appropriateness of sharing such a lesson with young children, who might still harbor a sincere belief in Santa Claus.  Personally, I expressed the view that if I were to try to get my own children (if I had any) to think more critically about the Santa myth, I certainly wouldn’t do it using the same method in my physics classes where he ends up bursting into flames and squashed to jelly by atrociously large g-forces!

So, the question was put to me: “How would you deal with the whole Santa Claus thing if you had kids?”  It is a worthwhile question, because I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to be simply blindly believing in Santa just because all the other kids are doing it.  Chances are, when the kids are of the appropriate age (I’d think 5 or 6 would be about right), I would ask them some leading questions about the nature of Santa.

Specifically, if I were at the mall with one of my children and there were a worker there dressed as Santa meeting with kids (you know the usual scene), I would encourage them to observe Santa closely…

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I would encourage them to note carefully details such as how big is Santa, exactly what is he wearing, and so on.  In order to help them with their observations, I would probably take photos for later analysis.  Then I would make sure to tell them to pay careful attention to Santa’s voice as they sit on his lap to discuss what Santa and kids discuss (I might also record video of the event for this reason).

After that, I would take my children to another mall (because, let’s face it, most of us do our shopping at more than one place, right?).  I would make sure to find the Santa at that second mall, and have my kid go through the entire process again.  And so on.

Then, at a later time, I would take some time to sit down and look over the evidence with my children, leading them through it and noting inconsistencies between the multiple Santas they’ve observed.  This would be especially interesting if we saw more than one in the same night! (“So Dad, how did Santa get from one mall to the other so quickly?” 😉 )

The bottom line here is that I wouldn’t want to come right out and tell my kids that Santa is a myth (though a fun and jolly one at that).  Rather, I would use the entire experience as a lesson for my kids to try thinking it through on their own, making careful observations, weighing the evidence, and drawing the obvious conclusions.  I think this would be a far more useful way to introduce children to the reality that Santa isn’t real, and it would also be an excellent exercise in encouraging critical thinking and skepticism in youngsters.

For more on this topic and approach, I highly recommend reading my colleague Barbara Drescher’s well-written post at the JREF Swift blog titled An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

The Higgs Boson, The “God Particle”, and the March of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 14, 2011

You may have heard the recent news that physicists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider may be narrowing their search for the Higgs Boson.  Here’s an update from The Guardian…

particle collision cern

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at Cern. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

We may have glimpsed the Higgs boson, say Cern scientists

Scientists believe they may have caught their first glimpse of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle that is thought to underpin the subatomic workings of nature.

Physicists Fabiola Gianotti and Guido Tonelli were applauded by hundreds of scientists yesterday as they revealed evidence for the particle amid the debris of hundreds of trillions of proton collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. …

Let me just put a few things into perspective here on this potential (and I stress potential) discovery.  First, the data are rather preliminary, and in order to say for sure that there is solid evidence for the Higgs Boson, there need to be more observations to help shore up the statistical analysis.  In particle physics, it is not uncommon to see the occasional “discovery” that eventually ends up being merely a statistical anomaly, so more data is better to weed out the anomalies.  This section of The Guardian article helps to clarify this point:

… Particle physicists use a “sigma” scale to grade the significance of results, from one to five. One and two sigma results are unreliable because they come and go with statistical fluctuations in the data. A three sigma result counts as an “observation”, while a five sigma result is enough to claim an official discovery. There is less than a one in a million chance of a five sigma result being a statistical fluke.

Gianotti and Tonelli led two separate teams – one using Cern’s Atlas detector, the other using the laboratory’s Compact Muon Solenoid. At their seminar yesterday one team reported a 2.3 sigma bump in their data that could be a Higgs boson weighing 126GeV, while the other reported a 1.9 sigma Higgs signal at a mass of around 124GeV. There is a 1% chance that the Atlas result could be due to a random fluctuation in the data. …

So, by these data, while the 2.3 and 1.9 sigma signals are interesting, they don’t really rise to the level of a solid observation (which, recall, is set at a standard of 3.0 sigma), much less an official discovery.

Also, by “narrowed the search” for the Higgs Boson, what the CERN physicists mean is that they may have narrowed down the energy range in which the Higgs Boson might exist.  So, long story short, while these results are of interest, don’t go popping those champagne corks just yet 🙂

The “God Particle”?

I don’t know about you, but I get kind of annoyed at all of this labeling of the hypothetical Higgs Boson as the “God Particle”.  I see it as the kind of mushing of religion into science that leads to all manner of philosophically-challenged kind of muddy thinking.  First off, depending upon how one defines God (assuming the standard monotheistic version of the Abrahamic god), which is usually defined as a supernatural being, you run into trouble by trying to find natural evidence for a thing which is supposed to be beyond nature.

Second, even if we did discover the Higgs Boson, what would that supposedly tell us about this God?  Presumably various armchair theologians argue that such a discovery would be evidence for their view of God (which also begs the question of whether or not it is evidence for one God versus another God).  The logic here simply escapes me, and it smacks of the usual “everything is evidence for God” kind of argumentation that passes the lips of too many religious people.  And this also brings up a potentially sticky question for the advocates of the “God Particle” label…

What if the Higgs Boson isn’t discovered, despite years of detailed searching?  Will these same armchair theologians suddenly give up their belief in their God because the supposed “Particle” which is his/her/its/their fingerprint upon the cosmos was never there to begin with?  Somehow I don’t think so, because these believers will merely rationalize away the lack of evidence for the “God Particle”.  It is in this sense that I find some people who try to stick the round peg of religion into the square hole of science to be particularly annoying: they want to use science as a method of “proving” their religious beliefs when they think it will work for them, yet they completely dismiss science when it works against them.  It’s simply “heads I win, tails you lose” argumentation, and it is both intellectually lazy and disingenuous.

What if we don’t find the Higgs Boson?  Science will march on…

This is the thing I really like about science: it never ends.  The process of scientific investigation never ceases to ask questions, formulate ideas, and test out those ideas.  I think it is entirely possible that in the search for the Higgs Boson, it will never be found; and what then?  What if we never find it?  Well, that’s when I think things will get really interesting, because that means that much of what we think we know about the Standard Model of physics could very well be wrong.  And that would mean that we need to start looking at things differently; this is, to me, the antithesis of dogmatic thinking, and it shows how science is, collectively, the best mechanism we have for stimulating open and free inquiry of the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong – I would be quite excited if the Higgs Boson were discovered.  But I think I would be much more excited if it weren’t found.  That would certainly open up a lot more questions, wouldn’t it?

To science!  May it march ever onward…

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

 
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