The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘blog’

Politics and Gas Prices Redux: “Obama Has Doubled the Cost of Gas”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 17, 2012

As a brief follow up to my recent post titled Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction, I wanted to pass along some deeper analysis that my fellow skeptical blogger Phil over at Skeptic Money did.  It puts a bit more meat on the bones of my previous argument that (duh!) the President of the United States actually has very little power to affect the price of gasoline at the pump.  Read on…

Obama Has Doubled The Cost Of Gas

Blog idea from The Skeptical Teacher. [That’s me :)]

This is one of the new right-wing talking points. The interesting point is that it’s true.  Well, the part that the cost of gasoline going up.  However, Obama had nothing to do with it.

“Gas prices since Obama took office have risen by 103.79 percent. No other presidents in recent years have struggled as much with soaring oil prices.” – US News

Here is a graph from DShort.com.

Notice the green line.  It is the price of oil.  In 2008 while the recession was going strong the price of oil was bid up to almost $150 per barrel by crazed speculators.  When the speculators faced the fact of decreased demand due to a global recession the price of oil collapsed to around $40 per barrel.  The result is a dramatic drop in the cost of all things that come from oil – including gasoline.

Obama took office on January 20, 2009 at the very bottom of the price drop.  Many countries are doing much better now than in 2008-9 and global demand has increased.

Just the other day someone told me that the price of oil was going up because Obama was limiting the production of oil.  I thought he was full of crap so I went and searched out the facts for myself.  If you ever want data on energy production go to eia.gov.

I found this specific data that shows US Crude Oil production.  In 2008 (The year before Obama became president) the US produced 4,950,000 barrels per day.  In 2011 the US produced 5,659,000 barrels per day.  An increase of 14.3%.

They also claimed that Obama has reduced off shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  In 2008 The US produced 1,152,000 barrels per day and in 2011 it was 1,318,000.  Wrong on both accounts.

Their third claim was that more off shore drilling would reduce the cost of gasoline and maybe back to what it was 3 years ago.  The US produced 5,659,000 barrels per day in 2011 and 23% (1,318,000 / 5,659,000) from the Gulf.  US oil production is about 11.6% of the worlds total oil supply.  If the Gulf is 23% of this total and you doubled this amount (this could take 10-20 years) then that would increase world production by less than 3%.  I’m sure that this hypathetical and dramatic increase would lower the cost of gas.  However, I would guess by $0.10 to $0.15 per gallon. [emphasis added]

Posted in conspiracy theories, economics, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Science Does “All the Damn Work”

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 16, 2012

From my skeptical colleague and fellow blogger Steve over at TreeLobsters.com…

‘Nuff said 🙂

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

The Difference Between Science and Pseudoscience: A Humorous Lesson via the “Faster-Than-Light” Neutrinos

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 11, 2012

Okay, I was just browsing online a bit, and I came across this funny little gem.  Yeah, I had to share it, because it makes a really good point about the difference between science and pseudoscience/religion…

NewTrinos

by Nadir on March 9, 2012 at 8:14 am

newtrinos

A lifetime ago by internet reckoning and two weeks ago via calendar, news came of the faulty cable/GPS-sync connection as a possible reason for the Faster-Than-Light Neutrino scandal of late 2011. This is not yet completely confirmed but I won’t say I’m not going to be disappointed if this is verified as the cause, though it seems likely. It’s anticlimactic. Not that anyone actually expected FTL travel here, I was at least hoping for a more interesting explanation for the error. The 60 nanosecond fast data is apparently explicable as a result of a bad connection between the GPS receiver and an electronic card in the computer.Yawn.

Now, in fairness, no one involved ever claimed FTL travel, only that they got that result. And they kept trying to disprove it. So what I’m saying is if you got overexcited and invested in fraudulent companies such as ‘the Neutrino-Warp-Drive Enterprise” you only have yourself to blame.*

One thing however, did come out of all this that shined a recent if not really new, light on a fundamental difference between science and religion. Many scientists were sought for comment and every one I saw or read, despite being pretty skeptical and awaiting further data, never completely rejected the idea out of hand. Solid, time tested ideas exist in science, and dagnabbit the universal-speed-limit is one of ‘em; but there are still no sacred cows or prophets. Knocking down or modifying a theory (or just trying to) only serves to strengthen the endeavor for truth, and never weakens it. This is the opposite of how religions operate, and anyone trying to make science and religion comparable, as seen in arguments time and again, has to deal with this massive cleavage.

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo, religion, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2012

I wrote another article for the JREF Swift Blog recently, and this one focused on science, philosophy, and religion.  It gets to a pretty fundamental question regarding those three endeavors, and I wanted to share it with you here.  Enjoy!

Can Science Test the Validity of the Supernatural?

Those of us who consider ourselves skeptics and supporters of science, and most especially those of us who are involved at some level in defending good science from the efforts of creationists to water down (or even eliminate) the teaching of evolution, will be familiar with this question. I think the answer is not simple and is much thornier, both philosophically and practically speaking, than many people (including many skeptics) would like to admit.

Let me first take a few minutes to outline some basics of the philosophy of science that are relevant to this discussion. This has to do with the nature of naturalism in science; more specifically, we need to make a very clear distinction between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism.

Methodological naturalism is the practice of naturalism in science; in other words, as it is most commonly stated, there are naturalistic answers sought for scientific questions, and the question of potential supernatural answers (“miracles” if you will) is not even considered. It was the application of methodological naturalism in what was in the 19th-century still referred to as natural philosophy, which helped to define and distinguish modern science as it is currently practiced. In the view of many scientists, science as practiced doesn’t necessarily speak to the validity or non-validity of the supernatural precisely because it is constrained to seeking only natural causes for the phenomena we observe in the universe. In the view of pure methodological naturalism, science is agnostic on such matters, and this gives many believers in the supernatural an “out” for accepting science while retaining their beliefs.

By contrast, philosophical naturalism is usually defined as a philosophical position that there is no such thing as the so-called “supernatural” because the natural world is all that exists. This view assumes, a priori, that there is no separate realm of existence, which is distinguished from the natural world. Thus, in this view, anything, which is claimed to exist within the “supernatural” realm, either doesn’t exist at all or is being confused for some other kind of natural phenomenon which isn’t necessarily well understood by the claimant. It should come as no surprise that in the world of the philosophical naturalist there is no such thing as a miracle and there are no gods per se. There is no comfort for the supernaturalists in the worldview of philosophical naturalism.

Having laid that foundation, let us now get back to the specific case of the entire evolution-creationism discussion, where we can see this distinction between the methodological and philosophical view of naturalism on display. There are many pro-science groups, such as the National Center for Science Education, which take the view usually credited to the late Stephen J. Gould called non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) when discussing the thorny issues of science, religion, their intersection, and their conflicts. Basically NOMA takes a kind of modified position of methodological naturalism and is described by Gould as follows: “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).” [1]

Even the National Academy of Sciences in the United States takes a viewpoint based upon NOMA, wherein, in regards to the evolution-creationism issue, they state: “Scientists, like many others, are touched with awe at the order and complexity of nature. Indeed, many scientists are deeply religious. But science and religion occupy two separate realms of human experience. Demanding that they be combined detracts from the glory of each.” [2]

Note that in the cases of taking the NOMA stance, there is nothing said one way or the other regarding the existence or non-existence of gods, miracles, or any kind of supernatural phenomena. However, there are many for whom the position of NOMA is rather unappealing, most notably because it seems to have the effect of stacking the deck in favor of what are considered unfounded beliefs and claims. For example, while the Catholic Church can tell its followers that the science for evolution is ironclad and therefore acceptable, that same religious institution routinely turns its back on science and completely ignores it regarding questions related to the authenticity of supposed religious relics such as the Shroud of Turin (which is, in case you didn’t know, a fake). This is merely one example where the believers and purveyors of the supernatural will try to have their cake and eat it too, the critics of NOMA would say, as they with one hand embrace science while with the other hand reject it. …

Click here to read the rest of the article

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

12 Hottest Celebrity Atheists and Agnostics

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 31, 2012

I just wanted to share with you a blog post from my friend Phil over at Skeptic Money titled “12 Hottest Celebrity Atheists and Agnostics” which outlines some really good looking celebrities.  But more important than the sexy pics (rowr) are some of the things they say. Check out Phil’s post; meanwhile, I’ll share my favorite… Mr. George Clooney 🙂

George Clooney on why he's an atheist/agnostic

I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I don’t know if I believe in God. All I know is that as an individual, I won’t allow this life–the only thing I know to exist–to be wasted. (LA times)

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

Questions vs. Answers

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 7, 2012

I recently wrote another guest post for the James Randi Educational Foundation over at the Swift blog, and I just wanted to share it here as well.  I hope you find it thought-provoking…

Questions VS Answers

Anyone who knows me knows that I have no children of my own, and in all honesty I try to avoid little kids when I can.  However, there is one thing I find really endearing about kids, especially the younger ones: their unbridled curiosity and willingness to ask questions.

I think the reason why I like this curious nature in children is pretty simple: to them the world is so new and fresh, everything is wondrous and interesting.  In addition, they come at things so much more openly and honestly than most adults, because they are ignorant in the truest sense of the word and have no embarrassment whatsoever about asking direct questions about pretty much anything.  To them, no subject is off limits or taboo; they manifest the spirit of free inquiry in its most unblemished sense.

And this sense of free inquiry and curiosity usually comes out in the form of asking question after question on all manner of topics.  I think it is most especially interesting when it is related to topics regarding mythology, religion, life, death, the afterlife, etc.  And how many times have you been interrogated by a particularly precocious young child, only to be bombarded by more questions once you’ve provided what you thought were adequate answers?  I have had this happen to me more times than I can count, both as an educator and an uncle.

Sadly, this wonderful behavior of kids doesn’t often last into their adult years.  Somewhere between those wonder-filled years of curiosity and college age, a lot of kids are too often encouraged by the adults around them to specifically not ask questions, especially on certain topics (often on the most important topics).  Why this is I’m not sure, but I have a few guesses…

I think part of the problem is that some adults are made quite uncomfortable by the questions that little children can ask, precisely because they tend to break those social taboos which have been conditioned into the adults.  Another thing that happens is that some adults tend to discourage children from asking questions because the adults don’t have the answer to the question, or they’re just tired of the kid asking questions, so rather than admit ignorance (or frustration) they tell the child to stop asking questions.  And while kids are innately curious, if they get exposed often enough to the adults in their life telling them not to ask such questions, then they’ll eventually start to believe that they shouldn’t be asking such questions.  And that’s a sad thing to see.

For example, I witness something along these lines a couple of years ago as I was traveling to Utah with some of my family.  One of my nieces, a little girl of six years of age, and I were looking out over the gorgeous scenery of Bryce Canyon, admiring all of the columns, stratigraphy, and erosion patterns within the canyon walls.  And, in accordance with that curiosity of young children, my niece asked me where the canyon came from.  I proceeded to explain to her about the idea of erosion due to rainfall and the flow of water, pointing out to her some very small rivulets in the dirt off to the side of the trail due to a recent rainstorm.  I further explained that given enough time, these erosive processes can eventually produce wondrous geologic structures such as the canyon which stretched out before us.

I eagerly awaited her next question, when something very interesting happened.  My little niece’s older sister (a teenager) came along and told her that “God did it, just like we learned in Sunday school and the Bible says in Genesis”.  I wasn’t surprised by this reaction from my older niece, seeing as how the members of her immediate family tend to be young-earth creationists who believe the Earth was created in six literal days about 6000-10,000 years ago.  But what did surprise me (and delight me greatly) was my younger niece’s response to her older sister’s “explanation”; she looked up at her older sister and, without skipping a beat, simply asked: “Yeah, but how did God do it?” …

Click here to read the rest of the post at Randi.org

Posted in education, free inquiry | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Everybody Got A Gris-Gris

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2011

I just had a guest post published over at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift blog, and I thought it worth sharing. Take a look…

If you’re like me, then when you became a more open and active skeptic (what I like to call a “coming out” skeptic) you may have made the mistake of thinking that you were going to make yourself into the best skeptic ever.  That is, you may have decided that you were going to aspire to being a really, really good skeptic and critical thinker on pretty much everything.  I recall my eager embracing of this kind of “hyper-skeptical” attitude, back when I was a newly minted “out of the closet” skeptic.

But, as I have matured, I have adopted a more informed, nuanced, and realistic view of skepticism, both on a personal as well as a broader level.  I have come to the gradual realization that while wishing to be “a good skeptic” in all areas, from the nuances of the alt-med vs. science-based medicine wars to issues related to various religious claims, is a laudable goal, but at the end of the day it is kind of unrealistic.  There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to comb through all the pseudoscientific, conspiracy-mongering, and woo-oriented claims out there and be totally prepared for them all.

This is why having a community of skeptics is so important: we each bring our own areas of expertise and activism to the larger group.  I, for one, tend to focus on issues related to what I call physics-woo and topics related to pseudoscience and education (specifically areas such as the creationism-evolution issue).  That way we can take the time to hunker down and focus upon a specific set of skeptical topics, while relying on the rest of our skeptical colleagues to cover other areas.

However, there is another reason why being plugged into a broader skeptical community is a good thing: because we are all human, and as such, despite our skeptical leanings we all have some aspect to our lives on which we are decidedly non-skeptical.  As the magician Penn Jillette once summed it up: “Everybody got a gris-gris.”  By this he meant that we all have some kind of gris-gris: a belief or superstition or viewpoint that is not supported by any kind of rational or skeptical analysis.  And, many times, these gris-gris are things that are very important to us, yet we may not even think of it as such, and we can behave in decidedly irrational ways when confronted with the possibility that our gris-gris is just another silly belief unsupported by evidence. …

Click here to read the rest of the article

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

The National Center for Science Education: A Little Truth Goes a Long Way

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 30, 2011

I just wanted to take a few minutes to share with you an excellent post over at the Skepticblog by Donald Prothero titled “A Visit to the Creationists’ ‘Mordor'”.  In it, Donald speaks about the National Center for Science Education, an organization very near and dear to my heart as a skeptic and science teacher.  The NCSE is the clearinghouse in the United States that tracks all things creationist, and it serves an absolutely vital purpose in countering attempts to force creationism into public schools under the guise of science.  Take a few minutes to read Donald’s article, and consider joining the NCSE today

A visit to the creationists’ “Mordor”

… I decided to pay a visit to another cultural landmark: the headquarters of the National Center for Science Education. This is the chief non-profit organization in the U.S. that helps local school boards and scientists and teachers when creationism threatens their classrooms. If you read the creationists’ literature and the posts on the ID creationist Discovery Institute’s (DI) website, the NCSE is this monstrous organization which exerts mind-control over every scientist in the country, and forces them to robotically chant “I accept evolution.” According to the creationists, the NCSE is pure evil, suppressing the creationism message with its enormous staff and budget and power over all of U.S. science. In Ben Stein’s crappy little creationist propaganda film Expelled,Ben pays a visit to the gleaming  headquarters of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which occupies a vast amount of floor space in a brand-new office building downtown, and has a huge staff. Over and over again the DI staffers complain about how they scientific establishment is against them, and how the NCSE has so much more power, money, and influence than they do.

So it’s surprising to actually visit the headquarters of the NCSE and get an abrupt reality check. This bête noire of creationism occupies a small, rundown, poorly ventilated commercial space in a rough part of Oakland, surrounded by fundamentalist churches. Their tiny staff is paid a pittance compared to most academic or business salaries, and they occupy cramped cubicles cluttered with piles of work. About the only way you could tell it was not any other kind of typical non-profit organization was the decoration: creationist and evolutionary posters and “timelines of creation”, casts of famous hominid fossils and prehistoric animal models,  dolls and posters and bobble-heads of Charles Darwin, clever signs from many different school board protests, and over the staff calendar and status board, “You  are not in Kansas any more.” …

And here are Donald’s thoughts on how a little bit of truth really can go a long way:

… Despite the polls showing that about 40% of Americans agree with the major tenets of creationism, and the fact that there are many creationist organizations which are larger and more powerful, the NCSE has two key weapons: the law and reality. Fundamentalist ministers may be able to bamboozle their flocks with lies about evolution, but in the marketplace of scientific ideas, there is no longer any doubt that evolution is the way the world actually works.  Creationists may try to gussy up their ideas as “intelligent design” or hide behind the “teach the controversy” tactic, but the myths of illiterate Bronze Age shepherds are still a narrow religious dogma believed by only a minority of Americans. And that’s the ultimate line of defense: no matter what a local school board or state government does, if they leave ANY trail of their religious motivations for their acts (which is why the NCSE archive is crucial for detecting this), they run up against the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and ultimately the law is (at least in this case) on the side of scientific reality.

But it’s a never-ending struggle in this country. Creationists may not do any real science, or never learn any new arguments, or never concede that their old arguments were long ago debunked, but they are dedicated and well-funded and never give up. So the job of the NCSE never seems to end, and these hardworking underpaid staffers will never see  an empty “hot board map” showing no towns with current infections. Back in 1982, I was one of the original members of the Committees of Correspondence, Stanley Weinberg’s first effort to combat creationism in the Midwest, which evolved into the current NCSE. I’ve debated Gish and Meyer and Sternberg and a bunch of guys from ICR and DI, and written a book debunking their ideas about evolution and fossils. So I do what I can, but I don’t have the patience or time to do the job that the NCSE does. For that, I’m very grateful that they are there, fighting the good fight in the trenches, and manning the barricades that few scientists or teachers have time to deal with. We members of the skeptical and scientific community should all honor them for doing an essential job in trying to preserve the scientific integrity of our educational system, and fighting back against the untiring never-ending hordes of the forces of darkness, all while showing the patience of Job. And if you’re not already a member of NCSE, you should join, because they are doing this important job for all of us!

 

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Physics of Relativity and a Lesson in Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 5, 2011

I recently had a guest post appear over at the JREF Swift blog, and I wanted to share it with you all here.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Physics of Relativity and a Lesson in Skepticism

I often spend at least a few days or, if I’m lucky, a few weeks addressing the topic of modern physics (that is, post 19th-century physics) in my high school classes towards the end of the year. And the topic I spend the most time on is Einstein’s theory of relativity, something which never fails in gaining the interest of my students, despite the fact that summer vacation is just around the corner. It’s one thing to talk about Newton’s laws, force diagrams, and vectors, but once you get to that “good stuff” like light speed, time travel, and whatnot the students perk right up. That’s precisely why I teach the topic at the end of the year when it is most difficult to keep classes on track.

Whenever I introduce this topic I start off with a very basic review of the physics of relative motion – many students roll their eyes at this introduction as “too simple” because it is a rehash of simple vector addition. For example, if you are traveling down a road in a bus that is moving at 50 mph and you throw a ball in front of you at a speed of 20 mph (from your viewpoint), an observer on the side of the road will see the ball moving at 50 mph + 20 mph = 70 mph, assuming there is no acceleration involved. But here’s the rub, and quite an extraordinary claim on my part: that idea is wrong!

Now that usually gets my students’ attention. How can this simple rule of velocity addition be wrong?! Don’t we use these rules all the time in the world around us to do everything from plan out plane routes to driving down the freeway? When I drop the “this rule of velocity addition is wrong” bomb on my classes, it is wonderful to see the immediate skepticism on display in both the students’ questions and mannerisms. Some of them even look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

And this is a good thing, folks. By the end of the school year, I want my students to feel free to openly express their skepticism as an exercise in critical thinking. They should question me about a claim so bold as “the velocity addition we’ve used all year is wrong”, and they should demand a really good argument as to why my claim is accurate. And I should have to work hard to justify the claim, and I do. …

Click here to read the entire post!

Posted in education, physics denial/woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Conceit of How We View the World

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 13, 2011

Just to toot my own horn a tad, I wanted to share with you all that I’m a guest blogger over at the JREF Swift Blog.  And I recently contributed a post of which I am quite proud concerning some of the real basics of science & our general philosophy of the world, so I wanted to share it with you all here.  Enjoy! 🙂

The Conceit of How We View the World

A student of mine was recently making up some lab work, and the lab was a simple analysis of the variables that affected the motion of a pendulum bob as it oscillated back and forth. In this inquiry-based lab, the student was to gather data on how the pendulum bob mass, the amplitude of oscillation, and the length of the pendulum affected the amount of time it took the pendulum to oscillate. They were to use these data to come to conclusions about how an oscillating pendulum behaved.

As usual many students come to this lab work with a certain pre-conceived notion (what I like to call “intellectual baggage”) of how they think the pendulum is supposed to behave – most think that all three variables (mass, amplitude, and length) will affect the pendulum period (time for a complete oscillation) pretty much equally. Imagine their surprise when they end up discovering, assuming they are true to the process and not “tweaking” the data, that the mass and amplitude have relatively little or no effect on the pendulum motion – a fact that might also surprise the reader of this article!

In fact, when the student making up the lab got to that point in the work, he asked me a question I’ve heard numerous times before in such inquiry-based lab work: “Mr. Lowry, this seems weird – is that what I should be getting for an answer?”

When I get that question I like to answer, summoning up as much a sagely wisdom-filled voice as I can muster, “What you think the answer should be is irrelevant. What is relevant is what the data tell you.”

This anecdote of mine is particularly illustrative, I think, concerning an issue that is at the heart of pretty much all science as well as much philosophy, especially regarding philosophical discussions regarding the nature of reality, existence of God, etc. It focuses in upon a key assumption that, in my opinion, is a fatal flaw in much reasoning concerning these (and other) topics: too many people assume that, usually based upon some kind of belief system, the universe should function or behave as we would have it and – even worse – appeals to this sort of reasoning should, without the need for any other analysis or argumentation, settle whatever matter there is in question. The idea that the universe is somehow limited in the same manner as our own thinking is downright laughable to me as a scientist, teacher, skeptic, and armchair philosopher. …

Read the rest of the blog post here

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

 
%d bloggers like this: