The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘history’

Texas Board of Education Pushes Religious Ideology in Social Studies Classes

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 9, 2009

I’ve made numerous posts here about the Texas Board of Education pushing a creationist agenda in regards to science classes & textbooks, but the agenda of the religious fundamentalists in Texas is much broader than that.

I recently received the following press release from the American Humanist Association regarding an attempt by the conservative wing of the Texas BoEd to use social studies classes & textbooks in Texas to push their religious agenda. It seems that BoEd member Don McLeroy is behind the push to include what are called the “biblical motivations” of the U.S. founders in the Texas social studies curriculum.  This is code for pushing fundamentalist Christianity, folks, pure and simple.

The AHA press elaborates…

The American Humanist Association responded today to a letter from Texas State Board of Education Member Don McLeroy, arguing that social studies classes should not aim to promote religion and should accurately portray the secular nature of the United States government. McLeroy had responded to an open letter the American Humanist Association sent to the Texas State Board of Education last Thursday, prompted by reports the Board had been advised to include the “biblical motivations” of the founders in the state’s new social studies curriculum. In McLeroy’s e-mail to the American Humanist Association, he stated he disagreed with the group and cited an essay he wrote in 2002 titled “The Gift of Medieval Christendom to the World.” (The letter sent to the Texas State School Board of Education can be found here: say-to-texas-state-board-of-education-dont-mess-with-texas, and McLeroy’s response can be found here:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Holocaust Denial in the Vatican?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 5, 2009

Sometimes I feel like it’s two steps forward and one step back for the advance of science, reason, and critical thinking. Case in point, it seems as if the specter of the Dark Ages could be rearing its ugly head in the Vatican.

Now, I’m not going to go on a rant about religion or my many criticisms of various Vatican policies, but what has happened recently certainly bears mentioning. Pope Benedict XVI recently decided to lift the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson from the Catholic Church. Bishop Williamson is an ultra-traditionalist in the Catholic faith, and he was excommunicated from the Church in 1988 by Pope John Paul II because he had been ordained without Vatican permission by the renegade French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

bishop williamson

So what? Well, it seems that Bishop Williamson is a Holocaust denier – a rather repulsive breed of pseudohistorian & conspiracy theorist who believes that the Holocaust never happened or, at the very least, was drastically over-exaggerated.

Just weeks ago, Bishop Williamson stated in a broadcast on Swedish television some of the following claims…

[That the historical evidence was] hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers.

… I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them by gas chambers.

… Anti-Semitism can only be bad if it is against the truth. But if something is true, it cant be bad. I am not interested in the word anti-Semitism.

Here’s the entire interview:

Bishop Williamson’s claims are complete garbage. This is because there are mountains of evidence which confirm the reality of the Holocaust – in fact, there’s so much evidence that the United States has an entire public museum dedicated to preserving the historical evidence of the Holocaust! It’s called the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and it resides in Washington DC, and I’ve toured it and seen this evidence for myself.

But that evidence doesn’t matter to deniers like Bishop Williamson – rather than look at the whole body of evidence placed before them, they tend to cherry-pick the data (taking what they like and discarding/ignoring everything else) for evidence they think might preserve their racist worldview. And even if that evidence doesn’t support their claims, they’ll spin it as if it does. This is precisely the same kind of thinking employed by all manner of conspiracy theorists & pseudoscientists in that, no matter what evidence is presented, the denier’s conclusion that the Holocaust wasn’t real or was drastically overblown is completely non-falsifiable.

Understandably, once this news hit, there was a huge public protest over this move on the part of Pope Benedict XVI. Critics from the Jewish community strongly condemned the move, and there was substantial criticism from within the Vatican itself as well. Yesterday, the controversy hit a fever pitch when Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany (where Holocaust denial is a crime) blasted the Pope for his rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson.

Initially, the Vatican defended the Pope against Merkel’s criticism, but thankfully just today the Vatican has publicly stated that in order for Bishop Williamson to be rehabilitated into the Catholic Church he must recant his views on Holocaust denial.

So it looks as if, for now, more reasonable heads have prevailed over at the Vatican – at least on this issue. However, the mere fact that Pope Benedict XVI even attempted this move in the first place is a bit unsettling to me. I worry that defenders of science & reason may have to cast a wary and watchful eye on Rome for some time to come.

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Science & Democracy

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 29, 2009

Yesterday I read an amazing essay in the New York Times titled “Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy” by Dennis Overbye about how the pursuit of science & governing by democracy are inextricably linked. By the time I’d read to the end, I almost had tears in my eyes – I cannot really do it justice, so I will simply recommend that you read it in its entirety. Allow me to share a few of the highlights.

How some criticize modern science:

The knock on science from its cultural and religious critics is that it is arrogant and materialistic. It tells us wondrous things about nature and how to manipulate it, but not what we should do with this knowledge and power. The Big Bang doesn’t tell us how to live, or whether God loves us, or whether there is any God at all. It provides scant counsel on same-sex marriage or eating meat. It is silent on the desirability of mutual assured destruction as a strategy for deterring nuclear war.

Overbye’s response to those critics:

But this is balderdash. Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

I especially like this part – science is a methodology employed by all people, regardless of tribe or creed:

It requires no metaphysical commitment to a God or any conception of human origin or nature to join in this game, just the hypothesis that nature can be interrogated and that nature is the final arbiter. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists and Hindus have all been working side by side building the Large Hadron Collider and its detectors these last few years.

How science & democracy go hand in glove:

It is no coincidence that these are the same qualities that make for democracy and that they arose as a collective behavior about the same time that parliamentary democracies were appearing. If there is anything democracy requires and thrives on, it is the willingness to embrace debate and respect one another and the freedom to shun received wisdom. Science and democracy have always been twins.

Overbye’s point about science and democracy is well made. If you study the history of science, you will learn that it grew out of the Western tradition of natural philosophy handed down by the Ancient Greeks. Most historians of science trace the origins of natural philosophy to Thales of Miletus, who famously proposed a theoretical understanding of the basis for all things in the cosmos – Thales believed that everything was made of “water”. This idea may sound silly to us now, but the thought processes put in place in ancient Greek natural philosophy gradually evolved into what we now call modern science. Consider, if you will, that many physicists have drawn a page from Thales when they contemplate that all matter & energy in the universe is an expression of ultra-microscopic strings.

That same ancient Greek civilization is also the birthplace of democracy. It was the contemporaries of Thales who created the rudimentary institutions of democratic government, including electing representatives from the community to meet, debate, and vote about the politics of the day. Both modern science & modern democracy are the descendants of Thales and his fellow Greeks, and we have inherited both traditions.

In closing, I’ll leave you with one final thought from Overbye’s New York Times article. It’s a warning, echoed by most scientists, about placing limits on our explorations:

But once you can’t talk about one subject, the origin of the universe, for example, sooner or later other subjects are going to be off-limits, like global warming, birth control and abortion, or evolution, the subject of yet another dustup in Texas last week.

And, as Carl Sagan stated in the closing chapter (“Real Patriots Ask Questions”) of his famous book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen – or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for the Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.

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Why Science Matters

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 13, 2009

Sometimes I have to deal with this very question from my own students: “Why should I care about science?” It’s a good question which deserves a well-reasoned response.

Science forms a critical part of our society. Many people can understand the importance of science in relation to technological development – such as the creation of new vaccines every year to deal with the annual influenza cycle, for instance. When people can see the direct application of science to their immediate lives, then it is easy to justify the resources necessary to pursue such scientific work. I often like to say that people have no problem with building a better I-pod and the research that goes with it.

I’m not talking so much about building a better I-pod (though they are very cool). I’m talking more about both the process of scientific thinking as well as the pursuit of pure (or theoretical) science.

Think about it – you are reading this blog post on a device that is the direct result of purely theoretical scientific investigation by individuals who had no notion or motivation to create computers or the Internet. Let me give you a little history lesson…

Around the end of the 19th century, many scientists believed that purely theoretical science was nearing its end. That is, they thought that through the process of science we learned all there was to learn – the rest was simply filling in details, or, as one put it, just getting experimental results to more and more decimal places. Throughout the 1800s, the development and rise of science using methodological naturalism as its method yielded astonishing advances in every field – biology, geology/earth science, astronomy, physics, chemistry. I’ll speak specifically about physics, since that is my area of expertise.

The cornerstones of 19th-century physics were classical Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s electricity & magnetism, and thermodynamics. Many physicists of the day thought that with these crown jewels of theoretical physics, we’d figured everything out. But they were wrong.

The Rise of Relativity
Around the year 1900, there were two major developments in physics which shattered the (comforting, to some) notion that we’d figured out all of theoretical physics. The first was the dissolution of ether theory – the idea that all motion (including the motion of the Earth) was relative to some absolute frame of reference called the “ether”. The ether was supposed to be some kind of imponderable substance which was postulated to exist throughout all of space. In fact, it was believed that light used the ether as a medium through which to propagate; many scientists disliked the idea that light (commonly understood as an electromagnetic wave) could travel through completely empty space because all waves were believed to have a medium which they had to disturb in order to propagate.

By the late 1800s, two scientists – Albert Michelson and Edward Morley – decided to perform an experiment which would indirectly detect the ether, thus taking it from mere speculation to a firmly established phenomenon. In 1887, they performed their now-famous experiment where they attempted to use a beam of light traveling relative to the Earth’s supposed motion through the ether to detect changes in the speed of the light beam. But they got a surprising result – no matter in which direction they oriented their device (called an interferometer) relative to the direction of Earth’s motion, they got the same result: the speed of light was unchanged. No matter what they did, no matter how many times they ran their experiments, the light beams traveled at the same value: 3×108 meters per second.

This “failed” experiment led to the eventual acceptance that the ether was a fiction.  And not only that, but the speed of light being constant, no matter the relative motion of the observer, led to the foundations of the theory of relativity.  In 1905, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity, and in 1916 he followed this with his general theory of relativity. You may have heard of general relativity (GR for short), because it is the theory that outlines space & time as woven into a strange fabric known as space-time; in this space-time fabric objects with lots of mass (such as planets, stars, and black holes) warp or dent the fabric. These space-time dents are what Einstein viewed as gravity, and GR now forms our current views on gravitation.

We now use GR to deal with everything from understanding the physics of black holes to dealing with time-delays between ground stations and geosynchronous satellites. Believe it or not, without an understanding of gravity via GR, your GPS receiver wouldn’t work – here’s why not.

Quantum Weirdness
At the beginning of the 20th-century there was another shakeup in the world of physics. This had to do with (among other things) three pesky phenomena the classical physicists of the 19th century were having a hard time explaining: the photoelectric effect, blackbody radiation, and spectral lines. I’ll focus upon blackbody radiation for the purposes of this example, but all three phenomena are explained the same way.

For a long time, scientists knew that when an object heated up it tended to glow. The object would start off feeling warm (which we now know to be infrared radiation), then it would glow red, then orange, and – if it got really hot – white! It was believed that the reason for the white-hot glow of extremely hot objects was due to the emission of all colors of visible light (ROYGBIV) added together – this was confirmed by viewing such objects through a spectrometer. However, there was a big problem – it was believed by the classical physicists that the intensity of the light as a function of wavelength should follow the Rayleigh-Jeans Law (shown below)…

The Rayleigh-Jeans Law as compared to Planck's Formulation of blackbody radiation.

The picture says it all – the data collected from hot objects simply didn’t fit with the classical view of blackbody radiation (this is the “ultraviolet catastrophe” listed above). Physicists were at a loss to explain this contradiction between their theories and observations. Then one day, Max Planck, brought forth a hypothesis which many found to be crazy: Planck proposed that light was not a continuous phenomenon, but instead light was given off in small, discrete bundles of energy called photons. Not only that, he further postulated that the energy of a particular photon of light was directly proportional to its frequency…

E = hf

Planck’s little equation did the trick. It provided a theory which explained the blackbody radiation perfectly, but it rocked the foundations of the physics community. In fact, many people refused to accept the idea, especially when the fuller implications of Planck’s idea (sometimes referred to as the “quantum hypothesis”) were realized.

Over time, many physicists used the new quantum physics to go on to explain all manner of phenomena, and the new theory of quantum mechanics was born. By the 1940s and 50s, quantum mechanics was being used to pave the way for a new kind of technology called computers. And, with the advent of more widespread computer technology – including the desktop computer, the Internet, and the World Wide Web – our society has been changed in ways that no one could have possibly ever predicted, certainly not Max Planck when he was pondering a solution to the ultraviolet catastrophe.

So, the next time you get online, pause for a moment and think about it – the reason you are able to surf the Web on a computer is because over 100 years ago someone was attempting to figure out a purely theoretical problem in physics. The next time you log on, think about

E = hf

In conclusion, I hope this post has given you a better idea of why pure scientific research is useful. It not only helps to address purely theoretical questions of interest to scientists, but the effects upon all of us can be quite profound – from how we view the universe to how our very society functions on a day-to-day basis.

Yes friends, pure science does matter. And don’t you forget it.

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