The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘illusion’

My Challenge to the Discovery Institute’s “Design Inference” Model

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 7, 2010

In an earlier blog post, I gave a detailed rebuttal to a lecture by the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin titled “Intelligent Design: Dead Science or the Future of Biology?” – however, it wasn’t until recently that I came up with what I consider to be the real killer criticism of a basic intelligent design argument: their so-called “design inference” model. During his talk, Casey Luskin showed a picture of Mount Rushmore, which he stated the design inference model shows is clearly a product of ID, not the result of natural processes.  The implication is, of course, that much of evolutionary science is false because ID’s design inference model can prove that ID is a better explanation; but there’s a fatal flaw here.

The basic argument is simply a variation of the classic watchmaker argument, which is essentially an argument from ignorance. Not to mention, Luskin has stacked the deck in favor of the ID design inference model because every time an ID-advocate trots out their model it is in the context of a post-hoc analysis: they already know ahead of time that the object/situation they’re analyzing is the product of intelligent (human) processes.  Hell, of course Mount Rushmore is the result of (human) ID, because we have records & photos of humans chipping away at the damn rock!  So they can’t lose – in this sense, the ID folks are proposing a non-falsifiable model, which makes it NON-science.

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Posted in aliens & UFOs, creationism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The “Invisible Gorilla” and How Seeing is NOT Always Believing

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 19, 2010

We’ve all heard the oft-repeated phrase: “Seeing is believing” – as if our human senses (specifically that of sight) are somehow, magically infallible.  Of course, most people don’t want to admit just how fallible our senses can be – or, more to the point, most people aren’t willing to admit just how fallible their own senses can be (they’re more likely to admit that other people’s senses aren’t up to snuff).

As anyone who has experience with court cases & law enforcement can tell you, the least reliable kind of evidence is typically that of eyewitness testimony, because we tend to place an over-reliance upon our senses in place of other, more rational & consistent forms of evidence.  Not only that, but our tendency to over-emphasize the trustworthiness of our senses can lead us into fooling ourselves that we’re seeing ghosts, alien spacecraft, the Virgin Mary in a grill cheese sandwich, and similar deceptions.

The fallibility of the human sense of sight and the associated phenomenon of inattentional blindness is beautifully outlined in this recent article…

‘Invisible Gorilla’ Test Shows How Little We Notice

Charles Q. Choi
LiveScience Contributor
Tue Jul 13, 10:00 am ET

A dumbfounding study roughly a decade ago that many now find hard to believe revealed that if people are asked to focus on a video of other people passing basketballs, about half of watchers missed a person in a gorilla suit walking in and out of the scene thumping its chest.

Now research delving further into this effect shows that people who know that such a surprising event is likely to occur are no better at noticing other unforeseen events – and may even be worse at noticing them – than others who aren’t expecting the unexpected.

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Happy Skeptical Valentine’s Day!

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 14, 2010

In true Skeptical Teacher form, I wanted to wish everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day, but in a way that will teach a good skeptical lesson.  I was inspired by today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), which is of the gorgeous Rosette Nebula…

The APOD text displays why this is a nice, timely lesson in skepticism:

Explanation: What surrounds the florid Rosette nebula? To better picture this area of the sky, the famous flowery emission nebula on the far right has been captured recently in a deep and dramatic wide field image that features several other sky highlights. Designated NGC 2237, the center of the Rosette nebula is populated by the bright blue stars of open cluster NGC 2244, whose winds and energetic light are evacuating the nebula’s center. Below the famous flower, a symbol of Valentine’s Day, is a column of dust and gas that appears like a rose’s stem but extends hundreds of light years. Across the above image, the bright blue star just left and below the center is called S Monocerotis. The star is part of the open cluster of stars labelled NGC 2264 and known as the Snowflake cluster. To the right of S Mon is a dark pointy featured called the Cone nebula, a nebula likely shaped by winds flowing out a massive star obscured by dust. To the left of S Mon is the Fox Fur nebula, a tumultuous region created by the rapidly evolving Snowflake cluster. The Rosette region, at about 5,000 light years distant, is about twice as far away as the region surrounding S Mon. The entire field can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros).

Of course, there isn’t really a great big rose 5,000 light-years away in the sky – this is just another classic example of pareidolia, the phenomenon by which the pattern recognition programming in our brains makes familiar pictures out of otherwise random visual data (or audio data, as in the case with “electronic voice phenomenon”).  The whole point is that while our brains might dumbly fill in the gaps and give us the illusion of seeing a rose, we can think at a higher level and see past the illusion to the beautiful reality that lies beneath.

Posted in psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Sprinkler Rainbow Conspiracy: What the Hell?

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 16, 2009

Okay, I was shown the following Youtube video by a physics teaching colleague.  I cannot do it justice by attempting to write a description, you just have to watch it for yourself.  Just… wow…

Sprinkler Rainbow Conspiracy

I really hope this is a joke or a spoof, because if not, this is one of the most whacked out displays of scientific ignorance & conspiracy mongering that I’ve ever seen.  My favorite line: “This cannot be natural.”


Because she doesn’t understand how rainbows form – they are essentially an optical illusion based upon the physics of sunlight refraction & reflection with water droplets – she makes an incredible argument from ignorance and implies there must be some kind of government conspiracy to… poison/mind-control us?  In addition, note how she throws in the bit at the end about how “They” want to take away our constitutional rights and freedoms for extra added spooky effect.

This, of course, is an excellent display of how necessary it is for people to have a basic scientific education that teaches not only certain facts but also methods of logical & critical analysis.  Because, though you and I may laugh at the silliness of this video, there are those out there who are ignorant, paranoid, and – well – crazy enough to take what this woman is saying at face value.  And while we can laugh or giggle at the stupidity of this woman’s argument, what isn’t a laughing matter is that this exact same method of argumentation is employed time and time again by a variety of conspiracy theorists & pseudoscientists, whether they be Holocaust deniers, creationists, 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, New Age gurus, alt-med quacks, anti-vaccinationists, physics cranks, etc.  And there are plenty of people who buy into that crapola.

And one more thing: they get the same vote as you and me during election time – that’s what I find scary!

Posted in conspiracy theories, humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments »

Visions of Michael Jackson?

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 1, 2009

I ran across this video from – it shows a strange looking cloud formation over New York City.  At the 1:25 mark in the video, the reporter goes on about how many people see the face of the recently-deceased Michael Jackson in these clouds…

michael jackson pareidolia

Mmmm-kay… I’m not seeing it.  But then, I was never a big fan of MJ in the first place.  And, of course, if you had never even heard of or seen a picture of MJ, then the blob in the clouds above would likely look to you like… well, like a blob.

These clouds are called mammatus clouds, and they are more common than you might think.  It’s just that they’re not that common around New York City, which is why so many people there reacted as they did.  So, there’s nothing particularly strange there.  But what about some people claiming to see MJ’s face in these clouds?

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Posted in psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Martian Madness

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 4, 2009

Recently, while I was hanging around on the JREF Forum – an awesome place to go chat about science, skepticism, and critical thinking – someone posted the following image, taken by the NASA Spirit rover, from the surface of Mars…


What, if anything, do you see?  If you’re like me, you see a rocky surface with a particularly big rock (relatively speaking) right in the middle of the photograph.

Well, it seems that some in the UFO-alien woo crowd has decided that this image constitutes “evidence” of past or present alien intelligence on Mars, because – here it comes – the “rock” in the middle of the picture is actually an alien skull.

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Posted in aliens & UFOs, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The Hand of God?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 7, 2009

There is an image from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory which is all over the Internet these days. Here it is…

What do you see? Most people, when asked, say they see what looks like a large ghostly hand reaching towards the nebula to the upper right of the photo. In actuality, according to NASA, the picture is an x-ray photograph of a young pulsar, or rotating neutron star

A small, dense object only 12 miles in diameter is responsible for this beautiful X-ray nebula that spans 150 light years. At the center of this image, made by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, is a very young and powerful pulsar, known as PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short. The pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star which is spewing energy out into the space around it to create complex and intriguing structures, including one that resembles a large cosmic hand.

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Posted in psychology, space | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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