The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘investigation’

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:)

Posted in aliens & UFOs, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology, ghosts & paranormal, internet, psychics, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“An Honest Liar” Comes to PBS

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 14, 2016

One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi.  I’ve read many of his books (I highly recommend them – here’s a good list), I have had the good fortune to meet him a few times, and for a time I even worked with his organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation. He is a small man with a big laugh, an even bigger heart, and an even bigger love for the pursuit of skeptical analysis into all manner of paranormal, mystical, or odd-ball claims. For Randi, no questions are off limits and skepticism knows no bounds; he and his legacy are one of the primary reasons why I am here, doing what I do on this blog and in my daily life as a skeptic and teacher, and I know his work has reached and inspired countless others. Now a movie, called “An Honest Liar”, which documents his life and his legacy will be coming to the Public Broadcasting Service on March 28, 2016…

An Honest Liar

HONESTLIAR_KeyArt_1920x1080

About the Film

For the last half-century, James “The Amazing” Randi has entertained millions with his dazzling feats of magic, escape, and trickery. Along the way he discovered that faith healers, fortune-tellers, and psychics were using his beloved magician’s tricks to swindle money from the credulous. Fed up with the fraud, he dedicated his life to exposing con artists with a wit and over-the-top showmanship all his own. An Honest Liar is part detective story, part biography, and a bit of a magic act itself.

An acolyte of Harry Houdini, Randi became a famed magician-turned-debunker of psychics and mediums in his own right with a series of unparalleled investigations and elaborate hoaxes. These grand schemes fooled scientists, the media, and a gullible public, but always in service of demonstrating the importance of skepticism and the dangers of magical thinking. Randi was a frequent guest on TV variety and talk shows, most notably The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, uncloaking high profile scams, like the “spoonbending” of illusionist Uri Geller. Eventually Randi’s efforts won him the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Award.

When dealing with a master deceiver, however, the truth can be elusive. A sudden and shocking revelation threatens to bring down Randi’s own house of cards, and the magician who spent his life exposing phonies may be the victim of a devastating deceit himself.

An Honest Liar is told through interviews with Randi, vintage footage of his TV appearances, and interviews with illusionists, performers, and skeptics alike, including Adam Savage, Penn & Teller, Bill Nye, Geller, Alice Cooper, and more.

Watch the trailer, pass it on to your friends (even if they aren’t card-carrying skeptics), and spread the word. This is a film which everyone should see, because as Randi himself states, “No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.” :)

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The Assault on Planned Parenthood is an Anti-Science Attack by Religious Fundamentalists

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2015

For the last month a manufactured controversy has raged about the health-care provider Planned Parenthood. Extremists within the supposed “pro-life”/anti-choice (PLAC) movement (you’ll see why I put “pro-life” in quotes soon enough) have waged a thoroughly discredited campaign to deny Planned Parenthood funding because they claim that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts for profit. Yes, you read that right… and that isn’t the only bone-headed and debunked conspiracy theory from the “pro-life”/anti-choice movement. In this post I will argue that not only is the majority of this movement anti-choice and anti-woman, but it is also driven by religious fundamentalism and is anti-scientific as it attempts to impose a narrow, religiously-based worldview on all of us.

The heart of this manufactured controversy is a series of deceptively edited sting videos from a group misleadingly named the Center for Medical Progress purported to show Planned Parenthood doctors/employees selling baby parts for money. Of course, these videos have been thoroughly analyzed and debunked, and numerous investigations into the matter have provided no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. But in addition, the so-called Center for Medical Progress isn’t what they seem; on this last point, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State reveals who is really behind the videos:

…The group behind the manufactured outrage, CMP, is really a front for Live Action, an anti-abortion outfit long associated with the more extreme fringes of the Religious Right. It’s headed by David Daleiden, an associate of Live Action founder Lila Rose; Live Action is responsible for a number of other deceptively edited “stings” that attempted to catch Planned Parenthood staffers engaged in illegal activities.

And Troy Newman, the current president of Operation Rescue, is a CMP board member. Newman once defended Paul Jennings Hill, executed in 2003 for murdering a Pensacola, Fla., abortion provider. Another current Operation Rescue staffer, Cheryl Sullenger, served time in prison for scheming to bomb an abortion clinic in San Diego, Calif. According to watchdog site Media Matters for America (MMFA), Sullenger also corresponded regularly with Scott Roeder, who later murdered Dr. George Tiller for providing abortions. …

So there’s the connection to religious fundamentalism. Of course, one of the more embarrassing things about the religious nature of the PLAC movement is that it’s supposed “pro-life” stance isn’t consistent with the Bible; for example, take a look at numerous sections of the Bible where God apparently condones abortion or how the PLAC movement has attempted to edit the Bible to make it more in line with their ideology.

As for the anti-science side of things, there is evidence aplenty to show how the PLAC ignores and distorts science in an attempt to push its religious dogma. For example, they conveniently ignore the fact that the family planning and birth control services that Planned Parenthood offers significantly reduce the need for abortion in the first place

PP birth control

Not only that, most of the PLAC movement is fervently opposed to the use of birth control; in fact they’ll make crazy and thoroughly false claims that birth control actually increases the need for abortion. But don’t take it from me, take it from a former insider with the PLAC movement who left when she realized they were more about controlling women’s sexuality than anything else:

The Real Solution: Birth Control

But if banning abortion does not decrease abortion rates, what does? Why do some countries have low abortion rates while others have much higher rates? The answer, I found, was simple.

“Both the lowest and highest subregional abortion rates are in Europe, where abortion is generally legal under broad grounds. In Western Europe, the rate is 12 per 1,000 women, while in Eastern Europe it is 43. The discrepancy in rates between the two regions reflects relatively low contraceptive use in Eastern Europe, as well as a high degree of reliance on methods with relatively high user failure rates, such as the condom, withdrawal and the rhythm method.”

As I sat there in the student union reading over my lunch, I found that making birth control widespread and easily accessible is actually the most effective way to decrease the abortion rate. Even as I processed this fact, I knew that the pro-life movement as a whole generally opposes things like comprehensive sex education and making birth control available to teenagers. I knew this because I had lived it, had heard it in pro-life banquet after pro-life banquet, had read it in the literature. The pro-life movement is anti-birth-control. And opposing birth control is pretty much the most ineffective way to decrease abortion rates imaginable. In fact, opposing birth control actually drives the abortion rates up.

As I mulled this over, I realized how very obvious it was. The cause of abortions is unwanted pregnancies. If you get rid of unwanted pregnancies the number of people who seek abortions will drop like a rock. Simply banning abortion leaves women stuck with unwanted pregnancies. Banning abortion doesn’t make those pregnancies wanted. Many women in a situation like that will be willing to do anything to end that pregnancy, even if it means trying to induce their own abortions (say, with a coat hanger or by drinking chemicals) or seeking out illegal abortions. I realized that the real way to reduce abortion rates, then, was to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And the way to do that is with birth control, which reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies by allowing women to control when and if they become pregnant. …

Beyond opposing birth control, the PLAC movement is also anti-scientific in the sense of their opposition to Planned Parenthood having any relation to fetal tissue research. Despite the noise and gross rhetoric coming from the PLAC, what is happening is that sometimes, with the consent of the patient, Planned Parenthood will donate fetal tissue to research organizations for the purposes of finding medical cures. Fortunately, while some in the PLAC movement are calling for such research to be outlawed, the record is clear that even many of their political allies support such research, and the scientific community is rallying around protecting the vital, life-saving work.

Last, but not least, is the inherent hypocrisy of the supposed “pro-life” side of the PLAC movement (hence the quotes). If the PLAC were really about “saving the unborn”, the following facts show how empty and vacuous are their real intentions. First, they do not care to advocate for any research into saving zygotes from miscarriages (what can arguably be called a “natural abortion”); again, from a former PLAC insider:

… A few months after reading Sarah’s article I came upon one by Fred Clark. In it, he argues that if those who oppose abortion really believe that every fertilized egg is a person we ought to see 5K fundraisers to save these zygotes. This is very much like what I said above, except that the focus here is whether the 50% of all zygotes – 50% of all fertilized eggs – that die before pregnancy even begins could be saved. Fred suggests that if the pro-life movement really is about saving unborn babies, and if those in the pro-life movement really do believe that life begins at fertilization, then pro-lifers really ought to be extremely concerned about finding a way to save all of these lives. But they’re not. …

… Reading Fred’s article compounded what I had felt reading Sarah’s article. The pro-life movement is not about “saving unborn babies.” It can’t be. As someone who as a child and teen really did believe that life – personhood – began at fertilization, and who really was in it to “save unborn babies,” this is baffling. If I had known all this, I would have been all for this sort of research. I would have been all for sexually active women using the pill to cut down on “deaths.” But I didn’t know any of this. The adults of the anti-abortion movement, though, and certainly the leaders, they surely must know these things. This isn’t rocket science, after all. They must know these things, and yet they are doing nothing.

And if that isn’t enough, there’s this another, utterly damning fact: if “human life begins at conception” and “all [human] life is sacred”, then why isn’t the PLAC doing anything to save all the frozen embryos left over after in-vitro fertilization sessions? I would argue that the answer is disturbingly simple: the PLAC movement isn’t truly “pro-life” as it proclaims, it’s about controlling women’s sexuality…

… The disparity between how the law treats abortion patients and IVF patients reveals an ugly truth about abortion restrictions: that they are often less about protecting life than about controlling women’s bodies. Both IVF and abortion involve the destruction of fertilized eggs that could potentially develop into people. But only abortion concerns women who have had sex that they don’t want to lead to childbirth. Abortion restrictions use unwanted pregnancy as a punishment for “irresponsible sex” and remind women of the consequences of being unchaste: If you didn’t want to endure a mandatory vaginal ultrasound , you shouldn’t have had sex in the first place. …

Fortunately, despite the manufactured outrage on the part of the PLAC movement and its political allies, there is reason to hope. As I’ve stated, upon closer analysis the arguments and the methods of the PLAC movement are utterly falling apart. In addition, contributions to Planned Parenthood have skyrocketed and poll after poll show that far more Americans approve of the work done by Planned Parenthood than those who oppose it. Last, but not least, political support for a government shutdown over this issue is losing steam in Congress, and the Obama administration is investigating potentially illegal denial of funds to Planned Parenthood.

So, apparently the forces of reason, rationality, and science are fighting back vigorously. Whether you personally support or oppose abortion, I think one thing we can agree on is that distorting science, sensationalizing, and lying is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse.

Lastly, I would argue that to be pro-active against this sort of nonsense we should all be more politically active, and we should demand that our elected leaders are held to account for their non-scientific views; a good resource for this is the Science Debate initiative. Then, vote. Then, pay attention to whether or not those leaders are sticking with good science or pushing a non-scientific, religiously-driven agenda. And hold them accountable.

Now get out there and fight.

Posted in conspiracy theories, medical woo, politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

“An Honest Liar” Headed to Indie Film Festivals!

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 17, 2014

As many of you know, there has been an effort to make a movie documentary of the life of one of the greatest skeptical icons, James “The Amazing One” Randi, in recent years.  The film is now made, and it will soon be making the rounds on the indie film network.  Despite that fact, those who made and now promote the film still need your help; read on to see how…

An Honest Liar Film Festival

We are thrilled and proud to announce that AHL was accepted to premiere at the prestigious  2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City!

It is thanks to YOU our great supporters that we were able to make this film and we are so thankful for everything you’ve done for us!

The schedule has not yet been announced, but when it is we will pass it along. The Festival runs from April 16 – 27, and AHL will screen several times in that period. AHL is showing in theViewpoints section of the fest.

It will be possible for the general public to buy tickets, but it’s likely the numbers will be limited. Have no fear! We will have additional festival and screening announcements coming soon, and there’s a good chance we’ll be showing the film near you. Keep an eye on our website and sign up for updates if you haven’t for the latest news. …

… We are slaving away – working day and night – to finish the film! We barely eat or drink. We are doing our best to make ourKickstarter backers proud by making the best film you’ve ever seen! We have little to look forward to in these agonizing days of constant headaches, technical issues, archival footage houses sending us the wrong clips. We know it’ll be worth it, but we need a boost. Something to pick us up, to help drive us over the finish line.

Well, YOU can help us – help make all our hard work pay off, help us sleep better at night, and have sweet happy dreams. And it won’t cost you a penny.

How?

MAKE US INDIEWIRE PROJECT OF THE YEAR!!!

Tell all your friends, pass the word around – VOTE FOR AN HONEST LIAR!

http://www.indiewire.com/vote-for-project-of-the-year

For Randi – for the film – for us poor filmmakers – WE CAN DO IT!!!

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi” Project is in the Home Stretch

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 17, 2014

One year ago, I wrote a post about a kickstarter project to help fund a film on the life of that skeptical giant, James Randi.  The film is titled “An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi”, and I’m happy to report that it is nearing completion!  But in order to bring it across the finish line, the film’s producers need a little more financial help.  Read on for details, and please consider donating if you are able…

an-honest-liar

The finish line is approaching and we wanted to let you, our supporters, know about our progress. We’ve now completed a fine-cut of the documentary and will be locking it in shortly.

We have now scheduled our post-production (conform, color correct, audio mix, final output etc.) for mid-March and are officially going to complete the film by the end of March, with the aim to premiere An Honest Liar at film festivals beginning in April.

Between now and then, we’ll be refining the edit, working with our composer on the score, sourcing the archival footage we use (there’s a TON…) transferring it and re-inserting it into the cut, completing graphics, animations, and titles, and when it’s all done, popping open a bottle of champagne.

(BTW – if you have any videotapes of old Randi shows, let us know!)

EXCEPT for people getting the digital download/DVD/Blu-ray and movie posters, everyone should have gotten their Kickstarter rewards. We have gotten a number of returned packages for people who may have moved, so if you haven’t gotten your reward please message us.

We still need additional support. The licensing of some of the archival footage is incredibly expensive, but it’s rare and great material that we can’t pass up. If you missed out on donating or know someone who wanted to, we can still use help. Plus, you can still get many of the Kickstarter rewards we offered – while they still last. Just go to our website to donate and choose rewards.

Finally, below is a bonus clip that isn’t going to be in the final film, but we just couldn’t leave on the edit room floor.

Thanks again to all our supporters!

– The Honest Liar team

https://vimeo.com/84064979

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“An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi” Kickstarter Campaign

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 27, 2013

One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi.  He is a small man with a big laugh, an even bigger heart, and an even bigger love for the pursuit of skeptical analysis into all manner of paranormal, mystical, or odd-ball claims.  For Randi, no questions are off limits and skepticism knows no bounds; he and his legacy are one of the primary reasons why I am here, doing what I do on this blog and in my daily life as a skeptic and teacher, and I know his work (through the James Randi Educational Foundation) has reached and inspired countless others.  Now there is a movie being made about him, called “An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story”.

However, such an undertaking requires money, so please consider donating at the Kickstarter page to help get this movie made.  Click the picture below for more information, and please spread the word…

An Honest Liar

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Denver UFO: Yup, It’s Unidentified… So What Does That Mean?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 18, 2012

Over the last few days there has been a media sensation built up around a UFO in the Denver, Colorado area.  Here’s a closeup of the object in question:

Image source

The story has garned a great deal of attention, as evidenced by this video clip from a local news station…

Indeed, the news team does a so-so job of investigating this UFO, though there is a lot of sensationalizing in the report (surprise, surprise!), but there is one point I would like to emphasize in greater detail which this report totally glossed over.  That is the fact that this thing, whatever it is, is unidentified… as in Unidentified Flying Object.  Repeat after me three times: unidentified flying object… Unidentified flying object… UNIDENTIFIED flying object!!!

I want to be very clear on this point because, as I expected, the Internet is already abuzz with talk of alien spacecraft, government cover ups, and conspiracies galore.  And those leaping to this dubious conclusion (that the thing is “obviously not of this world”) are committing what is known as an argument from ignorance – that is, in one breath they will admit that we don’t have enough information to conclude what it is, but then in the next breath they will say, quite emphatically, that it HAS to be an alien spacecraft.

And such thinking contains a direct contradiction: the argument basically says that because we don’t know, then we know.  With reasoning as loose as this, one can “justify” the existence of leprechauns, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or Invisible Pink Unicorns!  What the heck is wrong with saying “We don’t know” and just leaving it at that?

Incidentally, while the possibility of a plane or helicopter has been ruled out, it is likely that the object in question is a bug of some kind.  There is a very good article on this point over at the Illuminutti blog…

… OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. …

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

Birthers Hit a New Low…

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2012

So there’s this nutjob… err, I mean law enforcement officer… named Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona who has apparently taken it upon himself to “prove” that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen (a conspiracy theory known as “birtherism“).  This has consisted of basically engaging in rampant conspiracy mongering that President Obama’s birth certificate (which you can see here) is a forgery, despite the fact that it has been certified as authentic repeatedly.  Well, in their quest to pursue their bigoted… err, I mean intense and serious… investigation of the citizenship of the POTUS, they have hit a new low.

And here it is:

The Globe Magazine… that bastion of journalistic excellence.  *Sigh* ‘Nuff said.

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

An Honest Liar – The Story of James “The Amazing One” Randi

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 18, 2012

One of my biggest skeptical heroes is James Randi.  He is a small man with a big laugh, an even bigger heart, and an even bigger love for the pursuit of skeptical analysis into all manner of paranormal, mystical, or odd-ball claims.  For Randi, no questions are off limits and skepticism knows no bounds; he and his legacy are one of the primary reasons why I am here, doing what I do on this blog and in my daily life as a skeptic and teacher, and I know his work (through the James Randi Educational Foundation) has reached and inspired countless others.  Now there is a movie being made about him, called “An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story”.

Watch the trailer, pass it on to your friends (even if they aren’t card-carrying skeptics), and consider helping to get this film made.  As is stated early in the trailer, “This is a film about trickery, fraud, about lies…”:)

James Randi – An Honest Liar

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

Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 24, 2011

I’ve blogged here before about “professional” ghost-hunters and their woo.  And in many cases I have taken such “professionals” to task for not really following any kind of decent, consistent protocols (such as knowing how their instrumentation works, duh) but instead favoring stories that seem to be a combination of the Blair-Witch Project and various kinds of techno-babble.  But now I just have to mention a couple of things about how many ghost-hunters just seem to get basic physics (pardon the pun) dead wrong.

My skeptical colleague Ben Radford recently wrote an article for LiveScience.com on this very point…

Do Einstein’s Laws Prove Ghosts Exist?

… Despite years of efforts by ghost hunters on TV and in real life, we still do not have good proof that ghosts are real. Many ghost hunters believe that strong support for the existence of ghosts can be found in modern physics. Specifically, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, offered a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts. …

Now hold on a minute.  As we’ve seen before, it is not uncommon for pseudoscientists and cranks of all kinds to try glomming onto Einstein’s coat-tails as one of the most well-known and respected scientists of the 20th century as a way of trying to gain traction for their ideas.  It is as if they think that by simply invoking Einstein’s name and theories, despite the fact that they have no real understanding of those theories, that it will somehow, magically make them correct.  Of course, this simply displays a fundamental flaw in the thinking of ghost-hunters, because it shows they have no real knowledge of how science (much less physics) works.

Specifically, in this case the ghost-hunters are claiming that Einstein’s theory of relativity “proves” the existence of ghosts:

… For example, ghost researcher John Kachuba, in his book “Ghosthunters” (2007, New Page Books), writes, “Einstein proved that all the energy of the universe is constant and that it can neither be created nor destroyed. … So what happens to that energy when we die? If it cannot be destroyed, it must then, according to Dr. Einstein, be transformed into another form of energy. What is that new energy? … Could we call that new creation a ghost?”

This idea shows up — and is presented as evidence for ghosts — on virtually all ghost-themed websites as well. For example, a group called Tri County Paranormal states, “Albert Einstein said that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. When we are alive, we have electrical energy in our bodies. … What happens to the electricity that was in our body, causing our heart to beat and making our breathing possible? There is no easy answer to that.” … [emphasis added]

Actually, the answer is pretty easy, as long as you understand how energy is related to matter as outlined in Einstein’s theory.  It can all be summed up in what is probably the most well-known, but one of the least understood, equations in all of science… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments »

 
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