The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘logic’

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 » A Wonderful Combintation of Humor and Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 8, 2010

Do you remember a rag of a magazine way back in the day (well, way back in my day) called Cracked?  It was kind of like the unpopular wanna-be version of the more well-known and liked Mad Magazine.  Well, Cracked has come back with a vengeance, because now they have a really well-written & hilarious online presence over at – if biting satire & rough language is your thing, check them out 🙂

So why am I going on and on about  Well, every now and then they come out with a really good skeptical article – and I mean really good.  I wanted to share with you one of my favorites which I ran across awhile back, called 5 Ways “Common Sense” Lies To You Everyday…

Albert Einstein said common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18. It is also a result of some pervasive and extremely stupid logical fallacies that have become embedded in the human brain over generations, for one reason or another. These malfunctioning thoughts–several of which you’ve had already today–are a major cause of everything that’s wrong with the world. …

I highly recommend this article as required reading for anyone who wants a quick primer on sloppy, uncritical thinking & how we fool ourselves.  Not to mention, it’s funny!  Read more:

Posted in humor, internet, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Pat Robertson is an Asshole

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 14, 2010

I’m taking a bit of a departure from my usual routine to state something which should be patently obvious to anyone with even a shred of common, human decency: Pat Robertson is an asshole. Actually, to say as much would be an insult to assholes, but I cannot think of any other way to put it.

Of course, I’m referring to his recent comments regarding how the people of Haiti somehow deserved the earthquake which has killed & maimed so many because it is a punishment from God for Haitian slaves practicing voodoo (and swearing “a pact with the devil”) hundreds of years ago when they revolted against the French.  But don’t take it from me, take it from the Big Asshole himself…

Wow… I… am… speechless… well, not quite.  But these comments are truly shocking in their insensitivity, immorality, and intellectual vacuity.  They are insensitive for obvious reasons.  I contend that they are immoral because Robertson is using this tragedy to push his own narrow, fundamentalist version of Christianity – while neglecting the fact that roughly 85% of the population of Haiti is Catholic!  Of course, some jerks like Robertson will rationalize the argument by saying something like “Catholics aren’t real Christians” (which is a version of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy) while conveniently ignoring the fact that Catholics (with the exception of Eastern Orthodox Christians) were the only Christians for about 1500 years of history!  Arrgh!

**Aside: not that it should matter what the victims’ religious, or lack thereof, beliefs are; basic human decency should sway us to help them in their hour of need.

The comments are intellectually vacuous because they display the logical extension of a worldview rooted in superstition instead of science, reason, and rationality.  In Robertson’s worldview, there is absolute good and absolute evil (personified in his versions of God and Satan), and he creates a false dichotomy of a pure black-and-white world where those who share his beliefs are on the side of good (God) while those who disagree with him are on the side of evil (Satan) – recall how he made similar comments right after 9/11 about how the U.S. “deserved” to be attacked. Of course, his ignores the reality of how the world is rarely so simplistic, and there are complexities & shades of gray that pop up in many aspects of life.

Another aspect of Robertson’s commentary is disturbing: it views the world through the lens of supernatural forces beyond the understanding of humanity.  There isn’t a natural world which can be examined and understood through a reasoned analysis of natural causes (i.e. the scientific method); rather, the world is governed by good and evil spirits.  It’s all about God & angels versus Satan & demons – a view which, more than anything, propagates fear, ignorance, division, and humanity’s most negative tribal tendencies.

Alas, now that I’ve vented my spleen about Robertson’s stupidity, I shall cease cursing the darkness by lighting a candle (to use Carl Sagan’s analogy)… perhaps the best way to deal with assholes like Pat Robertson is to stay rooted in the real, natural world and actually deal with problems using reason & rationality as opposed to moaning about ghosts, goblins, fairies, and other vestiges of superstitious nonsense.  In other words, we are empowered and can actually do something because we realize that we live in the real world and can change it for the better – we are not slaves to supernatural powers beyond our control and/or comprehension.

If you want to help the people of Haiti (and I sincerely hope you do), a good start is to consider making an immediate cash donation to a reputable international relief agency, such as the Red Cross.

Go forth and light candles.

Posted in philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments »

Google-of-the-Gaps Logical Fallacy

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 23, 2009

I just saw this funny little cartoon – hat tip to the Friendly Atheist – and had to share it with my thoughts…


I like to call this the “Google-of-the-gaps” logical fallacy, which is a humorous version of the classic god-of-the-gaps fallacy. Essentially, the god-of-the-gaps is a logical fallacy which is an argument from ignorance: it states that because we lack the knowledge to draw any kind of reasonable conclusion upon a particular question (such as life after death, for example) then in our ignorance some stat that God (or gods) must be the solution.

Of course, the god-of-the-gaps is a silly argument to make, because with just a single change in wording, by substituting something else for the word “God”, one could argue that the explanation is Santa Claus, unicorns, leprechauns, space aliens, or numerous other silly things which are wholly unsupported by any evidence.

As I tell my students: you must make conclusions based upon what you do know, not upon what you don’t know.  And lacking substantive evidence to draw a conclusion, simply state the most obvious truth: “I don’t know.”

But I bet Google knows 😉

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

Reasoning & Thinking in Science and Beyond

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 22, 2009

I wanted to just take a few minutes to give a quick shout-out to a couple of good blogs, each of which have a recent post about reasoning & thinking.  The first is a post at  Skepticblog about inductive reasoning in science by Dr. Steven Novella, where he takes on an interesting series of questions which are sometimes posed by those completely ignorant of science and/or who want to tear down science…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in philosophy, scientific method | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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