The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘math’

Speak Up for Science: Stop Sequestration!

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 21, 2013

If you’ve been paying attention to the U.S. political news of late, then you know that a crucial fiscal deadline is approaching: the dreaded sequestration cuts across the board to all federal programs.  As a supporter of strong science education and scientific research programs, this alarms me quite a bit.  To make such deep and long-lasting cuts in our most basic science research and education programs would be like eating our seed corn, with the result that scientific and technological innovation and education would be starved of critical funding at a time when we need it the most.

So I encourage you to read, sign, and pass along the following petition from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) imploring Congress to seek a bipartisan solution to this problem:


On behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), we—as researchers, professionals, students and interested citizens in the science, technology, engineering and math fields—write to ask both branches of government to work together to achieve a bipartisan compromise that moves the country on to sound fiscal footing without sacrificing our nation’s crucial investments in science and technology. Almost every national priority—from health and defense, agriculture and conservation, to hazards and natural disasters—relies on science and engineering. As another fiscal cliff approaches, placing a significant burden on federal research and development investments, as sequestration would do, is nothing less than a threat to national competitiveness. Support for science is support for economic growth, innovation, and technological progress. Please consider this as you seek to address our nation’s pressing fiscal challenges.

Click here to sign the petition!

Posted in education, politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The State of U.S. Science Education: Not Good

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 27, 2012

It seems that in the United States we could be doing a much better job of teaching our young people about science (big surprise there).  However, it doesn’t become apparent just how troublesome the situation is until you take a look at the standards for public science education laid down by the states.  One look at this map gives you some idea of the challenge we face…

Image from Your State Sucks at Science

The well respected Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which regularly tracks issues related to science and education, has provided a summary of the survey of state science standards.  You can read more about their summary, as well as a breakdown of the standards state-by-state, here…

American science performance is lagging as the economy becomes increasingly high tech, but  our current science standards are doing little to solve the problem. Reviewers evaluated science standards for every state for this report and their findings were deeply troubling: The majority of states earned Ds or Fs for their standards in this crucial subject, with only six jurisdictions receiving As. Explore all the state report cards and see how your state performed. [emphasis added]

This is particularly problematic because the 21st century is going to be one of intensifying competition between the United States and developing nations such as China and India.  If we cannot (or will not) beef up our science education then we are only hurting ourselves in the long run.

Why is it that the U.S., the most powerful and technologically advanced nation (so far) on the planet, seems to have this weird relationship with science where we appear to almost disdain it?  My thoughts on that in a future blog post…

Posted in education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Save National Science Foundation Funding!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 6, 2011

I just got the following action alert from the American Association of Physics Teachers.  If you value not only scientific research but science education as well, I encourage you to contact your Senators and tell them to fully fund the NSF.  As a physics teacher/professor, I cannot tell you how valuable programs like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are for reaching out to the public and promoting science.  In addition, these and other similar programs are absolutely critical to helping insure that the United States has well-qualified science and math teachers in our schools; these programs also help to shuttle many students into science and engineering-oriented careers, which ultimately benefits all of us.

Anyway, read the AAPT’s press release below…

If you live in the United States, AAPT and the nation need your help. On Friday, September 16th, the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies reported a bill to Congress recommending a reduction of science funding for fiscal year 2012. Specifically, the bill recommends reducing funding for the National Science Foundation by an amount of $161,772,000 or 2.4% below the 2011 enacted level and $1,068,905,000 or 13.8% below the budget request.(See CRPT-112srpt78/pdf/CRPT- 112srpt78.pdf for the full bill). This is particularly disappointing because the House has recommended much higher funding amounts ($6,698,100,000 for the Senate versus $6,859,870,000 for the House and $7,767,000,000 for the 2012 requested). Particularly hard hit is the Education and Human Resources Directorate of NSF which has a recommended cut of $32,030,000 or 3.7% below the 2011 enacted level and $82,200,000 or 9% below the request. This Directorate funds many of the programs that support STEM education including many key AAPT programs such as the New Faculty Workshop, ComPADRE, and the SPIN-UP Regional Workshops.

I urge you to contact your senators and ask them to support the full requested level of funding for NSF for the 2012 fiscal year. You might mention the legislated calls to double the NSF budget as a fundamental investment in our society, but we realize that goal will be difficult to meet in the current difficult enconomic situation. This is particularly urgent if one of your senators is a member of the CJS Subcommittee. You can find your senator at the US Senate website contact_information/senators_ cfm.cfm and members of the CJS Subcommittee are listed at http://appropriations.senate. gov/sc-commerce.cfm.

In order to make the process easier, you can use the sample letter of support and insert the date, your address, your senator’s name, and your name and credentials. If possible, personalize the letter by adding a few sentences on the impact that a reduction of this funding will have on you and your students. Better yet, write your own letter emphasizing the impact the cuts will have on physics education. You can submit your letter directly to your senators via their websites to expedite the process.

Best regards,

Beth A. Cunningham, Ph.D.
Executive Officer

Posted in science funding | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

More Media Fail and Silliness: Lunar Effect Babies

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 17, 2011

This week there’s been a story going around the media about a supposedly huge jump in births in a Sacramento hospital where “45 babies were delivered in 48 hours.”  Now that may or may not sound very unusual (it ends up it isn’t that strange – read on), but the really weird aspect of this is the claim made by the hospital officials with nary a skeptical thought:

“The human body is 80 percent water, after all. And, given that both menstruation and ovulation roughly follow a lunar cycle – occurring on a monthly basis – it doesn’t seem too far off to think that the moon could have a say in childbirth as well,” hospital officials said.

And, of course, the supposed mechanism for this “lunar effect”, as espoused by the hospital spokesman, is gravitational in nature:
According to the news release, the moon’s gravitational pull “can control a woman’s body” the same way the moon’s gravity controls tides.
*Cue spooky music…
Image courtesy of

First of all, the fact that 45 babies were born in 48 hours is not that significant.  Note the article states that there have been a total of 325,000 babies delivered at the hospital since 1937.  If you do the math, then this comes out to an average of about 12 babies per day – compared to the claim in the article (which basically averages out to about 22 or 23 babies in one day), this seems not very extraordinary because it shows that there was a weekend where the hospital had only double the average number of births!  100 times the average number of births would be statistically significant, but not 2 times the average.

Then there’s the stupid claim about the “lunar effect”.  Not only is this a bogus claim – click here to see why not – but it is also implausible from the standpoint of basic physics.  The hospital spokesman makes a common claim about the “lunar effect” being gravitational in nature, like the tidal effects on the Earth’s oceans.  However, if one takes a moment to work through the mathematics, this arguments falls apart pretty quickly.  For example, I perform the calculations for the tidal effects of the moon (whether it is full or not is irrelevant) on a person in my physics classes, and it ends up the tidal forces that act upon a person are stupendously small – about one-billionth the weight of a paperclip!  So whether or not you decide to wear a hat or use hair gel on any given day has more gravitational influence on you than does the tides from the moon!

That’s because the strength of the tidal forces that act on an object are proportional to the size of that object.  In the case of a large planet, like the Earth, the relative difference between gravity from one side of the planet to the other (this difference is the tide itself) is pretty big since the Earth is big.  But humans are so small on this size scale that the difference in gravity (tide) on us is miniscule.

So the next time you gaze upwards and see the full moon, appreciate it for all its beauty and wonder.  But don’t worry about it making you crazy; the failure of the media to accurately report science is a bigger threat of making you nuts 😉

Posted in astrology, mathematics, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Solution to the “Self-tying” Knot Trick from TAM9

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 24, 2011

This is the solution to the puzzle presented in my previous blog post – Self-Tying Knot Trick from TAM9  – wherein I show you how to supposedly tie a knot in a length of rope without releasing the ends. Of course, it is a trick, so watch the video carefully to see just how the trick is done. And have fun with some friends, family, or (if you’re a teacher) students with this puzzle.  It is a wonderful exercise in critical thinking!

Check out the Youtube video for the answer…

One last thing: I cannot claim credit for inventing this trick. I learned about it from Penn & Teller’s old book “Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends”, so credit should go to them 🙂

Posted in education, magic tricks | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Self-Tying Knot Trick from TAM9

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 18, 2011

Well, I’m back from The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, and I’m slowly but surely getting caught up on things.  I just wanted to take a moment to share with everyone a trick I showed off during my “Skepticism in the Classroom” lecture at TAM9.  In this video, I show how to use a simple nylon rope to perform a *seemingly* mathematically impossible feat: having the rope tie a knot in itself without releasing either end of the rope. I show this to my students as a lesson in skepticism and critical thinking, and it never ceases to catch their interest.

Can you figure out the trick? Stay tuned to my Youtube channel for the solution 😉

Posted in education, magic tricks, mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Real Reason Why the Rapture Didn’t Happen: “Macho Man” Randy Savage!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 23, 2011

Rather than waste any more electrons on seriously analyzing the most recent doomsday Rapture silliness and how the followers of that particular religious cult are attempting to rationalize away the spectacular failure of Judgement Day to manifest itself, I would like to offer up this humorous portrayal of why it is the Rapture did not come to pass this last Saturday… 🙂

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

The May 21st “Rapture”: When Crazy Religion Meets Crazy Numerology

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 19, 2011

I know that I’ve blogged a couple of times already (here and here) about the supposed impending “Rapture” coming up this coming Saturday, May 21st.  But while I’ve written there about how loony of an idea this whole Christ-is-returning-so-it’s-the-end-of-the-world is – mostly because there are so many failed doomsday predictions that were supposedly ironclad before they failed epically – one thing I haven’t yet done is to actually seriously analyze the claims made by the would-be prophet of this weekend’s Armageddon festivities, the good Rev. Harold Camping.

It’s Judgement Day!!!

My oh my, that Jesus is one fine lookin’ dude!  I wonder who does his hair? 🙂

In the following article, the rationale (such as it is) for Camping’s predictions is outlined.  Let’s take a look at the argument and then take it seriously just long enough to show the logical flaws within it, right before we piss ourselves with laughter…

End Times Math: The Equation That Predicts May 21 Judgment Day

The May 21 Judgment Day meme is the brainchild of an 89-year-old radio evangelist named Harold Camping. Using a mathematical system of his own creation to interpret obscure prophecies in the Bible, Camping originally predicted that Sept. 6, 1994 would be Judgment Day, or the day of the “Rapture” when Christian believers will ascend to heaven, leaving the rest of humanity to its deservedly dreary fate.

Hold on, right there.   Camping has made such a prediction before?  Yes, he did – he predicted the world would end almost 17 years ago… and the world is still here.  Also note this key phrase: “… Using a mathematical system of his own creation…” – what this basically means is that Camping has created a system of numerology which would allow him to manipulate the numbers of his calculation in such a fashion as to give him whatever result he wants.  In other words, using such a system, folks like Camping can’t fail… that is, until they actually fail, which is what happened to Camping on Sept. 7, 1994 when we were all still here.  But that’s the beauty of using slipshod and ad hoc mathematical systems such as Camping’s:  since they are essentially made up out of whole cloth with the express purpose of “never failing”, a missed prediction can easily be discounted when “corrections” to the calculations are magically uncovered after the fact.  This, like the thinking driving conspiracy theorizing, shows that such a system is clearly unfalsifiable: it is always right, even when it’s wrong.

The article continues:

… Here’s the gist of Camping’s calculation: He believes Christ was crucified on April 1, 33 A.D., exactly 722,500 days before May 21, 2011. That number, 722,500, is the square of 5 x 10 x 17. In Camping’s numerological system, 5 represents atonement, 10 means completeness, and seventeen means heaven. “Five times 10 times 17 is telling you a story,” Camping said on his Oakland-based talk show, Family Radio, last year. “It’s the story from the time Christ made payment for your sins until you’re completely saved.”

Okay, once again note that these numbers only make sense “in Camping’s numerological system” – which he made up.  What is the rationale which justifies Camping’s numerological system as being superior to that of other failed doomsday prophets (such as Nostradamus and those claiming the Mayan calendar portends The End on Dec. 21, 2012)?  And why does Camping settle on 722,500 days?  Why not 722,500 seconds, minutes, months, years, or centuries?  What is so special about days in Camping’s system which distinguishes them from any other unit of temporal measurement?  And, assuming there is some kind of reason (whatever that could be) for using days as units, why is it that you have to multiply and subsequently square 5, 10, and 17?  Why not simply add them up?  Or just multiply without squaring?  Or add them up and then square the result?  Why not raise the product of these numbers to the third power?  What is the rationale behind this calculation which explains why it could be considered trustworthy – other than, of course, the fact that it just happens to give a “prediction” of the world’s end, conveniently, during Camping’s lifetime?

And last, but not least, here’s a good question to ponder: if the Rapture is supposed to come on Saturday, May 21st, on which side of the International Date Line is that going to happen?  Will the Rapture follow the rotation of the Earth, seeing as how some parts of the planet will still be on Friday night time while other portions will be on early Saturday morning time?  Or is it supposed to just kind of go “poof!” all at once?  But if it does that, then it can’t all happen on the same day – and why doesn’t Camping take this into account in his calculations?  You can see the problem here.

Now that I’ve taken this stupidity seriously for a bit,  it is now time to treat it as the utter silliness that it most certainly is: I’m off to go get ready for the After Rapture Party & Looting 😉

Posted in doomsday, mathematics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Media Fail & Lotteries

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 22, 2011

This past December 17th, I saw a headline in my local paper which stunned me with the level of irresponsibility it displayed.  Back then the Powerball lottery was getting a lot of attention because the jackpot was up to a potential $25 million, and when such numbers start getting thrown around, people’s critical thinking skills go right out the window.  And it doesn’t help when the media joins the chorus of unreason…

First, there is the fallacy that when the jackpots are high, more people play because they “feel lucky that they’re going to win the BIG one!”  Of course, when more people play the lottery it actually decreases the odds that any specific person will win, yet this doesn’t stop the gullible from scarfing up the lottery tickets.

Then, there’s this horrible headline:

Wanna win Powerball? Try these numbers

For 13 years, a red ball with the number “20” printed on it has been whirling around with its numerical counterparts in an enclosed Powerball kettle waiting to potentially make someone a millionaire. That No. 20 red ball has made its way out of the kettle 49 times, the most of any of the numbered balls. No. 20 also is the second most common number on the five white balls that are selected in each Powerball drawing as well, behind 26 and ahead of 32, 16 and 42, a Daily Herald analysis of the numbers shows. …

This headline and the leading paragraphs of the article play directly into the gambler’s fallacy of “lucky numbers” – in reality there are no more or less “lucky” numbers.  In fact, the past performance of the lottery is in no way, shape, or form a predictor of the next random drawing of numbers.  The article cited above actually does attempt to be at least marginally responsible by interviewing a mathematician, though their discussion is buried in the article…

… While some gamblers may see that information as an edge, mathematicians and oddsmakers say it’s all just luck.

“The numbers and the pingpong balls have no memory,” said Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University. “So whether a given number has come up once or twice or 10 times or never, it is no more or less likely to come up today than any other number.” …

Exactly.  Unfortunately, the “news” article quickly followed up the math professor’s advice with some anecdotes from believers in these supposed lucky numbers.  So how did the Powerball drawing in question go?  Here were the results of the Dec. 18th Powerball drawing:

04-11-19-33-43 and 14 as the Powerball

And remember, the so-called “lucky numbers” referenced in the article were 16, 20, 26, 32, 42, and 20 for the Powerball.  Not a single one of these numbers appeared in the drawing – NOT… ONE. So much for “lucky numbers.”
So how should one win the lottery?  Simple: by not playing it at all.  To sum up the best way of dealing with this foolishness, I like this comment which appeared in response to the article:
You have much better chances of most things than of winning the lottery–getting struck by lightning, dying in a plane or car crash, etc. The odds are astronomically low of winning the big prize. Invest that money instead, and you’d end up with far more in the long-term, even with the low interest rates.
As for the “news” paper which so irresponsibly reported this article, I can only say one thing…

Posted in mathematics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

How to Always Pick a Winning Stock

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2010

This time of year, money is on a lot of people’s minds.  And especially with the crummy economy, it is REALLY on people’s minds.  Unfortunately, this is an environment which is ripe for various kinds of money-related scams.  In that spirit, I wanted to share with you all an excellent blog post by my skeptical colleague Phil Ferguson over at the Skeptic Money blog. It’s all about those schemes to “pick winning stocks” and whatnot; I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just pass along Phil’s post…

How To Pick Winning Stock Every Time – The Skeptics’ Way

Today I will show you how great stock pickers are able to find the winners – every time.  Now when you get a tip via a call or an e-mail from a broker you will know how they do it.  Now you can do it too.  If you use this same method you can guarantee a correct prediction on a stock.  With this system you can win every time.

I found this video from Darren Brown.  He calls it the system and I will stick with that name.  He uses it on horses but, I will tell you how to do it with stocks.  It is even better with stock because they can only go up or down.  It is so easy – it will blow your mind.  The same secrets apply to stocks as it does for horses.  Watch this video to see how it works.  Don’t skip ahead… YOU NEED to see how well this works. …

And yes, there IS an angle to this whole thing, but to see the angle read all the way through to the end of Phil’s post plus watch the accompanying videos.  However, for those of you who are a bit ADD, I’ll skip to the end:

… Someone had to win with each bet.  A stock picker can do the same thing.  They will call dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people.  They will tell half of the people that a given stock will go up and the other half will be told that the same stock will go down.  Those that lose never get called again.  The winners are called again and get a new stock tip.  So with just 16 people to start with a stock picker can get 4 in a row for one lucky person.  Now that person will do just about anything.  Even borrow money from friends.  They may or may not make money.  It does not matter to the broker.  Each time you buy or sell a stock, you make will make the broker money.

Now, when someone calls you with a hot stock tip, you will know what to do – RUN!

Posted in economics, mathematics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »