The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘psuedoscience’

Guerrilla Skepticism and Wikipedia

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 15, 2012

I wanted to take a few moments to update you all about a really worthwhile endeavor regarding how to more effectively spread the skeptical message: editing Wikipedia.  As you probably know, Wikipedia – the world’s largest and most extensive encyclopedia – is edited pretty much solely by volunteers.  This means that the people who express the most interest in a topic typically end up editing it.

Now, sometimes this is a good thing, as when those who are experts in a particular field take the time to reasonably and thoughtfully edit a Wikipedia entry on a particular topic.  However, sometimes this is a bad thing, as when those with an agenda edit various Wikipedia entries in an effort to distort the facts.

Enter the brainchild of my skeptical colleague Susan Gerbic: Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.  As Susan once told me, why shouldn’t skeptics start getting more involved in the editing of Wikipedia?  After all, it is the largest and most easily and readily accessed source on just about any subject, and when people go search for something related to skepticism or pseudoscience, why wouldn’t we want as much factual information available to them as possible?  If skeptics don’t step up and take on the task of getting more involved in this editing process, then are we not simply ceding this fertile ground to the peddlers of woo and nonsense?

The Wikipedia Logo

For more information or to get involved, take a look at Susan’s blog: Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.

And I have to say, I agree with Susan.  Fortunately, a lot of other people have agreed with her as well, and it appears to be having a positive impact.  For instance, take a look at techophile and skeptic Tim Farley’s post on how a Google search tool, the Google Knowledge Graph, is benefitting from this form of guerrilla skepticism…

Google Knowledge Graph benefits from skeptic Wikipedia efforts

Last week Google introduced a new feature to their flagship search product, which is called Google Knowledge Graph. I believe it has only rolled out for users in the United States so far, so you may not see it if you live elsewhere, yet.

There are several interesting aspects of Knowledge Graph, and I encourage you to read more about it. The technology behind modern search engines is surprisingly complex, and this is the latest advancement.

But one of the main user-visible features of this product is a panel that you will see on the right side of many search results. This panel shows a summary of what Google believes you are looking for.  The aim is that many times the answer you seek will be right there on the results page.

Because this new feature draws a great deal of information from Wikipedia, all the great effort by Susan Gerbic and the other skeptics who work on her skeptic Wikipedia project is now paying off in yet another big way. …

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

National Science Foundation Omits Evolution Polling Data from Report

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 11, 2010

I found out recently, through an article in Science Magazine (the official journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science) that the National Science Foundation has released a report which has actually omitted polling data regarding evolution & the big bang.  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot?!!

Needless to say, this story is getting a LOT of attention from science supporters…

From the National Center for Science Education: What happened to evolution at the NSB?

And PZ Myers at Pharyngula chimes in: Let’s hide that embarrassing conflict in American culture

Here is the actual Science article in question:

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report

In an unusual last-minute edit that has drawn flak from the White House and science educators, a federal advisory committee omitted data on Americans’ knowledge of evolution and the big bang from a key report. The data shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang.

They’re not surprising findings, but the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs.

“Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” that “downplays the controversy” over teaching evolution in schools, says Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom. The story appears in this week’s issue of Science.

But why is it this information, which has been part of every previous Indicators report to date, been removed at the last minute without any oversight?  Here’s a clue…

Board members say the decision to drop the text was driven by a desire for scientific accuracy. The survey questions that NSF has used for 25 years to measure knowledge of evolution and the big bang were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs,” says Louis Lanzerotti, an astrophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who chairs NSB’s Science and Engineering Indicators Committee. …

The board member who took the lead in removing the text was John Bruer, a philosopher who heads the St. Louis, Missouri-based James S. McDonnell Foundation. He told Science that his reservations about the two survey questions dated back to 2007, when he was the lead reviewer for the same chapter in the 2008 Indicators. He calls the survey questions “very blunt instruments not designed to capture public understanding” of the two topics.

“I think that is a nonsensical response” that reflects “the religious right’s point of view,” says Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.”

So what exactly was the offending material deleted from the report?  Here you go…

The deleted text, obtained by ScienceInsider, does not differ radically from what has appeared in previous Indicators. The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

So rather than report the honest truth about the state of scientific literacy in the United States on these topics, it seems the NSF has chosen to hide the embarrassing facts.  But, thankfully, it didn’t work.  We cannot change the poor state of science education in this country by hiding such information, either to save political face or to kow-tow to religious fundamentalists who push creationism; rather, we must face the challenge head on.

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

Polls & Surveys on Creationism/Evolution

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 25, 2010

If you pay attention at all to the creationism/evolution struggle, then you know that (in the United States) there is a great group dedicated to furthering good science education while battling the attempts of creationists to push their extreme religious & pseudoscientific flummery into public schools.  That group is the National Center for Science Education, and now the NCSE has another tool to use in the fight.  NCSE has put together a great webpage which tracks polls & surveys on the issue…

Polling the creationism/evolution controversy

NCSE is pleased to announce a new section of its website that provides information on polls and surveys relevant to the creationism/evolution controversy. You’ve seen the alarming statistics:

  • Evolution is accepted by 97% of scientists in the United States, but by only 61% of the public.
  • Among thirty-two countries surveyed, the United States was next-to-last for its public acceptance of evolution.
  • One out of eight high school biology teachers in the United States presents creationism as scientifically credible.

Now you can find it all in a single spot — NCSE’s coverage and links to external resources — organized in the categories of general polls, international polls, polls on creationism, polls on evolution, polls on religion, and scientist, student, and teacher polls.

Specifically, all of the polling & survey information is broken down and sorted into a variety of very convenient categories for your perusal…

So the next time you need to reference a poll when in the midst of a discussion of the creationism/evolution issue, you have a great resource.  In addition, I just want to give a general shout-out to the NCSE because they are, in my humble opinion, the go-to folks for dealing with creationists.  In fact, I encourage you to support them by becoming a member!

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The (Not So) Lost Ark?

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 3, 2009

Last week, I saw an article over at the humorously nutty World Net Daily website – ‘Ark of the Covenant’ about to be unveiled? In the article, the claims of the patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, Abuna Pauolos, are laid out as follows:

Soon the world will be able to admire the Ark of the Covenant described in the Bible as the container of the tablets of the law that God delivered to Moses and the center of searches and studies for centuries. …

The Ark of the Covenant is in Ethiopia for many centuries.  As a patriarch I have seen it with my own eyes and only few highly qualified persons could do the same, until now.

Now, when I read this article, my inner skeptic-meter (a.k.a. my Baloney Detection Kit) started to buzz in a big way.  Whenever such grandiose claims about a supposed religious relic are made, such as with the now infamous (and completely fake) Shroud of Turin, it is worthwhile to treat said claims with much more than a grain of salt.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

“Borneo Monster” Follow-Up

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 9, 2009

I blogged recently about the supposed “Borneo Monster” – what was claimed to be a 100-foot long snakelike creature photographed in the Baleh River on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. In my earlier post I explained why I thought the photos were bogus, and now we have even more solid evidence that they are, in fact, fakes.

It seems an industrious poster, Fromage, on a article on this story has found the original photograph from which the fake photo was made. Here’s a link to the relevant comments by Fromage…


Using the great tool “TinEye” you can see that is a fake.

The original picture can be seen here :

(Could be the Congo river)

The TinEye link :

For purposes of comparison, I shall place the two photos one after the other. The real, undoctored photo is shown first…

baleh river

And now the faked “Borneo Monster” photo…

faked borneo monster photo

There you go, folks. It’s a fake. It’ll be interesting to see what the true believers say about this. Should be funny 🙂

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

Bogus “Borneo Monster”

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 2, 2009

I saw a recent news story on about the supposed discovery of what is being called the “Borneo Monster” – apparently, this critter is supposed to be a 100-foot long snakelike creature that inhabits the Baleh River in Borneo. Already, some photos that are claimed to have been released by villagers along the river are all the buzz on the Internet. Below are the photos in question…

borneo monster 1

borneo monster 2

While the cryptozoology community (the pseudoscientists who make bogus claims about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and so on) is all a-twitter about this “discovery”, the skeptical community (including Ben Radford, the author of the above article) is busy tearing the photographic “evidence” to shreds. For an excellent analysis of these Borneo Monster claims, take a listen to the Feb. 26th podcast from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe.

I just wanted to give my quick thoughts on these photographs:

1) Note the first photo does not include any mention of scale, so I did a little digging on Google Earth. From that analysis, it seems the claim that this “monster” is 100-feet long is completely bogus. In the first photo, the greenery on the banks of the river is most likely made of trees, so this would make the creature of a very large scale; in addition, looking at Google Earth I saw the width of the Baleh River itself was much larger than 100-feet in most places. Thus, the “monster” in the photograph would have to be much larger than 100-feet long, more like 500 to 1000 feet by my estimates!

2) The second photograph was supposedly of the same creature, but it is inconsistent with the first photograph. I say this because the first photo shows what is most likely an animal that is about 500-1000 feet long, whereas the second photo is more consistent with the 100-foot claims. Not to mention, in the second photograph there doesn’t appear to be any disturbance of the water whatsoever due to the presence of the “monster”. In a river where the water is flowing, you could expect to see something like ripples, waves, or froth if something that big were oriented in the river as shown – yet we see nothing of the kind in this photo.

3) A recent discovery of the remains of an ancient snake, called Titanoboa, showed the largest such creature was about 45 feet long. The largest known snakes in existence today are about 33 feet in length, and it is believed by the scientific community that the conditions (temperature, humidity, etc) on our planet now simply are not sufficient to allow larger snakes to survive. In the past, around 58-60 million years ago, when Titanoboa lived, the conditions were right for many species to grow to enlarged size by today’s standards. But those conditions don’t exist today, and even if they did the notion that a 100-foot long snake could survive is extremely implausible.

4) If these photos are the real thing, then why hasn’t anyone else found any other evidence of such a large, land-dwelling beast? Wouldn’t you think that massive piles of shedded snake skin (or, for that matter, poop), tracks in the forests from this thing knocking over vegetation, or other evidence would be easily noticeable? Not to mention, what could such a creature possibly eat in order to stay alive?

In my opinion, these photos are most likely faked, and I also find it is no surprise to hear these tall tales just a couple of weeks after the announcement of Titanoboa’s discovery.

In conclusion, based on this analysis, I think the most plausible explanation for the supposed “Borneo Monster” is the imagination of those villagers along the Baleh River. That region of Indonesia is home to many large snakes, such as shown in the video below…

That fact, coupled with the firing of people’s imaginations at the news of Titanoboa, likely led to this bogus “Borneo Monster” story. It’ll be interesting to see how long this tall tale sticks around, or if it gets even taller as time goes on.

Posted in cryptozoology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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