The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘superstition’

Everybody Got A Gris-Gris

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 17, 2011

I just had a guest post published over at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift blog, and I thought it worth sharing. Take a look…

If you’re like me, then when you became a more open and active skeptic (what I like to call a “coming out” skeptic) you may have made the mistake of thinking that you were going to make yourself into the best skeptic ever.  That is, you may have decided that you were going to aspire to being a really, really good skeptic and critical thinker on pretty much everything.  I recall my eager embracing of this kind of “hyper-skeptical” attitude, back when I was a newly minted “out of the closet” skeptic.

But, as I have matured, I have adopted a more informed, nuanced, and realistic view of skepticism, both on a personal as well as a broader level.  I have come to the gradual realization that while wishing to be “a good skeptic” in all areas, from the nuances of the alt-med vs. science-based medicine wars to issues related to various religious claims, is a laudable goal, but at the end of the day it is kind of unrealistic.  There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to comb through all the pseudoscientific, conspiracy-mongering, and woo-oriented claims out there and be totally prepared for them all.

This is why having a community of skeptics is so important: we each bring our own areas of expertise and activism to the larger group.  I, for one, tend to focus on issues related to what I call physics-woo and topics related to pseudoscience and education (specifically areas such as the creationism-evolution issue).  That way we can take the time to hunker down and focus upon a specific set of skeptical topics, while relying on the rest of our skeptical colleagues to cover other areas.

However, there is another reason why being plugged into a broader skeptical community is a good thing: because we are all human, and as such, despite our skeptical leanings we all have some aspect to our lives on which we are decidedly non-skeptical.  As the magician Penn Jillette once summed it up: “Everybody got a gris-gris.”  By this he meant that we all have some kind of gris-gris: a belief or superstition or viewpoint that is not supported by any kind of rational or skeptical analysis.  And, many times, these gris-gris are things that are very important to us, yet we may not even think of it as such, and we can behave in decidedly irrational ways when confronted with the possibility that our gris-gris is just another silly belief unsupported by evidence. …

Click here to read the rest of the article

Posted in skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Belief in the Supernatural is Natural

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 9, 2010

The more and more research I see on this particular topic, the more I become convinced that we skeptics are quite a freakish bunch.  I’m not referring specifically to the type of parties we throw (though there are some pretty trippin’ skeptic parties out there I’ve attended :) ), instead I’m talking about what seems to be the fact that a belief in the supernatural & paranormal may be deeply embedded in many of us.  In short, the belief in the supernatural seems to be… well, quite natural.

This recent article by Discovery News go into much more detail, so I’ll just link to it below and pass it along to you…

Superstitious Beliefs Getting More Common

By Emily Sohn
Fri Oct 29, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Ghosts, goblins and other spooky characters come out from the shadows and into our everyday lives.

For most people, the thrill lasts for a few weeks each October. But for true believers, the paranormal is an everyday fact, not just a holiday joke.

To understand what drives some people to truly believe, two sociologists visited psychic fairs, spent nights in haunted houses, trekked with Bigfoot hunters, sat in on support groups for people who had been abducted by aliens, and conducted two nationwide surveys.

Contrary to common stereotypes, the research revealed no single profile of a person who accepts the paranormal. Believers ranged from free-spirited types with low incomes and little education to high-powered businessmen. Some were drifters; others were brain surgeons. …

The entire article is quite a fascinating read, and Dr. Michael Shermer of the Skeptic’s Society has a few revealing comments as well…

… Regardless of the person or the phenomenon, paranormal experiences are purely quirks of the human brain, said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, an educational organization, and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

Whether it’s hearing creaks in an old house or watching dots move randomly on a computer screen, he said, people tend to look for patterns and meanings in everything.

“The default condition in brain is that all patterns are real,” Shermer said. “It’s just what we do.”

In learning more about how we seem to be hard-wired for such belief in what skeptics would call pseudoscience, flummery, or nonsense, I think there is a lesson for us all.  As skeptics, we need to be aware of this fact of our basic human nature in order to be more productive in our encounters with believers.  And I think we need to take it into account in those interactions – that doesn’t mean that we agree with the woo-woo beliefs, but it does mean that we at least understand the basic drive behind why many believe what they do.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Center For Inquiry Chicago Event: “On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions and Other Things to Die For”

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 12, 2010

Anyone involved in skepticism in and around the Chicago area no doubt knows that one of the key organizations in the local skeptic/freethought movement is the Center For Inquiry Chicago. They have an upcoming event that I would like to pass along to you all in case anyone’s interested in attending…

The Center For Inquiry/Chicago invites you to our multi-media, participatory, Fall extravaganza!

On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions
and Other Things to Die For

In Wicker Park at “St. Paul’s” Cultural Center – 2215 W. North Ave. – Chicago
Saturday, September 18th 2010, from
7:00 pm – 11:00 pm

The program includes:

  • Mark Twain “in person”Warren Brown, a nationally renowned Twain scholar, will perform as Twain, Huck, and Jim, the runaway slave, and will illuminate their views on science, humanism and slavery. A Q&A discussion will follow the performance.
  • Davis Schneiderman, a thought provoking multimedia author, college professor, and editor will read sections from his new book: “Drain.
  • Miki Greenberg of “It’s A Girl” will mobilize us with his satirical songs.
  • Poetry Slam! Write your own verse and then sign in with Davis Schneiderman, the host! Be ready to present! As always with a Slam, everything goes: reading, reciting or singing your poem/song, in costume or in plain clothes. Use your creativity, but stay with the theme, “On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions and Other Things to Die For.” Be prepared—in keeping with the Slam tradition, the audience will express its admiration or disapproval of your wordsmithing!
  • Art exhibit by three CFI/Chicago members—Ayala Leyser, Eric Wall and Ivan Phillips—on the theme “Not What Meets the Eye: On Deities, Doctrines, Superstitions and Other Things to Die For”

Throughout the evening:

  • Food and snacks included with your admission. Cash bar is available for very reasonably priced drinks and soft drinks.

Free street parking, public transportation is nearby, and bike stands are available.

Click here to register online! Don’t miss this one!


If you’ve never before been a Friend of the Center, become a Friend at $60 and pay only $7 more for this event—over half off!

Price if purchased online by Sept. 11th (one week before):

Regular: $15
Current Friend of Center: $12
Student: $8

Price if purchased online after Sept. 11th, or at the door (if at door, cash is much preferred):

Regular: $18
Current Friend of Center: $15
Student: $10

See below for performers’ bios:

Warren Brown, a nationally known Illinois Humanities Council “Roads Scholar,” presents a first-person Chautauqua-style program as Mark Twain. Twain will take us on a journey on water, land, and air, sharing insights from the “Diaries of Adam and Eve” and thoughts about Galileo and Newton. Mark Twain is claimed by freethinkers as one of our own for his still remarkably contemporary, funny and humanist viewpoints on religion, hypocrisy, and the straight-laced Victorian “virtues” of Then and Now.  Brown received the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award for his Chautauqua-style portrayal of Samuel Clemens, “bridging the lessons of history with the demands of contemporary living.”

A multimedia artist and writer, Davis Schneiderman is the author and editor of eight books, including the novels Drain, Abecedarium, and the forthcoming blank novel, Blank: a novel. He co-edited the collections Retaking the Universe: Williams S. Burroughs in the Age of Globalization and The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game; as well as the audio collage Memorials to Future Catastrophes. His creative work has appeared in numerous publications. He is Chair of the English Department, and Director of Press/&NOW Books, at Lake Forest College.

As a pianist, composer and arranger for Maestro Subgum & the Whole, Miki Greenberg has been making music on Chicago’s underground scene since 1986. He co-founded the Lunar Cabaret in 1994 and is currently with the group “It’s A Girl,” working on his 16th album. Superstition, religion and things people die for were his obsession while working with his previous band, “Fetal Position,” as he continues to mix good entertainment with wit and critical thinking.

For more information, please visit or email

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

Would-Be Governor of Alabama Disses Evolution

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 18, 2010

Oh… my… FSM… I thought that I’d seen a lot of really stupid political ads (from all sides of the political spectrum), but this is one of the worst: a Republican candidate for governor of Alabama, Bradley Byrne, is being bashed for (gasp!) actually having once said that we should teach science (specifically, evolution) in science classrooms.  In addition, he apparently had the audacity to state that perhaps not every part of the Bible is “literally” true as many fundamentalists claim – at least, “literally” true in their own interpretation.  Here’s the ad…

As bad as that is, what’s worse is the fact that Byrne (in an obvious attempt to cater to the more extreme elements who have hijacked the GOP) is actively denouncing any of his previous advocacy for teaching evolution or questioning fundamentalist’s interpretations of the Bible.  His campaign released this statement on the matter…

As a Christian and as a public servant, I have never wavered in my belief that this world and everything in it is a masterpiece created by the hands of God. As a member of the Alabama Board of Education, the record clearly shows that I fought to ensure the teaching of creationism in our school textbooks. Those who attack me have distorted, twisted and misrepresented my comments and are spewing utter lies to the people of this state.

Wow… that deserves one of these…

What’s really sad here isn’t so much the bent towards fundamentalist Christianity (it is, after all, the Deep South in the U.S.).  Rather it is the blatant & almost gleeful public bashing of science in which these goons are engaging, for no other reason than to cater to the lowest common denominator in their quest for political power.  Hell, they’re downright proud of their ignorance!

Whether or not Byrne actually believes one way or the other is irrelevant to me… I’d just like to see more politicians stand up for science vs. superstition.  I have to wonder where all the moderate Republicans are on this issue?  Are they really going to continue to allow these American Taliban to hijack their once reasonable party?

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Boobquake Follow-Up

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 30, 2010

**Addendum (4/2/10): Jen McCreight, the creator of Boobquake, has a series of great follow-up posts regarding Boobquake, the science behind earthquakes, and related feminist topics.  Check them out…

The Iranian and Muslim response to Boobquake

Why boobquake isn’t destroying feminism

My article on the science of Boobquake at The Guardian


This past Monday, April 26th, marked the first Boobquake – which was a light-hearted attempt to poke some fun at an Islamic cleric’s utterly hateful & stupid comments about promiscuous women somehow causing… earthquakes.  Let’s see how it went…

Here is some video footage courtesy of Phil over at Skeptic Money :)

CNN: Boobquake Rocks Web

Boobquake on the Colbert Report

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

Boobquake: Breasts That Rock the World!

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 24, 2010

I wanted to pass along a hilarious & fun example of skeptical activism that I stumbled upon a couple of days ago: Boobquake!!! If you recall, you may have heard that earlier this week, an Iranian cleric declared that women’s “immodesty” and promiscuity was to blame for recent earthquakes that have struck various parts of the world.  I cannot even think of a non-vulgar response to such blatantly superstitious, misogynstic idiocy, but fortunately I don’t have to – that’s where Jen McCreight over at Blag Hag comes in :)

In the name of science, I offer my boobs

This little bit of supernatural thinking has been floating around the blogosphere today:

“Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Sedighi is Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader.I have a modest proposal.

Sedighi claims that not dressing modestly causes earthquakes. If so, we should be able to test this claim scientifically. You all remember the homeopathy overdose?

Time for a Boobquake.

On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own. Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that’s your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake. If not, I’m sure Sedighi can come up with a rational explanation for why the ground didn’t rumble. And if we really get through to him, maybe it’ll be one involving plate tectonics.

So, who’s with me? I may be a D cup, but that will probably only produce a slight tremor on its own. If you’ll be joining me on twitter, use the tag #boobquake! Or join the facebook event!

Posted in humor, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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 »

Superstition & Computer Technology

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 27, 2009

Today I saw a great post over at the Tech Republic blog about the “10 habits of superstitious users” of computers.  I wanted to pass this along to you, partially because it is an excellent contemporary example of loose & magical thinking.  I am also sharing it partially out of deference to my wife, who has to deal with the computer illiterate all-too-often who view the computer as either some kind of malevolent entity or a magical box.

Here is the main text of the article [note that I've added relevant links to the text]…

Superstition: A belief, not based on human reason or scientific knowledge, that future events may be influenced by one’s behavior in some magical or mystical way (Wiktionary).

In 1947, the psychologist B. F. Skinner reported a series of experiments in which pigeons could push a lever that would randomly either give them a food pellet, or nothing. Think of it as a sort of one-armed bandit that the pigeons played for free. Skinner found, after a while, that some of the pigeons started acting oddly before pushing the lever. One moved in counterclockwise circles, one repeatedly stuck its head into the upper corner of the cage, and two others would swing their heads back and forth in a sort of pendulum motion. He suggested that the birds had developed “superstitious behaviors” by associating getting the food with something they happened to be doing when they actually got it — and they had wrongly concluded that if they did it again, they were more likely to get the pellet. Essentially, they were doing a sort of food-pellet dance to better their odds.

Although computer users are undoubtedly smarter than pigeons, users who really don’t understand how a computer works may also wrongly connect some action of theirs with success (and repeat it), or associate it with failure (and avoid it like the plague). Here are some of the user superstitions I’ve encountered.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Las Vegas: A Town Based on Bad Math & Gullibility

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2009

During my recent trip to Las Vegas for TAM7, as with all my previous trips to “Sin City”, I noticed the large number of people gambling.  Now there is a certain social aspect to gambling, but a lot of people play these games of chance hoping that they’ll win it big.  They literally believe that, through some lucky charm or prayer, that they’ll hit the jackpot, and that’s exactly what the casinos want them to believe…


Of course, the casinos in Vegas are banking on a combination of people’s lack of critical thinking & skepticism, innumeracy (misunderstanding of math), susceptibility to the gambler’s fallacy, and basic gullibility – and based upon what I’ve seen, the casinos have been quite successful at cashing in on all of these things.

That’s because in addition to knowing basic human nature, the casinos also know the mathematical odds. They don’t say “the house always wins” for nothing, folks.  Even if someone occasionally wins it big (which will eventually happen by the law of large numbers, just as when someone wins the lottery), there are way more people who are losing money.  In the end, these casinos make much more money than they pay out.

Ironically, I saw the following slot machine sign while in Vegas…


In order to make this sign a more accurate reflection of reality, one of the O’s should be crossed out, because chances are that if you’re playing these games you’ll end up a loser.  So, statistically speaking, how does one win in Vegas (without cheating)?  The answer is simple, folks: you don’t play the game :)

Posted in mathematics, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »


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