The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘woo’

“Quantum Nonsense” at the Chicago Skeptics

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 2, 2015

On April 18th I gave a presentation to the Chicago Skeptics on the topic of what I call Quantum Nonsense. For example, have you ever been talking to a friend who starts going on about how great a movie “What the Bleep?!” was because it proved water has feelings? Or perhaps a family member saw a show where Deepak Chopra explained that they could balance their checkbook and achieve financial security using quantum jumping? Let’s face it, quantum physics is both fascinating and confusing, and many pseudoscientists and charlatans play upon this fascination and confusion to peddle all manner of nonsense to the unwary. In this talk I try to help people learn how to separate quantum fact from fiction.

Download the PowerPoint of the presentation (one with the audio of the talk embedded) below. If you want to be able to flip through the slides, which I recommend since there are many good visuals, I suggest downloading both files and listening to the audio while flipping through the other presentation. Enjoy! 🙂

Quantum Nonsense Presentation

Quantum Nonsense with Audio

Posted in physics denial/woo, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Dark Side of Ghost-Hunting

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 30, 2013

I’ve posted many times before about so-called ghost hunters and ghost hunting, and much of the time it has been in either good fun (by spoofing them) or a bit more serious in challenging them to be more rigorous in their methodology.  However, in this post I want to point out the danger(s) involved in ghost hunting; as is so often illustrated on the What’s The Harm? website, when people buy into pseudoscientific and non-critical thinking, it can have profoundly negative effects.

Case in point: recently some moronic ghost hunters in New Orleans decided that in order to get the spirits supposedly inhabiting an old mansion from the 1850s to “come out and play” that they needed to set fire to the place.  The result: it completely burned to the ground…

Ghost Hunters Burn Down Historic Mansion

… The mansion, built in the 1850s, had survived through many incarnations, operating as a boarding house, a hotel and even an illegal gambling house. Though the mansion had been shuttered in recent years, its owner, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, had plans to renovate the building. …

… The fire at LeBeau broke out at about 2 a.m. local time Friday, Nov. 21, and the building was almost completely destroyed by the time firefighters arrived. The ghost hunters had been trying to produce a reaction from the spirits they assumed resided there, by doing what TV ghost hunters call “provocation,” essentially making loud noises, yelling taunts at the ghosts and banging on walls. Frustrated that their efforts failed to yield any spirits, the group decided to light a fire. Whether this was intended to smoke the spirits out or simply burn the place down, the resulting flames soon reduced the mansion to ashes and four brick chimneys.

While many ghost hunters engage in harmless (and fruitless) fun, as this case shows, there can be a dark, dangerous side to the pursuit. In the wake of popular ghost-hunting TV shows, police across the country have seen a surge in people being arrested, injured and even killed while looking for ghosts.

In 2006, a woman was critically wounded looking for ghosts in a private house near a cemetery; she and a friend were trespassing, and the house owner mistook them for vandals and shot them. In 2010, a North Carolina man died while ghost hunting with a group of friends, hoping to see the ghost of a train that crashed years earlier. The ghost train did not appear — but a real train came around a bend and killed one man who couldn’t get out of the way in time. … [emphasis added]

Note the backwards thinking here: the ghost hunters in question were so hell-bent on “proving” the existence of the ghosts supposedly haunting this mansion that, when all else failed, they actually burnt the damn place down!  It is revealing that the thought that perhaps there were no ghosts/spirits in the place at all seems to have never occurred to them, so strong was their confirmation bias in favor of all evidence pointing towards the existence of the ghosts/spirits…


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

Classic Skeptical Scene from “Ghostbusters”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 31, 2013

One of the things I like to do on Halloween, besides handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, is watch scary and spooky themed movies.  I recently re-watched one of the great ones from the 1980s: Ghostbusters.  Did you ever notice that the character of Peter Venkman is actually kind of a skeptic?  This fact is outlined in the following hilarious scene from the opening of the movie, where Venkman essentially calls out his colleagues for engaging in an argument from ignorance in his typical deadpan way as they search for a ghost

**Dialogue from 0:19 – 0:38**

Ray Stantz: “Look!”

Egon Spengler: “This is hot, Ray.”

Ray: “Symmetrical book stacking, just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.”

Peter Venkman: “You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.”

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

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 »

2012 Pigasus Awards are Here!

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 1, 2012

As is the skeptical tradition, every April Fool’s Day the James Randi Educational Foundation releases its annual Pigasus awards (so named for the notion that certain crazy ideas are to be believed “when pigs fly”).  Below is James Randi himself announcing this year’s winners… or are they losers? 😉

Read more about each of these recipients and their related nonsense:

Daryl Bem

Facilitated Communication at Syracuse University

The Long-Island Medium on TLC

James Van Praagh

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

Skeptical Homeopathy Homework Assignment

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 4, 2012

I found this image via a skeptical Facebook friend, and it just screams “skeptical teacher”!  I’m just jealous that I didn’t think of it first 🙂

Three words: FOR THE WIN!!!

Image source: Reddit

The solutions (pardon the pun) to these questions reveals one glaring fact: homeopathy, there’s nothing in it, except water.

**Update (2/5/12): For those interested, I have calculated the actual answers to these questions.  Contact me if you would like to see the math; here are the answers:

a) 3.46 x 10^21   or   3,460,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms

b) 3.46 x 10^15   or   3,460,000,000,000,000 atoms

c) 3.46 x 10^-39  or  0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 00346 atoms (a number so stupidly small we can safely say that there are effectively NO arsenic atoms remaining within the solution!)

Posted in education, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! 😀

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Physics and Martial Arts: My Interview with The Secular Buddhist

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 8, 2011

While I was at Dragon*Con in Atlanta last month, I did a lot of things.  Among them was to be interviewed by my friend and skeptical colleague Ted Meissner, a.k.a. The Secular Buddhist.  For a long time, Ted and I have wanted to do a discussion on physics and the martial arts, because we are both skeptics and have a history of martial arts training.  And, believe me, if you have been engaged in martial arts training for a considerable amount of time, chances are that you’ve heard some really goofy claims out there.  From “no-touch knockouts” to “shielding with chi”, there’s a lot of nonsense being spread around in the martial arts world, and Ted, me, and Brian Gregory (of Virtual Drinking Skeptically) take it all on.  Enjoy! 🙂

Episode 85 :: Matt Lowry and Brian Gregory :: Physics and Martial Arts

Matt Lowry the Skeptical Teacher, and Brian Gregory of Virtual Drinking Skeptically join us to talk about the myths and facts of the physics of martial arts.

I remember a television show called “That’s Incredible”, and indeed it was. One particular episode had a self-proclaimed martial arts master, James Hydrick who could — supposedly — move pencils and turn phone book pages with his extra-normal powers. This was debunked with a few flakes of packing material on another show, showing how this charlatan was simply using his breath to cause objects to move.

But there are people who mistakenly believe their own press, who think they really do have supernatural powers, or that they are enhancing their strength with invisible fields of cosmic energy. As you can see in one of the embedded videos on the web page for this episode, one fellow comes drastically close to severing his own arm because of this unfounded delusion. It is important for us to question with confidence, to ask for evidence, or else all claims are equally true, and equally, potentially, harmful.

Matt Lowry

Matt Lowry

Matt Lowry is a high school physics teacher (plus a part-time physics & astronomy college professor) with a strong interest in promoting science education & critical thinking among his students and the population in general. He is a self-described skeptic, someone who believes in Carl Sagan’s adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” His blog The Skeptical Teacher is to allow Matt to expound upon various topics related to skepticism, science, and education.

Brian Gregory

Brian Gregory

Brian Gregory is a software engineer that has recently discovered that most of his assumptions about life are wrong; including beliefs, expectations, roles, etc. This transformation, fueled by the Internet, Social Media, Podcasts, and traditional media, has sparked his passion for science, reason, and the naturalistic worldview. Drinking Skeptically is “an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals”. These “real life” groups meet around the country to provide an opportunity for skeptics and skeptic-friendly people to talk, share ideas (and yes, drink) in a casual, relaxed atmosphere.

In case you didn’t notice the Explicit tag in iTunes on this episode, let me just give you an extra warning here: this is an explicit episode. We’re not talking porn, but there may be a light seasoning of expletives. Also be sure to check out the episode page for this episode on The Secular Buddhist website, as I’ve embedded a lot of the videos we talk about on that page. So, sit back, relax, and have a nice… skeptical drink of you choice!

Posted in humor, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Skeptical Teacher Interview on The Secular Buddhist

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 13, 2011

During my time at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9, one of the things I got to do was engage in a fun interview with my friend Ted Meissner, who runs the Secular Buddhist podcast, and his colleague Dana Nourie. The info on our interview is below, and I hope you find it (pardon the pun) enlightening 🙂

Episode 77 :: Matt Lowry and Dana Nourie :: Fun With Physics and Walking Through Walls

Dana Nourie and Matt Lowry join us to speak about physics, the natural world, and quantum misperceptions.

Lately, there seems to be an unfortunate mixing of Siddhattha Gotama’s teaching and practice around the existential experience of dissatisfaction, and science. Certainly we do see wonderful scientific studies about what’s going on in the brain during meditation, for example, but that’s a far cry from levitation and walking through walls. Buddhism is not about physics, despite our seeing false patterns of synchronicity between the two.

Of course, I’m not a physicist. Fortunately my good friend Matt Lowry is, and was also in attendance at The Amazing Meeting, and joined Dana Nourie and I to discuss a few questions about physics, and how they might apply — or not apply — to assertions not in evidence. …

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Firewalking is Just Physics, Not Mysticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 28, 2011

Fire is cool… well, not cool, because it’s actually pretty damned hot.  But what I mean is fire is really interesting to watch – what kid hasn’t at some point been fascinated simply staring into the depths of a campfire?  Do you know what’s more interesting?… the fact that some people actually like to walk on fire.  This in and of itself is just all-around awesome, but then some woo-meisters have to go and spoil it with a bunch of made-up New Age nonsense.  The purpose of this blog post is to show you why firewalking really works.

My skeptical physics colleague David Willey shows his stuff, sacrificing himself for science.  **THIS IS EXTREMELY DANGEROUS AND SHOULD NOT BE PERFORMED WITHOUT PROPER SUPERVISION**

And just to show you that I put my money where my mouth is, below is a video shot of me and my colleagues performing an experimental firewalk back in the summer of 1999…

We decided that we wanted to study the physics of firewalking for ourselves and made this video as a way of documenting the effect. There are (were) two basic competing, scientifically plausible ideas for why it is that firewalkers are not too damaged by the high temperatures during the walk across hot coals: low thermal conductivity and the Leidenfrost effect.

In the first hypothesis, it is the low thermal conductivity of ash, wooden coals, charcoal, or rocks that the firewalker traverses in their journey. Even though the temperatures are extremely high (on the order of 500-800 degrees Fahrenheit), the low thermal conductivity means the rate at which heat will transfer from the hot material to the walker’s feet is very slow. This is why when you check out a baking cake in the oven it is okay to touch the batter but not the metallic pan – the thermal conductivity of the cake batter is low whereas that of the metal pan is very high!

In the second hypothesis, the Leidenfrost effect protects the walker’s feet. The Leidenfrost effect is the same thing that prevents your finger from being burned when you touch a hot iron with a wet finger. The hot iron turns the spit into steam which forms a temporary insulating layer between the iron and the finger. In this argument, the sweat on the walker’s feet is what is vaporized and then protects the feet from the hot coals.

In the video we tested out these two ideas, and we found the Leidenfrost effect to be inadequate to explain the phenomenon. It is the low thermal conductivity of the coals which prevented our feet from being too damaged – I walked a total of four times, three times dry and once with very wet feet. After three dry walks my feet were fine, with only one very small blister (half the size of a pinky nail, barely visible on the video) on one foot, but during the walk with wet feet, to test out the Leidenfrost effect, I found the coals sticking to my feet… OUCH!!! That is where I got badly burned (which is apparent by the very end of the video).

One thing we found was clear: we successfully negotiated the fire bed without any appeals to New Age mysticism or supernaturalism – no prayers were muttered, no crystals stroked, and we never even bothered to measure our “chi” levels. Such appeals to woo are simply not necessary to explain what is happening here – in fact, I have a challenge: if any New Age firewalking guru wants to really convince me that they have paranormal powers, then they’ll walk barefoot across red hot METAL!

I submit that no one will ever seriously attempt such a stupid feat, and even if they did I guarantee they’ll only do it once 😉

For more information on the physics of firewalking, I suggest reading Dr. David Willey’s page at


Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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