Friday, July 8, 2016

Ken Ham and low hanging fruit



Yesterday, the Ark Encounter theme park opened. This park, which consists of a 510 foot long "replica" of Noah's Ark, cost millions of dollars and took years construct. It was also (quite controversially) supported by the state government of Kentucky. Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis, the group which oversees the park, is notorious in scientific circles for promoting the teaching of the Bible in the science classroom and for operating the creationist "museum." Ken Ham and his organization teach that modern biology, astronomy, geology, and chemistry ought to be rejected in favor of the pseudoscience they display at their park and museum.

They also teach that the Bible is literally true, provides the foundation for all knowledge, and anything that disagrees with it can and ought to be rejected. As you can imagine, many skeptics and science advocates have been very critical of this theme park and the other activities of AiG. These people, which include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill NyeMichael Shermer, and Phil Plait, have pointed out how strange and potentially harmful Ken Ham and his organization has been. I couldn't agree more with their criticisms.

When skeptics like myself publicly voice our criticisms of AiG, however, we are often told that we are picking "low hanging fruit." If we had any intellectual depth, our critics argue, we would instead contend with the philosophy of sophisticated theologians rather than worrying about fools like Ken Ham. Criticisms like these make is seem as though AiG and similar groups like Creation Ministries International are inconsequential, representative of only a few people, and diminishing in power. This, however, is profoundly wrong.

Creationists groups like Ken Ham's are incredibly well-funded and have succeeded in making creationism a growing, global phenomenon. Historian of science, Ronald L Numbers has painstakingly chronicled how creationism is now rapidly expanding in Australia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. This is on top of the fact that, according to Gallup, somewhere between 40-50% of American are creationists. These organizations also have a lot of money to throw around. This is especially apparent when they are compared to skeptical and science groups like the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and the National Center for Science Education.

There is also the fact that what sophisticated clergy and theologians say is of little or no consequence to what the average American (or Earthling, for that matter) thinks about science or religion. Given that our goal is to promote science and critical thinking in the most effective way possible, it is a colossal waste of time discussing process theology and reformed epistemology. If a theologian like John Haught, however, wants to help defend science, then their help on this topic is appreciated and we can save the metaphysical conversations for when the wine is flowing.

The main reason, however, why skeptics should absolutely go after this strain of pseudoscience is that it is one of the most aggressive and expansionist kinds of baloney. The goal of the creationist movement is to remove modern science from the classroom and our culture and replace it with their own brand of nuttiness (or, when they cannot do that, to "teach the controversy"). The point about creationism being intellectually low hanging fruit (which it is) is irrelevant when they are actively trying to undermine the main goal of the skeptical and science communities and occasionally winning.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dear History Channel


"Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat history class"


Dear History Channel,

For a very long time, you have been detrimental to the historical literacy of the United States. At a time when many of my fellow citizens are shockingly ignorant of geography (link), religion (link), and our constitution and government (link), you use your network and the clout that comes with its name to show pawn shops and conspiracy theories.

With the exception of holocaust denial, I have seen you air programs on virtually every kind of pseudo-history. This includes everything from claims about aliens building the pyramids to shows that seemingly treat the Bible in a literal manner. While it may be good for your ratings, this drivel has contributed to a deep confusion about the methods of historians and archaeologists. If this wasn't bad enough, the shows that you put on your networks which are supposed to be "historically accurate" sometimes contain egregious errors of their own.

An unfortunate example of this is The World Wars. This program, which contains some very cool reenactments, an awesome motion score, and many good historical explanations, contained a very historically inaccurate segment about Lenin's takeover of Russia. Rather than taking the 10 minutes needed to explain the actual history of these events, this program totally omitted the February Revolution and stated that Stalin and Lenin directly overthrew the Tsarist government of Nicholas II. This is a mistake that an A student in a World History class in high school would have caught.

As a citizen of the USA, I believe that you owe the American public an apology. Rather than focusing on swamp people and Bigfoot, you could focus on many other topics that are both interesting and historically accurate. In just about 2 minutes, I came up with the following list:

  1. A history of aviation from the Wright Brothers to the Apollo missions
  2. the role languages have played in the development of man
  3. the dropping and making of the atomic bomb
  4. Galileo's role in the Scientific Revolution
  5. the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution
  6. a comparison and explanation of the major world religions
  7. a legitimate explanation of how the pyramids were actually built 
  8. an examination of the controversial Frontier Thesis
  9. a deep, long look at natural history 
  10. an explanation of the roots and interconnections of american music forms like Jazz and Rock and Roll.
While I understand that drivel may be a slightly easier sell, there are many historical topics like these that inform and entertain. Cosmos and Ken Burns' documentaries show that this can be done. If you were to focus instead on endeavors like these, you would be worthy of your name and would be providing a great service.

Thanks for your time,

a concerned historian

Monday, October 19, 2015

Conservative Talk Radio Case Study One: Sam Sorbo and Climate Change

To save you the trouble of listening to Conservative Talk Radio, I decided to occasionally publish some examinations of the content that its hosts are spewing. Hopefully this will allow you to understand what those who object to scientific principles and ideas are coming from.

Case Study 1: 

A couple of weekends ago, CTR host Sam Sorbo (wife of Hercules actor Kevin Sorbo) was going off about the consensus on climate change. In her rant, Sorbo stated that she did not understand where the 97% consensus number came from and that consensus is irrelevant to science anyways. She illustrated this by explaining that 99.9% of scientists used to be geocentrists and that Copernicus was executed for his ideas about heliocentrism.


These statements will by mind boggling to anyone who has ever looked into the history and philosophy of science at all. For starters, Copernicus was not executed. De Revolutionibus was published when Copernicus was already on his way out. It is also a very big stretch to call geocentrism a scientific model.  This idea was held since ancient Greece when Aristotle argued in favor of it. Aristotle did so because it fit with his metaphysics and it explained many features of the world (example: heavy objects fall down because they have a natural tendency to move towards the center of the cosmos).

If you want to consider Aristotle a scientist, then fair enough. He, however, did not do anything resembling science as we have understood it since the dawn of the scientific revolution. His methods were deductive (not inductive), he did not use mathematics to explain models (he provided teleological answers instead), and he did not perform controlled or isolated experiments.

The people who opposed heliocentrism did so largely because it contradicted Dr. Angelicus. Since (at least) the time of his canonization in 1323, Thomas Aquinas' philosophy has been regarded as a definitive explanation of existence by the Roman Catholic church. A key feature of his philosophy is that it uses Aristotle's metaphysics and (by logical extension) and physics as its foundation. Without a lot of data, folk physics also seemed to provide a better explanation for why the world appears as it does. Keep in mind that, without a more complicated math and physics, heliocentrism did not have much more explanatory power than its rival. It, however, gained this evidence as it aged  and matured into a full fledged paradigm (thanks to the work of Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo).

If we want what happened during the dawn of the Scientific Revolution (with people like Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton) to influence how we understand the global warming "debate," then we must put these points to work. The first lesson is that we should not reject new ideas because we find them philosophically or theologically unappealing. The second lesson is that we should probably place our bets on those who have the evidence on their side. Unlike Copernicus who made appeals to simplicity, current climate science has robust evidence based on fundamental physics and chemistry (in other words, it is a mature science. Not a young one). This is the sort of thing that the geocentrists lacked and the heliocentrists eventually had. If we do this, then we ironically cannot help but come down on the side of the 97% consensus.

To preempt a possible objection Mrs. Sorbo might have, a scientific consensus is not a bunch of scientists deciding to cut off investigation. A consensus is when the experts in a particular field overwhelmingly agree to the extent that all of their independent and overlapping research comes to the same robust conclusion. This does not limit dissenters from publishing their ideas or other people from pursuing other lines of inquiry. In other words, a consensus is not a deductive argument from authority which states you must accept a science "because they said so." It is a strong inductive argument that states that we would place our bets on the people who know what they are talking about when they all come to the same conclusion.

This is the same reason why you get a surgeon to perform heart surgery and not your next-door neighbor. But where did that 97% come from? If Sam would have looked it up, she would have known that this estimate comes from a meta-analysis of over ten thousand peer-reviewed climate change articles (link). Out of these articles that stated an opinion one way or the other, 97.1% were in agreement that human driven global warming is happening.  If this is not enough, an analysis found that only 24 papers rejected this view in a span of twenty years (link) and yet another found that through 2012-13, only one paper rejected this consensus (link).

While I do not expect Mrs. Sorbo to read this or to change her mind, I just wanted to get it on the record that many of these radio personalities have no clue what they are talking about when it comes to science. I am by no means a prodigy (in fact, I just got stomped by a Calc III test today and I am going to have to put in some elbow grease to get a good grade out of the class), I do take the time to look stuff up and to see what the experts say. You do not have to be a scientist or a genius to do this. You just have to be curious and understand how evidence and expertise work.

Tune in next time when we will discuss Glenn Beck's trip the the mayo clinic and his argument that free market capitalism is responsible for all of the medical and technological breakthroughs that are currently going on (apparently massive government funding of scientific research had nothing to do with this).

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Conservative talk radio and why you should listen to it.

What its like to be a listener of CTR

Since I was a young child, I have been a listener of CTR (conservative talk radio). At first, I listened simply because I happened to be in the car when my father listened to Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy. As I grew older, however, I listened because I believed what they said. This belief was largely the result of two major factors that I think are true for many other fans of CTR:
  1. The GOP-fundamentalist worldview has mechanisms in it that allow you to discount the beliefs of outsiders. It teaches you that the people who disagree with you are trying to push a false philosophy so that they can remake the USA as an atheistic-socialist state without freedom. We know this because conservative intellectuals have pointed out these holes and have shown their motives. This is just as true for scientific ideas (especially evolution, global warming, and the big bang), they assert, as it is for things like gay marriage.
  2. The schools in the South and many other areas that are strongholds for GOP-fundie ideas do not teach critical thinking and science in any meaningful sense. Given this, I had no idea how evolution or any other major scientific theory worked until I was in college. This lack of education is the result of people who are convinced by factor 1 that we need to keep such things out of the public school system. The result of this is a feedback loop between factors 1 and 2. 
My interest in CTR, however, started to wane when I was in college. For the first time in my life, I took classes where my teachers were experts in both pedagogy and their subject matter. My Civ 1 professor taught "just the facts" of comparative religion and never stated what his own opinions were. This was the first time in my life that I was able to learn about religions without being told which one, if any, was right. My psych teacher (the experimental-biology kind) asked my class to write down any questions or objections we had about psychology or evolution. He then told us to hold on to them until after we covered the material. If we still wanted to ask them, then he would happily answer them (by the time this day arrived, almost all of these questions had either been answered or shown to be nonsensical). Experiences like these that are features of having a real education popped the bubble I was living in.

About a year ago, however, I started listening to it again. Unlike my first go around, I am not listening because I am a true believer. Instead, I tune in because I think that it is important to give people who disagree with you a chance to voice their opinions.  If you are a skeptic, this may sound like the worst thing ever. After all, a lot of what these people say is absolutely crazy.

Glenn Beck being Glenn Beck.


I certainly agree with this sentiment. As a listener to these people, I can name all sorts of nutty shit that they have said. Glenn Beck, for example, is legendary for the excrement that comes out of his mouth. A couple of days ago (8/11/15), he dismissed evolution, the big bang, and climate change.  His reasons for doing so were that Piltdown Man showed evolution to be false, scientists "used to think it was cooling," and scientists have now announced that the big bang never happened. This was done in a span of about 10-15 minutes. Today (8/13/15), he had on pseudohistorian David Barton to demonstrate that divine providence guides the USA and to argue against the separation of church and state. Neither one of these days was special or out of the ordinary. He pushes this sort of baloney every day.

With all of that said, I think that it is important that you fight these natural urges and listen anyways.This helps to prevent you from making a straw man out of other people's views. When you get your news of what someone you disagree with says from someone who is on your side, there is a good chance that you are going to get a straw man. This is very hard to do when you skip the middle man and get the ideas from the horse's mouth  It also prevents the type of cognitive closure that I experienced when I was a true believer. Regardless of what you believe, you do not want to live in a bubble where opposing views are sealed off from you. This has the potential of making you smug and cut off from the cultural zeitgeist.

Always keep in mind that CTR listeners are plentiful and passionate about voting. If you want to understand the electorate of the USA, then it is essential that you listen to the sources from which they get their information. We have a two party system and this is a way to tap into the minds of a voting block that has control over one of them. It also allows you to anticipate the type of complaints that GOP-fundies have and what their underlying moral concerns are. By getting the moral reasons why people like Beck and Mark Levin reject science, you can have more meaningful discussions with your family and friends. This is especially true of that uncle who you only see on Thanksgiving. You know the one I am talking about.

If you think that you are ready for this plunge, then I recommend that you listen to all of the normal guys such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck. Find the one of them that annoys you the least. After you build up a tolerance for them, then you can branch off. If you do not drive or have the time to listen to them on the road, then you can find clips of their "best" stuff online.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Skepticism in the classroom


Yesterday, I posted a quote from David Suzuki on my facebook group about science education failing to incorporate skepticism. This was shared widely and approvingly reposed by several highly followed pages.


If you are a science educator yourself, you probably responded to this quote by saying something like "that is easy for you to say. I have tried to teach critical thinking and it is very hard to find material that I could actually use in my classroom."

I take this complaint very seriously. It is difficult to find good critical thinking materials that are both interesting and can actually be applied in the real world. Another reasonable requirement is that these resources need to be very affordable or free. This is because, at least in the United States, good educators get paid just as poorly as bad educators. Even if they are phenomenal science teachers, they simply do not have the extra money available to buy a bunch of stuff. Fortunately for us, many skeptical educators have already anticipated your concerns and have gone through the trouble of creating free skeptical resources for the classroom. These booklets and videos investigate fascinating topics and are tailored for children and young adults who need a dose of critical thinking added to their school curriculum and can can be downloaded with the click of a button.

The first resource that you should check out is a series of short pamphlets/books created by the James Randi Education Foundation. All three of these guides are custom made with certain age groups in mind (one is for elementary, one for late middle school, and one for high school) and are about non-threatening topics like dowsing, ESP, and faeries (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of Sherlock Holmes believed in them). The JREF has provided both student and teacher editions so that you have all the material you need to lead a class discussion.  

If this sounds interesting, please click here and download them.
 
The second resource that I recommend is Brian Dunning's movie, Here be Dragons. This movie is designed to be watched in one class period (it is 45 minutes) and covers very interesting material like conspiracy theories and homeopathy. Mr. Dunning does an excellent job of outlining logical fallacies and exposing many of the bunk that hucksters without being threatening. He also explains how certain features of science work, why people believe in weird things, and even provides an excellent reading list at the end for students who want to know more. 
 
If Mr. Dunning's movie sounds appealing, you can get it here for free
 
Third, I want you to check out this workshop on instituting skepticism in the classroom. It was conducted at TAM 9 (The Amazing Meeting, which is a skeptical conference held by the JREF each year) and was later posted on the web. It includes lots of goodies including advice for teachers and several activities that can easily be incorporated into a lesson plan. In one of the most interesting of these activities, your students will get to see how astrology fools our brains. This is a valuable because realizing you can be easily fooled is the first step to becoming a skeptic. 
 
If you want to see these resourced, they have been made available here
 
Finally, I want you to check out these lessons created by the Leonore Annenburg Institute for Civics. While the institute's name may not sound skeptical, their lessons are some of the best available. They teach everything from how to examine popular claims to how our biases lead is to distorted conclusions. Given the nature of their material, they could just as easily be included into a civics or history class.
 
If this sounds appealing to you, click here to get these lessons.  

Hopefully these free resources serve you well in your classroom. In my opinion, they are all excellent and (if I had one) I put my seal of approval on them. If you are teaching your child critical thinking at home and feel left out, keep paying attention to my blog because I will be posting a list of affordable children's books that teach skepticism very soon. In the meantime, I recommend you incorporating these lessons at home.
 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Socrates meets Bigfoot

Bigfoot in Nor Cal.
Recently there have seen several attacks on "Bigfoot skepticism." If you are unfamiliar with this label, it is a derogatory term used to bewail skeptics who deal mostly with topics like UFO's, astrology, psychics, and Bigfoot rather than social justice issues or religion. It recently exploded all over the internet via the comment section PZ Myer's blog (it should be noted that PZ had a nuanced view and has nothing against "Bigfoot skepticism." This post is directed more at the minority of his readers who think examining Bigfoot is a waste of time).

Instead of explaining why this accusation is incorrect (which I think it clearly is. Skeptics like Peter Boghossan and Matthew McCormick specialize in religion. Michael Shermer and the late Paul Kurtz also talk about religion in their books), the purpose of this post is to focus on why Bigfoot and his friends are invaluable when it comes to training skeptics. Please note that this is not intended to be a book length retort to other internet sites. Instead it is just a few points about why I think Bigfoot and co. are awesome. I hope you enjoy.

Before we do so, however, I think it would be helpful if we first contemplated the skeptical methods of Socrates (469-399 BC). As you probably remember from intro to philosophy class, Socrates was known throughout his home city of Athens for critically examining the popular claims of his day. He used a methodology based on rigorous questioning to tear down baseless assumptions held by his fellow Athenians about religion, morality, politics, and the meaning of life. After this deconstruction, Socrates would work with the person he was questioning to come to new, more sound conclusions based on logic. This systematized, logic-based dialogue is often referred to as Socratic Reasoning in his honor.

Today Socrates' skeptical methods are as valid as ever. The topics which he applied them to, however, are seen as boring and irrelevant by the general audience. This is not astonishing. After all, how many people find ancient Greek politics to be interesting? But, you may ask, "if we do not apply these methods to the topics Socrates examined, what should we apply them to?" This is where Bigfoot and his pals come in. For whatever reason, the furry guy has long captured the public imagination. By applying skepticism to Bigfoot and similar topics, skeptics open a dialog with the general public. Bigfoot is also much less threatening than discussing politics or religious scandals with a general audience (look up what happened for Socrates). While I certainly believe that nothing should be off limits for the skeptic, there is something to be said for pursuing topics that wedge open the door. 

Aside from his popularity, there are a couple of other reasons that we should bring Socrates to bear on Bigfoot.  First, Bigfoot is very useful for training fledgling skeptics. By applying the skeptical toolkit to the big guy and his friends, we can teach valuable lessons about eyewitness testimony, cognitive biases, and evidential standards. Since Bigfoot is a fairly straightforward case of an extraordinary claim, we can examine him without getting too abstract. This allows newbies to cut their skeptical teeth without having to read through a bunch of Plato's Dialogues about the Forms, mathematical truths, or the ultimate nature or reality. The works of Daniel Loxton, Ben Radford, and Joe Nickell are excellent examples of "Bigfoot skepticism" that help both beginner and expert skeptics fine-tune their reasoning skills.

Second (and more important), Bigfoot and is friends are widely believed by the American public to be true. In a country of 300 million people, as much as 52%  believe in astrology, 46% in ESP, 19% in witches, 35% in ghosts, and 22% in UFO's. A recent survey also shows that 35% believe that President Obama is hiding details about where he was born and 25% think that President Bush's administration was behind 9/11 (link). Socrates thought that it was detrimental to society if there was not a gadfly questioning and deconstructing widely held irrational beliefs. Without skeptics out there playing the roll of the gadfly, we are conceding our public discourse to non-reason and non-evidence based epistemologies. This concession could be severely detrimental to our planet, our liberties, our safety, and our economy.

Given these reasons, I think that skeptics have all the reason in the world to criticize Bigfoot, UFO's, homeopathy, astrology, and the like. Not only are they good for training junior skeptics, but they both in the popular imagination and widely believed to be true. Even if this was not the case and virtually no one accepted Bigfoot, Socrates would never pass up such an opportunity to engage a belief that is held for such bad reasons. As skeptics, I do not think that we should either.

If you want to know more about Bigfoot skepticism and how to we can use it to benefit our critical thinking skills, I recommend investigating the work of Daniel Loxton, Benjamin Radford, and Joe Nickell.  All of their work is top notch and conveys a very non-threatening "nice guy" approach to skepticism and critical thinking.