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.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Links that teach you everything we know about the Russian Meteor

As you probably know, a meteor crashed in Russia earlier today. It was unusual because it was both unexpected and highly photographed. The following links should help you understand the situation better.
  • Here is the Wikipedia page on the matter, which is a good starting point. It contains all of the dates and places that you need to know about (link
  • Science popularizer Bill Nye on how this meteor relates to the other which is supposed to pass by Earth (link)
  • Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on why radar could not detect the meteor (link).
  • Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel's A and Q about "how could a meteor explode?" (link).
  • Another epic Siegel post on how the universe just keeps trying to kill us (link). the best!
  • CNN's reporting and photography on how the meteor blast injured 1,000 people (link).
  • HuffPo's video that allows you to watch the meteor crashing into Russia (link).
  • Astrophysicist Phil Plait's epic coverage and detailing of the event (link). the best!
  • BBC's reporting on the matter (link).
  • The epic YouTube video of the crashing. This is scattered throughout the other links, but is still worth watching by itself (link).
  • The "TakeAway" audio on the event. A great Neil DeGrasse Tyson interview included on this  (link).   
  • Alas, there is a lot of rapidly developing nonsense about the event. Here is Doubtful News debunking these new urban legends (link
  • update! Russian scientists track down the fragments of the meteor (link)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ten Crazy quotes from Kent Hovind's dissertation

For the few of you who do not know who he is, Kent Hovind is one of the United States' most famous creationist speakers. Prior to imprisonment for tax evasion in 2007, he routinely toured the country to give seminars and debate scientists about the merits of evolution. In the process, he made millions off of home school parents, private schools, and anti-evolution evangelical activists who bought his tapes and visited his Creationist theme park. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Hovind refers to himself as "Doctor" even though received a doctorate from an unaccredited Christian diploma mill (you can receive an equally valid diploma here for free).

Given how dishonest many of his arguments have been over the years, many skeptics and defenders of science were salivating in 2009 when Wikileaks released his dissertation from Patriot University. As you can imagine, the document is full of lulzy quotes, factual inaccuracies, and spelling errors. Rather than being 250 pages as Hovind had claimed over the years, the paper is about 100 pages of absolute fail. It also has no title, which is a first for me.

To commemorate the first Darwin Day (Feb 12th, which is his birthday) that this blog has been open, I thought I would share ten of the craziest and funniest quotes from Mr. Hovind's dissertation. Keep in mind that these quotes were written by someone who claims to have eight years of college education from a real university. Before you start reading, however, you probably need to brace yourselves for large amounts of fail (yes, #1 is actually the first line of a dissertation). 
  1. Hello, my name is Kent Hovind. I am a creation/science evangelist. I live in Pensacola, Florida. I have been a high school science teacher since 1976. I’ve been very active in the creation/evolution controversy for quite some time. 
  2. In the twentieth century the major attack Satan has launched has been against the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
  3. I believe that dinosaurs are not only in the Bible, but the have lived with man all through his six thousand year history. 
  4. The idea that evolutionists try to get across today is that there is continual upward progression. They claim that everything is getting better, improving, all by itself as if there is an inner-drive toward more perfection and order. 
  5. I personally believe that Satan fell from heaven about a hundred years after the creation of Adam and Eve… He had been God’s choir director since he was created… In his pride, Satan decided he would exalt himself and take over the throne of God. This is where evolution started. 
  6. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was an avid evolutionist. In order to comprehend Hitler's reasoning, one must go back to evolution to understand why he did the things that he did, and thought the way he though. 
  7. If a frog turns into a prince instantaneously, we call that miracle or a fairy tale. But, if that frog turns into a prince very slowly, taking three to four hundred million years to make the transition, we will teach that in our universities as scientific fact.  
  8. People who have studied coral reefs say that they could have been formed in about four to five thousand years with no problem. If the earth is older than that, why aren'the coral reefs much larger?
  9. Some people say that me moon started as part of the Pacific Ocean and was pulled out of that area. That was taught for many years and is still believe by some. They try to use that to explain all of the volcanoes in Hawaii, saying that the crust is very thin because the moon was pulled out.
  10. The population of the earth today doubles regularly. If you were to draw up the population growth on a chart you would see that it goes back to zero about five thousand years ago.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why Pluto is not a planet

While I was taking my first college level astronomy course, a rare event occurred. The International Astronomy Union voted to demote Pluto from planethood and assigned it the title of dwarf planet. My professor, being the excellent educator that she is, decided to use this demotion as an opportunity to educate the class. For the following two weeks, we were required to research why this demotion took place and then debate the cogency of the decision (if you teach astronomy, I suggest you do the same). Given that my class overwhelmingly consisted of Americans that grew up in the 1990's, almost no one saw the IAU's decision as a wise move. Our debate consisted of angry statements like: "This isn't right, everyone knows there are nine planets." "Tombaugh (Pluto's discoverer) was an American and so is Pluto."

If you were also seething mad at the IAU's decision to demote Pluto, I want you to think about a couple of things to calm your nerves. First, you need to understand that Pluto is still orbiting the Sun. NASA did not nuke it out the sky or send a giant boot to kick it out of the solar system. It is still made out of ice and rock and has a disproportionately large moon named Charon. The spacecraft New Horizons is also still due to to explore and photograph it in 2015. None of this has changed. All that has changed is Pluto is now grouped with a set of icy objects that are much more similar to it than any of the classical planets. That is it.

Second, you need to understand that this is not the first time that an object has been demoted from planethood. At the dawn of the 19th century, an Italian priest and astronomer named Giuseppe Piazzi (1746-1826) discovered a planet between Jupiter and Saturn. This object, which is named Ceres, was considered a planet for 50 years. It was eventually demoted, however, when it was discovered that Ceres was one body in a vast field of objects. These objects, now know as asteroids, were not known about before because of telescope limitations. Once the existence of countless asteroids were discovered, Ceres was demoted to being an asteroid and grouped in with them. Pluto's demotion, as we will discuss in a second, is strikingly similar to Ceres'.

Now that we understand that Pluto is still part of our Solar System and that Planetary regrouping has happened before, we can consider the reasons why I took the position in my class that Pluto is not a planet. The crux of my case focused around the history of the definition of planet. While it may sound odd, there was no formal definition of planet before the IAU's 2006 decision. Before we get to their definition, however, it will help us if we consider how the term planet has been informally used throughout the ages.

The shifting planets

In the ancient and medieval world, the word "planet" simply referred to those bodies in the sky that moved (the word itself comes from aster planetes, which is Greek for wandering star). Since the Greeks were predominantly geocentrists, they believed that there were seven planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, and the Sun). This number was modified after geocentrism came under heavy attack by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo at the end of the Middle Ages. These men argued that the Earth was a planet and the Sun and Moon were not. By the time that Newton laid down his ideas on mechanics (the mid-late 17th century), the solar system was accepted to be six planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) orbiting the Sun.

The solar system started to change again when, in 1781, William Herschel discovered the first planet not known to the ancients: Uranus (pronounced your-in-is). The orbit of Uranus, however, caused astronomers many headaches. Unlike the other known planets, it did not conform to the path predicted by Newton's mechanics. To explain this anomaly, astronomers predicted that there was another planet even further out who was tugging on Uranus. Scientists finally found the culprit in 1846 when Neptune was discovered. While this solved much of the problems about Uranus' orbit, it unfortunately opened up another mystery. Much like Uranus, Neptune's orbit deviated from what it was expected to be via Newtonian mechanics. To explain this discrepancy, an even further out planet was postulated.

This planet was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh. When Mr. Tombaugh discovered Pluto, it was believed to be much large than it actually is (the size of Earth)  It is also worth noting that, like Ceres, none of the objects surrounding Pluto were known at the time of its discovery. 

The case against Pluto

Now that we understand that the solar system has shifted around when new evidence emerges, my case focuses on Pluto's characteristics and the new formal definition of "planet." As I mentioned a second ago, Pluto is now known to be part of a collection of objects called TNO's (trans-Neptunian Objects). These objects are made of rock and ice and reside in a big belt past Neptune. It is helpful to think of them as a much bigger, further out asteroid belt.

the dots are the TNO's

This factor is important for two reasons: (1) like Ceres, Pluto has much more in common with these non-planetary objects than it does with any of the classical planets and (2) the IAU's drafted definition of "planet" includes a requirement that Pluto is unable to meet because of its TNO neighbors. Since we have explored what it historically meant to be a planet, we are now ready to ponder this definition:

The definition that the IAU drafted has three parts:
  1. A planet must orbit its star.
  2. A planet must be massive enough to be round.
  3. A planet must clear its neighborhood.
Number (3) is the requirement that Pluto fails. But what does it mean to "clear its neighborhood?" This simply means that the object must contain the majority of the mass in its orbital path. For example, Earth is by far the most massive object in its path around the Sun. Pluto, on the other hand, has a minority of the mass in its orbital path. This is because of the large amount of icy and rocky debris around it due to its TNO neighbors. Since all of the 8 classical planets clear their neighborhood and Pluto does not, it is disqualified from being a planet.

There are also three more factors that weigh significantly against Pluto.
  1. Pluto is not even a unique for a TNO. We now know that there are several other sizable objects in this area. The most notable is Eris, which is actually 1/5 more massive than Pluto. 
  2. Pluto's orbit is tiled 17 degrees.  This cannot be said about the classical planets who orbit elliptically on a relatively flat plane.
  3. Unlike any of the classical planets, Pluto and its moon both orbit a common center of gravity. This makes them a binary system. 
Simply put, Pluto just does not have that much in common with the eight planets. It also has a lot in common with the other "dwarf planets." To me, this along with the new evidence about the existence of TNO's (especially the larger Eris) means that the the IAU was correct in their decision to demote Pluto. This new label is also pedagogically sensible and makes it much easier to teach planetary science to children. Like introducing the label of "asteroid" and "comet", introducing "dwarf planet" prevented us from having too many small planets and it cleaned up our textbooks. 

If you have any doubt about my argument, I have a thought experiment for you. Imagine that Pluto was discovered today at the same time as all of the rest of the TNO's. Also imagine if, unlike Tombaugh, you knew its correct size. Would you consider it and its many friends as planets? I do not think so. 

In closing, I have one final remark. Many people love to anthropomorphize Pluto and pretend that its feelings were hurt when it was demoted. If you must make Pluto feel, I advise a small change. Instead of imagining it sad, I think you should imagine it as being much happier with its new set of friends than being the "odd man out" and a planet. This is because Pluto is now among its own kind.