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.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poe's Law and postmodernism

Warning: If you do not enjoy face palming, I suggest not reading this article. 

Over the last five decades, the most infamous school of philosophy has been postmodernism. This movement argues that science is a "power structure" and does not report any actual truth (many postmodernists also have a problem with the concept of truth, too). Instead of being motivated by a desire to know the world, scientists are imperialistic, white chauvinists who desire to suppress other belief systems. To back up their claims postmodernists attempt to apply literary criticism to scientific theories. For example, feminist Luce Irigaray attacked the general theory of relativity by saying: 

Is e=mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to me to indicate the possible sexed nature of the equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes the fastest.
If you think that Irigaray is alone, here is feminist Sandra Harding's thoughts on science's epistemology: 

One phenomenon feminist historians have focused on is the rape and torture metaphors in the writings of Sir Francis Bacon and others (e.g. Machiavelli) enthusiastic about the new scientific method. …But when it comes to regarding nature as a machine, they have quite a different analysis: here, we are told, the metaphor provides the interpretations of Newton’s mathematical laws: it directs inquirers to fruitful ways to apply his theory and suggests the appropriate methods of inquiry and the kind of metaphysics the new theory supports. But if we are to believe that mechanistic metaphors were a fundamental component of the explanations the new science provided, why should we believe that the gender metaphors were not? A consistent analysis would lead to the conclusion that understanding nature as a woman indifferent to or even welcoming rape was equally fundamental to the interpretations of these new conceptions of nature and inquiry. In that case, why is it not as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton’s laws as “Newton’s rape manual” as it is to call them “Newton’s mechanics”? 
And science theorist Bruno Latour denying that Ramses II died of tuberculosis because he lived thousands of years before the disease was discovered:  

 Let us accept the diagnosis of “our brave scientists” at face value and take it as proved that that Ramses died of tuberculosis. How could he have died of a bacillus discovered in 1882 and of a disease whose etiology, in its modern form dates only from 1819 in Laennec’s ward?  Is it not anachronistic? The attribution of tuberculosis and Koch’s bacillus to Ramses II should strike us as an anachronism of the same caliber as if we had diagnosed his death as having been caused by a Marxist upheaval, or a machine gun, or a Wall Street crash.  Is it not an extreme cause of “whiggish” history, transplanting into the past the hidden or potential existence of the future? 
One of the attributes that seemingly all postmodernist literature shares is using nonsensical language in a virtually incoherent way.  This pattern greatly resembles the way that quantum spiritualists like Deepak Chopra use words like energy, non-locality, and quantum to mean things that no scientists would ever mean by them. 

A physicist named Alan Sokal saw the way that postmodernists used babel to attack science and decided the play a trick. In 1998, he submitted a fake postmodernist paper to the journal Social Text to see if he could get it published. His article, which was titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, argued that quantum gravity was a social construct (you can read the paper for yourself here). One of my favorite quotes from the article criticizes set theory as being chauvinistic and hegemonic : 
Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and ``pro-choice'', so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo-Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice. But this framework is grossly insufficient for a liberatory mathematics, as was proven long ago by Cohen (1966).
The most hilarious thing about Sokal's submission, however, is that it was published. That's right. The editors of Social Text published an article in it that argued gravity is a social construct, set theory is sexist, and contains more that six meaningless sentences.

One of my theories on this incident is that Poe's Law came into effect. If you are unfamiliar with Poe's law, it is when parody cannot be distinguished from a sincere article because the belief structure has no grounding in reality. For creationists. it is difficult to tell a person imitating a Young Earth Creationist from the real deal because sincere creationists sound like a bad parody. Since postmodernism, like creationism, entails a certain kind of jargon, it is hard to tell when someone is serious or they are just trolling. 

For example, take this piece of artwork which implies that the big bang theory was created by Satan. Before reading on, try to tell if if was done by a troll or a serious creationist. You probably can't.

This inability to distinguish sincere belief from parody is what made it possible for Alan Sokal to commit his hoax against postmodernists If you do not believe me, try to find someone who is a postmodernist and has not read Sokal's hoax. Copy and paste the quote I mentioned about abortion and set theory and tell them that it is one of the featured postmodernists. I guarantee them that they will take the bait and won't be able to distinguish the two. 

On a side note, I also recommend that you check out the Postmodern Generator. It randomly generates a new, postmodernist-sounding essay every time you click on it. It does this task by combining words that postmodern scholars like to use with references from art and political science. Like Sokal's hoax, you literally cannot tell the difference between these articles and the work of people like Derrida and Foucault. If you are in a class where postmodernism is being taught, see if you can trick your friends into thinking you wrote the essay (don't turn it in though, that's plagiary). 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Ten scientists to talk about during Black History Month

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
One of my passions in life is the dissemination of the history of science to the general public. Because of this, I am appalled by how educators typically underplay American American scientists, explorers, and inventors during Black History Month. Instead of the many great men and women who have helped revolutionize the world and our understanding of it, educators tend to focus on athletes and artists.  Don't get me wrong. I think Jackie Robinson was an exceptional baseball player and a key figure in the fight against segregation and Louis Armstrong was a musical genius of the highest caliber. Children, however, need to be aware that their cultural heritage is much richer than sports and music.. 

If you are an educator and you are not an expert on the history of science, do not worry. I have compiled a list for you of 10 African American scientists, inventors, and explorers that you can easily add to your curriculum. The reason why I chose just 10 is because (as I have found out through trial and error) young people generally do not have a large enough attention span to handle any more information than this. I also want to issue a challenge to you: please do not just teach about the contributions of American Americans during the month of February. Black history is American History and needs to be taught and celebrated as part of your normal curriculum.  
  1. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson (b. 1946) is a nuclear physicist and the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She attained her doctorate from MIT (where she was the first black woman to do so) and has served on many advisory boards including President Clinton's Nuclear Regulatory Commission and President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Her research interests focus on fundamental particles, especially neutrinos.
  2. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1858-1931) was a surgeon and cardiologist. He was the second person to repair the torn pericardium of a knife wound and the first American to perform a successful open-heart surgery. He also founded Providential Hospital (which was the first desegregated hospital in the United States) and was the first black charter member of the American College of Surgeons.
  3. Mr. Matthew Henson (1866-1955) was a famous explorer and associate of Robert Peary. While he was an exceptional seaman, Mr. Henson is mostly noted for his expedition to the North Pole in 1909. On this voyage, he became the first person to reach the geographic North Pole. Later in his life, Mr. Henson was awarded a silver medal and recognized by presidents Truman and Eisenhower for his incredible achievement.     
  4. Dr. Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975) was a chemist who focused on the chemical synthesis of medicine from plants. He is most notable for his synthesizing of physostigmine and his pioneering work in the industrial large scale synthesizing of hormones, steroids, testosterone, and progesterone. His work would laid the foundation for the production of cortisone and birth control pills. 
  5. Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins Jr.(1923-2011) was a nuclear physicist and mathematician. He is remembered in part because he started the University of Chicago at the ago of 13 and achieved a doctorate by the age of 19. After this, he worked on the Manhattan Project under the tutelage of Enrico Fermi. Throughout his life, he made many contributions to calculus, engineering and nuclear physics, he served as president of the American Nuclear Society, and was the second African American to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. .
  6. Dr. Mae Jemison (b. 1956) is a physician and retired astronaut. Despite her excellent record as as a medical doctor, Dr. Jemison's greatest accomplishment is being the first black woman to travel into space. She accomplished this feat on September 12, 1992 when she went into orbit abroad the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Although she is now retired from NASA, she logged 190 1/2 hours in space. She has also appeared on Star Trek: Next Generation
  7. Dr. Patricia Bath (b. 1942) is an inventor and ophthalmologist. She was the first woman to serve on the staff of the Jules Stein Eye Institute or to head a post-graduate program in ophthalmology at the UCLA Medical Center. She was also the first black person to serve as a resident in ophthalmology at New York University. Dr. Bath also holds several medical patents, including one for a Laserphaco Probe (which is used to treat cataracts). She also founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.
  8. Dr. Samuel Kountz (1930-1981) was a transplant surgeon. He was a pioneer in the field of kidney transplants and performed the first successful kidney transplant between two people who were not identical twins. He was also part of a team that developed a prototype for the Belzer kidney perfusion machine. At the time of his death, Dr. Kountz had performed 500 kidney transplants (which was, at the time, more than anyone in the world).  
  9. Dr. Ida Stephens Owens  (b. 1940) is a biochemist, geneticist, and physiologist. A member of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Owens researches the genetics of detoxification enzymes. Her research has helped scientists gain a much better understanding of  how the human body defends itself against poison. She is currently a member of multiple research bodies, including the Section of Genetic Disorders of Drug Metabolism and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
  10. Dr. David Blackwell (1919-2010) was a statistician, the first African American inducted into the National Academy of the Sciences, and the first black tenured professor at UC Berkeley. He is most known in mathematics for proposing the Blackwell channel and co-discovering the Rao-Blackwell theorem. Dr. Blackwell also made many contributions to game theory and authored one of the first textbooks on Bayesian statistics in the late 1960's.

Creationists pollute young minds at a museum

This clip is from a Nightline special that addressed faith in America. If you have never seen it before, I want you to pay attention to the way that the Young Earth Creationists use of the concept of worldview to argue that evolution stems from philosophical assumptions. It is also worth mentioning that the museum's curator, Kirk Johnson, now has a very high profile job at the American Museum for Natural History.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The top ten myths about evolution

For those of you who are not familiar Cameron Smith's The Top Ten Myths About Evolution, it is an excellent book. Like the best works of popular science, it guides the reader without expecting them to already know anything about the subject. While its main purpose is to rebut the most popular misconceptions about the theory of evolution, it also teaches the science needed to fill the void that abandoning creationism leaves. 

In this post, I am going to provide my own rebuttals to Cameron's "top ten myths." The reason why I am doing this is because I want a succinct and easy to read list available for linking. I believe that lots of people are on the fence about evolution not because they embrace creationism, but because they simply are unaware of the facts behind the science (the only exception to this is that I changed number 2). If you read this list and desire to know more, I recommend that you purchase Dr. Smith's book.    

1: Survival of the fittest.

A common misunderstanding about evolution is that "survival of the fittest" means only the strong and ruthless survive. This is wrong. What Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin meant by "survival" is merely an organism's success rate at passing on copies of its genes into the future through reproduction. They also meant something entirely different by "fittest" than most people think. Instead of meaning an individual's ability to dominate others, they meant organisms who are better adapted for their immediate, local environment.  Taken together "survival of the fittest" means: the organisms which are the most likely to pass on copies of their genes to future generations are those who are better adapted to their immediate, local environment (a definition I borrowed from philosopher of biology, Alexander Rosenberg).

It should also be noted that many of the best strategies for passing on ones genes often have nothing to do with strength or ruthlessness. Many animals, such as various kinds of  octopuses, bugs, and birds, use evasion techniques like camouflage and mimicry to successfully ward off predators and gather food undetected. Other animals, like certain large mammals and bats, use group cooperation and food sharing to ensure their survival. These strategies have been very successful at ensuring the propagation of species and are the reason why humans are still around. They are also probably the reason why humans feel empathy and compassion towards others. 

2: There is no proof/just a theory

A common trope which is just as popular is that there is no evidence for evolution. This misconception, however, has little to do with science and a lot to do with how bad schools are in the USA. Evolution is actually one of the most studied, successful, and supported theories in all of the sciences. The evidence which supports it flows in from all branches of biology including genetics, homology, paleontology, embryology, and study of the geographical distribution of animals. If you are curious about this evidence, then you can read through Talk Origin's guide to the subject or watch Neil Shubin's documentary Your Inner Fish. The thing I recommend doing the most is reading through Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True and Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. They are both excellent popular level books which explain this evidence.

To see why the "its only a theory" objection is flawed, you need to understand what scientists mean by "theory." Rather than meaning "a hunch or guess" (like in everyday speech), scientists mean something like "a testable and well-confirmed explanation which organizes data and yields fruitful predictions." This is why the existence of atoms is explained in atomic theory and the fact that some diseases are caused by microorganisms like bacteria and viruses is explained in germ theory. If you take introductory science classes in college, such as biology, geology, or astronomy, your professor will almost certainly cover this distinction in the introductory unit on the nature of science.

3: The ladder of progress

Many people believe that evolution means that all living things are improving towards a perfect state. This is usually envisioned as a ladder with man at the top striving towards godhood with all other living things occupying lower spots on the ladder and striving to be like man. These lower living things are ranked and given their spot on the ladder based on how similar to man they are. The more like man they are in appearance, the higher their ranking is on the ladder. This idea, however, is dead wrong. Living things are not striving towards being more like man and, as we discussed in misconception #1, fitness is only about passing genes on, not becoming more like man.

In many instances, being less like man is a better survival strategy. For example, many mammals like dolphins evolved from land animals. They, however, lost their limbs and returned to the water. This "regression" has worked out well for them and they are one of the most vicious predators in the ocean. If the ladder theory was true, then dolphins should have become more like man through evolution, not less. Other organisms, like the great white shark, are also good counterexamples because they have barely changed since the time of the dinosaurs.

4: The missing link

It is a popular belief that there is a missing link between man and apes and this absence is a reason for doubting the cogency of evolution.  This criticism, however, misunderstands man's relationship to the other apes (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, gibbons, and orangutans). Evolutionists do not think we "came from" any one of these animals. Instead they think we share common ancestors with them. These ancestors, such as the one we share with chimps, would be just as genetically different from chimps as it would be from us. This idea can be understood by the family analogy. Just like we share a common ancestor with our cousin (our grandparents), we share a common ancestor with chimps. For our more distant, second cousins (such as gorillas), you have to go back a further generation to great grandparents.

While the fossil record will always be incomplete because only a fraction of one percent of dead organisms fossilize, there is an absolute ton of amazing fossils left over from this branching process and I highly recommend reading up on them (message me and I will recommend some books). The evidence for common ancestry, however, comes from much more than paleontology. The fields of genetics, embryology, bio-geography, and comparative anatomy converge to attest to human beings sharing a common ancestor with apes (read about this evidence here and here). 

5: Evolution is random

It is certainly true that one of the two pillars of evolution is random mutation. If you are unfamiliar with random mutation, it simply refers to the fact that when genes are passed on to the next generation, they are not copied perfectly. These tiny differences usually do nothing, but sometimes they make the offspring slightly faster or slightly better a camouflaging themselves. These modifications accumulate overtime as genes are inherited from generation to generation (they do not "start over," which is every important).

Natural selection, which is the second pillar of evolution, favors those organisms which have those slight advantages. As generations pass and the fastest and best camouflaged organisms survive longer and have more offspring, the species as a whole will change. For example, suppose we have a population of mice living in an environment where being brown is a massive advantage. The browner mice will live longer than their less brown relatives. Their even browner offspring also will tend to survive longer and have more babies than their less brown siblings. As this pattern of survival by being brown proliferates over time, the mice population will become increasingly brown. This is how natural (non random) selection interacts with accumulated random mutations to drive evolution.

6: People come from monkeys

As I talked about in #4 and in my criticism of Katt Williams,  people did not come from modern day monkeys. Instead, we share a common ancestor with them. This misconception is one of the major reasons why people expect there to be a "missing link." It should also be said that the reason that monkeys are not turning into people (as discussed in #3) is that evolution is not a directed process of being more manlike. The "goal" of monkeys is not to become man, but to simply pass on their genes. 

7: Nature's perfect balance

Nature is usually believed to be a harmonious whole which is in perfect balance. On the environmental level, however, this is false. The environment is in constant flux from external factors (meteors, etc...) and internal factors (the gradual moving of tectonic plates, the accumulation of certain gases in the atmosphere). These changes move the survival goalposts and force organisms to come up with new adaptations or perish.

As #5 points out, random mutation also means organisms slowly change. As small modifications accumulate in a lineage, organisms gain new abilities which are then selected for or against by their environment. This is quite different from how creationists think about animals. Unlike biologists, they believe that "dogs stay dogs (this is ironic because humans selectively bred dogs from wolves)" and "cats stay cats (again, ironic)."

8: Creationism disproves evolution

No it doesn't. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming (see no, 4) and the evidence for creationism is non-existent. If anything, evolution disproves the versions of creationism that are incompatible with it. If you would like to see point by point rebuttals of creationist arguments that are not included in this post, please visit Talk Origins.    

9: Intelligent Design is science

Intelligent Design is not a coherent theory, just creationism in a lab coat. To quote Paul Nelson:
Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design. 
Unlike IDC, evolution is a full fledged theory. We can say this because it unifies all areas of modern biology into a coherent framework, makes novel predictions, is ontologically parsimonious  (it appeals to no entities outside of the natural world), and has great explanatory scope. IDC has none of these virtues.

As it has been shown conclusively, IDC is merely a strategy designed by creationists following the disastrous Edwards vs. Aguillard ruling. Since it was clear following this court case that creationism was not going to be able to get past the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, creationists got rid of the explicit appeals to Biblical literalism and recruited several very bright scholars like Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stephen Meyers. The end result was Intelligent Design.
10: Evolution is immoral

This idea could be taken two different ways. The first is that natural selection favors those organisms which are selfish and backstabbing. This means that it literally breeds for traits that are immoral. As I said in #1, however, many organisms have survived due to strategies like sharing food and protecting one another. Bats, for example, share with their brethren who did not successfully acquire food. Likewise, bats who do not share become pariahs and their brethren will not help them if they are unsuccessful a following night. Human beings have evolved a very strong moral sense. Despite popular conceptions, the overwhelming number of human interactions are cooperative (see Jessica Piece's Wild Justice for lots of well developed information about this subject). .

The second interpretation of this claim is that if evolution is true, there can be no ultimate grounds for morality. While some very respected philosophers like Richard Joyce, Alexander Rosenberg, and (the late) JL Mackie believe this, many ethicist think that biology has no adverse effect on morality. Since Ancient Greece, philosophers have been doing morality without any appeal to the supernatural. These scholars charge that biology effects their ethical ideas in a positive way by illuminating how the world works. This, they argue, allows them to more effectively bring about what they think ought to be the case. If you want to explore morality more, I recommend Peter Singer, (the late) Philipa Foot, Simon Blackburn, and Philip Kitcher. They all have very different, but very interesting, things to say.


I hope that this post helps you explain and elucidate the wonders of science. If you would like more tools in this fight, please click on my content section. There I have posts about how to talk to non-skeptics and other responses to creationism. You can also do, as I mentioned earlier, purchase Dr, Smith's excellent book.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Animated Pale Blue Dot

How skeptics should not confront pseudoscience

I sincerely believe that it is necessary for both science educators and skeptics to engage the public in a rational dialog. I do not, however, think that they should be open to every available time, method, and format. This is because, as I will argue below, approaching the public in the wrong way may do more harm than good.

A format that should be avoided all together is formal debates. Debates have several features that make them a poor format for science communication. As it has been pointed out again and again, virtually the whole audience goes to debates with their minds already made up. Unless someone gets absolutely tooled, then no one is likely to change their mind (this can also backfire and embolden someone's beliefs). It is also very difficult to correctly explain scientific theories in such a small amount of time. Even the quickest explanation of evolution takes college professors a couple of full length class periods. There is no reason to think that it can be done in a twenty minute opening statement.

Debates can also help the cause of pseudoscience. Unlike the defenders of science, the charlatan have the ability to make things up on the spot because they are not committed to the truth. This gives them a massive advantage in persuading the audience who cannot tell the difference. Many pseudoscientists are also master rhetoricians and they pay their rent by debating. These factors mean that there is a good chance they are going to win, even if they are full of it. A great example of this is the debate between Kent Hovind and Massimo Pigliucci (link). Despite Massimo having doctorates in botany, genetics, and philosophy and Kent having one from an uncredited Christian diploma mill, the latter (at least in my opinion) easily won the exchange.

Perhaps even worse, you are granting the proponent of pseudoscience a major propaganda victory by merely stepping on stage with them. This victory is the ability to claim that there is a legitimate debate between their viewpoint and mainstream science. Since achieving this status is a major goal of Intelligent Design proponents, you have already given them a tremendous victory before you even open your mouth. You may respond to this by saying something like "But isn't that a change to crush them? What if the defender of science smashes them?" The problem with this is that it still gives the audience the impression that there is no settled science.

Instead of doing debates, scientists and science educators should make documentaries, host podcasts, appear on television shows, and write popular level books. This allows them to explain the complexities of theories like evolution without having to immediately deal with asinine objections like missing links and apes turning into people. Once these theories are properly explained, many of the criticisms that captivate the public imagination will dissolve away.  An excellent example of this is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. This documentary debunks objections like "an eye could not be made by chance" or "what good is only half of an eye" by explaining how natural selection actually works.

If you are a skeptic and wish to discuss critical thinking at the grass roots level, then friendly discussions are to be preferred. There are many resources that can help develop techniques for diffusing ideas about science and critical thinking. If you desire to communicate ideas, like the theory of evolution, I highly recommend that you also read popular level books by people like Sean Carroll, Jerry Coyne, and (of course) Richard Dawkins. Their books contain lucid explanations, captivating evidence, and excellent analogies that you can use to explain science. I also recommend that you preempt the concerns that creationists may have by reading Ruse, Numbers, and Kitcher. Since all creationists have virtually the same objections, this should not be hard to do.

While this advice may not sound as daring as taking to he debate stage, it allows science to dispel misunderstandings on its own terms without creating the illusion that it is on par with pseudoscience. This is the standard that we should strive for because it creates a much better environment to change the minds of the masses.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Spock vs. Critical thinking

He may be bad at reasoning, but Evil Spock has an amazing goatee.
Some of the most egregious misrepresentations of what it means to be rational come from my favorite fictional character, Star Trek's Mr. Spock. If you are not familiar with the literature on rationality, this is probably surprising to you. After all, Spock is portrayed to show close to no passion (except when he can no longer repress it) and he makes decisions based on cold, calculating logic. This is not, however, what it means to be a critical thinker.

As it has been pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky, Julia Galef (who is the first to use the following two examples), and Luke Muehlhauser, there is nothing rational about Spock's decision making process. For whatever reason, Gene Roddenberry wrote our Vulcan hero as someone who does not take other sentient being's emotion into account when he is deciding what to do. To see what I am talking about, examine this dialog between Spock and McCoy on the the episode Galileo Seven:
McCoy: "Well, Mr. Spock, [the aliens] didn’t stay frightened very long, did they?"
Spock: "A most illogical reaction. When we demonstrated our superior weapons, they should have fled."
McCoy: "You mean they should have respected us?"
Spock: "Of course!"
McCoy: "Mr. Spock, respect is a rational process. Did it ever occur to you that they might react emotionally, with anger?"
Spock: "Doctor, I’m not responsible for their unpredictability."
McCoy: "They were perfectly predictable, to anyone with feeling! You might as well admit it, Mr. Spock: your precious logic brought them down on us!"
The type of rationality that Spock is betraying here is known as epistemic rationality. This kind, also known as type 1 rationality, is our commitment to having as accurate a view of the world as we possibly can. If Spock were abiding by a commitment to know the world as it really is, then he would have been obligated to take into account all of the evidence about behavior even if it went against his preconceived notions of logic. By not doing so, he is being the very definition of delusional (having a sustained disregard of reality).

The other type of rationality that Spock has a hard time grasping is instrumental rationality (or type 2 rationality).  Unlike epistemic rationality, instrumental rationality is about applying your knowledge to a task and finding the most reliable and efficient way of completing it. For example, on the episode Charlie X, Spock loses in chess to Kirk and declares "Your illogical approach to chess does have its advantages on occasion, Captain." But Kirk's playing style is a textbook case of instrumental rationality. This is because, if Kirk's goal is to win at chess, his methods allow him to consistently accomplish what he desires.

Spock also goes against instrumental rationality when he downplays the importance of passion. While it is certainly true that passion can cloud one's judgement and lead to an overestimation of one's own prowess, it also motivates us to dream up and embrace many of our goals. For example, being passionate about the stars motivated Vincent van Gogh to paint and Galileo Galilei to turn his looking glass to the sky. This is what David Hume meant when he said "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions."

In closing, Spock has the wrong idea about rationality. Clear thinking is about abiding by two types of rationality. The first is having the most accurate map of the world possible, while the second is about reliably and effectively achieving your goals. This is very different than reasoning devoid of emotions or saying esoteric dictums about decision making.  If you want to learn the actual methods of critical thinking, stay tuned to this series. In the meantime, live long and prosper.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Biologist debunks intelligent design

For those of you who have  not seen Ken Miller's classic lecture on intelligent design, here it is:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Crazy creationist quotes

The following quotes are 100% real and are taken from creationist tirades. They were archived from all over the internet by people who find them to be as funny as they are terrifying. If you desire to look them up or to browse through other crazy quotes, you can do so at

Quote# 65191
im christian
if we came from apes
how come were not hairy and have a big mouth
and did we end up looking like we do know
and besides
there isnt any serious proof of apes
they showd a video saying an ape was wondering around in the forest
that thing looked exactly like a costume that i had saw at a store
know one ever cought an ape

Quote# 67928
<<In reply to if evolution isn't true, how do you explain things like the blind spot in the human eye?>>

I don’t have a blind spot in my eye. Both of them see very well and I am thankful for the 137million light sensitive cells that make sight possible. Do you have a blind spot in your eye? If you do, I suggest that you see an optician and see if he can either fix it, or get you another eye.

Ray Comfort

Quote# 77004
Q-If God created the world 6,000 years ago or so, why are stars millions of light years away?

A-Brendon, what a question! Yes, we know from the dates God gives us in the Bible that He did create the whole universe about 6,000 years ago. When we hear the term light-year, we need to realize it is not a measure of time but a measure of distance, telling us how far away something is. Distant stars and galaxies might be millions of light-years away, but that doesn’t mean that it took millions of years for the light to get here, it just means it is really far away!

Ken Ham

Quote# 70373
Why is it still fuckin legal for those cock-licking homo pigs to maintain this nazi fucking LIE called evolution. Let tens of thousands of evil DEVILS of ETERNAL flames burns their grandchildren in concentration camps all over the planet. And if that doesn't shut down these cunt morons, I shall personally rip their intenstines through their GOD DAMN nosdrils!...I just get so fucking upset when I hear people talk about this gay shit piece of pussy EVOLUTION. I am NO son of a buttfucking God damn ape, and that's scientific enough for me! Hell yeah! We should decapitate all those bitch slapping freak loving idiots, who think God is dead and who uses the name of Jesus to wipe their infidel pedofile asses.

Sara Ahlmark

Quote# 60638
Students, give this test to your teachers. When they fail it, ask them why they are teaching this nonsense!

Teachers, give this test to your students if you really want them to know the truth about evolution!

1. Which evolved first, male or female?
2. How many millions of years elapsed between the first male and first female?
3. List at least 9 of the false assumptions made with radioactive dating methods.
4. Why hasn't any extinct creature re-evolved after millions of years?
5. Which came first:
...the eye,
...the eyelid,
...the eyebrow,
...the eye sockets,
...the eye muscles,
...the eye lashes,
...the tear ducts,
...the brain's interpretation of light?
6. How many millions of years between each in question 5?
7. If we all evolved from a common ancestor, why can't all the different species mate with one another and produce fertile offspring?
8. List any of the millions of creatures in just five stages of its evolution showing the progression of a new organ of any kind. When you have done this, you can collect the millions of dollars in rewards offered for proof of evolution!
9. Why is it that the very things that would prove Evolution (transitional forms) are still missing?
10. Explain why something as complex as human life could happen by chance, but something as simple as a coin must have a creator. (Show your math solution.)
11. Why aren't any fossils or coal or oil being formed today?
12. List 50 vestigial or useless organs or appendages in the human body.
13. Why hasn't anyone collected the millions of dollars in rewards for proof of evolution?
14. If life began hundreds of millions of years ago, why is the earth still under populated?
15. Why hasn't evolution duplicated all species on all continents?

Missing Universe Museum

Quote# 77519
Gravity is a theory, not a proven fact.

The effects of gravity can be explained by other theories. An example would be the acceleration theory which asserts the earth is actually moving 'upward' at a constant rate of 1g (9.8m/sec^2). This produces the same effect as "gravity".

See there are different theories for the same phenomena - and none are facts, they are just theories.


Quote# 71130
"Are... are you now disputing the existance of DNA???"

Yes. DNA can never be proven. Evolutionists are obsessed with it because they always say ''chimps share 97% DNA with modern man'' etc. That's great, however you would then need to prove DNA is real.


Quote# 83483
There are numerous evidences of and for creation. Take the Bible for instance. Take creation itself for instance.
If evolution were true, vampires, werewolves would exist. They don't. How do you account for that?


Quote# 74719
When I decided to homeschool my six year old son, I told him we were going to do "Dinosaur Week". Which turned into "Dinosaur Month". . . at the least! We watched "Walking With Dinosaurs" and a lot of other documentaries. He's a pretty smart kid, too, so even he ended up saying "Ok. Scientists say that God isn't real. They say earth is a kajillion years old. They say that people and dinosaurs weren't alive at the same time and that a lot of dinosaurs could have died from a big flood, but that The Flood didn't happen. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?!". He gets really upset about people not believing in God - as in he doesn't want them going to hell and he can't believe people can ignore God all around us. Every time we watch one of those dinosaur things, he gives a big, overly-dramatic sigh whenever they start talking about "millions of years" or evolution.

One that really cracked him up was where they theorize about reptiles evolving into humanoid creatures. Good grief! And they teach most of this stuff as FACT in schools!!!! I can't believe it. Neither can a six year old. So WHY is it so accepted?!!?

I teach him what makes SENSE. NOT what science textbooks say. I also teach my kids to question what they are taught - especially what they learn in school. It's really not fun at all having a bunch of junior scientists in the house when 99% of science seems to be atheistic.


 Quote# 86046
I have plainly said that I do believe ‘geocentrism’ as God states plainly in the Bible that ‘the Earth is the center of it all’ all meaning the universe. There is plenty of scientific evidence for anyone to see this is becoming much more apparent. You on the other hand want to constantly go back to a centuries old definition to imply ‘all’ as merely our solar system.


Arguing with non-skeptics (resources)

To help you discuss science and critical thinking with the both the true believers and the fence sitters, I have created this list of resources for you. These links will take you to podcasts, free pdf's, and videos discussing how to discuss and debate with non-skeptics. I hope you enjoy. 
  • John Cook's Debunking Handbook is an excellent resource for engaging believers. This is because it shows the science behind debunking and exposes some of the most egregious myths about trying to change someone's mind (link).
  • Sadie Crabtree's discussion at The Amazing Meeting about how to win hearts and minds for skepticism. Like Cook's booklet, this talk focuses on common misconceptions and debunking and offers lots of useful advice that actually works (link). 
  • My post about how to argue with non-skeptics without going crazy. These are just a few pointers to turn such discussions into a positive and fun learning experience for both the skeptic and the believer (link). 
  • The Science Talk podcast recorded a two part conference on how to discuss and debate with non-skeptics. The panel discussion was hosted by Julia Galef and featured George Hrab, DJ Grothe, James Randi, and Steve Mirsky (part 1, part 2).
  • Brian Dunning recorded an episode of Skeptoid about reasons why scientists should not publicly debate (on stage as opposed to one one one discussions) believers in creationism, intelligent design, and other forms of science denial (link).
  • Phil Plait's very famous talk (at least relative to skepticism) about why skeptics should avoid being dicks to people who believe weird things. This video needs to be watched carefully because it can easily be misunderstood (link). 
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses some of the lessons he has learned about communicating science. One of the key points he makes is to stress how wonderful science is. This is key because new-skeptics  need to fill the void that nonsense leaves with something else (link).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to argue with a non-skeptic without going crazy

One of the attributes that most skeptics share is a burning desire to discuss critical thinking and science with non-skeptics. While such passion is admirable, many skeptics have a warped idea of what is actually going to happen in these discussions. Without warrant, they assume that they are going to go in and say something like "you believe in magic and faeries" and the other person is going to roll over and become a science lover.

Guess again. Discussing and debating with non-skeptics in one of the most irritating and non-progressive things you can possibly do in your spare time. This is because many believers in pseudoscience and the paranormal have a tremendous amount of time, money, and energy invested into their beliefs. Like anyone else, these people find it uncomfortable and distressing to have their cherished beliefs challenged and they will likely put on their cognitive blinders or get really angry with you if you push too hard.

Despite these odds, however, you should not not despair. Almost all skeptics started off as believers who believed in at least some nutty ideology. This means that even people from the most rigid backgrounds are occasionally talked into leaving dogmatism behind for rationality (If you do not believe me, Google "Nate Phelps" and "Marjoe Gortner"). You should also be optimistic about how many people there are out there who are are simply ignorant of science and critical thinking.

These people, due to their pursuits in other areas, have thought little about the big bang, evolution, cognitive biases, or decision making. Its not that they are dogmatically opposed to these things, they simply do not know any better and reject these ideas due to anti-scientific arguments that float around in the popular imagination (for example, "if evolution is real, then why aren't apes turning into people?"). I, like many other skeptics, believe that changing this group's mind is much easier because they do not have the same level of commitments as a true believer.

Thankfully, I am at a part in my life that I enjoy discussing these topics with both the fence sitter and the most stubborn believers in bunk (trust me, I know some nutty ones too). This is because I have a set of rules of thumb that I follow during discussions that keep me level headed. To help you do the same, I decided to post some of these rules in the form of advice.
  1. Be kind and respectful. Remember that the person you are talking to also has hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Like you, they care about living a fulfilling life and probably want to spend it with their loved ones. By keeping this in mind, I find it much more difficult to get mad with someone for not agreeing with me. Being civil will also allow you to accomplish the major goal of shattering stereotypes about skeptics. For whatever reason, we are believed to be a bunch of inhumane bullies who are just out to offend people. If you imprint on a believer your own kindness, they can no longer think these things without remembering how they once met a kind and polite skeptic.
  2. Lower your expectations. As I said earlier, you are going to get very frustrated if you think that you are going to go in like John Rambo and make someone change their entire worldview. I never expect to make such progress in a single sitting and you shouldn't either. Instead of converting someone outright, you should aim to sow the seeds of doubt and explain skepticism by applying critical thinking skills to ideas that will likely not offend the person. These same reasons for doubting the effectiveness of magnetic wristbands or the existence of planet Nibiru may later pop back up later when they consider whether or not homeopathy and astrology actually work. 
  3. Enjoy the conversation. Even though you may not learn something about biology or physics from your conversation, engaging believers can still teach many fascinating lessons in sociology and psychology. Like an anthropologist studying apes in the woods, I am often blown away by the actual motivations and reactions of believers. Since many people use the exact same arguments, conversing with one believer can help you cut your skeptical teeth and refine your arguments and counter-arguments for your next encounter with proponents of the same variety of woo. Whenever I look at an exchange as a chance to learn something, it is very hard for me to get frustrated.
  4. Channel Socrates. The philosopher Socrates had an excellent debate methodology. Rather than viewing an exchange as a competition where there is only one winner, he thought of them as a cooperative effort between two teammates. Socrates thought the goal of this dialogue was for both participants to sharpen their reasoning skills and come to more nuanced views about reality. Rather than accusing his partner of being an idiot, he would ask them questions like "why do you believe x?" or "have you considered how fact y would effect your belief in x?" By making the exchange out to be mutually beneficial, you will strip it of most of the frustration you usually feel.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Know your scholars: E.A. Burtt

Edwin Arthur Burtt (1892-1989) was an American professor of philosophy who wrote extensively on the history and philosophy of science, religion, and science's relationship to religion. During his long career, Dr. Burtt (who was known to his friends as Ned) held the prestigious Susan Linn Sage chair of philosophy at Cornell University and was president of the American Philosophical Association from 1964-5.

Much of his interests in topics involving metaphysical and religious questions about reality was probably cultivated in his childhood. Even when he was an old man, Burtt recalled how his parents attitudes towards religion (his father was a devout evangelical and missionary) had a profound influence on his life.

Despite his later rejection and criticism of Jesus as a man who had "no appreciation of the value of intelligence as the most dependable human faculty for analyzing the perplexities into which men fall and for providing wise guidance in dealing with them" and who "took entirely for granted and without criticism the economic structure prevalent in his day, with its assumption of an absolute right on the part of employers to make such profits as they are able and to treat their workmen according to whatever whim may seize them (link)", Burtt remained sympathetic to religious experience and awe and published books like Religion in the Age of Science, Types of Religious Philosophy, and The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha throughout his life.

While completing his dissertation in philosophy at Columbia University, Burtt chose to focus his research on the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution. Burtt argued that ideas like human consciousness, purpose, and religious aspirations do not fit into the mechanical worldview created by men like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Boyle, and especially Newton. Burtt showed that these thinkers' work cannot be clearly separated out from the work of Hobbes, Locke and Descartes.

While his dissertation argued that this scientific philosophy has a positivist streak, Burtt also demonstrated and explored the rich philosophical contributions made by these men. He showed that philosophical concepts like epistemology, the philosophy of mathematics, and the philosophy of physics (in particularly, space and time) were richly explored and elucidated by almost all of these noted intellectuals.

After he received his doctorate in 1915, Burtt revised this work and published it as the book The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Despite being largely unknown now, this book was a landmark in the history and philosophy of science. Burtt's idea that certain pre-scientific ideas were carried over into the seventeenth century mechanical worldview is said to have influenced both Alexandre Koyre and most importantly,Thomas Kuhn. 

Despite the large contributions Burtt made to the study of history and philosophy of science, Burtt is most remembered for being a key contributor to the early days of the Humanist movement. Although is ideas that "spiritual experience is the identification with categories of space, time, causality, and other fundamental physical principles (link)" was left out of humanist writings, he was a contributor and signer of the first Humanist Manifesto and a signer of the second.

While Burtt was less vocal about humanism after the first manifesto, he occasionally reviewed books for The Humanist magazine during the 1950's. While I cannot locate any of these articles, I did find this one letter and response to him (I did not desire to post it in this article because it is a big picture. Click here if you desire to read it).

While his ideas are largely forgotten, Burtt is an imminent figure in the history and philosophy of science. I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science for yourself and see why his ideas were held in such high regard by his contemporaries and his intellectual heirs.