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Science Education? No, it’s time for fat education.

This “skepticism stuff” is largely about teaching people to think critically and intelligently, under the assumption that doing so will improve the length and quality of all of our lives. Skepticism is indeed a process, and why I think it’s great and essential for us to spread it far and wide, maybe we’re aiming too high. Providing competent medical care to children and shaping the mental workings of future generations are all well and good, but you’d really have to be an optimist to think we’re ready to begin at that level.

So let’s start a bit lower. Have you ever read the comments sections provided under news articles posted on websites for news agencies such as CNN and NBC? It’s definitely an experience. They’re often so bad, someone actually wrote a script that transforms particularly bad YouTube comments into Richard Feynmann quotes.

Some of my favorite bizarre things to read are posted by what I can only describe as “fat denialists”. That is, these people are suspicious of science’s “opinion” that being overweight is unhealthy. Realize I’m not saying that everyone has to be skinny to be beautiful, or that to be “hollywood skinny” is even genetically attainable for the hardest of dieters and exercises. I’m talking about people who view scientists professing the unhealthiness of high calorie and sedentary lifestyles as enemies of humanity.

There are two locations I’m drawing the following comments from, the first being an article about caskets made specifically for the overweight, the second being a promotional video for a new ABC Summer program titled “HUGE” (I’m not even making that up).

The mistrust is pretty rampant here:

I would tell people go with the weight that makes you feel good and not let these know-nothing-and-I-have-a-degree-to-prove-it doctors from telling you other wise…

It is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT to love yourself for who you are on the INSIDE than who you are on the outside. I plan on being large for the rest of my life just to prove that to people.

There is nothing worng with being HUGE but there is something wrong about not loving yourself enough to take care of yourself

The assumption that average weight individuals must be unhappy, and that being large and “living life to the fullest” are equivalent statements are probably the worst pieces of rhetoric here. I don’t even need to link you to a bunch of journal articles to show you that being overweight is bad for you. In fact, along with smoking it’s the greatest cause of death in the United States. And all the top causes of death in the US share one characteristic: “preventable”.

These fat denialists are a growing community whose continued existence is being actively encouraged. I don’t see how we can promote more advanced forms of personal responsibility in light of the failures of such basic ones.

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The Detrimental Effects of Critical Thinking

Everyone has their own beliefs about the world, whether they be about the existence of God, a correct stance on abortion, or what best product to clean a kitchen table. Some of these beliefs are grounded in knowledge and reached through critical thought, while others stem from an extensive list of biases originating from the physical and mental pasts of our brains. As it sometimes happens, beliefs reached via the latter pathway can be untrue, and even have a chance to do damage. One major goal of skeptics, of “Woo Fighters”, is to teach critical thought so much of this needless damage never occurs. But what damage are we causing with our critical thought?

Dreams

"1001 Dreams" Book

This past Cinco de Mayo I visited Olvera Street, a historical part of Los Angeles. To celebrate this day each year events are held, music is played, food is served, and dozens of temporary shops open in between buildings to take advantage of tourists. If you go into one of these shops, you’re done, because you’ve already seen everything the other shops have to offer. While I was there I took a few pictures of some items I found interesting. The first of note is a book titled 1001 Dreams, which claims that symbols and objects in any person’s dream represent objective meanings. And for the low low price of whatever this book cost, you can use this information to become rich or fall in love or something.

Healing

Candles with the power to heal!

If that’s not your thing, you can purchase magical candles. The one to our left claims to release “dis-ease” with universal healing energies. It’s also tall and purple, so it’s probably more likely to look ugly than cure cancer. Or maybe you would like a candle in money green, one capable of “the money I need, the universe will send, opening the path to wealth without end.” We could use some money right now, maybe we should get some of those. Or you can simply buy one of the pink candles for love. If you decide to buy one of these products, you’re probably not going to unlock the secrets of the universe, become rich, or fall in love. But you’re probably not going to kill anyone either. You’ll just be out a few dollars, and that’s just a matter of opinion. Maybe that dream book has some really cool pictures inside, you don’t know. But what am I missing out on, what are we missing out on by making fun of what these products promise to offer?

Maybe quite a bit. In a recent paper titled Keep Your Fingers Crossed! How Superstition Improves Performance, researchers found that the “inconsequential creations of irrational minds” were actually quite consequential. I don’t want to bore you with the details, or maybe I want you to read the article, but the gist of their conclusion was that good-luck superstitions people hold have tangible benefits over a lack thereof on the performance of many tasks. So these “useless products” might actually help. This small fact is no reason to abandon the spread of critical thinking through current and future generations, however, it is important to have a strong understanding of why many people do not think critically, and fall into cognitive traps. These strange beliefs subsist because they are not useless to us at all.

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But wait, before you go!

For the last half of June, The Woo Fighters are raising money to attend The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Many have already contributed, and any donations towards sending the next generation of skeptics to TAM8 are wildly appreciated. Thanks!

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This Is a Test. Please Pass It. Please?

One of the primary goals of the Woo Fighter’s first year was to raise funds to send its members, especially the CSUN students, to The Amaz!ng Meeting 8.

Each year I leave TAM feeling recharged and ready to face another year of teaching and promoting skepticism, science, and critical thinking. I strongly believed that the experience would leave these new skeptics with a similar feeling, motivating them to recruit (giving them something to recruit with, forming bonds with other skeptics, and giving them ideas for events and products to promote the cause.



However, a late start to becoming a recognized organization, the poor timing of TAM (which prevents us from applying for grants from the school, which could only be used for current students anyway), and a general lack of ideas for how to raise these funds has left us with less than a month to go and no goals met.

This morning I discovered that, upon hearing that her proposal for a Sunday presentation was accepted, Blag Hag Jennifer McCreight managed to raise over $1500 in less than 8 hours, simply by asking.

Well, gee. It did not actually occur to me to simply ask people to help out. I assumed that people who wanted to help would donate to the TAM scholarship fund, but of course it is not possible to know whom you are sending to TAM when you contribute to such a fund. So, it occurred to me to test the community’s commitment to encouraging a new generation of skeptics to strive for quality activism by finding out if we can match in 2 weeks what McCreight did in a few hours.

I have 4 well-trained young Woo Fighters – all scientists – who, if they could afford to go to TAM8, would jump at the chance and would use what they learned wisely. None are scheduled to speak this year, but I will make this promise: every Woo Fighter who is able to attend TAM8 because of you will submit a proposal for a Sunday paper next year, and I will personally oversee this process to ensure that they produce a high-quality presentation on a relevant topic or original research.



Furthermore, if at least 2 of them are funded I will personally guarantee that Bigfoot will make an appearance at TAM8.

So, if you want to meet Bigfoot, Please help us out.

By my calculations, if they are able to share a room and carpool, each Woo Fighter will need ~$700 for conference fees, hotel, gas, and food.

You would be helping to send, in this order, the following people:

Christos Korgan: An enthusiastic and intelligent undergraduate psychology student who will be applying to graduate schools next year and will serve on the board of Woo Fighters of CSUN in the fall.

Matthew Newton: A recent graduate and our most popular blogger, Matt will be attending Old Dominion University in the fall, working toward a PhD in Applied Experimental Psychology.

Dylan Keeberg: Also a recent graduate and another popular blogger, Dylan is starting his doctoral studies in the fall as well, at the Chicago School for Professional Psychology, where he hopes to conduct research in an effort to develop evidence-based therapies from humanistic and existential theories.

If we get this far, you will get to meet Penn Jillette’s doppelganger!
Isn’t that an incentive? no? Well, how about Lawrence…

Lawrence Patihis: Also a brilliant recent graduate, Lawrence will be pursing his PhD at University of California, Irvine in the fall, working with Dr. Elizabeth Loftus – false memories, anyone?

But sadly, if we do not raise the funds, none of these students will be able to attend TAM8 this year. If we raise enough for these students, you will have shown me that this community cares about more than just having a good time – you care that the torch is passed, and that the torch itself is important, too. These are the skeptics who will show people that candle in the dark that Carl Sagan always talked about 20 years from now and, I hope, pass it on to their students.

Please do not let us down!


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There Must Be an Idiom

                                 St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

A couple of days ago I read something that I found very disturbing and I was reminded of it today. It illustrates the challenge we have in educating the public about science and, perhaps, why it is so challenging. There must be an idiom which fits. Perhaps you have some suggestions.

So, first I will tell you what I read, then I will tell you why it was more disturbing than what I commonly encounter. If you want to skim, I cannot stop you, but please scroll down to the bottom for the shocker.

The offending paragraph was found in a review of Daniel Loxton’s wonderful children’s book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of the Manitoba Library Association.

Although the text is very good in describing the theory of Evolution, there are points in the book where the author makes comments that could imply that Evolution is more than a theory. For example, “…Charles Darwin revealed the solution to the mystery of evolution” (p. 7). He also makes the comment that Evolution is the most important idea in all of biology (p. 7). Such phrases may lead the reader into thinking that scientists completely understand the theory of Evolution which would be incorrect, else Evolution would be a principle or a law and not a theory. As well, it is a bit bold to claim that evolution is the most important idea in all of biology – biology is a huge field of study with other key discoveries.

This text could be read by a young reader for ‘fun.’…

First, let me address this criticism because it is a common one made by evolution deniers and because it preys on a misunderstanding of science that many laypeople have.

As with most words in the English language, the word “theory” has multiple meanings. In general use among non-scientists, it is often used to express “conjecture”, “speculation”, or some other unproven or untested guess.

None of those definitions are what a scientist means when they use the term “theory”.

Neither a “principle” nor a “law” is a theory which is “completely understood”, either. Laws are simple statements which describe, not explain.

The descriptions given by Dr. Genie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, of the definitions of fact, law, hypothesis, and theory. It occurs about 3:50 into the video.

                    

Theories vary in strength from very weak to very strong. The theory of evolution through natural selection has withstood 150 years of rigorous testing. It is one of the strongest theories in science.

And, yes, it is, by far, the most important idea in biology. It is probably the most important in all of the life sciences including behavioral sciences like psychology. Of course, this is a statement of opinion and I am not a biologist. However, I cannot imagine a biologist of any quality who does hold this opinion. I offer as evidence the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Theodosius Dobzhansky quoted in his 1973 essay in American Biology Teacher titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution“:

(Evolution) is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.

So, to summarize so far, a theory is an explanation – it is a set of testable and tested statements about relationships among variables which explains a given phenomenon. Ideas are not called “theories” because we do not know if they hold true. The strength of a theory depends on the quantity of observable facts explained, the quality of the explanation, the amount of testing it has withstood, and many other factors.

Evolution is an amazingly strong theory.

The author of the review does not understand the term “theory” as it is used in science, nor does she understand “law” and “principle”. Although these are often misunderstood by laypersons, they are fundamental to science. They are the language of science.

What is so shocking?

The review was written by an Assistant Professor of Science Education.

Katarin MacLeod is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Her areas of interest include physics educational research (PER), and the incorporation of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) outcomes into science courses at all levels to help students understand the relevancy of science, increase scientific literacy, and to promote citizenship.

That, my friends, is disgraceful.


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