Creationism in Education: The Movie

This is so cool.

The Texas Board of Education is doing a damn good job of, well, destroying education in Texas. Religious right-wing extremists have taken over the board and are spearheading a strong push to get young-Earth creationism taught as fact. They have tried to get the history textbooks changed to show that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Joseph McCarthy was right and his allegations that everyone in the whole world was a Communist were true. They have tried to get the Separation of Church and State removed from the curriculum. In 2009, they ammended the science curriculum to cast doubt on the existence of global warming, despite overwhelming scientific concensus.

An even bigger problem is that Texas is the biggest  market for textbooks, and therefore holds significant influence over publishers. What Texas insists on could dictate what is taught in other states across the US as well.

This is the cool part: a team is doing a documentary on the situation, which will help raise awareness of what’s going on. Like all film projects, it requires money – so they started up a Kickstarter project. Kickstarter is a crowd-funding site that lets people pledge money towards a project – software development, film, craft, anything really. Initially asking for US$10,000, they very quickly made more than that and they now hope to get the film scored and maybe entered into international film festivals.

This is a really cool project, and it’d be great to see it come to fruition. They are still accepting donations, and the more money they get the better the film will be!

Astrologers, I’m Waiting

Here’s the story, folks. In early January, the BBC ran a live television program over 3 nights called Stargazing Live. It was a great show, hosted by hilarious comedian Dara O Briain and mega-brain particle physicist Professor Brian Cox. It was a kind of introduction to amateur astronomy, encouraging viewers to go outside and look up. It rated quite well, too, with 3.6 million viewers.

But during one segment, explaining the orbits of the planets, an off-the-cuff joke potentially got the presenters in hot water. After joking around by aligning all the planets in a line on their model solar system, Dara cleared the air and said “Let’s get this straight once and for all, astrology is rubbish” still laughing at Dara’s mucking around, Brian replied, “in the interests of balance, because we’re on the BBC, I should say that indeed Dara is right, astrology is nonsense!”

This passing joke – clearly an unscripted, throwaway line – went largely unnoticed by, well, everyone. Except, of course, astrologers. They were incensed at the vile attack on their pseudoscience. “I was furious with indignation,” writes ‘respected astrologer’ Angela Cornish. She wrote a very heated email to the British Astrological Association and The Advisory Panel on Astrological Education (APAE). You can read it here, along with a very detailed response from another astrologer, Deborah Houlding.

Why is Cornish so angry? She’s mad because Brian and Dara “had the audacity, on prime time TV, to try and discredit a subject they clearly know nothing about”. I’d have to say, though, that if “astrology is rubbish” is their attempt to discredit it, it’s a particularly piss-weak effort. I’ve made more of an effort to discredit astrology when I blogged here and called it a scam, and when I responded on Mamamia in the comments. Where’s my angry email, Angela?

What I love, though, is the conspiracy theory and media paranoia that Houlding suffers. She writes “[media outlets] are part of the desperate chase for promotion, seeking to profit from the exaggerated public attention that simplified horoscopic astrology attracts at this time of year”. Yes, she’s really suggesting that Dara’s comments were a deliberate plot to stir up controversy and increase viewers. Nevermind that, on a science program, they were simply stating the overwhelming scientific consensus. Deborah’s right in that every year TV stations and magazines trot out the same astrological claptrap – What Does Your Sign Say About This Year – and no doubt people eagerly pore over them to see if they will find True Love this year or strike it rich with Good Fortune. But to look at that clip in context and say it was motivated by that new-year astrological interest is imbecilic and ludicrous. “It is no mere coincidence … that Brian Cox made his outrageous and inflammatory remarks in a program which aired on the 3rd January,” she whines. The show aired in early January for a number of reasons, all of which were astronomical, not astrological. Uranus and Jupiter were in conjunction, there was a partial solar eclipse, and the Quadrantids meteor shower was at its peak. Even the BBC can’t change astronomic events just to take a vague stab at astrology.

To astrologers, the BBC has a clear agenda and Brian Cox is at center of it. Last year, during his excellent Wonders of the Solar System program also shown on the BBC, Cox was again talking about Jupiter:

Jupiter is so different to our planet – you know, a big ball of gas, half a billion kilometres away – it’s difficult to see how it could have anything to do with us at all. But despite the fact that astrology is a load of rubbish, Jupiter can, in fact, have a profound influence on our planet and it’s through a force that, well, surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together – gravity … Jupiter has the most powerful gravitational field of all the planets, and it’s the gas giant’s gravity that can directly influence the orbits of asteroids and other wandering space debris … it can deflect stuff onto a direct collision course with our planet.

That’s it – again, hardly worth making a fuss about. One little statement of scientific consensus – scientific fact – in a science program. But all this has got the astrologers so wound up, they’ve got a petition going. They’re trying to get as many believers as they can to click a button, or even write in to the BBC (with a copy-and-paste letter template) calling for ‘fair representation’ for astrology in the media. Again, I’m upset – where’s my petition?

Cos I’ll make it easy for all you astrologers. All you have to do is show me three scientific studies, in peer-reviewed scientific journals (proper science journals, not Astrologer’s Weekly), that prove comprehensively that astrology works. Three double-blind, randomized large-scale studies. If astrology is as good as you claim, that should be easy to do, right?

Astrologers, I’m waiting!

Brisbane Freight Depot Flooded

I just got these photos from our freight handlers. This is a freight depot in Brisbane, after it got flooded. I’m looking at these photos thinking there must be TVs, computers, important documents and all sorts of things now ruined by the water.

Astrology: Without Evidence, It’s a Scam

Ophiuchus constellation mapYou may have read, recently, that your astrological sign has changed. Or that there’s a new zodiac sign, and astrology’s all in a muddle. And while a lot of it is true, it’s certainly not new. It’s all because the Earth wobbles a little bit in its orbit, and the sun now rises in different constellations than it did two thousand years ago when astrology was first devised. Parke Kunkle, an astronomy teacher in Minneapolis, mentioned this in a newspaper and it quickly went viral, with people worried that they are now a different sign and now surely the world will end in 2012.

People will believe anything, it seems.

Let’s clear the air, shall we? Astrology is bunk. There has never, ever, been any credible scientific proof that it works. Yet blogger and social commentator Mia Freedman called upon author and astrologer, Yasmin Boland, to explain it all to her readers. Why Mia felt the need to propogate a myth I’ve no idea, but that’s what she did. And – I’ll give her credit – for the most part, Yasmin did a pretty good job explaining the science of why the sun no longer rises in same place as way back when. There’s a lot more to it, when you consider Milankovitch cycles and so on, but essentially she got it right. This video from NASA may help explain it. But what worries me is how Yasmin tries to justify astrology. Not only does she offer no evidence, she seems to dismiss the need for it with a shrug: “it just works”.

No, Yasmin, it doesn’t. What Yasmin means when she says “as horoscope fans will tell you, it just works” is that lots of people believe it, therefore it’s true. Lots of people believe in homeopathy, but that doesn’t mean water has memory. The reason lots of people believe in astrology? They read their ‘personality type’ for that particular sign, and are amazed that it works for them. Note that they know their star sign first, and then they read the profile for that. I wonder if you could find someone who didn’t know their star sign, and you got them to read all the personality types in the zodiac and pick which one matched them, would they pick the right one? I doubt it. People agree with their zodiac sign because the signs are deliberately ambiguous, vague and match most people. We all like to think that we’re friendly, kind, generous, lots of fun and intelligent. Most people are a little bit selfish, sometimes stubborn, sometimes care-free, and sometimes cranky. Everyone’s a little bit of every star sign. But when we know we’re a certain sign, and read what that sign’s ‘personality’ is like, we are more likely to believe it – it’s called confirmation bias. It’s clear from her conclusion that Yasmin has little interest in science or evidence. It’s riddled with so much common New Age rubbish that it almost reads like a cry for help. “The zodiac is one of life’s mysteries.” she writes. “Just as the Law of Attraction is”. Oh please. Law of Attraction? You can’t be serious. What she’s talking about, folks, is ‘The Secret’. The belief that “like attracts like’ – thinking positive thoughts (like “I will become rich and famous”) makes it happen. It’s the belief that just changing your thoughts and mental attitude to something, like losing weight, makes it mysteriously happen. And I shouldn’t need to point out, that there’s no credible evidence for it.

“No one has all the answers, least of all astrologers or scientists. Scientists regularly have to admit that the Universe is actually billion of years older or billion of light-years bigger than they thought,” says Yasmin, linking to a Google search for “universe older than previously thought”. And she’s right. Scientists are constantly finding new evidence, developing new theories and making new discoveries. That’s what makes it so amazing and brilliant. Science brings us closer, every day, to seeing the universe for how it really is. Through science, we can truly appreciate reality. As Phil Plait once said, “the universe is cool enough, without making crap up about it”. Yasmin finishes by saying that life’s mysteries are part of what makes life beautiful. I disagree completely. Life’s mysteries are what fuels us to keep exploring, to ask questions, to do experiments.

What makes life beautiful is not what we don’t know, but what we do know. I’ll leave you with an optimistic word from one of the 20th Century’s great scientists, Carl Sagan.

My first astrophotographs!

So last night, after a week of rain and clouds and wind and flooding, the evening cleared up and I decided to try some more stargazing. My usual spot, the local football ground, was wet and muddy and squishy underfoot – not ideal. Even worse, it was covered by a thick but rapidly moving blanket of cloud. I decided to try my luck elsewhere and head north, away from the clouds.

Before long I found a possibly suitable cricket ground, but before I was able to park and have a look around, I got a creepy feeling about the car following me. Turns out they were police, and they pulled me over to ask why I was driving slowly around a park late at night. They were impressed by my telescope (and my XKCD “Science: It Works, Bitches” T-shirt) and recommended a nearby National Park to try. They even very kindly gave me a police escort to it!

So from the carpark I had a good solid flat ground to set up my telescope and good dark sky to look at. The moon was very bright, which made viewing other objects a bit harder, but I was still able to get a good look at Jupiter and I knew the moon would be setting in an hour or two in anyway. I decided to make the most of it and get some photos of the moon.

I’m just starting out in astronomy and certainly not ready to spend big money on fancy equipment like digital SLR cameras just yet. Some people spend tens of thousands on So I’m using a Celestron Solar System Imager which is essentially just a webcam that fits in a telescope eyepiece. It’s good enough for bright objects like planets in our solar system. I ended up taking 3 photos of the barren, unforgiving moon but unfortunately I somehow managed to overwrite the best one. So I’m left with these two, which are alright in my opinion, but nothing great. The photo I deleted showed a much larger portion of the moon, with many more craters and the maria – or seas – visible.

Not to worry, though. There’ll be plenty more opportunities to come!