Review: Ankylosaur Attack

August 15, 2011

It’s hopeless for me to write an unbiased review about the book Ankylosaur Attack. Primarily, because it’s written by one of my favorite skeptics, Daniel Loxton, but also because it features my favorite dinosaur, the durable battle-armored ankylosaurus.

For those who are unfamiliar with Daniel Loxton, he’s the author/editor of the Junior Skeptic column in the back of Skeptic magazine. Junior Skeptic really stands out as a brilliant, gorgeously illustrated introduction to the scientific analysis of fringe ideas such as psychics, fairies, and mythical monsters. I can’t imagine anyone else that I would trust to be as accurate about relaying scientific information to children as Daniel Loxton, and I certainly can’t imagine anyone else who could translate that accuracy into such clever illustrations.

Daniel Loxton is also the author of the truly awesome book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came To Be, a primer for kids on the subject of natural selection. There was a bit of a pseudo-controversy surrounding Daniel’s advice to young readers that questions about religion be directed toward pastors and parents, but I firmly agree with Daniel that the topic deserved to be addressed in a respectful way. Often, non-believers shoot themselves in the foot by insinuating that atheism be the key to opening the door to science; that kind of hard-lined attitude makes people of faith feel unwelcome in the wonderful world of natural discovery and scientific knowledge. Kudos to Loxton for making science accessible to EVERYONE, as it should be.

Ankylosaur Attack is a deviation from Daniel Loxton’s previous books because it is prehistoric fiction. It offers the story of a young ankylosaur being attacked by a hungry t-rex looking for a snack. The rendered graphics are phenomenal and really help stimulate the imagination with attention to detail and lighting. The plot is simple enough for younger readers, but also helps stimulate discussion for older readers about defensive and offensive genetic traits that have evolved in dinosaurs. What do ankylosaurs and turtles have in common? If you were a predator how would you try to eat them? Isn’t awesome that this extinct animal had an armored back to defend against attacks and also a cannonball whip for a tail?

Ankylosaur Attack is the first of a series of prehistoric fiction. I look forward to the rest in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series.

As an added aside, in honor of our local museum’s life-sized model ankylosaur, I decided to donate a copy of Ankylosaur Attack to the dinosaur library at Cincinnati Museum Center. It was tempting to keep the book for my daughters (pictured above), but I thought that it would be better served as a resource for other kids visiting the museum. So, here’s a photo of the book at Cincinnati Museum Center’s dinosaur library. Hope the museum visitors enjoy it as much as my kids!


Communicating Skepticism With Your Friends

July 29, 2011

This is a category that can be difficult for all skeptics, especially those of us who are outspoken about our science-based ideals. Should we speak up and debate our friends or should we lay low and avoid being known as the know-it-all jerk. I often wonder if I have a reputation among my circle of friends of being arrogant or self-righteous. Even the most innocent comments or links posted on Facebook can be unwelcome to friends, especially if they strongly believe in that particular thing you are criticizing.

A good example of positive skeptical communication would be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, who were friends for a time, despite their differences in belief. I wrongly stated in the parenting workshop that they remained friends until their death, but despite that justifiable correction, it’s generally true that Houdini was very diplomatic about communicating to Doyle his skepticism of the paranormal. Eventually, Houdini’s diplomacy was unsustainable due to his very public activism against the paranormal (and Doyle’s very public belief), and even in their falling out, we can learn that some friendships may be to challenging to save. It just depends whether both sides can communicate with each other respectfully and without too much judgement (or perception of judgement). I was interested to read this excerpt from a letter between Doyle and Houdini’s wife Bess after Houdini died…

“He was deeply hurt whenever any journalistic arguments arose between you and would have been the happiest man in the world had he been able to agree with your views on Spiritism. He admired and respected you –two remarkable men with different views.”

Ultimately, we must remember that there’s a difference between respecting the friend and respecting the friend’s ideas. A true friend can distinguish between the two.

To help bring this point home, I invited Mike Meraz to offer his advice on the best way to “be a skeptic and still have friends”. Mike produced the Actually Speaking podcast, a short-lived series on the theme of balancing skepticism with personal relationships. There were many good nuggets of advice in the Actually Speaking podcast, but Mike has moved on to producing the ever-more-popular Aaron’s World dinosaur podcast hosted by his seven year old son.

Anyway, Mike’s advice on communicating skepticism with your friends is below…

It’s important to remember that we can’t “make” people think, feel, believe, or behave in ways they haven’t freely chosen for themselves. Our friends need to be free to make their own decisions in order for those choices to have an impact in their lives. Assuming a person is happy, healthy and doing no harm to themselves or others, the promotion of skepticism is most effective when based on education, not confrontation. With that in mind, here are 5 tips for sharing skepticism with friends.

Share Without Judging – Don’t set out to change minds or win arguments. Instead seek to share information and inform decisions. Your friend’s choices are their own.

Be A Skeptical Example – Be an model of skepticism for friends. Demonstrate it by sharing your own decision making process as well as how you handle being wrong.

Notice and Praise – Identify and acknowledge areas where friends are already thinking skeptically and encourage them to apply that process in new areas.

Be Supportive – Remember, for growth to occur, people need a balanced amount of both challenge and support. Skepticism is challenging enough… so focus on support!

Accept Your Friends and Choose Your Battles – Allow friends to make mistakes and don’t fight every battle. A strained friendship stops the flow of communication and benefits no one.

-Mike Meraz (and family)


Communicating Skepticism with Your Kids

July 25, 2011

For this entry, I went to a favorite resource, Mr. Dale McGowan, co-author and editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. In addition to the advice that he gives below, I’d recommend focusing on science and critical thinking (what we do believe) and less on the non-existence of Bigfoot, extra-terrestrials, and psychics (what we don’t believe).

1.  Build self-confidence. The best way to instill confidence is to encourage autonomy. We often intervene too much to spare our kids a moment’s frustration, uncertainty, or failure. An infant crawls under the legs of the dining room chair and becomes momentarily uncertain how to get out. She cries, and Mom leaps to her feet, ushering the baby into the open. A first grader struggles with his seat belt—Dad clicks it into place. A middle schooler gives up on a math problem after thirty seconds, asks for help, and gets it. These rescues add up, and eventually the child sees a moment’s frustration as a brick wall and looks to someone else for help. Who can blame him if he never had the opportunity to struggle and sweat and muscle through those walls on his own?

Skeptical inquiry is the act of a confident, autonomous mind.  It’s the act of someone who believes she can break through the walls between ignorance and knowledge.  If you want inquiring kids, work on confidence—and confidence starts with autonomy.

2. Instill a ravenous curiosity. No one asks questions if he isn’t curious about the answers. Indifference overtakes us soon enough.  Nurture curiosity while it’s natural and wild. The best way to do that is by showing your own ravenous curiosity with “I wonder how” statements — even if you know the answer.
3. Help create not a knower, but a questioner. It seems obvious that the best thing to do when asked a question is to answer it.  But when it comes to encouraging inquiry, it’s actually one of the least helpful things a parent can do: “Mom, how far away is the sun?” “Ninety-three million miles.” Clunk!  The inquiry is closed!  Elvis has left the building!
Many skeptical parents I’ve talked to seem to want to fill their kids’ heads with as many right answers as quickly as possible, as if that will keep incoming nonsense from squeezing into the elevator:  “Sorry, all full of true stuff. Take the next child.” But the idea is not to pack them with answers, but to make questioning itself a pleasurable habit. By focusing on making the process itself positive, you will virtually guarantee the next question. And the next.

4.  Use the language of “aspiring rationalism.” Don’t pretend that perfect rational skepticism is ever achievable. We all inherited a brain that is a layered mess of separately-evolved structures, as well as a high degree of ego-centric and socio-centric biases that make skepticism an uphill battle. It’s delusional to think we can entirely walk away from this mess that’s balancing atop our necks. Giving our kids the impression that we can sets them up for failure. Better to see ourselves as aspiring rationalists, doing our best to  think clearly and well despite the odds. It also gives some much-needed empathy for those who fall prey to their own biases.

5.  Encourage an unconditional love of reality.  The conditional love of reality is at play whenever a healthy, well-fed, well-educated person looks me in the eye and says, “Without God, life would be hopeless, pointless, devoid of meaning and beauty,” or “I am only happy because,” or “Life is only bearable if…”

I want my kids to see the universe as an astonishing, thrilling place to be no matter what, whether God exists or does not exist, whether we are permanent or temporary.  I want them to feel unconditional love and joy at being alive, conscious and wondering. Like the passionate love of anything, an unconditional love of reality breeds a voracious hunger to experience it directly, to embrace it, whatever form it may take.

Children with that exciting combination of love and hunger will not stand for anything that gets in the way of that clarity. Their minds become thirsty for genuine understanding, and the best we can do is stand back. If religious ideas seem to illuminate reality, kids with that combination will embrace those ideas. If instead such ideas seem to obscure reality, kids with that love and hunger will bat the damn things aside.


Dale McGowan
Author/editor, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers

Communicating Skepticism To Your Spouse

July 24, 2011

This is the first of a five-part series on the most effective ways to communicate skepticism to people within your social spheres. This was originally part of the “Raising Skeptics” workshop at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas.

I felt compelled to bring this message to TAM because I felt the arguments over tone (such as DBAD) were not directly helpful to skeptics who want better relationships with their family and community. Most previous arguments have focused on the best ways to communicate to the public, but have avoided more personal levels of communication. Within that context, it would be detrimental to take an aggressive approach to communicating skepticism because losing your audience would mean losing a loved one.

With that in mind, please take a look and consider these suggestions. For each category, I’ve solicited the help of an expert within that category. My first expert is an anonymous friend from Atlanta, GA. She is a skeptical activist, but her husband does not share her love of science and critical thinking. Her advice…

When we married, I was agnostic and he claimed to be an atheist, though I don’t know how he arrived at that conclusion – I don’t think it was by extensive reading or deep consideration.

I did much reading, thinking, and research to figure out my position. I was raised Methodist, and though I paid lip service to it, I always had doubts. I did a lot of reading in the Bible, and found that it didn’t seem to say what people claimed. In my youth, I had attended a college prep boarding school and had been required to attend some religious services each week, though they permitted you to choose which. I had many friends who were wiccans, and I went to some of their circles, but the whole thing seemed rather silly and self-conscious.

My husband and I even joined a church and I liked the social aspect, but though I felt like we fit in from a social standpoint, my hackles raised when we got an email urging us not to go see “The Golden Compass” because it didn’t agree with church teachings. I thought, “I’ll decide what movies I will and won’t see, as well as what to think about them, thank you very much.” I tried to believe. I really did. My rational mind kept getting in the way.

I read Francis Collins’ book and still didn’t understand how he could be a theist, and his argument went something like, “I believe because I believe.” Once I read “The God Delusion”, I decided that being an atheist was the only way to reconcile my science training and critical thinking with what I understood about reality. I had never met anyone (to my knowledge) who was an atheist, or at least had never really talked to one, but Dawkins’ logic was compelling.

My husband did not have science training, and sometime during all of this, he began meditating. I don’t really know when he graduated from just meditating to believing in contrails, UFOs, chakras, and most conspiracy theories. Honestly, I don’t even know what he believes, because he won’t tell me. I question, but he shuts down quickly. When alt med or fundamental misunderstandings of medicine are involved, I don’t let these go. Everything else I just quit bothering. Mostly. Having a rational discussion with someone who is not using reason is nearly impossible.

1)Conditional Compromises: Pick your battles wisely (altmed BS is going to require some education).

2) Put the Relationship First: Decide if you would rather have harmony or if you would rather be right.

3) Be crafty: Sometimes I explain principles of critical thinking to the kids within earshot of my husband, hoping he will hear. If he gets mad, I can point out that I wasn’t actually talking to him.

4) Take a gradual approach: Start with less threatening topics then perhaps build parallels with more sensitive topics- you can hope that the believer will extrapolate.

5) Be understanding and respectful: Confront differences frankly, but respectfully. Senses of humor REALLY help.

Thank you, Anonymous! I must say that I completely understand and relate to her experience because my wife was once a student of acupuncture, a type of medicine that lacks plausibility and evidence. One thing that I would add to the above recommendations by my friend would be that we should take care to avoid making fanboy references to every SGU podcast or Mr. Deity episode, and we should refrain from using debate rhetoric (“straw man”) when arguing with a spouse. It can be easy to forget that the rest of the world is not as excited about skepticism as we are. Unfortunately, skeptics live in an insular world that feeds upon it’s own internal drama.

What would you add? Let me know in the comments section.


Parenting at The Amaz!ng Meeting

July 6, 2011

I’m really looking forward to The James Randi Educational Foundation’s annual convention for science and skepticism, The Amazing Meeting 9 (otherwise known as JREF’s TAM9). Yes, there will be the usual skeptical celebrities, such as Adam Savage, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and the recently vilified Richard Dawkins, but there will be other awesome people, such as the tireless parents who produce this blog and the Parenting Within Reason podcast. And on behalf of those of us who are attending, we’re excited to meet you too.

Look for me at the Foundation Beyond Belief table where I will be volunteering to recruit more freethinkers to the cause of active humanism. You can also see me as a guest on the parenting workshop alongside infamous magician Jamy Ian Swiss, sexpert and feminist Heidi Anderson, JREF Education Coordinator Michael Blanford, and Center For Inquiry board member Angie McAllister.

Is there a topic or resource that you want us to share in the workshop? Please let me know.

TAM9 will also mark the end of the Parenting Within Reason podcast. We loved doing every episode and will always have fond memories of our discussions and interviews, but the time and effort that goes into producing each episode has become more than we can handle in our personal lives. It seems that ending the podcast at 50 episodes will be a nice way to conclude the experience.

Hope to see you there! Would love to meet more parents and friends!

-Colin Thornton


Death and Religious Diversity

June 9, 2011

Where does our persona (some would say “soul”) go when we die? Science can’t definitively answer that question, but we can make reasonable guesses about our final destination.

Energy can Neither be Created nor Destroyed – What happens to all that energy in our bodies when we die. If it can’t be destroyed, it has to go somewhere, right? To answer this question, we need to ask what we mean by energy. Then we must ask whether there’s a reasonable real world answer for where this energy is transferred (which there is). And finally, we must ask whether it’s plausible that our biological energy could experience  an afterlife dimension for all eternity. When those questions are answered logically, we see that the natural scientific explanation for death, that there is no afterlife, makes much more sense than anything proposed by religion.

What About Reincarnation – It’s appealing to believe in reincarnation because we have no memories of when we were infants. What if our hard drives are pre-erased so that our new life won’t be contaminated with memories from a previous life? Unfortunately, there’s no good scientific explanation for how this reincarnation would happen. Our ever-increasing population size becomes a huge problem for reincarnation, and it becomes even worse when you factor in the belief of some cultures that we go through several iterations of reincarnation from animal to human. Should we count bacteria? It’s all very implausible, and we should question our wishful desires for such a theory to be true.

Heaven and Hell – There are a few factors that go into this widespread belief. The most obvious reason that heaven is so compelling is that we need to feel that death is not the end… that we will see our deceased loved ones again. The second reason that this idea is popular is that we would like to think that there is a universal form of judgement for those who escape punishment for their crimes on Earth. But, I think we can all agree that most people live their lives in a morally gray way. Isn’t it sad that some people believe that truly righteous, morally centered individuals will burn in a lake of fire because they didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior? The crime does not fit the punishment, but more importantly, the reward does not fit the deed. How many jerks and morally depraved individuals are considered to be residents of heaven simply because they asked for forgiveness and accepted Jesus on their death bed? Does this seem reasonable?

Addendum

The question came up at UU church this past Sunday about how to handle it when your children are confronted by the beliefs of their friends in things like hell. “How can you be an atheist? Don’t you realize that you will go to hell?” Yes, this is a disturbing image for our children to confront, but true religious diversity and tolerance implores us to look at the situation from the perspective of these children who are indoctrinated into their religion. Should it truly be a surprise that these children are concerned that their atheist friend will actually be burned in a lake of fire for all eternity? It’s a terrible image for children to imagine, and we should remember how it must feel to truly internalize the “reality” of hell.

This is why it’s important to make the punishment of hell a non-negotiable for relatives. Grandma wants to share her love of Christ? Fine. Grandma wants to strike fear in the heart of your child by threatening them with eternal damnation? Not fine. And how should kids handle their friends? They should just say that they don’t believe in all that stuff (assuming they don’t), but kids should also be taught to empathize with the reason their friends would be concerned. Accommodation and acceptance are important lessons to be taught to little humanists, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t speak up for their own beliefs when challenged.

So what do atheists think about death? I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe we just die. It’s not the most attractive answer, nor is it the most interesting, but sometimes reality doesn’t match the story in our hearts. What happens when we die? The same thing that happens before we are born… nothing. But, people do live on after death. As cheesy as it sounds, they live on in our memories and they live on in what they’ve created during their short time on Earth. Isn’t that enough?


Parent-Approved Kidnapping and Brainwashing

May 29, 2011

When I was a kid, my church youth group thought it would be a funny idea to show up at my door in a gorilla suit and abduct me in a van. The idea was to snatch up the kids who hadn’t been to church in a while and show us the fun that was happening at one of their picnics. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted it.

Pretty harmless, especially since my Dad forewarned me that a gorilla would be kidnapping me and that I should pretend like I’m surprised. He didn’t want me to freak out – thanks dad!

Unfortunately, my innocent experience is becoming a common tactic with certain reform schools, but these brainwashing academies don’t use gorilla suits. Instead, they just send goons to your bedroom to wake you up and haul you off to their prison program. And instead of having a good time at a party, these children are stashed away at rehabilitation centers where they are emotionally abused (and sometimes worse), force-fed religious propaganda, and social engineered to be church-approved automatons.

Obviously, this sort of outsourcing of parenting is in complete violation of my principles as a parent who wants to raise my children to be freethinking individuals. I’m disgusted with what I’ve read about schools that are part of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs.

Check out this article on reddit to read a first hand account of a girl’s experience at one of these hideous programs. Despicable!


Neil Speaks The Truth

May 18, 2011

What is a scientist? Someone who never stopped being a kid.


This Week in Parenting Science 4/1/11

April 1, 2011

Alternative Treatments for Colic Don’t Work – Your baby is crying constantly, the pediatrician doesn’t have any answers, and you’re at the end of your rope. So, you reach for the phone and make an appointment for the chiropractor, get in your car and zoom off to find some “gripe water”, and seriously consider switching to soy formula. HOLD IT! A recent meta-analysis in the journal Pediatrics compiles multiple studies that all seem to show that colic can’t be cured by any popular folk remedy or alternative treatment. The best cure for colic is infinite patience.

Food Dyes and ADHD – Probably Not – I wrote an article on here several years back about ADHD. Someone from an organization representing the Feingold Diet tore me to shreds with a list of research that seemed to indicate a food dye origin to hyperactivity. It turns out that I’m not the only one who was skeptical of the supposed evidence, the FDA reviewed the research and most in the panel found the studies on the link between food dyes and ADHD to be lacking.  There doesn’t seem to be a clear definitive link between food dyes and ADHD, but the panel did say that they haven’t completely closed the book on the possibility of a link.

Paracetamol and Asthma Linked? – Take some caution in the news that a recent meta-analysis of several studies seems to show that paracetamol taken during pregnancy may be linked to the child having symptoms of wheezing as a baby. Further research needs to be done before we make any definitive correlation.


Science Books and Chick-Fil-A

March 30, 2011

I’ve noticed that my daughter’s kindergarten class seems to be ignoring science in favor of literacy. Of course, with a nerd like me as a father, she’s been exposed to basic concepts, but it’s the principle of the matter that bothers me. Why aren’t these kids being introduced to the type of simple science found in Sid The Science Kid? It genuinely bothers me.

In an effort to rectify the problem, I offered to Sasha’s teacher that I would be happy to donate some science books to her classroom. We really like the “Let’s Read-And-Find-Out Science” books because they offer simple explanations to complex scientific topics. Many of them have clever content and beautiful illustrations, but they’re written and illustrated by different people so the individual quality can be a mixed bag.

One of my personal favorites is the beautifully illustrated “Why Do Leaves Change Color” by Betsy Maestro.

While I’m making recommendations, you might want to stop by Chick-Fil-A soon and buy a kid’s meal for your children. Unlike other fast food chains, Chick-Fil-A makes an extra effort to offer educational toys instead of useless plastic movie advertisements. They have a series of books out now called “Science Kids”. We came home with a book about “Birds” by Nicola Davies, but there are also ones on “Weather”, “Animal Homes”, “Planet Earth”, and “Polar Lands”.  This follows up their last prize give-away, which were games by “Think Fun”, a board game manufacturer that we have voluntarily endorsed in the past. So, well done Chick-Fil-A! Keep it up!