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!


Chemical Chaos

August 2, 2011

Sometimes when I read a book I will find myself attracted to other books on the same topic. This time my latest readings have been on chemistry and the periodic table. The one that started it was The Disappearing Spoon, which is a history of chemistry, the hunt for elements and the creation of the periodic table (check out the extras, especially the videos). This romp into chemistry and the personalities involved is accessible to everyone, including students in upper elementary school. Read the rest of this entry »


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.


I Walk the Talk

July 22, 2011

 

A couple of weeks ago I went in for my annual medical appointment. We went through the whole routine, and I showed my family doctor my very scratched up arm from pruning the porch-eating rose. I asked if I could get the Tdap since I am a gardener. He looked at my chart, saw I got the vaccine in 2005 and said I was good for another four years.

Rats!

Then I went on a little trip: Read the rest of this entry »


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


Why I want my kids to fail

July 5, 2011

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized… It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us.

Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth 2011 Commencement Address

It is strange that a comedian’s words would resonate with me so much, especially bringing to mind two recent child development books that I’ve read [1,2] and an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on self-esteem. But they are all windows into this same myth that plague’s many parents: that building a child’s self-esteem is your most critical job as a parent and to do so means sheltering your child from all forms of failure.

We see this insane focus on over-protecting our children’s self-esteem everywhere. Everyone at a tournament gets a trophy; kids are taught that everyone is a winner; and praise is heaped upon a child for every single accomplishment no matter how mundane. I hear principals say that every child is a genius. It is simply inadequate any more to say that everyone is a human being deserving of respect and love, and now we tell the lie that every child is remarkable in every way. However, kids are not stupid, and they know that when the word “genius” is used in this way, it simply becomes devoid of meaning anymore; it becomes cliché.

Somehow we have gone from “everyone needs to do their best”, to “everyone is the best”. And even more bizarrely, our children are told that the way to be the best is by never failing, or at least never admitting to it. These may not be words that are said directly, but they are the lessons learned. By focusing so much on the result and the accomplishments, rather than the effort, we reinforce in our children this conception that failure is to be avoided at all costs.

Research in child development has shown a couple of things in regards to this topic. First, it is not at all clear that there is a self-esteem crisis in our children nor that it is the root of most of their problems. If anything, this over focus on self-esteem has created a more narcissistic generation. Second, praise has been shown to have an inverse relationship to performance; the more you praise a child, the less they succeed.

The problem is that if we are constantly praised for our success, and not our effort, we start to tie up our identity and self-worth in the results. Failure, rather than becoming a lesson, becomes terrifying. If we are not the best or don’t always succeed, then it is something fundamentally wrong with who we are and our value as a person, or so we think. The fear of failure then becomes paralyzing in itself, and we miss the most important lessons in life, the hardest won: those of our failures.

The end effect is tragic. Being unable to overcome the fear of failure, we stop taking risks that would allow us to do truly great things. We take the safe path, and we never explore other areas of growth and opportunity that make us uncomfortable. Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) myself, I have struggled hard with perfectionism. My identity was wrapped up in my perceived intelligence and specifically my mathematical abilities. Getting a 4.0 in 3 college degrees was not enough. It was not enough to have all A’s but I had to beat everyone else’s A in my classes to be satisfied. Most people look at my college career and naturally think that I took the hard path, but in reality it was the easy path. It’s not that I didn’t work hard or challenge myself in those classes. Math was the easy choice because it is where I knew I could succeed. I avoided general education and non-science/math courses as much as possible because it threatened my GPA. I was afraid of failure. As interested as I was in history, philosophy and other subjects, I never took more of those courses than required. I took my easy path. And as I look back on life, I see I have done that far too many times and missed many opportunities. Just now, in my mid-thirties, am I beginning to overcome the fear of failure.

So do I want my kids to be failures; of course not. However, to truly succeed and excel in life, you must have failures as well. I do not want to rob my children of the lessons that failure teaches or allow the fear of it to close doors of opportunity for them. Using these lessons of science and my own past failure to accept failure, I will teach my kids a new way. I will praise the effort, regardless of the outcomes. I will not sugarcoat their failures and mistakes, but instead I will make them face their failures head on and help them through it. I will not let them always take the easy or comfortable path. And in the end, I will help them to succeed at life by learning to fall gracefully along the way.

  1. Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurtureshock: new thinking about children.
  2. Mercer, Jean A., A. (2009). Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings.

An Octopus’ Nursery Under the Sea

June 27, 2011

The big cover story last Sunday in my local paper was Local diver captures octopus birth on video. It had been covered earlier by the paper’s nature blog.

Please share these incredible videos with your children: Read the rest of this entry »


Podcast #48: TAM 9 and Michael Shermer

June 25, 2011

The latest Parenting Within Reason podcast can be downloaded here.

In the first part Colin has a conversation with Michael Blanford, JREF’s Director of Educational Programs, about the upcoming TAM 9 From Outer Space. Several of us connected to this website and the podcast will be attending, including myself.

Then Adam Slagell has a conversation with Michael Shermer, author and the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine. It is a friendly conversation that touches on lots of subjects including parenting, cycling, books and more midst of what sounds like a busy restaurant.