Paper presentations make up the majority of Sunday, with a handful of workshops taking place in the afternoon. Checking out of the hotel and preparing for the trip home required us to miss a few talks, but those that I did see were very interesting.
Brian Hart started off, discussing actions taken by the Independent Investigations Group to combat licensure of alternative medicine-related continuing education units (CEUs) for registered nurses by the California Board of Registered Nurses (CBRN). Stemming from CBRN’s licensing of CEU provider Clearsight – which offered courses in “energetic medicine” and “seeing energy”, among others – the Independent Investigations Group set out to test the licensing methods of the CBRN by creating their own CEU provider. They formed the California Foundation for Institutional Care (CFI Care) and offered courses in apophenia (pareidolia), möbel kinesiology (furniture moving), Chinese sheyou (Chinese snake oil), and other dubious healing techniques. Startlingly, CFI Care received CBRN certification, which was only revoked when the Independent Investigations Group actually provided instruction to a handful of confused nurses. Hart’s anecdotal talk struck a balance of hilarity and horror that was simultaneously entertaining and unnerving – I thoroughly enjoyed it. You can read more about this investigation and results here.
William M. London next presented on Fallacies and Falsehoods at the 2009 Cancer Control Society Convention. Present at the convention were a variety of alternative medicine supporters, which is troubling since there is little to no evidence that their techniques work. Much of the alternative medicine techniques were classified under “integrated medicine”, which often oversimplifies and distorts cancer as a single, general illness that must be cured holistically. In reality, there are many different forms of cancer that must be individually researched and treated. London posited that alt-med saturation in cancer care results in three types of harm: indirect harm of people being diverted away from beneficial scientifically-based treatments, direct harm of poisoning and illness from treatments such as coffee enemas and enzyme treatments, and psychological harm of patient stress from having to choose among vast numbers of treatment approaches. I found this talk to be informative and the reality that these ineffective treatments are chosen by those in dire need to be tragic. Such a predicament where lives hang in the balance really brings the importance of scientific advocacy to the foreground.
The stage next filled with a panel focusing on Global Climate Change and the Responsibility of the Skeptic Movement, consisting of moderator Massimo Pigliucci, Daniel Loxton, James McGaha, Michael Shermer, and Donald Prothero. The heated discussion began with the panel’s takes on the attitudes that should be taken when scientific topics raises public interest. Shermer voiced that Skeptic Magazine covers both sides of the climate change debate while emphasizing the science therein, Prothero echoed the thesis of Pigliucci’s earlier talk by arguing that there are very few climate change experts and the skeptic community has no grounding to critique them. Loxton answered that there are two perspectives in the skeptic community: those that want to debate about which side is correct, and those (like himself) who focus on educating the public about controversies so they can make their own informed decisions. McGaha interjected that skeptics put too much support into science as always correct, to which Prothero passionately replied that minimizing the findings and progress of science because of past mistakes is a fallacy.
Pigliucci next asked how skeptics can know if climate change is a scientific controversy or just a media controversy. Shermer argued that political and religious aspects do affect the scientific discussion and that skeptics should stay out of public policy and politics. Prothero added that if you want to see scientific biasing you just have to follow the money, much of which comes from oil companies, tobacco companies, and right-wing organizations that have “beat the bush hard enough” to find climate change denying scientists. After brief discussions of the skepticism movement and resources for skeptics, each panelist gave concluding remarks. Prothero emphasized that with climate change being so complex, we as laypersons should not let biases (such as religious and political perspectives) get in the way of scientific truth. Agreeing that science is a revisionary field, Loxton rallied for anyone who thinks they can bring down a foundation of science to submit a paper for peer review and to do so. McGaha reiterated that scientists are always trying to come up with new ideas and failing and warned that we have to be careful about worshiping science as a religion, concluding that science is flawed but it does work in the long run. Finally, Shermer agreed with Loxton’s remarks with the caveat that skeptics should always check the sources of whatever they are researching.
Up next was Barbara Drescher, who discussed Skepticism as a Gateway to Scientific Literacy. Drescher proposed that skeptical inquiry leads new researchers – be they in college, high school, or even middle school – to a better understanding of scientific methodology than scientific demonstrations. She argued that because science fair topics usually revolve around questions that have already been answered, students mostly memorize procedure and learn little about the scientific method. In lab studies, undergraduates tend to focus on method and this approach is riddled with biased reasoning that fails to make inferences. If instructors were to reduce research options to types of scientific inquiry, it would facilitate understanding of the scientific method more effectively and result in new contributions to the science field, instead of simply demonstrating aspects of a preexisting theory.
The Virgin of Guadalupe was the focus of the next talk, given by Brian Dunning. Stating that the supposedly-miraculous phenomena has already been debunked, Dunning instead spoke about the positive aspects of the religious figure in Mexican history and culture. In Through the process of syncretism, Archbishop of Mexico Alonzo de Montúfar utilized a portrait (by Marcos Cipac de Aquino) of the Virgin Mary as a name and face for the Aztec goddess, Tonantzin, which resulted in the baptizing of around eight million Aztecs. From this point onward, Marcos’ portrait of Mary permeated deeply into Mexican culture, not only as a miraculously divined icon but as one of the most popular and influential art pieces of all time. Dunning concluded that these historical and cultural implications are important for skeptics to understand above and beyond debunking the religious claims that circle the work.