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Bigfoot a No-Show Again? Hmph.

This has been a very difficult post to write.

On June 10th I posted a solicitation for donations to help us raise $2800 to send four students to The Amazing Meeting 8. I stated that this was a test, and in many ways it was.

You see, I have been skeptical about the skepticism movement’s ability to inch forward at a faster rate than we slide backward. Frankly, I have many concerns about the current community that I hope to address at my blog in the near future. Mostly, I worry that the work is neglected as it is overshadowed by the community itself. Given the benchmark of more than $1500 in 8 hours I discussed in my original post, this was a test of how enthusiastic people are about moving the cause forward.

So, did you pass? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it. I have mixed feelings myself.

First Things First

Thank you. Thank you to everyone who retweeted, shared, or blogged about this effort. I cannot tell you how much those gestures mean to me and these students. I am fully aware that many people are barely able, if at all, to afford the trip themselves and the support you gave by sharing links and in every other way was extremely valuable.

To those who were able to donate, I will thank you so often that you will be sick of hearing about it.

The Results

In two weeks, we raised $670, not including a donation from me. That will send a Woo Fighter to TAM8.

Bigfoot will not be at the meeting, but a Woo Fighter will. The donations will cover the conference registration and hotel room with a little bit left over for meals. What it does not cover will be added to my donation, which covers website hosting and some significant materials to help the members raise funds on their own for next year (super-secret stuff, mostly, but I have already hinted at a few things if you are paying attention).

Most of these donations were made in the first week and I declared the first goal met. Christos was very, very excited and all of the plans were made.

Then, this morning, Christos received some sad news which prompted him to arrange travel Greece to be with his family for a while. He was grateful to the donors and concerned that the efforts would be wasted, but I assured him that even this close to TAM there were Woo Fighters who would be both excited and able to take his place. I am extremely happy to announce that Dylan Keenberg will be attending and, to show his gratitude, has committed to blog as much about his experiences as possible.

Please introduce yourself if you see him. He really does look a lot like Penn Jillette when he dresses in a suit and ties his hair back.

The Test

Well, $670 is nothing to sneeze at and it is sending a very worthy student to a conference at which he will gain valuable knowledge and experience that I am certain will be put to good use. He will meet many great people, make some friends, and be inspired.

As promised, I will help, inspire, and nag him to submit a proposal to present next year.

The mixed feelings I have are related to those left behind, but they have more to do with the distribution of the donations. What I had hoped for was that the hordes of people who read blogs, participate in discussions, attend meetings like TAM, and identify with the movement, but do not tend to be active in outreach, would donate a few dollars each – small donations in large numbers that I believe make up the bulk of what is collected when money is thrown together quickly for a specific purpose. If the masses had responded this way, I would be thrilled with the nickels and dimes and the votes of confidence that came with them. That is not at all what happened.

I think that for that kind of fund raising, the plea needs to be shared, retweeted, or reposted by someone with an insanely large readership, such as PZ Myers or Phil Plait. Nothing like that happened. It seems that Woo Fighters is not yet on their radar or perhaps they donot find it a worthy cause to promote. Whatever the reason, we did not see the volume of hits that would be needed for anything remotely like Jen McCreight’s effort.


$670 came from 11 people.

It should be clear that most of them were quite large.

I did not get permission to name names (I neglected to ask), but I will name two people who have publicly acknowledged their donations in blog posts about the drive. In addition to a very generous donation, Kylie Sturgess devoted two entire posts to this effort, mentioned it repeatedly, and is probably responsible for the surprising proportion of donations from Australia. Heidi Anderson, of She Thought also devoted a post to it and made a sizeable donation. These are two of the most selfless people I know, although neither would characterize themselves as such. I am very proud to call these women friends.

The plea was passed on by The Godless Monster, and I, of course, blogged to my small readership. It was retweeted by many and shared through email and other means.

I am disappointed in the community in general because these wonderful nods – the donations and the promotions – came almost exclusively from people like Kylie and Heidi, who have already devoted all of their spare time – and much of their not-so-spare time – to the cause. They work hard, not to promote themselves, but to promote the cause, the work. They are engaged in real outreach, real education in critical thinking. They do their part already.

And yet, it is exactly these people, the ones who do the work, who know best what the movement needs. It is the opinions of these people which matter most to me. So their approval is priceless. It tells me that we (the movement) are indeed on the right track, whether the hordes understand what that track is or not.

I hope that each of these 11 people will tune into the blog during and after TAM8 for Dylan’s updates and be pleased with what they have done. I am.

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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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Woo Fighters on Skepically Speaking Tonight!

Alex Swan, president of Woo Fighters of CSU Northridge, will be talking to Desiree on the “Speaking Up” segment of Skeptically Speaking tonight!

You can listen to the show live at 5pm Pacific Time. The show will also be converted to a podcast and available for download on iTunes in a few days.

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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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My Inspiration for Woo Fighters

In what is now considered “the golden days” of skepticism, I experienced first-hand the power of grass roots activism. I will never know if or how my view of the world would differ if I had never taken that psychology class in my junior year of high school, but I am very, very glad that I did.

Some Background

When people ask “When did you become a skeptic?”, I have to answer that I have always been one. I never blindly accepted claims and I always looked for evidence. I held my beliefs tentatively. Where I went wrong was in the assumption that the “default” conclusion should be to consider a claim true unless the evidence refutes it. I thought that a lack of evidence meant that I could not draw a conclusion. I was naïve and ignorant.

From a very young age, I was fascinated with psychic phenomena. I thought that ghosts were silly; Houdini made that clear. I had seen The Amazing Randi on The Tonight Show, so I knew that Uri Geller was a fraud and I never really bought into the typical magic tricks, anyway. But I was obsessed with ESP (extrasensory perception) and numerology. I had many obsessions, but these were different because I was never satisfied. I read about “cosmic twins” and the predictions of Nostradamus. I studied palm lines. I tried to move things with my mind. I made a set of Zener cards and did my best to test myself and my friends. Nothing ever panned out. Yet it did not occur to me to seek alternative explanations.

A more appropriate question than “When did you become a skeptic?”, I think, is “When did you stop believing?” And my answer to that is in October of 1982.

My high school in the greater Sacramento area did not offer Latin, but it did have an introductory psychology course and Mr. Tamblyn (now Dr., I see) managed to cover more than I see in most college-level courses. We recreated Asch’s conformity trials with students from other classes. We learned about the Stroop Effect. But what he and a grass roots skeptic taught us about critical thinking was the most valuable of gifts.

In early October, we had a guest speaker. She was a psychic. She gave several cold readings, including one of me. She said that she saw me sitting at a piano. Now, I didn’t play piano at the time, but I had wanted to since I got my first organ (they were very popular in the 60s and 70s) at the age of four and my parents hinted that we might finally have space for piano (they gave me an electronic keyboard that year). I was convinced that she was tapping into some unseen energy. She read several other people and we were all suitably amazed.

About a week later, another psychic visited us. He surveyed the class, asking how many of us believed in psychic phenomena, and about 3/4th of the students raised their hands.

He did several cold readings, some amazing mind-reading card tricks, and a few other feats. He entertained us us for about an hour. Then he polled the class again. Only a few did not raise their hands this time.

At this point he stopped cold and said, “I am not psychic. I am a magician. Everything I have done today has been a trick.”

He showed us how he did a few of the tricks. He explained the method of cold readings. We discussed the way the psychic the week prior may have accomplished what she did. At one point, I looked down at the books sitting on my desk and noticed that I had doodled on one the paper covers – a piano keyboard. I also carried a key ring with a note-shaped fob. I don’t know if either was visible when she was there, but it was not inconceivable. Together, we produced an explanation just about everything that we’d been amazed by the week before.

What he had to say next had a much greater impact, though. In fact, it was the end for me. It was the information I needed to finally let go of the nagging question about whether supernatural abilities were real.

He told us that he and a few others had founded a group called Bay Area Skeptics.

He told us about the challenge.

Bay Area Skeptics was founded in June and operated, at that time, as a local chapter of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). Bay Area Skeptics offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers. Although this group and challenge was new, James Randi had been offering a reward (which by that time was $10,000) since 1964. The fact that nobody had claimed this money after nearly two decades told me everything I needed to know. The money was there. All they had to do was show their powers.

This seemed utterly ridiculous to me and still does to this day. I concluded that the odds that psychic abilities existed were very, very low.

So I let go.

Some students were pretty angry about the ruse and the final poll revealed that a few (I think there were 2 or 3 out of about 45) remained believers, but many of us were amazed. Amazed at our own willingness to see what we wanted to see. Amazed at how skilled both the psychic and the skeptic were. Amazed at how little we knew about the evidence (or lack thereof).

It was not until well into college that I fully understood that the appropriate “default” conclusion was the null hypothesis, but what happened on that fall day in 1982 was a foundation for that concept. It also taught me that what we do not see can be just as important as what we see.

Although I remained an ardent skeptic, over the years my participation in skepticism as a movement varied. At times I diligently maintained memberships in various organizations. I tried Mensa for a while, but was very disappointed to discover that their special interest groups for nonsense like astrology and outnumbered the groups with a rational focus by about 5 to 1. Most other groups were either religious or game-focused. At times I paid little attention to issues of skeptical activism. Eventually, I kind of forgot about that day.

Then one day I kind of woke up and smelled the woo. I did not like it. Not one bit. I decided that I wanted to make a difference. That day came in April of 2000, when I attended the annual convention of the Western Psychological Association in Portland, Oregon. It was my first academic conference after returning to school in 1997. I found that it was not all that different from other types of conventions and conferences, but the talks were so much more interesting. I was thrilled to see Michael Shermer and Ray Hyman on the schedule and attended both of their talks. Shermer described the findings of his survey on religion (something I found particularly interesting since I had responded to that survey myself) and discussed his book How We Believe. Hyman’s talk was titled Science and Pseudoscience. As Dr. Hyman wowed the crowd with rope tricks and mind reading, all of the memories of that day came flooding back, but I could not recall the skeptic’s name. Dr. Shermer and Dr. Hyman speculated that it was Bob Steiner and James Randi offered the same guess later in an email. However, the internet eventually provided enough clues and I now know that it was Terence Sandbek, a clinical psychologist and professor at American River College.

The list of people who have helped to shape my philosophy is not short. I feel especially grateful to Dr. Donald Butler, who taught me the basics of statistics and epistemology (and always had copies of the Skeptical Inquirer to thumb through) and to Dr. Brennis Lucero-Wagoner, whose insights and inspirations on teaching are second only to her friendship.

I also have a few heroes – people whose successes I might mistake for miracles if I did not know better. It is not possible to measure the effects of Dr. Eugenie Scott’s work at the National Center for Science Education, but the thought of a world in which religion passes for science in public schools is disturbing. Dr. Rachael Dunlop has been instrumental in the fight against anti-vaccination propaganda in Australia, driving the ill-named Australian Vaccination Network to close its doors recently. These are huge wins and they clearly demonstrate that activism works.

But I do not know if I would have come to appreciate these people if it were not for the work of a skeptic and a high school teacher.

So, thank you Dr. Sandbek, for showing me that what appears to be an extraordinary feat is usually simply a practiced one and to Dr. Tamblyn, for showing me how easily we accept extraordinary claims without evidence. Oh, and for teaching me to drive! (Yes, he taught driver’s ed, too.)

I can think of no pursuit as rewarding and valuable as the study, promotion, and teaching of critical thinking, science, and skepticism.

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