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A Woo Fighter Swan Song

First, the swan song: three undergraduate students are on their way to The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 this year, but they need your help. They have raised about half of the amount they need to cover registration and travel expenses, but they still have nearly $1,000 to raise. Please consider purchasing a WooDoo Doll – a fun outlet for your frustrations, loosely based on the voodoo doll – or making a direct donation. Every little bit helps.

To skip the news, scroll down for more information about these students, the adorable WooDoo Dolls, and for a link to donate.

Yes, I said “swan song”.

As some readers may know, I will not be returning to teach at CSU, Northridge in the fall. I resigned from my position for several reasons, most of which I hope will become clear in the coming weeks and months as I write more about my experiences of the last decade. If you are interested, bookmark my personal blog ICBS Everywhere, which will soon be a ‘real blog’ again as I will have much more time to write.

In the meantime, there are many questions to answer about what I will do now and where this leaves the organization(s) I have started. Woo Fighters will continue in some form, but not as it is today. The mission of the organization was to motivate students to become activists for science and scientific/skeptical thinking. Since I will no longer have students – at least in the traditional sense, the focus must change.

In addition, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the name of the organization. I like it. I like the term “woo” to describe pseudoscience and I find “Woo Fighters” catching and fun. However, many whom I respect find the term bordering on offensive. Although I often make fun of what I deem to be some of the sillier beliefs, I have always spoken out against the ridicule of believers. That distinction is lost on some.

The final ‘nail on the coffin’ for the name comes from my son, who started the first “Junior Woo Fighters” club at his middle school. The club was very successful and I hope that he continues it next year, however, they quickly settled into calling the group a “Skeptics Club” and that is the name that stuck. So, “Woo Fighters” wasn’t such a great name after all.

I will keep the site up for now, but will eventually archive the entries somewhere accessible to all. As for the organization, I need to spend more time thinking about my personal goals before I make any decisions about rolling it into another organization, but Woo Fighters will ‘die’, at least in name and at CSUN, at the end of this summer.

I feel somewhat sad at its passing, especially before it had the opportunity to gain a great deal of momentum. That said, there are several reasons to call it a success. Not only did several students discover that they are excellent writers and critical thinkers, some discovered a community of people who think like they do. At least a few will become activists or educators focused on changing the world one thinker at a time.

I am especially proud to announce that Dylan Keenberg, who attended his first TAM last year with your help, fulfilled his promise to submit a proposal for a Sunday talk this year and has earned a spot at the podium!

Among the new TAM-goers this year are three of my most capable and promising undergraduate students.

Kameron Nason (Kami) and Heather Rees served as teaching assistants for research methods courses during my last semester. Kami has her sights on a career as a therapist. She has been drawn to skepticism in the past year as she has learned more about science and has become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Heather is a self-described “scifi geek” whose plans include research in social and cognitive psychology and university teaching. She is deeply concerned with gender issues and thinks that encouraging critical thinking will reduce social inequalities.

Loretta Aguilar learned about skepticism in my applied cognition course last fall, but like most skeptics, she was once very interested in psychic phenomena and astrology. She hopes to learn more about the promotion and teaching of critical thinking and skepticism so that she can help family and friends make better choices. Loretta is currently planning a career in clinical psychology.

These three are among the brightest and most motivated students I have had the privilege to teach. They are all looking forward to meeting more like-minded people and learning more.

How you can help

To raise the money needed for registration and travel expenses, we have been very busy making WooDoo Dolls – a fun outlet for your frustrations, loosely based on the voodoo doll. The online prices include shipping, but if you are planning to attend TAM9, you may be able to pick up one directly from the students for only $5. These dolls are handmade and rough-looking, but sturdy. Choose from 5 options for hair color to personalize your doll.

If you are not interested in a doll, but would still like to help, please consider making a direct donation of any amount. Every little bit helps!






Thank you for your support and readership over the last two years! Look for me at the TAM9 workshop “Skepticism in the Classroom”. I will be making suggestions and providing resources for critical thinking education at various ages. I will also be presenting at Dragon*Con again this year in September.

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Vaccines and Autism: Faked

Sorry about the breaks between postings here on Woo Fighters. I will try to increase my postings as I come across interesting things on the internet.

This story came out a few days ago: Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’

This the type of thing we here at Woo Fighters love to see. It is truly important scientific findings are accurate and real. Fraudulent data only hurts the scientific community, and as a scientist, I hate to see that this doctor meant to use his fake data for profit. Unfortunately for him, knowledge is, by and large, free. Of course this man denies any wrongdoing or fraud. Perhaps one day he will relent.

The story can also be found here: British Doctor Faked Data Linking Vaccines to Autism, and Aimed to Profit From It

Anderson Cooper: Autism & Vaccines

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TAM 8 Summary – Saturday (Part 1)

Saturday proved to be another rousing conference of diverse minds and varied expertise, beginning with further perspectives on the state and position of skepticism movement, drifting into talks of aliens and paranormal investigations, and concluding with an interview of one of the world’s most famous atheists. There was even some humor thrown in amongst the heady talks, so I felt that Saturday was a real treat!

After another live podcast of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (discussing nukes in space, PepsiGate, and Deborah King’s “energy vampires”), Massimo Pigliucci began Saturday’s talks. His presentation, entitled So, You Think You’re a Skeptic, Don’t You? (PDF link), discussed the problem of hubris – most skeptics do not have technical scientific expertise and to reject a scientific notion without proper expertise is a form of anti-intellectualism. Pigliucci cited pillars of the skepticism community as erring in this way, including Penn and Teller, Bill Mauer, James Randi, and Michael Shermer. He sees the issue is ideology, explaining that denialism of scientific claims (such as climate change) due to political ideology is similar to denialism of scientific claims (such as evolution) because of religious ideology. In conclusion, Pigliucci voiced that fallibility should not be determined by the skeptic community, but rather by scientists and philosophers who have specialized expertise. Skeptics should instead debunk the bunk, educate the public about critical thinking, and support the best science available. I agree with Pigliucci’s distinctions, as I feel we should never go beyond the areas of our expertise and understanding in scientific matters.

Next on the agenda was the Grassroots Panel, moderated by Michael Feldman and consisting of Richard Saunders, Chip Denman, Jamy Ian Swiss, Jen Newport, and Sid Rodriguez. The panelists offered their takes on forming grassroots skeptic organizations and the pros and cons of smaller outfits compared to national organizations. Everyone was in agreement that there are certain perks to being local, including the social aspect, ability to fuel larger groups, being less intimidating than national organizations, and being more effective in influencing local policy. Swiss warned that local skeptical activism can be powerful, but also comes with a lot of responsibility and can lead to legal issues. Denman urged those who could to take courses in speaking to the media, saying “it will save you”. Newport criticized virtual grassroots activism in that some pieces are more opinion than truth and that misinformation can spread quickly. Saunders agreed, but said that when online activism is used for good it can be very productive. Everyone seemed to agree that virtual activism would not replace physical groups, with Swiss emphasizing the importance of social interaction and Newport interjecting that she feels “it is activist to be there for people to find you”. The panel was very informative and interesting, nicely balancing the good and bad that can come with setting up a local skepticism group.

Following the panel, cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood took his place on the stage to discuss Why People Believe the Weirdest Shit, which focused on developmental factors of supernatural beliefs. Hood first discussed that “personal experience” with the paranormal can be explained through expectations stemming from belief, in that the brain’s neural firing fills in inferred information (such as “seeing a ghost”) for what is believed and “should” be. He then discussed spontaneous supernatural beliefs that can be traced through childhood cognitive development, such as mind-body dualism, preference for Creationism over Darwinism, wishful thinking, and essentialism. Essentialism, the belief in an underlying reality or true nature shared by members of a category that one cannot observe directly but gives an object its identity, is at the heart of sentimentality toward objects, belief in religious relics, and experiencing psychic connections among people. Hood concluded that it is not enough just to be skeptical, but that we need to know why people believe in the paranormal. He also posited that believing may be more natural than abnormal, since it seems to be how the brain works. The concept of essentialism was very interesting to me in that there are many skeptics (myself included) that do have secular supernatural beliefs such as sentimentality to certain objects.

Up next, Steve Novella moderated the Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Chiropractic, and Other Dubious Health Care Systems panel in which Simon Singh, David Gorski, Ginger Campbell, Harriet Hall, and Rachael Dunlop participated. Gorski began by affirming that the distinction between science-based medicine and other healing techniques is that scientific-based medicine will abandon approaches that are shown to be ineffective and that this is a very important position. Novella questioned the legitimacy of alt-med regulation and licensure, to which Hall replied that you can license anything and that is an issue because with licensure comes credibility. Gorski voiced concern about who sets the standards, stating that if it is not scientists then it must be those within the discipline, to which Singh added that criticism within alternative medicine is nonexistent and that this is not the case in science-based medicine. Campbell suggested that homeopathic medicine does not belong in Walmart, to which the entire panel urged the skeptic community to push for its removal by TAM 9. Regarding how much difference can be made by educating the public about unfounded alt-med cures, Campbell said a lot could be gained and that it must be discussed (without superiority) with your friends and neighbors. Finally, Novella asked about expanding resources into researching alternative medicine claims, to which all panelists mostly agreed that completely unsubstantiated claims (like homeopathy) should receive no funding. Gorski and Dunlop supported looking into herbal medicine a bit, as did Singh who added that “wacky” claims need a bit of research as well, since some have indeed turned out to be legitimate. This panel was very informative and I really enjoyed the passion expressed by each panelist. I feel that a push to remove homeopathic medicine from Walmart would be a worthwhile endeavor and hope some movement regarding this does take place; I would certainly be an active participant.

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TAM 8 Summary – Friday (Part 2)

After Simon Singh, Joe Nickell took to the stage to discuss his experiences of going undercover to investigate paranormal claims. Nickell, called by Paul Kurtz “the modern Sherlock Holmes”, creates false personas and then takes part in alleged supernatural rituals. He discussed debunking mediums at Camp Chesterfield, infiltrating the religious camp of Johnny God, being “cured” of made up illnesses by Benny Hinn, and counter-investigating the psychic investigation work of Phil Jordan. In each and every instance, he found it quite telling that no one claiming paranormal abilities could see through his charade. Nickell’s accounts were extremely entertaining and I found it interesting that he claims to have never felt endangered throughout his years of paranormal investigation work.

Adam Savage spoke next, reading a speech that he gave upon receiving the Harvard Humanism Award. An atheist, Savage talked about how he feels God is not a prerequisite for knowing how to live the good life. He remarked that good without God is a fact and that “Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, but because someone inside is – me.” Savage also remarked that while we would like good and evil to be clear cut, it is not; such a desire is banal. After his speech, a live auction was held to support the JREF, with a piece of the duct tape bridge donated by Savage and co-Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman raising $650. I found Savage’s speech passionate and topical, and watching him run around the ballroom with his auction item held high was an added treat!

Astronomer Pamela Gay was up next, discussing Living Astronomy Out Loud, or how everyone can help contribute to the field of astronomy. Opening with data indicating that only 1 in 3750 people in the United States were scientists in 2007 (fewer than the number of clergy), Gay spoke out on the need to increase scientist numbers. She presented a number of astronomy-oriented websites that anyone can use to categorize universal phenomena, including Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch. Gay explained that astronomers need this Web 2.0 assistance to expand their research, but also need people to support science in education. Gay voiced concern about the “offensively inadequate” state of science education and explained that some Illinois public high schools cannot offer the minimum number of classes to meet eligibility for the University of Illinois. She concluded by stating “your actions are needed to change this nation” and encouraging everyone in the audience to contribute by supporting science interest and education. Gay’s figures and concerns were troubling to me as a critical thinking in education advocate and something must definitely be done to put the sciences far down on the list of budget cut casualties.

Little did we know that the tone and focus of TAM was going to drastically change upon the next guest taking the podium. Phil Plait confronted a growing issue within the skeptic community – patronizing, close-minded skeptics. “Vitriol and venom are on the rise” in skepticism, Plait argued, polling the audience about how many people have ever changed their mind because they were yelled at about their beliefs (only a couple hands were raised of over a thousand audience members). He explained how attempts to debunk another’s beliefs only serve to reinforce the belief in question, emphasizing the need to be open and considerate in discussions of belief. Plait posited that the goal of the skepticism movement is to obtain a more rational, real world and that in this endeavor communication is key. While insults may feel good to throw at the opposing side, they do nothing to get the argument across. In closing, Plait said that we don’t need warriors in this pursuit, but diplomats. I could not agree more with Plait’s position and will be discussing this in greater detail in my review of TAM (to be posted after the event summaries).

After this rousing and inspirational talk by Plait, social psychologist Carol Tavris gave a talk on Science, Skepticism, and Self-Deception that was much in line with Plait’s message. Tavris discussed what she labels the Semmelweis Problem, which is the refusal to change beliefs and actions despite substantial evidence that existing beliefs and actions are flawed compared to a more beneficial and accurate approach. Three hardwired biases – the bias of being unbiased, the bias that we are smarter/better/kinder/more competent than others, and the confirmation bias – fuel the perpetuation of irrational beliefs. This is true of skeptics as well as believers, especially because skeptics tend to have a self-concept that they are not easily fooled and this can prevent consideration of alternative concepts. Tavris explained that the moment a stance is decided on regarding an issue, justification through the three hardwired biases immediately sets in and considering an alternate perspective becomes perpetually more difficult as biased evidence is accumulated. This is why assaulting another’s beliefs does not work and instead strengthens their beliefs. Tavris concluded by emphasizing that while cognitive dissonance may be hardwired, how we think about decision making is learned and this can overcome close-mindedness and lead to more effective communication. As a supporter of empathetic, open skepticism, what Tavris had to say was greatly appreciated and all the more poignant after Plait’s passionate speech.

Finally, a panel moderated by D.J. Grothe and featuring Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Ken Frazier, and James Randi focused on The Origins of the Modern Skeptic Movement. Randi explained that the movement began humbly as SIR (Sanity In Research) and only really took off when their small group started making academic connections. CSICOP (now CSI) was created in the 1970s to combat the irrationalism of paranormal beliefs, explained Kurtz, and when asked if there are less paranormal believers now, Hyman noted that measuring success is difficult and Frazier explained that the instantaneous state of media has altered the situation. Grothe asked if the fact that over 1300 TAM attendees was evidence of success, to which Randi said yes but it is “a drop in the bucket”. Frazier doubted that irrational beliefs could ever be eradicated, but that it could be curbed much like law enforcement curbs crime. Kurtz interjected that skepticism is a method that must be conveyed as essential and that its emphasis in schooling is paramount. In response to Grothe asking if there has been a shift in the community’s approach, Frazier stated that he does not think there has been a significant change, citing that the focus is still on testable claims. Similarly, Randi reminded everyone that the JREF is not atheist, but will pursue any religious claims that are observable and testable. The panel concluded with a video of the late Martin Gardner and Randi giving a speech in remembrance to his close friend and colleague.

In closing, James Randi presented an award to Paul Kurtz for his decades of work promoting skepticism. This was a very moving and important recognition for Kurtz, who recently resigned from CFI, CSI, and the Council for Secular Humanism to establish the Institute for Science and Human Values. In receiving the award, Kurtz stated that contributions such as his must be ongoing and the skepticism community is obligated to continue the promotion of critical thinking. I am definitely ready and eager to take up this cause and hope that everyone in the audience agrees with Kurtz in this regard.

After Simon Singh, Joe Nickell took to the stage to discuss his experiences of going undercover to investigate paranormal claims. Nickell, called by Paul Kurtz “the modern Sherlock Holmes”, creates false personas and then takes part in alleged supernatural rituals. He discussed debunking mediums at Camp Chesterfield, infiltrating the religious camp of Johnny God, being “cured” of made up illnesses by Benny Hinn, and counter-investigating the psychic investigation work of Phil Jordan. In each and every instance, he found it quite telling that no one claiming paranormal abilities could see through his charade. Nickell’s accounts were extremely entertaining and I found it interesting that he claims to have never felt endangered throughout his years of paranormal investigation work.

Adam Savage spoke next, reading a speech that he gave upon receiving the Harvard Humanism Award. An atheist, Savage talked about how he feels God is not a prerequisite for knowing how to live the good life. He remarked that good without God is a fact and that “Prayer doesn’t work because someone out there is listening, but because someone inside is – me.” Savage also remarked that while we would like good and evil to be clear cut, it is not; such a desire is banal. After his speech, a live auction was held to support the JREF, with a piece of the duct tape bridge donated by Savage and co-Mythbuster Jamie Hyneman raising $650. I found Savage’s speech passionate and topical, and watching him run around the ballroom with his auction item held high was an added treat!

Astronomer Pamela Gay was up next, discussing Living Astronomy Out Loud, or how everyone can help contribute to the field of astronomy. Opening with data indicating that only 1 in 3750 people in the United States were scientists in 2007 (fewer than the number of clergy), Gay spoke out on the need to increase scientist numbers. She presented a number of astronomy-oriented websites that anyone can use to categorize universal phenomena, including Galaxy Zoo, Moon Zoo, and Solar Stormwatch. Gay explained that astronomers need this Web 2.0 assistance to expand their research, but also need people to support science in education. Gay voiced concern about the “offensively inadequate” state of science education and explained that some Illinois public high schools cannot offer the minimum number of classes to meet eligibility for the University of Illinois. She concluded by stating “your actions are needed to change this nation” and encouraging everyone in the audience to contribute by supporting science interest and education. Gay’s figures and concerns were troubling to me as a critical thinking in education advocate and something must definitely be done to put the sciences far down on the list of budget cut casualties.

Little did we know that the tone and focus of TAM was going to drastically change upon the next guest taking the podium. Phil Plait confronted a growing issue within the skeptic community – patronizing, close-minded skeptics. “Vitriol and venom are on the rise” in skepticism, Plait argued, polling the audience about how many people have ever changed their mind because they were yelled at about their beliefs (only a couple hands were raised of over a thousand audience members). He explained how attempts to debunk another’s beliefs only serve to reinforce the belief in question, emphasizing the need to be open and considerate in discussions of belief. Plait posited that the goal of the skepticism movement is to obtain a more rational, real world and that in this endeavor communication is key. While insults may feel good to throw at the opposing side, they do nothing to get the argument across. In closing, Plait said that we don’t need warriors in this pursuit, but diplomats. I could not agree more with Plait’s position and will be discussing this in greater detail in my review of TAM (to be posted after the event summaries).

After this rousing and inspirational talk by Plait, social psychologist Carol Tavris gave a talk on Science, Skepticism, and Self-Deception that was much in line with Plait’s message. Tavris discussed what she labels the Semmelweis Problem, which is the refusal to change beliefs and actions despite substantial evidence that existing beliefs and actions are flawed compared to a more beneficial and accurate approach. Three hardwired biases – the bias of being unbiased, the bias that we are smarter/better/kinder/more competent than others, and the confirmation bias – fuel the perpetuation of irrational beliefs. This is true of skeptics as well as believers, especially because skeptics tend to have a self-concept that they are not easily fooled and this can prevent consideration of alternative concepts. Tavris explained that the moment a stance is decided on regarding an issue, justification through the three hardwired biases immediately sets in and considering an alternate perspective becomes perpetually more difficult as biased evidence is accumulated. This is why assaulting another’s beliefs does not work and instead strengthens their beliefs. Tavris concluded by emphasizing that while cognitive dissonance may be hardwired, how we think about decision making is learned and this can overcome close-mindedness and lead to more effective communication. As a supporter of empathetic, open skepticism, what Tavris had to say was greatly appreciated and all the more poignant after Plait’s passionate speech.

Finally, a panel moderated by D.J. Grothe and featuring Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, Ken Frazier, and James Randi focused on The Origins of the Modern Skeptic Movement. Randi explained that the movement began humbly as SIR (Sanity In Research) and only really took off when their small group started making academic connections. CSICOP (now CSI) was created in the 1970s to combat the irrationalism of paranormal beliefs, explained Kurtz, and when asked if there are less paranormal believers now, Hyman noted that measuring success is difficult and Frazier explained that the instantaneous state of media has altered the situation. Grothe asked if the fact that over 1300 TAM attendees was evidence of success, to which Randi said yes but it is “a drop in the bucket”. Frazier doubted that irrational beliefs could ever be eradicated, but that it could be curbed much like law enforcement curbs crime. Kurtz interjected that skepticism is a method that must be conveyed as essential and that its emphasis in schooling is paramount. In response to Grothe asking if there has been a shift in the community’s approach, Frazier stated that he does not think there has been a significant change, citing that the focus is still on testable claims. Similarly, Randi reminded everyone that the JREF is not atheist, but will pursue any religious claims that are observable and testable. The panel concluded with a video of the late Martin Gardner and Randi giving a speech in remembrance to his close friend and colleague.

In closing, James Randi presented an award to Paul Kurtz for his decades of work promoting skepticism. This was a very moving and important recognition for Kurtz, who recently resigned from CFI, CSI, and the Council for Secular Humanism to establish the Institute for Science and Human Values. In receiving the award, Kurtz stated that contributions such as his must be ongoing and the skepticism community is obligated to continue the promotion of critical thinking. I am definitely ready and eager to take up this cause and hope that everyone in the audience agrees with Kurtz in this regard.

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TAM 8 Summary – Friday (Part 1)

The experiences that I obtained through Friday’s offerings can be categorized no more acutely than inspirational. The day’s talks covered a number of topics and were given by experts in a variety of fields, each tethered to the sturdy foundation of critical thinking. The diversity of subjects made each segment intriguing and that the topics are kept from attendees beforehand provided a welcome anticipation. The later programming brought a startling and substantial community issue into light and with controversy came the possibility of a renewed emphasis of openness in skepticism.

The day began with the cast of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe recording a live podcast. Topics included the Million Ghost March (which was eventually revealed by an audience member as a parody), black hole jets of ions that create massive spheres of gas, an obesity study, and Climategate. Of note is that the obesity study concluded that being obese leads to inactivity (not the other way around), so the best preventable method appears to be combining exercise with a reduction of caloric intake. Regarding Climategate, the SGU cast explained that a third review concluded that there was no tampering of data whatsoever. The cast was entertaining to me and I enjoyed observing the humorous dynamics of the group.

After an opening by D.J. Grothe, Phil Plait, and TAM’s master of ceremonies Hal Bidlack, Michael Shermer took to the stage. His presentation, entitled The Believing Brain, focused on the meaning of believing and that human beings form beliefs first and then seek out evidence to support these beliefs. As pattern perceiving organisms our default position is to assume all patterns/beliefs are real, which minimizes the number of potentially dangerous type II errors committed. Agenticity stems from natural beliefs in a body-spirit duality and along with paternicity results in beliefs of supernatural, superior agencies. Finally, the confirmation bias fuels the gathering of evidence that supports preexisting irrational beliefs. Shermer’s sequence is in line with what I have studied in psychology and his introduction of the concepts of paternicity and agenticity provide some more efficient means of explaining supernatural belief formation.

Next, the Secular Coalition for America‘s Executive Director, Sean Faircloth, discussed secularism in politics. Faircloth argued that while independent thinking once had a place in early United States politics, this is no longer the case. Whereas secularism was prominent in the 1700s and Abraham Lincoln always had secular values, anyone in support of this position today would not be elected because of the sway faith has in the current political climate. In response, SCA aims to lobby Congress on issues of the separation of church and state, along with advocating for regulation of faith-based organizations to protect United States citizens. Before this presentation I was unaware of the SCA and will be doing some further investigation to determine if their position is something I want to support, although it seems like a good cause.

Next up was a panel entitled Women in Skepticism, comprised of moderator Rebecca Watson, Carol Tavris, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Pamela Gay, Ginger Campbell, and Harriet Hall. Throughout the Q&A session there was a consensus that the skepticism, atheism, and science communities need more culturally diverse members and gender parity. Harriet Hall noted that she has never had discrimination experiences within the skeptic community. Pamela Gay argued that by working toward integrating gender parity and cultural diversity into the skeptic community, there would be more diverse role models and that would result in skepticism reaching more people in the United States. I agree and feel that the skepticism community (at least as represented by TAM) has much to gain in these respects.

Following the panel, TAM attendees got an informal and more intimate glance at James Randi through an interview focusing on his work and friendship with Johnny Carson. Jamy Ian Swiss conducted the interview, which touched on Randi’s debunking of Uri Gellar and Peter Popoff. Randi explained that the failure of Gellar on Carson’s show was his doing, since he knew Gellar’s trick and told Carson’s prop guy to put rubber cement on the film cans to prevent him from spinning them and figuring out which one contained a hidden item. Randi next divulged that when he went on Carson’s show to expose Peter Popoff, he did not tell Carson how Popoff’s scam worked so he was completely caught off guard and understandably angry at the reveal. This interview was charming and entertaining, exemplifying how exciting and fun skepticism can be – which is of great importance and assistance in promoting skeptical inquiry and combating the stereotyping of the skeptic community as serious, condescending scientists.

Up next was Simon Singh‘s talk Alternative Medicine, Chiropractic, Libel and the Battle for Free Speech. Covering the history of the two-year libel lawsuit brought up against him by the British Chiropractic Association, Singh spoke out against libel laws in science. Although there is some evidence that back pain can be alleviated through chiropractic, claims that it can remedy non-back issues such as asthma are unfounded. The Libel Reform Campaign is working to ensure that statements against alternative medicine that are grounded in scientific evidence can no longer be drug into expensive and lengthy legal battles, since they should be protected under free speech rights. That organizations peddling unfounded healing methods would file a lawsuit of the kind Singh had to defend against was discomforting to me, but that Singh fought the long battle and came out victorious was a courageous and very important precedent.

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TAM 8 Summary – Thursday

[Photos added July 10th, 2010]

Note: I have underestimated the expansiveness of TAM (and overestimated the availability of power sources and internet access) and this is causing me to retract my original schedule of posting the evening following each day. I will probably be at least a day behind with these daily summaries given the awesome chaos that is The Amaz!ng Meeting. However, I promise to get them posted as soon as possible.  Thank you for your understanding.

Thursday programming of The Amaz!ng Meeting primarily consists of optional workshops up to the event’s opening reception in the evening. This year’s offerings did not interest me enough to pay additional fees for them, but while there were not a lot of events to participate in there were still a number of notable experiences.

The first TAM-related event was a workshop entitled Skepticism in the Classroom consisting of presentations by Daniel Loxton, Barbara Drescher, Matt Lowry, and moderator Michael Blanford (JREF’s Director of Education). Daniel Loxton discussed how evolution through natural selection can be used as a tool for teaching students how to think critically. He suggested utilizing provocative evolutionary puzzles, such as “Why are trees so tall?”, “What color is best for an animal?”, and “How did animals get wings?” to facilitate critical thinking discussions and teach the fundamentals of scientific investigation.

Next, Matt Lowry discussed methods he uses in his high school classes to foster interest in the sciences. Promoting the approach of combining wonder and skepticism, Lowry offered a number of scientific demonstrations educators could include in their curriculum – such as launching water balloons and firing rockets as physics exercises, laying down on a bed of nails and letting a student hammer a concrete brick on top of him to teach about surface area and force distribution, and creating a “haunted” physics lab for Halloween.

Barbara Drescher discussed the first steps of teaching critical thinking, which includes education on flaws in human cognition and perception and that human reasoning is fallible. Included in the presentation were a number of images and sound clips showcasing pareidolia, along with exercises that demonstrate various flaws in cognition. Drescher’s conclusion was that intelligence is not enough to be a critical thinker, but that an openness to alternative perspectives and approaches is required.

Finally, Barbara Drescher presented for Kylie Sturgess on critical thinking in English class.  A writing project that she gave her 10th grade English class that consisted of analyzing Shakespeare’s Macbeth for pseudoscientific claims, specifically the portrayal of the supernatural in the play, was presented. Students were provided with various worksheets to assist in organizing data and a guide of tips to use in investigating claims.  The project was an interesting example of how critical thinking can be integrated into fields outside of science.

After a nice reception, I attended the Skepticality Speaking Beyond BS podcast and live video streaming. Participants included Swoopy, Desiree Schell, Heidi Anderson, Barbara Drescher, and Aubrey de Grey, plus Blake Smith and Daniel Loxton. The passionate, free-form discussion covered topics such as condescending skeptics, feminist and atheist segmentation in the skeptic community, accomodationists and Loxton’s Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, and Paul Kurtz’s new humanism. The entire event was captured on Ustream and the podcast will eventually be posted on SheThought. It will be a good one!

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Warning Signs That Something is Not Scientific

*Some editing and language added by Barbara A. Drescher

Some people promote theories and treatments that they claim to be scientific, but are not. ResearchBlogging.orgOn this website, we often refer to such dubious claims as “woo” or pseudoscience. These often troublesome theories and treatments are widely advertised on the internet, on TV, and in the psychology or self-help sections of commercial book stores. But because some material in these venues is legitimate, it is important to know how to distinguish science from pseudoscience.

Here we provide a useful toolkit which can be used to identify pseudoscience. The following warning signs are just a rough guide and should be used with some care, because the distinction between science and pseudoscience is rarely clear-cut. Nevertheless, the more warning signs, the more suspicious of a claim you should be.

Warning signs that something is not scientific:

  1. It cannot be tested.

    Pseudoscience is often either impossible to test or excuses are made which keep it from being tested.

    In some cases, when evidence does not support the claim, instead of abandoning their ideas, pseudoscientists add conditions to their theories or explain away the evidence so that it is impossible to test the claim empirically. For example, a psychic who cannot demonstrate mind reading or other psychic feats under carefully controlled conditions in the laboratory might claim that “the skeptical vibes of experimenters” are blocking his or her psychic powers. Such an excuse makes the claim untestable.

    In other cases, pseudoscientific theories cannot be tested right from the start.

  2. The basic theory does not change in response to evidence.

    Genuine science adapts and updates its theories in response to new evidence, especially refuting evidence. In contrast, pseudoscience tends to maintain its initial claims and instead dismisses or ignores counter-evidence.

  3. The claimants avoid peer review or other outside verification.

    Peer review is the checking of scientific-journal articles by other scientists. Although it is by no means perfect, peer review is an effective, if slow, safeguard against human error. Pseudoscientists tend to avoid close scrutiny. In many cases, their descriptions of procedures and mechanisms are vague and the terms they use are undefined (e.g., “energy”). In other cases they may claim that “orthodox science” conspires against them.

  4. They only look for evidence which confirms their hypothesis.

    In science, studies are designed to disprove hypotheses, not to confirm them. This is because confirming evidence cannot tell us if the hypothesis is always true or if we have simply not seen a case in which it is false. For example, we could test the hypothesis that all birds fly by dropping birds from a bridge. We would confirm our hypothesis many times over, but we would not discover that it was wrong unless we happened to drop a chicken, penguin, or ostrich.

    Scientists look for evidence that their theories are false. Pseudoscientists, however, often look only for evidence which supports their beliefs.

  5. The claimant insists that their theory is accurate because it has not been proven wrong.

    Pseudoscientists typically say that it up to critics to disprove their claims, and until they do they should hold firmly to their beliefs. However, the burden of proof is on those making the claim.

  6. The claim defies what established science has told us about the world.

    Pseudoscientists often claim to have discovered a completely new way of looking at the world, one which requires existing scientific knowledge to be tossed out. For example, “psychic surgeons” claim to remove tumors from a patient’s abdomen without cutting the skin. This is considered an extraordinary claim as it defies the laws of nature as we know them. Such claims require extraordinary evidence.

  7. The claimants attempt to persuade using anecdotes.

    Pseudoscientists tend to rely on evidence that is testimonial – engaging and vivid personal stories. These stories are often touching and persuasive. Although such testimonies may be useful starting points in the early stages of scientific study, they rarely provide enough evidence to accept a claim. That’s because they are often difficult to verify, unrepresentative of people’s experiences, and open to alternative explanations that pseudoscientists haven’t considered.

  8. The claimants use confusing and inappropriate scientific-sounding jargon to persuade.

    Pseudoscientists sometimes use jargon which hides the lack of substance in their claims. Scientific or highly technical words are used to impress the reader and make it look like science. Technical or scientific terms are often used out of context. For example, the claim that a product regulates the flow of ions in the body is a misuse of the term “ion”, which refers to states of a molecule, not something that flows in the body.

  9. The claim has no limits.

    In science, theories are specific and treatments have limits. In contrast, pseudoscientists often claim that their theory or treatment applies to just about everything. For example, sham treatments for ADHD also claim to treat or even cure autism, learning disabilities, and other behavioral disorders even though these disorders are completely different in nature and have different causes.

  10. The claimant rejects counter-evidence from specific testing because it is not “holistic”.

    “Holistic” is often used to mean “treating the whole person.” Buyer-beware if “holistic” is used in such a way as to explain away unfavorable results, or to undermine the value of testing specific parts of the treatment or theory.

Note: These warning signs were adapted from Lilienfeld, Lynn, and Lohr (2003, pp. 5-10).

Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., & Lohr, J.M. (2003). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology: Initial thoughts, reflections and considerations In S.O. Lilienfeld, S.J. Lynn, & J.M. Lohr (Eds.), Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, 1-38

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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.

But…

$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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