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Posts Tagged ‘michael shermer’

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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“Because It Happened to Me”

The first post written for the Woo Fighters website was written by Barbara Drescher, and it was titled “My Inspiration for Woo Fighters“. What it was is just that, an explanation from start to finish of how she became interested in skepticism. What was described was a very deliberate path of events which led to the current day. Now, alongside with ICBS Everywhere and many panel appearances, she has brought together the Woo Fighters, a collection of approximately half a dozen students interested in skepticism.

A good exercise in life, not just for skepticism but for anything, is to take great interest in people’s motivations. Not just what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. What’s of particular interest to me is the “why” of why people become involved with skepticism. I’m assuming most of us are trying to spread the tenets of skepticism, and realizing why people get involved in the first place is to the advantage of all of us. I had a friend who began to participate in a lot of cancer research fundraising, and when I asked him why, he told me that his mother had recently gotten cancer. Most people involved in any type of activity have a strong connection to whatever they’re doing, in one way or another.

So I started looking at people who are “doing good” for skepticism. It was interesting to read in Why People Believe Weird Things that popular author Michael Shermer was a fundamentalist Christian long before he arrived at where he is today. A lot of people would see fundamental Christianity as incompatible with skepticism, and it would only seem as if Dr. Shermer did as well. Brian Dunning describes his earlier days on the internet attempting (unsuccessfully) to start intelligent discourse on various message boards. It’s a little harder to dig up the origin stories for people like Phil Plait or Steven Novella, but it seems clear that at some point everyone was pushed in the direction of skepticism, and for it has contributed very much.

So what makes them, and you, different from everyone else? When you see a video on something like The Sprinkler Rainbow Conspiracy, what makes some of us laugh, some of us sweat in terror of Barack Obama, and some of us “head to the blogs” to try to teach people that this isn’t right? Is skepticism a “get ‘em while they’re young” kind of deal, something inherent in our personalities, or what? The good people involved are here “because it happened to me”, now for people to reach this point I need to know exactly what “it” is.

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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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