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TAM 8 Summary – Saturday (Part 2)

Bringing the first batch of Saturday’s humor (besides MC Hal Bidlack of course!), David Javerbaum held a Q&A session about being executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In response to accusations that The Daily Show is sexist, Javerbaum replied that the letter was the kind of reporting that the show debunked hundreds of times when it was used in Iraq War journalism and that “the thesis was there before the claim”. He stated that The Daily Show doesn’t feel they have a responsibility to do journalism before comedy. In closing, Javerbaum was asked about if any guests ever did an appearance without knowing what they were in for, to which he replied that people love to be on television, even at the expense of their shame, intelligence, and image. Javerbaum was very entertaining and as an avid Jon Stewart fan I loved hearing his “man behind the curtain” takes on various topics.

Aliens Among Us: Are They Already Here? was the title of the next talk, given by James McGaha. Focusing on technological and intelligent life, McGaha explained that believers in extraterrestrials assume that there “must” be many aliens and that they are most likely hostile. McGaha argued that postmodernism plays a large role in believing, since the stance that nothing is certain means any evidence isn’t really proof enough to stop believing. Citing a number of equations used in estimating the amount of complex life in the universe that could travel to Earth, McGaha concluded that it is highly unlikely and nearly impossible that extraterrestrials would ever make physical contact. McGaha’s presentation was very dense and many of the equations and theories went over my head, but I did enjoy his discussion about believers.

The Paranormal Investigations panel was next on the schedule and it featured moderator Juila Galef, Ben Radford, Karen Stollznow, Joe Nickell, and James Randi. Regarding the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, Randi explained that those that do take up the challenge honestly don’t know that they will fail and that while every participant is asked to perform a double-blind study, no one ever does. At the same time, however, Radford, Nickell, and Randi all emphasized that these people are just confused and should be treated with respect, not contempt. When asked how modern technology has altered the paranormal investigation field, Nickell explained that the body of work done is very helpful and was unavailable decades ago, while Randi explained that there are more tools for investigators, such as the transmitter he used in debunking Peter Popoff. Finally, Galef asked what are some hallmarks of bad investigation, to which Radford replied “looking for ghosts with the lights off” and Stollznow answered that using irrelevant equipment is always a giveaway. This panel was another enjoyable one, as it was great to hear Randi talk about the Million Dollar Challenge and Ben Radford’s contributions were highly entertaining.

Jennifer Michael Hecht discussed the history of doubt next, opening by stating that the history of doubt is longer than the history of faith and citing depictions of doubt from 600 BC. Hecht explained that Plato discussed atheistic concepts in identifying the youth and that it was Plotinus that turned Plato’s good into god. During the Cold War, questioning religion was made treasonable as a communist act and this disdain has remained ever since. A poet and philosopher, Hecht voiced the value of poetry as it relates to science and the natural world, arguing that poetry echoes the amazement in the natural. Hecht feels that the experience of humanity cannot be guided solely by science and that for very historical reasons we have shut out poetry to deny that humanity cannot be scientifically contained. I admired Hecht’s mastery of the subject and her fluid presentation style. As someone who appreciates artistic expression, it was also great to hear her support of poetry as a valid form of portraying humanness.

Paul Provenza was up next, and he gave a humorous-yet-thoughtful presentation focusing on his book ¡Satiristas! He explained that all the comedians he interviewed for the book (including the late George Carlin in his final interview) are free, critical thinkers. Much of the presentation consisted of Provenza reading selected passages from the book, many of which focused on discussions of religion and atheism. Along similar lines, Provenza expressed some confusion about the skeptics versus atheists issue, stating that he feels that all skeptics must be atheists but that “everyone has a process”. Provenza also explained that he feels God cheapens the wonder of the natural world. In conclusion, he reitorated that we can’t force people to doubt, but we can be there when questions arise and that making people laugh eases the tension of presenting a new paradigm. Provenza’s free-form talk was a funny and thought-provoking presentation that was a great demonstration of how humor can facilitate easier discussion about difficult topics.

Finally, Keynote Speaker Richard Dawkins was interviewed by D.J. Grothe about skepticism, atheism, extraterrestrials, and science fiction. Dawkins and Grothe discussed atheism first, with Dawkins expressing that it is hard to be skeptical without investigating your own theism and that insofar religion affects the real world, it must be scrutinized. Dawkins also argued that a universe with an intelligent creator at its base would clearly be very different than our universe, even if the differences were not testable. Grothe asked if there is a hierarchy of woo-woo claims, to which Dawkins replied that there is and you can organize them based on importance, such that the existence of God is much more important than the existence of Bigfoot. Similarly, he expressed that he finds graphology to be “extremely plausible” and homeopathy “extremely implausible”, so plausibility can also be a organizational component.

Moving on to extraterrestrial life, Dawkins stated that its existence is plausible given the number of stars in the universe, even intelligent life. He felt that anyone who commits that the origins of life are Earth-specific, then they are committing that the event is so stupefyingly rare that all those searching for the chemical theory should quit. Grothe asked what the chances are that there is alien life that humans could see as godlike, to which Dawkins explained that it would not take much time for evolution to form such beings. However, they would not be godlike since they came from natural and rational processes, so worshiping them as gods would be absurd.

As Dawkins is currently working on The Magic of Reality, a book for children, Grothe turned the attention to Dawkins’ views on fiction. Dawkins explained that he loves science fiction that takes science seriously and isn’t completely undisciplined. Contrastingly, he feels that fantasy fiction prepped him for religious belief and that “what might have been a natural skepticism [in his childhood] was dulled through fantastic fiction”. At the same time, Dawkins emphasized that science will not progress without imagination and going beyond what is currently accepted. Grothe asked if Dawkins could now not enjoy fantasy, to which he explained he definitely can enjoy all sorts of fiction, in that he finds suspending disbelief and getting in the head of another person or character very interesting.

Finally, Grothe requested some information about Dawkins’ new work. Regarding the title, he explained there are three types of magic: irrational magic, conjuring (tricks), and the Carl Sagan magic of the universe, to which Dawkins’ title refers to. Each chapter in the book focuses on a question, such as “what is the sun?” or “what is an earthquake?”, and first explains various myths about the phenomenon before providing the correct scientific explanation.

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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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