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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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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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