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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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