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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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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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