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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 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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