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A Woo Fighter Swan Song

First, the swan song: three undergraduate students are on their way to The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 this year, but they need your help. They have raised about half of the amount they need to cover registration and travel expenses, but they still have nearly $1,000 to raise. Please consider purchasing a WooDoo Doll – a fun outlet for your frustrations, loosely based on the voodoo doll – or making a direct donation. Every little bit helps.

To skip the news, scroll down for more information about these students, the adorable WooDoo Dolls, and for a link to donate.

Yes, I said “swan song”.

As some readers may know, I will not be returning to teach at CSU, Northridge in the fall. I resigned from my position for several reasons, most of which I hope will become clear in the coming weeks and months as I write more about my experiences of the last decade. If you are interested, bookmark my personal blog ICBS Everywhere, which will soon be a ‘real blog’ again as I will have much more time to write.

In the meantime, there are many questions to answer about what I will do now and where this leaves the organization(s) I have started. Woo Fighters will continue in some form, but not as it is today. The mission of the organization was to motivate students to become activists for science and scientific/skeptical thinking. Since I will no longer have students – at least in the traditional sense, the focus must change.

In addition, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the name of the organization. I like it. I like the term “woo” to describe pseudoscience and I find “Woo Fighters” catching and fun. However, many whom I respect find the term bordering on offensive. Although I often make fun of what I deem to be some of the sillier beliefs, I have always spoken out against the ridicule of believers. That distinction is lost on some.

The final ‘nail on the coffin’ for the name comes from my son, who started the first “Junior Woo Fighters” club at his middle school. The club was very successful and I hope that he continues it next year, however, they quickly settled into calling the group a “Skeptics Club” and that is the name that stuck. So, “Woo Fighters” wasn’t such a great name after all.

I will keep the site up for now, but will eventually archive the entries somewhere accessible to all. As for the organization, I need to spend more time thinking about my personal goals before I make any decisions about rolling it into another organization, but Woo Fighters will ‘die’, at least in name and at CSUN, at the end of this summer.

I feel somewhat sad at its passing, especially before it had the opportunity to gain a great deal of momentum. That said, there are several reasons to call it a success. Not only did several students discover that they are excellent writers and critical thinkers, some discovered a community of people who think like they do. At least a few will become activists or educators focused on changing the world one thinker at a time.

I am especially proud to announce that Dylan Keenberg, who attended his first TAM last year with your help, fulfilled his promise to submit a proposal for a Sunday talk this year and has earned a spot at the podium!

Among the new TAM-goers this year are three of my most capable and promising undergraduate students.

Kameron Nason (Kami) and Heather Rees served as teaching assistants for research methods courses during my last semester. Kami has her sights on a career as a therapist. She has been drawn to skepticism in the past year as she has learned more about science and has become more comfortable with uncertainty.

Heather is a self-described “scifi geek” whose plans include research in social and cognitive psychology and university teaching. She is deeply concerned with gender issues and thinks that encouraging critical thinking will reduce social inequalities.

Loretta Aguilar learned about skepticism in my applied cognition course last fall, but like most skeptics, she was once very interested in psychic phenomena and astrology. She hopes to learn more about the promotion and teaching of critical thinking and skepticism so that she can help family and friends make better choices. Loretta is currently planning a career in clinical psychology.

These three are among the brightest and most motivated students I have had the privilege to teach. They are all looking forward to meeting more like-minded people and learning more.

How you can help

To raise the money needed for registration and travel expenses, we have been very busy making WooDoo Dolls – a fun outlet for your frustrations, loosely based on the voodoo doll. The online prices include shipping, but if you are planning to attend TAM9, you may be able to pick up one directly from the students for only $5. These dolls are handmade and rough-looking, but sturdy. Choose from 5 options for hair color to personalize your doll.

If you are not interested in a doll, but would still like to help, please consider making a direct donation of any amount. Every little bit helps!

Thank you for your support and readership over the last two years! Look for me at the TAM9 workshop “Skepticism in the Classroom”. I will be making suggestions and providing resources for critical thinking education at various ages. I will also be presenting at Dragon*Con again this year in September.

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WooDoo Dolls are Here!

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TAM 8 Summary – Sunday (Part 1)

Paper presentations make up the majority of Sunday, with a handful of workshops taking place in the afternoon. Checking out of the hotel and preparing for the trip home required us to miss a few talks, but those that I did see were very interesting.

Brian Hart started off, discussing actions taken by the Independent Investigations Group to combat licensure of alternative medicine-related continuing education units (CEUs) for registered nurses by the California Board of Registered Nurses (CBRN). Stemming from CBRN’s licensing of CEU provider Clearsight – which offered courses in “energetic medicine” and “seeing energy”, among others – the Independent Investigations Group set out to test the licensing methods of the CBRN by creating their own CEU provider. They formed the California Foundation for Institutional Care (CFI Care) and offered courses in apophenia (pareidolia), möbel kinesiology (furniture moving), Chinese sheyou (Chinese snake oil), and other dubious healing techniques. Startlingly, CFI Care received CBRN certification, which was only revoked when the Independent Investigations Group actually provided instruction to a handful of confused nurses. Hart’s anecdotal talk struck a balance of hilarity and horror that was simultaneously entertaining and unnerving – I thoroughly enjoyed it. You can read more about this investigation and results here.

William M. London next presented on Fallacies and Falsehoods at the 2009 Cancer Control Society Convention. Present at the convention were a variety of alternative medicine supporters, which is troubling since there is little to no evidence that their techniques work. Much of the alternative medicine techniques were classified under “integrated medicine”, which often oversimplifies and distorts cancer as a single, general illness that must be cured holistically. In reality, there are many different forms of cancer that must be individually researched and treated. London posited that alt-med saturation in cancer care results in three types of harm: indirect harm of people being diverted away from beneficial scientifically-based treatments, direct harm of poisoning and illness from treatments such as coffee enemas and enzyme treatments, and psychological harm of patient stress from having to choose among vast numbers of treatment approaches. I found this talk to be informative and the reality that these ineffective treatments are chosen by those in dire need to be tragic. Such a predicament where lives hang in the balance really brings the importance of scientific advocacy to the foreground.

The stage next filled with a panel focusing on Global Climate Change and the Responsibility of the Skeptic Movement, consisting of moderator Massimo Pigliucci, Daniel Loxton, James McGaha, Michael Shermer, and Donald Prothero. The heated discussion began with the panel’s takes on the attitudes that should be taken when scientific topics raises public interest. Shermer voiced that Skeptic Magazine covers both sides of the climate change debate while emphasizing the science therein, Prothero echoed the thesis of Pigliucci’s earlier talk by arguing that there are very few climate change experts and the skeptic community has no grounding to critique them. Loxton answered that there are two perspectives in the skeptic community: those that want to debate about which side is correct, and those (like himself) who focus on educating the public about controversies so they can make their own informed decisions. McGaha interjected that skeptics put too much support into science as always correct, to which Prothero passionately replied that minimizing the findings and progress of science because of past mistakes is a fallacy.

Pigliucci next asked how skeptics can know if climate change is a scientific controversy or just a media controversy. Shermer argued that political and religious aspects do affect the scientific discussion and that skeptics should stay out of public policy and politics. Prothero added that if you want to see scientific biasing you just have to follow the money, much of which comes from oil companies, tobacco companies, and right-wing organizations that have “beat the bush hard enough” to find climate change denying scientists. After brief discussions of the skepticism movement and resources for skeptics, each panelist gave concluding remarks. Prothero emphasized that with climate change being so complex, we as laypersons should not let biases (such as religious and political perspectives) get in the way of scientific truth. Agreeing that science is a revisionary field, Loxton rallied for anyone who thinks they can bring down a foundation of science to submit a paper for peer review and to do so. McGaha reiterated that scientists are always trying to come up with new ideas and failing and warned that we have to be careful about worshiping science as a religion, concluding that science is flawed but it does work in the long run. Finally, Shermer agreed with Loxton’s remarks with the caveat that skeptics should always check the sources of whatever they are researching.

Up next was Barbara Drescher, who discussed Skepticism as a Gateway to Scientific Literacy. Drescher proposed that skeptical inquiry leads new researchers – be they in college, high school, or even middle school – to a better understanding of scientific methodology than scientific demonstrations. She argued that because science fair topics usually revolve around questions that have already been answered, students mostly memorize procedure and learn little about the scientific method. In lab studies, undergraduates tend to focus on method and this approach is riddled with biased reasoning that fails to make inferences. If instructors were to reduce research options to types of scientific inquiry, it would facilitate understanding of the scientific method more effectively and result in new contributions to the science field, instead of simply demonstrating aspects of a preexisting theory.

The Virgin of Guadalupe was the focus of the next talk, given by Brian Dunning. Stating that the supposedly-miraculous phenomena has already been debunked, Dunning instead spoke about the positive aspects of the religious figure in Mexican history and culture. In Through the process of syncretism, Archbishop of Mexico Alonzo de Montúfar utilized a portrait (by Marcos Cipac de Aquino) of the Virgin Mary as a name and face for the Aztec goddess, Tonantzin, which resulted in the baptizing of around eight million Aztecs. From this point onward, Marcos’ portrait of Mary permeated deeply into Mexican culture, not only as a miraculously divined icon but as one of the most popular and influential art pieces of all time. Dunning concluded that these historical and cultural implications are important for skeptics to understand above and beyond debunking the religious claims that circle the work.

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