Liveblogging The Amazing Meeting 8: Friday Late Afternoon Sessions

You can read previous sessions here and here.

This is Jen from Blag Hag again – Hemant is off doing interview-y things, so I’m still liveblogging away!

The next speaker is Pamela Gay, skeptic and astronomer.

There are more clergy in the United States than Scientists — 1 in 3,280 for clergy, 1 in 3,750 for scientists. But even though we’re similar in numbers, people don’t always get to interact with scientists, so a lot learn from stereotypes like Big Bang Theory (which, ok, is still kind of awesome).

To help spread interest in science, she is part of the Citizen Science Alliance, which works to increase the interactions between scientists and the general public.

“You can imagine how many galaxies you can make a graduate student look at before they tell you where you can put your galaxies.”

Good to know astronomy grad students have it the same as biologists, haha.

One of their current projects is Galaxy Zoo, which asks anyone interested on the internet to help classify galaxies. Random people have classified thousands of galaxies, and even discovered new types. I know what I’m going to be doing when I get home!

Projects like this help scientists immensely. Computers can’t always search as well as humans, and there just aren’t enough scientists to be mining data. I wonder if biologists will eventually turn to this tactic with all the mountains of genomic data we’re starting to produce. Just imagine a website that asks you to search for genes, retroviruses, microsatellites… Okay, maybe it’s just me that find that really cool.

(It’s Hemant again. Isn’t Jen awesome? Totally.)

Phil Plait is up. While my camera is charging, here’s him switching glasses with Adam Savage!

Phil asks the audience how many of us believed in something we now disavow — flying saucers, horoscopes, religion, etc.

Many hands go up.

He asks the audience how many of us changed our minds because someone called us stupid, ignorant, retarded, etc.

The hands went down.

“The message we’re trying to convey is hard all by its lonesome… in many cases, people will prefer magic over science and fantasy over reality…

Wy would you want to make it harder to deliver that message?”

As someone who’s spoken with several Christians, in public forums, over the past few years, I have to agree. The name-calling may make us feel superior, but it doesn’t help achieve the end goal.

Why are so many atheists/skeptics jerks? Phil explains part of it has to do with frustration, having to debunk the same stuff over and over and over… and we’re shocked that anyone could still believe it. There’s also anger, which can be a loaded weapon.

Phil references chess: You can sacrifice a piece for the greatest goal. What is your goal when you speak to a believer? Calling them morons — or baby-rapers in certain cases — may make you feel smug and superior, but are you trying to win a point “or win the damn game”?

By the way, at no point here is Phil mentioning any names of atheists who do any of these things. Hmm… (Somewhere in the audience is PZ’s wife. Wonder what she thinks about all this…)

Phil adds: “We don’t need warriors. What we need are diplomats.”

(This is a constant source of debate in our community. Many people would argue that we need both.)

I think it’s possible to have conversations with believers (in anything foolish) without resorting to name-calling. But I’m not sure we have to give anything up in the process. And I think it can be dangerous to be an accommodationist, seceding certain truths in order to “win” the bigger game.

Phil leaves us with a couple things to consider:

1) What is your goal? Before you blog or comment or send a email, ask the question Is this going to help? Or Will this impede me reaching that goal?

2) Don’t be a dick. All it does is score cheap points, and “it doesn’t win over hearts and minds.”

A couple other choice soundbytes:

Referring to the Simon Singh case:

“Homeopathy may be diluting itself out of existence in the UK.”

Referring to critical thinking:

“Teach a man to reason and he’ll think for a lifetime.”

Incidentally, I sat down with Phil for a ~30 minute interview. He talked about a *ton* of subjects, including the Christian mindset, the PepsiCo/ScienceBlogs controversy, and his Super Secret Project. I’ll post that when I get back home.

Next up: Dr. Carol Tavris, a social psychologist.

Her talk is on “Science, Skepticism, and Self-Deception.”

She’s very sweet even if the picture below doesn’t make her look that way :)

Tavris asks: What would it take for someone to thank you for helping them understand a particular issue? Whether that’s a life-saving procedure they should consider or the notion that god doesn’t exist, the answer may be the same thing.

Now, we get into talking about cognitive dissonance and why it’s so difficult to get people to change their minds.

The brain is wired for three particular biases:

1) The bias that we are unbiased
2) The bias that we are smarter, better, kinder, and more competent than average
3) The confirmation bias

(About #2, Tavris mentions that a study at a fundamentalist Christian school found that most students there thought of themselves as “humbler” than average.)

Tavris adds: Each act of self justification makes that that much more harder to tell ourselves we’re wrong.

So what should we do? We need to know where the other person is coming from. If they’re never made a commitment, it’s easier to persuade them. If they’ve spent their lives dedicated to whatever you disagree with, diplomacy helps, as Phil said earlier. Otherwise, you “force them to cling even more tenaciously” to whatever belief they have. I completely agree with her.

As we get read for the final panel, Eugenie Scott from the National Center for Science Education makes a surprise appearance on stage… says a few words… and gets a huge ovation herself. That’s impressive.

Finally, a panel discussion moderated by JREF President D.J. Grothe. It includes James Randi, Council of Secular Humanism founder Paul Kurtz, Professor Emeritus of Psychology Ray Hyman, and Skeptical Inquirer editor Ken Frazier. The subject is the Origins of the Modern Skeptic Movement.

Here’s D.J.:

They open with a tape of the recently-deceased Martin Gardner.

Randi is speaking at the podium about Gardner. I can only see his face. It’s kinda scary/awesome.

It’s a strange thing, seeing these “legends” of the movement onstage. They have such respect from within the community. But the tweeters are relatively quiet (they were using their thumbs nonstop earlier). The audience seems antsy (though it’s also late in the day).

I wonder if people care about the origins of these organizations as much as what’s going on now and what they can do to help.

Hyman brings up the “Skeptic’s Curse” — it’s hard for us to tell people “you’re wrong” without alienating them.

I think a lot of people see that as anything but a curse. We thrive on telling people they’re wrong :)

When asked about the skeptics/atheists overlap, Randi mentions that JREF is NOT an atheist organization, but they will go after testable religious claims. He also says that many religious claims are not testable.

Kurtz adds that we don’t need to be a skeptic about everything (what do we let slide? I’m not sure) and that Martin Gardner believed in a god and he (Kurtz) found that “charming.”

After Randi gives Kurtz a lifetime achievement award, Kurtz and Randi hugged onstage, to the approval of the audience.

Done for the day. Thanks to Jen for helping me liveblog and Jamie for taking great pictures! We’ll be back tomorrow morning for talks from The Daily Show‘s David Javerbaum, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Paul Provenza, and Richard Dawkins!

  • Samiimas

    He asks the audience how many of us changed our minds because someone called us stupid, ignorant, retarded, etc.

    I can safely say that if their had been some accomodationists to tell me I’m not stupid and that technically I can’t be proven wrong I’d probably still believe in idiotic crap like Atlantis and ghosts.

    Those ‘rude’ people with the courage to tell me I was full of shit are what made me actually start thinking.

  • http://pandasthumb.org RBH

    A pedantic note:

    Computers can’t always search as well as humans, and there just aren’t enough scientists to be mining data.

    The human advantage that’s employed in the Galaxy Zoo task is pattern recognition, not search as such.

  • JD

    Samiimas, I didn’t get that from the message. Everybody makes stupid mistakes, that doesn’t mean the person is necessarily stupid.

    I don’t think it’s that hard to tell someone they’re wrong without being a jerk about it. While there are exceptions, and you may be one of them, usually name calling puts people on the defensive and shuts them off from what you’re trying to say.

  • Richard Wade

    I’m going to try helping at the Galaxy Zoo. Thanks, Jen!

  • colin

    “We don’t need warriors. What we need are diplomats.”

    When it comes to changing people’s minds, the skeptic/atheist/heathen movement should (and often does) look to the gay rights movement for inspiration.

    That movement has effectively used diplomats and warriors. There has been some self-censuring, but generally individuals wield the tools, or weapons, that they are good at using.

    PZ Meyers should insult anti-science types because he is GOOD at it, and it gets results. If nothing else, people like PZ rally the base and prevent complacency.

    As I see it, the big problem is that so many people think that they are skilled warriors or diplomats when actually they aren’t.

    Or they think that one particular method of changing minds is always best, and it isn’t.

  • Deepak Shetty

    Why are so many atheists/skeptics jerks?

    Don’t be a dick

    Surely you see the irony in making a comment like this while asking stuff like

    how many of us changed our minds because someone called us stupid, ignorant, retarded, etc.

  • Maggie

    I think we may be diluting the message by assuming or insinuating that maybe PZ was one of the targets of Phil’s talk. In fact, judging from some comments, I think such talk has already got back to PZ and got him wondering that very thing, as a result. I think Phil would agree, and the people i just talked to about this certainly do, that people like PZ are important and, PZ in particular, keep us honest. But when taking ‘the message’ to the world… we’re not PZ or whomever. We’re the body of the movement and what the movement needs, as he put it, diplomats. If you feel the need to be a “warrior”, fine. That’s your calling. But for skepticism and rational thought to really reach the “hearts and minds” it needs more people who will bring ideas and discussion to the believers in non-rational ideas, not a fight.

    If we truly become soft and lose our way, people like PZ will step up and tell us we’re being wusses. But I can’t conceive of the scenario where they would walk up and say “You’re a pussy for having that rational discussion with that person and trying to lead them to see what’s wrong with their magical thinking. You should have shouted at them, or at least called them an idiot.”

  • http://twitter.com/achura Rooker

    We don’t need warriors. What we need are diplomats.

    Wrong. We need both because nothing will ever change with just one or just the other. Greta Christina addressed this point a few years ago and put it to bed as far as I’m concerned: Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

    Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice that wants to find a workable compromise for everybody. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice that demands to be heard and honored.

    As for Phil’s question, being called an idiot pisses me off like it would anyone else. However, the aversion to being called an idiot motivates me to learn about things before I discuss them and say something idiotic.

  • llewelly

    Kurtz adds that we don’t need to be a skeptic about everything (what do we let slide? I’m not sure) …

    Being skeptical requires more energy than not being skeptical. There is an infinite array of potential topics to be skeptical of. Therefor – it is impossible to be skeptical of everything.

  • gwen

    Clesrly, we need both the warrior AND the diplomat, just as we do in government. Just as one organ does not make a body, we need people doing many different things to create a whole ‘body’ of change.

  • Karmakin

    The truth is that the lack of belief itself is commonly seen as being insulting, rude, being a jerk, etc. A lot of the time tone matters much less than actual content. When people are saying that the tone is bothering them, more often than not it’s actually the content that is bothering them.

    All types are needed. What Rooker said. Some people respond to a soft touch, some respond to a hard touch. But at the end of the day, realize this. When you tell them that a god probably does not exist, you insult them.

  • Ron in Houston

    I tend to agree with Phil in his use of the word “warrior.” What we need in addition to diplomats are advocates. Perhaps it’s just semantics but knocking folks on the head is pretty counter productive.

  • 3D

    As someone who’s spoken with several Christians, in public forums, over the past few years, I have to agree. The name-calling may make us feel superior, but it doesn’t help achieve the end goal.

    Why are so many atheists/skeptics jerks? Phil explains part of it has to do with frustration, having to debunk the same stuff over and over and over… and we’re shocked that anyone could still believe it. There’s also anger, which can be a loaded weapon.

    This is all nonsense.

    People who proclaim delusional beliefs in our society are met with scorn and derision across the board. They may be good people, but if they believe that gravity operates by invisible demons operating a pulley system, then we laugh at them.

    The one exception is belief in God. If it’s tied to religion, they get a “get out of mockery free” card. This needs to change before we can move forward as a society.

    It doesn’t mean we should be mean to the people or that they are bad people, or that we should exclude them from our lives. Most theists are good people, and they were indoctrinated into a cult at a young age so in many cases it’s not their fault. But their crazy beliefs should not be exempt from mockery. In fact the mockery is the key to diminishing the hold religion has on our society.

  • shannon AKA @Skeptiwife

    I do not think mockery works. It amuses the echo-chamber and makes us feel smug and smarter than everyone.I used to believe in all kinds of new-age nonsense. My astrological chart was cast when I was born, numerology governed many of my father’s decisions. I was taught that my thoughts created my reality. It was a very kind therapist who started me down the path to reality by introducing me to the concept of ” magical thinking”. I’m not sure I would have been receptive if she had been a jerk about it. The whole process of my move over to reality has been gradual. Does anyone have an example of where mockery and mean-spiritedness actually works?

  • http://ecstathy.blogspot.com efrique

    As a teenager I have to put my hands up as being fooled by several kinds of woo. I bought Uri Geller hook, line and sinker, and a bunch of other hooey.

    My credulous acceptance of these things was challenged in less-than-kind terms.

    Did I like that? No!

    Did it make me re-examine the basis for accepting them? Sure did!

    I am always thankful for that. I needed a shock to step outside my mindset, and I got one.

    I hang out at reddit, and the /r/atheism subreddit regularly sees posts from recent ex-theists pointing out that the less-than-accomodating tone there was an important factor in their really examining their beliefs. Some say it made them mad, but they also say it made them think.

    Clearly, for at least some people, “being nice” is not what it takes to make them really look at their beliefs. For some of us, a bit of confrontation is actually helpful.

  • plutosdad

    Sort of OT on the Big Bang Theory, I think lots of people get confused and think it’s a stereotype of scientists. It’s not really a scientist show, it’s a nerd show. It’s much more of a celebration of nerd culture than it is about science or scientists. And in that vein, it’s not a stereotype of nerds at all.

    For instance Revenge of the Nerds still makes fun of nerds and they are all stereotypes. But Big Bang Theory is, at most, nerds laughing at themselves. All the writers are nerds :) If you go to Wil Wheaton’s blog and search all his posts on the Big Bang Theory you’ll find lots of background info and discussion about what the show is about, plus links to even more! :)

  • plutosdad

    I have to disagree with people saying it does any good to mock others. As a former christian, I can tell you Dawkins did nothing but further cement my belief in woo. I wasn’t able to really “hear” what he was saying until the writings of Sagan had convinced me to start questioning, and even then Dawkins pissed me off but I just tried to look past his insults to find what he was saying.

    Actually it’s not insults and name calling and mocking that bothers me, that is just childishness on both sides. No, the thing that irks me is when we put words in people’s mouths, when we say “YOU think this” or “you are not really upset with the tone, you are upset by the message” again, putting words and thoughts into people’s mouths. “this is what YOU think and this is why you are wrong.” That has got to be the most insulting thing you can possibly say to someone. It is not listening, it is saying “I know what you are thinking” as if we are mind readers.

    I don’t know exactly what logical fallacy that is, a bit of straw man perhaps, a bit of something else.

    I don’t only hold atheists accountable for that, theists do it too. I am reading over Mere Christianity, and Lewis does it too throughout the book, and it pisses me off every time. “If I say this then you would say this” no Lewis, I would not say that.

    So no, being rude, putting words in people’s mouths, having the audacity to tell them why they are upset instead of listening to them. That doesn’t help, it smacks of two prideful people bumping heads, which only further entrenches them. Once you get someone’s pride their defense mechanisms kick in.

    But like I said, Sagan was much better, not nearly as rude and didn’t tell people what they think, and he is who got through to me. Not Dawkins, not any rude jerks that I knew. But the quiet insistence of Sagan to keep looking.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula PZ Myers

    He asks the audience how many of us changed our minds because someone called us stupid, ignorant, retarded, etc.
    The hands went down.

    That was a sneaky trick — a psychological game.

    No one likes to be called stupid, so of course no one was going to agree to it. That might invite someone to disagree with them vigorously! No one likes to get “F”s on their exams, either, and I have had many students complain that they didn’t learn anything from having their knowledge harshly evaluated. Should I stop judging them?

    It’s also sneaky because there isn’t anyone out there who simply calls people “stupid, ignorant, retarded”. I call straw man.

  • Aj

    Am I a freak for actually changing my mind when someone calls me ignorant? Obviously not automatically, I go off and read more, more perspectives, if they’re right and I am ignorant then I will have learnt that I was. There’s no crime with being ignorant, only to be wilfully ignorant. I’d also add that if someone says something I said is “stupid” or “that’s a stupid idea”, I get far more self-reflective, and could change my mind. If that’s a barrier to persuading people, I wonder whether regardless they could be persuaded.

    The same thing goes for aggression, in the comments on another blog post a few atheists actually said aggressive criticism was a positive force in getting them to change their mind. I don’t know whether we’re freaks or not, but when someone argues something sometimes it’s fitting for them to show emotion, and that sometimes helps.

    I think mockery works, it’s the only defence we have against absurdity. If something you believe is ridiculous, and it gets mocked, I think that’s pretty persuasive for you to stop believing it. It doesn’t work for everyone, or everything, but I think healthy mockery at least attacks the notion that people’s beliefs should be respected. Sacred cows need to be mocked.

    I seriously have no idea how people can criticize Dawkins for his tone or for “insults”. Give me a break, I can see your fake tears from here.

  • Sedate Me

    “Phil asks the audience how many of us believed in something we now disavow — flying saucers, horoscopes, religion, etc. Many hands go up. He asks the audience how many of us changed our minds because someone called us stupid, ignorant, retarded, etc. The hands went down.”

    This statement doesn’t really demonstrate anything other than the power of pride and ego.

    Only “many” hands went up when the truth is that EVERYONE has -at one time or another- believed in at least a few things that were actually complete bullshit. Religion is an obvious one (to atheists). But even if one looks at the history of science and medicine, you can spot examples of how entire populations can be lead to believe in (honestly held) theories that will later be dis-proven. The “experts” told them it was true, so they believed it. The human ego gets selective amnesia in such cases where wrongness can be blame it on somebody else. (See: WMD)

    By not raising their hands, some members of the audience refused to admit they have changed their minds on anything or ever believed in something that wasn’t true. This itself is either a delusional fantasy, act of denial, or stems from a desire not to publicly admit being wrong.

    This is where “the hands went down” when asked if “changing their mind as a result of being called stupid or retarded” comes into play. Few human beings, even the overtly stupid or retarded, will admit that being called stupid helped them rethink their positions. First, that would risk publicly admitting that they were stupid. Second, it would provide evidence of a permanent condition, as (adult) stupidity is generally regarded as a permanent condition.

    In such a situation, to be honest is to show signs of weakness both to yourself and to the group.

    As for attacking the intelligence of those holding differing/incorrect views, being called stupid may very well cause people to re-fortify their position, to dig in and resist accepting the label of weakness. However, being proven to be stupid provides an instant reversal of position. Reformed smokers are often the most ardent anti-smokers. So while it may not work consistently, it can pay off when it does work.

    But quite frankly, (and unfortunately) this is the most effective way to convert people to atheism.

    Attractive people make the most attractive arguments in our society, don’t you know?