Liveblogging The Amazing Meeting 8: Saturday Morning Sessions

***If you want instant updates, I suggest reading the #TAM8 Twitter feed***

Thanks to @UAJamie for the great pictures!

You can read previous sessions here, here, and here.

Massimo Pigliucci is the first speaker this morning. He’s introduced as a man who has three PhDs… (Take *that*, all of you working on your first.)

He’s talking about the limits of skepticism.

What happens when people who know a lot about science are not only wrong, but spectacularly wrong?

Then, unlike some of the previous speakers, he starts naming names… this should be good :)

Massimo takes on Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!. In one episode on the environment, they interviewed one “expert” — and the person was an expert in economics, not climate change. What gives?

Bill Maher is no better. He’s quoted as saying, “People who get flu shots are idiots” and “I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health.”

James Randi isn’t spared at his own conference — Last year, he wrote a post denying climate change.

Michael Shermer is brought up as an example of someone who was once openly a climate change denier, but after weighing the evidence, he changed his mind.

Massimo brings up the problem of hubris in our community:

  • Most skeptics do not have technical scientific expertise
  • To reject a scientific notion withou proper expertise is a form of anti-intellectualism

We all know people who engage in anti-intellectualism. We don’t want to stoop to their level. The root problem, Massimo says, is ideology.

No one rejects evolution for scientific reasons — it’s religious ideology.

Why deny climate change? It’s tough to say because of science. It’s because of political ideology.

There’s something about a man with an accent that makes it all the more humorous when he says (quoting XKCD):

“But you know what? Science works, bitches!”

Here’s a trend occurring at TAM: Speakers criticizing our own community for the mistakes we make. Phil Plait and Carol Tavris both did this yesterday. Massimo’s doing it now. It’s always a good sign when you’re able to take a reflective look at yourself, and these talks are no exception.

Next up, a Grassroots Panel, featuring (from left to right) Michael Feldman (moderator), Skeptics in the Pub (London) organizer Sid Rodrigues, pediatrician Dr. Jen Newport, magician Jamy Ian Swiss, statistician Chip Denman, and Australian skeptic Richard Saunders.

What counts as grassroots activism? Local groups, podcasts, blogs, etc.

Question: Is the distinction between local groups and national groups still relevant?

Dr. Jen points out that a lot of local groups have no national group to “latch on to,” which makes them all the more necessary.

Sid agrees — the local groups also tend to have fresh ideas, such as the 10:23 campaign against homeopathy.

Hemant just ran off, so now you’re stuck with me again (Jen from Blag Hag, or how I’m better known at the conference, “that boobquake girl”).

One concern many local groups have of getting help from national groups is that the national group may take over. Feldman comments that while local groups have a lot of passion, they may not be coordinated enough to take on huge projects suggested by organizations like JREF, especially since there’s risk involved (getting sued).

Here’s a really great suggestion — media training. As someone who has run a non-theist organization for three years, this can be essential. You don’t want to stick your foot in your mouth and look the whole organization look bad.

Now Feldman asks about the virtual side — what about individual bloggers or tweeters (or as Jamy suggests, “twats”)? Dr. Jen points out that blogs are often the opinions of individuals, so you have to take them with a grain of salt because you don’t know how thoroughly investigated they are. They can be used for both good and evil (speaking of evil bloggers, it is so tempting to post silly things while I have access to Hemant’s blog. Being good).

Will virtual communities replace local or national groups? Probably not. “People will be people, and people will still want to drink and get in hot tubs.” I think this pretty accurately sums up TAM so far.

Jamy: “The most important purpose of local groups is the social side.” So true. It doesn’t have to be about activism — sometimes keeping each other sane is reason enough to meet.

But Chip makes a good point — it’s rewarding to feel like you’ve accomplished something, so don’t just do social activities. Even small opportunities are worthwhile.

Woot, and now a shout out for campus groups! As someone who started a college group, I definitely agree that it’s important to organize students. We’re some of the most passionate people out there.

An audience member asked about how hard it is to start their own local group. While it can take a lot of time, it’s not too bad if you can get others to volunteer. And getting a group running is such a rewarding experience that it’s usually not too hard to find someone else to help — it’s worth it in the long run.

It’s Hemant again. Back from the most exciting interview *ever*… really, I got nervous. Richard Dawkins no longer makes me nervous. I saw Adam Savage the other night and I felt nothing — nothing. But this interview? I was all stuttering and trying to impress the person. More on that soon…

Next up: Bruce Hood, the author of Supersense. (I reviewed the book last year.)

His talk is on the origins of secular supernatural beliefs — me or memes? (Or he suggested the alternate title: “Why People Believe in Weird Shit.”)

He asks us a few questions — I love these, by the way — to see what the reaction of skeptics would be:

  • Would you willingly wear Jeffrey Dahmer’s clothing?
  • Could you stab a photograph of a loved one?
  • Would you accept a heart transplant from a murderer?
  • Would you exchange a sentimental object for an identical duplicate?

Why do skeptics hesitate on these questions?

In fact, why do we still cling to our childhood toys/blankets when we don’t really need them anymore? The answer may have to do with “Essentialism” (Google it).

(Side note: Tweeter @SatansParakeet makes an amusing point: Hood “seems determined to undermine the bidding on” Adam Savage’s hat, which is up for bid in a silent auction.)

After showing us an auditory illusion, Hood makes his point:

“You don’t have any direct privileged access to reality.”

We’re not that much better than everyone else, but hopefully, we’re smart enough to question even our own thinking.

(Side note: Hood is an excellent speaker. How do I know this? He stepped away from the podium. Simple thing to do, but very effective.)

Hood notes that when we’re primed, we can *think* we’re hearing (or seeing) anything — it’s how pareidolia works.

For example, this video:

We’re not all as clear cut as believers versus non-believers, says Hood. He then makes three main points about how/why skeptics can still hold silly beliefs:

— Individuals operate with two reasoning systems — intuitive and analytical. People switch between then.

— Supernatural beliefs may decline but may never truly disappear.

— Stress/illness/aging can re=instate intuitive errors.

We need to focus on why some people believe what they do. Perhaps we’re wired to believe in woo.

Finally, this session, we have a panel on Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Chiropractic, and other dubious health care systems. Steve Novella is moderating, and he’s joined by Rachael Dunlop, Harriet Hall, Ginger Campbell, David Gorski, and Simon Singh. (Left to right in pic below.)

The topics of this session as referred to as the “unsinkable rubber ducks” (in the words of Randi).

Hall points out that “licensing” is a problem in getting rid of this woo — anybody can be licensed. Including psychics. What good does that do?

Campbell takes exception to criticism of massage therapy. It’s not woo; it’s “in the grey zone.”

Singh says regulation could help, because it might protect patients, but it could also lead to a slippery slope. (Would we ever have to teach this woo in a classroom?)

Singh points out that if he wanted to set up shop as a homeopath, he could do so immediately and start seeing patients. But in order to treat animals, you need real qualifications. Crazy, no?

The panel mentions “homeopathic hospitals” — those things exist? I had no idea. One Tweeter writes:

So what is a homeopathic hospital? An Olympic swimming pool someone’s dropped a brick in?

Gorski says that he’s spoken to medical students about homeopathy. If they don’t know the term, he explains it. And they’re amazed that anyone could believe in that bullshit.

That’s homeopathy for you. The companies who create homeopathic drugs care nothing about patients. They care about money. It’s not like “regular” drug companies care about you, either, but at least they pay scientists to create drugs that work (or face the risk of lawsuits).

Campbell adds: If you want to actually do something useful, “get the homeopathic stuff out of Wal-Mart!”

Hall tells a story about how she wrote an article speaking out against acupuncture. Someone wrote to her to complain about it and she urged him to do his own research. He later told her he couldn’t find any and stopped believing in it.

(Interesting to note that she didn’t demonize him for believing in it, but politely suggested he do his own research. She could have also pointed him in the right direction. It’s all part of a theme at #TAM8 to be civil and courteous when dealing with someone who disagrees with you, instead of calling them names.)

There are rotten people out there who seek to take advantage of gullible people who may be sick and looking for any “medicine” to get better. Singh has a term for people like that who are nasty no matter which way you look at them: “Spherical bastards.”

Your goal for today is to use that term in a sentence.

Lunch time. The afternoon session has The Daily Show‘s David Javerbaum, Paul Provenza, and Jennifer Michael Hecht! Be back in a couple hours.

  • llewelly

    I’m glad skeptics are skeptical of each other – and of the Penn and Teller, who occasionally promote pseudo skepticism.

  • Hitch

    Great stuff about science and skepticism. I think we need a lot more exposition of what science really does, because people don’t really broadly understand that science is not dogma, but methodologically controlled skepticism with the methods designed to be epistemologically meaningful to advance understanding (i.e. clarify the degree of skepticism we have to have about observations or statements).

    There definitiely is such a think of being too skeptical about science and the opposite.

    Finally, skepticism is not inerrancy. So if a skeptical person gets something completely wrong I don’t have a huge issue with it. It’s still much preferable over a dogmatic person insisting on being wrong.

    But yes, almost all highly contested topics are contested for ideological reasons. How to undo ideological dogma is the key topic.

    See that’s why skepticism rocks. Criticism is good. No shame in critiquing each other at all, it’s a big positive.

  • Fundie Troll

    To reject a scientific notion withou proper expertise is a form of anti-intellectualism

    Soooo…what Massimo (and you) are basically saying is that a person must be an expert in a particular field in order to have an opinion about it.

  • Hitch

    Know what you are talking about. Don’t contest that 1+1=2 if you don’t understand it.

    Reminds me of music class. We were asked to compose using counterpoint rules. One submitted a result that broke the rules. The student said it’s creative expression. He was failed because: “She should only start breaking the rules when she has understood what she breaks.”

    Yes you should understand what you criticize.

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV

    Religious dismissal of evolution has absolutely no scientific merit whatsoever.

    Global warming skepticism does. It’s a far more widely held position amongst actual scientists than intelligent design or creationism.

    And with the numerous errors and dissembling from “Climategate”, the global warming hypothesis surely isn’t established scientific fact. Take this specious data:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/09/hockey-stick-observed-in-noaa-ice-core-data/

    Further, there simply isn’t much sound empirical data. And one doesn’t countenance scientific arguments based on incredibly complex models built on inherently uncertain conditions with loads of potential error.

    There’s a reason guys like Freemon Dyson are climate skeptics.

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV

    Oh and Bill Maher has no standing to criticize the religious. He’s almost as nutso as they are, promulgating garbage Eastern mysticism and his libertarian paranoia about the government.

  • Hitch

    The point about climategate is that it’s heavily politicized and that while any scientific discourse has different opinions and perspectives and there are competing theories and so forth, this specific contentiousness in the public eye is directly linked to ideologies.

    Incidentally almost no climatologist is a climate skeptic. One has to go out-discipline, like Dyson, who in his old age is a science popularizer not an active scientist to find critics. Dyson is a physicist not a climatologist.

  • http://struckbyenlightning.wordpress.com EnlightningLinZ

    Cool I’d love to see video of Massimo’s speach.

  • Rillion

    Does Dr. Pigliucci apply this skepticism of pseudo-skepticism across the board, or just to those with whom he disagrees politically?

  • Bob the Chef

    Oh my, haha. Naivety abound. It’s like watching group therapy using Coue techniques. Nietzsche would have a field day with you guys — shunning the horse tied to the rug, or better yet, the soap box you’re standing on. Foolish, but for me, thoroughly amusing to watch.

    I also recommend Duhem’s “German Science” followed by “Aim and Structure of Physical Theory” for some pithy insights into science.

  • Cass_m

    @fundie troll

    If you are not an expert in a field, you can have an opinion, and it can be quite in depth, but it won’t trump an expert because expertise comes from studying the most up-to-date research, being aware of conflicting data and knowing the big picture for that part of the field. It’s like hitch says about climatology.

    And I would like to see videos of all these talks like TED does.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    OneSTDV, “http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/09/hockey-stick-observed-in-noaa-ice-core-data/” says it all. Especially just because you’re climate skeptic doesn’t mean you don’t want to pursue clean energy, reduce pollution and waste.

    It’s almost like religion, where people who “believe in belief” look at the “good religion does” and how it’s good for the masses to believe, even if it’s not true. With climate it’s good to believe in global warming caused by man if it leads to reduced pollution and waste and an increase in use of renewable and clean energy.

  • Epiz

    “What happens when people who know a lot about science are not only wrong, but spectacularly wrong?”

    I find it hilarious when people use this argument and fail to realize it can be equally applied to themselves. There have been tons of instances in the past of things that were largely accepted in the scientific community where people ended up having to admit they were wrong. Or, more commonly, the people that passionately believed in whatever it was died out and the newer generation discarded the old ideas in favor of things that worked.

    Plate tectonics is my favorite example because of how recent it is.

    I trust that actual science will win out in the end, but I think it’s disturbing when people believe everything that someone like Mann says considering he’s an admitted activist and therefore probably has a very biased viewpoint. We need to focus on openness and clarity devoid of all this political crap.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Why deny climate change? It’s tough to say because of science. It’s because of political ideology.

    I’d have a minor quibble here, because climate change denialism is also about money, too. Of course, the fossil fuel industries feel threatened, because it’s the use of their products that has led to global warming, and they don’t want people buying less of their stuff, and there is also the cost of retooling to move away from use of fossil fuels.

    But that’s a minor quibble, and I doubt that Pigliucci denies that money is a big part of the problem.

  • Shannon

    Erm, I wonder about this too (the conversation going on in the comments). I’m not an expert on any of these topics and frankly, I’m not interested enough to bone up on most of them. For example, I don’t believe that homeopathy is real medicine, but I also don’t know enough to properly debate it. What little I’ve read says to me that it’s probably bunk, but I am not interested enough to research more. Ditto with acupuncture and chi and other such things that my friends are into.

    So I cautiously give an opinion but I clearly state that I’m not an expert. I’d hope that’s enough to not sound like an ass or an idiot. I’ve always thought it’s better to admit your ignorance than to plow forward, pretending you know everything about everything, so I’ll go with that angle 😉

    I love Hood’s questions by the way. The first three eh, no problem. Then I got to #4. But then, I’ve never claimed to be entirely rational 😉

  • matt

    “be civil and courteous when dealing with someone who disagrees with you, instead of calling them names”

    Informing the uninformed is one thing. Calling an idiot and idiot is another.