Liveblogging The Amazing Meeting 8: Sunday 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, here, here, and here.

It’s so early… but I’m up for you! So many questions this morning…

  • Were there cats at the Skepchick party last night? Because I can’t breathe.
  • Why is one of my roommates missing?
  • Why is there a tiger and baby in my hotel room?

Anyway, the first paper presentation this morning is by Brian Hart on the topic The Independent Investigations Group vs. the California Board of Registered Nurses: Ending State-sponsored Quackery in California.

He mentions that he was once sent an ad for Clearsight, a group promoting healing touch (and other fake “therapies”). The ad said it was worth Continuing Education Units for nurses enrolled in the program. Nurses in the state need a certain number of CEUs every couple years to stay registered.

The person running the program didn’t seem to have any actual training. Her bio lists her degrees as:

She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Antioch College and Ministerial Degrees from the Church of the Divine Within and the Church of Divine Man.

Instead of complaining, they got even. They began their own alternative medicine program to see if the state would certify them.

And it worked!

The program was called the California Foundation for Institutional Care — get it? “CFI Care” :)

Not only that, they had courses.

Vapor and Reflective Surfaces. (Smoke and mirrors)

Chinese Shéyóu. (Snake Oil)

Canupiary Flexibility. (This is just made up. At the time, Google didn’t have a single listing for it.)

Anthropomancy. (Divining the future by using living human entrails.)

(This is hilarious. Too bad most of the audience is missing due to hangovers, sleeping in, and who-knows-what-else.)

They got approved by the state. I repeat: Their fake attempt to giving out nursing credits was approved!

It took a while before they were discovered and their license was revoked. But when that happened, Clearsight was still allowed to give out CEUs!

There was also another (unrelated) scandal going on with the licensing board and reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber of Pro Publica exposed it. Because of this, Governor Schwarzenegger fired most of the CBRN staff.

With the new board in place, IIG has an opportunity to help change the language of requirements for providers of continuing education. Hopefully, those changes will soon be made.

(This section was updated to be more accurate.)

Next up: William London, a professor of Health Science at California State University, talking about Fallacies and Falsehoods at the 2009 Cancer Control Society Convention.

He brings up the 37th Annual Cancer Convention sponsored by the Cancer Control Society — it promoted all sorts of alternative medicines. You can see the website here and the program for this year’s convention here. Lots of bullshit all over the place.

One important point: London says we should never use the phrase “alternative medicine.” There is only medicine that has been scientifically tested and medicine that has not. Don’t let practitioners gets away with dubious doublespeak.

London attended the convention to see what they were up to. One of the speakers hyped a book that suggested if you stopped eating protein after 1:00 p.m., 83 percent of cancer would be eliminated. What the deuce…?

He then ran through a litany of examples of the exhibits and the falsehoods they propagated.

One speaker said “Optimists can clear cancer better than pessimists.”

Another: “[The] FDA doesn’t want to cure cancer.” (Actually, the FDA is a regulatory agency. They don’t cure anything.)

There are a lot of problems from all this: It wastes time and money. People are diverted away from methods that could potentially help them to methods that will not. Some of the treatments proposed at this conference can actually hurt people.

There’s really nothing redeeming here. The Cancer Control Society still exists. It’s conferences still go on. People are still getting duped.

Another question: Why do doctors get “certified” in false medicine? Are they just quacks looking to make money? Do they genuinely think they’re helping? Were they not smart enough to get into a *real* medical school? Who knows…

Next up: Jen McCreight, talking about “Skepticism, Humor, and Going Viral: What We Can Learn From Boobquake.”

There are more people in the conference hall now. It must be the mention of the word “Boob” in the title.

Phil Plait, introducing her: “If you don’t know her… what’s wrong with you?”

I don’t think I need to explain to readers here what Boobquake was, but if you haven’t heard the story, watch this video now!

After talking about what Boobquake was, why she did it, and what happened as a result, Jen brings up a more serious point about the public image of female skeptics.

For example, when mentioning Ariane Sherine‘s book to her mom, her mom saw the picture on the back and said, “She’s so young and cute! — she’s not a cranky old lady at all.” Can’t fault her for saying it. That’s the image a lot of people have about skeptics/atheists — we’re angry, bitter people. But that’s not the case at all. We’re a subset of the general population.

How can we improve our image though? No doubt having more women and more young people speaking out against religion and other foolish ideas helps. Jen’s a perfect example of that.

Considering she had only about 15 minutes to speak, the presentation went great. Lots of cameras taking pictures all over the place.

Next up: a panel discussion on Global Climate Change and the Responsibility of the Skeptics Movement, moderated by Massimo Pigliucci and featuring (left to right) Daniel Loxton, James McGaha, Michael Shermer, and Donald Prothero.

As one tweeter writes, this is a perfect issue for us. “When the proof is shown, a true skeptic will change his opinion.”

Yet, there’s still dissension in the ranks and several skeptics still deny that global warming occurs.

McGaha claimed that the need for money — funding, tenure, etc. — helps drive bias in the science community. Prothero says that’s not true at all of the scientists he knows. They follow the evidence, wherever it leads.

Shermer says there’s indeed a lot of money in climate skepticism — I think this is similar to Intelligent Design/Creation proponents. They get crazy money from the Templeton Foundation or the Discovery Institute and it’s all dependent on their saying that religion and science can mix, even when the evidence says otherwise.

Pigliucci asks what makes global warming skeptics confident in making their judgments. Shermer says their arguments are no different than the kinds you’d see in Ben Stein‘s Expelled. There’s the science and then there’s politics.

What is the skeptical movement about? Pigliucci asks. Loxton says there’s as many versions of skepticism as there are skeptics. McGaha says skeptics should be careful about critiquing things they’re not experts in — I don’t buy that. I’m no biology expert, but I know evolution works and I know Creationism is wrong. It’s not ideology; it’s trust in the method that leads to those conclusions. He goes back to the money argument — saying that people like Al Gore are making money from promoting cap and trade, etc. Prothero says (rightly, I believe) Gore was arguing for this stuff decades ago, when there was no money to be had.

Now, we have some drama. Say what you will about McGaha or the panel — it’s nice to finally have a panel with real disagreement. And I’m curious to see what the reaction will be at a skeptic’s conference to someone who is arguing against what most of the rest of us accept.

Now, questions from the audience.

As someone asks a question I don’t care much about, I’m going on a tangent.

I’ve been watching two different audiences this weekend. The ones reacting to what’s happening onstage, and the ones reacting to it on Twitter. I love the instantaneous feedback. As the speakers are saying something, the Twitterati are quick to point out when someone is right, wrong, arrogant, a bad speaker, wonderful, and a new hero.

This is the advantage to a conference of this size (~1300 people). Enough people are reacting that you get a range of debates stemming from what’s said on stage. Phil Plait versus PZ? Global Warming scientists versus skeptics? What else do we need to know that’s not being said? Did a speaker say something we need more information on? Did a speaker make a mistake? I had most of the answers to those questions within a minute or so of it being said onstage. It’s an incredible tool.

You want to know why you should join Twitter? This conference is an argument in favor of it.

Back to the panel.

More questions. More answers that boil down to, “Let’s follow the science and not let that journey get polluted by money or special interests.” Meh. I’m zoning out here.

Jen here. I’m supposed to be summarizing the closing remarks, but I’m also zoning out. Three hours of sleep + preparing for talk + McGaha speaking = snooze time.

After a brief break so everyone could micronap, Barbara Drescher is speaking on skepticism as a gateway to scientific literacy. She starts with an example of teaching her son about skepticism. While they were in a sporting goods store, they found products called Phiten wristbands that claimed to promote “energy flow” with Aqua-Titanium. So, yeah, homeopathic sportswear.

Her son decided to turn it into a science fair project. He took a normal wristband and the Phiten bands and through a series of test, found there was no difference between the two. He won the science fair, but more importantly he increased his scientific literacy and learned to be skeptical.

The problem with a lot of modern science education is that it focuses on facts rather than learning to be scientifically literate. For example, doing a science fair project where you make a potato clock or look at how much water makes a tomato plant grow best isn’t learning anything new. It makes children just memorize procedures and facts, and they’re later unable to do original research.

Random side note. I like these paper talks a lot since they’re mostly on tangible things people have done and results, which contrasts to the more speculative or opinion-oriented talks from the main sessions. It’s a bit of a shame all the papers are on the last day though, since everyone is either super tired or still in bed. I partially blame the Skepchicks and their magical refilling beer cups.

And it’s Hemant again.

Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast is giving a talk on the Virgin of Guadalupe: A Positive Tale.

Here’s a quick background of the Virgin:

The Virgin of Guadalupe is basically Mexico’s version of the Shroud of Turin. Both are pieces of fabric, hundreds of years old, on which appears an image said to be miraculous. Both are considered sacred objects. But the Virgin of Guadalupe is a much more powerful icon to many Mexicans. There’s hardly anywhere you can go in Mexico and not find a reproduction of the image. Its importance as a religious and cultural symbol cannot be understated, for it came from the very hands of The Most Holy Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas.

In fact, the rest of Brian’s talk is summed up on his own site.

Steve Cuno, the chairman of RESPONSE Agency, Inc., is next — his talk is Confessions of a Skeptical Advertising Man.

Subtitle: “Yeah, what Phil Plait and Carol Tavris said.”

Cuno says there’s an ethical kind of selling — you sell your trust/reputation. If your client accepts it, they will buy your stuff. Win/win.

Then, there’s the used-car salesperson…

Side note: Cuno’s PowerPoint is great. Lots of pictures, short phrases (if any), quick transitions. That alone sets him apart from other speakers.

Cuno offers three tips to ethical selling:

1) [Image of a baseball bat] This is not a light switch. (In other words, don’t be a dick.)

2) [Image of ketchup bottle] We’re not selling ketchup. (When we sell something small, like ketchup, we can ask: do you want Hunts or Heinz? We assume they want it. When it’s something big, we have to go in increments. When it comes to critical thinking. it might take a long time to convince someone they want your product.)

3) Leave big/sacred things for later, and explain small/harmless things first. Example? How lemmings don’t jump off cliffs. Or Acupuncture and Sylvia Browne. And later, that red cars don’t get more speeding tickets than other cars. If your sale ends up taking six months or a year, that’s ok! Ten/Fifteen years? That’s ok.

Some people like to tell it like it is, though. (*cough* PZ *cough*) Cuno says he’s not here to tell you which option is right or wrong. He’s here to tell you what works — you don’t want a waterfall to come down on someone holding a Dixie Cup.

Next up: Kevin M. Folta on Frankenfoods: Cornerstones of the Next Green Revolution. In other words, genetically engineered foods.

There are some people very opposed to these kinds of products — they say they’re not natural or they’re bad for you.

Folta responds:

“I don’t convince people by beating them with science. I do it with the velvet fist of reason.”

He adds that we’ve been modifying food for thousands of years — everything we eat is genetically modified!

Growing food is tough, he says. It depends on successful growth of plants. But there’s a problem with that. Loss of arable land, water restrictions, etc.

What’s the difference between Traditional Breeding vs. Genetic Engineering? (Sorry for the low quality pic)

Gotta love this bit: the banana is completely modified. Ray Comfort would be so sad to learn this… which is why he’ll just ignore the fact that the banana is not a god’s work at all.

It’s easier to scare people than to educate them. That’s why people are so afraid of genetically modified food.

There are places around the world that don’t have the resources to grow their own food. Genetic engineering of food can help alleviate that problem. We need to spread the word that these foods are not harmful to eat so that people aren’t posing an obstacle to the solution.

Last talk of TAM8: Ryan Schaffer, a PhD candidate in History at Stony Brook University. His talk: A Case Study of Researching a Psychic: Examining Sylvia Browne’s History.

Ryan’s research shows that Browne was wrong in several cases in which she made predictions. Obviously. She is repeatedly wrong on police investigations in which she makes predictions. He can back this up with citations and research.

“I have yet to see one case she was correct about.”

Ryan wrote a piece for Skeptical Inquirer about all this (emphasis mine):

When Sylvia Browne was a weekly guest on The Montel Williams Show, she performed supposed feats ranging from ghost detecting to offering details about missing persons and murder cases. Among the things Browne failed to predict was the availability of those transcripts on the Internet through databases such as LexisNexis. The authors, as well as several members of the James Randi Educational Foundation forum and, closely examined each transcript to track Browne’s accuracy. According to Browne, “my accuracy rate is somewhere between 87 and 90 percent, if I’m recalling correctly.” This article disputes that statistic by examining the criminal cases for which Browne has performed readings. The research demonstrates that in 115 cases (all of the available readings), Browne’s confirmable accuracy was 0 percent.

I’m sure this is all well-documented, but it’s not telling this audience anything we don’t already know. I’m not sure what the point of this is, other than to tell us what we already know: the facts show that there are no such things as psychics.

More importantly, if someone believes in Browne’s “powers,” scientific case studies on her failure aren’t going to convert them, are they?

Actually, I take that back: One really cool thing to see was a video Ryan showed of an appearance by Browne on Montel. She made some predictions (“You’re going to have a healthy baby boy”) , and in a later episode, when Montel did an update, the woman receiving the predictions said that she had a daughter who died five months prematurely.

This could be powerful if it became popular on YouTube (or something like that).

Browne herself has said you’re only as good as your last prediction. Her own records suggests she’s a fraud and a con artist.

Annnnnnnnnnnd we’re done.

And now I’m going to take a nap before an afternoon workshop.

Thanks for reading these. Thanks to Jen and Jamie for their help again! If I made any mistakes with the transcripts, please let me know in the comments and I’ll try to fix it as soon as I can.

Now back to your regularly scheduled blogging.

  • Robster, FCD

    Tigers are cats, and if one is in your room, that would be the most likely source of your allergies.

  • OneSTDV

    A few threads ago someone mentioned that non-PhD’s shouldn’t give their opinion about global warming (these non-PhDs almost always being skeptics). Note many actual scientists are skeptical of global warming and these are individuals and types of arguments that non-PhDs parrot when excoriating global warming “science”, but the statement wasn’t in regards to them.

    Yet, look at the main promulgator of global warming rhetoric: Al Gore. A guy who got gentleman C’s at Harvard as a liberal arts major.

    It seems non-experts can voice their opinion, only if it squares with the one you want to hear.

  • OneSTDV

    Maybe it’s just me, but “woo” pisses me off way more than religion. Religion has become so pliable that it can be melded to any type of beleif one wishes. Further, religion generally makes intangible claims and thus eschews actual corroboration.

    But woo is so obviously wrong because one can clearly notice that’s it’s wrong. (Same thing with the prosperity gospel garbage.)

  • Revyloution

    I just wanted to comment on this bit
    “McGaha says skeptics should be careful about critiquing things they’re not experts in — I don’t buy that. I’m no biology expert, but I know evolution works and I know Creationism is wrong.”

    Now, I don’t know the context of this, but I have to agree with McGaha.

    Hemant, you example of evolution fails because you aren’t criticizing evolution, or biologists, you’re agreeing with them. As an amateur or layperson you can equip yourself with knowledge to defend a field, but you aren’t equipped with enough education to challenge the accepted wisdom in that field.

    I think McGaha might have been referring to people like cosmologist Fred Hoyle who remarked that evolution was like a hurricane assembling a 747 in a junk yard. Hoyle knows about galaxies and stars. If he wanted to challenge the basics of biology, then he should have gotten a biology degree and studied that instead. It would be like PZ Myers criticizing the stellar genesis theory. PZ probably has enough physics knowledge to make a creationist drool, but he needs to differ to the cosmologists when it comes to describing star formation.

    My take home message would be ‘differ to the experts, thats why we call them experts’. If you really think the experts are wrong on something, then get an education, do experiments, and publish papers.

  • gwen

    I’ve been in contact with Brian Hart re: woo in the CA BRN. I’m glad they were all canned. It has been a longstanding frustration that I can take Nursing CEUs in nonsense. Nursing is SUPPOSED to be a SCIENCE based profession. Our CEU ‘house’ need serious cleaning.

  • Epiz

    But isn’t saying that we should differ to experts just a simple appeal to authority? Yes, if we should probably be more likely to trust them if their credentials are good and they’ve done a lot of work in the field, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question them! I can’t count the number of times I’ve corrected a supposed expert that was attempting to teach me something while I was at University. (I should also point out here that on stopping to consider my comments, these people that were teaching agreed with me, it wasn’t just me thinking that I had corrected them.)

    Any expert in a field is human and therefore fallible.

    Also, these arguments don’t seem to apply when talking about people that are skeptical about AGW (note, very few people are truly skeptical about global warming/climate change. The question is more one of how much are humans responsible and will it in fact have more bad consequences than good). For example, when an expert on statistics like Steve McIntyre posts an analysis of the hockey stick graphs (take your pick, there are tons of them) he is shouted down because he’s not an expert at climate change specifically. They completely ignore the fact that he is arguing from the statistical methodology being used which IS his expertise. Hypocrisy is an awful thing.

    Even if I’m not an expert in something I can see faults with things. I’m not an expert in user interface design, but I can point out problems in the Windows OS, for example. Why is it so hard to believe that people don’t need to be experts to point out flaws?

  • PJ

    Revyloution, are you saying that because I don’t have a PHD, I shouldn’t express my opinion?

  • trixr4kids


    A few threads ago someone mentioned that non-PhD’s shouldn’t give their opinion about global warming (these non-PhDs almost always being skeptics)…Yet, look at the main promulgator of global warming rhetoric: Al Gore.

    Incorrect. If you’re referring to Massimo Pigliucci’s talk, the point he made was that non-expert opinion is not helpful. Al Gore disseminates expert opinion.

    “Non-expert”, by the way, would include many people with advanced degrees. Someone with a degree in, say, economics, should not be anyone’s go-to guy for info about climate change. And in fact virtually all the “PhD’s” quoted by AGW deniers are not experts in climate science.

    There’s a legitimate distinction to be made between a layperson who is explaining an overwhelming scientific consensus and a layperson who is expressing a personal opinion based on the personal opinions of cherry-picked “experts” with little or no expertise in a relevant field.

  • trixr4kids

    Epiz, it’s important to be able to question authority. In scientific matters it’s complicated, though, because so often people “question” without really understanding what it is they’re questioning. I think Pigliucci’s point was, if you’re going to challenge the scientific consensus, you better really know what you’re talking about; otherwise you’re just wasting everybody’s time (look at evolution deniers). Usually it is a good idea to defer to expert opinion in scientific matters. That doesn’t mean they’re always right, but, science being what it is, if they’re wrong they will figure it out with time. It’s OK to say, “I don’t have enough background in this.” (I don’t think that means you can’t doubt; it just means being honest enough to recognize that you’re probably not qualified to argue the point meaningfully one way or the other).

  • Epiz


    Why should we ever have a problem with people questioning things? I would much rather live in a society where stupid people can ask stupid questions than one where they are shouted down and censored for doing so. At the root of the earlier talk about climate change, for example, was the whole “Climategate” thing. I think we can learn a lot from it. There were comments made in emails regarding people requesting information and how they didn’t want to give out information to people who were specifically bent on proving them wrong.

    But why? I don’t card what you want to do with that information. You could make an artistic collage for all I care, but the information should be out there. If it does in fact work scientifically, it’ll stand up. I fully except the possibility that there could be a flawed study done on evolution where those flaws could be pointed out by a fundamentalist Christian (or whatever religion you want) just because they happen to see an error that someone missed or a contradiction.

    That questioning does not necessarily lead to everything in evolution being thrown out and it helps us to make sure that the studies we make that do give good information about evolution are solid!

    Sometimes it’s possible to catch basic logical errors that people staring to closely at the problem miss. Or, more importantly, sometimes experts feel they are so knowledgeable in that field that they have a bias towards the way they’ve learned about a field and ignore evidence to the contrary, especially when that evidence is demonstrated by someone considered to be of “lesser” stature in the scientific community.

  • Judith Bandsma

    The biggest REAL problem with genetically modified foods are the companies that hold the patents on these plants and their draconian ways of forcing them on farmers who either don’t want them or can’t afford them.

  • trixr4kids


    Sure, but nobody’s talking about censoring questions. Pigliucci’s talking about whether or not certain kinds of “opinions” are really valid or helpful, or not. He can make the argument that nonexpert opinions are not helpful–that does NOT mean he’s saying that those “unhelpful” opinions should be suppressed.

    I can argue that it’s foolish to get your understanding of evolutionary theory from a baptist preacher, or say that I think it’s unbehoovey of a skeptic who’s not an evolutionary biologist to go around challenging the Theory of Evolution. Doesn’t mean I’m saying that people should not be allowed to do those things. Though obviously I’d like to convince them not to.

  • trixr4kids


    Sometimes it’s possible to catch basic logical errors that people staring to closely at the problem miss. Or, more importantly, sometimes experts feel they are so knowledgeable in that field that they have a bias towards the way they’ve learned about a field and ignore evidence to the contrary, especially when that evidence is demonstrated by someone considered to be of “lesser” stature in the scientific community

    True. It’s really not a black-and-white issue….Still, as a rule of thumb, (not an inviolable Law), you have to admit that nonexpert opinion is usually less than helpful. Scientific disciplines (at least the hard sciences) rest on such an accumulation of knowledge the outsider is probably going to be on thin ice. Don’t forget the Dunning-Kruger effect.

  • Trace

    Wow, that was a lot of liveblogging. Thanks to the three of you.

  • BEX

    Thanks for sharing guys! I enjoyed reading these.

  • Heidi

    Ok, kids. I don’t have a degree in anything, but it’s DEFER, not differ. Differ means to be different from.

  • Revyloution

    To answer PJ:

    Of course you should voice your opinions. But when your opinion is opposite what the accepted knowledge is, then everyone should point an laugh. Ken Ham should be allowed to voice his opinions, but no one should take him seriously. He has plenty of opinions, but he is severely uneducated.

    Epiz, I think you missed my plural ‘exerts’ not singular ‘expert’. Deferring to the voice of one single professional is the classic fallacy of argument from authority. I’m also not referring to consensus. I’m talking about peer review, and publishing papers.

    When a branch of science publishes thousands of papers, does countless research projects, and has many conferences on a subject, they are the single best body of humans to know what the ‘truth’ is. When a single weather man stands up and says they are all wrong, then we should just point and laugh. I’m not talking censorship, just pointing an laughing.

    Why not take Jenny McCarthys advice on vaccinations? Doesn’t she have a right to voice her opinion?

    Why not listen to Ken Ham on evolution? Doesn’t he have a right to his opinion?

    The answer seems very clear to me. Everyone has a right to voice their opinion, but the only opinions that are worth listening to are from people who dedicate their lives to that field. Then they are educated opinions. You can then let those experts work at the edge of knowledge to search for the truth.

  • Revyloution

    BTW thanks Heidi, I always switch ‘differ’ and ‘deffer’. Spelling was always my big weaknesses.

  • TychaBrahe

    Wow, Hemant. You had a baby and a tiger in your room? I hope you also had an icebox.

  • Nameless Cynic

    Assuming that the tiger isn’t the cause of your allergies, how many of the Skepchick’s have cats back home? Dander clings to clothes.

    However, I’m curious regarding whether the baby or the tiger (or both) aren’t the answer to the question “Why is one of my roommates missing?”

  • Jim Lippard

    “when an expert on statistics like Steve McIntyre posts an analysis of the hockey stick graphs (take your pick, there are tons of them) he is shouted down because he’s not an expert at climate change specifically”

    1. What’s the basis of the claim that McIntyre is an “expert on statistics”? He’s a retired businessman from the mineral exploration business.

    2. Although McIntyre & McKitrick identified some genuine flaws in Mann’s 1998 paper, correcting the flaws didn’t change the overall outcome, as demonstrated in subsequent work by Mann and others (see Their work was promoted via a completely politicized process (hearings invoked by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)) which resulted in the Wegman report, which, although by a highly regarded statistician, was fairly ignorant of the climate science and had some serious problems including plagiarism and bad social network analysis: