Friday, the conference gets started
More skeptics from around the world began to show up on Friday. Checking in at the registration desk entitled each person to a name badge, a folder of materials, a laser pointer/reading light (which many put to use during the conference, sometimes to the irritation of a speaker or emcee Hal Bidlack), and a copy of An Objectivist Secular Reader, edited by Dr. Edward Hudgins. The book argues for common cause between skeptics and Objectivists "and the often-related libertarian perspective." I happened to sit next to Hudgins through part of the conference, and spoke to him a bit between sessions, and found that we have some common friends and acquaintances. He said that he thinks the libertarian viewpoint does fit well with skepticism, which was a point made later in the conference by Michael Shermer by drawing an analogy between anti-authoritarianism in the religious sphere to anti-authoritarianism in the political sphere--but of course governments actually exist, so the real underlying question is what legitimizes or justifies authority, which is a question also relevant in the scientific sphere. I'll say more about this later when I summarize Shermer's talk.
Hudgins was working on a presentation for an upcoming speaking event which included statistics about changes in U.S. religious demographics over the last several decades, showing a rise in nonbelief. I asked to look at one page that showed a breakdown of U.S. religious adherents by sect, and pointed out the huge growth among Pentecostals (something I've previously written about here). This growth indicates to me that there's more to religion than dogma and doctrine, and that a purely intellectual critique of beliefs and practices that are held for reasons that involve emotion and community is doomed to failure.
I think that one of skepticism's strengths is that it is a method, not a doctrine, and that turning it into dogma or trying to link it to a specific set of conclusions about religion or politics (or science, for that matter) is an enormous mistake that serves only to limit its appeal. Skepticism is at its best when it teaches people to think critically for themselves and at its worst when it tells people what to think. I'll have more to say on this subject when I summarize Sunday's talks, which included one by Don Nyberg railing against "religious pseudoscience."
Friday morning I sat down to breakfast with a young couple from Texas, whose names unfortunately escape me. He had just completed a semester of medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico, and she had finished a degree in neuroscience. We were soon joined by Tony, an Australian who had been living with his partner in Mexico City for the last several years and was now on his way back to Australia by way of a trip around the world. There was a strong international presence at the conference, with dozens of Australians in particular, probably due to the strength of the Australian Skeptics organization.
After breakfast, I went up to the conference room to hear the end of the recording of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast which was being recorded live in the room, but somehow I completely failed to meet Steven Novella, one of the podcast's hosts, through the entire conference. I had hoped to at least say hello and introduce myself, since we were cosigners of a letter to Skeptical Inquirer back in 1999.
Hal Bidlack opens the event
The conference officially kicked off with an introduction by Hal Bidlack, who is running for Congress in Colorado Springs, CO, a part of the country which would be greatly helped by a critically thinking legislator. He mentioned that two prominent skeptics have died since the last conference, Arthur C. Clarke and Jerry Andrus. Andrus was a regular attendee of Skeptics Society conferences and JREF conferences, known for setting up his optical illusions and his willingness to explain them patiently to all.
Hal then introduced James Randi, who was looking more frail than the last time I saw him in person, though he said that his health is much better than it has been in the recent past. Randi pointed out that a light, a chair, and a table commemorating Jerry Andrus and his illusions was set up in the back corner of the conference room, and will be set up at future Amazing Meetings as well--while noting that this is for us to remember Jerry.
Randi announced that the JREF library is up to 2282 books, that this conference had about 900 attendees, and that it attracts more women and young people than any other skeptics conference. My impressions supported that conclusion. He also stated that there are UK and Dutch skeptical TV series in the works, and ended by saying that he wanted everyone at the conference to come up, greet him, and shake his hand (which I had already done on Thursday when I ran into him by the registration desk).
Ben Goldacre on homeopathy
The first official conference presentation was by Ben Goldacre, M.D. of www.badscience.net, who spoke about "squabbles about homeopathy." Goldacre described the basic arguments against homeopathy. The main argument against it is that its extreme dilutions are so extreme that a single molecule of a 30C diluted substance would be found in not an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but in ten thousand million million million million pools. A 55C dilution would be equivalent to a universe-sized sphere filled with water with a single molecule of the diluted substance in it. Goldacre observed that a label of a homeopathic remedy that says it is safe because it contains "less than 1 ppm" of the diluted substance is quite an understatement. The homeopaths respond that this is irrelevant; what makes the homeopathic remedy work is that "water has memory," and its structure has somehow changed to reflect being in contact with the diluted substance. But, Goldacre asked, why does it remember the remedy and not, say, having been in Nelson's colon or the Queen's bladder, or in contact with countless other substances? The homeopathic answer to that is that the memory only comes into effect through "succussion," when the remedy is in the water and the container is banged ten times firmly against a wooden striking board (for instance).
As homeopaths do want to present their work as scientific, they have been willing to engage with skeptics. Goldacre reported that his website was given permission to reprint papers from the journal Homeopathy on water memory, which were then critiqued in the JREF Forums, and the critiques assembled into a response which was submitted to and published in the same journal.
But Goldacre points out that the standard anti-homeopathy arguments have been made at least since John Forbes, Queen Victoria's physician, made them in 1846, but they have proven ineffective in persuading homeopaths and users of homeopathic remedies from giving them up. He says the arguments are "irrelevant," because homeopaths are persuaded that their remedies actually work. But that's just not so, he argued. While one might think that homeopathy is like anesthetics where we don't know how it works but it does, with homeopathy we have no good explanation for how it could work and we also have evidence that it doesn't work any better than a placebo.
He then went on to talk about how the placebo effect is a genuinely fascinating scientific anomaly far more worthy of interest than homeopathy. In pain relief, four sugar pills are more effective than two, salt water injection is more effective than sugar pills, and commercial packaging make placebos more effective. He argued that the extent to which homeopathy works is indistinguishable from the placebo effect, as demonstrated by a proper meta-analysis of homeopathic trials, reducing the weight of those which have flaws such as poor randomization and poor blinding.
Keynote by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was clearly the rock star of skepticism at the reception on Thursday night, surrounded by adoring fans (perhaps it was his hat, as P.Z. Myers suggests), gave the keynote address to the conference. When he began, many people had been shining their laser pointers on the wall above the stage, and Tyson informed the audience that he would express his "geek dominance." He instructed everyone to point their laser pointers above the door on the opposite side of the room. Once everyone had done so, he pulled out his laser pointer--shining from farther away than anyone else, since he was up on stage--and shined a large green dot that outshone all of the red dots.
Tyson's talk was called either "Adventures in Science Illiteracy" or "Brain Droppings of a Skeptic" (a title cribbed from George Carlin). He began by saying that he had something to do with Pluto's demotion from being a planet, and that anybody who didn't like it should "get over it." The rest of his talk wandered over a large range of topics that have come up in the Q&A sessions of his lectures:
UFO Sightings: When people say they've seen a UFO, be sure to remind them what the "U" stands for. Typically, those who claim they've seen a UFO start by saying it was unidentified, then end up "inventing knowledge of everything" about it being an extraterrestrial spacecraft.
Alien Abductions: Tyson said that eyewitness testimony is the lowest form of evidence in science (though it's certainly not worthless, and even the scientific literature is a form of testimony about the results of experiments). He pulled out his iPhone and said that if he had one of these 10 years ago, he'd have been burned at the stake. If you get abducted by a UFO, you should take something not of this earth in order to prove your alien contact. He showed a slide of a cover of the book "How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction" and said that "I bought it, read it, and heeded its advice--and I have not been abducted."
Inept Aliens: They travel trillions of miles to get here, then crash.
Conspiracy Theory: They tend to tacitly admit insufficient data. If an argument lasts more than five minutes, both sides are wrong.
Astrology: If you read a horoscope to a group of people and ask if it describes them, approximately 2/3 will agree that it fits them. Most Scorpios are actually Ophiuchans.
Birth Rates and Full Moons: Average human gestation is 295 days; the lunar cycle is 29.5 days. Full moon birth = full moon impregnation.
Behavior and Full Moons: The pressure of an extra pillow is a trillion times greater than the tidal force on a cranium.
Surviving Terminal Cancer: If someone gets three diagnoses from physicians giving them 5-7 months to live, then lives for five years, they credit God for their survival, rather than blaming doctors for a poor diagnosis.
Swami Levitation: Tyson suggest 1,000 cans of baked beans would generate sufficient flatulence to become airborne.
Moon Hoax: Modern technology is so advanced that some people can't believe it. But if you learn the rocket equation and look at how much fuel was in the Saturn V, if the launch was fake, what was all that fuel for?
Mars "Virus": In 2003, the Earth was the closest it had been to Mars than in the previous 60,000 years, which led to multiple stories (including in subsequent years) that some virus would jump from Mars to Earth. Tyson pointed to the side and said "Japan is that way." He jumped a few feet to the side in that direction, and then said he is now as much closer to Japan as Mars came to the Earth from its average distance.
Fear of Numbers: 80% of building on Broadway in NYC have no 13th floor, due to an irrational fear of the number 13. (Yet who actually does fear 13?) And why don't we use negative numbers on elevators for subfloors? Or negative numbers in financial ledgers, instead of parentheses? (Actually, I suspect that's to avoid ambiguity with hyphens in dollar ranges, rather than a fear of negative numbers.)
Naming Rights: Tyson pointed out countries that put scientists on their money--Isaac Newton on the English one-pound note, Einstein on Israeli money. The U.S. has only one scientist--Ben Franklin--on money, on the $100 bill, but with no symbolism to represent his scientific work--no kite, no key, no lightning rod. He also pointed to Gauss and the Gaussian distribution on British money as British support of science, but Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in The Black Swan, points out that the financial field goes grossly astray by trying to using Gaussian distributions to describe phenomena that are not Gaussian. Taleb points to Gauss on British money as ironic and inept rather than pro-science.
Tyson also looked at the names of the elements, with slides of the periodic table that showed which ones were discovered when, and by which countries. While the U.S. was not the top country, it has discovered nearly all of the most recent elements. Tyson explained that Sweden has discovered so many elements because Ytterby cave was rich in undiscovered elements, and yielded the names of the elements Yttrium (39, 1795), Terbium (65, 1843), Erbium (68, 1843), Ytterbium (70, 1878), and Scandium (21, 1879).
Jury Duty I: Tyson described being called for jury duty. He was asked what he did, he said that he was an astrophysicist. When asked what he teaches, he said "a course on evaluating evidence and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony," at which point he was promptly dismissed.
Jury Duty II: Tyson was called for jury duty again, and made the first cut of jurors. The facts of the case were described--the defendant was charged with the possession of "2000 mg" of cocaine. When the jurors were asked if they had any questions, Tyson asked, "why did you describe it as 2000 mg instead of 2 g, about the weight of a postage stamp? Aren't you trying to bias the jury by making it sound like a large quantity of drugs?" At which point he was promptly dismissed.
Math?: Tyson pointed out a headline bemoaning the fact that "half the schools in the district are below average." He also pointed out an article that pointed out that 80% of airplane crash survivors had studied the locations of the exit doors upon takeoff as a suggestion that this is a good idea--but it didn't give the percentage of the nonsurvivors that had done the same. If 100% of the nonsurvivors had also studied the exit locations, would that be an argument not to do so?
Tyson responded to the common observation that the lottery is a tax upon the poor, saying that no, it's a tax on the innumerate. Similarly, he pointed to the subprime mortgage mess as a mathematical illiteracy problem.
Bayer ad in Physics Today: Tyson described an advertisement that Bayer placed in Physics Today asking how to get students interested in "why heavy things fall faster than lighter things." The ad was later changed to "why heavy things fall as fast as lighter things."
George W. Bush: Tyson said that he lives closer to Ground Zero in Manhattan than the height of the WTC towers, and showed some photographs he took on September 11. He attended a science medal presentation at the White House since he was on the presidential advisory committee; at that event Bush stated that "Our God is the God who named the stars." However, 2/3 of all stars with names have Arabic names, because from 800-1100 Islam was very supportive of math and science, giving us the names of algebra and algorithm, and the Arabic numerals. But in the 12th century, Imam Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the St. Augustine of Islam, stated that "manipulating numbers is the work of the devil."
There are 1.2 billion Muslims, yet they've only earned 2 of 579 Nobel prizes (one in physics, one in economics), while Jews, who are 1/80 as numerous, have earned 143 Nobel prizes, and thus have had 6,400 times the impact of Muslims on modern science. He wondered how much more contribution they would have made if it had not been for al-Ghazali's position of influence on Islam.
Intelligent Design: A 2004 SUV ad said, "In the world of SUV's, it's the survival of the fittest." In 2005, it was changed to "Its features are nothing short of a miracle."
Tyson argued that the intelligent design idea--stopping investigation with "God did it"--has historically stopped scientific inquiry. He argued that Newton could have developed Laplace's perturbation theory if he had not stopped his inquiry and appealed to God for the explanation of planetary movements that conflicted with his theory.
Stupid Design: Leukemia, vision loss with age, Alzheimer's, exhaling most oxygen we inhale, our inability to smell CO or CO2, the fact that we eat, drink, and speak through the same opening (vs. dolphin design--dolphins can't die laughing). Tyson also mentioned the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which killed 70,000 people, mostly Christians who had gathered in churches that Sunday mornings.
Religious People in the U.S.: Tyson observed that most people in the U.S. are religious--about 90% believe in God. When you look at educated people, holding a master's or Ph.D. degree, it drops to about 60%. When you look at scientists, it's about 40%. The most elite scientists--Nobel prizewinners, National Academy of Science members, etc.--it drops to 7%, with physicists and biologists as the least religious. But he pointed out that the 7% is still a substantial number of people--you cannot blame the general public for being religious if we don't understand why 7% of the most educated elite people are religious and pray to a personal God.
Bible in Science Classroom: He observed that there aren't scientists picketing in front of churches demanding equal time for science, referred to Matthew LaClair's confrontation with his history teacher for proselytizing in the classroom (a story broken by this blog), and read his letter to the editor of the New York Times about the case:
To the Editor:Albert Einstein and God: Tyson pointed out the content of the recently published 1954 letter from Albert Einstein, and how religious believers who have claimed Einstein as one of their own have been in error.
People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah's ark carried dinosaurs.This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it's about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
New York, Dec. 19, 2006
Cosmic Perspective: Tyson went through a series of numbers with examples to clarify their magnitude: 1, or 10**0, a clear one. 1,000, a thousand, 10**3, kilo. 1,000,000, a million, 10**6, mega. 10**9, a billion, giga. There are 6,000 astrophysicists in 6 billion people, so astrophysicists are one in a million. (But someone observed that there were 3 astrophysicists present among the 900 attendees of the conference.) McDonald's has sold 100 billion hamburgers--which could encircle the globe 52 times, and then be stacked to the moon and back. At age 31, you will have lived for one billion seconds. 10**12, trillion, tera. 10**15, quadrillion, peta. The number of sounds emitted by all human beings who have ever lived. 10**18, quadrillion, exa. The number of grains of sand on an average beach. 10**21, septillion, zetta. The number of stars in the universe.
Tyson then made a list of the most abundant elements in the universe--hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen--and observed that, minus helium, these are also the same as the key ingredients of life.
He quoted the Bible's "and the meek shall inherit the earth and live in a world of peace"--and suggested that the correct translation should have been "geek" instead of "meek."
APS Conference in Vegas: Tyson closed by referring to a Las Vegas newspaper headline that said, "Meeting of physicists in town, lowest casino take ever."
Alec Jason on Peter Popoff and criminal forensics
Alec Jason, an independent forensic photographer and investigator, described how he helped James Randi in his investigation of the faith healer and televangelist Peter Popoff, who claimed to use the "word of knowledge" to obtain detailed information from God about the people he was healing. In fact, Popoff's wife Elizabeth was collecting the information from people before the show and transmitting it to Popoff via radio to an earpiece receiver he was wearing. Jason described how he went to Brooks Hall a day prior to the Popoff healing event to determine the normal background radio frequency broadcasts, and then scanned for traffic during the event while posing as a janitor at the facility. The device he used was an early Scanlock device, and although Popoff could have used countermeasures ranging such as frequency hopping, codes, spread spectrum, or encryption, none of these were in use and they quickly picked up the sound of footsteps and then Elizabeth Popoff saying, "Hi, Petey. I hope you can hear me, becasue if you can't, you're in trouble."
Randi exposed Popoff on the Tonight Show, and Popoff's career seemed to have been derailed, though it took months for his followers to get the message. But now Popoff is back--and while he was making $12 million a year before, he's reporting over $24 million a year today. The message was a demoralizing one for skeptics--even the exposure of a blatant fraud like Popoff's is not sufficient to keep him from continuing to take money from the gullible and live a life of luxury.
There were some technical difficulties during the first part of Jason's talk, and I found it mostly to be old hat--I've read Randi's The Faith Healers, seen his Tonight Show appearance, and viewed multiple presentations about the Popoff exposure.
The remainder of Jason's presentation was about his work in some criminal cases. In a case in Africa, a body was found with a SIG Sauer P226 pistol on its chest. The question to resolve was whether this was a suicide or a homicide--after firing, the gun remains cocked and has to be manually decocked. A photo of the crime scene was too fuzzy to see clearly whether the gun was cocked, but Jason was able to compare reflectivity hot spots of a cocked vs. a decocked gun to determine that the gun was decocked. As it turned out, this didn't show that it was a homicide, as the first officer on the scene said that he had picked up the gun and turned on the safety--there is no safety on the pistol, and what he had actually done is decocked it, and thus the gun was shown to have been still cocked when the body was found.
Jason also went into a lot of detail in the Frank Zupan case, where Zupan was found at the scene of a vehicle accident where his wife was behind the wheel of their car and dead with gunshot wounds to the head. Zupan testified that they were driving at 25-30 mph when an oncoming car approached, and he thought rocks came through the window and hit his wife, which he then attributed to gunshots. Jason showed that a gun cannot be shot at faster than 10 rounds per second, and if gunfire came from a car approaching at 20 mph, there would be 3 feet of movement per shot. Since Zupan's wife was shot twice in the head and there was no damage to the front windshield, there's no way Zupan's account made sense.
Penn & Teller Q&A session
Penn and Teller had no prepared material, but simply answered questions from the audience. They talked about a wide-ranging variety of subjects, including Penn's radio show (which may come back in a different form), Teller's short film that appears on George A. Romero's "Diary of the Dead" DVD, and the fact that their show Bullshit! is "fair and extremely biased." In response to a question about what they may be wrong about, Penn said that he has symptoms of a believer with respect to his views on art and his libertarian politics. When asked what's the line between reasonable concern for the environment and environmentalist nuttery, Penn answered "I don't know," and Teller said, "carbon credits are bullshit, modeled on indulgences."
Penn stated that he thinks Obama is very classy and positive, but that he doesn't agree with him about anything.
Teller showed a video made by Jeff Levine about cold reading, called "The Cold Reader," based on a story by Matthew Simmons.
George Hrab's music
George Hrab came onstage briefly to play a couple of songs, one titled "God is Not Great" inspired by Hitchens' book, and another about being a skeptic.
P.Z. Myers on bat wings
P.Z. Myers gave a talk that presented some actual science--he first gave a brief description of his field and his own work, and then a summary of work by Chris Cretekos on the genes that control the development of bat wings, and what happens when they are put into rats. Rather than attempt to summarize this myself, I'll point the interested reader to Stephen Matheson's description of the same work.
Richard Saunders on himself and educational materials for kids
Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics, author of 17 books on origami, creator of the origami Pigasus for JREF, founder of the Sydney Skeptics in the Pub group, former president and current VP of the Australian Skeptics, chief spoon bender for the Australian Skeptics, and producer of the TANK vodcast, said that he's about to be the most famous TV skeptic in Australia. He will be the skeptical judge on "The One: The Search for Australia's Most Gifted Psychic" show. After spending a lot of time talking about his past and coming achievements, he did a nice demonstration of a dowsing investigation for use by educators to teach children scientific methods. He had six volunteers from the audience as dowsers to try to find a bottle of water placed under one of six plastic bins. First he found the best dowser at detecting the bottle when it was out in the open, then did trials first blind and then double-blind.
Panel discussion on identifying as a skeptic
The day's events concluded with a panel discussion between James Randi, P.Z. Myers, Michael Shermer, Margaret Downey, Phil Plait, Hal Bidlack, and a member of the NYC Skeptics (I didn't catch the name) about skepticism and identifying as a skeptic. Shermer began by saying that we start by assuming everything is false and require evidence to demonstrate that anything is true. I'm not sure that's actually a sound methodology--it's a lot easier to dig yourself into a philosophically skeptical hole where you doubt the existence of an external world and other minds than it is to get out. Our actual belief methods start out with trust--trust in our own senses and in the testimony of others as we learn language and concepts--not with Cartesian skepticism. In my opinion, something like "trust but verify" and "determine the limits and faults in belief-forming methods, and avoid them" is a better procedure than trying to build up all knowledge from nothing or from indubitable foundational premises. In answer to a question about various kinds of deniers referring to themselves as skeptics, Phil Plait observed that skeptics demand evidence, while deniers deny evidence. Those who deny the Holocaust or that man landed on the moon are not skeptics, they are deniers.
At one point, Margaret Downey made a statement that testimony from individuals who claim remarkable experiences are not relevant because "first-hand reports are just hearsay." But this is a mistake--they may be characterized as hearsay to others, but not to those who are making the reports who have actually had the experiences. Further, reports themselves may be collected and correlated with other objective evidence and used to draw scientific conclusions. I think it's a huge mistake to reject individual experience out of hand in the manner suggested; it's generally possible to take a report of an experience and identify possible explanations for what could cause the experience (or the report of an experience and the false belief in an experience).
There was an excellent audience question about how those of us with limited scientific knowledge can come to conclusions about complex scientific topics where we lack expertise to evaluate the evidence ourselves--aren't we taking results on faith? Randi responded to the question, but I don't think he really got the point. I went and spoke with the questioner afterward, and she agreed that he seemed to be answering a different question. I made the point that in such a case we need to determine who are the reliable experts, the trustworthy authorities, and that we have a number of clues we can use to help identify them.
On to TAM6 summary, part three.