Monday, June 30, 2008

The Amazing Meeting 6 summarized, part three

This is part three of my summary of The Amazing Meeting 6 (intro, part one, part two, part four, part five).

Friday night was my one late night out, as I went with a group of Denver and Boston skeptics (and one local friend) to Gallagher's Steakhouse at the New York, New York Casino. On the walk down the strip, we passed some 9/11 truthers holding signs promoting a website promoting their views. I told one that he should check out, to which he responded, "That's funny." He ended up going off on a rant about how I was sticking my head in the sand, to which Iunproductively responded in an off-color manner about where he was sticking his head. We had a fantastic, though expensive, meal, and I ended up leaving my camera at the restaurant. Fortunately, I was able to retrieve it even though the restaurant had closed.

Saturday morning I had breakfast with an attorney from Florida and a regular attendee of hacker's conferences from Pennsylvania; we talked a bit about criminal hacking on the Internet and copyright law.

Michael Shermer on the Skeptologists and why people believe in unseen things
Michael Shermer gave the first talk of the day. He began by talking about how he recently accepted some money from the Templeton Foundation in return for editing a booklet of thirteen essays on the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?", which he agreed to do on the condition that he could pick at least some of the people to write answers to the question. Respondents included Kenneth Miller, Victor Stenger, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Pinker, and Stuart Kauffman.

He then showed a segment from a TV show pilot, "The Skeptologists," that is now being pitched to the TV networks. The show features Yau-Man Chan, Mark Edward, Steven Novella, Phil Plait, Kirsten Sanford, Michael Shermer, and Brian Dunning investigating claims using the tools of skepticism. The segment shown was of Shermer, Sanford, and Novella investigating health claims made for wheat grass, such as that because it contains chlorophyll which is molecularly similar to hemoglobin, it turns into hemoglobin when you consume it.

Shermer then went on to give a talk about "why people believe in unseen things," arguing that we engage in learning by association (something illustrated by Banachek's memory workshop) and have a tendency to make type II errors (incorrectly accepting a belief in something false) over type I errors (incorrectly rejecting a belief in something true). He gave a brief review of some evidence that when we process a sentence in order to understand it, we go through the same steps as entertaining that it is true, and to exercise skepticism about it requires additional effort; disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection after the process of comprehension. This kind of acceptance of knowledge presented by others makes sense for a child growing up, especially in a hostile environment where survival is at stake.

Humans also tend not to be persuaded by or even remember being told that something is false--the negation can be forgotten while the statement being denied is remembered as true. A flyer put out by the CDC to rebut myths about flu vaccines turned out to have the opposite of the desired effect, at least by certain groups of people--after 30 minutes, they remembered 28% of the false statements as being true, and after three days the percentage jumped to 40%. (Also see Sam Wang and Sandra Amodt's op-ed in the June 27, 2008 New York Times, "Your Brain Lies to You.")

Shermer didn't mention the study I've linked to, but rather later near the end of his talk referred to some fMRI studies by Sam Harris, Sameer Sheth, and Mark Cohen (PDF) about evaluating statements as true, false, or undecideable, comparing reaction times to different types of statements.

Agency and the intentional stance
Shermer talked about the work of Pascal Boyer and Daniel Dennett on agency and the intentional stance--that we tend to assume by default that everything that happens not only has a cause, but is caused by an agent, and particularly one that means us harm. Such an assumption may make evolutionary sense to enable survival, though it clearly doesn't work well for accurate explanations of the world. But such appeal of agency lies behind intelligent design theory, and attributing supernatural intentions to natural phenomena. Shermer called this "The God Illusion" rather than "delusion," because he, like Boyer and Dennett, see it as a normal cognitive illusion rather than something delusional or pathological.

He went on to talk about folk intuitions as being the engines of all sorts of beliefs. He gave examples from folk astronomy, folk biology (the elan vital), folk psychology (mind/brain dualism), and folk economics (centrally planned economies). He compared natural selection and Adam Smith's invisible hand, observing that many people misconstrue one or the other as being something magical or directed. He observed that we have folk intuitions that have evolved for a particular environment, yet do not work well at the huge or tiny scales.

Then, more controversially, he referred to folk politics, viewing societies as an extension of the family, and referred to "intelligent government theory," the "God of the government" theory, and "the government illusion," drawing an analogy to intelligent design, God of the gaps, and the God illusion, respectively. But where intelligent design says "I can't imagine how X could have evolved, therefore it must have been designed," he described "intelligent government theory" as based on the faulty reasoning that "I can't imagine how X could be done privately, therefore a government must do it." The difference here, as I've already mentioned, is that we know that governments exist and do provide services. The libertarian argument about private provision of services vs. government provision of services is one about whether government is necessary, or moral, or more efficient than private provision of services. To my mind, such arguments are well worth having, but come down to questions of competing values (e.g., liberty vs. justice) and empirical evidence about costs and benefits of competing approaches. It's not really analogous to the question of the existence or nonexistence of gods, unless perhaps one takes that to partly be an issue about the pragmatic value of belief in an illusion vs. truth.

Sharon Begley
Newsweek science writer Sharon Begley gave a talk titled "Creationism and Other Weird Beliefs: The Role of the Press," with a subtitle "hint: don't get your hopes up." She was very pessimistic about the press being helpful in promoting critical thinking. She began by telling the story of the Tichbourne Claimant. In 1854, Roger Tichbourne was lost at sea off the coast of Brazil. He had been raised in France to the age of 16, then in England. He was very thin, and had blue eyes and tattoos. His mother refused to accept that he was dead, and placed ads in newspapers seeking him. Some 20 years later, a man from Wagga Wagga, Australia contacted her, claiming that he had not previously contacted her because he wanted to achieve success on his own accord, under the name "Mr. Castro," but had failed to do so. This man, the Tichbourne Claimant, was obese, spoke no French, had no tattoos, had brown eyes, and was an inch taller than Roger Tichbourne, yet she accepted him as the genuine article.

According to Begley, the role of the newspaper is not to educate. In the early years of the AIDS crisis, public health officials asked for the press to run informative stories, and they complied, but this was not helpful because:
  • The scientific ignorance of the American public.
  • The capacity for rational thnking is not identical to the disposition to employ rational thinking.
  • There is a disconnect between factual knowledge and belief, as exhibited in the case of Mrs. Tichbourne.
  • Public attitudes towards the press are negative.
  • The press has a commitment to "balance."
  • Common sense is not common.
She gave some statistics on polls of Americans' agreement or disagreement with the statement that "Human beings as we know them developed from earlier species of animals":

1985: 45% agreed, 48% disagreed, 7% unsure.
2005: 40% agreed, 39% disagreed, 21% unsure.

By comparison the percentage of agreement in Iceland, Denmark, and Sweden was over 80%; of OECD nations only Turkey had a lower percentage of acceptance than the U.S.

Evolution, gay marriage, and abortion are all highly politicized in the U.S. in a way that they aren't in Europe or Japan.

But if the question was "Can natural selection explain appearance and change over time of animals," 78% of Americans agreed. Yet 62% agree that "God created humans as they are today." This, according to Begley, is because Americans have a view of human exceptionalism.

She went through a list of facts that are beyond dispute, which were presented to Americans for acceptance or denial. Two examples:

More than half of all genes in humans are identical to those in mice. 33% agree
More than half of all genes in humans are identical to those in chimps. 38% agree

Only 9% of Americans know what a molecule is. Because of this, while sports writers can use abbreviations such as ERA and RBI without explaining them, Begley says she cannot assume her readers know anything at all, and recently learned that she can't even refer to DNA and expect her readers to know what she's talking about.

She observed that a disposition to critical thinking is associated with being more curious, open-minded, open to new experiences, conscientiousness, being less dogmatic, less close-minded, less authoritarian, and likely to rely more on epirical and rational data than on intution and emotion when weighing information and reaching conclusions. But you have to both have the skills and want to think critically in order to apply them. In addition to Tichbourne as an example of someone who had the skills but didn't want to apply them, she noted that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's son was killed two weeks before the end of WWI, and he went to a medium who claimed to contact his son, which he very much wanted to believe. Alfred Russell Wallace, who formulated evolution by natural selection parallel to Darwin, was also a believer in ghosts, levitation, spirit photography, and clairvoyance. And she noted that a statement Penn Jillette made the previous day sounded like he was rejecting climate change on the basis of a dislike for Al Gore. (UPDATE, July 4, 2008: Sharon Begley wrote about this at the Newsweek blog, and Penn Jillette responded in the Los Angeles Times. I think Penn more accurately reports what happened than Sharon Begley did--he really did say that he didn't know, and that people he knows and considers reliable tell him that anthropogenic climate change is real. One thing Penn gets wrong is that Teller didn't mention Gore's name when he said that carbon credits are "bullshit modeled on indulgences.")

She commented on some of the negative letters she has received any time she writes about evolution or critically about claims like alien abductions. When she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the discovery of Tiktaalik, she received several letters which she read excerpts of, three examples of which were the standard argument that "evolution requires more faith" than believing that God did it, a letter asking "where are the billions of 'transition fossils,'" and one asking, "if you are terminal will you call on Darwin or God?"

Don't count on the press
The "reality-based community" must contend with contrarian politicians, the masses' distrust of elites, and new sources of news. With regard to the last point, she pointed out that Googling evolutionary biology terms often brings up Answers in Genesis sites prior to sites with accurate information.

The journalistic conceit of objectivity, she said, is imported from political disputes where there are two contrary sides. (I actually think that notion of balance is as often mistaken in politics as it is in science--there may only be one side with any valid support, or there may be more than two sides deserving of representation, though the latter is more common in politics than in science. But dualism is a misrepresentation in both circumstances.)

Uncommon common sense
Begley made the following points, which had some overlap with Shermer's talk:
  • Evolution is not intuitive.
  • Common sense can mislead us about the physical world.
  • Our brains are driven to see patterns.
  • We have a habit of imputing consciousness to inanimate objects.
  • Someone is staring at me from behind. (People tend to have and respond to such feelings. I can't remember if she actually discussed Rupert Sheldrake's studies of this, or of the skeptical critiques by Robert Baker or Richard Wiseman.)
She gave the example of an experiment with a sweater at Bristol University. Students were shown a ratty old sweater and asked who would be willing to put it on in return for a payment of twenty British pounds. Most indicated a willingness to do so. But if they were then told, oh, by the way, this sweater belonged to a murderer, many of the hands would go down--as though evil were a property that contaminated the object. What she didn't mention is that similarly, the value of something associated with someone of status has the reverse effect--e.g., if the sweater were claimed to belong to Einstein. The effect of status on objects is one that is clearly prevalent even among skeptics, who are as likely as anyone to enjoy collecting autographs and memorabilia, or objects like ping pong balls used on a television show (see Adam Savage's talk, below).

Derek and Swoopy
Derek and Swoopy, the hosts of the official Skeptics Society podcast, "Skepticality," gave a short talk about their show and noted that they now have about 35,000 listeners per program, and that the top two skeptics' podcasts, "Skepticality" and "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe," have over 4 million downloads between them. They reported that after some successful skeptical panels at science fiction conventions, Dragon*Con 2008 in Atlanta this Labor Day weekend, a conference so large that it occurs at four hotels, will have four full days of skeptical content, a "Skeptrack" featuring James Randi, Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Ben Radford, Alison Smith, George Hrab, and others.

Steven Novella
Dr. Novella gave a talk on "Dualism and Creationism" covering the history of dualism in philosophy of mind, evidence from neuroscience, and a discussion of modern dualism. In his discussion of dualism in philosophy, he attributed to Descartes a notion of computation occurring in the brain and a position he called "consciousness dualism." I think perhaps that gives Descartes too much credit, though he did think that "animal spirits" flowing in the brain caused signals from perception to be projected on the surface of the pineal gland, which was the seat of the soul and consciousness.

He referred to the advocacy of property dualism/epiphenomenalism by David Chalmers, and observed that his views would not be acceptable to most of those who advocate dualism. Chalmers's position is that most mental activity is physical brain activity, but there's a remaining hard problem of consciousness posed by the conscious properties of perception and feeling known as qualia, which distinguish unconscious zombies that could behave just like us from real people. He gave Deepak Chopra as an example of an individual who is essentially a denialist about contemporary neuroscience, an anti-materialist who supports "quantum woo," Eastern mysticism, and what he called "substrate consciousness," a feature of the universe itself.

Evidence from neuroscience
Novella gave the following points to summarize the evidence from neuroscience:
  • Brain anatomy and activity correlates with mental activity.
  • There is no mind without the brain.
  • Brain development correlates with mental development.
  • If you damage the brain, you damage the mind.
  • Different states of consciousness correlate with different brain states.
  • Turn off the brain and you turn off the mind.
  • The mind does not survive the death of the brain.
  • MEG (magnetoencephalography) can be used to provoke specific mental effects, including inducing out-of-body experiences at will.
My notes on the last point suggest that Novella said that MEG could be used to induce OBEs. There were a couple of recent studies about two different methods for inducing OBEs, but I don't recall either of them using magnetic induction (e.g., this 2007 Science paper). I'm skeptical of Michael Persinger's claims of magnetic induction of religious experiences (also see this 2004 Nature article).

We're in the process of reverse-engineering the brain, and the materialist model of consciousness is working pretty well. The elements of consciousness are increasingly identifiable and localizable, and our ability to reconstruct them in artificial intelligence will be the ultimate test.

Novella defined consciousness as the moment-to-moment functions of the brain, when it is processing information reflectively, and presenting it to the part of the brain that is paying attention. (Is it really commonly accepted that attention is localized to a particular part of the brain?) We are trying to assess our consciousness with our consciousness.

The vitalism analogy
Novella stated, referencing Daniel Dennett, that just as life is an emergent property of living things, consciousness is the sum of the easy problems about consciousness, leaving no remaining residue of a hard problem, just as there is no elan vital for biology.

Novella then talked about neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, who he said makes the mistake of confusing the question of "does" with "how." That is, because we don't know the details of how consciousness is physically generated, it must not be the case. He compared this to the "God of the gaps" argument--whatever is currently unexplained must be caused by something supernatural.

Defenses of dualism
Novella then went through a few rhetorical strategies used to defend dualism. One is that any day now, evolution (or materialism) will collapse. But they've been saying this in the evolution case for 100 years. (Glenn Morton has a nice article titled "The Imminent Demise of Evolution: The Longest Running Falsehood in Creationism," which offers 178 years of such quotes.)

Another is to generate false controversy, and say that until the argument is resolved, it's legitimate to accept dualism.

Then there's the claim of impending acceptance, the converse of the imminent demise argument--that Deepak Chopra's views are about to be accepted by the entire world, for example.

The need to change science--Novella said that B. Alan Wallace, a Buddhist, has argued that we need to reintroduce subjective evidence into science. Novella suggested that subjective evidence can't be scientific evidence, which I think is a slight overstatement--a self report is a valid source of data, we just need to have a way to correlate those self reports with other evidence.

In his conclusion, Novella stated that the purpose of modern Cartesian dualism is to provide intellectual cover for a belief system--presumably including various religious views about immortality as well as Deepak Chopra's views.

It's worth noting that Keith Augustine of the Internet Infidels has done a lot of work presenting the evidence against survival of death and the possibility of immortality, as well as critical of claims that near-death experiences are evidence of survival. He has recently published a four-part series of articles in the Journal of Near-Death Studies on the subject, which have been accompanied by responses from NDE researchers. He is also working on an anthology which will respond to recent arguments for dualism. I urge Novella to contact Augustine, as he might have some contribution to make to that anthology.

Jeff Wagg
Jeff Wagg of JREF stated that there is a possibility of a future TAM in the UK, and that TAM7 will be in Las Vegas on July 9-12, 2009 at the South Point Casino. There will also be a JREF Mexican Riviera cruise in March, 2009, which still is looking for speakers.

Jim Underdown
Jim Underdown of the Center for Inquiry, Los Angeles reported that the Independent Investigations Group, a skeptical group that does paranormal investigations, would be giving an award for best TV show or movie that debunks pseudoscience to Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, and a lifetime achievement award to James Randi.

Randi came up and said that some years ago he had terminated his relationship with CSICOP because they had asked him to stop going after Uri Geller, who was suing him repeatedly (and had also sued CSICOP as a result). Randi said that Geller only won once, in the Japan case, where the judgment was lowered from slander to insult, and that while Geller was suing for millions he was only awarded a small amount. The amount was 500,000 yen against Randi, and a larger amount against the Japanese magazine which reported Randi's erroneous statement that Dr. Wilbur Franklin of Kent State University had killed himself after Randi discredited Geller, who Franklin had endorsed as genuine. Franklin had actually died of natural causes, and Randi attributed the Japanese magazine statement to a mistranslation of the phrase "shot himself in the foot," though Randi had been quoted in a U.S. publication in English making the same statement about Franklin killing himself out of embarrassment over Geller's exposure. Geller also won a case in Hungary for a statement by Randi that called Geller a swindler, though Randi was not named in that suit. After Geller sued Victor Stenger in Hawaii, CSICOP and Prometheus in England, and CSICOP and Prometheus in Miami, Prometheus Books added errata slips to Stenger's Physics and Psychics and to Randi's The Truth About Uri Geller regarding an incident where Geller was sued in Israel for breach of contract and not, as those two sources stated (Stenger relying upon Randi), "arrested." The Miami suit was eventually won by Prometheus and CSICOP on the grounds that Geller had knowingly filed after the statute of limitations had expired, and Geller paid them slightly less than half of the fees, costs and sanctions that were originally awarded and dismissed his appeal. Contrary to the impression Randi has sometimes given, the vast majority of Geller's lawsuits were not about paranormal abilities, but about accusations of other kinds of impropriety, such as fraud, criminal acts, plagiarism, and so forth. Geller gives his version of events on his web page.

Now, apparently as a result of this award, Randi said he would like to forgive and forget, and resume his relationship with CSICOP (now CSI).

The Skeptologists
During lunch was a showing of the full pilot episode of "The Skeptologists," which also included a segment on the tools used for ghost hunting, testing them aboard the Queen Mary in order to see what they actually measure. I missed all but the ending, but it was shown again on Sunday, about which more later.

There were several more speakers on Saturday--Phil Plait, Adam Savage, Matthew Chapman, Richard Wiseman, and a panel discussion ostensibly on "the limits of skepticism," but I'll save that for further summary tomorrow.

On to TAM6 summary, part four.

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