Thursday, August 27, 2009

Marco Iacoboni on imitation and sociality

Thanks to a tip from Tony Barnhart, I learned this morning of a talk at ASU today relevant to my last post ("Imitation, isolation, and independence") by UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni. Although I wasn't able to stay for the Q&A session, I did get to hear his entire presentation, titled "Imitation and Sociality: The Role of Neural Mirroring." His talk covered the following points (from his initial agenda slide):
  • Imitation in human behavior
  • Potential neural precursors in primates
  • Neural mechanisms of human imitation
  • Neural circuitry for imitation and language
  • Imitation and empathy
Dr. Iacoboni was introduced by new ASU prof. Art Glenberg, who started right off by pointing out that the existence of mirror neurons is itself controversial, and some "don't think there's much of interest proved about mirror neuron systems." Dr. Iacoboni thanked Prof. Glenberg for beginning with the "elephant in the room," and said that the question has never been raised about the existence of mirror neurons in monkeys, and suggested that some people don't want there to be homologous systems in humans, e.g., for the sake of human exceptionalism or denial of evolution. (Has your blood pressure gone up yet, Tony?)

Imitation in human behavior
He started by briefly discussing the role of imitation in human behavior, citing Andrew Meltzoff's 1977 article in Science ("Imitation of Facial and Manual Gestures by Human Neonates," (PDF) 198:75-78), noting that Meltzoff is probably the only guy to publish a photograph of himself sticking out his tongue in Science. Imitation, the copying of the behavior of another, is pervasive by humans. People copy body positions and movements, and such imitation promotes liking. (As an aside, he said that he has been interviewed by Glamour (July 2003) about his work, and can have a second career as a consultant to Internet dating services if mirror neurons turn out not to exist.) Imitation facilitates communication and conversation, and people tend to even synchronize the way they talk. (I know I've heard multiple stories of people whose accents have been changed by being around people with different accents.)

Potential neural precursors in primates
Mirror neurons were first discovered in macaque monkeys, in the ventral premotor cortex. It was found that neurons in this area fired when monkeys engaged in grasping behavior, and also fired to a lesser extent when those monkeys observed other monkeys engaged in grasping behavior. (Here, Iacoboni cited Gallese et al., Brain, 1996.)

Neural mechanisms of human imitation
Iacoboni said that the term "mirror" may be good for marketing, but may also be misleading. Mirror neurons are defined physiologically rather than anatomically, by behavior rather than location in the brain. They have motor properties, and are specialized for actions, including sensory attributes of actions, but not mere peceptions. They are not simply "monkey-see, monkey-do" cells--while 1/3 tend to fire for very specific actions, 2/3 fire for other sorts of complementary actions. Mirror neurons have abstract codings for hidden actions, action sounds, and intentions, not just specific actions. Mirror neurons that fire in response to a grasping action of picking up a laser pointer would also fire if the details of the action were obscured by a screen. The sound of tearing paper can fire mirror neurons that fire when observing paper being ripped. And if there are variant actions that achieve the same purpose, such as bringing food to the mouth, the same mirror neurons can fire. Mirror neurons learn and have some degree of plasticity.

Iacoboni's model predicts that observing an action should have the lowest level of activation for mirror neurons, performing a motor task should have a medium level, and imitation--both seeing and doing an action--should have the strongest level of activation. And that is what his research has found.

At UCLA, they've done parallel work with monkeys and humans, and identified apparently homologous brain regions between the two. The specific region where mirror neurons were first discovered, the F5 region, appears to be homologous to the BA44 region of the human brain. The "BA" stands for Brodmann Area, a part of Broca's area associated with language--those with lesions to that area have Broca's aphasia, which reduces language fluency and makes speech slow and difficult. This raises the question of whether the mirroring is effectively covert verbalization in humans.

Experiments with transcranium magnetic stimulation (TMS), where a magnetic copper coil placed against the head creates an electrical flow in the brain, interfering with the underlying electrical activity in the brain--essentially adding noise and causing disruption--have enabled a way to demonstrate causation where functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) could only show correlation. Iacoboni called this a shift "from brain mapping to brain zapping." If you zap an area and cause a deficit in a particular behavior or function, you show the causal involvement of that area in the production of that behavior. Doing experiments with TMS of Broca's area vs. a control site, using an imitation task and a control task, show the essential role of Broca's area in imitation. (Here, Iacoboni cited Heiser, et al., Eur. J. of Neuroscience, 2003.)

Iacoboni showed a diagram that he labeled the "core imitation circuit" which involved three locations of the brain--the superior temporal surface (STS), which manages visual input to the system via a visual or pictorial description of an action, which then feeds to the parietal mirror neuron system (MNS), which has the motor details of an action, which then feeds to the frontal MNS, which deals with the goal or intention of an action. (There were two-way arrows between STS and parietal MNS, and between parietal MNS and frontal MNS.)

Neural circuitry for imitation and language
Iacoboni said that an old theory of speech perception which had been abandoned has now been brought back by mirror neurons. That theory is the motor neuron theory, which says that to perceive speech sounds, you simulate the generation of the same speech. Speech perception involves speech simulation. In experiments that compared brain activation of speaking and listening, he suggested that he found evidence to support this. (This must be complicated by the fact that when you speak, you hear yourself. He cited Meister, et al., Current Biology, 2007.)

He discussed hemispheres of the brain and action sounds, where the right and left motor cortexes were subjected to TMS stimulation. I didn't quite get the details of this, but apparently a response was stronger for the left hemisphere, which is dominant for language. (He cited Azir-Zadeh et al., Eur. J. of Neuroscience, 2004.) He also referred to research of somatotopic maps, indicating that even when you read sentences about hand and foot actions (as opposed to seeing them), you get activation of the motor neurons for those areas.

He then spoke about how meaning is encoded in the brain, distinguishing a symbolic approach to "embodied semantics," favoring the latter view. In the embodied view, the meanings of words are grounded in sensorimotor experience and meaning is given by associations with sensorimotor activation.

He described an experiment in how mirror neurons code intentions, where subjects were shown short videos. There were first contexts, such as a set of cookies, a teapot, gnutella, etc., set up as though someone was going to have a snack; contrasted with this was the same items, with just cookie crumbs, and empty cup, and so forth, as though someone had already had a snack. There were contrasting actions--a hand grasping the edge of a cup (as though putting it down or picking it up to serve someone else), vs. a hand grasping the handle of a cup, for the action of drinking. And then there were intention conditions, with each combination of actions embedded in a context. The result was to find a difference in activation between the intention settings, as well as between action and intention; with the act of drinking generating more activation in the inferior frontal gyrus. (Here he cited Iacoboni, PLoS Biology, 2005, "Grasping the intentions of others with one's own mirror neuron system.")

He next showed a diagram of MNS interactions, showing imitative learning and social mirroring (or empathy, or "emotional contagion"). Imitative learning involves the MNS interacting with the pre-motor cortex, while social mirroring involves the MNS interacting with the insula and the limbic system.

Imitation and empathy
He spoke about "the chameleon effect"--some people are more imitative than others, and a tendency to imitate is correlated with a tendency to be more empathetic. He showed two photographs of President Jimmy Carter and his chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, at two different times at the same event; in both cases the chief of staff was in the same physical position as Carter, standing next to or slightly behind him.

When feeling what others feel, the mirror neurons simulate facial expressions, which then feed through the insula to the limbic system, where you feel the emotion. He referred to research on imitating and observing facial expressions proposing a neural model of empathy in humans (Carr et al., PNAS, 2003).

We are "wired for empathy," he said, and notes that he used to quote a French phenomenologist on this point, but since that's not popular among U.S. philosophers he needed to find a champion of the analytic school of philosophy. He offered two quotes from Ludwig Wittgenstein, one which began "We see emotions. We do not see facial contortions and make the inference that he is feeling joy, grief, boredom. We describe a face immediately as sad, radiant, bored, even when we are unable to give any other description of the features." (From Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 2, p. 100.) The other began "'I see that the child wants to touch the dog but doesn't dare.' How can I see that? - Is this description of what is seen on the same level as a description of moving shapes and colors? Is an interpretation in question?Well, remember that you may also mimic a human being who would like to touch something, but doesn't dare. And what you mimic is after all a piece of behaviour." (From Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, vol. 1, p. 177.)

He then spoke of experiments with facial expression photos shown to kids and asked to imitate them, where they used fMRI and compared to measures of social competence, number of play dates, number of friends, etc., and found a high correlation between mirror neuron activation and social competence. (He cited Pfeifer et al., NeuroImage, 2008.)

This then led to the issue of autism, which he described with a slide heading titled, "Broken mirrors in autism?" He spoke of observation/imitation tasks with two groups of kids, those with autism spectrum disorder and a control set, which yielded differential activity in motor neurons. (He cited Dapretto et al., Nature Neuroscience, 2006.)

After a quote from Eric Hoffer ("When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other"), he spoke about human single-neuron recordings done with depth electrode readings on epilepsy patients undergoing very invasive methods to identify the focal points of seizures for surgery to remove or destroy minimal amounts of brain tissue to stop the seizures. They have studied about 10 patients per year over the last three years, using modified depth electrodes that each have 9 microwires, extending from them into the brain, one ground, and eight which each record for a single cell. On these patients they've done experiments with observation and execution of a grasping task, and with observation and imitation of facial expressions. They've taken records from the temporal lobe, amygdala, hippocampus, and other parts of the brain, and found that about 8% of cells measured have mirroring properties.

He then described some differences between human and monkey mirror neurons, the key one of which is that in some cases where mirror neurons show an increase in firings from an execution or imitation, a decrease is seen when observing. For monkeys, by contrast, the activations always go up for both observation and execution. He suggested that this may be due to a human differentiation between self and other. Humans have cases where there are excitatory effects, inhibitory effects, and opposite effects between observation and execution. There are mirror responses in humans in areas where they are not found in monkeys, the results appear to be more flexible, and there can be more prolonged responses, perhaps due to greater complexity (e.g., the language and meaning aspect?).

He ended by saying he was proud to say that his work falls within the tradition and support of Darwinian evolution--that his book, Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others (I think you should always be skeptical of any book with a subtitle that starts with the words "The New Science of ..."), argues that mirror neurons have been selected (naturally) to facilitate social interactions. He asserted that this solves the problem of other minds, and provokes a major revision of long-standing beliefs--that we need to change the idea that we've evolved for self-preservation, and instead we're "wired for involvement and care." He concluded that he is a believer in the importance of neuroscience to society, and that rather than being isolated in an ivory tower, scientists have a responsibility to go to society and communicate their work. (And his book is written for a popular audience.)

Imitation, isolation, and independence

This post is going to be highly speculative, based on a few things that I've coincidentally just read over the last 24 hours and some past wonderings.

Last night, I read an article in the ASU State Press newspaper from Tuesday, August 25 about Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing who I had been interested in working with in my Ph.D. program because of his fascinating work on the subject of influence and persuasion. (He just "retired," though the article notes he is still working 60 hours a week on his research.) That article noted the phenomenon of "social proof," where people are more likely to do something if they think that other people do it:
Social proof is a simple way for people to decide what actions would be appropriate in a given situation, based off what others like them have done in similar situations, Cialdini said. Those kinds of norms have been very powerful in moving people to conserve energy, recycle and refrain from littering, he said.

Cialdini and his colleagues have recently done research on energy conservation in several hotels in the Phoenix area. The hotel managers allowed Cialdini to place different signs inside hotel rooms and depending on what the signs said, the colleagues were able to significantly increase the willingness of people to hang up their bath towels.

By simply stating that the majority of guests who stay in the hotel hang up their towels at least once during their stay, Cialdini and his colleagues were able to get 28 percent more people to follow that suggestion.

This morning, I read the following passage in Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (p. 63):
Social psychologists have amply documented that people have a powerful urge to do as their neighbors do. When unwitting subjects are surrounded by confederates of the experimenter who have been paid to do something odd, many or most will go along. They will defy their own eyes and call a long line "short" or vice versa, nonchalantly fill out a questionnaire as smoke pours out of a heating vent, or (in a Candid Camera sketch) suddenly strip down to their underwear for no apparent reason.
Here, Pinker is referring to the Asch conformity experiments. He notes that there are two reasons for this kind of imitative behavior, "to benefit from other people's knowledge and judgment" and "the desire to follow the norms of a community."

A few more data points, and then I will do some speculative dot-connecting. In Pascal Boyer's book, Religion Explained, he devotes chapter 8 to answering the question of its title, "Why doctrines, exclusion, and violence?" He argues (pp. 292-296) that fundamentalism arises as a mechanism to increase the cost of defection from a group, in reaction to the cultural diversity of the modern world:
... the modern world is one of strident cultural diversity, where you are constantly made aware that people live in different circumstances, have different values, worship other gods, have different rituals. ... fundamentalists want to return to a (largely mythical) past when local values and identity were taken for granted, when no one was aware that there were other ways of living. (p. 293)
This could also explain the creation of distinctly Christian media (music, books, clubs and groups arranged around particular interests offered by megachurches) offered as a substitute for their secular counterparts, as a mechanism to insulate believers from contrary ideas. By keeping the believer in a community that is, at least to some extent, isolated from the broader world, the danger is reduced that a believer will be exposed to alternative views and practices which he might be likely to imitate through peer pressure, social proof, or social conformity.

But now to make a greater leap of speculation. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran has argued that "mirror neurons" or "empathy neurons" play a major role in human (and other primate) imitative behavior that drives learning. Those neurons (if they exist, and there is some doubt) are in the inferior frontal and parietal cortex. Caltech neuroscientist John Allman (who spoke at the Skeptics Society conference on mind, brain, and consciousness in 2005) has argued that spindle cells in the anterior cingulate cortex play a role in sensitivity to social cues, and a deficiency of such cells may be a cause of autism. Perhaps there is a neurological explanation for some kinds of independent thinking that involves a lessened degree of sensitivity to social cues, or a lessened drive to imitation and conformity, that yields doubters and skeptics?

Now, this can't be the whole story--it may be more important that there are other positive drivers of independence and willingness to be an outspoken dissenter, and I suspect that leaders of dissenting groups tend to have a very high degree of sensitivity to social cues in order to be successful in persuasion. Further, once you have some dissenters in the population, they themselves can be exemplars to be imitated by people with high sensitivity to social cues. But the speculation it would be interesting to investigate is: are people who are skeptics about commonly held beliefs in the general population about the supernatural and paranormal measurably different in some critical way, psychologically or neurologically, that makes them less susceptible to such social pressures that provoke imitation and internalization of those views? Are the initial participants in such groups different from later joiners? Could this have anything to do with why organizing skeptics and atheists is like herding cats? Or why there's a high percentage of IT professionals in skepticism? Are skeptics and atheists less emotionally engaged and driven than religious believers? Is there a tendency towards Asperger's among skeptics and atheists? (Disclosure: I scored a 32 on this Asperger Test.)

Religious believers sometimes argue that there is a sensus divinitatis, a human faculty for perceiving God, and Dean Hamer has argued that there's a "God gene." It's possible that there's something to this, but that it's a bit simpler and a more of a matter of susceptibility to social conformity.

(Possibly related posts: "Unconscious decision-making," "The Rise of Pentecostalism and the Economist Religion Wars issue"; "An empirical test of the existence of sensus divinitatis in atheists" at the Secular Outpost.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Joel Garreau on the future of cities

Today I attended a lecture at ASU by Washington Post writer Joel Garreau, author of Edge Cities and Radical Evolution, about the future of cities. What follows is a rough sketch of his talk based on my notes.

He began by saying that he's interested in culture and values, and isn't a "gear-head" about the emerging technologies that he's written about ("GRIN" technologies--genetics, robotics, information systems, and nanotechnology).

He currently studies cities--how they are shaped by technology, and how cities shape us.

He started with a slide of an old Spanish map of the New World, which was mostly accurate, except for an oversized Florida and drawing California as an island. Why was California shown as an island? Because explorers in the Seattle area saw a body of water that went very far to the south, and explorers in the Baja California area saw a body of water that went very far to the north, and they just connected the dots. That error took 100 years to correct. Spanish explorers would land in Monterey Bay and carry boats inland, expecting to hit water, and they always commented that the Indians in the area seemed to be friendly. Garreau suggested that they were actually laughing at them for pointlessly carrying boats inland. When the explorers would fail to hit another body of water, they would report back that the map was wrong, only to be told that they must not have been where they thought they were. It finally took a decree from the King of Spain to change the map.

His next slide was of the Los Angeles area, pointing out what he called "edge cities," which he called "the biggest change in 150 years of how we build cities." "Edge cities" are major and new urban centers around old big cities. They have a large amount of office and retail space, lots of jobs, and didn't exist 30-40 years ago. They are popping up everywhere there is major growth. The area around John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, is an edge city--it has 5 million square feet of office space (more than Memphis), 600,000 square feet of retail space. It's not a suburb, or sub-anything. It's not a bedroom community. It has the features of office parks and all traditional city functions. The edge cities in New Jersey in the greater New York area have more jobs than Manhattan.

Phoenix was one of the earliest places to recognize that it was going to have more than one city center--we have major centers downtown, uptown/Central Avenure, Camelback/Biltmore, South Mountain, and Tempe (among others), and these were recognized as centers that would exist by city planners a couple of decades ago.

Paris has La Defense as an edge city, as well as Marne-la-Vallee, where EuroDisney is. When superior locations for growth are first found, the rich people move in first, and tend to go uphill, upwind, and upriver, byt Marne-la-Vallee was a poor area that was planned to be an edge city by selecting it as the location for EuroDisney, and it succeeded.

Boston edge cities include the Burlington Mall area, MIT area, downtown, Quincy/Braintree, and Framingham area.

One major factor that has changed cities are the available modes of transportation. Chicago was formed as a rail town, based around inter- and intra-urban rail. Detroit was formed as an automobile town.

The last industrial age downtown built in North America was Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 1914. In 1915, the one millionth Model T Ford came off the assembly line, and ended the old downtowns. The old industrial downtowns were from the 1840s to 1914, and existed because of the necessity of collecting raw materials in one place and having thousands of people there to work on those materials.

Prior to those downtowns, cities were places like Jefferson's Charlottesville, Washington's Alexandria, and Lincoln's Philadelphia. Most people earned a living from the land, and lived outside of cities.

The automobile suddenly made places outside the old industrial cities far more valuable, like Long Island.

Until 1955, the southwestern-most Major League Baseball team was in St. Louis, because movement by train placed constraints on scheduling. The Cardinals were thus the team rooted for by everyone further south and west. Once airplanes came into the picture, baseball could spread, and other cities could become major cities--Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle, Houston.

Garreau asked, if Chicago were leveled, what would you rebuild first--O'Hare, or downtown. O'Hare is more critical today.

But the changes caused by automobiles and airplanes is nothing compared to the networked computer, which is making changes more significant and more rapidly than the automobile.

He showed a photograph of a Kresge's in the Capitol Hill area of D.C., explaining that it was a discount 5 & dime store, the K in K-Mart. He said Kresge's is dead, and K-Mart is dying, but do you think the building is still there, and if so, what is it? The first guess--Starbuck's--was almost correct. It is a coffee shop. He argued that Kresge's and K-Mart has been killed by Wal-Mart, which is really an IT company that happens to sell sneakers. He claimed that when you buy a pair of sneakers at Wal-Mart, a process kicks off at check out that starts to make a replacement pair in Malaysia within 24 hours.

So why are coffee shops popular, and why do people pay $4 for coffee? Is it the free wireless? He argued that it is a social thing, only marginally about the coffee and the wifi. The main factor around the physical environment is that the rare stuff we can't digitize, like face-to-face contact, has much higher relative value than it did before.

Bill Mitchell of the MIT Media Lab, and former head of the architecture department, has catalogued 87 forms of real estate in cities, all being transformed by information technology. One form is super markets. Garreau asked, if you could get hamburger and toilet paper delivered to your home for free, why would you get in your car to go get groceries? To buy produce or meat, was the answer suggested by the audience. He then showed a photo of a Freshfields, a modern farmer's market, and showed a photo of booths with tables inside it--it's also a place to sit and socialize.

Another type of building is a prison. He suggested that we don't need as many prisons if we use GPS anklets or bracelets for nonviolent offenses.

He then argued that Moore's Law will continue to hold for the forseeable future, and we've already seen 32 doublings in processors since 1959. The only thing comparable is railroad capacity doubling, which saw 14.5 doublings before leveling out due to requirements of coal, steel, and land, and being superseded by the automobile. The IT limits are the laws of physics, the marketplace, human ingenuity, and our culture and values, and he argued that only our culture and values set real limits for the forseeable future. (In a class yesterday, one of my professors said that a physics professor speaking at ASU last year said that we've reached the physical limits for silicon chips, and won't see any more doublings, but a subsequent new development has already refuted him with a four-times improvement due to nanotechnology--presumably this.)

Sequencing the human genome was thought nuts, impossible, and/or would cost a fortune, but was done in 2000 at a fraction of the expected cost, far sooner than anyone expected, thanks to Moore's Law.

Garreau suggested that ten years from now, anything you can put in a lab for $1 million will be something you can put in your home for $1,000; anything you can get now for $1,000 will be "pocket lint." He used USB memory fobs as an example of today's "pocket lint."

He showed a photo of students at CMU in a computer lab, and asked, "Is there a future for physical university campuses?" He gave a yes, on the grounds that this is where you "meet your first spouse and friends for a lifetime"--the social aspects. Distance learning has been around for a very long time (Benjamin Franklin did learning-by-mail), but it's always a second choice.

Shopping malls, he said, are turning into entertainment spaces. He cited his friend Jaron Lanier (a virtual reality pioneer), who suggests that the first thing to disappear will be escalators, replaced by rides--so when you go up by ferris wheel and come down by water slide, think of Lanier. He observed that if you go to a mall at 10 a.m., you'll see the senior mall walkers, and if you go in the afternoon, you'll see "drug dealing rugrats." (He didn't note, but I thought of how Arizona Mills Mall in Tempe has turned one space into an indoor miniature golf course.)

Office space--is there any future to it? Again, he argued for the social aspect, and maintained that the accidental casual face-to-face contact is impossible to digitize, yet he finds the random conversation at the printer jam (the modern equivalent of the water cooler) to be his most productive time of day. To this, Prof. Brad Allenby objected that there is casual contact in World of Warcraft and Second Life, and we shouldn't assume that such things can't be digitizable.

Another audience member suggested that because human beings need touch, we need real physical contact. (But that assumes the impossibility of tactile telepresence.) Yet another pointed out that movie theater attendance is up, even though you can watch online or at home cheaper.

Garreau said, supposed you decide face-to-face matters, but only need it two days a week--how would that affect where you live? If you only needed it 3 days a month, then where might you live?

He said some cities will live, if they are good for face-to-face contact. Others will die, if they aren't. We're headed to a profound shift of what is urban/urbane, and cities like Santa Fe are the future. It has 63,000 people, opera, restaurants, second-hand boot stores.

The top fastest-growing metro areas are smaller cities that are like villages with face-to-face spaces and are somewhat dispersed. The top ones are Wenatchee, WA, Provo-Orem, UT, Grand Junction, CO, Gulfport-Biloxi, MS, and Myrtle Beach, SC. The top states for real estate price appreciation are Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Other example cities in this model include the Adams-Morgan area of D.C., Tempe, AZ, and Marrakesh.

He then briefly turned to other technologies. He said that Craig Venter says that by the end of this year he will have an organism that "eats CO2 and poops gasoline." (And his company has just received $600 million in funding from ExxonMobil.) Nanotech may build membranes that purify water. These things will impact where cities become feasible. "Is Darfur the next garden spot?"

He then referred to a book by Leo Marx of MIT, titled The Machine in the Garden. He argued that in the industrial age, we suffered a split--we had to come into the cities and leave nature behind. Now we're trying to put what we like about cities into a garden.

In the final Q&A, he said he has a hidden assumption that we will continue moving forward and not go back to pre-industrial society; he said "no petroleum engineers think we're running out of oil, only cheap oil."

He said that we're seeing a new explosion of religious fervor, and included environmentalism in that, saying that it has its own saints and heretics. He thinks human beings are "hardwired to have faith--even Russia made Marxism into faith," but said that he's "a hardcore rationalist" even though "rationalism doesn't seem to be emotionally satisfying." He said, following Popper, that "science can't tell you what is true, only what is false, but it can changes minds without killing people." (I disagree with his statement that science can't tell you what is true--theories that keep passing tests do at least approximate truth.)

An audience member commented that virtual environments can convey mental and physical aspects, but not emotional and spiritual. Garreau agreed, but I think both (and a few other questioners) were making an unwarranted assumption that virtual environments will not be able to reach a point of being indistinguishable (or very nearly so) from real environments, and thus allowing effective conveyance of body language, subtle gestures, and so forth, perfectly adequate for transmitting emotional information. (As for spiritual properties, I think they're in need of demonstration before we worry about them--and given claims that have been made about them, it's surprising that the questioner thought physical proximity was a limitation.) In a conversation with Prof. Allenby afterward, he also pointed out that we may be better able to make judgments of trust in a virtual environment because we are more alert to the possibility of a partial presentation of a personality and to intentional distortions. There are also some types of cues that are more accurately picked up audibly, while visual information can overwhelm those cues.

Prof. Allenby also noted that major technological changes may turn what we now think of as fundamental truths into contingencies, and that may include some aspects of what we call human nature.

Garreau ended by observing that past predictions of what the future will be like have usually been wrong, becasue things are more complex and more expensive then we think--and then we get blindsided by innovations like the iPhone.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bob Larson is still around and performing exorcisms

Pierre Stromberg has an entertaining tale of his visit to a performance by former radio broadcaster, self-proclaimed cult expert, and exorcist Bob Larson at his new Paranormal Amerika blog. Larson suffered a significant blow to his career as a result of criticisms from his fellow Coloradoan Ken Smith's "Bob Larson Fan Club." Further damage came from exposure at the hands of Cornerstone magazine, which published carefully investigated exposures of deception, misuse of funds, fabricated biographical events, and so forth. Others exposed by Cornerstone included alleged former Satanist turned Christian comedian Mike Warnke and claimed Satanic ritual abuse victim "Lauren Stratford," author of Satan's Underground.

Larson is, unfortunately, now based here in the Phoenix area, with his "Spiritual Freedom Church of Phoenix" at 9096 E. Bahia Drive in Scottsdale, though for some reason it has a mailing address of a post office box in Denver.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mexico decriminalizes personal possession of drugs

After at least two prior attempts in 2006 and 2008, Mexico has decriminalized the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD, and methamphetamine in order to unclog the courts and focus only on heavy trafficking. This will be an interesting experiment in decriminalization that will no doubt also provoke drug tourism to Mexico.

It appears that the new law is similar to the 2006 proposal, which was less radical than it may have originally appeared--it allowed local police as well as federal police to pursue drug crimes (a strengthening of the prosecution of drug crime) and allowed diversion to treatment for possession of small amounts of drugs rather than criminal prosecution. The new law doesn't allow criminal prosecution for personal possession, and mandates treatment diversion on a third offense. So it's not legalization, it's decriminalization.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Skeptical Blog Anthology 2009 seeking nominations

From the Young Australian Skeptics:
Inspired by the annual The Open Laboratory, the Skeptical Blog Anthology is a printed anthology of blog posts voted the very best of 2009, managed by the Young Australian Skeptics in conjunction with the Critical Teaching Education Group (CTEG). The anthology is an attempt to bring a greater awareness of the skeptical content on blog sites and showcase some of the range and diversity in the blogosphere.

With an aim to provide text-​​based resources to classes and readers who may be interested or intrigued by what skepticism has to offer, entries from January 1st to December 1st 2009 are eligible for submission. Both a print and Portable Document Format (pdf) will be made available for purchase via Lulu​.com, with estimated printing early in 2010.

Entries can be self-​​nominated or proposed by readers of skeptical blog sites. The guidelines proposed by the popular Skeptics’ Circle are a fine indicator of the kind of content suitable for the anthology, including urban legends, the paranormal, quackery, pseudoscience, intelligent design, historical revisionism, critical thinking, skeptical parenting/​educating skeptically, superstitions, etc.
There's a submission form at the Young Aus Skeptics website.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Brian Dunning on debate

In Skeptoid #167, Brian Dunning argues that scientists should never engage in debate on pseudoscientific topics. His arguments include:
  • It's a waste of time.
  • It gives pseudoscience undeserved credibility by putting it on an equal footing with science.
  • There are few people in the audience who haven't already made up their minds.
  • Most of the people in the audience can't distinguish good from bad arguments.
His position is similar to that of Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, who recommends that scientists not engage in formal debates with creationists.

While Dunning correctly points out some major flaws in how formal debates have frequently gone, and I agree that such debates should be discouraged, I think there are cases where they are worthwhile--it depends on the formulation of the resolution to be debated, the setting of the debate, and, perhaps most importantly, the quality of the debater. Too many creation/evolution debates have involved scientists who believe themselves to be good debaters, but who don't understand how debate works and aren't sufficiently familiar with creationist arguments to an appropriate breadth and depth. Unfortunately, many of those scientists think they won the debate or did a passable job when in fact they performed very poorly.

The resolution to be debated should be formulated so that there is a clear burden of evidence on the promoter of the pseudoscience, where it belongs. It's a mistake to formulate a debate resolution as a false dilemma, where if the scientist can't refute scattershot attacks, the pseudoscientist wins. Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research won most of his debates by not only engaging in such a shotgun approach (the "Gish Gallop"), but also by refusing to talk about the age of the earth or flood geology, thus freeing himself from having to present any positive evidence in favor of his view. (I spoke a bit more about Gish's debate success and how to successfully counter his debate strategies in my workshop session at this year's American Humanist Association conference.)

The setting of the debate is also important, and is relevant to Dunning's concern about audience. An academic debate at a university is more likely to have audience members who are actually interested in the evidence than, say, a debate at a church. It's also significant whether the debate is being recorded and will be distributed further--a well-done debate that is recorded and transcribed, and distributed in the form of a book, DVD, or online is going to have a much larger audience and may have much more significant consequences than the potential persuasion of five people in Dunning's example. There are also debates conducted in written form, which provide the possibility of much more comprehensive argument and references to other material than an oral debate on a stage or on television, which I think generally makes them preferable.

The concern about giving a pseudoscience proponent undeserved credibility is a real one, and for that reason it's probably a good idea for the debater to be someone of similar or lesser public stature, as well as someone well-versed in both debate and the details of the pseudoscience's claims. Proponents of pseudoscience often issue challenges to prominent individuals for the primary purpose of getting publicity from it, which they may get to some degree either from denial or acceptance--but much more from acceptance if they so much as appear to hold their own.

Dunning dismisses the concern that failure to debate leaves pseudoscience unchallenged, but I think there is a real potential concern here, as a refusal to debate can give proponents of pseudoscience a rhetorical weapon when there's the appearance that no one is willing to challenge their arguments. This can, to a large extent, be defused if you can point to resources that refute the proponent's claims in detail, and make the counter-argument that the proponents views aren't deserving of a public forum. But in cases where the proponent's views have received a large public following and there aren't comprehensive resources that refute them, or such resources are little-known, I think that builds a case for debate.

I think Dunning is right that it's generally better to produce direct responses to pseudoscientific claims in a one-way format, but even that can be a form of debate to the extent it actually engages the proponents and they respond. What's distinctive about a debate--at least a good one--is that it does involve engagement by both sides with the arguments and evidence of the other, and produces a record of that engagement for others to examine. That has advantages over siloed separate arguments that never directly respond to each other. I think that such engagement should be beneficial for scientists by identifying forms of misunderstanding that need corrections in the form of better communication, as well as locating possible weaknesses in their own evidence and arguments that need further work. It's also beneficial for the proponent of pseudoscience in that it puts them into a situation where they must, at least momentarily, think about the arguments and evidence against their positions.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to school

This blog is entering its fifth year today, and the content will be shifting a bit now that I am returning to school. Today was my first day of new graduate student orientation before classes begin next week; I'm a Ph.D. student in Arizona State University's Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program, which is beginning its second year. This is an interdisciplinary program within the Graduate College and allied with the School of Life Sciences, so today's orientation was with new graduate students from other programs in SoLS. SoLS has 250 graduate students in 11 programs, of which 49 are entering this semester. (I chatted a bit with a couple of new graduate students in neuroscience.)

There seems to be a wealth of supporting organizations and structures to SoLS programs to assist in getting funding, doing research, participating in education and public outreach, and dealing with administrivia. I'll be delving into as much of it as I can, and periodically reporting on items of particular interest here.

From today's orientation, a few items that are part of SoLS education and public outreach are worthy of note. ASU has an "Ask-a-Biologist" program online, which you can also follow via Twitter. That program is intended for students in grades K-12, and is projected to hit a million visitors this year. There's also the Science Studio Podcasts for adult education. And the International Institute for Species Exploration website. There's also a program run by SoLS graduate students called Graduate Partners in Science Education, where graduate student volunteers work with underprivileged and at-risk junior high school students on field biology research projects.

My current aim in the HSDST program is to build upon my past graduate experience in philosophy and cognitive science, my career in Internet services and information security, my interest in skeptical inquiry and critical thinking, and my interest in law to explore the concepts of trust and reputation as they pertain to online and digital media. At the moment, I'm signed up for a seminar on "Law, Science, and Technology," a seminar on "Human and Social Dimensions of Climate Change," the HSDST Core Seminar and Colloquium, and a course with one of my favorite undergraduate philosophy professors on Advanced Logic (that's my "just for fun" class).

Tomorrow's a reception for all of the new graduate students at ASU's Tempe campus, and later in the week I have some training on fire and lab safety--and next week, it's back to class.

ApostAZ podcast #17

ApostAZ podcast number 17 is out:
Episode 017 Atheism and Voluntarily Free Thought in Phoenix! Go to for group events! Special Guest Representatives of AZ Coalition of Reason Matt Schoenley, Jim Lippard, and Apostaz hosts Shannon and Brad. AZCoR, Who What what not Why and why not? Tam 7 and Skepticamp. Intro- Greydon Square 'Cubed' from the Compton Effect. Outro- Vocab Malone 'Track 12'.
This was my first time sitting in on the whole recording, rather than just contributing a short skepticism segment. While this was mainly about the Arizona Coalition of Reason, I did talk a little bit about TAM7 and SkeptiCamp Phoenix.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Amazing Meeting 7: Sunday paper sessions, Million Dollar Challenge

This is the sixth and final part of my summary of TAM7, covering the last day's events on Sunday, July 11. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here, part 5 is here, and my coverage of the Science-based Medicine conference begins here.

Sunday's continental breakfast was served while an old James Randi television appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show from 1986 was shown. This brought back some old memories--I think I have the show on videotape in my archives, as I think we showed it at a meeting of the Phoenix Skeptics. Randi appeared with a faith healer ("Amazing Grace"), a psychic (Joyce Keller), and an astrologer (Irene Hughes), which led to some entertaining and ridiculous exchanges of words. Randi showed his footage that exposed Peter Popoff using a wireless transmitter and receiver to fake the "word of knowledge," and did some spoon bending. Joyce Keller claimed she was entitled to his $10,000 prize, and Oprah mistakenly claimed that Randi had brought his own spoons, which she corrected herself about after a commercial break.

This was followed by the Sunday refereed papers, which were again organized and moderated by Ray Hall, professor of physics at California State University, Fresno and at Fermi National Labs.

Don Riefler, "Teaching Critical Thinking in a Therapeutic Setting"
Don Riefler, Direct Care Supervisor at the Jessie Levering Cary Home for Children in Lafayette, Indiana, gave a talk about strategies he's used to teach critical thinking to underprivileged/institutionalized children at the Cary Home, complete with positive reinforcement in the form of candy distributed to members of the audience who gave good answers. He discussed several categories of common "thinking errors" which included both logical fallacies and heuristics that lead to problems when overgeneralized. As part of his teaching, he has kids conduct ESP experiments with Zener cards, which he uses to teach them about erroneous inferences they draw about their skills. This provoked the first critical question (from regular ScienceBlogs commenter Sastra), asking whether his referral to "success" and "failure" in the Zener test suggests to kids that it's a matter of effort. (I neglected to record his response.) In answer to a question of how he deals with religion he said that he avoids it and shuts down talk of religion or ideology.

David Green, "Patently Ridiculous: The Perfect Sommelier"
David Green, a Senior Patent Examiner at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, gave a talk that was essentially a sequel to a talk he gave at TAM5. He spoke about "The Perfect Sommelier," a product that claims to "align tannin molecules with magnets to age wine faster." He compared how the patent application for this product was handled in the U.S. vs. Canada.

In the U.S., patent examiners made two objections to the application, first, that it was obvious or already known, and second that the "subject matter is inoperable--the theory of operation cannot be correct." The first objection failed, since the invention was sufficiently different from prior art in various ways (such as having magnets at both ends of the bottle, not just at one end). And, based on the Longer ("lawn-jay") test, under which the description of the invention must be accepted as true unless there's a reason to doubt it, it passed on the second as well, and was granted two U.S. patents. Green said that it essentially comes down to a he-said/she-said debate, and the patent office has to be biased towards issuance of the patent.

In Canada, the same objections were made as in the U.S., along with a third. David Green had read a Swift article about a test of the product, so the third objection was a rejection on the basis of double-blind research evidence showing that the product doesn't work, published in the Journal of Wine Research. That study concluded that "no evidence was found to suggest that The Perfect Sommelier improves the palatability of cheap red wine." The manufacturers responded to the first two objections in the same way they did in the U.S., but for the third, they asserted that their evidence in the form of testimony overrides the double-blind research.

And then they abandoned their patent claim in Canada.

The reason they did this, Green explained, is because of "U.S. file wrapper estoppels"--that what you do in a foreign patent application can affect your patent in U.S. court. If they had continued with their claim in Canada and been denied--or if they had failed to file a response to the objections--that could have impacted their U.S. patent.

What this demonstrates, Green argued, is the importance of doing solid investigations and research on such products, and getting them published and spreading the information around (e.g., online), so that patent examiners can find it. It can make the difference between a nonsensical product getting a patent or being denied a patent.

At this point I took some time to chat with Ray Hyman, and came in a little bit late for the next presentation.

Adam Slagell, "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: The Pillars of Justification for Cyber Security"
Adam Slagell, Senior Security Engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spoke about claims made for security and security products that we should be skeptical of. He pointed out that there's no such thing as perfect security, and there are always tradeoffs to be made between security and usability/convenience/etc. He spoke a little bit about TSA "security theater," pointing out the gaping flaw in the "no fly lists" that comes from the separation of checking ID and boarding pass at the security checkpoint from checking your boarding pass at the gate. He also questioned the point of shoe removal, which led to the first comment on his talk from Ian, an airport security officer at Gatwick, who argued that forcing shoes to go through the X-ray machine does close a genuine vulnerability. (Ian also argued that the liquid restriction makes sense, though he didn't respond to Slagell's point that you can carry multiple 3-ounce containers and combine their contents with those of your associates after you go through screening. Most interestingly, Ian said that airport metal detectors go off randomly in addition to when they detect metal.)

Slagell argued that signature-based antivirus products are obsolete, since polymorphic malware and use of packers are extremely effective at eliminating signatures, and observed that companies are starting to create products based on white-listing, only allowing pre-defined sets of software to run on a machine. (At last year's New Mexico InfraGard conference, Anthony Clark and Danny Quist spoke in some detail about different kinds of packers, and offered a set of criteria for measuring AV effectiveness that included use of methods other than signature-detection, such as anomalous behavior detection.) He unfortunately didn't have time to talk about passwords.

Another questioner asked what users behaviors are useful to stay secure, to which Slagell replied that you should keep systems patched and backed up. (There is actually some argument, at least for corporations, to be somewhat selective in patching, since many patches aren't applicable, have other mitigations, and have potential for reducing availability themselves--but there is no substitute for having a vulnerability management program in place.)

Steve Cuno, "The Constructive Skeptic: Rebranding Skepticism at the Grassroots Level"
Steve Cuno, chairman of RESPONSE Agency, Inc., gave an excellent talk last year at TAM6, and he gave another great presentation this time as well. He started by saying that skeptics have a branding problem.

What is a brand? Is it a name and logo? A great slogan? What you say about yourself?

He gave some counterexamples for each of these, including some nice vintage ads (e.g., "They're happy because they eat lard" from the Lard Information Council). AIG had the slogan "The strength to be here." (He didn't mention any of my favorite unintentionally ironic bank slogans.)

He gave an example slogan for skepticism: "Skepticism: Doubt worth believing in." He called all of these proposed brand definitions "brand flatulence: you may like the sound and smell of your farts, but nobody else does."

He gave as his prototypical example of what branding really is the example of Nordstrom's. There's no particular logo or slogan involved, but people think of Nordstrom on the basis of the values that are expressed by the company through its employees and the experience you have as a customer. The essence of creating a brand is creating a positive customer experience.

And the way for skeptics to give skepticism a good name is by self-policing "to deliver positive brand experience."

He suggested that the way to do this is to delay giving yourself a label, and when you do identify yourself with a label, anchor it in something positive. Instead of saying "I don't believe in ...", think through and express what you do support. For example:
  • I believe in what the evidence supports.
  • I believe in honesty, integrity, equal rights, and treating one another with dignity and respect.
  • I believe in and defend the right of all people to believe as they choose.
Do things that are positive. He gave the example of the GLBT protests at the annual April Mormon Church Conference, which, rather than picketing and protesting, engaged in protest by cleaning up parks, visiting shut-ins, and doing positive and helpful things in the name of their cause. The result was to get tons of positive press.

He heartily endorsed TAM7's vaccination support and food drive, and further added that we should play nice. Being controversial and using insults may work for media figures, but not for the grassroots. Be sure that messages are well-timed. And remember that some people just don't care--to quote Will Rogers, "Never miss a good opportunity to shut up."

A summary of Cuno's talk may be found on his blog.

Brian Dunning, "What Were the 'Lost Cosmonaut' Radio Transmissions?"
Brian Dunning's talk was a sequel to one of his Skeptoid podcasts on Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, a pair of Italian brothers who built equipment to monitor radio transmissions from spacecraft at an installation they called Torre Bert. They successfully recorded the October 1957 launch of Sputnik I, Sputnik II with Laika the dog in November 1957, and then a few oddities. In February 1961, they recorded what they reported as a "failing human heartbeat," when there was no known flight. In the same month, they recorded a "voice of a dying man," again with no known flight. In May 1961, they recorded the voice of a woman, Ludmila, speaking about how she was "going to re-enter," which they attributed to a secret female cosmonaut mission that resulted in her death.

There are no corroborating reports of these transmissions, despite the fact that the U.S. Defense Early Warning system began in 1959. And there were no female cosmonauts in 1961. The female cosmonaut program wasn't approved until five months after the recording, and the first five women selected for the program a year later. Yuri Gagarin had just launched in Vostok 1 in May 1961, and for the Vostok 2 launch in August 1961, they had to scavenge Gagarin's space suit to make a suit for the second cosmonaut. So there was no way there was a female cosmonaut launch in May 1961.

At the time, the U.S. was flying X-15s. Did the Soviets have some kind of space plane? The Soviet Kosmoplan never got off the drawing board, and its Raketoplan was developed, but wasn't ready for testing until 1962.

A jet fighter? The YC-150 didn't fly high enough. Dunning also ruled out the Mig-21 and high-altitude balloons.

The conclusion--get your own Russian translators. Dunning got four Russians to listen to the recording, and found that it didn't say what was claimed, but instead was almost 99% unintelligible, with the rest being numbers. He also found that the source of the transmission was not moving, but was at a fixed position.

Although he didn't come to a definitive conclusion, he was able to at least eliminate a number of possibilities--sometimes that's the best you can do.

Christian Walters and Tim Farley, "How Are We Doing? Attracting and Keeping Visitors to Skeptical Websites"
Tim Farley was another return speaker, this time with Christian Walters. They talked about how the over 650 skeptical websites should measure acquisition of visitors and take actions to keep them and to obtain high search engine rankings.

First, how you're acquiring visitors can be measured by looking at rankings on search engine result pages (SERPs), Google PageRank, and Yahoo link strength measurements. These measures are all increased by receiving links from other web sources, of which important sites are social media sites like digg, reddit,, Facebook, and Twitter.

Another important factor is having good page titles, which include popular search terms. The META keyword tags are no longer so important. By using the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, you can find what popular search terms are. Sometimes they are surprising--for instance misspellings of some terms (like accupuncture) get more search hits than the correct spelling.

It's also a good idea to put the keywords from your title into the URL, rather than use URLs as some blogs do that only have a page ID in them.

The anchor text of hyperlinks to your pages should also contain the appropriate keywords, and so your internal links within a site should make a point of using them.

It's important to describe your site with an XML SiteMap or via RSS feed, which you get for free with blogs. When you link to other sites, you are dividing up your own link strength among the sites you link to, unless you use the NOFOLLOW tag, which you should do when linking to sites you don't want to promote in search engine results. NOFOLLOW is also a good idea when linking to sites that may engage in spam or other abuse, to prevent that abuse from reflecting on your site, as it might in Google search engine results, for example.

The Million Dollar Challenge: Dowser Connie Sonne
Everyone had to leave the auditorium for preparation for the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, with Danish dowser and former police detective Connie Sonne (who has described her alleged powers in an interview with Alison Smith of JREF). Everyone had to sign an agreement to remain silent and not disturb the proceedings before filing back in--and everyone remained quite quiet for the hour or so that it took for the test.

This was a preliminary test, with a 1 in 1000 probability of success by chance, which, if successful, would allow Connie Sonne to go on to the official challenge for the JREF's $1,000,000. The protocol for the test was developed in conjunction with Connie Sonne and both sides approved. She signed paperwork describing the protocol and agreeing that she woudl go ahead with the test.

Connie Sonne claimed to be able to use a pendulum to identify playing cards without looking at them, and she successfully did this when she was able to see the cards. Sets of playing cards, A-10, for each of three suits were placed separately into envelopes. Each of those envelopes for the same suit was placed into a larger envelope, with the suit written on the outside. Banachek ran the test (I thought to myself at the time that this was a likely source of future complaint, given his skill at illusion), opening each of the three suit envelopes, one at a time, and rolling a 10-sided die to indicate which card from the suit Connie Sonne was required to locate. The ten individual card envelopes were spread out in front of her, and she used the pendulum to identify which envelope she believed contained the appropriate card. For the first set, she was supposed to find the 3 of hearts, for the second, the 7 of clubs, and for the third, the ace of spades. The cards she picked were the 2 of hearts, which was in the second envelope of the first set, the ace of clubs, which was in the seventh envelope of the second set, and the 2 of spades, which was in the first envelope of the third set. Banachek opened all of the envelopes from each of the three sets so that she could see that there was no trickery, and she agreed that all was done fairly.

At the subsequent press conference, she continued to maintain that all was fair, but that there was some reason she wasn't supposed to reveal her powers to the world yet.

But by the next day, she decided that she had been cheated somehow by Banachek. Her main point of evidence was that Banachek identified the ace of spades from the third set before pulling the card out of the envelope--but it was the last card of the set to be opened, and he identified it after the end of the envelope had been cut off and as he started to pull it out. The cards were visible inside the envelopes once the ends were opened.

On July 13, she made her accusation of cheating on the JREF Forums:
Hi out I know why Banacheck was "the card handler". I have been cheated. I did find the right cards. And there is one more thing. At the stage, Banacheck said to me BEFORE he even looked in the envelope I had cut...and here is spade ace, the one you looked for!!!! I first hit me now about that ....but maybe you can see it yourself if someone get the video. I don`t care about the money, that wasn`t the reason why I came. So no matter what you think out there......I was CHEATED!!!!!

It was a typical response to the Randi challenge from an honest proponent of a claim who doesn't understand why the claim failed under test conditions, resolving the cognitive dissonance by placing blame on the experimenter.

That concludes my summary of TAM7--I look forward to attending TAM8 next year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Arizona Skeptic online: vol. 7, 1994

Concluding the postings of The Arizona Skeptic; you can find volume 1 (1987-1988) here, volume 2 (1988-1989) here, volume 3 (1989-1990) is here, volume 4 (1990-1991) is here, and volume 5 (1991-1992) is here, and volume 6 (1992-1993) here. Volume 7 was edited by Mike Stackpole.

An index to all issues by title, author, and subject may be found here.

The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 7, no. 1, Summer 1994:
  • "Oh No--Spooks in a Skeptic's Home" by Hans Sebald
  • "Skeptics Predictions for 1994"
  • "Meeting Schedule for 1994"
  • "Where Have We Been?"
  • "What Harm Superstition?" by Michael A. Stackpole
  • "Skeptically Entertaining" by Michael A. Stackpole
While that was the last issue of The Arizona Skeptic published, there have been at least two published lists of skeptical predictions by the Phoenix Skeptics, for 1996, 2006, and 2007, and the group continues to meet on a monthly basis--at 12 p.m. (noon) on the first Saturday of each month at Jim's Coney Island Cafe in Tempe, 1750 N. Scottsdale Road, on the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and McKellips.

There is also now an active Phoenix Skeptics in the Pub meetup group, which meets at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month at D'Arcy McGee's Pub at the Tempe Marketplace, 2000 E. Rio Salado Parkway.

UPDATE (March 18, 2010): Phoenix Skeptics in the Pub now meets at Four Peaks Brewery--see the meetup group link.

UPDATE (September 17, 2014): The Phoenix Area Skeptics Society has been active since 2012.

The Arizona Skeptic online: vol. 6, 1992-1993

Continuing the postings of The Arizona Skeptic; you can find volume 1 (1987-1988) here, volume 2 (1988-1989) here, volume 3 (1989-1990) is here, volume 4 (1990-1991) is here, and volume 5 (1991-1992) is here. Volume 6 was edited by Jim Lippard and has been available online since original publication as ASCII text. An index to all issues by title, author, and subject may be found here. The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 6, no. 1, July/August 1992 (text version):
  • "Science and Dianetics" by Jeff Jacobsen
  • "A Healthy Dose of Sarsaparilla" by Jerome L. Cosyn
  • "Book Review: Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan" reviewed by Chaz Bufe
  • "Michael Persinger and Tectonic Strain Theory" by Jim Lippard
  • "Rutkowski's Work" and "Other Critical Works" (bibliography of papers critical of TST assembled by Chris Rutkowski)
  • "Book Review: Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric by Howard Kahane" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: Sai Baba's Miracles by Dale Beyerstein" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • Media Update
  • Newsletter Production Volunteers Needed
  • Electronic Version of the Newsletter
  • Upcoming Meetings: September speaker Chaz Bufe on Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Articles of Note
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 6, no. 2, September/October 1992 (text version):
  • "How Much of Your Brain Do You Use?" by Mickey Rowe
  • "Phoenix Skeptics and the Sedona Harmonic Diversion" by Mike Johnson
  • "Jehovah's Witnesses and Earthquake Frequency" by John Rand (pseudonym for Alan Feuerbacher)
  • "The Institute for Creation Research and Earthquake Frequency" by Jim Lippard
  • "QUAKE DAY - Minus 7" by Mike Jittlov
  • "New Skeptical Group/Magazine" (Skeptics Society/Skeptic magazine)
  • Upcoming Meetings: October speaker Peter Lima on the search for the historical Jesus
  • Articles of Note
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 6, no. 3, November/December 1992 (text version):
  • "Report on the 1992 CSICOP Conference: Part One" by Jim Lippard
  • "A Visit to Dinosaur Valley State Park" by Richard A. Crowe
  • "The End of Crop Circles?" by Chris Rutkowski
  • Next Issue
  • Upcoming Meetings
  • Articles of Note
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 6, no. 4, January/February 1993 (text version):
  • "Predictions for 1993"
  • "Jeane Dixon Predicts Bush Victory"
  • "Report on the 1992 CSICOP Conference: Part Two" by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: Impure Science: Fraud, Compromise and Political Influence in Scientific Research by Robert Bell" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: Taking Time for Me: How Caregivers Can Effectively Deal with Stress by Katherine L. Karr" reviewed by Michael A. Stackpole
  • Upcoming Meetings
  • Reader Survey
  • Articles of Note
  • Magazine/Journal Subscription Information
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 6, no. 5, March/April 1993 (text version):
  • "CSICOP Questions Truth of Movie Based on Travis Walton UFO Abduction"
  • "MIS-Fire in the Sky" by Chris Rutkowski
  • "Linda Napolitano UFO Abduction Case Criticized" by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: The Retreat to Commitment by William Warren Bartley III" reviewed by David A. Snodgrass
  • "Camille Paglia: Astrologer"
  • Skeptical News
  • Upcoming Meetings
  • Books of Note
  • Articles of Note
Volume 6 concluded my editorship, and volume 7 returned for one more issue edited by Mike Stackpole.

The Arizona Skeptic online: vol. 5, 1991-1992

Continuing the postings of The Arizona Skeptic; you can find volume 1 (1987-1988) here, volume 2 (1988-1989) here, volume 3 (1989-1990) is here, and volume 4 (1990-1991) is here. Volume 5 was edited by Jim Lippard and has been available online since original publication as ASCII text. An index to all issues by title, author, and subject may be found here. The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 5, no. 1, July/August 1991 (text version):
  • "Rosenthal Lecture" by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: Philosophical Essays in Pragmatic Naturalism by Paul Kurtz" reviewed by Bill Green
  • "Book Review: Pitfalls in Human Research: Ten Pivotal Points by Theodore X. Barber" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: They Call It Hypnosis by Robert A. Baker" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • Editor's Column
  • CORRECTION: To "Dissension in the Ranks of the Institute for Creation Research"
  • Upcoming Meetings
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 5, no. 2, September/October 1991 (text version):
  • "Dianetics: From Out of the Blue?" by Jeff Jacobsen
  • "Book Review: Bryant's Law and Other Broadsides by John Bryant" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • "Hypnosis and Free Will" by Jim Lippard
  • Next Issue
  • Upcoming Meetings: October speaker Don Lacheman of Sun Magic, November speaker Louis Rhodes of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union
  • Articles of Note
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 5, no. 3, November/December 1991 (text version):
  • "Postscript to 'Some Failures of Organized Skepticism'" by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie" reviewed by Hans Sebald, Ph.D.
  • "Book Review: The Unfathomed Mind by William R. Corliss" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • "Book Review: Labyrinths of Reason by William Poundstone" reviewed by Mark Adkins
  • Letters (from Mark Adkins, Beth Fischi)
  • "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? An Episode of Human Folly" by Mark Adkins
  • Articles of Note
  • "October Meeting: 'Magical Moments'" by Ron Harvey: speaker Don Lacheman
  • Next Issue
  • Upcoming Meetings: December: 1992 predictions, January: Rene Pfalzgraf on neuro-linguistic programming
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 5, no. 4, January/February 1992 (text version):
  • "Predictions for 1992!" compiled by Mike Stackpole
  • "Comments on Lippard's Review of They Call It Hypnosis" by Robert A. Baker
  • "Book Review: Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? by Chaz Bufe" reviewed by Terry Sandbek, Ph.D.
  • Next Issue
  • Upcoming Meetings
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 5, no. 5, March/April 1992 (text version):
  • "About 'The Vitality of Mythical Numbers' and 'Truth Almost Extinct in Tales of Imperiled Species'" by Jim Lippard
  • "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers" by Max Singer
  • "Truth Almost Extinct in Tales of Imperiled Species" by Julian Simon
  • "Book Review: Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events by Michael A. Persinger and Gyslaine F. Lafrenière" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • Next Issue
  • Upcoming Meetings
  • Request for Submissions
  • Articles of Note
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 5, no. 6, May/June 1992 (text version):
  • "An Observation of the Famous Marfa Lights" by James Long
  • "The Marfa Lights" by Hal Finney
  • Letters (from John Bryant)
  • Editorial Note Regarding the "Mars Effect"
  • "Book Review: The Mind Game by Norman Spinrad" reviewed by Jim Lippard
  • Upcoming Meetings
  • Articles of Note
Volume 6 continued for just short of another year under my editorship, with five issues published for 1992-1993.

Monday, August 10, 2009

P.Z. Myers on the Creation Museum

P.Z. Myers has written a review of his trip to the Creation "Museum" with nearly three hundred atheists from the Secular Student Alliance, and it's probably the best summary of what's wrong with the Creation Museum I've read to date. He points out that it's not like a real museum, promoting exploration and discussion, it's more like a theme park ride.

The Arizona Skeptic online: vol. 4, 1990-1991

Continuing the postings of The Arizona Skeptic; you can find volume 1 (1987-1988) here, volume 2 (1988-1989) here, volume 3 (1989-1990) is here. Volume 4 was edited by Mike Stackpole. An index to all issues by title, author, and subject may be found here. The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 4, no. 1, July 1990:
  • "Self-Deception and the Paranormal" by Michael A. Stackpole
  • "The Curious Case of the Cross of Chaos" by Michael A. Stackpole
  • "Book Review: But Is It Science? edited by Michael Ruse" reviewed by Jim Lippard (duplicate)
  • Editorial Prattle
  • "July Meeting" by Ron Harvey: speaker James McGaha on astronomy
  • "The Return of Scapegoats" by Michael A. Stackpole
The Arizona Skeptic, vol. 4, no. 2, December 1990/January 1991:
  • 1991 Predictions of the Phoenix Skeptics
  • "Note of Importance" by Michael A. Stackpole (re the Plimer/Price controversy)
  • "Ralph Epperson: Clueless Creationist" by Jim Lippard
  • Meeting Announcements: January: G. Harry Stine on the neurophone
  • Editorial Prattle
  • "December Meeting" by Ron Harvey: speaker Jim Speiser on UFOs
That was it for volume 4--publication got back on a regular schedule again with volume 5, when I took over as editor.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Amazing Meeting 7: ethics of deception panel, Bauer, skepticism and media panel, Plait

This is part five of my summary of TAM7, now up to Saturday, July 10. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here, and my coverage of the Science-based Medicine conference begins here.

Ethics of Deception Panel
D.J. Grothe moderated a panel discussion on the role of magic in skepticism and the ethics of deception, featuring Penn Jillette, Teller, Ray Hyman, and Jamy Ian Swiss. D.J. began by asking whether magic teaches critical thinking, to which Jamy Ian Swiss responded yes, and pointed to Danny Hillis hiring a magic tutor for his kids so that they could learn how methods of deception work. Everybody else on the panel disagreed, beginning with Ray Hyman, who observed that there are kooky magicians. Swiss agreed that there are magicians who are gullible and that learning magic doesn't make you a skeptic, but said that it was useful to him. This brief exchange then occurred:
D.J.: Teller, did you have a comment?
Teller: No.
D.J. Just as we rehearsed.
As it turned out, Teller did have a comment--he said that while some magicians think that doing the trick and saying "this is not real" is just as good as explaining it, it isn't--and "you should explain it." Ray Hyman seconded the point, saying, "exposing tricks that can be done in multiple ways gives people a false sense of ability to detect fakery." Faraday's explanation of spiritualist table-tipping caused Alfred Russell Wallace to become convinced of the existence of spirits when a medium used a different method on him. Hyman said this is what is known as being "half-smart," which is the card cheat's term for a guy who knows something about card cheating. The card cheat then asks him what he knows, and then adapts his methods to not use those and not get caught. (Penn Jillette's recent book, How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker, discusses this very subject.)

The topic then turned to mentalism, about which Ray Hyman said, you can teach the methods of cold reading in one day. Mentalists will complain about it, but not magicians. About the Psychic Entertainers Assocation, Jamy Ian Swiss said "they are neither psychic nor entertaining." Hyman said that psychic entertainers are now mostly people competing with psychotherapists. Penn said that cold reading should be exposed, as it's being used to deceive people.

D.J. asked about the "poor man's psychotherapist defense" of such "psychic entertainment"--isn't it similar to Rogerian psychotherapy (named after Carl Rogers)? Ray Hyman pointed out that they can cause harm in many circumstances, such as their inability to recognize suicidal symptoms. Penn went further and said, "lying always does harm and is mmoral, it has no justification"--but then offered "exceptions for loved ones and medical situations." Hyman pointed out the distinction between lying by commission and lying by omission, and both he and Penn agreed that "lying by omission is also a lie" (quoting Penn). D.J. observed that that's a very uncompromising position on lying. But Penn then said, "how can you love someone without lying to them," and suggested that kindness and politeness requires lying of the sort that he made exceptions for in his previous statement.

D.J. then brought up mentalists who are also skeptics and who don't make psychic claims, such as Derren Brown and Banachek (who was at the conference, but unfortunately not part of this panel--I think his viewpoint would have been a very worthwhile addition). D.J. pointed out that Brown claims a "deep understanding of human psychology," while Banachek will say that he is drawing inferences based on posture or facial expression. He asked the question, "Are they equally unethical?"

Teller said that he has argued with Brown, and Brown is moving to a more honest position--his latest book says that he's doing tricks, and says things like "I have special ways of dealing with information," which is true. He said that in Penn & Teller shows, they give no hint of the supernatural, so "we get the credit." Penn said that there are two places in their current show "where I say I'm doing one thing and am actually doing another. I wrestle with the ethical implications. If you admit you're lying, it's more like an actor playing a role. But there are two places in the show where I pretend to be speaking earnestly but am not."

Ray Hyman said that Jerry Andrus was the most honest guy in the world, but he said that a magician on the stage has a license to lie. It's theater. (In my notes, I wrote--"But does 'it's TV' suffice?"--a topic that came up shortly.)

Jamy Ian Swiss says that he is working to develop some mentalist techniques which present things that are convincing looking, but which obviously cannot be happening. He suggests that the effect will be more impressive if he can give the audience confidence that he cannot do what he then appears to do.

Ray Hyman said that a distinction between magic and mentalism is that mentalism is boring, and can only be dragged on (to show length) if people think that it's real. "If you believe the stuff is real, what's the appeal of mentalism?" Teller seconded that point--"if you pretend it's possible, it's just nature."

D.J. brought up the example of Mark Salem, who "claims a well-developed understanding of the human mind," and asked, "why do we give skeptical mentalists a pass?" Jamy Ian Swiss then criticized Salem. Ray Hyman said that when he performed, he would say that he has no special powers, and "whatever I can do, you can do. There's nothing abnormal or paranormal about it." Teller said, "The correct answer to how it's done is--it's a trick." Penn said that if people come up to him after a show and really want to know how it's done, he'll tell them. But he gave the example of a very famous magic trick (he didn't say which one) that fooled everyone who saw it, is protected by a patent, that you can look up. There's a multi-page description of how it's done, but few people bother to read past the first few pages. He said, "[Jim] Steinmeyer says magicians are guarding an empty safe. If we explained the bullet catch trick, it would not be interesting. The tricks we expose are the ones where the secret is interesting and clever. In the bullet catch we're hiding messy ugliness. ... Valentino, the masked magician, couldn't reveal the real good-looking tricks because they don't have the 'aha!' cleverness." Teller observed that people have accurately described how the bullet catch is done online, but it still looks amazing. Penn pointed out that there are also inaccurate descriptions of the bullet catch on the Internet, so he'd hate to see somebody else try to do it. Teller suggested that Adam Savage put them to the test on Mythbusters.

D.J. said that "believers will always be with us--are disclaimers necessary?" (He observed that he was reformulating a quote from Jesus that "the poor will always be with us.") Ray Hyman suggested that disclaimers create an "invited inference problem," taking away any reason to challenge or question, and thereby promoting belief. Penn commented that "There was no Jesus, so the quote is wrong."

Finally, D.J. turned to the question of using magicians in scientific investigations, as James Randi has long recommended, to which Penn said, "it depends upon the magician." Ray Hyman said that "scientists do not do tests," and that "magicians can hurt the process." He pointed out that Milbourne Christopher was fooled by Uri Geller, and made up a bogus explanation for metal bending in terms of chemicals on his hands that became a parody scientific explanation like "swamp gas" for UFOs. Randi then came up and said that "magicians for parapsychology tests need to have a deep and broad knowledge of magic, not just know how to do a few tricks. Half-smart is not smart at all. Be all-smart or forget it." He went on to make his common point that Ph.D.s can easily be fooled even though they're not dumb. Randi also said that there is a place for "white lies," giving an example that will appear in his biography, being written by Tim Steinberg. He sent a letter to his grandfather shortly before his death at the age of 94, in which he said "I believe you will be with your wife at death," in order to give comfort in a situation where the lie did no harm. He said that he's glad to see Derren Brown coming clean, and said that "Uri Geller is trying to come clean, but he's fucked--he lied to governments and research institutions. ... He now says he wants to be known as a 'mystifier.'" He suggested that the media should ask Geller, "yes or no, have you ever used psychic powers that do not involve trickery," but when they do, he'll hang up the phone and refuse to answer the question.

In the Q&A, the first question was about Criss Angel, David Blaine, and "street magic," and in particular the way that the TV audience doesn't see the same thing that someone there would see. Jamy Ian Swiss said that David Blaine made some early irresponsible claims. Teller said that when you watch TV, "it's the proscenium," which seems to me an erroneous comparison that could be used to justify all sorts of misrepresentation in the name of entertainment. Jamy Ian Swiss said that TV specials on magic have a credibility issue because of the possibility of editing and camera tricks, but that street magic was a good idea. Teller said it's an aesthetic issue rather than a moral issue, and that he sees editing to produce effects OK--that the rules aren't the same for TV. Penn said he didn't think David Blaine would entertain, and observed that "reality TV is fake. Lots of people know it, but some think everything on TV is real."

Another questioner said she appreciated Penn's comment on global warming as pseudoscience (which I didn't note in my notes and don't recall what he said), to which Penn responded, "Don't listen to me, I'm the least qualified to talk about" the subject, and said "we won't do a Bullshit! show on global warming." He said "If there is global warming, and there probably is, we don't know if we caused it. But if we caused it, and we probably did, we don't know if we can stop it. But if we can stop it, and we probably can, we don't know if socialism is required."

(Mark Edward, a skeptic who works as a mentalist who was also at TAM7, was disappointed with this panel and expresses his opinion in a comment at

At this point I stepped out for a moment, while Robert Lancaster was given the Skeptical Citizen Award, and returned as a documentary film on Jerry Andrus was being shown. It told a bit about Jerry's life and his house, the "Castle of Chaos," filled with his inventions, including puzzles, optical illusions, magical effects, and mechanical and electronic devices of his creation.

Stephen Bauer on Jerry Andrus
Stephen Bauer, an attorney and member of Oregonians for Rationality, has attended every TAM, but this was his first time as a presenter. He gave the story of how he found skepticism--his mother was a big fan of woo including a believer in the psychic powers of Uri Geller, and to combat his skepticism she gave him a copy of The Magic of Uri Geller without reading it. As this was the original title of James Randi's debunking of Geller (now known as The Truth About Uri Geller), he found it very persuasive, though said his mother didn't care much for it when she then looked at it a bit deeper when he told her he thought the book was completely correct.

Bauer wrote to James Randi asking for an explanation of how ouija boards work, and he suggested that Bauer talk to Ray Hyman at the University of Oregon about the ideomotor effect. He then joined Oregonians for Rationality and began attending the summer Skeptic's Toolbox workshops at the University of Oregon, where Jerry Andrus came up and introduced himself.

He then told some stories about Jerry Andrus. At Halloween, Andrus would never give candy, only a trick. Sometimes he would answer the door as a floating disembodied head. One year he would open the door, then lean over beyond the point at which he should have fallen, and then straighten back up, then shut the door.

Andrus was a magician, a skeptic, and an inventor. He had been visited by film crews from three continents. He never married, had no kids. He lived in the same house for 80 years. He performed every six months at the Magic Castle.

His house, an 1891 Victorian home, was known as the "Castle of Chaos" and was filled with things that he had collected, designed, and built, though not a single piece of traditional furniture. He was an artist, photographer, poet, musician, composer, and agnostic.

He called Bauer for an estate plan, which ended up being a simple will that left everything to his brother George, who is 93 years old.

The Castle of Chaos contained a full printing shop in the attic, which required metal bands to be put around the room to keep it from shaking apart from its operation. Andrus printed his own books. He also had his own photo studio, from which three pickup loads of photo chemicals had to be disposed.

After his death, a group of volunteers from Oregonians for Science and Reason worked regularly on his house to catalog its contents, dispose of unsalvageable items, and put items into storage. Bauer spent his sabbatical working 12 hours a day on Andrus's house.

Just the recycled items included 32,000 pounds of scrap metal, 2 cords of scrap wood, 1,000 cubic feet of plastic, and fans, hair dryers, and "air moving devices."

The house had a ground-level crawlspace with four entrances, three of which featured a set of amusement park railroad tracks leading under the house, on which Jerry could lie down on a device of his own construction and push himself under the house, where he stored various items. Among those items included gigantic magnets, which he could use to make the planchette on a ouija board in his house spell out things.

He had a Hammond organ, heavily customized with his own additions, connected by a spaghetti tangle of wires.

And the house contained much that they couldn't figure out, like the wiring. A black sock hanging in the bathroom was pulled down, setting off a security system--which they didn't know existed. An electronic rat trap in one room turned out to be a device for launching tennis balls and spoons during simulated seances. He had a slide projector that he made from a motorcycle engine.

They found that he had all of the letters he received when he was a soldier in WWII, which will now be donated to a military museum. They collected 120 boxes of materials now being kept in a storage unit, which include 3 dozen boxes of letters, notes, and writings, 20 boxes of mixed media, and 4 volumes (2000 pages) of his daily journal of "Scribulations."

Stephen Bauer finished up with some thanks to the late John Lar, who died in 2008, for getting the Castle Chaos project started, and noted that Lar's wife had cared for Jerry in his final days. He told a little bit about Jerry's 93-year-old brother George, a musician with a "house of wonders" of his own, who has been making videos of soap bubbles featuring his own music (the linked video also features Jerry). He ended with a quote from Tycho Brahe, who left all of his work to Kepler with the comment, "Let me not seem to have lived in vain, let me not seem to have lived in vain."

Hal Bidlack then said, "A man should live his life so that when it comes time for him to die, he has nothing left to do but die. It seems like Mr. Andrus did that."

(I remember Jerry Andrus as a quiet and soft-spoken guy who was a regular fixture at all of the Skeptics Society conferences at Caltech. He would usually be found next to his table of his optical illusions, some of which will now always be present at every TAM, which he would be happy to help demonstrate to anyone who stopped by.)

Skepticism and the Media Panel
This was an unmoderated Q&A panel featuring Penn and Teller, Adam Savage, Bill Prady, and Jennifer Ouellette. A few of the questions and answers I noted (I missed most of them as I was trying to ask a question myself, which I previously tried to ask of the ethics of deception panel).

Q. Why can't the Daily Show or Colbert take down Jenny McCarthy?

A. Penn: That's not the sort of thing they do.

Q. What was the biggest media failure of skepticism recently?

A. Adam Savage: The NPR ombudsman taking the position that calling waterboarding "torture" is taking sides, and defending it on the basis of having to be balanced.

A. Penn: The truth isn't in the middle.

Q. Dave from Phoenix: Any opinion on TBN or Benny Hinn?

A. Jennifer Ouellette: I grew up in a fundamentalist household, went to faith healing meetings, etc. It's fantasy. My parents still beleive they can speak in tongues.

Q. The subtext here is on getting facts right and of leaders being of exemplary character. How can we promote character, service to the public, telling the truth, and owning the consequences of your actions?

A. Adam Savage: It's unattainable. There's a percentage of assholes everywhere.

A. Penn: Most people are good; there are 6 billion good people. Disagreement doesn't make them assholes, but I still call them assholes on my show.

Q. What about historical accuracy? The History Channel creating bogus doubt?

A. (Savage? Prady?) So what have you done about it? .. Hal took your mike away...

A. Savage: We're one of the few shows that goes back and corrects our mistakes. Wouldn't it be great if the History Channel came out and said all of their Nostradamus documentaries of the last 20 years were wrong? (Laughter from the audience.) Only skeptics and history teachers laugh at that. Many film crews don't care about truth. Mythbusters visited hurricane researchers who said they're always misrepresented.

A. Prady: We said on an episode [of "The Big Bang Theory"] that a Van Dyke is a goatee without a mustache. It's wrong, we will correct it.

Q. The ridicule of pseudoscience--what is appropriate, heavy ridicule, no ridicule?

A. Penn: I'm not in favor of heavy ridicule. We do it towards ourselves and allies as well as believers.

A. Jennifer Ouellette: Humor can be a powerful convincing mechanism. If it's mean spirited, though, that's different.

A. Penn: The joke of our show is that we're calling bullshit. The message is pro-science and respect each other, and Pollyanna-ish hippie shit. I love crazy people. I'm in the category of the wack job. When I went on "Politically Incorrect," a show that always has one nut, I looked around and I didn't see the nut. I straddle both sides--if a gun were held to my head and asked what are you, a skeptic or a nut, I'm the nut. .

A. Prady: "Big Bang Theory" was originally about computer programmers, but it was too hard to photograph [due to reflections from screens]. The message of the show is that everybody thinks other people have life figured out--and nobody does.

A. Teller: On the Orgasm episode of Bullshit!, we talk about a guy who has a crazy orgasm machine for a hot tub, and it turns out it's Penn. (Voiceover for Teller: "And then there's this asshole...") (The "Jill-Jet," U.S. patent #5,920,923.)

Q. Richard Saunders: Does anyone on "The Big Bang Theory" do origami?

A. Prady: Sheldon knows origami but just doesn't do it on the show. You only see days something interesting happens. ("Oooh!" from audience.) Sorry, that was cheap.


A. Penn: Bullshit! in Sweden is called skitsnack--"shitcock."


A. Savage: There are partnerships involved here. There is huge strength in push-pull. We drive each other nuts, but the product is better.

A. Penn: We hope to get famous enough that only one of us has to show up.

Q. (To P&T:) Did you know George Carlin, and why don't we address comedy more often?

A. Penn: Carlin was a hero of mine. I spoke to him on the phone quite a bit. I don't think comedians, magicians, or skeptics matter--it's individuals. There are wackjobs in comedy. We shouldn't celebrate a form, just individuals.

A. Savage: I find it interesting that all practitioners say that their field is the only pure one. I knew a package design professor who said that package design is the only pure art form. Hal Bidlack: That was not thinking outside the box. (Big cheer from audience.)

Q. Can you offer words to young skeptics held down by the beliefs of their parents?

A. Ouellette: Voracious reading. I couldn't watch "Welcome Back, Kotter." My parents would burn non-Christian books. I left home at 17 for college.

A. Penn: You shouldn't manipulate, just say what is true. Don't talk to adolescents differently, just talk to a general audience. Don't try to "reach" adolescents.

Q. What do you think of fake skeptics on shows like "Ghost Hunters"?

A. Penn: House, Bones, Num3ers (pronounced "numb-three-ers"), etc. All have atheists. Atheists and skeptics have it good on major shows right now. We're not martyrs. Hitchens said we have no saints or martyrs. There are minorities being fucked over in this country, and we're not it. (Though atheists are more mistrusted than other groups.)

Q. What's the role of skepticism in broadcasting?

A. Prady: Make them central as characters, and stay on the air, and don't have a social message, just have fun.

A. Savage: We didn't set out to inspire scientists--if we set out to do that, we'd be pompous, pretentious, and fail. We've done our show for 7 years and want to do 5 more.

Q. (For Teller, about why he has a bottle of water in front of him despite the Bullshit! show on bottled water.)

A. Teller: I filled the bottle using the tap in the men's room.


A. Ouellette: To reach minds, reach for hearts, from your heart.

My question was something like, "The movie 'Expelled' received a lot of criticism for the deceptive way in which it obtained interviews from its subjects. Theology professor Paul Maier has made similar charges about his appearance in the Bullshit! episode on The Bible. I was glad to hear on the ethics in deception panel that you agree that lying by omission is wrong. Can you comment?" It turns out I misremembered Maier's criticism, which was about his views being completely mangled by the editing, not being deceived about what show he was on, though his comments make it seem like he was surprised about the nature of the show. I would have thought the title would be a hint.

Penn responded that he didn't know who Maier was, and didn't quite get the point of my question. I met up with him in the hallway between sessions, and pointed out that Maier was an actual guest on the show, not just some blogger writing about it, and he laughed at the misunderstanding. He said that the contracts for everyone who appears on the show state that the show is Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, but that just because he was given that information in the contract and signed it doesn't mean that he read it and knew it. (Bullshit! writer Michael Goudeau, standing next to Penn, concurred that the contracts name the show.) I offered to point him to Maier's critique, but he said that he had no interest in reading it and Maier can say whatever he likes. I don't find that entirely satisfactory given the strong stance against lying that Penn took during the ethics of deception panel.

I also discussed this on Friday evening with Michael Shermer, who was previously criticized by a commenter at this blog for his role in that same episode of Bullshit! on the Bible. Shermer pointed out that he had no idea of what Maier said and wasn't responding specifically to his remarks, but just answering questions asked by the interviewer. He also observed that Penn & Teller don't write the show, or do much more for any given show than show up to record their scenes and voice overs, though of course they bear some responsibility given that it has their names on it.

Phil Plait on Doomsday 2012
The final talk of the day was Phil Plait on "Doomsday 2012," the idea that the world will be coming to an end on December 12, 2012 based on the end of the Mayan calendar and an alleged Mayan prophecy of the end of the world, a popular topic for questions to NASA.

He began by saying that the Mayans were good astronomers and had a good calendar system, and had the largest centralized civilization of their time, but they didn't predict their own civilization being absorbed into others. The claim of an alleged prophecy of destruction is false--it doesn't exist--it's just that their calendar system ends and rolls over.

Back in 2003 at TAM1, Plait spoke about Planet X and Nibiru, and warned that this idea would come back, and he was correct.

He spent the rest of the talk looking at what could possibly cause the destruction of the earth in 2012, and what's the evidence. First, perhaps a "Sun of Doom"? Looking at solar flares and sunspots--would that activity peak in 2012? Sunspots will probably peak in 2013, solar flare activity in 2013 or 2014.

An asteroid or comet impact? None known to be on a collision path.

Next, perhaps a "Galaxy of Doom" or "Milky Way of Doom"? The Milky Way galaxy is 100 billion to 200 billion stars in a flattened disc, which appears to us as a strip, since we're in it. He talked about the Galactic equator, and that the sun is close to it. As an aside, he remarked that 75% of the American public doesn't know both that the earth rotates once per day and revolves around the sun once per year, let alone that the earth is at a tilt with the northern axis pointed at Polaris, which is the reason for the seasons. (Note: This stat seems somewhat dubious, since a 1999 Gallup poll found that 79% of Americans correctly answered that the earth revolves around the sun. Would that really drop all the way to 25% just by asking for frequency of revolution and rotation? And if so, how much of that is merely confusion between the terms "revolution" and "rotation"?)

He talked about the precession of the equinoxes, caused by the gravity of the sun and moon, which goes through one circle every 24,000 years, and the map position of the sun at the winter solstice crosses the Galactic equator. But that happened in 1998. So some have said that we are "in that era" of the crossing, which takes about 18 years; we're near the end of that era.

What about the idea that there's a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy that will do something? Plait said that, oddly, he hasn't seen this claim made--oddly because it's wrong. The sun is closest to the galactic center on December 19, 2010, too late by a week. And a black hole 260 quadrillion km away would have a gravitational force 1.5 trillionth of the sun. The gravity from Mars and the moon is significantly greater.

In short, Plait concluded, these claims are all "cosmic colons, full of astronomical crap."

JREF Update/Wrapup
The day ended with a JREF update, first from Jeff Wagg, noting that this was the first TAM being broadcast via streaming video, with a total of over 18,500 visitors, 850 at a time the last he looked.

JREF has done cruises to Alaska, Mexico, the Galapagos, and the Bermuda Triangle, and he took a poll of interest for another cruise next March, for which there was "mild interest."

He talked of SkeptiCamp, and the possibility of one occurring at the same time as TAM London, somewhere in the northeastern United States, possibly Boston, and asked those interested to contact him via email.

The JREF's Swift newsletter subscription readership is growing--there are twice as many today as there were in January of this year. There's a possibility of doing some kind of live video broadcast on a weekly basis.

He gave thanks to the JREF forum volunteers, and made another advertisement for the JREF scholarships, "if you're going to school, we will give you money."

Phil Plait said he was blown away by Dr. Joe Albietz's presentation on vaccination at SkeptiCamp Colorado, and gave an update on the vaccination drive--up to $8,500.

A. Kovacs, JREF director of operations, gave thanks to various people including one of the poker game participants who donated all of his winnings to the vaccination drive, and another donor who gave $1,000 but wanted to remain anonymous.

Matt Fiore was recognized as the most generous skeptic to the drive, and was given tickets to Lance Burton courtesy of Michael Goudeau.

And that wrapped up the regular conference programming for Saturday, July 11. Next up, a summary of the skeptical paper sessions for Sunday, and the Million Dollar Challenge that finished up TAM7.