Robyn and Richard at the Grand Canyon

Just before CSICon got started last week, Richard Dawkins and CFI’s CEO Robyn Blumner visited the Grand Canyon, and chatted with the good folks at the National Parks Service. Robyn told me about it, and shared some photos, so I thought it would be a nice idea to put them here. Robyn, who took the photos, told me:

Richard’s conversations with the staff were eye-opening. He learned that frontline interpretive guides are under regular siege by creationists who believe the Grand Canyon is proof of a great flood 4,000 years ago. Although the job of the park rangers is to provide scientific information, they are also cautioned not to be confrontational or insulting to religious beliefs.

I can imagine how tough that must be, and reminds me of the struggle faced by science teachers that Bertha Vazquez is working to solve.

Anyhow, here are some lovely photos of their visit to one of Planet Earth’s most breathtaking locations.

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Lawrence Krauss and the Universe (In Tweets)

The last formal talk of 2016’s CSICon was by the great Lawrence Krauss, in which he discussed the trivial subject of THE BEGINNING OF ALL THINGS.

Alas, dear reader, I was on a plane as it was happening. It’s hard getting back to New England from Las Vegas.

However, I can at the very least share with you the tweets that sprung into existence, almost as if, you might say, from nothing.

Okay you wouldn’t say that probably.

James Randi at CSICon: Much More Than a “Theatrical Character”

James Randi is 88 years old, or so he says. (Though he also says he only feels 86.) It’s been posited to me, half-jokingly, that Randi is actually decades younger, and has been playing “old” the entire time, and will at some point reveal his long ruse and blow our minds. Yeah, you know, I could see that.

In his conversation at CSICon with Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier, Randi was as sharp, insightful, and funny as ever. I don’t know what it must feel like to sit in front of an audience filled with people who consider you a hero, and to engage in a conversation which rested on the premise of one’s legacy, a legacy now firmly established.

But it was no great thing to Randi, who rattled off stories and observations about these weighty, self-reflective ideas with levity. I hope when I am 88 (assuming I get to 88 which seems like a bit of a stretch) I can have that same sense of peace that Randi showed on stage today.

img_0084“I am a theatrical character,” he said as he reminisced about the beginnings of what would become the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and ultimately the Center for Inquiry. He had been approached as a possible leader of this nascent, groundbreaking organization, but demurred. “An entertainer should not be head of an organization like that,” he said. And considering how things might have gone had he accepted, “I was rather frightened for the future of the organization.” Good thing, then, he referred one Paul Kurtz. You know the rest.

So many more memories. (Though we should check with Elizabeth Loftus as to whether they were planted.)

On Isaac Asimov: “He was scared to death of flying.” Pretty remarkable considering the future-tech, sci-fi worlds filled with space travel that Asimov invented. Why bother with real life air travel, Asimov would posit, when one can travel without limit in one’s own imagination?

On Johnny Carson (one of my earliest heroes): “He was very much on our side.” Carson would never visit with guests before tapings of The Tonight Show, but made an exception for Randi. “He was so thoughtful…[Carson would ask] ‘What should I ask, what do you want me to plug?’… He wanted to be aware of how he could help me.”

On Carl Sagan, who once referred to Randi as “crotchety”: “I am crotchety. He couldn’t quite understand why I got so angry” about people such as faith healers and other scammers.

Randi was particularly interested in the fact of Sagan’s marijuana use. “I read that and I was sort of nonplussed, because I [was thinking], ‘Carl? Puffing a weed? … I had to rear back and stare at the wall and say, ‘Damn if Carl says it’s a good thing…and he got some inspiration from it,” then perhaps the practice had real merit. “But I didn’t trust myself enough to do that and walk away from it.”

What struck me most about this conversation was how much empathy Randi felt and then acted on. He expressed his warm feelings for the late Martin Gardner, who considered himself a deist and openly conceded he had no evidence for that position. He talked about breaking an escape record set by Houdini, but intentionally not breaking it by too much, considering the fact of Houdini’s more advanced age at the time of his attempt. He talked about answering a fan’s question about how to treat a friend who adamantly believes in the paranormal: with kindness.

Ken asked, is this compassion for the believers a sign of a “new Randi” or is it the same old Randi?

“No, it’s not a new Randi…I’ve found that these people, they believed in it so much, and they needed it so much, that to disabuse them of the notion was often difficult to do,” he said. And he talked about the people who say he’s changed their life in one way or another through his work and his example.

“Now folks, you cannot buy that. That’s the greatest compliment we can possibly have.”

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False Memories, Social Roles: Elizabeth Loftus, Anthony Pratkanis, and More Storytelling

They may not have intended it, but back-to-back speakers Elizabeth Loftus and Anthony Pratkanis both discusses what could be considered the same subject: What a trivial effort it is to make humans believe something that may not be so.

Yesterday, Maria Konnikova told us about how storytelling, so beloved in the abstract, can be a powerful force for evil. And like Pratkanis, she was focused on con artists, those who manipulate people, through storytelling, in order to arrive at some desired behavior.

Loftus’s area was slightly different, focused on how memories, as opposed to identities and what Pratkanis described as social roles, can be manipulated. Again, through storytelling.

You know what’s kind of scary about all this? How easy it seems to be.

Famously, Loftus’s research has shown that people can be led to believe the they have experienced events in their lives that have never occurred. This comes up a lot in terms of therapists knowingly or unknowingly convincing patients that they’ve endured some kind of trauma that they’d since suppressed: abuse, Satanic rituals, etc.

But the dials go up and down in terms of the significance of these false memories. Loftus explained that people can be led to, on one hand, be convinced that they have always loved asparagus, or to the other extreme, come to “remember” seeing traumatic events or taking part in mind-boggling adventures.

No one is immune, it seems. Even when they tested a control group against people of “superior memory,” the results were the same.

Imagine the implications of this, and the ethical implications. “Should we ever use this mind technology affirmatively? Should we ever ban the use of this kind of mind technology?” It’s truly a great power when you think of it.

Pratkanis showed us how this power can be exercised in more malicious or underhanded ways, not with memories, but with the assignment of social roles. But it’s all still storytelling.

The term here is “altercasting,” putting yourself in a social role to get the behavior that you want from another person. “If I wanted you to be critical of my lecture,” said Pratkanis, “I’d remind you you’re all skeptics.” Then, rethinking this, said, “That would be a bad example.” Laughter ensues, of course.

So a good example is someone who takes the social role of a teacher. That assigns the role of student to others, and they begin to behave like students, dutifully taking down the things spoken by the teacher.

But it has to be consistent, Pratkanis says. You can’t be in the role of teacher and tell everyone to take their clothes off. The story has to make internal sense.

“Once we’re in those roles, then we live up to them,” he said, “and all around us are people reminding us of those social roles.” All around us people take their roles in the story. And the story may be entirely false. But when altercasting is successfully pulled off, it’s like we’re all handed a script for a play in which we’ve been cast.

What we as skeptics can do is to altercast ourselves with the aim of promoting critical thinking and humanist values. We can promote a social role that values evidence and reason. We can serve as the best example of this by assuming the “scientist” social role for ourselves, “to bend over backwards to prove yourself wrong.”

As Loftus concluded in her presentation on memories, “Just because somebody tells you something, and they express it with a lot of confidence…just because they cry when they tell you the story, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.”

“Memory, like liberty, is a fragile, fragile thing.” And so, as we learned from Pratkanis, are our very identities. And, as we learned from Konnikova, so are our beliefs about others. Through storytelling, it’s a wonder we can be sure of anything about ourselves or what’s around us.

Jill Tarter: E.T. Whisperer, Possible Martian Descendant

It used to be that we meager humans had no idea how many plants might be out there beyond our own adorable little solar system. Today, we know there are more planets than stars in our galaxy. That’s hundreds and hundreds of billions of planets.

Jill Tarter of SETI is really excited about this. I am too.

There are two big discoveries of modern science that have raised her hopes for the existence and discovery of life beyond Earth: the existence of extremophiles on our planet, organisms that can survive and thrive in the most hostile conditions our planet can muster; and of course the discovery of all these exoplanets.

These two factors combined suggest that “the universe might be bio-friendly.” Might! If we do find life on another planet or moon, either in our own solar system (with one big exception) or from an exoplanet, “that will mean life is ubiquitous everywhere.”

Why? Because a “genesis moment” somewhere more or less quarantined from Earth would mean that life has the potential to emerge throughout the universe. The exception I mentioned is Mars, which shares too much of a history of “exchanging rocks” with Earth and Venus to make it definitive as to which planet life began on.

That’s also a big deal! It’s entirely plausible that Mars is where our own life began, with Mars seeding Earth with the beginnings of our life. “So, indeed, we could be Martians.”

Intelligent life is an entirely different level of difficulty, of course. But while it may be too hard to detect a biosignature from an exoplanet (which Tarter admits we don’t even have for Earth life), we could detect evidence of a civilization’s technology: “That could be more distinct and distinguishable.”

Okay, so why does this matter, beyond being “cool”?

“One of the best things about SETI is the fact that you have to adopt a much more cosmic perspective,” said Tarter. “It’s like holding up a mirror to the entire planet and saying, See? See you guys? You’re all the same, when comparing yourself to something else that co-evolved on a different planet.”

SETI, she says, “trivializes the differences between us” so we can “grow up” and develop some kind of global scheme for cooperating. But for that, we have to work together. And not just within our own species. All life forms on Earth have to be included in our thinking and in our coming interstellar moral circle.

Joe Scwharcz, in Tweets

I had to take the lunch break to, you know, have a break. All this blogging is making me goofy. So with apologies to the great and charming Dr. Joe Scwharcz, I offer some impressions of his lunch talk from those who were there, in tweets.

I happen to know that there was a lot of guffawing from his talk, with some mysterious tales including an as-yet-unexplained case where a radio station may have been shut down by aliens. Probably not.

Joe Nickell, the Skeptic’s Conscience

We use the word “debunking” all the time in skepticism, right? All the time. It can seem like debunking is our raison d’être. Why we exist.

This attitude is one of the reasons Joe Nickell is so valuable to this movement. You already know that he’s probably the world’s most renowned investigator of the paranormal and extraordinary claims. But he also serves, when necessary, as the skeptic’s conscience.

Joe’s mission at CSICon this year was to put an end to the inclination of many skeptics to dismiss believers in paranormal claims before investigating the claim itself. Joe has done the hands-on and in-person investigation and interviews, and concludes, “We have to stop this attitude, stop this business [of treating witnesses] like there’s something wrong with them…these are intelligent, sincere sober people.”

He used as an example the Flatwoods UFO case from 1952, where locals saw something fall from the sky, and then encountered what they thought was an alien or monster with shining eyes, that glided toward them, made a horrible hissing sound, and bore “terrible claws.”

Joe pointed out that this was not a hoax by any means. It was not the result of stupidity. This was a real thing seen by real people. And they were absolutely terrified. They deserved to be taken seriously.

nickell-flatwoodsJoe of course figured out what really happened. Not a hoax, not an attempt at gaining attention, but a real encounter. It just wasn’t an encounter with an alien. It was a barn owl. The noise, the shining eyes (flashlights reflecting in the bird’s eyes), the ability to “glide,” and as reported by the witness, a head shaped like the ace of spades.

These weren’t crazy people. These were people who didn’t understand what they saw under very scary, tense conditions in the darkness.

There’s no benefit to just feeling superior to people who witness things they can’t explain. To the person who waves away the idea of investigating paranormal claims and says, “I already know there’s no ghosts (or what have you),” Joe responds, “Well, good for you. A skeptic and a damn genius as well.”

Joe knows there’s so much to be learned from these investigations. About psychology, mental states, how illusions work on our sense, and much more. “It’s not just about us,” says Joe.

So next time you wonder why Skeptical Inquirer continues to investigate hauntings, UFO sightings, and Bigfoot appearances, and you think, “Ugh, this again,” remember that each new investigation reveals something new. Not about whether these things exist, but the myriad factors that go into each event.

“In real investigative efforts,” said Joe, “the debunking will take care of itself.”

Tamar Wilner is the Hero CSICon Needs (And So Can You!)

On the plane ride to Vegas, which was rather long, I took the opportunity to finally watch Batman v. Superman, opting for the “Ultimate Edition” to take up more flight time. (I had to watch it on my phone because there was literally no room to place my laptop on my tray in front of me.) Now, I don’t understand all the hate for this movie, I really, really liked it a lot, and I don’t care what that makes you think about me.

And I loved Wonder Woman in the movie. She was great, Gal Gadot was excellent, and I was all ginned up for the standalone movie. Well done, Warner Bros. You hooked me.

You know who else is interested in Wonder Woman? Tamar Wilner, who came to discuss how we can gather up “strands” for our own virtual Lassos of Truth, just like Wonder Woman has. (Didn’t really come up in Batman v. Superman, though.)

Wilner is a great journalist, seriously. I’ve been admiring her work since it came to my attention a couple of years ago, when she covered the enraging case of cancer-quack Stanislaw Burzynski in Texas. She’s written for Skeptical Inquirer, and she did an interview on our own Point of Inquiry podcast earlier this year.

Not unlike David Helfand on stage just before her, Wilner wants to convey the severity of the misinformation problem on the web, thus her desire to arm us all with Lassos of Truth. The strands are fundamental, none of it should be surprising, but they are so rarely fully weaved together as they need to be in order to effectively process bad information.

Briefly, the lasso strands ask us to:

  • Ask if the claim even makes sense, if the text justifies the headline or sounds too good to be true.
  • Check if the story is from a satirical/fake-news source, of which there are many, and few of which actually achieving comedy.
  • Reference the many fact-checking websites that make debunking their business.
  • Ask questions about photos and videos, as in, where were they taken and when, are there technical issues or inconsistencies, or whether have they been altered.
  • Investigate social media sources, such as follower counts and how recently an account was created, and indeed, investigate the actual humans making claims.

And finally, when you want to spread the good news of the truth you’ve unearthed, she emphasizes that you not become part of the problem by repeating the deceptive or incorrect claims, giving them more fuel. “Headlining with the myth is really the worst thing you can do.”

You can see her notes on this presentation at tinyurl.com/lassonotes.

Do you feel like a superhero now, or at least comparably armed? I do! Tamar Wilner is clearly the hero that CSICon needs and deserves.

Beware the “Google-Fed Zombies” says David Helfand on Mass Misinformation

We human beings, thanks to the Internet, are producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of information every day. We must be really smart!

Nope! David Helfand is here to make the case that the information democratization brought by the advent of the Internet is drowning us in misinformation. Those 2.5 quintillion bytes? “All of it is not carefully edited.”

Helfand is author of the book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, and he’s concerned that as a society we have collectively decided that “the upper right hand corner of your browser is the equivalent of thinking.”

The vaccine denial movement is a useful case in point, where misinformation results in tangible harm. Perhaps the most powerful symbolic example of this, is that at Google’s own daycare center for employees, only 50% of kids had been vaccinated. The people of Google itself were falling for the bad information that they get by relying too heavily on Google searches.

Careful not to be taken as some anti-technology crank, he differentiates the information revolutions of printing and broadcast from the Internet. Reading a book or watching a movie, he says, is “an individual act,” passive, with no way to give feedback, and with no way to control the source of information.

Contrast that with the Internet, where we do control the course, curating our own news flow and excluding any information that doesn’t confirm with our existing worldviews. This creates what he calls “armies of the uninformed.”

If the Internet’s 2.5 quintillion bytes mostly just serves to reinforce group identity, what do we do? Helfand isn’t sure, but he suggests you might start by buying his book. How you’d give him feedback on that book, I’m not sure, especially since he says he doesn’t carry a smartphone.

“I live in this wonderful bubble of tranquility.” Sounds lovely.

Stuart Vyse Trains Our Brains on Brain-Training

I remember when I first started seeing Stuart Vyse’s columns at the CSI website, and with each piece, always thinking, “Wow, I’m really glad someone wrote about that.” That’s how I felt again seeing Vyse discuss the claims of “brain-training” games and services. And yes, he wrote about this subject in 2015 for CSI in a piece called “Neuro-Pseudoscience.”

Vyse traced the recent history of this app-age phenomenon, in which games (games are fun!) are said to be able to exercise one’s brain into being a stronger, quicker muscle of cognition. He went all the way back to an old Nintendo DS game from 2005, “Brain Age,” but let them more or less off the hook. “They get a little bit of cover when it comes to false advertising,” because despite some of the claims made about the product, it remained, really, “just a game.”

Not so with services like Lumosity, however. Companies like this market their brain-training services as being backed by serious science, boasting scientists on board with them, and promising real-world benefits outside of the games in the training regimen.

You don’t need to read Stuart’s article or see his presentation to guess what the truth about these claims are: Baseless. There have been multiple “scientific salvos” launched by both skeptical scientists and the companies themselves, but a reliable, controlled study did find that while Lumosity-style games to make one better at other Lumosity-style games, there are no broader, “transferable” cognitive effects in any other areas of life.

This leads to the question, if you’ve been trying to train your brain with these services, what else could you have been doing instead? “If you want to be better at an activity,” said Vyse, “it might be best to practice it directly.” Imagine that.