The Skeptic’s Ally: Julia Belluz Gets the Balles Prize for Critical Thinking

14581366_10154080294675698_2973471898915265002_nLast night, your devoted chronicler of CSICon had the honor of bestowing the 2015 Balles Prize in Critical Thinking upon science reporter Julia Belluz of Vox.com. Rather than paraphrase the whole thing, I’ll just quote myself from my remarks, and it’s not plagiarism because I wrote it:

Here’s what I get from the journalism of Julia Belluz.

  1. I get a guide. News, issues, and controversies about health and medicine explained clearly and accessibly. She covers some very complex topics, and yet she writes in a conversational tone that neither dumbs down nor inflates. In my opinion, she writes in a way that assumes her readers are both intelligent but not necessarily experts in science and health.

  2. I get a passionate ally. “Evidence enthusiast” actually doesn’t quite describe the heart that goes into her work. Explaining important health issues and dispelling misinformation are not academic exercises. This is not some amusing pursuit of novelty. She clearly wants to keep her readers from being conned. There is a sense of duty that I get from her reporting to help all of us make better choices about our health with facts and, importantly, compassion. She’s got our back.

  3. I get a trusted source. This might be the most important part of it. Apart from taking apart the news about IMPORTANT NEW STUDIES or debunking fanciful claims, Julia opens up to show us her intellectual process, honestly confiding to her readers that not every issue is as simple as true vs. false, newsworthy vs. pointless hype. There is nuance, there are shades of gray. Rather than cast villains and heroes, she takes each new issue as it comes, on its own merits. She is self-reflective in the most informative way. She shows us the work.

Accepting the (dangerously heavy) award, Julia was obviously really moved. Being honored by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, with one of her heroes, James Randi, looking on, Julia said she’d return to the newsroom newly energized. Usually “alone at a computer” in her day to day work, having the recognition and support for her work from an organization like ours clearly meant a lot to her.

I hope more journalists will look to her example.

Richard Dawkins in Conversation at CSICon: “Science Should Be Poetic”

Watching Richard Dawkins and Jamy Ian Swiss in conversation at CSICon, one had the pleasure of seeing not just an “interview,” but an exploration of ideas. I don’t mean to be too maudlin about it, but it was great to see not just the interviewer find ways to encourage his subject, Dawkins, to open up about fascinating thoughts, but also for them to challenge each other, to respectfully run up against areas of disagreement and handle them with wit and a generosity of spirit. So yeah, I got maudlin, but that’s what it was like.

The subject over which they clashed (and I use the word very loosely, it never got weird or tense) was over who deserves to be considered a “skeptic,” and this largely focused on Bill Maher, an atheist and someone who certainly purports to support science and evidence, but also is prone to things like anti-vax conspiracy thinking.

Dawkins and Swiss really got quite meticulous about why one set of views made one a genuine skeptic, and another did not. Swiss felt that religious believers who otherwise accepted science and evidence could certainly be skeptics, and indeed might be more valuable in the community. Swiss asserted that rejecting vaccine science disqualified one for skepticism, because of the fact that it’s a claim that can be tested, and the direct harm that the anti-vax position can cause.

Dawkins would counter by saying that it makes as much sense to eject Maher from skepticism as it does the religious believer, because in each case, you’re making an exception for one erroneous belief, and in each case, the belief can lead to harm.

In other words, it got rather into the weeds, but it was great to watch the two of them unpack the subject in real time.

Oh, there was so much more. Dawkins talked about science communication and science as “poetry,” saying, “I think it’s high time a scientist won the Nobel Prize for literature.” Swiss and Dawkins remarked on how school children are rarely exposed to the poetry of science, and instead are made to memorize facts and practice exercises with a Bunsen burner. Thinking specifically of Carl Sagan, Dawkins said, “The study of science should be poetic,” and that it need not be practiced to be appreciated, no more than music appreciation requires mastery of a musical instrument.

There was politics! On Brexit, Dawkins was blunt: “I am ashamed to be English…because the Brexit vote was largely driven by…petty, small minded xenophobia.” And he compared this attitude to the process that created the Trump candidacy in the U.S. He lamented that both countries are ostensibly representative democracies, where elected representatives handle the big complicated questions on our behalf. But in choosing presidential candidates or in deciding to leave a major political union, those with no expertise make the big decision. Dawkins was not happy about this.

And the role and value of philosophy was touched on, and Dawkins had the interesting thought that I’d not ever heard expressed, that there was something amiss with the fact that philosophers centuries before Darwin could not have come up with the idea of evolution themselves.

“Philosophers let us down. They should have got it. Why didn’t they?”

Kevin Folta on Leading with Our Ethics

An enormous amount of wonderful advances have been made in the genetic engineering of crops and animals, such that many global problems to can be tackled, mitigated, and solved. Lives could be saved in the millions. But too often, those solutions can’t be brought into the wider world because of the demonization of this kind of technology.

Kevin Folta wants to change that. He wants to help us figure out how to communicate to the general public the benefits and risks of GMOs as they really are. “We scientists…have not earned their trust.”

He explained not only the promising new developments in genetic modification, but also the big advances that have been blocked by paranoia mongering by opponents. There is so much potential for disease resistance, insect resistance, nutrition enrichment, and much more.

“Human beings have always had command of the genetics of animals and plants,” Folta pointed out, referring to how we have always influenced the evolution and genetic development of the life forms we deal with. The difference now is in the level of precision we can bring to genetic engineering, manipulating one or two genes at a time.

Folta is remarkably passionate about this subject, and like Michael Mann in the world of climate science, he’s been painted as a villain by the anti-GMO crowd, labeled as “Monsanto’s shill.” It’s pretty brutal.

Why is Folta so happy to be at an event like CSICon? “Who stepped up” when things spun out of control? The skeptic community. Coverage and defense from high profile skeptic figures spurred the wider community to get more deeply involved, and show a groundswell of support for Folta, and really, for reality.

“They go in with fear,” says Folta of the anti-science crowd, and scientists, “we go in with facts.” And that’s not enough. “We have to speak a language they understand. We have to lead with our ethics.”

Michael Mann and the Path Forward on Climate Change

Perhaps aside from Al Gore, there may be no single figure who has been more severely battered by climate change deniers than climatologist Michael Mann. He’s been sounding the alarm about global warming for years, and has suffered an astounding barrage from slings and arrows. (“Metaphorically,” as my 6-year-old son would be quick to point out.)

tt091029Mann has coauthored a book on the climate crisis with political cartoonist Tom Toles, The Madhouse Effect, and it’s the latest in his efforts to wake up the electorate to the dangers we face.

Some of the sources of resistance he pointed out are strictly political; Former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, enraged that Mann was part of the “hoax” of climate change, tried to get all of his emails subpoenaed to prove the global warming fraud. (This got shut down by the courts “with prejudice.”) Rep. Lamar Smith is the head of the House Science Committee, and Mann refers to him as an “equal opportunity science denier,” as someone who refuses to accept a litany of accepted science. He referred, too, to the Trump/Pence ticket as a “science denial dream team.”

But what was nice to hear is how much hope he has. Well, he called it “cautious optimism,” but really, you wouldn’t choose the path he has unless you believed there was a real chance to make things better. He cited of course the Paris accords, which he said “gets us about halfway there” to getting global temperatures within the safe range. He even touted the support of the Pope, “an equal opportunity science accepter.” (We have plenty of problems with the current Pope on science, however.)

Mann says, “We can now envision a path forward where we can solve this problem.” I didn’t expect to hear that. I’m almost afraid to believe it.

Ron Lindsay on Skeptics’ Reason for Being

Why are we here?

This is not a question about the nature of existence. Nor is it the beginning of a joke about James Stockdale. It’s a serious question about the reasons skeptics do what they do. Who better to try to answer it than the man who ran the Center for Inquiry from 2008 to the beginning of this year, former CEO Ron Lindsay?

Ron began framing his presentation as a kind of response to a talk by John Horgan earlier this year at NECSS that complained that skeptics had been wasting their time talking about things like ghosts and homeopathy, which Horgan said were “soft targets.” Are they?

Ron says no, and very clearly explained why. Pointing to the mission statement of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Ron highlighted the bit that focuses on “controversial or extraordinary claims.” Ron said, “These are the type of claims that many scientists aren’t interested in.” Scientists don’t think ghosts, homeopathy, vaccines, GMOs, and the like are controversial. They’re settled science.

But as Ron pointed out, these things are absolutely controversial among the general public, for myriad reasons. Our job, as a skeptic movement, is to make sure the public is aware of the facts behind the controversies, that these things actually have been settled.

Homeopathy is a rather simple example: Scientists all know it’s bunk, but it’s supported by a lot of marketing, by loose regulation, and billions of dollars in sales. That’s not a soft target, that’s a granite-hard target. So CFI tackles it to try and improve regulations and educate the public as to why it’s a waste of their money, that it won’t cure anything, and could in fact do harm.

But even with things like belief in ghosts or alien visitation, it’s not so much the beliefs themselves, but the thought process that leads people to those beliefs, rejecting science and evidence in many other areas, and falling for conspiracies and other scams. By pointing out the alternative, a critical thinking framework and an emphasis on science and evidence, we can have a safer, healthier, and wiser public. It helps all of us.

“Out work is important, our work is necessary,” said Ron, and he’s of course right. “And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”