Eugenie Scott and Bertha Vazquez on “Reaching the 60%” for Evolution Education

Eugenie Scott could probably just walk up to the microphone and read the phone book (for the millennials, those are extremely large paperback dead-tree books with very thin pages that listed the phone numbers of every human and establishment in a given geographical area). She positioned herself as a “warmup act” for Bertha Vazquez of TIES (Teachers Institute for Evolutionary Science), but come on. It’s Eugenie. She is adored among this crowd, and really, she’s earned it. You don’t need me to tell you that.

cv8tfhqvmae1vg3Scott came to discuss the “sins” against evolution education in public schools, and the stats are indeed sad. According to a 2011 survey, 60% of teachers were “teaching evolution, but not so you’d notice.” This 60% “qualify” their teaching, going through the “teach the controversy” line of thinking, apologize for teaching evolution, or limit the subject to microbes.

In other words, despite victories like the one Scott helped bring in the Dover Intelligent Design case, “evolution is winning in the courts, but losing in the classrooms.”

So what is being done to reach those teachers?

14907590_10154081945670698_6787172562982360594_nBertha Vazquez, a middle school science teacher who runs the TIES program with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, is here to do something about it.

Saying she has the “greatest job on Earth,” she also admitted that she often feels like she is being “pecked to death by ducks.” You can see why she’s such a great teacher: very evocative language.

Vazquez talked about the pushback she gets from students and parents around the teaching of evolution, as well as the reticence, addressed by Scott, of teachers to tackle the subject. There are of course those teachers hostile to evolution, with the attitude that evolution is akin to zombies, “You don’t have to believe in evolution to understand what it is.” Not helpful.

“Teachers need to feel confident teaching this subject,” she said, and then used the same number Scott did from the 2011 survey. She said you have the 20% or so of teachers who are doing great teaching evolution, the 20% who reject it and teach creationism, and “it’s the 60% of teachers in the middle I want to reach.”

So, battling some overwhelming technical difficulties with the slide presentation that were beyond her control, she went on to explain what TIES does to reach that 60%. Fossils, the current relevance of evolution (such as antibiotic resistance), and an understanding that these teachers are not alone, that they have allies and support.

To help with religious resistance, she shows examples of religiously-believing evolutionary biologists right alongside the work of folks like Dawkins.

The response she’s gotten from teachers who have taken TIES workshops is truly inspiring, you can feel the relief and the sense of accomplishment from the messages Vazquez gets.

And now TIES has a new partnerships program to bring nearby biologists into middle school science classes, in collaboration with an in support of those middle school teachers.

This is the real world good this movement is doing. It doesn’t get much more foundational than this.

Eugenie Scott has long been a hero to this crowd, and ever shall be. I think they added another today to their roster of heroes. As Dawkins said from the audience, “Bertha, you’re a star.”

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 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.”

10 Strategies from Massimo Polidoro

In a special lunch presentation at CSICon, Massimo Polidoro gave a very practical talk on how to process extraordinary claims one comes across in the news media and elsewhere.

He gave 10 guidelines for news consumers, and I’ll put them all here, but I have to say that it doesn’t at all do justice to the character of Massimo Polidoro and his ridiculously charming presentation style. Of course he’s got jokes, and he interspersed references to Young Frankenstein into his powerpoint, but there’s also a quality to Polidoro’s manner that immediately puts an audience at ease and makes you want to hear the next thing he says.

Look, it could be the accent. I’m not the most worldly person, but come on. Anyhow, here’s Polidoro’s 10 strategies for the news consumer dealing with reports of the inexplicable:

1. Make sure the mystery actually exists.
(You rarely get a reaction of gratitude when these errors are pointed out.)

2. Check the reliability of the source.

3. Go back to the original sources.
(News can be distorted unintentionally through misunderstandings, short cuts taken, and the like. He recommends you compare multiple versions of same story.)

4. Do not make assumptions before you have all the facts.
(You cannot rely on news reports, as they are often compressed and incomplete.)

5. Reproduce the original conditions.

6. Whenever you can, check the facts for yourself.

7. Ask experts for advice.

8. Learn to distinguish between facts and fantasies.
(“The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”)

9. Take witnesses with a grain of salt.

10. Apply occam’s razor.

And there you have it! And we’re all a little smarter now.


Kavin Senapathy on the Food Babe and Fear Mongering

Kavin Senapathy came to talk about fear. First of all, she made sure we knew that Kavin is pronounced like “coven,” as in a coven of witches, so, more fear. But Senapathy is less concerned with being afraid of mispronouncing her name than with the fear that enriches food-purity zealots like “Food Babe” Vani Hari.

“Fear sells,” says Senapathy, “and charlatans like the Food Babe know it.” She isn’t trying to convince us that “organic” or “non-GMO” food is bad for us, but she is raising an alarm about how the organic/non-GMO industry needs to differentiate itself from the rest of the market, and one way they do that is through the fostering of unwarranted fear. It stands out by taking trivial differences, casting them as meaningful and virtuous, and “intentionally misleading and scaring the public to increase their own profits.”

The Food Babe is Senapathy’s target for the purposes of this discussion, and she’s a good target. For example, Senapathy explained a common tactic of Hari’s, wherein she identifies some chemical present in a food product that may be entirely benign, but is hard to pronounce and seems scary. She then shows how that same chemical is present in some other non-food item to make her point, and finally, identifies an alternate food without that chemical, that you can buy through her affiliates. Nice work if you can get it.

The problem arises when companies give in to the pressure Hari applies, as Subway has had to do with some chemical in its bread. Avoiding a PR problem, Subway legitimizes the quackery of Vani Hari, cementing her position as an authority and beneficent advocate.

But Senapathy also noted that the Food Babe, while an easy target, has value. Because her snake-oil act is becoming more and more apparent, she serves as a useful kind of example, a prophet that is known to be false, and therefore a subject we can learn from. Why are people taken in? We can watch the work in progress, and learn better how to push back.

Oh, and check out this trailer for an upcoming documentary with Senapathy, Science Moms.

Harriet Hall on Functional Medicine: Redundant and Full of Babble

Harriet Hall, the Skepdoc, joins us to talk about “functional medicine,” a term that was fairly new to me. Here’s what Wikipedia says functional medicine is:

Functional medicine is a form of alternative medicine which proponents say focuses on interactions between the environment and the gastrointestinal, endocrine, and immune systems.

Uh oh.

Practitioners attempt to develop individual treatment plans for people they treat.

Well that just sounds like “medicine.” Big deal, right?

Functional medicine encompasses a number of unproven and disproven methods and treatments, and has been criticized for being pseudoscientific.

And we’re off to the races.

As Hall pointed out, this is really just a new branding of what’s usually been known as “integrative medicine,” and the principles that proponents of FM say make up the core of the practice are no different than what real doctors using conventional medicine already do. For example, one tenet of FM was that “the acute care approach is inappropriate for chronic diseases.” To which Hall responded, “Well, DUH.”

When you drill down to the claims in FM marketing, we learn that all diseases are, at their roots, caused by “imbalances,” including “toxic emotions.” (If that’s true, then I am poised to get literally every disease ever.) FM even invents conditions that aren’t even diseases, like “toxicity” and, my favorite, “leaky gut.” Not a thing.

Hall shows us that FM, like much in the world of alt-med and pseudoscience, sounds a lot like sectarianism. There is a glaring lack of evidence for any of the practice’s claims, and it’s riddled with “indecipherable babble and word salad” in order to explain any of those claims.

Painkillers and Hubris: Paul Offit on Opioid Addiction

cv3-dyxvuaamqglPaul Offit, who normally speaks on the topic of his prime expertise, vaccines, came to CSICon with another life and death medical issue, opioid addiction.

This is not one of those issues, as with the anti-vax movement, where we have people trafficking in conspiracies. It’s something more insidious, more embedded in the culture.

The bulk of the presentation was a history of the use of opium for most of the powerful painkillers you’ve ever heard of, and how the medical establishment going back centuries has relentlessly worked to find ways to administer effective painkillers while avoiding the disaster of addiction. From Diagoras in the 5th century BC, who spoke about the dangers of opium addiction, to the present day where Americans use 80% of the world’s painkillers, more young people die from opioid overdoses than in car accidents, and almost 3 million adults are addicted. The image of this post shows Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a teething remedy that was 3% morphine.

Why tell us all of this? I mean, we all know this happens, even if we don’t know the extent or the long history. For Offit, the issue was hubris. He takes great umbrage with “the medical profession’s undying belief that it can effectively separate pain relief from addition.” Certainly it remains to goal to do so, but Offit believes that the profession is not confronting the reality of the situation. “The culture of the prescription pad” perpetuates the problem without really acknowledging the risks, which are overwhelmingly evident.

Because the problem is so deeply rooted in how we know the medical profession to work, confronting the crisis requires skepticism of a non-obvious kind.