The Chats That Matter: Wrapping Up CSICon 2017

I’m missing the final day of CSICon activity, because I must return to my home planet of Maine in the Nova Anglia system. And those are very long rides, what with the limits of physics and whatnot.

But now I have a chance to reflect on the conference. Coming into CSICon 2017, there was a sort of cloud hanging over the opening proceedings. There was no denying that in some incredibly important ways, things had gotten worse for science and critical thinking since CSICon 2016. Robyn thankfully opened the conference by not only addressing the elephant in the room, but embodying it, both mocking Trump and communicating the threat he represents to pretty much everything skeptics stand for.

It didn’t take long, however, to see that CSICon 2017 wasn’t going to be about despair, anger, or panic. The White House and Congress are a disaster for us, no doubt, and social media is rife with misinformation consumed within filter bubbles of steel, but that’s not the end of the story. To me, the unmistakable theme that ran through the various presentations was one of locality.

We were reminded that we have a great deal of potential influence on a person-to-person level. While national conversations about critical issues is pinned down in a kind of digital trench warfare, in which the people we don’t agree with are abstracted to the point of absurdity, we can still have conversations with the people in our lives. We can still seek to see things from the perspectives of real-life human beings, and rather than engage in outright conflict, we can talk, listen, and learn. We will not alter a neighbor’s fast-held beliefs through a chat over coffee, but it’s just having the chat at all that matters. As Ross Blocher said of his work with Carrie Poppy, the point is to plant a seed.

Now, as a fellow with Asperger’s (a sort of hard-to-see, muted color on the autism spectrum), person-to-person chit chat is not my strong suit by any means. I am better suited for, well, what I’m doing now, communicating through text sent across the interwebz. But I have close family and friends who don’t share all of my skeptic views. There are those who I love that are afraid of “chemicals,” who know where one’s meridians are, and who think that there really is something to that Long Island Medium person. And we talk. And we ask questions of each other about why we think what we think. It doesn’t wash away the woo in one swipe, but understanding has increased, and new questions emerge, for them and for me.

This is a theme I picked up from all manner of speakers this weekend, veteran and n00b alike. So let’s look to the people around us more, and to the avatars in the Twitter stream less. You will probably reduce your risk of several stress-related diseases, for one, and you also might plant a seed that will bear a hell of a lot of fruit many years from now.

I mean, what else can we do?

See you next year.


Header image: James Randi’s bearded well-wishers, photo by Brian Engler

Joe Schwarcz, Your Friendly Neighborhood Skeptic

There was something about Joe Schwarcz that I couldn’t quite put my finger on as I watched his presentation today, in which he recounted some highlights from his career as a science communicator, spanning four decades. I have only a passing familiarity with his work, and I’ve never even seen him give a talk before, so this first experience of him in person was a real treat. But it also reminded me of something. Or is that right? I don’t know. There was the potential of a thought that seeing him evoked, but I couldn’t place it.

The man is delightful. So grounded, and yet so light. As he tells his stories, smiling almost the whole time, it felt like I was being led down familiar memories with a familiar friend, even though all of this was new to me. The word “avuncular” is the one that keeps coming to me.

(Side note, Schwarcz was able to take credit for the rise of Canada’s Superhero Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, because a school-age Trudeau once saw Schwarcz give a science presentation. Q.E.D.)

I’ll get back to all that in a bit. The content of Schwarcz’s presentation was grounded in the simple truth that “there are no or bad chemicals, only safe or dangerous ways to use them.” He laid out the context in which chemistry, and much of science more broadly, is seen as something nefarious, and in which “chemicals” are inherently evil things that need to be reduced or removed as much as possible from all aspects of our lives.

And one of the things that Schwarcz is trying to do is to put a spotlight on how a lack of understanding of science and chemistry sets the stage for people to be duped and ripped off. (He showed an honest-to-goodness product called “dehydrated water,” which instructed the consumer to add to cold water and stir.) If people are afraid of chemicals as a concept, or ignorant of basic science, then they can be sold on useless products, or even drive themselves crazy with the futile avoidance of chemicals.

On his radio show, Schwarcz deals with this confusion about science all the time. (It’s the world’s longest-running radio show about chemistry *and* the *only* radio show about chemistry, he boasted.) Like Car Talk for chemicals, Dr. Frasier Crane for everyday science. He helps regular people lose some of their fears and gain valuable tools for navigating a world in which the messages about chemicals and science are distressingly inconsistent, to say the least.

And it’s that, the idea that he’s sort of the friendly neighborhood skeptic, I think that’s what was on my mind as I watched and listened to him for the first time. He’s the guy you’d want to bring your questions to, because you’d feel stupid bringing it to someone else, and you know he’s going to to his best to help in a friendly way. That’s different from being someone like a super-celebrity scientist like Neil deGrasse Tyson or a hard core academic. It’s like Joe is from the neighborhood. And I think that’s incredibly valuable.

“Does any of this matter?” Schwarcz asked about his many years of work. Yeah, it matters.

A Real Human Being Named James Randi

James Randi couldn’t be at CSICon as planned because of a small stroke, and of course it’s disappointing. But to sate the skeptic appetite for amazingness, Massimo Polidoro recounted some of Randi’s greatest feats from generations ago.

It’d be pointless for me to recount them for you here, especially since I can’t write in a sufficiently charming Italian accent. But I did come away from this presentation with a new appreciation of Randi and his legacy.

The stories made Randi out to be less of a legend, and more of a man who was driven and devoted to the details. The ways he escaped prison cells or humiliated charlatans, these weren’t done off the cuff. He didn’t take any frauds down by critically blockquoting their blog posts. He planned and he prepared with the kind of meticulousness that is hard to imagine.

But look, if you care deeply enough about something, such as the truth, the effort is so worth it. It’s easy to conceive of Randi as a kind of secular wizard. I’m happy to remember him as a guy who worked incredibly hard and cared a hell of a lot.

Perceptions of Intent: Rob Brotherton on Conspiracy Theories

So, my help was suddenly needed at the CSICon AV station for the presentation by Rob Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, so I didn’t take notes about his talk, and instead pressed a button to switch camera angles for the video recording.

Luckily, it was a really compelling talk that I think I retained a great deal of.

So, why do people believe in absurd conspiracy theories like the faked Moon landing or the shadowy network of plotters behind the Kennedy assassination? It helps to think about it terms of people’s perceptions of agency and intent.

Generally, if a person is more inclined to ascribe intent to ambiguous scenarios, they are also more likely to be conspiracy theorists. If you hear “he burned down the house,” and assume it means he burned it down out of malicious pyromania or insurance fraud, you’re a conspiracy theorist. If you presume the statement means it was an accident related to a toaster or dropped cigarette, you’re less likely to be an Alex Jones fan (my words).

Also, if something important happens that has a major impact, it’s difficult for many people to believe that they have a simple explanation. But Brotherton showed that many major events that were almost world-shaking, but turned out not to be, the simple explanations seem to pass muster with everyone. JFK was killed, changing the course of history, so the lone-gunman story didn’t make sense to conspiracy theorists. Ronald Reagan was shot, but survived, meaning normality was restored, and there are today no serious Reagan-shooting conspiracy theories.

There was also a thing about some black and white animated geometric shapes fighting with each other, which was cool, but I was thinking too hard about the button I had to press at the time.

Well, let me tell you, if you didn’t see it here in person, when the video goes up at some point in the medium to distant future, you’re going to love it. Especially the camera switching, which was nothing short of inspired.


Header image by Mark Boslough.

Eugenie Scott on Changing Minds: Treat People Like a People, Not Symbols

You might have heard that it’s pretty hard to change people’s minds. I bet no one knows this better than skeptics who have the unenviable task of trying to dissuade society from buying into false and harmful beliefs that are nonetheless appealing and entrenched.

Photo by Brian Engler

A true favorite of the skeptic universe, Eugenie Scott, gathered up some of the latest and most compelling research on the question of why people resist knowledge, and guided us to some answers that are both frustrating and encouraging.

Here’s what the problem isn’t: People who reject the reality of climate change, evolution, vaccines, or what have you, don’t do it because they’re stupid, uninformed, or even opposed to science. It has much more to do with ideology and the shared values of a tribe.

Now, interestingly, Scott cautioned us not to demean ideologies generally. (“Ideology is not a four-letter word.”) An ideology can certainly blind one to certain truths if it’s not a particularly good one, but a strong ideology can serve as a valuable framework for doing genuine good.

But we also have to grapple with the fact that for us tribal humans, ideology will more often than not trump evidence. The stakes for being wrong can be much too high for members of a given ideological group. Scott summarized this as thinking, “Something is going to be lost if the other guy is right.”

But there are solutions: Finding the right messengers, those who are members of a tribe and can connect on their level and with their values. A great example is Katharine Hayhoe, the evangelical Christian climate scientist.

It gets even simpler, actually, at least according to Scott. “Here’s my low-tech solution,” she said. “People need to talk to each other.”

What’s this now?

“Even if you’re from a different tribe, you can build up a level of trust with those who disagree with you,” she advised, giving people the chance to “get to know each other as individuals rather than as symbols.”

If we can do that, “The science then has a chance to be listened to.”


Header image by Mark Boslough.

Teresa Giménez Barbat: Skepticism in the Heart of Europe

Teresa Giménez Barbat of Barcelona is a member of the European Parliament, and before the attendees of CSICon 2017, she positioned herself squarely as an ally and advocate for skepticism and secularism. Her job, she said, is “to make skepticism and secularism heard in the heart of Europe.”

While the issues she works on would certainly be familiar to us in the U.S., it is telling that one of the more absurd examples of what she calls “homeopathic laws” — laws that are well intentioned but have no real benefit — include the bizarre regulation dictating the curvature of cucumbers.

There are instances of dangerous science denial, of course, though according to Barbat it can come in forms that are sort of chimeras of American issues. For example, she’s dealt with those who blame global warming on “patriarchal attitudes.” Well, I could see a case for that, but of course the point is that it’s an avoidance of the plain physical causes of climate change.

And, with an issue that is right at the heart of CFI’s international efforts, Barbat discussed how she advocates for the rights of those accused of apostacy and blasphemy in countries like Pakistan.

She revealed how she had not always been a skeptic, with a nominally Catholic childhood followed by a young adulthood, in which she confessed to being “an annoying and insufferable hippie.” It takes courage to admit that.

A Conversation, Not a Lecture, with the Science Moms

Alison Bernstein in Science Moms

The attendees of CSICon 2017 had the privilege of being the first audience for Science Moms, a new documentary that illustrates the challenge for mothers who want to do what’s best for their kids, but are beset by pseudoscience and paranoia about things like “chemicals” and GMOs. Through interviews with five such moms with careers in science, we get both an idea of what the modern parent has to contend with, as well as some clarity on some of the more hot-button issues around food and health.

At a panel discussion after the screening, those same five women were joined in stage by the film’s director, Natalie Newell, host of The Science Enthusiast Podcast. And one theme that emerged both from the film and the Q&A session was one of empathy. “We all get that fear, having a little human being depending on you is terrifying,” said neuroscientist Alison Bernstein. That shared concern, that all parents just want what’s best for their children, is the starting point for conversation (as opposed to a lecture).

And also important is the acknowledgement that there aren’t clear-cut heroes and villains. GMOs, vaccines, and other scientific breakthroughs in food and health save and improve lives, but it also so happens that the ones funding and marketing these breakthroughs are faceless corporate behemoths.

“We’re defending pharma,” noted Bernstein, “and they have done some terrible things. … I find that hard, so I try to stick to the science.”

And as Kavin Senapathy pointed out, when anti-GMO activists make it harder for GMOs to come into being, it leaves only megacorporations like Monsanto with the resources to continue the work. “It only helps Monsanto,” she said, by clearing away all other potential competition and innovators.

The full movie will be available online in the next couple of weeks, and it’s definitely going to wake some people up.

Sheldon Helms on Gay Conversion Therapy: “This Shit Doesn’t Work”

It’s genuinely upsetting when one is reminded of the cruelty visited upon gays and lesbians who are forced or coerced into conversion therapy. Experimental psychology professor Sheldon Helms came to CSICon to educate us about this gruesome phenomenon, and remarkably was able to do so with remarkably good humor, but without dismissing the gravity of the subject at all.

So, on the subject in question, gay conversion therapy, Helms opened with a key observation. “I don’t know what else you heard, but this shit doesn’t work.”

Interesting, interesting. Tell us more.

Helms provided numerous examples of the misadventures and cruelties of the bigger conversion groups, and “the long bloody battle” to curb them. For example, Exodus International “treats” gayness with things like same-sex retreats (“which are counterproductive,” noted Helms), and hammered home to the “patients” the idea that God didn’t love them for their sexual orientation.

Helms visited a little pain on Exodus by buying their URL when they forgot to renew it. Now he says, at exodusinternational.com, Helms shouts with glee, “You see me giving this talk!” (I can’t get it to work, though.)

We’re used to the idea of religious zealots imposing their views of sex on everyone else, but it’s perhaps even more disturbing when it’s actual psychiatric professionals. That’s what you get with the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). “They are people who should know better,” said Helms.

But hey, they just suggest that guys who don’t want to be gay anymore get more involved with sports and avoid the arts. That sounds like a pretty awful life to me.

Okay, but the ugliness gets exponentially worse when you learn about “aversion therapy,” which I could quickly summarize as torturing the gay away. Patients are subjected to discomfort and pain when they are exposed to images related to homosexuality (a man holding hands with a man), ranging from holding ice blocks to being shocked with a car battery, and only relieved when the “straight” imagery is shown. It’s horrifying.

And there’s not enough being done. Eight states ban gay conversion therapy, but only in certain circumstances. In some places, kids can’t be subjected to conversion therapy by a psychiatric professional, but a clergy member sure can subject the kids to the pain and shame. And as for adults, they can choose for themselves.

So this is still a problem, and there needs to be a much better understanding among the public and policymakers that this therapy is cruelty, and it doesn’t even work.

Ross Blocher: Absorb the Dumb, Plant the Seed

Maybe it’s just a hobbyhorse of mine, but I’ve seen enough haughty skepticism that revels in “being right” rather than making things better for everyone. So when I’m exposed to new ways to approach skeptical activism isn’t purely about hostility, conflict, and fist-shaking, I’m intrigued. Even more so if it’s an overtly compassionate approach.

One model for me is the Joe Nickell approach, which I can broadly summarize as one in which each extraordinary claim is taken on its merits. Joe doesn’t look to “debunk” a ghost sighting, for example, and prove the poor fools wrong, but rather he investigates. He takes each new claim as a puzzle to solve, not as an opportunity to ridicule someone who believed something that wasn’t so.

The approach of Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy in their Oh No! Ross and Carrie podcast is related to Joe’s, but rather than investigate individual instances, they enter into the worlds of these believers, open to the experiences they offer, and bring their observations back to us.

Photo by Mark Boslough

“We are excited by people’s beliefs,” said Blocher in his presentation today, showing us a number of examples of his and Poppy’s adventures in the worlds of Scientology, Raelianism, mystical cancer cures, coal walkers, and on and on. In each immersion, they use their real names, they have real conversations, and seek not to debunk claims, but to evaluate an experience. They don’t even really use the word “skepticism” in their show, even though that’s exactly what they’re practicing.

Blocher told us that we need more people taking this kind of approach, and I agree. The Blocher-Poppy theory is aimed at avoiding anger and hostility in favor of “planting a seed.” Rather than getting into a conflict and merely trading bad feelings, you “absorb the dumb,” take in the presumably-bad ideas and remain open while you learn more. The effect is often very positive. “A lot of people are jerks about this,” Blocher says believers will tell him, “but you’re someone I can talk to.”

There’s the seed. Now there’s a little more space to learn and maybe even change a mind. I dig that.

Everybody Plots All the Time! – Tanner Edis on Misinformation Outside the U.S.

Taner Edis gave a remarkably compelling and sobering talk this morning on how an advanced, modern society can find itself in thrall to conservative religious politics, baseless medical treatments, the institutional embrace of pseudoscience, the diminishment of secular expertise, and an embrace of conspiracy thinking and creationism.

Oh, I’m sorry to mislead you. I was talking about Turkey, not the United States.

Edis used Turkey as his prime example for how a culture can become hostile to science, and the pieces of Turkey’s puzzle looked a lot like ours. As George Hrab remarked at the end of Edis’s talk, “It’s beautiful how human beings are the same everywhere, and it’s also really sad that human beings are the same everywhere.”

Some examples: Culture wars in the 70s in Turkey laid the groundwork for a rise in creationist thinking and its inculcation into institutions. Conservative religiosity is now the rule in Turkey, as concepts like evolution are excised from the educational system. All this time, the government becomes ever more secretive.

Creationism itself is marketed in a modern and media-savvy way, dressed up almost like a Tony Robbins-esque path to success as much as a theology.

Meanwhile, the public doesn’t trust anyone, especially “experts” and elites, and identifies with conspiracy theories, yes, even about 9/11. Edis said the popular attitude boiled down to, “Everybody plots all the time!”

You get the point, I assume. The names are different (usually), and the degrees of impact that each factor contributes vary, but the fundamentals are there.

So one key point from Edis’s presentation was that we can take lessons for skeptical activism by observing the similarities and differences among nations and cultures as they lean toward or away from hostility to science and the embrace of woo. We need to look more closely at the role the media and corporations play in advancing anti-scientific thinking, and what they have to gain.

So hey! It’s not just us, everybody! But, uh oh. It’s not just us.