George Hrab Will Do God’s Work at CSICon

No, really! Opening Friday’s events at CSICon 2017, comedian and musician George Hrab debuted a brand new song, never before performed in public (so he says), “Thoughts and Prayers,” offered as the cure-all for the intractable existential crises that consume our civilization.

All one must do in the aftermath of horrendous tragedy is offer thoughts and prayers, because, Hrab sings, “It’s heartfelt and it’s humble and it’s the least that you ca do.” It’s also “100% effortless.”

And yes, the song does go beyond mocking this cliché, and gets to the core of the issue. “Of course we have to do God’s work, it’s not like God’ll do it.”

You’ll just have to trust me that it’s also catchy.

Photos: CSICon 2017, Day 1

Good morning, readers and attendees. Before we get to the day’s events, here are some photos from the Skeptic’s Toolbox workshop and other conference prep that went on yesterday before I arrived from the far reaches of New England.

Here’s your guide to crediting photos for this year’s CFI Live at CSICon: If it’s a nice photo, it’s by CFI board member and renaissance man Brian Engler.

Cody Hashman and Rosemarie Giambrone
Martina Fern and Robert Stern
Jim Underdown
Leonard Tramiel and Lawrence Krauss
Kendrick Frazier
Ray Hyman and Lindsay Beyerstein

Lawrence Krauss on Seeing What’s Really There

Lawrence Krauss gave us the first formal presentation of CSICon 2017, and it really did set just the right tone and frame a good mindset for this whole weekend. He opened with a quote from J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine, “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” And this is certainly true, particularly in the context of the very human penchant for denying some of the more difficult or less scrutable realities.

But what I took away from Krauss’s talk had less to do with accepting unappealing truths, and more to do with appreciating how the process of asking questions and investigation can open up countless avenues of discovery, “seeing what is really there” both in the sense of finding the utterly unexpected as well as the confirmation of the predictions of science.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend I understood every bit of physics eloquently and passionately described by Krauss, but I did find Krauss’s enthusiasm infectious as he laid out the astounding implications of phenomena observed and theories proven.

He talked about neutrinos, those subatomic particles that are constantly careening through the universe (Krauss advised we take tonight to ponder how they are right now shooting through our walls, our beds, and our bodies), that are responsible for the fact that the matter and antimatter after the Big Bang didn’t result in a universe devoid of anything other than radiation.

He talked about the sun, and how asking questions about its nature leads us to understand why we human beings, and all other things, exist. “Stars died so you could be here,” he reminded us. “You are connected to the universe in an immediate way.”

We even learned that gold is the result of neutron stars colliding. Imagine how many neutron stars were sacrificed for Trump’s apartment! (I’m sorry, I should have left Trump out of the second post. I’ll do better, I promise.)

And it all came down to an incredibly simple principle. “If we’re willing to go where nature takes us, even if it’s somewhere we don’t wanna go,” we are given the opportunity to find “the poetry of reality.” Rather than stubbornly cling to old beliefs that at first blush seem more pleasant (or “believe in all the garbage”) we get to experience the awe and wonder of the universe for what it truly is.

It just so happens that the reality of the universe we inhabit is, all on its own, full of wonder and beauty and complexity. It didn’t need to be, but really, I suspect we’d find it to have all those qualities anyway, because, well, it’s what we are.

A commitment to following the threads wherever they might lead. “That’s what makes a conference like this so great,” said Krauss. That’s a good thing to remember.

A Skeptics’ Conference in a Time of Unreason: Welcome to CSICon 2017

After a very, very long day of crossing timezones on what was just about the most uncomfortable flight of my life (really, guy in front of me, you have to lean all the way back? For the whole six hours?) I made it to the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas for CSICon 2017 just in time to catch the opening remarks.

Let me rephrase that. I showed up just in time to see my boss donning a suit, red tie, and baseball cap behaving like an anti-intellectual boor. It was Center for Inquiry president and CEO Robyn Blumner invoking the spirit of our president, telling the gathered skeptics that we’re all wasting our time, that anger and impulse reign supreme, and that “I hope you all fail.”

I was not prepared for this!

Frankly, I was glad that Robyn had broken the make-fun-of-Trump ice before I did. You know, we’re definitively nonpartisan as an organization, but there’s no getting around what it is that Trump represents, which is more or less the opposite of everything we stand for. So, you know, you gotta address the desperate cheeto in the room.

And we needed the laugh, because the tone of the non-performative opening remarks was remarkably grimmer than we heard one year ago in the same room in the same hotel at last year’s CSICon.

How innocent we all were back then!

One year ago, we all pretty much assumed things were going to be different, and how very wrong we were. And believe me, it is not easy for a conference full of skeptics to deal with the feeling of being wrong.

So both Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier and CFI chair Eddie Tabash were rather grave when describing the context of this year’s conference. “We meet during a most difficult period for our country,” said Eddie (referring both to our political climate and the massacre by a gunman at a Las Vegas hotel only a few weeks ago). There’s no getting around it: We have a president who is diametrically opposed to facts and reason, an administration bent on dismantling, well, all of science, and an electorate that seems at least open to the idea of letting them all get away with it.

And then all the old problems still exist, of course. We still have climate change denial, billions wasted and lives risked on fake medicine, evolution is on the chopping block in public school science classes, and on and on. It’s all the same stuff, but now we don’t have any allies at the top, at least in the U.S.

But hey, hey, I’m not trying to be a downer here. It’s still a huge skeptics’ conference at the enormous and ridiculous Excalibur Hotel in the weirdest city on Earth: Washington Las Vegas. There’s gonna be talks from the brightest minds in skepticism, great entertainment, and good times with friends old and new.

As for me (Paul), I’ll be doing this. Typing furiously as I attempt to give you a sense of what happens when hundreds of enthusiastic realists get together in the city of illusions.