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.

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.