Joe Nickell, the Skeptic’s Conscience

We use the word “debunking” all the time in skepticism, right? All the time. It can seem like debunking is our raison d’être. Why we exist.

This attitude is one of the reasons Joe Nickell is so valuable to this movement. You already know that he’s probably the world’s most renowned investigator of the paranormal and extraordinary claims. But he also serves, when necessary, as the skeptic’s conscience.

Joe’s mission at CSICon this year was to put an end to the inclination of many skeptics to dismiss believers in paranormal claims before investigating the claim itself. Joe has done the hands-on and in-person investigation and interviews, and concludes, “We have to stop this attitude, stop this business [of treating witnesses] like there’s something wrong with them…these are intelligent, sincere sober people.”

He used as an example the Flatwoods UFO case from 1952, where locals saw something fall from the sky, and then encountered what they thought was an alien or monster with shining eyes, that glided toward them, made a horrible hissing sound, and bore “terrible claws.”

Joe pointed out that this was not a hoax by any means. It was not the result of stupidity. This was a real thing seen by real people. And they were absolutely terrified. They deserved to be taken seriously.

nickell-flatwoodsJoe of course figured out what really happened. Not a hoax, not an attempt at gaining attention, but a real encounter. It just wasn’t an encounter with an alien. It was a barn owl. The noise, the shining eyes (flashlights reflecting in the bird’s eyes), the ability to “glide,” and as reported by the witness, a head shaped like the ace of spades.

These weren’t crazy people. These were people who didn’t understand what they saw under very scary, tense conditions in the darkness.

There’s no benefit to just feeling superior to people who witness things they can’t explain. To the person who waves away the idea of investigating paranormal claims and says, “I already know there’s no ghosts (or what have you),” Joe responds, “Well, good for you. A skeptic and a damn genius as well.”

Joe knows there’s so much to be learned from these investigations. About psychology, mental states, how illusions work on our sense, and much more. “It’s not just about us,” says Joe.

So next time you wonder why Skeptical Inquirer continues to investigate hauntings, UFO sightings, and Bigfoot appearances, and you think, “Ugh, this again,” remember that each new investigation reveals something new. Not about whether these things exist, but the myriad factors that go into each event.

“In real investigative efforts,” said Joe, “the debunking will take care of itself.”

Tamar Wilner is the Hero CSICon Needs (And So Can You!)

On the plane ride to Vegas, which was rather long, I took the opportunity to finally watch Batman v. Superman, opting for the “Ultimate Edition” to take up more flight time. (I had to watch it on my phone because there was literally no room to place my laptop on my tray in front of me.) Now, I don’t understand all the hate for this movie, I really, really liked it a lot, and I don’t care what that makes you think about me.

And I loved Wonder Woman in the movie. She was great, Gal Gadot was excellent, and I was all ginned up for the standalone movie. Well done, Warner Bros. You hooked me.

You know who else is interested in Wonder Woman? Tamar Wilner, who came to discuss how we can gather up “strands” for our own virtual Lassos of Truth, just like Wonder Woman has. (Didn’t really come up in Batman v. Superman, though.)

Wilner is a great journalist, seriously. I’ve been admiring her work since it came to my attention a couple of years ago, when she covered the enraging case of cancer-quack Stanislaw Burzynski in Texas. She’s written for Skeptical Inquirer, and she did an interview on our own Point of Inquiry podcast earlier this year.

Not unlike David Helfand on stage just before her, Wilner wants to convey the severity of the misinformation problem on the web, thus her desire to arm us all with Lassos of Truth. The strands are fundamental, none of it should be surprising, but they are so rarely fully weaved together as they need to be in order to effectively process bad information.

Briefly, the lasso strands ask us to:

  • Ask if the claim even makes sense, if the text justifies the headline or sounds too good to be true.
  • Check if the story is from a satirical/fake-news source, of which there are many, and few of which actually achieving comedy.
  • Reference the many fact-checking websites that make debunking their business.
  • Ask questions about photos and videos, as in, where were they taken and when, are there technical issues or inconsistencies, or whether have they been altered.
  • Investigate social media sources, such as follower counts and how recently an account was created, and indeed, investigate the actual humans making claims.

And finally, when you want to spread the good news of the truth you’ve unearthed, she emphasizes that you not become part of the problem by repeating the deceptive or incorrect claims, giving them more fuel. “Headlining with the myth is really the worst thing you can do.”

You can see her notes on this presentation at

Do you feel like a superhero now, or at least comparably armed? I do! Tamar Wilner is clearly the hero that CSICon needs and deserves.

Beware the “Google-Fed Zombies” says David Helfand on Mass Misinformation

We human beings, thanks to the Internet, are producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of information every day. We must be really smart!

Nope! David Helfand is here to make the case that the information democratization brought by the advent of the Internet is drowning us in misinformation. Those 2.5 quintillion bytes? “All of it is not carefully edited.”

Helfand is author of the book A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age, and he’s concerned that as a society we have collectively decided that “the upper right hand corner of your browser is the equivalent of thinking.”

The vaccine denial movement is a useful case in point, where misinformation results in tangible harm. Perhaps the most powerful symbolic example of this, is that at Google’s own daycare center for employees, only 50% of kids had been vaccinated. The people of Google itself were falling for the bad information that they get by relying too heavily on Google searches.

Careful not to be taken as some anti-technology crank, he differentiates the information revolutions of printing and broadcast from the Internet. Reading a book or watching a movie, he says, is “an individual act,” passive, with no way to give feedback, and with no way to control the source of information.

Contrast that with the Internet, where we do control the course, curating our own news flow and excluding any information that doesn’t confirm with our existing worldviews. This creates what he calls “armies of the uninformed.”

If the Internet’s 2.5 quintillion bytes mostly just serves to reinforce group identity, what do we do? Helfand isn’t sure, but he suggests you might start by buying his book. How you’d give him feedback on that book, I’m not sure, especially since he says he doesn’t carry a smartphone.

“I live in this wonderful bubble of tranquility.” Sounds lovely.

Stuart Vyse Trains Our Brains on Brain-Training

I remember when I first started seeing Stuart Vyse’s columns at the CSI website, and with each piece, always thinking, “Wow, I’m really glad someone wrote about that.” That’s how I felt again seeing Vyse discuss the claims of “brain-training” games and services. And yes, he wrote about this subject in 2015 for CSI in a piece called “Neuro-Pseudoscience.”

Vyse traced the recent history of this app-age phenomenon, in which games (games are fun!) are said to be able to exercise one’s brain into being a stronger, quicker muscle of cognition. He went all the way back to an old Nintendo DS game from 2005, “Brain Age,” but let them more or less off the hook. “They get a little bit of cover when it comes to false advertising,” because despite some of the claims made about the product, it remained, really, “just a game.”

Not so with services like Lumosity, however. Companies like this market their brain-training services as being backed by serious science, boasting scientists on board with them, and promising real-world benefits outside of the games in the training regimen.

You don’t need to read Stuart’s article or see his presentation to guess what the truth about these claims are: Baseless. There have been multiple “scientific salvos” launched by both skeptical scientists and the companies themselves, but a reliable, controlled study did find that while Lumosity-style games to make one better at other Lumosity-style games, there are no broader, “transferable” cognitive effects in any other areas of life.

This leads to the question, if you’ve been trying to train your brain with these services, what else could you have been doing instead? “If you want to be better at an activity,” said Vyse, “it might be best to practice it directly.” Imagine that.

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.”