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.

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 Vox.com. 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.”