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

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.

We Are Not Above Suckerhood: In Which I Present a Critical Thinking Award to Maria Konnikova

As I mentioned yesterday, it was my job to present the Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova for her book The Confidence Game, and that’s what I did. Oh, but unlike most of the rest of the conference, there will be no video record of my remarks, no historical record of the tears, the guffaws, and the many empty seats because most attendees were still recovering from the Tournament of Kings performance that had just concluded.

Lucky you, I just happen to have written my remarks in advance, and now you, dear reader of this quasi-live blog, can enjoy, through the glory of text, my award presentation to Maria Konnikova last night.

Photo by Mark Boslough

Good evening all, I’m Paul Fidalgo, communications director of CFI and host of its monthly-ish podcast Point of Inquiry. I’m here to present the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking, which is a $2,500 award given to the creator of the published work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. [Etcetera etcetera.] …

There’s a sucker born every minute, goes the line attributed to PT Barnum. This fairly cynical cliche continues to resonate today because it evokes that which we all feel in our guts to be true: That some folks—many, many folks—will fall for just about anything. Of course, we are usually thinking of folks other than ourselves.

There’s a problem. When the phrase was supposed to have been spoken by Barnum, sometime in the middle to late 19th century, the word “sucker” wasn’t yet commonly in use to mean someone who is easily fooled. There is in fact no evidence that the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute,” was ever spoken or written by Barnum, in any variation, at all.

Who’s the sucker now?

Whoever coined the phrase, they were clearly giving humanity too much of the benefit of the doubt. A recent UNICEF estimate tells us that about 353,000 babies are born every day. That means that in our era, about 255 suckers are born every minute. Because, really, within each of us beats the heart of a chump.

Photo by @Skeptishrink

Maria Konnikova’s book, The Confidence Game, carries the subtitle “Why We Fall for it Every Time.” I think that “we” is important, because there’s nothing particularly special about being the victim of a con. We are all susceptible to having our biases, emotions, and self-images taken advantage of, manipulated by those who have made the engineering of our internal decision-making their livelihood.

It is not only a surplus of suckers we have to be worried about. “If you’re a sentient being you’ve almost certainly deceived at some point in your life,” writes Konnikova. “From reptiles to humans, the animal kingdom is full of liars.” So now we have untold thousands of liars born every minute, spanning an array of species. It’s all too much.

It seems to me that The Confidence Game could not have come at a better time. Last year, when we gathered here, we didn’t know we were about to begin living under the reign of Trump. Whatever your political persuasion, it is undeniable that our president emits lies as though he’s using them for echolocation, it’s like he doesn’t know where he is unless he can hear his bullshit waves bounce back to him. Most of us underestimated the lure of someone who reinforced the existing beliefs and biases of millions of people, who convinced them that he alone could fix what was broken in America, much of which he had made up to begin with. And for a con artist, Trump’s not even very good at it. He didn’t have to be. We are just that vulnerable.

And frankly, Trump is low-hanging fruit. Also attesting to the timeliness of The Confidence Game is the state of our lives online. Konnikova tells us that the con man’s genius lies in his ability to “figure out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering that desire.” Put aside the plague of fake news and viral hoaxes. Is it not the the very mission of companies like Facebook to be the “perfect vehicle for delivering [our] desires?” Presumably, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon aren’t trying to scam us outright. But with the intimate knowledge they have of every facet of our lives, including our biases and emotional triggers, well, it wouldn’t be all that hard to turn us all into their marks.

I think the skeptic movement is at its worst when its members conclude that they are above suckerhood, and deride those who have been taken in by cons, hoaxes, and false claims, mutually reassuring each other of our imperviousness to bullshit. I know I have at times been guilty of this.

But at its best, the skeptic movement accepts that to err is human, that 255 suckers are indeed born every minute and that we count ourselves among them. Konnikova advises the reader to “know yourself well enough to recognize and control your emotional reactions. What kinds of things provoke what kinds of responses in me – and can I see it happening early enough to resist it by staying grounded in details and logic?” In order to fortify the public against the forces of bullshit, we have to look to ourselves, and understand what could cause us to tip from skepticism into credulity. Once we accept our own susceptibility, then we are best able to do what movement skepticism was intended to do: to keep people from being scammed in the first place, whatever form the scam takes.

The Confidence Game is a book that is more valuable than perhaps was even intended. Without condescension, without derision, and without unrealistic promises of a “cure,” Konnikova drops into the hands of readers the bad guys’ playbook. Here is how the con artist plies his trade and plies his victims. And the lessons are applicable far beyond the relatively small pool of con artists, helping to arm us against deception in whatever form it takes, and revealing just how vulnerable all of us are to having our most foundational concepts of self and society coolly and surreptitiously manipulated so that we act against our own interests.

Oh lordy, do we need that now.

And thankfully, we got it. That’s why I’m delighted to present the Balles Prize for Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova.

Header photo by Mark Boslough.

Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman: “Jesus Wept!”

Richard Dawkins is rather unflappable, but I do suspect he wasn’t quite ready, at least at first, for questioning by Richard Wiseman, who, let’s face it, gets rather silly. Impish? Yes, I’d say so. Now, the conversation the two had on stage at CSICon 2017 was fun and fluid, with lots of great insights and big laughs. But I also think the one Richard didn’t quite see the other Richard coming.

And I mean that in the best sense. It’s kind of cool to see Dawkins light up with delight at the playfulness of Wiseman, even if he didn’t always know exactly how to respond to it. For example, Wiseman displayed a picture of a truly odd sculpture of, supposedly, Dawkins, to which Dawkins exclaimed, “Jesus wept!” Also, Wiseman insisted that his Aunt Jean was not at all selfish, so how would Dawkins explain that? There was nothing to say to that. But usually, he very much did know how to respond.

Wiseman, in one of the non-silly lines of questioning, was interested in Dawkins’ expectations and reactions concerning his biggest books, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Dawkins revealed that he had hoped to begin work on The God Delusion as far back as the late nineties, but there was a belief that such a book would fare poorly. Fast forward through five or six years of the George W. Bush administration, and it was suddenly clear that it was time to make it happen.

Now, it’s estimated not only that the book has sold about three million copies, but that the unauthorized Arabic language version, only existing as a digital file, has been downloaded about 30 million times. Why? Dawkins hopes there is “a hidden groundswell of irreligion in the Muslim world, a mismatch between what we’re told they believe and what they do.”

What can still impress someone like Richard Dawkins, the great evolutionary biologist? What makes him say “wow”? Well, actually, it’s more evolutionary biology. Dawkins said he’d read about incredibly elaborate termite mounds, which Daniel Dennett had pointed out look remarkably like large, magnificent churches. But it wasn’t just the similarity that blew him away. He was amazed that “one was built by design,” the church had an architect who devised every detail, but the other had no designer whatsoever. In fact, not one of the termites has any idea what they’re making. That’s astounding.

Dawkins always gets asked about aliens. You can always bet on an aliens question. (Listen to my Point of Inquiry episode with Lee Billings to learn more about what we know, or rather don’t know, about aliens.) He says, yes, he does believe there are likely other creatures elsewhere in the universe, and that they could very well so advanced as to be god-like to us. But if they are god-like, “they didn’t create the universe. They would have evolved in it.”

There was much more of course, but I’ll leave you with this. He is, in fact, working on an atheism-for-kids book, and he has an idea of what his final quote should be:

“There is such a thing as the truth. The truth is to be discovered by science. And the truth is utterly wonderful.”

Yeah, that’s pretty good.

P.S.: Here’s the Peter Medawar review of Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man that Dawkins said he loved so. Enjoy.

Photo by Brian Engler

Kevin Folta: Share the Truth, Defend the Truth-Tellers

First thing, quick housekeeping note: Because I’m trying to churn out these posts in as timely a manner as possible, such that smoke rises from the unthinkably rapid collisions of my fingertips on my laptop’s keys, I’ve made an executive decision to use the lunch and dinner talks as a chance to get a break and regenerate in my cyber-organic alcove, even if only a little. I’m sorry. But despite all appearances, I am only human.

That means I was unable to report on the talk given by Steven Novella just now, but remember you can at the very least read along with attendees’ real-time responses, for these and all other talks, by following the #CSICon hashtag on Twitter. You know, where reasonable discourse usually takes place.


Kevin Folta needs you to be a part of an army of Johnny and Janie Appleseeds, except the seeds you drop will be remarkably resilient to pests, remove allergens, and help alleviate starvation in developing countries.

When you listen to Kevin Folta, you can’t help but find yourself with very big feelings about things like gene editing and Vitamin A. You see, it’s so easy for cutting edge genetic science to be distorted and demonized. It’s unfamiliar territory, it’s complex, and it reminds people of creepy sci-fi scenarios. But Folta gives the science – and more importantly, the drive to advance that science – a human face and voice.

And that voice sometimes strains around sudden surges of emotion, sparked by his descriptions of the effort to use gene editing to protect and improve staple crops that can keep people alive and prevent diseases, only to have those efforts blocked by anti-GMO activists.

They’re not just a nuisance. Folta says the grassroots efforts in the U.S. to stop genetic modification of food also changes the attitudes of those on whose behalf the work is being done. We know too well the mistrust that people in many parts of the developing world have for the U.S., and the campaigns to stop gene editing and other innovations can turn the beneficiaries against the very thing that is intended to save them.

Folta is deeply affected by this dynamic, frustrating to no end, especially considering the good that could be done for children who are malnourished. But it’s also personal for him, having been the prime target of an anti-GMO propaganda effort to discredit him, resulting in, among other things, a damaging New York Times piece for which he was asked what it felt like “to be a tool” of the agriculture industry.

But he says he got through it because of this community. People like us. When academics were too spooked to rise to occasion, it was the skeptic movement that stepped up and pushed back. And this, says Folta, shows the best of what this movement can do. “The science and skepticism audience can really make a difference here,” he said, by doing what we do best: Share the truths that science tells us, and defend those who tell the truth.

And we’re needed. Folta described the example of a young post-doc colleague of his who works with birds, who PETA has tried to bully and harass. It represents a cynical new tack, says Folta. “They’re going after early career females with families,” knowing that they are particularly vulnerable to being pushed out of their work.

So Folta wants us to be part of the solution, to resist the bullying, and most importantly, to share the truth. “Science,” he insists, still holding back some tears, “can win.”

Maria Konnikova and the Luck Delusion

Later this evening, I’m going to be handing the far-too-heavy and frankly-dangerous Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova, the New Yorker writer and author of books including The Confidence Game and an upcoming book on poker. (She tells me not to worry about the weight of the award, she does yoga.)

I mention this here because at the top of her presentation, Konnikova asked the audience whether we feel that we are “lucky.” A good chunk of folks raised their hands to say yes, they’re lucky, by far the most indicated that they do not believe themselves to be lucky or unlucky (they’re skeptics, after all), and when she asked who thinks they are unlucky, I was (as far as I could tell) the lone hand to pop up, and rather enthusiastically.

(I should clarify. This is my shtick. I’m actually astoundingly lucky in countless ways, but I kind of do this Charlie Brown-esque everything’s-terrible thing as part of my persona and various pathologies. So it was mostly performative.)

“You and I will need to talk, sir,” Konnikova said to me from the stage with a wry smile, not knowing at the time that I would be her award presenter. Because I’m human, I found this charming collection of interactions, within this context, to be, well, what…lucky? Something like that.

Which of course it wasn’t, not in the sense of some mystical force called “luck” ensuring that I had a somewhat humorously ironic connection with Konnikova. It was just a thing that happened.

Here’s what’s really lucky. “Out of all the potential people that could have been born, you were born,” she told us. “You are here. And that is awesome.” It’s not mystical, but it is kind of a big deal.

It’s a big deal and it was out of our control, so whatever “luck” brought us into being evaporated as soon as we began existence. But in other aspects of our lives, we operate under the illusion of control, which Konnikova exemplified by citing a study involving coin-flip predictions, where subjects really believed that they could “practice” and “get better” at guessing heads or tails. Which is of course nonsense. And yet it feels real to people.

This manifests in the gambling world, in which Konnikova has spent a year of her life to research her new book, in two key falacies: One is the Gambler’s Fallacy, where people believe that some outcome of a game of chance is “due” to occur for whatever reason, which of course it isn’t. The other is the Hot Hand Fallacy, where a player or a team will believe they have some injection of luck pushing them through a string of successes. That one’s more complicated.

But, Konnikova says that generally, “Chance is random, it really doesn’t care what’s already happened. At all.” The Hot Hand Fallacy only shows little signs of validity because of psychology. In a competitive sport, greater confidence can improve a player’s performance or maybe intimidate the opponent, increasing the chances for additional success.

What’s the lesson of all this? Just sneer at folks who believe in luck? Hell no. “Shit happens,” Konnikova says, and it’s something we need to just accept. We need to embrace the confidence and happiness we get when good shit happens, and acknowledge that bad shit will also happen, and simply make the most of all of it.

“Thinking about luck in this way will make us better players at life,” she said.

Okay, okay. I’ll try.

You can watch Konnikova’s presentation at last year’s CSICon here at CFI’s Reasonable Talk.

You Can’t Help But Be Wrong: Richard Wiseman on Creating Curiosity

Almost as a direct contrast to Lawrence Krauss’s presentation last night in which we were reminded to look to see what is actually there, Richard Wiseman showed us how we can’t help but see things that aren’t.

To make an example of all of us, he asked us to choose one card out of a set of five on the screen, and lo and behold, when he took one away, we all believed he had taken away the one we had chosen. (“Not so skeptical now, are we?”) Well, he had taken our card, but only because he had swapped out every card, leaving four wholly new cards, making is seem to us that he had somehow plucked something from our minds.

But just as with all good magic tricks, we were delighted to be fooled.

The point was that our brains cannot resist trying to make sense of the senseless, has no choice but to seek patterns and understandable and familiar images. We see faces in random objects, and we miss big changes that don’t interest our brains. “You can’t overcome this bias,” said Wiseman.

“We’re not seeing what’s there,” he said. “We’re bringing a lot to the party.”

Well, it’s a good thing we brought Wiseman to the party.

Oh, I forgot to add, you know that optical illusion image of what could either be a duck or a rabbit depending on how you look at it? Wiseman said that as this picture has been studied by experts over a hundred years, “the consensus is that it’s actually a rabbit.”

Whatever. I’m #TeamDuck all the way.

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.