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.

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.”


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.”

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.”

Born Thinking Magically: James Alcock on Confusing Labels for Knowledge

If you’ve been around the secular community for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the cliché that goes, “we are all born atheist.” I bristle at it, because it’s not as though we come into the world affirmatively rejecting the supernatural beings hypothesis. It’s kind of like saying we’re born undecided voters.

James Alcock is our first CSICon speaker, and he’s talking about how human beings make associations between things that actually have no relationship. He began with circular explanations for things that actually give us no information, as when one asks, “why does the apple fall from the tree,” and the answer is, “because of gravity.” How do we know gravity is operating? Because the apple fell, silly.

“We confuse labels for knowledge,” says Alcock. No real information comes out of that.

It applies to things like the association of prayer with events in the real world: one prays to get over an illness, one gets over the illness, and it’s falsely assumed that prayer works.

But here’s the thing. We’re wired for this. Alcock explains that we have evolved to perceive agency in things that have none, to make associations that might not exist. Believing comes naturally.

Critical thinking is one of the last intellectual skills human children develop. We’re not born atheist, you see. As we learned from Alcock today, “We are born as magical thinkers.” I think that just makes skeptics’ work all the more important.

Skeptics Come to a Fantasy World to “Survive the Present Moment”

In the promotional material for CSICon this year, we used a lot of allusions to Vegas as a “city of illusions,” a notable contrast to the aims of a conference like this: the dispelling of illusions, or at least harmful ones. And arriving here during the day, to a hotel like the Excalibur, yes, it’s about illusion, for sure, but not in the sense of being fooled or having your mind blown as in a magic act. It’s more in the sense of a wilful illusion. “Let’s pretend this is a magic castle.”

On a hazy day in Las Vegas, the place looks almost like an abandoned theme park. Well, that’s not quite right. Maybe more like a distant relative of a theme park that sometimes gets involved in some questionable dealings and we just don’t bring it up at Thanksgiving. But the Excalibur itself is particularly fantastic; I audibly chuckled when I finally saw it from my taxi window. It’s a monument to “let’s play pretend.”

But we’re not going to see too much of the outside of this castle. There is so much going on over these next few days, I’m a little intimidated. There are hundreds of people here who are really excited. The sessions are packed into a relentless schedule so there is something new going on all the time. (Probably for the best, so I don’t get tempted to sneak off and try and lose my money to a slot machine.)

20161027_195215Our conference comes at a time when the country is going googly-eyed over the constant stream of information and misinformation, anxiety, and conspiracy mongering of the 2016 election. At a reception last night, Robyn Blumner, the CEO of CFI, said she had a lot of hope for the future of reason and skepticism, if we can only “survive the present moment.” This conference will be a good shot in the arm for that. We’ll fortify our brains and our psyches for the home stretch of the election, ready to bring our sharpened critical thinking to the rest of the year, and the rest of our lives.

As long as we don’t get lost among the Big Bang Theory and Ellen DeGeneres themed slot machines. Could happen.