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.

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?”