Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The NECSS of Thought and Reality

This past weekend, I attended the third annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, or NECSS. This is a conference that was put together by the New York City Skeptics and New England Skeptical Society, the folks that bring you the weekly Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast (highly recommended). I'd heard a fair bit about it in past years and thought that it would be a good opportunity to check it out this year.

Before you go, "Oh, skeptics!" and wander off thinking its a bunch of naysayers and contrarians getting together to poo-poo anything and everything, let me say right up front, it is anything but that. That word, "skeptic" has a lot of baggage associated with it and, among most people I talk to, generally carries that negative connotation above. The folks that came together for the conference, in general, don't fall into the knee-jerk rejectionism that many would incorrectly attribute to those who identify with the label "skeptic". The people I know who call themselves skeptics ask for the evidence that supports a claim and evaluate that evidence, making their decision based as much as possible on what the evidence says, rather than on personal biases. That out of the way, let's get on to what the weekend was all about.

NECSS is a chance for people interested in science, critical thinking and the role they play in the world around us, from the peculiar (e.g., UFOs, psychics, etc.) to the mundane (e.g., "expert" economic predictions, medical ethics, and so on). It gives people an opportunity to hear others speak on a wide range of topics, as well as a chance to put faces to virtual friendships, socialize and network. For instance, I was able to meet someone I knew on Twitter (@SkepDude of The Vaccine Times), who also introduced me to Brian Dunning, creator of the popular Skeptoid podcast. Even if you don't attend all of the panels or presentations, the social events alone are worth going.

So how did this year's NECSS stack up? Overall, it was pretty good. They had some sound problems plaguing the presentations on Saturday, but those seem to have cleared up for Sunday. The full schedule of speakers can be found here.

DAY 1
Phil Plait - The Final Epsilon

Phil Plait, of Bad Astronomy, began the conference as the keynote speaker. He talked about how we can be certain of what we think we know. Basically, he asked, if there is always the possibility that we may be wrong about something, then how can we say, without any weasel words like "probably", "likely" and so on, that X is the case. Especially in situations where we are incapable of personally proving that something happened, can we really say that it did? One example that Plait used was the moon landing. Suppose someone asks you to prove that we landed on the moon. You can present the photos, historical documents and so forth, but from a scientific point of view, you cannot, short of putting the questioner on the moon himself, say with 100% certainty that we did. However, from a more human, everyday life viewpoint, you can sort of "round down" any remaining doubt and say that, yes, we did in fact land people on the moon. Plait used some math to help illustrate his point, but I felt that it may have worked against his talk, going over the heads of many in the audience. Eventually, he brought it back together so that everything made sense, but at the time it was a bit distracting.

Carl Zimmer - Viruses: Believable Myths and Unbelievable Reality

Next up was Carl Zimmer, an accomplished science writer with a number of publications under his belt. In his talk, Zimmer discussed some of the misconceptions people have about viruses and how knowledge of viruses came about. He couched much of his discussion in evolution, using the influenza virus as an example. Influenza, he stated, comes from an Italian word meaning "influence". Before any viruses had been discovered, it was thought that the flu was caused by the influence of stars and planets. He also discussed early efforts at vaccination and how some thoughts believed with surety turned out to be wrong, while others that were thought wrong turned out to be right (though sometimes for the wrong reasons). The evening before, I had been standing not two feet away from Mr. Zimmer, but didn't recognize him and thus missed an opportunity to talk with him, alas and alack.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe

The highlight of the morning, I think, was the live recording of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. If you have not listened to this podcast, stop reading and go take a listen right now. It is not only informative, but highly entertaining. At any rate, NECSS marked the 300th episode of SGU. On the down side, because of the sound issues, the recording might be too bad to air, but just in case it does, I won't go into the details of the show, as I don't want to spoil anything for those who weren't there and haven't heard it yet. On Saturday evening, Jay sat with me and a couple others and lamented the sound issues. Not to give anything away, but, as I promised Jay I would say, when it comes to Fact or Fiction, whatever Jay says is what happened. Honest. I have witnesses.

Eugenie C. Scott - Why We Still Have to Take Creationism Seriously

After lunch, Eugenie Scott, from the National Center for Science Education, talked about how even though creationists may have suffered numerous defeats in the courts, we should not forget about them. Her talk was an occasionally disheartening reminder of how those who would prefer to inject religion into science classes are still active, introducing legislation that, on its surface, sounds perfectly reasonable, but which would open the way for non-science to be taught under the guise of "academic freedom". One amusing point that she made was that some of these bills, aimed at K-12 education, call for protection for students and teachers to discuss the evidence for and against such topics as human cloning. Apparently, high school science education is getting into some very advanced topics, since I was a student!

Panel Discussion - Skepticism and the U.S. Founders

The first panel, moderated by Michael De Dora and featuring Brooke Allen, author of Moral Minority, historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht and Susan Jacoby, program director of the Center for Inquiry-New York. Discussing the beliefs of prominent figures of the founding of the U.S., such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and others, this panel was, unfortunately, one of the weakest presentations of the weekend. The speakers generally asserted and discussed possible atheistic leanings of the founders, rather than focusing on a skeptical approach they took to evaluating various subjects. In fact, it seemed to be mainly an anti-religion discussion. I find it disappointing because it conflates skepticism with atheism. The two are not the same. Overall, the talk did not get me thinking about anything, other than the speakers' own arguments.

Panel Discussion - Information Overload - How Do You Know Who to Trust?

The second panel featured John Rennie, former editor-in-chief of Scientific American and professor at New York University, the aforementioned Brian Dunning, singer/songwriter George Hrab, Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier and Sadie Crabtree, communications director for the James Randi Educational Foundation. Information overload is not exactly new. With the internet and proliferation of media outlets, there's a lot of stuff out there. The short answer to the panel's title is: "You don't." But there are things you can do to increase your confidence in a source of info. First, check out who is saying it. Take a look at other things they've said and how accurate they've been in the past. If it's a study or press release, who paid for it? Lots of what gets reported in the news is sponsored by PR firms. As Crabtree noted, journalists today don't necessarily have the time or the leeway to present really accurate science, especially in print media. Sensationalism or a PR-pushed spin may trump accuracy. One surprising comment was that Wikipedia had been studied to see how accurate it was, compared to the Encyclopedia Brittanica (EB). Turns out that the web-based reference is, on average, only slightly worse than EB.

Dan Gardner - Imperial Skepticism: Conquering New Lands with Evidence-Based Thinking

Rounding out the day's talks was Dan Gardner, an opinion columnist focusing largely on topics that you don't see many skeptics addressing. Gardner urged those gathered in the auditorium to get out and apply skepticism to topics like politics. If a candidate says that doing X will result in Y, ask "What's the evidence for that?" He spoke about how so many claims in our everyday lives are never challenged. In short, while it's is all well and good to demand evidence for fringe beliefs (UFOs, bigfoot, psychics, etc.), there are more practical areas in which a healthy dose of skepticism would not go astray.

At the end of Day 1, there was a cocktail reception at which attendees could meet and talk to the presenters. I managed to meet a few new people, with whom I spent much of the evening chatting about a variety of topics. From there, everyone headed over to Paddy O'Reilly's to listen to George Hrab and Triologic and socialize some more. It was a fun end to a very full day.

DAY 2
John Allen Paulos - Numbers, News, and Nonsense

John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics at Temple University. In his talk, Paulos presented news headlines and brief summaries of the accompanying stories, highlighting how mathematical innumeracy plagues many news stories and statements by politicians. Even something as simple as confusing the difference between percentage and percentage points sneaks past many people (e.g., saying that lowering SS tax from 6% to 4% is only lowering it 2%, with the 2% going to privatization, is wrong; it's really 30% of the tax being privatization). Greater education in mathematics, he said, would likely lead to more accurate reporting and a more skeptical reception by readers.

Rationally Speaking

As with the previous day and SGU, the New York City Skeptics' podcast, Rationally Speaking, was recorded live, hosted by Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef, with guests Jennifer Michael Hecht and bioethicist Jacob Appel. The topic of the show focused on medical ethics and how they apply to discussions around end-of-life decisions, suicide, genetic engineering (designer babies) and so forth. This talk really got me thinking hard about things. For the most part, there were no easy answers to any of the questions that arose. Rather, attendees were forced into a murky grey zone. The hosts handled themselves quite well, directing the conversation. Appel raised some good points, as did Hecht, though I found myself disagreeing with the latter more often than not. The Q&A queue following the show was one of the longest of the entire weekend, with very good reason.

Panel Discussion - Irrationality Traps: How our Biases Influence Everyday Decision-Making

Julia Galef moderated this panel, featuring Sheena Iyengar (professor of business at Columbia Business School) and Princeton professor of psychology and public affairs Eldar Shafir. The third panelist was supposed to be Gary Marcus, but he was unable to come at the last minute. Sadly, I do not recall the name of the fellow who took his spot.

Science Fair: A Musical Project in Development

The penultimate presentation of the weekend was a performance by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, including a piece composed by Matt Schickele. Chinn blended her powerful, ringing voice, comedy and Powerpoint into an enjoyable performance that tickled even the most dour of dorky hearts. This was all to promote and gather support for a project blending science and art: Since Fair: An Entertaining Evening of Science in Song. This is actually something that you can be involved with, too! You can contact Chinn via her web site for more information.

The conference wrapped up with a special live performance of "Death from the Skies" by George Hrab and Phil Plait. A video of the special event can be found on the main NECSS page.

Overall, there were a few hiccups along the way, but the conference was well worth it. The opportunity to meet others and extend one's circle of friends and family alone justifies attending. Thanks to the NESS and NYCS for putting together a great weekend of science, critical thinking and socializing. Hope to see you all again next year!

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