For those new to the scene, you may be wondering what all this "skeptics" and "skepticism" is about. Most people may think of it as simply doubting or questioning something, and nothing else. But it is a great deal more than that. The skeptical outlook, for me at least, involves critically examining claims and evidence, evaluating their validity, and accepting or rejecting the claim as the evidence warrants. It is the application of critical thought to every aspect of life. The same methods can be applied to figuring out whether or not Bigfoot exists, whether a medical product works or deciding which politician is full of crap and which one is...less so. Skepticism demands that we not only think critically about others, but apply the same unflinching inquiry to ourselves. We may not be comfortable changing our views, but we must go where the evidence leads.
NECSS attracts these types of people. And it's a good chance to reconnect with people you may have met online or at past conferences, as well as meet new people. This year, I met Clay Jones, a pediatrician and contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog, and documentarian Scott Thurman, director of The Revisionaries. I also got to chat with some of the speakers and see friends from NECSSes past.
But enough about all that. Let's see what this year's conference had to offer.
Like last year's conference, NECSS 2014 was held at the Fashion Institute of Technology, though they changed to the Reeves Great Hall for the main conference venue, rather than the Haft Auditorium. The sponsors' tables were set up to the sides of the room, with chairs set out for the audience and a raised platform for the speakers along one long end. The space also provided for a coat room, green room and better camera angles for the photographers, but last year's setup was better for the sponsors and audience. Also like last year, several workshops were held the day before the main conference, as well as Stimulus/Response, a blend of education and entertainment. Video of the conference will be made available on the NECSS YouTube channel once editing is completed. You can also find video of previous NECSSes at that link.
|L to R: George Hrab, John Pinamonti, Nate Landau, Adam Matlock, Charlie Shaw, Brian Wecht, Brian Francis Slattery|
Angie McAllister - A Framework for Raising Skeptics
Angie McAllister, PhD. Observing that everything we do requires good, quality thinking, Dr. McAllister focused on how we can be mentors to the young people we meet. Critical thinking, she notes, is the awakening of the intellect to the study of itself, and we need to nurture this in our children. Her talk centered around Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning. This can be depicted in a hierarchy, with "Remembering" forming the base, and moving up through "Understanding", "Applying", "Analyzing", "Evaluating" and "Creating". Schools are generally very good at the first three. They drill in facts through rote learning, discuss the facts to demonstrate understanding and apply knowledge to show how things work. The "Applying" tier is where misconceptions and lack of understanding really appear.
Where schools can do better, and where skeptics can make a big difference, is in the top three tiers. Teach how to analyze a situation, to take the perspective of someone else and figure out what worked with a plan and what didn't. Next is evaluation; assess, judge and draw conclusions. What were the logical fallacies in an argument? Is a punishment fair? Why or why not? And all of these build up to creating plans, composing, designing and building. In school, this could be building a diorama, constructing a balsa bridge or modeling mitosis with Twizzlers. "Real" world examples would be proposing an alternative punishment, keeping a journal or proposing legislation. McAllister gave the example of Liz Hayward, whose Christian Science parents refused to get her medical treatment for a staph infection. She ended up losing her leg, but had no legal recourse due to New York's religious freedom defense against medical neglect. McAllister concluded by suggesting that we use the language of Bloom's Taxonomy when helping young people learn how to think critically.
Paul Offit - The Philadelphia Measles Epidemic: A Most Unreligious Act
|Dr. Paul Offit|
In the span of ten days in February, 5 children at Faith Tabernacle died. While measles typically has a death rate of 1-2 per 1,000, in this outbreak, the death rate was 1 in 35. The virus wasn't any more virulent than usual. The problem was that the parents, who denied vaccination for their children, also denied them medical care. Even basic interventions like IV fluids for dehydration and oxygen for those having difficulty breathing.
The court stepped in to compel the hospitalization of sick kids against the parents' wishes, while the city became a feared destination. Tourism dropped and school trips were canceled. As the outbreak progressed, the Deputy Health Commissioner, Robert Ross, sought a court order to forcibly vaccinate the children. It was an unusual, drastic step, but, according to the courts, was well within the state's rights (see, for example, Jacobson v. Massachusetts). The churches sought the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has a history of fiercely defending the religious and free speech rights of even the most heinous individuals, such as Neo-Nazis, KKK members and Westboro Baptist Church, which is notorious for protesting at soldiers' funerals. The ACLU declined to help, saying that "[t]here is certainly a free exercise of religion claim by the parents, but there is also a competing claim that parents don't have the right to martyr their children."
The outbreak serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when religion and medicine collide, as well as what happens when measles outbreaks run rampant due to lack of complete vaccination. If we get to about 600 cases a year, Dr. Offit concluded, we will see more deaths.
Heather Berlin - Who's Really in Control? The Illusion of Free Will
|Dr. Heather Berlin|
|Can you see the hidden message?|
Dr. Berlin went on to note that for simple decision-making, we tend to be more satisfied if we think about it, but for more complex decisions or problems, we tend to be more satisfied with our decisions if we are not allowed to think about it, if we "go with our gut". Distraction can lead to better problem-solving. Consciousness gets in the way.
What does all this have to do with free will? A variety of neuroscience research shows that the brain becomes active before we are even aware of our decision to do something. For example, when pressing a button, we are aware of the decision roughly 150-200 milliseconds (ms) before the action, but brain activity increases 4-10 seconds before we're aware. And the urge to do some act can even be stimulated artificially. Okay, so our brains are already in action before we're consciously aware. That means our decisions aren't actually under our conscious control. But when we are aware of a decision to do something, we have about 150ms to "veto" the decision before we act. If we can veto the action, that means we do have conscious control, right? Well, not really, since the "veto" also arises from brain activity that begins before we're aware of our decision to veto.
There is still a lot unknown, like how and why priming works or how subconscious thoughts become conscious. While we may not have "free will", we can work to understand our subconscious and bring it to the conscious. "Strive to know thyself."
The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe
|SGU Live: Paul Offit, Evan Bernstein, Steve Novella, Jay Novella,|
Rebecca Watson, Bob Novella
Panel: The SiO2 Ceiling: A Frank Discussion on Women in Science
|L to R: Cady Coleman, Elise Andrew, Latasha Wright, Heather Berlin, Deborah Berebichez, Jeanne Garbarino|
What can we do to change behavior and policy? How can we improve the situation facing women in science. We need to be open to our own stereotypes. We all judge, but we need to be aware of our own biases. Ms. Andrew related an experience of passing a store with a beautiful model out front who recognized her. The woman told Ms. Andrew, "You should come to my lecture." Elise admits to being a bit judgy; this woman looked the part of the model. It turned out that she was working on her PhD on stem cell biology.
We also need to increase the visibility of women in STEM roles, harking back to the priming that Dr. Berlin discussed in her talk. But this can be difficult, dealing with the attention of being a role model. It is a problem that faces men as well as women, and finding the right, charismatic people to step up is hard. Work conditions also need to change to accommodate childrearing. Socializing also deserves attention. Dr. Wright notes that by as early as 3rd grade, boys are still rough, but girls are starting to try to be "pristine". We view boys as "assertive" but the same behavior in girls is seen as "pushy" or "bossy".
One comment that put me off a bit was Dr. Berlin's assertion that due to biological differences, boys tend to be more extroverted, while girls tend to be more introverted. Her claim seems to be that it is biology, not socialization, that determines how likely it is for girls to put themselves out there, take risks. Personally, I don't buy it. Certainly biology plays a role, but how society views and treats girls vs. boys, men vs. women, should not be dismissed. It seemed to be a moment of Dr. Berlin seeing the issue solely through the lens of her neuroscience specialty.
Lawrence Krauss: The Secret Lives of Physicists
|Dr. Lawrence Krauss|
Dr. Krauss then extended the thought experiment to the history of figuring out how long the sun could burn. Various scientists through history have constantly been testing different notions about the age of the sun and the Earth, first thinking about the sun burning by chemical processes (e.g., core made of coal), which produced a figure of around 10,000 years, to thinking it was powered by the energy given off by matter falling into the core producing a figure around 100,000 years. But this figure was still not right, because there was evidence that the Earth was much older than that. So there had to be some other, as yet unknown, energy process. Enter nuclear power, which set the age of the sun to billions of years old. But if this were correct, then, science predicted, it should be giving off neutrinos. These were particles that were even more basic than protons, neutrons and electrons that would have very weak interactions with other matter.
Physicist Ray Davis dedicated his career to studying neutrinos. He thought that a neutrino interacting with the nucleus of an atom of chlorine would turn it into argon. To test this hypothesis, he built a detector underground to shield it from other cosmic rays. The detector was filled with 100,000 gallons of perchloroethylene, a common dry-cleaning agent. His experiment was a success, earning him a Nobel prize and confirming the earlier prediction about neutrinos.
The point of all this was to illustrate how you can make questions more interesting by making them relevant and using simple tools to make it exciting. Many people don't like physics because they think they have to memorize a lot of equations and details, but you don't necessarily have to do that. You can work with what you know, figure out what doesn't work and should be discarded and figure out what does work and should be kept, if only provisionally. And when it comes to physics, everything is measured in only three basic quantities: mass, length and time.
Dr. Krauss was very energetic and humorous during his talk; it's a skill and style that more science teachers, particularly in middle- or high school, could really use. I have to admit, though, that when he got really excited, all I could do was picture Wallace Shawn as Vizzini from The Princess Bride, one of the greatest films of all time. It was an entertaining (and educational) presentation.
Skeptic's Guide to the Universe Private Show
|The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe Private Recording|
From there it was off to Drinking Skeptically, joining other conference attendees at Connolly's Pub (the one on 45th, not 54th - who puts two pubs with the same name just blocks away from each other? I mean, seriously!). It was a great chance to sit and chat with people, including some of the speakers, in a relaxed, festive atmosphere. It was a wonderful close to the first day of the conference.