Monday, April 29, 2013

The NECSS of Thought and Reality - Year 3 (Part 1)

Over the weekend of April 6-7, I attended the fifth annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). Organized by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, NECSS is a conference that focuses on science and critical thinking. They invite scientists, educators, artists and activists on a wide range of topics, but all of which tie into those two themes. There are individual presentations, panel discussions and performance pieces. If you're interested in the first two years I attended, here are my reviews of the third NECSS and fourth NECSS conferences.

My reviews of NECSS have become a good opportunity to address just what "skepticism" means. As I've said before, colloquially, it has taken on some baggage, often carrying a pejorative connotation or equated with cynicism. A lot of people view skeptics merely as naysayers who will simply jump to "I don't believe X" or "X doesn't exist". They are often viewed as close-minded and unwilling to examine the evidence. But nothing could be further from the truth. To me, skepticism is a manner of thinking, a set of tools by which to understand the world around us. Every conclusion is provisional and open to revision, based on the available evidence. It is the application of logic and the methods of science to evaluate claims and examine data. It is not a belief system, religion, ideology, or position, and it has no subject or claim that is off-limits. Or, as the Skeptic Society says, "no sacred cows allowed". It's an approach I try to apply in my life. I may not always be successful, and I know that there are simple biases that affect me just as every other person, but I try, and I think it a noble feature when I see it in others, as well. This is a theme that came up during the conference, as well, but more on that later.

For now, on to the conference.

NECSS 2013 was held at the Fashion Institute of Technology's Haft Auditorium. For those who have never attended NECSS, it's not only a good way to learn and expand your knowledge, but it's also a great opportunity to meet a lot of really great people and reconnect with others you may have met before. This year's venue was a significant improvement over last year's. The theatre was larger and much more comfortable, and the lobby had enough room for the sponsors to set up their tables. (And I have to take a moment to give a huge thanks to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) crew for letting me put some sets of my Vaccine Preventable Disease Wanted Poster cards on their table for people to pick up. I got a lot of great comments and feedback from them and people who took some.) There were several workshops on the Friday before the conference formally started, but I was unfortunately unable to attend those. Friday evening, however, I was able to attend a performance and discussion event titled Stimulus/Response.


Stimulus/Response was a three-part event. During the first 45 minutes, singer/songwriter George Hrab and visual artist and Director of Operations of the Studio Arts Department at Bard College Roman Hrab improvised music and painting, respectively. Introduced by George as, "This may, this will be great. And if it isn't, you just didn't get it," part one began with each artist sort of doing their own thing, then gradually drawing on the other to influence their work. There were moments when George's music matched the visual tones of Roman's painting and Roman matched the aural tones of the music, and other moments when the choices didn't quite work. Both artists had to be prepared for missteps and mistakes, which they handled very well. It was only during part two, when they discussed the experience, that we learned there were any mistakes, they were incorporated into the performance so well.

Part two was a panel discussion moderated by Brian Wecht, including George and Roman, neurologist and host of SGU Dr. Steven Novella, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin, and three members of the improvisational comedy group Upright Citizens Brigade. This part talked about the improvisational experience from the perspective of the artists, how that compares to comedic improvisation and what is actually going on neurologically. fMRI studies have shown that during improvisation, the parts of the brain that govern creative thought (IIRC the medial prefrontal cortex) are highly active, while the regions responsible for reality-checking (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) are less active. Dr. Berlin mentioned that this can create a sense that the ideas are coming from outside, that one's sense of agency is decreased, and that perception of time is distorted. This coincided with George's description of feeling the music sort of "gel", and not realizing that 45 minutes had already passed.

Part three was dominated by a performance by the Upright Citizens Brigade. For inspiration, Brian Wecht interviewed the SGU's Jay Novella, asking why he's a skeptic, about the recent birth of his son, and about some of his hobbies, as well as what kind of superhero he would like to be (Dr. Success, whose powers include flying and never having to pay for anything). The UCB then used these to create a variety of short scenes. The comedians did a hilarious job, including Cathleen Carr's portrayal of Dr. Success.

Open to the public, Stimulus/Response was an entertaining and enlightening prelude to NECSS.

Leonard Mlodinow - Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Influences Your Behavior

The first day of the conference opened with keynote speaker Leonard Mlodinow, physicist and lecturer at CalTech and author of The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives and, most recently, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. The latter book was the focus of his presentation, which began with a sort of miniature experiment. Dividing the audience in half, group B turned away from the stage while he showed group A two questions involving a lovely resort hotel room in Tahiti. The first question asked if we thought the room was greater than $5,500 per night, followed by a question asking what we would expect to pay for the room. The groups were then reversed, and the questions asked again, except, as revealed later on, for group B, the dollar amount in the first question was $55 per night. More on this later. We were also asked to look at a series of words, then asked to write down which of three words we felt confident were in the list.

After the experiment, Mlodinow provided a working definition for "unconscious behavior". This is automatic, lacking awareness, intention or control. Our brains do a lot of work without our awareness. Our eyes see only a small clear space with a great deal of fuzziness outside that area (not to mention a blind spot where out optic nerve attaches to the retina), but our brains fill in the gaps to create what we interpret as a clear image. Similarly, our ears pick up signals that are, in themselves, without any real meaning. Our brains arrange them into recognizable patterns. The problem is that those mental constructs, our perceptions, memories and social judgments, are constructed from limited data and depend on context, expectations and our desires. Try listening to "Stairway to Heaven" backward (without looking at any suggested lyrics), then listen to it again, but this time with lyrics suggested. They will kind of fit, and you will likely have a hard time not hearing them.

Just like with visual and auditory processing in general, our impressions of others are governed by unconscious processes, as well. We judge people not only by what they say, but also by how they look (e.g., one expert predicted who would win in several different elections based solely on looks and was ~70% accurate). Our impressions are also affected by touch, which creates a sense of trust and bonding, even if we are not aware of the contact.

When assessing data or claims, another aspect of unconscious behavior comes into play: motivated reasoning. We judge the credibility of the data based on what conclusions we want. We poke holes in things we don't like and put greater stock in things that align with our goals. This can lead to overconfidence and gives us a tendency to remember the good things and forget the bad. It is a very human trait, and one we all need to overcome, even skeptics.

Going back to that experiment at the beginning, in repeated runs, group A (shown the $5,500 price tag) regularly had a higher estimate for what they thought was the value of the hotel room compared to group B. This held true for the NECSS audience, as well. And with the words we were asked to recall, one was on the original list, one was not and completely unrelated, and the third was not on the list, but had a similar quality as the words on the list. Generally, a high number of people correctly recall the word on the list, few note the second word, but a large number also write down the third word, confident that it, too, was on the list. This demonstrated that we tend to recall the "gist" of things, rather than reconstructing clear, precise memories.

The presentation was a good reminder of how easily we can lead ourselves astray, and how we must actually work at overcoming the influences of our unconscious thoughts.

Massimo Pigliucci - Science, Philosophy, and the Meaning of Life

Next up was Rationally Speaking co-host, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Lehman College and Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Massimo Pigliucci. Pigliucci discussed a philosophical approach to morality and moral decision-making. There is an evolutionary origin to where we get a sense of right and wrong, but this doesn't tell us what is right or wrong. This biological origin is reinforced by kin selection (our desire to protect our progeny) and reciprocal altruism (helping out non-related members of society with the expectation that we will be helped when we are in need, too).

So, how do we tell right from wrong? We can turn to religion and mysticism, but these are not very helpful. Science and philosophy, however, can provide us with a more sound foundation. We can examine the effects of moral sentiments (empathy, fairness, reciprocity), social pressure (cooperation, punishment, reward, reputation), and judgment (internalization of others' needs or goals, self-reflective moral judgment, logic). For example, when looking at the trolley dilemma, how do we decide what to do?

Image credit: J.D. Greene, Harvard University
In the first instance, a run-away trolley approaches. Ahead is a split in the track, with five workers trapped on one arm and only one trapped on the other arm. The only option available is to pull a switch near you that will put the trolley onto either the track with the five workers or the track with the single worker. In the second scenario, there is a single track with five workers trapped on it, but next to you on a bridge is a rather powerfully built individual who just happens to have enough mass to stop the train. You can either allow the trolley to run over the five workers or push the individual off the bridge.

There are different philosophical approaches to moral questions like this that have been devised:
  • Utilitarian - morals depend on the consequences of the action. This tends to be a somewhat sociopathic approach, as emotional responses are given less, if any, weight.
  • Deontology - morals based on duty (i.e., morals based on what we should do, what conforms to the rules). This approach tends to ignore circumstantial exceptions to general moral rules. For example, a deontological approach might conclude that lying is immoral, but there are situations where we can objectively show that lying can have a benefit and where telling the truth would, instead, be the wrong choice.
  • Virtue Ethics - morals aim to cultivate virtues such as courage and equanimity. This has greater leeway for situational ethics. "What would a good person do?"
In the end, Pigliucci outlined some of the means by which we arrive at decisions about what is right or wrong, but did not provide any hard and fast answers. Given the amount of time he had, it was a good introduction into the philosophy of morality, but sadly only scraped the surface.

Michael Shermer - The Moral Arc of Science

Continuing the theme of morality, Michael Shermer's talk also examined morality, asking where we can look for transcendent morality in a universe of "blind, pitiless indifference." Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University. He began by looking at the "Ask God" principle, pondering if God doesn't decree it immoral, is it moral? This stems from the belief common among some devoutly religious individuals that without God, there would be no morality. Shermer's point was that we cannot look to God for our moral guidance, for example rape is not prohibited in the Bible. Does that make rape moral? Shermer stated that morality is a product of natural law, evolution, and that it is neither universal nor relative.

So what makes right or wrong? Shermer's approach is a provisional morality: that which applies most of the time for most people. Use an "ask first" principle. To find out if an act is right or wrong, ask the person being acted upon. His go-to example was female genital mutilation. If you ask the person and they object, then it is most likely immoral. While there are exceptions to this, he stressed that it applies most of the time. He cautioned against "lifeboat ethics" like the trolley dilemma above, saying that they are artificial and do not reflect how choices are made in real life.

If we want to know whether we have made moral progress, Shermer again said to ask those affected if they are better able to flourish. According to him, we can make progress through democracies (leading to increased peace and personal flourishing) and increased intelligence and education (with less crime and more cooperation). Science, he said, is a tool toward a more moral society, and that an empirical approach must be an added tool beyond merely philosophy.

Dialogue: What Is the Role of Science in Morality?

The last presentation before lunch was a discussion, moderated by Julia Galef, between Massimo Pigliucci and Michael Shermer on the role of science in morality. Pigliucci began by noting that while science does have a role in ethics and moral decision-making, its role is more limited than philosophy. The counter was that science can show us how to become more moral; we can empirically test ethical claims and find out if what we think is ethical really is. But, said Pigliucci, what if the issue is not empirical? Science cannot test every ethical claim.

Getting back to the "ask first" principle brought up by Shermer during his talk, Pigliucci pointed out that this is culturally dependent. For example, if you asked a slave if slavery was a good condition and allowed the slaves to flourish, many might very well answer that yes, it is good. Shermer's reply was that, "they don't know any better." The slaves simply aren't aware of other choices. This, to me, was Shermer's weakest point. It struck me as incredibly paternalistic and seemed to undermine his own "ask first" principle. After all, if you ask the person being affected by a moral decision, they say it is okay, and you simply respond, "Well, they just don't know any better," then what's the point in asking?

The conversation then came back to the example of female genital mutilation. Pigliucci argued that the morality extended beyond merely asking women and girls, stating that it is unethical because beyond being arbitrary, forced and unwanted, there is no benefit at all to the individual. It is more than just because there is pain. He compared this to surgery on a child. If you asked, the child is most likely going to say that it is wrong, because it hurts. But empirically, it is beneficial to the child. So, even though it may be forced or unwanted, it is still ethical to do the surgery.

Pigliucci also pointed out that science is not always morally progressive. Science has justified racism and eugenics, for example. But he pointed out very strongly that no one is arguing that science is irrelevant. This (the idea that science is irrelevant) was the straw man that I think Shermer was arguing against. Both agreed, however, that individual flourishing is central, but they differed on how to reconcile people who are not concerned. Shermer's approach was to put it to a vote and see what happens, repeating as necessary. The flaw with this, I think, is the potential for the majority to oppress the minority. Eventually, the moral course may come out. Pigliucci's suggested course was to talk to people. Convince and persuade them. That, he feels, is where science can play a larger role, as a tool to back up one's philosophical points.

In the end, I felt that Pigliucci did a much better job making his point than Shermer did. The discussion is available online if you are interested.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe Live

After a quick lunch with Vijay Dewan, executive producer of the film The Revisionaries, who I met at my first NECSS two years ago, it was time for the live recording of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, episode 404, with guest rogue Cathleen Carr. As Steve notes in the opening, the live recording of SGU is the annual memorial episode remembering Perry DeAngelis, one of the founders of the SGU. I won't go into the details of the podcast, other than to mention that they had a number of memes created by the cast. Sadly, I haven't been able to find them online. At any rate, I urge you to go listen to the podcast, if you don't already.

Panel: Storytelling for Skeptics (Why the Best Story Wins)

As the next panel began, I had a bit of a coughing fit from a cold I was getting over and had to step out of the theatre, so I can't really say anything about this presentation. From what I heard from others, it seemed to be pretty straightforward, reminding us that being able to tell a good story, to get the reader or listener emotionally involved, can often be more important than the scientific point we want to make. Data is all well and good, in other words, but it doesn't really matter if you can't engage the person.

Simon Singh - The Big Bang

The final talk of the day was from Simon Singh, journalist, author of Trick or Treatment, and target of a failed libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association, which led to the libel reform campaign to fix Britain's horrible libel laws, which assume guilt unless the defendant can prove otherwise. Singh spoke about the history of the Big Bang theory (but not The Big Bang Theory). The idea was first developed by Alexander Friedman and Georges Lemaître, each independently of the other. At the time, the prevailing idea was that the universe just always was. The notion that there could be a "cosmic egg exploding at the moment of the creation" seemed rather too religious in origin (Lemaître was an ordained Catholic priest) and so was viewed suspiciously by other scientists. If, however, the universe really were expanding, then we could determine this by looking at the light from distant galaxies.

At this point, Singh demonstrated how atoms give off specific wavelengths of light by electrocuting a gherkin pickle. If we know the spectrum given off by galaxies, then their light would be red-shifted if the universe were, as posited by the Big Bang theory, expanding. Observation did, in fact, bear that out. But, said critics, what about the intervening dust? Interstellar dust would also cause the light given off by galaxies to appear redder than expected. More evidence would be needed to overcome this criticism.

If Friedman and Lemaître were correct, and the universe started with a big bang (critic of the theory Fred Hayle came up with the term "Big Bang" as a way to derogatorily refer to it), then we should be able to find evidence of this in the form of some residual radiation. In the 1940s, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman calculated what the approximate temperature of the universe would be if the Big Bang theory were correct. Unfortunately, they did not have the technology available to test their calculations. The development of radio telescopes allowed their idea to be put to the test.

In the early 1960s, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson experimented with a new, supersensitive telescope designed to detect radio waves bounced off of echo balloon satellites. To do this, they needed to remove as much residual noise as possible. Pointing the antenna at an area of the sky that should not have anything (no stars or galaxies that could be producing signals), they still got noise that was over 100 times more intense than expected. At first, they attributed this noise to some pigeons that had nested in the antenna, but after getting rid of the birds, their nest and droppings, the noise persisted. Meanwhile, other researchers were getting ready to publish a paper proposing the idea of a residual background radiation within a certain spectrum, one that happened to include the signal picked up by Penzias and Wilson. After the two groups discussed the findings, they attributed the background radiation to the Big Bang.

The recent observations by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) have borne out the predictions of cosmic background radiation, Penzias and Wilson's observations and the Big Bang itself.

Cocktail Reception

Once again, I decided to attend the cocktail reception. This is an opportunity for attendees to mingle with the speakers. Very conveniently (though a bit awkwardly) located backstage, I managed to join Vijay and Steve Novella as they talked about Dr. Novella's appearance on the Dr. Oz show, debating an anti-vaccine activist at The Amaz!ng Meeting, and how to approach these situations in general. Steve emphasized the importance of being friendly, polite and keeping cool. Allowing your opponent to get a rise out of you can kill any chance you have of getting the audience on your side. Even rolling the eyes can sink you. It portrays you as dismissive. Of course knowing your material and knowing very, very well what arguments you are likely to come up against are important, but in terms of the audience, your demeanor should be your utmost consideration. I asked about how to handle a situation where you don't know the material very well. Steve's advice was to ask questions. Learn what their arguments are and where their logic is failing. Often, that may be enough to convince onlookers that the claims are flawed.

Skeptics' Guide to the Universe Private Show

The final element of Day 1 was the live, private recording of the SGU. I had to trek up about 20 blocks to Shetler Studios, managing to get there just in time. The space was significantly larger than last year's recording, but not nearly as cozy. A decent sized room, the audience sat on folding chairs arranged in rows, with the SGU cast and special guest rogues Simon Singh and Jon Ronson behind a table at the head of the room. Even though it had a somewhat more formal feel than last year, I still really enjoyed it. If you have the opportunity to attend, I really recommend it. The overall feel is a bit looser than the live show or what you hear online after editing has removed some of the jokes and meandering tangents. Plus, you get to chat a bit with the cast. One topic that came up during the podcast was artificial intelligence and consciousness. I got to talk a little more about this with Jay Novella, specifically about the ethics involved in virtual consciousness. Listen to episode 405 for a bit more on this. (Oh, and Jay and Courtney, thanks so much for the compliments about my vaccine-preventable disease cards! Glad you like them.)

Unfortunately, I didn't get to talk with Jay for too long, as it was getting pretty late and I needed to hike back to my hotel for some much needed rest. A thousand curses upon the common cold!

Thus ended a very enjoyable, and very full, day 1. I'll get my review of day 2 up soon.

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