Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The NECSS of Thought and Reality - Year 3 (Part 2)

This past Monday, I shared my recap and some thoughts on day 1 (April 6) of the 2013 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, or NECSS, held each year in New York City. NECSS is a joint effort by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society. The conference is an opportunity for those interested in, well, science and skepticism to gather together for two days of talks, panels and performances that challenge you to examine what you think you know. This was the fifth year of the conference and my third year attending.

The first day opened with a look at how our minds can influence how we behave and how we perceive the world around us. From there, the program drifted into the realm of philosophy. How do skeptics determine what is right and wrong, what is ethical and moral? This included a discussion between Massimo Pigliucci and Michael Shermer, before breaking for lunch. The afternoon kicked off with a live show of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, then a panel discussion on storytelling. Simon Singh closed out the main program with an overview of the Big Bang. But the day wasn't over with that. A fundraising reception allowed attendees to mingle with the speakers, and then it was off to Drinking Skeptically or a private show of the SGU.

It was a full first day, and day two was no less engaging.

Sharon Hill - Sounds Sciencey

Doubtful News editor, Huffington Post blogger and CSI columnist Sharon Hill had the unenviable task of opening the second day of NECSS as bleary-eyed skeptics who stayed out too late filled the seats of the theatre. Hill began by talking about what she means by "sciencey", defining it as the quality of looking or sounding scientific. It's a guise donned by a certain sort of amateur. She drew a distinction between amateurs like backyard astronomers, who collect data and pass it on to experts without making their own conclusions, and Amateur Research and Investigation Groups (ARIGs). ARIGs are not affiliated with official organizations, look at "fringe" topics and are more of a "serious hobby".

Hill looked at a large number of ARIGs, finding that more than 50% use the word "science" in their name or on their web site, yet didn't seem to have a good understanding of what science really is or how to go about it. They fool themselves and others, frequently using "Scientese", buzz words like "quantum", "electromagnetic" and the like. Although they work hard to sound intelligent, they don't truly understand what they're talking about, a quality Hill calls "scientifical".

Yet despite these observations, ARIGs strive hard to present a serious image. They view themselves as professionals. Hill stressed that these people are not stupid or crazy. They want to do things right and invoke the "scientific method" insofar as they use procedures for the systematic collection of data through observation and experimentation. But they do this without a framework upon which to hang their findings. Like cargo cult science, they ape the look and feel of science, using the trappings of science yet lacking the substance. And in large part, they mimic pop culture. Shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, and a wealth of self-published, unreferenced "how-to" books are the models that are readily available to ARIGs.

And that, in Hill's opinion, is why so-called "Bigfoot" skepticism is important. It's not so much about the specific topics, like UFOs or sasquatch, but rather about outreach and education. Sciencey stuff is all around. It fools a lot of people, and it can take someone with expertise days to dig through material to determine what is right and what is wrong. It's important not to laugh at or be dismissive of believers of pseudoscience. Reach out. Understand. Educate.

A more in depth look at ARIGs can be found in Hill's Skeptical Inquirer article, "Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing 'Sciencey' Things" (Vol. 36.2, March/April 2012).

Deborah Berebichez - A Lonely Skeptic in a Believer's World

Next up was physicist Deborah Berebichez, who gave the audience a more personal look into her experiences as a skeptic surrounded by believers. Her story resonates with a lot of skeptics. She described three mentalities that skeptics encounter. First, there is the convenience story mentality, that all answers are valid and science merely just another way of knowing. Then there is the single revealed truth. There is only one truth, and it comes from without. Beliefs stemming from a single revealed truth can often have a very good story, sometimes "better" or more appealing than what science offers, at least emotionally. Finally there's the "don't ask questions" mentality. Things just are the way they are, and asking questions just makes things too complicated.

Berebichez shared a very personal story of losing her father. When he died, she couldn't find comfort in religion, though her family tried. A spiritual approach didn't work for her, yet those around her could not understand that. She jokingly recounted how, when she sought advice from her life coach about how to move on, she was directed toward spiritual answers. Yet when said that was not for her, her life coach fired her. It was a very touching account, and one with which many skeptics can probably identify.

In this sort of environment, why be outspoken about skepticism? Why ask questions? Because, Berebichez says, we care too much about the world. That is how she became involved with the Technovation Challenge, a program to help inspire girls to become creators and innovators. Through the challenge, girls learn to program science-based mobile apps to solve problems in their lives and in their communities. The winner gets their app produced by Google, with proceeds going to a scholarship for the winner.

Unfortunately, this recap doesn't do justice to how inspirational Berebichez' talk was. It was motivating to go out and make a difference, to take an active role in the world around us and make it a better place through science and critical inquiry.

Panel: Skeptical of Psychopathy

In a somewhat abrupt change of pace, Berebichez' talk was followed by a panel discussion with SGU's Steven Novella, cognitive neuroscientist Heather Berlin and author Jon Ronson. As the title suggests, the panel discussed just what psychopathy (now called antisocial personality disorder or sociopathy) is and many of the problems around it. So what are some of the features of psychopathy? It is characterized by impulsivity, lack of fear and social inhibitions and a lack of empathy. Like many psychiatric features, there is a spectrum of severity. A complete absence of psychopathic qualities leaves a person a veritable doormat. A little bit can help lead to success. Too much can be harmful and negatively affect the individual and those around them. But as detrimental as it can be, capitalism reinforces psychopathic behavior.

Ronson related a story from when he was researching his book The Psychopath Test. A very successful executive could see his company's stock soar every time he bought a failing company and laid off a majority of its workforce. The tale illustrates one of the problems with treating psychopathy: those who have it frequently do not think they have a problem. They can be incredibly manipulative and learn what behaviors can most benefit themselves.

There are a number of other issues surrounding the diagnosis, not least of which is who decides what the symptoms are? We have a variety of ways to determine psychopathy, such as the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but they have their limitations. There is no brain damage, necessarily. For those who have it, it is pervasive; it is not situational. And once a diagnosis of psychopathy (like many other psychiatric diagnoses) is made, it can be very, very hard to get rid of it. Clinicians look for and see symptoms that confirm the diagnosis. While there are some predictive traits, they are not, by any means, a surety that a child, for example, will go on to develop an antisocial personality disorder.

The panel discussed some examples of psychopathy in popular culture. Ronson cited a couple characters as very good representations: Sissy Spacek's character, Holly, in the movie Badlands, and South Park's Cartman. Dexter, from the Showtime television series of the same name, also came up, but the panel agreed that he wasn't really a psychopath. His character needed to be softened somewhat to make him likable. Real psychopaths, they noted, may be compelling and have a certain charisma, but they aren't likable.

Finishing a little bit early, the panel opened the floor to questions. One person asked if psychopathy can be transmitted; can a charismatic leader make his or her followers psychopathic? Although it is roughly 60% heritable, it isn't really a transmittable thing. We all have some degree of psychopathic tendencies, and those can certainly be elevated by a charismatic leader who dehumanizes the target, but he or she can't cause psychopathy in others. Rather, they merely increase the tendency toward psychopathic behavior. This becomes easier the more removed one is from the target (e.g., it is easier to kill a target with a drone and feel no empathy or remorse than to kill a target face-to-face). Tribalism and our tendency to group together with like-minded individuals can also increase psychopathic tendencies.

Another issue that came up was loneliness. The lack of empathy can lead to isolation and make it difficult for psychopaths to form meaningful, long-lasting friendships. As mentioned earlier, getting a psychopath to get treatment is very difficult, but they may seek help, not out of empathy or remorse, but out of a sense of loneliness.

It was an enlightening and informative discussion, giving a high-level overview of this mental disorder that could hopefully help people understand it more.

Jamy Ian Swiss - I, Skeptic

I showed up just a little late for the talk by Jamy Ian Swiss, a founder of both the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS) and the New York City Skeptics (NYCS), magician and emcee for NECSS. Lunch ran a bit long with Vijay, photographer Bruce Press and his wife, Julie, fellow Bostonian John Santos, and Amy and Ed. We had a lively conversation over food and drink at Mustang Sally's, just around the corner from the venue, talking about bitcoin, among other topics.

At any rate, when I back to the theatre, Swiss was talking about the history of magic's connection to skepticism, bringing up Harry Houdini's efforts to combat frauds claiming to be psychic mediums. He noted how James Randi's book, The Magic of Uri Geller, radicalized him. Swiss touched briefly on Project Alpha and how Randi mentored two young magicians to highlight how scientists studying parapsychology must be aware of the kinds of trickery used by many of the subjects they study.

This served as a background, leading up to the formation of the NCAS and NYCS, the latter of which joined with NESS in 2008 to create NECSS, with a goal of educating and promoting critical thinking. He asked the audience to consider the mission statements of various skeptical organizations, like the Center for Inquiry, NCAS, NESS, Skeptic, and so on. He quoted from Skeptic as an example of what it means to be a skeptic:
Some people believe that skepticism is the rejection of new ideas, or worse, they confuse “skeptic” with “cynic” and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. When we say we are “skeptical,” we mean that we must see compelling evidence before we believe.
And in our effort to confront claims, Swiss emphasized the necessity of approaching it with an open mind and with compassion. "Anyone can be fooled, including skeptics," he said, exhorting us not to blame the victims of pseudoscience and woo.

Swiss then approached an issue that has been percolating in the background of the skeptical "movement" for years and years, bubbling to the surface every now and then: the distinction between skeptics, humanists and "new" atheists. I admit that I have not followed this issue much, so I don't know all of the background or who said what. From what Swiss said, however, some critics of skeptics like Swiss may argue that religion gets a free pass from skepticism. From what I gather, some atheists argue that skeptics don't take on religious claims or that they don't take on religious believers with the same vigor they take on, say, homeopathy. But, said Swiss, this is not true. When claims are made that can be evaluated through scientific methods and evidence, skeptics will be there asking the hard questions. If someone claims that, through the power of God, they can lay their hands on the ill and cure them, then skeptics will be there, ready to put the claims to the test.

Swiss urged that we should avoid mission creep. There is overlap among skeptics, humanists and atheists, but being in one group does not necessarily mean adherence to the ideas or goals of the others. But, we can work together without the need to redefine our missions or who we are. The little snippets of bickering I've seen seem to stem largely from miscommunication and people speaking past each other. And Swiss addressed this, suggesting that we get together and talk about what we share, more than how we differ. Let's work together to make the world a better place.

With the end of Swiss' talk, I stepped out for a bit of fresh air and ended up talking with Steve Novella at the SGU table about the very topic that just ended. Steve gave his perspective of the background (the skeptic-atheist divide has been going on for a long, long time) and expressed frustration over the miscommunication and faulty arguments that have been bandied about.

As I wrapped up my chat with Steve, I gathered my things together to head over to the port authority to catch my bus. Sadly, my schedule meant I had to miss most of the afternoon program: Rationally Speaking live podcast, Hai-Ting Chinn and Matthew Schickele's Songs of Science and Skepticism, Jamy Ian Swiss' interview of Simon Singh and John Allen Paulos' Stories vs. Statistics. I did follow the updates people were posting on Twitter, though, and it sounded like the presentations, like the rest of NECSS, were both entertaining and engaging. If you were there, feel free to add your summaries in the comments.

In Conclusion

Just like with the last two years, I learned a lot over the two days of the conference and met more people I didn't know before. When not listening to thought-provoking talks, there were ample opportunities to engage fellow skeptics on a wide range of topics. The theatre space was the best of the three I've been to, and there was a decent amount of lobby space for vendor tables. The only real quibbles I have for it are that there was just too much to do! For those with limited schedules and not insignificant travel time or financial resources, the workshops the Friday before and the full second day make it a bit difficult to attend everything I wanted to go to. That aside, I feel I made a few new friends that will hopefully grow. The Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism is a great community-builder for skeptics, and a wonderful chance to expand your knowledge and worldview. Once again, thanks to NESS and NYCS for putting on a great program, and an extra thank-you to the entire SGU crew for letting me place some of my VPD cards at their table. See you all next year!

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