Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The NECSS of Thought and Reality - Year 5 (Part 1)

This year marked the seventh annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) on April 9-12. Held in New York City, NECSS brings together people from all manner of backgrounds to spend a few days learning about science, critical thinking and how to improve our communities through education and outreach. It is a joint venture by the New York City Skeptics and The New England Skeptical Society. This was the fifth year I've attended, and just like in past years, it blew me away. Over 500 people attended this year's conference from at least 30 states and a dozen countries. If you're interested in past years' conferences, see my reviews from 2011, 2012, 2013 (part 1 and part 2), and 2014 (part 1 and part 2). If you were not able to attend and would like to see the presentations, they will be uploaded to the NECSS YouTube channel, where you can also view presentations from previous conferences.

I always take my NECSS review as an opportunity to revisit what "skepticism" means, what it means to be a part of the "skeptical community". Skepticism isn't what you think, but rather how you think about the world around you. A core principle of skepticism is that you should always accept the possibility that you could be wrong. The world is so incredibly complex that we cannot know everything individually, so when we observe some event or read a web site, any conclusions we make are provisional. New evidence may support those conclusions, or it could completely overthrow our viewpoint. To be skeptical, then, is to ask questions, to investigate, to weigh the evidence presented, to come to conclusions supported by good evidence and to be willing to admit mistake and change our stance. Skepticism is not simply the rejection outright of claims with which we disagree simply because we do not like them. And the skeptical community is really just the broader collection of normal individuals who view the world through that skeptical lens. We are parents, children, teachers, students, scientists, laborers, doctors, patients, lawyers, desk jockeys, engineers. We are rich. We are poor. We live in cities and in the countryside. We come from all over the world. In short, we are people striving to improve ourselves and the world around us.

For those who have never been to NECSS, not only is it a great opportunity to learn a lot of new things, but there are a lot of great people to meet and new friendships to forge. My experience has been that everyone is generally pretty open to being approached. The conference provides ample opportunity to socialize outside of the talks. I've made a number of new friends there, and it's a great chance to reconnect with people you otherwise don't see frequently.

On with the conference.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Beware the Humpty Dumptys

Language is a very powerful thing. We use it to convey our thoughts and desires. The words we use have meaning. It may be literal, where what we say is exactly what we mean. Or the subtext may carry a meaning beyond, or even at odds with, the specific words that we choose. No matter which language we speak, there are certain assumptions we all have regarding the words that we use. Primary among those assumptions, and what allows language to work as a means of communication, is that we all agree on the actual meanings of words. When we do not agree on the basic meanings of words, then we can no longer communicate.

A good example of how communication breaks down when we begin to change the agreed-upon meanings comes from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, when Alice encounters Humpty Dumpty:
'And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
Humpty takes a common word and makes up an entirely different meaning for it. If I were to ask you to pass me that apple, you'd be rightly confused if I got upset that you handed me an apple instead of a wrench. Yet this is a behavior that seems to be fairly common among those who strongly oppose vaccinations.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Harpocrates Speaks is Closing

It's with a heavy heart that I announce that Harpocrates Speaks will be closing. It's been a great five years, overall. I met a lot of really great people through my blogging and online advocacy, but now it's time to hang up the keyboard. This isn't something I'm necessarily choosing to do, but something I must. You'll see why after the break.