“Why can’t we do this every weekend?” asked Leighann Lord, comedian and sometime cohost of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio podcast, as she opened the first day of lectures at the ninth annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS). It was Lord’s first emcee gig for NECSS and the meeting’s first time at midtown Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania thanks to a fire that scorched the usual rooms at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) just days before the conference was to begin. But not even an “act of God” could keep a full day of science-based medicine talks from kicking things off on Friday, June 30.
NECSS is produced by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society. The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and The Society for Science-Based Medicine are also major sponsors.
Surgical oncologist David Gorski opened up NECSS on a bit of a sad note, telling the story of Somali immigrants in Minnesota who were convinced by discredited anti-vaccine doctor Andrew Wakefield to forgo their MMR shots and were then blamed by anti-immigrant voices when they got sick. “They’ve been victimized twice,” Gorski said.
The mood lightened slightly for talks from Harriet Hall on statin denialists, Steven Novella on overly hyped neuroscience, and Clay Jones on folklore in pediatric medicine. Former naturopathic “doctor” Britt Marie Hermes questioned that nomenclature, after having realized she treated sick people in Africa and elsewhere with ineffective remedies. She feels guilty now, but that only makes her more driven to expose the practice. “Now that I know better, I want to do better,” Hermes said.
Pessimism and optimism collided head-on in a final panel, with the incendiary title of “Is Science-Based Medicine Successful?” Gorski lamented that “alternative” cancer treatment purveyor Stanislaw Burzynski “won’t stop until he retires or dies,” but Jones reported he’s seeing more parents who are appalled at the anti-vaccination movement. The panel acknowledged the Sisyphean nature of their task, and Hall finally said what was on everyone’s minds: “We’re doing a hell of a lot better than if we weren’t doing anything at all.”
Making connections with people became a theme of the weekend, as emcee Lord knew just when, in person and on social media, to interject with a poignant quote or a laugh. “I was an anti-vaxxer at one point,” Lord said after Gorski’s presentation. “In my defense, I was three years old.”
That focus actually began the previous day, which featured interactive workshops between presenters and conference attendees. Longtime skeptical activist and former Air Force pilot Steve Lundquist used his own UFO sighting as a way to relate to believers and to show that anyone can be fooled. Physicist Brian Wecht and Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe cohost Jay Novella led a session on the art of conversation as a way to engage with those with whom we disagree.
Back in a noncharred area of FIT, NECSS got even more introspective with a panel discussing the merits of the recent “conceptual penis” hoax perpetrated by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, in which the pair successfully published a fake paper in a peer-reviewed gender studies journal. Skeptic Zone podcaster Richard Saunders and philosophers Massimo Pigliucci and Skye Cleary wondered what the motivation of the exercise was, as it’s already known that referees (in any field) can’t check all of a paper’s references, and that most studies end up being irrelevant and never referenced. Moderator Wecht likened the hoax to “punching down,” but Cleary put a finer point on it, saying “it was mean-spirited, taking aim at a relatively new field.”
Other highlights of NECSS 2017 included science communicator Summer Ash, NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt, and former astronaut and Big Bang Theory guest star Mike Massimino. A panel called “Journalism in the Age of Alternative Facts and Fake News,” with contributors Helaine Olen (recently) of Slate, Nina Burleigh of Newsweek, Snopes managing editor Brooke Binkowski, and moderator John Rennie, received the main conference’s only standing ovation—on a Sunday afternoon, no less!
The biggest attraction for veteran skeptics may have been the special, standalone “Evening with James Randi,” which was open to the public and drew a crowd upward of 600 people. The legendary figure showed he’s still got it by performing an escape trick and “overdosing” on a homeopathic remedy, but he made educating the younger generation the focus of his presentation. Randi continued this thought on a Sunday panel led by entertainer George Hrab that asked what a “skeptic coming of age ceremony” would look like, when he recounted the wonder he felt as a child upon learning that to look at a celestial body, due to the finite speed of light, was akin to peering into the past.
“More kids need to be stunned,” Randi said.