You might have known things were going to be different when Center for Inquiry CEO Robyn Blumner in her opening remarks impersonated a certain president of the United States mocking the assembled skeptics for their “reality-based” view of the world and their love of facts, evidence, science, and reason. Good luck with that, said the confident U.S. leader, who in this case seems to know what he’s talking about.
That disquieting theme resonated for a time throughout the conference, but it quickly got on to science with another of physicist Lawrence Krauss’s “isn’t science mind-boggling?” talks. This time he chose mysteries of the sun as his starting point. He soon got to the 1939 discovery of fusion as the sun’s energy source, then went on to the neutrinos that whiz unnoticed through our bodies, our homes, indeed our entire planet by the trillions every second, and then to the discovery that they can change forms en route. And that took him to deep mysteries of the universe, cosmic inflation, and dark matter and energy. Then the discovery just two weeks earlier of gravitational waves from the collision of two orbiting neutron stars. It led astronomers to turn their telescopes to that point in space and observe gamma rays, X-rays, radio waves, visible light, and other stuff from this gargantuan collision. And out of that discovery, already, has come the realization (or confirmation) that vast amounts of gold (perhaps one Earth mass worth) are created in each such event. Our precious metals originate in the collisions of orbiting neutron stars. “Isn’t it amazing!” he exclaimed. We could only agree.
We were off to an exuberant start. “A festival of scientific skepticism” indeed, as I had predicted in my opening remarks following Blumner’s. CSICon Las Vegas 2017, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s annual conference dedicated to science and skeptical inquiry, was underway. It proved to be the biggest and arguably the most successful yet (the fourth in the CSICon series and the second straight in Las Vegas). Five hundred sixty participants crowded the conference rooms, and, as far as I could see, most of them attended every session over the three days. Comments heard and volunteered were overwhelmingly positive. Many vowed to return. Next year’s conference will be moved to a bigger venue in Las Vegas (see the back cover of this issue for details).
“The conference, by any measure, was a great success,” says Barry Karr, CSI executive director and CSICon organizer. “There were so many highlights, so many wonderful moments, speaker after amazing speaker, so many social events mixed in. Hundreds of your fellow skeptics on hand. Now I know what a young child feels like after visiting four theme parks at Disney World in three days!If you were there, you know what I mean.If you weren’t—well, there is always next year.”
The three-plus days covered virtually every imaginable topic of concern to scientific skeptics—from the rise of institutionally based medical quackery to naturopathy (three talks, one by a former naturopath), to opposition to vaccines and genetically modified foods, to climate change denial, to why people are so resistant to knowledge, to conspiracy theories, to surviving in the post-truth world, to a small experimental examination of the question of whether God influences sports, and to people’s weird dislike of “chemicals,” even though everything, and everyone, is made of them.
Woody Kaplan asks a question, as host and emcee George Hrab looks on.
The inimitable skeptic George Hrab served as conference emcee, keeping everything on track and entertaining us with his witty takes on, well, just about anything that occurred to him. (The Last Laugh essay in this issue is one; he read that before one session.) Another was a song he’d written (and was to record later that week). He sang and played it for us on the guitar. It was mocking how when disasters happen, the pious seem to think we should all be comforted by “thoughts and prayers.” I didn’t get all of the first verse, but it included, “Thoughts and Prayers, …. A way to put on airs. / Like rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs. / Who cares if it does any good. / I’ve had enough of your Thoughts and Prayers.”
The conference was indeed full of memorable moments, but, for me, a few stood out:
Britt Marie Hermes on “The Bloody Work of Naturopaths.” Yes, that was her title. She was a naturopath herself, for three years. She got a degree as a naturopath doctor from Bastyr University. She really thought she was in medical school and that it was a real degree. She called herself Dr. Britt. She thought she got a good education at the time; she had been brainwashed she says now. She calls it “My complete and utter delusional thinking.” Nothing was as had been portrayed to her.
“In reality, naturopathic schools teach pseudoscience.” She said there was some real science mixed in, “but the B.S. outweighed any real science.” What about the naturopathic medical board? “It exists to protect naturopathic doctors,” she said.
They had a plant to be administered for every disease. She saw ozone being injected into patients’ anuses and vaginas. A woman patient’s baby died after being given homeopathy in birth, and Bastyr taught “The Ancient Art of Bleeding,” in which they strike the skin repeatedly with a seven-star hammer until it bleeds. One treatment for herpes was to bleed the knees. “Naturopathic doctors can get away with anything,” she lamented. “There is no standard of care.”
“Bastyr has blood on its hands,” she proclaimed. They teach “a bogus system of medicine.” They think what they are doing is legitimate, but they are “legitimizing quackery.” She says practitioners should be stripped of the N.D. title (“An N.D. is not a doctor”), and the schools should “take the nonsense out of the forefront.”
“I did a lot of unacceptable things as a quack doctor,” she ended. “I’m lucky no one got hurt.”
Science Moms. That is the name of a group of women scientists who have organized to speak out for good science and against nonscientific thinking about vaccines, GMOs, and women’s health issues. It is also the title of a new documentary film about their efforts. They all came to CSICon’s “Science Mom’s” panel and brought the film with them. We were the first audience to see it. You can now download it on the Internet, and it is worth your time. They also have a Science Moms Facebook page. The Science Moms are Kavin Senapathy, Alison Bernstein, Layla Katiraee, and Jenny Splitter. Natalie Newell, the film’s producer and director, was also on the panel. The Science Moms are courageous and outspoken. They get a lot of flack from people exposed to all the misinformation out there, and they counter it with real science. They are my new heroes of scientific skepticism.
Moms are particularly vulnerable to pseudoscience that promotes fear and hype, and these women scientists are doing their best to counteract that. Marketers prey on the fact that being a parent is a bit scary, and they have found that promoting fear is an effective marketing ploy. Scaring parents works; they’ll spend big bucks trying to make sure their children are safe.
“We wanted to provide a voice for moms based on science and evidence,” as one of them said. That they have done.
The anti-GMO movement is one area where they are trying to provide better information. They point out that the vast majority of the foods we eat—with the exception of wild game, herbs, and mushrooms—have been genetically altered. There is a huge problem of vitamin A deficiency in the world, and genetic modifications can make rice enhanced in vitamin A. Yet anti-GMO ideology has tragically prevented vitamin A–enhanced rice from reaching the people who need it.
Another marketing ploy is to pretend that organic foods are healthier. But the evidence shows no real health benefits to organic foods. They are just more expensive.
The anti-vaccination movement is manipulated by similar strategies.
The anti-GMO, anti-vaccination movements have been effective at telling stories and creating scary narratives not based on science or evidence but with tremendous emotional power. The Science Moms panel challenged listeners to be part of a new narrative, based on evidence and reason. As the film’s subtitle says: “Facts, not Fear.”
The Richard Dawkins-Richard Wiseman on-stage conversation. What a delight! These two well-known scientists brought their dry British wit to the stage, and it was almost as much fun watching their reactions to each other as listening to what they said. Psychologist Wiseman would get a mischievous look on his face, lean forward, and then hit his friend Dawkins the evolutionary biologist with a wry question out of left field. The still-rosy-cheeked Dawkins would hesitate for a moment. Then his eyes would twinkle, a little smile would break out, and he’d hit back with an equally unexpected answer.
An hour of discussion is impossible to summarize, but here are a few highlights. This is Dawkins:
- The mistake early proponents of evolution made was thinking that natural selection focuses on the group rather than the gene. That’s why he wrote The Selfish Gene. It wasn’t a totally original idea. “Neo-Darwianians in the 1930s and 1940s did present that idea,” Dawkins says, “but not in such an outspoken way.” And he described it in “probably a more poetic way.”
- There is such a thing as “the evolution of evolvability.” Some groups—insects and mammals for instance—once they develop a body plan, that plan makes them more diverse and evolvable. There is a kind of “bursting forth of evolutionary adaptation.”
- “People who don’t believe in evolution generally don’t know anything about it.”
- “Godlessness is implicit in everything I’ve written.” His book The God Delusion (about three million in worldwide sales so far) has sold even more than The Selfish Gene. He takes pleasure having learned that that there is an online Arabic-language edition, pirated, that has been downloaded 13 million times. That tells him that in the Arabic-speaking world there is a hidden “groundswell of irreligion.”
- Wiseman asked Dawkins how he can change people’s minds. Again the wry smile broke out on Dawkins’s face as he replied, “I’m not famous for being good at that.”
- Wiseman playfully asked, “What is the least bad argument for God?” Dawkins and the audience laughed at that wording. “Fine-tuning,” he finally answered. He didn’t have to point out for this audience that in his books he has repeatedly and eloquently examined and rejected the fine-tuning argument.
- “Would a sufficiently advanced ET civilization be God?” Wiseman asked. The two of them exchanged smiles again at that thought. Dawkins’s answer was emphatic. “No. They would still be a result of some evolutionary process.”
- Dawkins’s next book—he’d written about five chapters at that point and in fact was working on it in free moments during the conference—is a version of The God Delusion for young people. He is struggling with the right tone and level for a younger audience. He has chapters on evolution versus design and now a chapter, “The Good Book,” that will, he says, “recount all the horrors in the Bible.”
- Wiseman invited a final comment. Dawkins’ reply was succinct: “There is such a thing as truth, and the truth is utterly wonderful!”
Steve Novella’s Excursion though Skepticism to the Post-Truth World. In a wide-ranging lunchtime talk, Steven Novella, who has become one of skepticism’s most prominent leaders, described what he sees as The Arc of Movement Skepticism. When the institutionalized skeptics’ movement started, back in the 1970s (that was the start of CSICOP, now CSI), skeptics basically focused on pseudoscience and other fringe elements. For the next twenty years, the main focus was on classic pseudoscience—astrology, psychics, UFOs, and the like. By the 1990s science denial had arisen to be a major problem, and skeptics’ focus shifted into issues more political. Attacks increased on science itself and on expertise and science institutions, and these attacks infiltrated medicine and led to the rise of “alternative medicine.”
“We’ve seen a well-funded campaign to infiltrate science,” he said. Major efforts suggesting there are alternatives to science strengthened, and proponents lobbied governments to license quacks, changing the rules to suit themselves. Billions of dollars are now at work in the promotion of pseudoscience.
“It is working,” Novella lamented. “Pseudoscience has been institutionalized, mainly in medicine.” This effort has “eroded the very basis of academia and expertise.” Skepticism expanded as well. “We grew tremendously, but our enemies grew even faster.”
Now things are even worse. We are in a post-truth world, Novella says, with institutionalized pseudoscience, attacks on expertise and standards, the rise of populism, changes in the rules of science, and the creation of social media echo chambers “where you don’t have to defend your facts.” The situation has gotten so bad that “we don’t have to worry about facts. We can tell any story we want.” We are in a mirror-mirror world, where up is now down. “We’re walking to stand still,” Novella says. “We couldn’t have planned for this.”
But the skeptical narrative can be powerful as well. Skeptics need to insist that truth and facts matter. Yet, they also have to understand that new psychological understandings of motivated reasoning teach us that countering false beliefs with facts alone doesn’t work. “You have to understand where people are coming from. You have to give them an alternative narrative.”
What can we do?
Novella urges us to “stay skeptical,” separate facts from opinion, don’t take attacks personally, continue to fight for science and reason, grow the institutions of skepticism, and defend the institutions of science, academia, and journalism. “Be nimble. Adapt. Nobody knows what’s coming. Lobby more, mobilize more.”
Eugenie Scott on “Why Knowledge Resistance?” Eugenie Scott’s talk later in the conference complemented Novella’s in many ways. People are resistant to knowledge for a variety of reasons—but those reasons don’t include lack of intelligence or ignorance. If it were ignorance of scientific knowledge, we could fix it with education. Also, she doesn’t think it’s right to say Americans are increasingly anti-scientific. Polls still indicate that Americans are more likely to trust scientists than others. So there doesn’t appear to be a large anti-science tendency in America.
Nevertheless, we have science denialism. But it is nuanced, selective. What people seem to be saying is, “I don’t like this science—not all science.” Such people view factual information through a filter. That filter includes ideology, values, and group identity. That filtering can be either beneficial or harmful; “It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. Context matters. “What’s bad is when ideology prevents us from accepting new ideas.”
Research indicates that ideology, values, and group identity are so strong that when people are presented factual information that goes against those elements, they believe even more strongly. This is the so-called “Backfire Effect.” It puts evidence-based proponents in a bit of a bind.
But Scott notes the effect is not universal. “No one is saying don’t correct misinformation. No one is saying information doesn’t count.”
What to do?
Debates about opinions are healthy. But realize that our opinions are determined not only by facts but by values and ideology. Keep stressing that scientific facts are not opinion. Communications research tells us that to change minds we need not only the facts but better and more effective messages, repeated often. Have a strategy in our communications with others. Realize opponents aren’t stupid or ignorant. They are operating from a position of strongly held ideology, values, and group identity—as are we all.
“Talk to each other. Treat others respectfully. … We can change our minds sometimes,” she says. Do so and “there is a chance the science will be heard.”
And that’s all from me. We’ll next give you some of Paul Fidalgo’s “live” short personal takes on CSICon talks. More still can be found on CFI’s website. Trigger warning: If you don’t like irreverent humor, stop reading now!
Photos by Brian Engler