Short Takes from CSICON 2017

Paul Fidalgo

Rob Brotherton on Conspiracy Theories

So, my help was suddenly needed at the CSICon AV station for the presentation by Rob Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, so I didn’t take notes about his talk, and instead pressed a button to switch camera angles for the video recording.

Luckily, it was a really compelling talk that I think I retained a great deal of.

So, why do people believe in absurd conspiracy theories such as the faked moon landing or the shadowy network of plotters behind the Kennedy assassination? It helps to think about it in terms of people’s perceptions of agency and intent.

Generally, if a person is more inclined to ascribe intent to ambiguous scenarios, they are also more likely to be conspiracy theorists. If you hear “he burned down the house,” and assume it means he burned it down out of malicious pyromania or insurance fraud, you’re a conspiracy theorist. If you presume the statement means it was an accident related to a toaster or dropped cigarette, you’re less likely to be an Alex Jones fan (my words).

Also, if something important happens that has a major impact, it’s difficult for many people to believe that they have a simple explanation. But Brotherton showed that with many major events that were almost world-shaking, but turned out not to be, the simple explanations seem to pass muster with everyone. JFK was killed, changing the course of history, so the lone-gunman story didn’t make sense to conspiracy theorists. Ronald Reagan was shot, but survived, meaning normality was restored, and there are today no serious Reagan-shooting conspiracy theories.

There was also a thing about some black and white animated geometric shapes fighting with each other, which was cool, but I was thinking too hard about the button I had to press at the time.

Well, let me tell you, if you didn’t see it here in person, when the video goes up at some point in the medium to distant future, you’re going to love it. Especially the camera switching, which was nothing short of inspired.

David Gorski: Quackery, Limitless in Abundance

What on Earth is going on in academic medicine? From David Gorski’s presentation, I learned that an association of schools with fake-medicine facilities exists; the Academic Consortium of Integrative Medicine has over seventy member academic medical centers, up from only eight in 1999.

Gorski (an oncologist at the Barbra Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and a CSI fellow) recounted a long list of deeply troubling developments in “quackademic medicine,” such as the recent $200 million gift to UC Irvine for the construction of an integrative medicine research facility, Harvard students learning about meridians from an acupuncturist, and the Cleveland Clinic’s wide array of offenses against science, which includes nonsense treatments such as reiki.

Reiki. Man, that’s a real humdinger, that one. The Cleveland Clinic’s website boasted that reiki involves a “universal life force that is limitless in abundance.” As Gorski clarifies, “Reiki is just faith healing with Eastern mystic religious beliefs.”

It’s maddening. So many resources and so much time and energy directed toward these unscientific nondisciplines. Those $200 million could certainly be better used to pursue real medical breakthroughs rather than making the supporters of homeopathy feel validated.

Part of the problem is how the quackademics muddle their claims with science-sounding terms, layering it all with heaping dollops of self-righteousness. Alt-med, CAM, integrative medicine, functional medicine—all of these in one form or another assert that they “treat the whole person,” exclusively “treat the root cause of disease, not just symptoms,” and that only they emphasize prevention of diseases (which is a surprise to real doctors). But it’s okay, because these alt-med types are using “the best of both worlds.” This leads Gorski to ask, “How can you use the ‘best’ of quackery?”

Clearly, though, the reality-based community and the champions of integrative medicine are having different conversations. If you doubt that, note that Dr. David Katz insists that homeopathy works and that medical science needs to embrace “a more fluid concept of evidence.”

If your head has exploded over this, perhaps you’d like to check in with the Cleveland Clinic and see if your unlimited life force energy can heal your freshly detonated skull.

Maria Konnikova and the Luck Delusion

Later in the evening, I handed CSI’s far-too-heavy and frankly dangerous Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova, the New Yorker writer and author of books including The Confidence Game and an upcoming book on poker. (She tells me not to worry about the weight of the award; she does yoga.)

I mention this because at the top of her presentation, Konnikova asked the audience whether we feel that we are “lucky.” A good chunk of folks raised their hands to say yes, they’re lucky. By far the most indicated that they do not believe themselves to be lucky or unlucky (they’re skeptics, after all), and when she asked who thinks they are unlucky, I was (as far as I could tell) the lone hand to pop up—and rather enthusiastically. (I should clarify that this is my shtick. I’m actually astoundingly lucky in countless ways, but I kind of do this Charlie Brown-esque everything’s-terrible thing as part of my persona and various pathologies. So it was mostly performative.)

“You and I will need to talk, sir,” Konnikova said to me from the stage with a wry smile, not knowing at the time that I would be her award presenter. Because I’m human, I found this charming collection of interactions, within this context, to be, well, what … lucky? Something like that.

Which of course it wasn’t, not in the sense of some mystical force called “luck” ensuring that I had a somewhat humorously ironic connection with Konnikova. It was just a thing that happened.

Here’s what’s really lucky. “Out of all the potential people that could have been born, you were born,” she told us. “You are here. And that is awesome.” It’s not mystical, but it is kind of a big deal. It’s a big deal and it was out of our control, so whatever “luck” brought us into being evaporated as soon as we began existence. But in other aspects of our lives, we operate under the illusion of control, which Konnikova exemplified by citing a study involving coin-flip predictions, where subjects really believed that they could “practice” and “get better” at guessing heads or tails—which is of course nonsense yet feels real to people.

This manifests in the gambling world, in which Konnikova has spent a year of her life to research her new book, in two key fallacies: One is the Gambler’s Fallacy, where people believe that some outcome of a game of chance is “due” to occur for whatever reason, which of course it isn’t. The other is the Hot Hand Fallacy, where a player or a team will believe they have some injection of luck pushing them through a string of successes. That one’s more complicated.

Konnikova says that generally, “Chance is random; it really doesn’t care what’s already happened. At all.” The Hot Hand Fallacy only shows little signs of validity because of psychology. In a competitive sport, greater confidence can improve a player’s performance or maybe intimidate the opponent, increasing the chances for additional success.

What’s the lesson of all this? Just sneer at folks who believe in luck? Hell no. “Shit happens,” Konnikova says, and it’s something we need to just accept. We need to embrace the confidence and happiness we get when good shit happens, acknowledge that bad shit will also happen, and simply make the most of all of it.

“Thinking about luck in this way will make us better players at life,” she said.

Okay, okay. I’ll try.

Joe Schwarcz, Your Friendly Neighborhood Skeptic

There was something about Joe Schwarcz that I couldn’t quite put my finger on as I watched his presentation, in which he recounted some highlights from his career as a science communicator spanning four decades. Schwarcz, a chemist and CSI fellow, is director of McGill University’s Office of Science and Society.

The man is delightful. So grounded, and yet so light. As he told his stories, smiling almost the whole time, it felt like I was being led down familiar memories with a familiar friend, even though all of this was new to me. The word avuncular is the one that keeps coming to me. (Side note, Schwarcz was able to take credit for the rise of Canada’s Superhero Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, because a school-aged Trudeau once saw Schwarcz give a science presentation. Q.E.D.)

I’ll get back to all that in a bit. The content of Schwarcz’s presentation was grounded in the simple truth that “there are no bad chemicals, only safe or dangerous ways to use them.” He laid out the context in which chemistry, and much of science more broadly, is seen as something nefarious and in which “chemicals” are inherently evil things that need to be reduced or removed as much as possible from all aspects of our lives.

And one of the things that Schwarcz is trying to do is to put a spotlight on how a lack of understanding of science and chemistry sets the stage for people to be duped and ripped off. (He showed an honest-to-goodness product called “dehydrated water,” which instructed the consumer to add it to cold water and stir.) If people are afraid of chemicals as a concept or ignorant of basic science, then they can be sold on useless products or even drive themselves crazy with the futile avoidance of chemicals.

On his Montreal-based radio show, Schwarcz deals with this confusion about science all the time. (It’s the world’s longest-running radio show about chemistry and the only radio show about chemistry, he boasted.) Like Car Talk for chemicals, Dr. Frasier Crane for everyday science. He helps regular people lose some of their fears and gain valuable tools for navigating a world in which the messages about chemicals and science are distressingly inconsistent, to say the least.

And it’s the idea that he’s sort of the friendly neighborhood skeptic that I think was on my mind as I watched and listened to him for the first time. He’s the guy you’d want to bring your questions to, because you’d feel stupid bringing it to someone else, and you know he’s going to do his best to help in a friendly way. That’s different from being someone like a super-celebrity scientist such as Neil deGrasse Tyson or a hard core academic. It’s like Joe is from the neighborhood. And I think that’s incredibly valuable.

“Does any of this matter?” Schwarcz asked about his many years of work. Yeah, it matters.

Ross Blocher: Absorb the Dumb, Plant the Seed

Maybe it’s just a hobbyhorse of mine, but I’ve seen enough haughty skepticism that revels in “being right” rather than making things better for everyone. So when I’m exposed to new ways to approach skeptical activism that aren’t purely about hostility, conflict, and fist-shaking, I’m intrigued. Even more so if it’s an overtly compassionate approach.

One model for me is the Joe Nickell approach, which I can broadly summarize as one in which each extraordinary claim is taken on its merits. Joe doesn’t look to “debunk” a ghost sighting, for example, and prove the poor fools wrong; rather, he investigates. He takes each new claim as a puzzle to solve not as an opportunity to ridicule someone who believed something that wasn’t so.

The approach of Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy in their Oh No! Ross and Carriepodcast is related to Joe’s, but rather than investigate individual instances, they enter into the worlds of these believers open to the experiences they offer, and they bring their observations back to us.

“We are excited by people’s beliefs,” said Blocher in his presentation, showing us a number of examples of his and Poppy’s adventures in the worlds of Scientology, Raelianism, mystical cancer cures, coal walkers, and on and on. In each immersion, they use their real names, have real conversations, and seek not to debunk claims but to evaluate an experience. They don’t even really use the word skepticism in their show, even though that’s exactly what they’re practicing.

Blocher told us that we need more people taking this kind of approach, and I agree. The Blocher-Poppy theory is aimed at avoiding anger and hostility in favor of “planting a seed.” Rather than getting into a conflict and merely trading bad feelings, you “absorb the dumb,” take in the presumably bad ideas, and remain open while you learn more. The effect is often very positive. “A lot of people are jerks about this,” Blocher says believers will tell him, “but you’re someone I can talk to.”

There’s the seed. Now there’s a little more space to learn and maybe even change a mind. I dig that.

Kevin Folta: Share the Truth, Defend the Truth Tellers

Kevin Folta needs you to be a part of an army of Johnny and Janie Appleseeds, except the seeds you drop will be remarkably resilient to pests, remove allergens, and help alleviate starvation in developing countries.

When you listen to Kevin Folta, a professor of horticulture at the University of Florida, you can’t help but find yourself with very big feelings about things such as gene editing and vitamin A. You see, it’s so easy for cutting edge genetic science to be distorted and demonized. It’s unfamiliar territory; it’s complex, and it reminds people of creepy sci-fi scenarios. But Folta gives the science—and more important, the drive to advance that science—a human face and voice.

And that voice sometimes strains around sudden surges of emotion, sparked by his descriptions of the effort to use gene editing to protect and improve staple crops that can keep people alive and prevent diseases, only to have those efforts blocked by anti-GMO activists.

They’re not just a nuisance. Folta says the grassroots efforts in the United States to stop genetic modification of food also changes the attitudes of those on whose behalf the work is being done. We know too well the mistrust that people in many parts of the developing world have for the United States, and the campaigns to stop gene editing and other innovations can turn the beneficiaries against the very thing that is intended to save them.

Folta is deeply affected by this dynamic, frustrating to no end, especially considering the good that could be done for children who are malnourished. But it’s also personal for him, having been the prime target of an anti-GMO propaganda effort to discredit him, resulting in, among other things, a damaging New York Times piece for which he was asked what it felt like “to be a tool” of the agriculture industry.

But he says he got through it because of this community, people like us. When academics were too spooked to rise to occasion, it was the skeptic movement that stepped up and pushed back. And this, says Folta, shows the best of what this movement can do. “The science and skepticism audience can really make a difference here,” he said, by doing what we do best: sharing the truths that science tells us and defending those who tell the truth.

And we’re needed. Folta described the example of a young post-doc colleague of his who works with birds, who PETA has tried to bully and harass. It represents a cynical new tack, says Folta. “They’re going after early career females with families,” knowing that they are particularly vulnerable to being pushed out of their work. So Folta wants us to be part of the solution, to resist the bullying, and, most importantly, to share the truth. “Science,” he insists, still holding back some tears, “can win.”

Everybody Plots All the Time! Taner Edis on Misinformation Outside the United States

Taner Edis gave a remarkably compelling and sobering talk on how an advanced, modern society can find itself in thrall to conservative religious politics, baseless medical treatments, the institutional embrace of pseudoscience, the diminishment of secular expertise, and an embrace of conspiracy thinking and creationism.

I am of course talking about Turkey, not the United States.

Edis, a physicist, used Turkey as his prime example for how a culture can become hostile to science, and the pieces of Turkey’s puzzle looked a lot like ours. As George Hrab remarked at the end of Edis’s talk, “It’s beautiful how human beings are the same everywhere, and it’s also really sad that human beings are the same everywhere.”

Some examples: Culture wars in the 1970s in Turkey laid the groundwork for a rise in creationist thinking and its inculcation into institutions. Once officially secular, conservative religiosity is now the rule in Turkey, as concepts such as evolution are excised from the educational system. All this time, the government has become ever more secretive. Creationism itself is marketed in a modern and media-savvy way, dressed up almost like a Tony Robbins-esque path to success as much as a theology.

Meanwhile, the public doesn’t trust anyone, especially “experts” and elites, and identifies with conspiracy theories—yes, even about 9/11. Edis said the popular attitude boiled down to “Everybody plots all the time!” You get the point: The names are different (usually), and the degrees of impact that each factor contributes vary, but the fundamentals are there.

So one key point from Edis’s presentation was that we can take lessons for skeptical activism by observing the similarities and differences among nations and cultures as they lean toward or away from hostility toward science and the embrace of woo. We need to look more closely at the role the media and corporations play in advancing antiscientific thinking and what they have to gain.

So hey! It’s not just us, everybody! But, uh oh. It’s not just us.

Teresa Giménez Barbat: Skepticism in the Heart of Europe

Teresa Giménez Barbat of Barcelona is a member of the European Parliament, and before the attendees of CSICon 2017 she positioned herself squarely as an ally and advocate for skepticism and secularism. Her job, she said, is “to make skepticism and secularism heard in the heart of Europe.”

While the issues she works on would certainly be familiar to us in the United States, it is telling that one of the more absurd examples of what she calls “homeopathic laws”—laws that are well intentioned but have no real benefit—include the bizarre regulation dictating the curvature of cucumbers.

There are instances of dangerous science denial, of course, though according to Barbat it can come in forms that are sort of chimeras of American issues. For example, she’s dealt with those who blame global warming on “patriarchal attitudes.” Well, I could see a case for that, but of course the point is that it’s an avoidance of the plain physical causes of climate change.

And, with an issue that is right at the heart of CFI’s international efforts, Barbat discussed how she advocates for the rights of those accused of apostasy and blasphemy in countries such as Pakistan. She revealed how she had not always been a skeptic, with a nominally Catholic childhood followed by a young adulthood in which she confessed to being “an annoying and insufferable hippie.” It takes courage to admit that.

CSICon 2017 attendees pose in Randi-like beards for this special photo, which was then sent to James Randi, who was recuperating at home following a small stroke. Photo organized by Susan Gerbic assisted by Brian Engler, Ross Blocher, and Jim Underdown.

A Real Human Being Named James Randi

James “The Amazing” Randi couldn’t be at CSICon as planned because of a small stroke, and of course it’s disappointing. But to sate the skeptic appetite for amazingness, Massimo Polidoro, the Italian investigator and Skeptical Inquirer columnist who is writing a biography of Randi, recounted some of Randi’s greatest feats from generations ago.

It’d be pointless for me to recount them for you here, especially since I can’t write in a sufficiently charming Italian accent. But I did come away from this presentation with a new appreciation of Randi and his legacy.

The stories made Randi out to be less of a legend and more of a man who was driven and devoted to the details. The ways he escaped prison cells or humiliated charlatans weren’t done off the cuff. He didn’t take any frauds down by critically block-quoting their blog posts. He planned and prepared with the kind of meticulousness that is hard to imagine.

But look, if you care deeply enough about something, such as the truth, the effort is so worth it. It’s easy to conceive of Randi as a kind of secular wizard. I’m happy to think of him as a guy who has worked incredibly hard and cared a hell of a lot .

Rob Brotherton on Conspiracy Theories So, my help was suddenly needed at the CSICon AV station for the presentation by Rob Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories, so I didn’t take notes about his talk, and instead pressed a button to switch camera angles for the video recording. Luckily, it was …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.