It began with a penetrating look at the long history of how a troubled America went haywire by Fantasyland author Kurt Andersen and ended with a romp through the nature of space and time—and the mind-bending speculation that we all might live in a holographic universe—from Columbia University cosmologist and author Brian Greene.
From Thursday evening to noon on Sunday, it was like this: Speaker after speaker delivering mind-expanding talks about everything from fake news and junk science and fact-checker Snopes to how the brain learns and sometimes gets things wrong to how evolution works and also sometimes gets things wrong. From looking for aliens to concerns about our unfounded fears of chemicals. From the pseudoscience of naturopathy to the fictional aspects of memory. From winning the climate war to fighting the heart-rending nonsense of facilitated communication. From lamenting when our legal system supports pseudoscience to using our legal system to fight pseudoscience (especially homeopathy). From the many new “wellness” pseudosciences in which women are increasingly being taught to worry about mysterious, nonexistent toxins in their bodies to finding ways to enrich our own personal skeptical existence.
Amid it all came an eloquent and inspiring reminder in an afternoon lecture from Richard Dawkins of how we should take courage from Darwin and an amazing illustrated talk by a poised, confident thirteen-year-old skeptic named Bailey Harris, speaking to the capacity audience about writing her kids’ books (e.g., My Name Is Stardust) extolling science and naturalism. Plus Star Trek: The Next Generation actor John de Lancie spoke passionately on his hope for a time when “knowing is more valued, more sought after, than believing.”
It wasn’t all serious. Standup comedian Leighann Lord hosted with a light touch, ready wit, and some provocative questions (“What if Adam was made from Eve’s rib?”). Piff the Magic Dragon (resident entertainer at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where the conference was held) brought some skeptical magic and refreshing silliness. Comedian and irreverent freethinker Julia Sweeney entertained with part of her one-woman stage show Older & Wider. The great skeptic mentalist Banachek delivered another great evening magic show. And skeptic icon James Randi attended the sessions and greeted fans and well-wishers in the hallways.
Whatever questions and concerns you might have about dealing with misinformation, pseudoscience, and pseudomedicine … whatever famous scientific skeptics you might want to hear and meet … whatever books you might seek … whatever skeptical entertainment you might delight in … here it was all wrapped up in one conference.
Even when the formal program ended there was still more, as the Sunday Papers session of shorter presentations gave us talks on why flat-earthers believe, what the harm is in belief in psychics, national polls of public perceptions of science in Brazil, and how 30 percent of college students in a beginning course in child and family science considered themselves experts—before the course had even begun!
CSICon 2019, the annual conference on science and skepticism hosted by the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and its Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (publishers of the Skeptical Inquirer), took over the ballroom and hallways of the Flamingo Resort in Las Vegas from October 16–20, 2019. Scientists, researchers, skeptics, and investigators raised, discussed, and argued important questions about all manner of scientific (mis)understandings and public confusions. If they couldn’t always offer solutions to the problems they probed, they did often offer constructive advice. Total attendance was 646, numbers that caused runs on the coffee at breaks but frequent opportunities to interact in person in the hallways and bookroom.
“Hearing from the top people in their fields with energetic talks on ripped-from-the-headlines topics is what makes CSICon stand out from other skepticism conferences,” says Robyn E. Blumner, CFI’s CEO and president. “And this year was no different. When talks can make this audience of prove-it-to-me skeptics stand and cheer or laugh until they cry, you know it’s something extraordinary. Come to CSICon 2020 and see for yourself!”
CFI is posting videos of selected talks from time to time on its website (see https://centerforinquiry.org/video/.) Some talks will be adapted for publication in future issues of Skeptical Inquirer. That’s already true for Britt Marie Hermes’s feature article and climatologist Michael E. Mann’s commentary in this issue. What follows are highlights from just a few of the other presentations.
Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, began with some of the 500-year history his insightful 2017 book portrays. He finds America troublingly special: “We are different and extreme in the breadth and depth of our embrace of fantasies.” The current U.S. president had, by last count in August, made 12,019 false claims, but “Post-factual or post-truth America did not start with Trump. Donald Trump just took advantage of our propensity.”
He noted the conservative political operative Karl Rove proudly boasted, “We create our own reality,” and it is true that America has done that countless times over the centuries. It all stems from America’s historic “extreme antagonism to the establishment.” That, Andersen said, “Gives us permission to dream up new realities.” This includes religious fervor, back to the time of The Great Delirium of around 1835, when as deToqueville noted, “Religious insanity is very common in the United States.”
We’ve long had a “Fantasy-Industrial Complex,” going back to P.T. Barnum, the New York Sun’s famous hoax about telescopes seeing people on the moon, and Buffalo Bill, a real frontiersman-turned-entertainer, in his popular wild west shows. All of them were a mixture of fact and fiction.
“Most of U.S. history has been a dynamic balance between fantasists and realists,” Andersen said. At least most of the time “the grown ups were in charge,” but the past half century has seen an explosion of magical thinking and “a permissive exposure to various flavors of the untrue.”
Mainstream used to be a good thing, but now the term has been turned into a pejorative. We have fallen into “cascades of fantasm” and “spectacular make-believe and fantasy.”
The Second Great Delirium came in the 1960s and 1970s, when we were taught that our own ideas have priority: “Whatever we think is true is true.” Charles Reich and others taught that science is just a social construct, that it is just stories.
Soon after came “the X-Filing of America,” popularizing ideas from The X-Files fictional television series that conspiracies are all around us and that paranormal and supernatural events are part of our reality. Then came the digital revolution with its billions of websites, too many of them filled with “fantasists galore” and grandiose assertions that “look like facts.” Here falsehoods become validated. Then we have reality TV series, “an amalgram of pseudodrama and melodrama.”
Most of this is just for popular entertainment and consumption, but there is a dark side. “The problem,” Andersen said, “is when delusional thinking floods into the public sphere.” Delusional thinking now pervades many topics: Satanic panics, gun regulations, conspiracies, climate change, vaccines, GMOs, elections, and governance.
“Our fantasyland tendencies have been there since the beginning,” but in recent decades, Andersen lamented, they have made “a horrible swerve.” Is the swerve permanent or just a phase? It is too early to tell.
Andersen ended by espousing his own bumper-sticker call for action: “Make America Reality-Based Again.”
An audience member, perhaps a bit depressed by all Andersen had described, asked him how to fix the problem. Andersen at first seemed lost for how to respond but then did. “We hope for the best,” he said. “Call B.S. on B.S. … Maybe we can not be as squishy as we have been. … Maybe we can stop it from becoming worse.”
Gordon Pennycook draws upon his work as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Regina to research why people fall for B.S. in this age of misinformation we live in. By the way, he points out that the use of the term in academic circles goes back to philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s 2005 book On Bullshit published by none other than Princeton University Press. Modern examples of major bullshitters include Dr. Oz of daytime television fame, Gwyneth Paltrow and her company Goop and its jade eggs and other bogus products (a business now worth $250 million), and Deepak Chopra, the guru of mind and body. “Bullshit sells,” Pennycook said, and that was a major theme of his CSICon talk. He proposed four premises: 1. B.S. is a problem. 2. There is a market for it. It sells. 3. We can’t expect it to stop, because there is a market for it. 4. It is up to us to inoculate ourselves from B.S.
Fake news is a special kind of B.S. Pennycook displayed a chart showing the rising number of completely fabricated headlines from nonmainstream media as the 2016 presidential election progressed.
Some of the appeal is due to errors in human reasoning, but that’s not the whole problem. We are all “good lawyers,” he said, good at arguing to a preconceived conclusion. “We are very good at that,” he said. But we are not so good at thinking like a philosopher (or a scientist), judiciously weighing both sides of an issue and trying to come to an objective conclusion. “We are not good at that.”
He pointed to Daniel Kahan’s research at Yale University showing that we are motivated to believe misinformation. This “motivated reasoning” allows people to be “better at convincing themselves of what they want to be true.”
Some have despaired that we have found that intelligent people are better at arguing to a given conclusion (their own) than getting to the objective truth, but Pennycook says there is good news: Research shows that people who are better at reasoning are better able to detect false news. “Reasoning actually helps.”
“Our capacity to think is not the culprit,” he said. “It is the solution.” He said we all need “pseudo-profound bullshit detectors.”
To solve the problem of fake news, we need to encourage people not to act so quickly when they read something sensational online. Don’t just forward it on. Think about it first.
“We need to get people to stop and think. It actually helps.”
The Foibles of FC
Janyce Boynton took the audience on a tour of the strange practice of facilitated communication (FC), totally debunked in 1994 but still widely used by those working with young people who have autism or other profound language deficits. Though they often now call it “supported typing,” it is still the same old pseudoscience. It all comes down to “who’s doing the pointing” to the letters on a keyboard. Repeated controlled tests have shown that it is the facilitator, not the patient, making the choices. The trouble is, said Boynton, a former speech/language clinician who was originally a believer, FC is being used to make major life decisions related to health, education, housing, and relationships, including marriage and sex. “It is time to admit that FC is about the facilitator, not the people with disabilities,” she said.
She believes that most FC facilitators are well meaning; “they are just caught up in a belief system.” The belief that it “could” work leads them to the belief that it “will” work. It’s all at an unconscious level. Facilitators are taught not to test for influencing. Of course when tests have been done, the FC conversations stop. We need mandatory testing, she emphasizes.
Our Brain Models the World
Jeff Hawkins, who does basic and applied research in neuroscience at his research company Numenta, gave a tour of the brain—how it learns and why it sometimes gets things wrong. We have our “old brain” that takes care of breathing, walking, reflexes, balance, and emotions and the newer part of our brain, or neocortex, which takes up 70 percent of the volume and deals with conscious awareness, language, cognition, thought, and planning. “The relationships between these two parts of the brain explain much about human behavior,” Hawkins said.
The neocortex learns a predictive model of the world. Everything you know is stored there. This allows you to plan and achieve goals. Prediction is how the models test themselves. “The brain’s model is our belief system, and it can be wrong.” All areas of the neocortex look basically the same, he said. It’s what is connected to them that makes the difference—vision, hearing, language, etc. The brain wants to store knowledge in a reference frame, yet the same inputs can be arranged differently, “leading to different predictions and different beliefs.” We are beginning to find that there are diverse columns in the neocortex, with most columns getting their input from other columns, not direct sensory input.
False models can occur, especially when we “omit contrary facts, introduce false facts, and teach alternate reference frames.” These are all ways we can go wrong.
“The model is our reality. It is what we know and believe,” said Hawkins. “We are beginning to understand how this model works. … I have a dream that every kid in high schools is taught about how our brains work and how they can be wrong,” he said. The course could be called “The Science of Belief.”
Women’s Bodies as Toxic
Jen Gunter, an activist OB/GYN physician with a large online media presence, is targeting the global wellness industry, which she says has reached $4.2 trillion. One large, pseudoscientific aspect of it is making women think their bodies are filled with toxins that must be removed. There is generally no need for that, yet the marketing campaigns are filled with high-priced products supposed to do just that. Gwyneth Paltrow and her company Goop exploit the gaps left by modern medicine and are getting a pass from the media, Gunter lamented. She listed words we all give a pass to but shouldn’t—pure, natural, wholesome, clean, refresh. She also listed words we don’t give a pass to—cancer, radiation, pain. From the 1920s to today, women have been given the same message that they are filled with toxins, just different presentations of it.
The industry also fosters medical conspiracy theories: vaccines cause autism, anti-fluoridation, AIDS denialism, and that Wi-Fi reception via women’s bras results in cancer. Belief in medical conspiracy theories also increases the chance you will buy supplements, another huge group of questionable products.
“Wellness” is a mish-mash of false idols—Marianne Williamson, Paltrow, and Oprah Winfrey are the three biggest ones, Gunter said. They are different, but where their messages overlap they have in common God, mysticism, and gurus. Mysticism is central, permeating it all into one “big religion.” In this religion and belief system, there is no room for science.
Pseudoscience in the Law
Jann Bellamy, a Florida attorney concerned about bogus medical science (who blogs regularly for Science-Based Medicine), took on pseudoscience in the law, specifically the incorporation of pseudoscience into the law or, as she put it, “How legislatures take science and just toss it out the window.” It happens all the time. Most often it is to enshrine some aspect of so-called alternative medicine with the spurious imprimatur of legislative approval. Licenses or accreditation authority is a typical route. Too many accrediting agencies don’t require any science-based input, she lamented. That’s great for naturopaths and chiropractors (the latter a $12 billion a year industry in the United States). “A system of self-licensing that is supposed to protect the public has instead become a threat to the public.” Continuing education courses in alt-med fields are “an endless source of pseudoscience,” and often they are publicly funded, meaning “taxpayers are helping fund education in pseudoscience.” It all is a result of a “false equivalence of real medicine and false medicine.”
Courage in Science
The last chapter of Richard Dawkins’s new book Outgrowing God is titled “Taking Courage from Science.” For his CSICon talk (his first lecture at a CSICon, as opposed to extemporaneous on-stage conversations), the noted evolutionary biologist and author chose to speak about “Taking Courage from Darwin.” It required courage on the part of Charles Darwin to publish his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection, “to fight the hubris of faith,” in Dawkins’s words. “Darwin had that courage.” We need to have some of that courage as well. Religious critics of science are always seeking to find gaps in the science where they can say God is the explanation. “But the trouble with gaps,” noted Dawkins, “is that science has a way of filling them.”
Theologians too often have a contempt for evidence, focusing more on “what feels right,” Dawkins said. Yet pride in science is not hubris, he said; it is simple realism. “It is not hubris to state facts when they are secure.”
We should take pride in what we do know and contemplate with humility what we don’t know, he said.
Science loves to explore possible answers to the things we don’t know. We can take inspiration from those quests to find answers to nature’s most puzzling mysteries, among them, Dawkins noted, are “What is dark matter?” and “What is dark energy?” We may or may not soon find the answers, but the quest is ennobling.
What are the deepest problems for us? Dawkins cited at least four: Consciousness. Why are the laws of physics what they are? Why are the physical constants what they are? Why is there something rather than nothing?
Science at least has a shot at eventually answering these questions, he said, while “theology cannot answer them.”
It takes intellectual courage to take on these kinds of questions. We should take courage from Darwin. “Darwin solved the big question,” how species evolve, and it had a stunningly simple answer: natural selection. “The big problem has been solved by Darwin,” he said.
These other quests take moral courage as well. Those morals arise from within us, Dawkins emphasized. He concluded with one such moral precept: “Leave the world better than you found it.”
Thirteen-Year-Old Author and Activist
Bailey Harris astonished the CSICon audience—all in a good way. She’s just thirteen years old, but this confident, enthusiastic, and articulate young woman stood at the front of the stage and delivered an amazing illustrated talk about her passion about science and her early rejection of religion. She was raised in Utah to secular parents, so science and independent thinking were second nature to her from the beginning.
When she was eight years old, she watched Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey in which Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about how we are all star-stuff. She loved it. “I went straight upstairs and started typing my book,” she says. That has led to her Stardust series of books for young people. (Stardust Explores Earth’s Wonders is her latest, in 2019.) And she doesn’t just write; she also has a big social media presence (now as “Bailey Stardust”) and appears all over the country advocating for science education, equality, and atheism. Why? She explains, “Religion is always fighting science education and quality. That’s crazy!” She is active in the Secular Student Alliance, and she is clearly one of our youngest bright stars fighting for science, skepticism, and freethought.
Hermes’s Courageous Journey
Britt Marie Hermes told the moving story of her conversion from all-accepting naturopathic “physician” to skeptical activist working to expose naturopathy as dangerous quackery. She relates that story in her own words elsewhere in this issue (see “Beware the Naturopathic Cancer Quack,” p. 38), so we won’t do more here than touch on it. She lamented naturopath’s “aggressive and relentless lobbying” to Congress to establish a system of self-regulation, using the argument that if the field is regulated (even by its own bogus practitioners), the public will be safe. But it’s all an illusion, and she presented statistics showing the risk of death was twice as high under one naturopath’s therapy. She described her legal case in which she was sued to stop saying bad things about naturopaths, even though she had the evidence on her side. In May 2017, a court in Germany ruled entirely in her favor. Although this news is generally known, the CSICon audience nevertheless cheered. The deadline for appeals has now expired and so, she proclaimed, “I have officially won!”
A fund drive led by the Australian Skeptics raised 50,000 euros in five days for her defense, and in all a total of 100,000 euros was amassed. This was more than her legal defense required, and so the balance is going into an International Skeptics Legal Defense Fund that she has established for defending skeptics against future legal actions meant to stop their investigations.
She said she has found the worldwide skeptic community amazingly supportive. That has made her realize something: “Skeptics are not lone wolves. We are a tight pack and family.”
Climate Change and Soft Denial
Noted climate scientist Michael E. Mann returned to CSICon and spoke to a lunchtime audience about the evolution of opposition to climate change.
The impacts of climate change are playing out before us in real time as heat waves, floods, more temperature extremes, worse droughts, and massive wildfires. “We are getting huge weather anomalies that are remarkably consistent.” Climate models are underestimating these events, he said. “Climate scientists aren’t alarmists,” he said. “They have been too conservative.” The evidence indicates that for every degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature, we get a 7 percent increase in average wind speeds and a 23 percent increase in their destructive power. He added, “We have fundamentally altered the fabric of our atmosphere to cause more extremes.”
As these changes have become more and more obvious, he said, opposition to climate science has shifted from hard denial to a softer denial, “which is perhaps even more dangerous.”
He said the fossil fuel industries are engaging in this “soft denial.” Now they say, “use the markets, we’ll adapt,” and they are encouraging minor individual efforts such as better light bulbs, not using straws, and not flying. It’s all in the interests of deflection, putting the burden for reducing the rate of global warming on the individual instead of seeking systematic solutions such as a carbon tax. It’s more “shaming” and “virtue-signaling,” Mann said, “a divide-and-conquer strategy deployed by special interests.”
“Doomism” is another real threat, Mann said. This promotes the idea that it is too late to do anything, so let’s focus on other things. This is from the left side of the political spectrum, he noted, but these “doomsday scenarios are another form of denial.”
The good news is that some conservatives are now coming to the table to talk. “We have to convey both urgency and agency,” said Mann, adding, “There are things that we can do.” Greatly expanding renewable energy is just a matter of political will. Young people get it, he said. For the rest of us, “It’s up to us to act for our children and grandchildren.” (For more, see Mann’s Commentary on p. 18.)
Nonsense about Chemicals
Chemicals have a problem: many people hear only bad things about them. (I once heard a woman say, “I don’t believe in chemicals”!) Chemist and noted science educator Joe Schwarcz of McGill University’s Office of Science and Society in Montreal (its mission is to separate science from nonsense) does his best to counter the misconceptions. He has hosted a radio show on science for forty years. His mantra is “Chemicals are to be understood, not feared.” He started his CSICon talk with a rundown of some bogus products, many involving the most basic and important chemical for us, water: “hydrogenated water” (“there are actually scientific papers on this”), Danish water revitalizer, a water alkalinizer (cost $3 to $4,000), and the alkaline diet (“fruits and vegetables are great, but they have nothing to do with alkalinity”). Then there is the “alpha spin,” a $300 coaster that “cures everything” and “neutralizes EM radiation.”
“It is one thing to talk about this silliness. Are we successful in combatting it?” Schwarcz asked.
To him, chemistry is the science that ties all the other sciences together. In alleviating some of the misconceptions about chemicals, he said, “We try to do some good.”
Persuading the Public
Jonathan Jarry is a science communicator at McGill’s Office of Science and Society where he works with Joe Schwarcz. He has a YouTube show Cracked Science that debunks pseudoscience, and he cohosts a medical podcast The Body of Evidence. He has found that in Canada they have some excellent journalists and that sometimes it really pays off to educate the public about pseudoscience rather than mock people for their gullibility. Video is a big tool. He has made a fake cancer-cure video that then debunked itself, garnering 15 million views.
He gave several other examples of successful skeptic education projects that have worked in Canada and offered the same advice that some other CSICon speakers have given: Don’t be argumentative and closed-minded. Act less like know-it-alls. Go beyond the facts and talk about values. “If facts don’t care about your feelings, feelings don’t care about the facts.”
Looking for Aliens
Seth Shostak, a radio astronomer with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, is actually looking for aliens but hasn’t found any yet. “We have not found any compelling evidence of life beyond Earth,” he reminded the CSICon audience, but the search is still young. With the Allen Telescope Array and other tools, the speed of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) technology is accelerating in accord with Moore’s Law: The speed of research is doubling every two years.
There are no shortage of candidate star systems. The latest estimate is that there are two trillion visible galaxies, he said, and the expectation is that each of them has approximately a trillion planets. If about 22 percent of Sunlike stars have habitable Earth-like planets and between 16 to 53 percent of red dwarf stars have habitable Earth-like planets, “the number of [Earth-like planets] in our galaxy is at least 50 billion,” he said.
Yet despite all the protestations of UFO believers, no reliable evidence of any alien visitations to our planet has yet been found. He points out that we now have thousands and thousands of satellites in orbit and 770 of them are imaging Earth. The best of them have a resolution of a meter or two. If aliens were flying about in our atmosphere, then these sensors would see them, he said.
Elizabeth Loftus is renowned for her studies showing how memory is malleable and untrustworthy. She spoke to the CSICon audience on the “fiction of memory” and provided “fresh reasons—and some not so fresh—not to believe your own memories.” Her experiments have shown that memory researchers can even implant false memories in people of things that never happened—and that these memories are just as vivid and real-seeming as real memories. She spoke of rich false memory, the consequences of false memories, and addressed whether it is even possible to tell the difference between real and false memories. It is not easy. For instance, one might wonder if true memories are more emotional than false ones. “No,” she answered. “False memories can be just as emotional.” Even worse, in functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) studies, false and true memories give out the same brain signals.
False and fallible memories are bad enough, but today the situation has worsened with the prevalence of digitally doctored photos and fake news. Computer programs can now make anyone appear to be saying anything you want.
Loftus’s take-home message was that one’s confidence in a memory, its compelling detail, and the amount of emotion it evokes are not good guides to evaluating its veracity. Those three attributes “don’t guarantee it is a true memory.” As she concluded: “False and true memories can be equally real and equally brilliant.”
Your Personal Skepticism
Troy Campbell, a social psychologist and marketing expert who also spoke at CSICon 2018 (his talk there became our cover article “Team Science: How to Be Better Science Activists,” SI, July/August 2019), returned, this time to talk about our “personal skeptical existence.” He wanted to explore “how we can use all these amazing talks and findings in our everyday life.” “We can do amazing things with companies and with our own lives,” he said, especially if we start with science and then have better human connections. “A skeptic face” doesn’t help, he warned; “be inviting.” Understand that humans are always going to exhibit confirmation bias, he said. “Confirmation bias will always be there.” Realizing that it is a very human trait we all share to some degree will enable us to be more effective inquirers and also to help us find more meaning.
Snopes Checks the Facts
David Mikkelson founded Snopes.com, the noted fact-checking site, in 1994 (he’s still CEO), and it has since risen to be a respected go-to source of checks on the validity of questionable claims appearing on the internet. He told the CSICon audience that Snopes.com now deals with 20 million unique monthly visitors. He manages everything on the site from researching and writing articles to overseeing its technical infrastructure. He likes to look at the form in which misinformation is spread, including some unscrupulous media outlets that constantly spew it. The United Kingdom’s Daily Mail is one example, “a right-wing-leaning bastion of egregiously bad journalism.” Snopes also recently examined a report from the Heartland Institute contending that global warming is a fabrication. He said his Snopes team found it to be “one big pile of scientific doo-doo.”
CSICon 2020 will be held October 15–18 at the Westgate Hotel in Las Vegas.