Cover Image: Pseudoscience can be nerve-racking, so skeptics sometimes can’t help but throw up their hands in despair!
“How can SkepKon be described?” one might ask. “It’s a time to network and a great time to catch up with friends,” replies Dr. Holm Hümmler, a physicist and skeptic from Frankfurt.
SkepKon is the annual conference of the German Skeptic organization called GWUP (Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften, German for Society for the Scientific Investigation of Parasciences). It is a conference in German, but anyone who is interested in skepticism is welcome.
As is tradition, SkepKon began with Skeptical, a day of very short presentations to present “the best we are as Skeptics,” said Gerald Sorko, active member of GWUP and organizer of Skeptics in the Pub Cologne. Skeptical organizers Bernd Harder and Dr. Claudia Preis have made it possible to get tickets to Skeptical without having to book a whole conference ticket. That’s very handy for people who just want to find out more about skepticism without having to commit to the full conference schedule.
The Skeptical began with Dr. Anna Beniermann, who talked about evolution education for children. This was very interesting for the German audience, as religious education is still mostly mandatory in German primary schools, whereas evolution usually is exclusively taught in secondary schools. Some primary schools offer alternatives to religious education, but it is rare for children to learn anything about evolution before the age of ten in Germany. This is mostly due to the school curriculum. For me as a teacher, Anna Beniermann’s talk was one of my definite highlights of Skeptical, especially because she is actively researching evolution education.
Following Dr. Beniermann’s talk, Bernd Harder and Dr. Claudia Preis informed the audience about a prophecy concerning Augsburg, where SkepKon was located this year. The prophecy therefore touched on familiar locations and occurrences. This presentation was funny and fascinating for the audience, as parts of the prophecy were so absurd that it was interesting to see how creative esoteric people can be.
Following this, Lydia Baumann talked about a possible pole reversal and what it has to do with conspiracy theories. The geologist analyzed another prophecy to see what is within scientific possibility and to show where pole reversals have happened.
A very special event for all SkepKon visitors was the appearance of the band Harpo Speaks! They played between the presentations and put everyone in a great mood. Lead singer Tommy Krappweis is a comedian, author, musician, and director. He invented a famous German mascot called “Bernd das Brot” that has become a cult figure for children and adults alike.
Holm Hümmler talked about conspiracy theories and how to debunk them. He debunked the moon landing conspiracy by showing photos he took himself and explaining the physical theories behind them. He also discussed flat-earth theory and debunking it, which was entertaining and informative at the same time. Later, Lydia Benecke presented how to have discussions with conspiracy theorists. She spoke about her recent experiences with pseudoscientific people.
After that, Dr. Norbert Aust of Information Network Homeopathy (INH) spoke about successes and events that happened within the INH with its information campaigns about homeopathy. Unfortunately, his colleagues Dr. Natalie Grams, Dr. Christian Lübbers, and Dr. Helmut Kohler couldn’t be present at the conference, but to the delight of the audience Norbert Aust brought huge globules in the form of beachballs that he threw for the audience to catch. Globules, or pillules, are small sugary balls (hence the Latin term for “small globe”) that are the most used dosage for homeopathic remedies. They can be found in different shades of white and are traditionally made of lactose but today are also available as fructose (“lactose free”) and rarely of other materials. The pure globules (singular: globuli) are coated with diluted homeopathic solutes. After drying (evaporating), they are ready as “homeopathic remedies.”
Homeopathy is still a very important and controversial topic in Germany because it is covered by most insurance companies and even has led to science communicator Natalie Grams getting sued (see more at https://skepticalinquirer.org/exclusive/legal-case-against-homeopathy-critic-natalie-grams-no-effect-beyond-the-placebo-effect/).
Lutz Homann then expressed his doubts about methods of diagnosing sicknesses by massaging certain body parts. It was shocking to hear that these methods are still very popular but don’t have any scientific evidence to support them.
A highlight for all skeptical visitors was definitely the live show of Methodisch Inkorrekt, a very popular science podcast in Germany. The two physicists, Reinhard Remfort and Nicolas Wöhrl, talked about modern science and why it is impossible to get “informed water” out of a pseudoscientific water treatment plant.
The second day, and the official beginning of the conference, started with Amardeo Sarma greeting the audience. Then Dr. Florian Aigner revealed his findings about perpetual motion machines. Dr. Norbert Aust of Information Network Homeopathy told everyone of his research about the exit from fossil-fuel energy. Dr. Norbert Aust is a researcher in engineering as well as one of the very active leading figures of Information Network Homeopathy.
Later Prof. Dr. Tilman Betsch communicated his knowledge about psychological factors that can make him or her more likely to believe in paranormal occurrences. Axel Ebert spoke about reasons pseudoscientific explanations are still standing their ground despite being disputed numerous times.
After this, Sylvia Stang delivered an overview about the history of pseudomedicine and quacks in Germany. This was very interesting for me personally, as I am interested in history because of my profession as well as interested in medicine because of my hobbies. Pseudomedicine is also one of the oldest skeptical topics, even leading to the oldest skeptical organization named after their work against quacks, the Dutch Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (Association Against Quackery). Sylvia Stang told us of a prohibition against quackery that was abolished in 1869, which led to a boom of quacks and lay people treating patients. Interestingly, quackery faced unlikely opposition during World War I as it was considered a threat to the armed forces of Germany if they wouldn’t be treated by medical professionals. Even more fascinating but also jarring is the fact that a law about traditional healers from 1939 is still in practice today! Sylvia Stang also told us about the connection between anti-vaccination ideas and alternative healers in the dawn of the twentieth century, which is also still a current topic.
Prof. Dr. Gerd Antes then talked about Big Data and scientific evidence. After a short break, the conference went on about anti-vaccination in the media with medical professionals Dr. Jan Oude-Aost and Julia Neufeind.
Later, the Carl Sagan Prize was awarded to MedWatch, a website that is informing about “Fake News” in the medical field. MedWatch was founded by Nicola Kuhrt and Hinnerk Feldwisch and is working to educate the public about costly or even dangerous medical promises by quacks and traditional healers. They have a blog they frequently update, and they also have a team of medical professionals supporting them in their very important work. They also publish interviews by activist in the medical field who work to inform the public about pseudoscience and dangerous promises to heal incurable diseases. The Carl Sagan Prize is an award for journalists and science communicators active in skeptical and scientific education. People can send in nominations, which will then be examined by a jury. The jury was called up by GWUP’s chair people and consisted of Dr. Florian Aigner, a physicist and science communicator; Lydia Benecke, crime psychologist and member of Wissenschaftsrat (the science council of GWUP); Inge Hüsgen, the editor of Skeptiker magazine; as well as Dr. Julia Offe, biologist and science communicator; and Amardeo Sarma, chairman of GWUP.
The last day of SkepKon began with a presentation about freemasonry by Wolfgang Aust. After this, Dr. Holm Hümmler talked about debunking conspiracy theories, especially about flying saucers. His talk was one of my personal highlights of Saturday as Holm Hümmler has a very unique way of engaging the audience using eggs, bottles, and frisbees to demonstrate physical conditions. When talking about Nazi Reichsflugscheiben, also called Nazi UFOs, the audience was laughing but also learned why these disks could never fly in the way they were claimed to.
Dr. Stefanie Handl talked about conspiracy theories and pseudoscience in pet nutrition. She talked about a raw food method called BARF (biologically appropriate raw food) and the dangerous and tormenting consequences “barfing” can have.
The last talk of SkepKon was presented by Dr. Martin Moder and Dr. Nikil Mukerji. It was about Jordan Peterson, who is probably one of the most controversially discussed people of our times.
Dr. Stephanie Dreyfürst conveyed the closing remarks and named the winners of her skeptical T-shirt contest. This year visitors of SkepKon could draw creative T-Shirt designs about skeptical topics or jokes. They could then vote for their favorite T-shirt. The winning drafts will also be printed.
All in all, it can be said that SkepKon 2019 was a very fascinating and interesting event. I can’t wait for next May when I can see skeptical friends from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and other German-speaking countries again. Learning more about skeptical topics and getting all the news about the status quo will always be thrilling, and there’s no better place for that than SkepKon!
Interested in more of Anna Beniermann’s work? Just visit https://evokids.de/ (German) or http://www.scientix.eu/resources/details?resourceId=16634!
Want to know more about the work of Information Network Homeopathy? Find out more at http://www.network-homeopathy.info/.
Photos by Annika Merkelbach and Andreas “Elwood” Brauner (https://bluesbrother.de/).