Cover Image Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography
“SCIENCE SKEPTICISM ART”
So reads the t-shirt for NECSS 2019, the eleventh annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, copresented by the New York City Skeptics, the New England Skeptical Society, and the Society for Science-Based Medicine, which took place July 11–14. The simple slogan is accompanied by a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline—as the event was once again held at Chelsea’s Fashion Institute of Technology—and a futuristic-looking new logo.
The words solidify a commitment to bring art to the skeptical mix that began in 2017, when comedian Leighann Lord first emceed NECSS and has since become one of the cornerstones of the conference. This year featured a comedic crowd-pleaser with musician and theoretical physicist Brian Wecht, comedian/musician George Hrab, and Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe cohost Jay Novella playing a NECSS version of the “Match Game.” I moderated a panel on “The Science and Philosophy of X-Men Biology” with scientists Nathan H. Lents and Yelena Bernadskaya, ethicists Aaron Rabinowitz and Kevin T. Keith, and even the writer of Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men, Matthew Rosenberg.
Wecht, Jay Novella, and Jay’s brother neurologist Steven Novella, helped kick the trend off on Thursday with their interactive workshop, “How Science and Skepticism are Portrayed in Pop Culture.” The group lamented the fallacious trope of the “lone scientist” who has a “eureka!” moment, which is basically a superpower and encourages people to think you have to be exceedingly brilliant to even try to do science. “It’s so horrible. I can’t watch the show,” Wecht said of the behavior of The Big Bang Theory television series’ Sheldon Cooper character, who coincidentally shares Wecht’s specialty. It wasn’t all negative, though, as Steven Novella shouted out the United Kingdom’s Jonathan Creek as a great, skeptical protagonist.
Other artful workshops included mentalist Eric Walton on the “Psychology of Magic,” and Wecht and Jay Novella with “Best Moments in Animation,” but there were serious presentations as well. Steven Novella delivered a powerful discussion on how healthcare consumers are forced to navigate their care more and more themselves, while bad information online far outweighs the good. His wife and clinical mental health counselor, Jocelyn, paired with educator and one of the conference’s primary organizers, Liz Gaston, on “Shaping Your Child’s Behavior with Science.”
The main conference opened on Friday with more traditional skepticism, as Science-Based Medicine’s managing editor, oncologist David Gorski, spoke on how alternative cancer “cures” target the most vulnerable among us. Unlike in previous years when the entirety of the Science-Based Medicine talks were confined to Friday, they were spread out over the weekend this time, with others, including vaccine coinventor Paul Offit, Steven Novella talking the truth of the current opioid crisis, and panels on the measles resurgence and pseudoscience marketing.
The keynote speaker for NECSS 2019, reprising his role from the very first NECSS, was science journalist Carl Zimmer with his talk “Heredity: Its Powers, Perversions, and Potential.” “It’s estimated by next year, 100 million people will have done this,” Zimmer said of home genetic testing, such as the services provided by Ancestry, 23andme, and others. The problem with that is “there’s no doctor helping millions of people interpret these results.” And what about when gene-editing makes all this information actionable? Would you cure people afflicted with Larsen syndrome, who are shorter than average but have a lower incidence of diabetes and cancer? “Why would you want to ‘fix’ that?” Zimmer asked.
As has become customary, NECSS 2019 also introduced some new faces to the skeptical crowd. To follow up on Zimmer’s genetics talk, Steven Novella moderated a panel on CRISPR, the gene-editing tool that’s made mainstream waves, that included New York University genome lab head Neville Sanjana, bioethicist S. Matthew Liao, and biotechnology patent lawyer Franklin Abrams. Medical writer and journalist Randi Hutter Epstein joined the pseudoscience marketing panel and delivered her own lecture on her book Aroused: A History of Hormone Healers & Hucksters and awarded one lucky audience member genuine, old-school patent medicine: a bottle of whiskey.
Social scientist, comedian, and circus performer(!) Andrea Jones-Rooy was all over NECSS 2019, starting with a workshop titled “Demystifying Data Science,” then on to the Match Game on Saturday, and finally her own talk “Why Democracy Is Mathematically Hard” on Sunday, in which she argued it’s all too difficult and we should move to a dictatorship, and she definitely wants to be quoted on that.
Famed science writer and humorist Mary Roach sat down with Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe cohost Cara Santa Maria for a free-wheeling conversation about how she got started (“I went to a liberal arts college and graduated with no job skills”) and her body of work. Her first book, Stiff, told the story of what happens to human cadavers, which of course led to a later book, Spook, a scientific search for an afterlife, which Santa Maria called “a good exercise in empathy.” Roach expressed surprise that so many people loved the description in her space exploration book, Packing for Mars, of a toilet camera that … helps you … in microgravity. It shows something familiar from a different angle, Roach said, “kind of like seeing the Earth from space.”
Microbiologist and educator Odaelys Walwyn told a more difficult story in her talk, “Illusion of Accessibility in STEM.” Walwyn earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of the Virgin Islands, where she grew up, and then moved to central New York for a research education program at the University of Rochester. While much of the staff was great to her, there were awful moments such as when, surrounded by her peers, she was still assumed to be a custodial worker. Now that she’s made it through, she hopes she can be an example to other black girls with an interest in science, and she has seen it happen with at least one group she met. “They literally had tears in their eyes,” Walwyn said, as being a scientist had never seemed like a possibility for them before.
Debbie Goddard isn’t an unfamiliar name to some, because she spent years working as an activist for the Center for Inquiry. Now she’s the vice president of programs for American Atheists and the director of African Americans for Humanism. Goddard spoke of one effort she helmed to reach out to African Americans in Harlem who might be having doubts about their faith, to let them know they’re not alone and others from their heritage had the same thoughts. After much discussion, it was decided the most effective strategy would be to present a historical black atheist/freethinker alongside a contemporary one and to have these images on subways rather than billboards, because all the billboards in Harlem point out, away from the neighborhood. “We want to believe that we and others are rational actors,” Goddard said on trying to influence people, but we need to realize, psychologically, that’s simply not the case. People won’t believe your facts if they think you don’t share their values, she said, so instead of talking about penguins when discussing global warming with conservatives, maybe discuss how it will affect the future of our children and the increased cooling costs that will burden working families.
As always, the after-conference activities were one of the most important parts of NECSS 2019. For the second year in row, NECSS partnered with Real/Fake Science for a sold-out show that featured some scientists and some non-scientists speaking on either real or made-up research, and it was up to the audience to use their skepticism to figure out which was which. The “Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance,” written and hosted by Hrab and featuring the Skeptics’ Guide crew, returned with classic games such as Frieze Frame and Throwdown, and new ones such as Double Blind Charades, that forced one person to guess what another was miming, then communicate that to yet another participant.
There were plenty of new faces there, too, as NECSS newcomers congregated from across the country and from as far away as Norway and Australia. Attendees and speakers had an entire Manhattan bar to themselves on the Saturday night, but that wasn’t enough for many, as an impromptu Friday night “Drinking Skeptically” seemed to pop up on its own, showing once again it’s the people, just as much as the presentations, that drive NECSS.