SkeptiCal, a one day conference billed as Northern California's science and skepticism conference, was host to more than 260 skeptics at the DoubleTree Hotel in Berkeley, California on April 21, 2012. The convention day was split between speakers giving talks to all the conference goers and two breakout sessions, each of which had three options. Lunch featured live entertainment and there was a live skeptic poetry reading between talks. Altogether, there were approximately fifteen speakers and entertainers.
Dr. Sarah Strand's talk, "The Neurobiology of Religious Experiences," offered an explanation of out-of-body experiences. Out-of-body experiences (OBE) were explained in most cases as having the following characteristics: peace and connection to the universe, sense of release from one's body, movement toward a bright light down a dark tunnel, and a vision of a deity or people from one's life. OBEs may occur when the part of the brain that connects the right and left parietal lobes—the angular gyrus—experiences an interruption in activity. The perception of the space of our bodies (where our bodies start and end) is controlled by the left parietal lobe. The right parietal lobe controls the perception of space outside our bodies (the space after our bodies end). When the connection between right and left parietal lobe is disrupted, we can no longer differentiate between our bodies and the surrounding space. As a consequence, a person can experience the sensation of floating. People who have OBEs do not universally interpret them as religious; such an experience could simply be the result of a physiological difference in the sensitivity of one part of their brains. When stimulated, people with high sensitivity in their right temporal lobe see or feel a presence in the room more often than those with low sensitivity. Religious believers and non-theists both experience a sensed presence, the feeling that there is someone or something in the room, during an OBE. Sensed presence may be the neurological exemplar of religious experience. To summarize, we need not look outside our own skulls to explain an out-of-body experience because the answer is between our ears.
(In a follow up e-mail, Dr. Strand graciously offered her e-mail address to Skeptical Inquirer readers who have further questions. Contact Dr. Strand at email@example.com.)
Jay Diamond, outspoken international skepticism activist and the founder of Reason4Reason and the 10:23 Campaign, gave an impassioned talk about how to advance skepticism publicly and facilitated acts of activism during his talk. The audience attempted to overdose on a homeopathic remedy for insomnia made primarily of coffee (and water, of course), each person taking approximately fifteen doses in a small cup. (There were no reported cases of death or persons falling asleep during the conference.) Diamond encouraged the audience to take a QR code sticker and put it on the shelves of stores that sell homeopathic remedies. He also led a twitter bombing of Pauley Perrette, who plays forensic scientist Abby Sciuto on NCIS, because she participated in an anti-bullying campaign with self-proclaimed psychic John Coffey.
Executive Director of Chabot Space and Science Center Alex Zwissler provided a light-hearted examination of the rational and irrational aspects of belief in his talk, "How Do We Know What to Believe." Zwissler combined important insights into the reason's behind people's choice to believe with disarming, witty slides—featuring such captions as "Stand back, there is science in this shit"—and stories of nuclear scientist climate change deniers. Zwissler even presented a belief equation: If A is true, then B and C must follow. In this equation, skeptics spend most of their time worrying about proving A but most people are more concerned about B and C. Before a lengthy and at times hilarious Q&A session, Zwissler left the audience with the question, "What beliefs would you be willing to change in order to get others to change their beliefs?" His talk in five words: Be smart and speak gently.
Television skeptic, world class soprano, and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Indre Viskontas's talk "The Allure of Mystery: Why Debunking Falls Flat" outlined the value of story when trying to get people's attention and change their minds. Viskontas explained that people generally remember stories better than they remember facts. Specifically, if given a list of facts and a list of myths, after a short time people tend to misremember some of the myths as facts. An interesting aspect of her talk was a brief explanation on what skeptics often do wrong; in essence, Viskontas encouraged skeptics to employ storytelling when it is important to the speaker that the listeners remember the content or change their beliefs.
Dr. Alison Gopnik's eye-opening and adorable talk, "The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about the Truth," offered some insight into our own minds by unveiling the minds of children and the value of immaturity to an intelligent species. Using a clever arrangement of Ping-Pong balls of two different colors, Gopnik's graduate students were able to ascertain that babies can do basic statistical reasoning by indicating when something unexpected happened. Children will override their experience for what they are told. Researchers gave children a strange toy that did several things and made various noises. When a child was asked to figure the toy out, the child would seek out its functions. If the child was told that one of the toy's functions was what that toy does, then the child would not seek out the toy's other functions. Succinctly: Hey teacher, leave them kids alone.
Mentalist and former James Randi Education Foundation Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge protocol tester Jonny Zavant showed off whimsical works of trickery and flimflammery with his assistant Caroline. The highlight of the performance was when we learned that "Roar is dinosaur for I love you."
A note on breakout sessions: Since there were three going on at one time, it was not possible to attend them all. I attended two.
Not covered: "This Week in Science" Live Podcast by Dr. Kiki & Justin and "Extreme Weather: World Temperature Records" by Christopher C. Burt.
"Vaccinate Your Damn Kids" by Elyse Anders, the founder of the Women Thinking Free Foundation and Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated Campaign, encouraged people to vaccinate their kids. She addressed concerns of adult vaccination and arguments presented by anti-vaxxers, and participated in a lengthy question and answer session. In the back of the room, the City of Berkeley's Health Department offered free Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis/whooping cough) vaccines and Anders encouraged everyone whose vaccinations were out-of-date (or who thought they might be) to get vaccinated. Approximately 12% of conference goers did their part to keep up a strong herd immunity by getting vaccinated.
Not Covered: "This Year the World Will End—Or Will It?" by David Morrison and "Fear, Magic and Death: My Escape from Wooville" by Kernan Coleman.
In "Grassroots Skepticism" Brian Thompson, the Field Coordinator for the James Randi Educational Foundation, led a discussion about how to successfully start and maintain a group for skeptics. In it, he encouraged skeptics who want start a group to first see if other groups exist because it is easier to join or take over an existing dead group than to start a new one. Thompson advised a founder to consider the focus of the group: educational, social, activism, or all of the above. When an outsider wanders into a group, Thompson advised that skeptics go out of their way to be nice, like Mormons—whom he called "sneakily nice."
To Better Hear a Skeptic-Do You Have a Solution?
"Now in a class of twenty five, I have ten that are not vaccinated."
"I worry about my friends who think that using these remedies will treat them."
"How do we get people to stop believing in woo?"
"She is my hero."
"I get extra credit for being here."
"I wanted to meet like-minded people."
"My family does not know I am skeptical of religion."
"Now they are saying that vaccines have parts of aborted fetuses in them."
In the hallway between talks; in the seats while waiting for a speaker to get started; and during the question and answer section of a presentation, a careful observer could see what conventioneers were hoping to get out of SkeptiCal 2012: satisfying and practical solutions. For many, advice was needed to address pressing and frustrating concerns. Others' reasons were as personal as meeting a hero or getting a better grade. The specific issues that brought conventioneers to SkeptiCal were nearly as diverse and numerous as the convention-goers themselves; yet almost every question and conversation could be whittled down to "I have a problem. Do you have a solution?"
During Anders's talk, often exasperated and obviously extremely concerned people who feared the consequences of not finding a solution posed questions to her. A teacher from California's Central Valley—a generally poorer and more conservative area in California—explained the changes in her classroom to the group during the question and answer portion of Anders's talk.
"Ten years ago, I only had one child who was not vaccinated in my class. They were a Christian Scientist or something. Now in a class of twenty five, I have ten that are not vaccinated."
The teacher went on to explain that her friends and the parents of her students alike flood her inbox with e-mails that contain pseudo-scientific and fear-mongering information about vaccines. She reported that these concerns keep changing: first, parents were concerned that their children would develop autism due to mercury poisoning from thimerosal; then they were worried that their children were receiving too many medications at once; then the fear was of toxins; and now a rumor that vaccinations are made of parts of aborted fetuses is frightening a new population of poor religious conservatives into refusing to vaccinate their children.
Even after sitting down with parents and explaining vaccines, this teacher could not persuade them to vaccinate their children. Several disappointing attempts to set them straight failed and she did not know how to effectively convey the safety of vaccines to them.
Anders replied, "We can say the Lancet retracted the 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that showed a connection between vaccines and autism. They don't care about that. When I went to get my child vaccinated, I had a moment of terror and thought-what if I'm wrong? And I know better."
Audience members chimed in with advice on how to send information to the worried parents, ideas on how to combat the parents' emotional concerns, along with words of support. Helpful websites—including http://www.hugmeimvaccinated.org—were also discussed.
Sheldon Helms, psychology professor at Ohlone College, Bay Area Skeptics Board Member, and SkeptiCal 2012 event planner, wanted to inspire his students to attend science and psychology talks they might not see elsewhere. (One of his many hats is adviser to Ohlone's psychology club.)
"The majority of my students who came to SkeptiCal were members of the Ohlone College Psychology Club," said Helms. "They were very excited about the fact that the conference had so many topics related to psychology and social science in general, and voted to use club funds to pay for their registration as a field trip. I offered my other students extra credit to encourage them to attend, and many did so. I would estimate that about thirty of my students attended, and at least seventeen of those were Psychology Club members."
In a follow up e-mail about the conference, Helms explained the impact the conference had on his students: "I have no doubt that my students benefited from being at SkeptiCal. … After returning to my classes, my students who attended were abuzz with excitement about the speakers they heard, the people they met, and the camaraderie they felt being there."
It probably comes as no surprise that after a desire to learn something new, fellowship and camaraderie may be the single most sought-after aspect of SkeptiCal 2012. Being a skeptic can be lonely and isolating; outside of online communities, it can be hard to find a supportive ear. Skepticism often puts the skeptic at odds with the harmful yet deeply-held personally-identifying beliefs (e.g., I am a healer because I do reiki) of otherwise decent people. Many skeptics feel an obligation to engage woo because of its potential harms. Even those who do not actively engage it may find their personal value of rational thought or admiration of science attacked, dismissed, or devalued, even by their families.
Numerous people who were interviewed refused to give their names out of fear that their loved ones would find out they are skeptical. Some had family members and friends who celebrated woo, while others who had become extremely skeptical of religion feared being disowned if their skepticism became public knowledge. Some expressed a frustration at finding a skeptical or skeptic-friendly romantic partner.
In his talk, Brian Thompson asked the crowd why they were in a group or why their skeptical groups started. The overwhelming answer was that people were lonely and wanted to find like-minded people. Thompson summarized their answers: loneliness.
A perceived failure to live up to a duty to protect, a feeling of inadequate persuasive arsenal to attack these ideas effectively (how do we convince people to stop believing in woo), fear, and isolation create a frustrated, marginalized, and often lonely population needing to connect with others of a like mind for emotional recharging and idea exchange.It is no surprise that so many conversations at the conference revolved around meeting other skeptics, having a friendly ear to bounce ideas off of, and trying to develop ideas with people supportive of and familiar with the scientific thought process.
Eddie Scott Horsfall performed skeptic-inspired songs during the lunch break for the crowd, but his reason for coming was not solely musical. "I want a sense of community, and to be around like-minded people."
Horsfall was seeking other people who shared the sentiment that "The universe we live in is explainable and understandable through science and that's awesome!"
Similarly, Helms wanted to show his students a community of people who value critical thought:
…the impetus for encouraging them to attend was to expose them to information about psychology, other sciences, and critical thinking in general. Equally important, however, was that they do this in an atmosphere where they would be surrounded by like-minded people who are also interested in those topics. We live in a world that openly discourages critical thinking and that, all too often, disparages those who seek an education. One of the best antidotes to that negativity is to gather together with others who think like you do, and whose behavior sends the message that it's not only okay to be interested in science, but actually cool.
We might take away from SkeptiCal 2012 that in order to persuade people to re-examine their beliefs, it is necessary to tell a story that illustrates the facts without confusing the audience with comparisons to untruths—in other words, stories that convey realities without explicitly outlining them. Once minds turn to skepticism and are convinced of their mistakes in method of thought or belief, their irrational needs do not evaporate. Open skepticism is often adversarial and heated; its products bounce off of closed minds more often than they seep into open ones. Skeptics may grow thicker skins, use more energy in thought, and seek truth before good feeling, but skepticism is not immunity to feeling the sting of failure, the pain of rejection, and or the burden of worry. Skeptics, just like everyone else, need support, camaraderie, and acceptance.
The answer may be to follow Brian Thompson's advice to be sneakily nice—most of the time.
SkeptiCal 2012: http://www.skepticalcon.org/
Sarah Strand: http://sites.google.com/site/strandpsychology/about-me
Jay Diamond: https://twitter.com/#!/jaydiamond
10:23 Campaign: http://www.1023.org.uk/
Pauley Perrette: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauley_Perrette
Chip Coffey: http://www.chipcoffey.com/
Alex Zwissler: https://twitter.com/#!/alexzwissler
Chabot Space and Science Center: http://www.chabotspace.org/index.htm
Indre Viskontas: http://www.indreviskontas.com/
Alison Gopnik: http://www.alisongopnik.com/
This Week in Science Live Podcast: http://www.twis.org/
Brian Thompson: http://www.amateurscientist.org/
Sheldon Helms: http://www.ohlone.edu/people/shelms/