Susan Gerbic talks with Bob Knaier about his CSICon Experience.

Susan Gerbic

Bob Knaier is an attorney currently living in Southern California, originally from Buffalo, New York. Bob spoke at CSICon 2016, presenting a paper titled “Homeopathy on Trial: Allen v. Hyland’s, Inc. and a Failure of Evidentiary Gatekeeping.”

Susan Gerbic: Bob, great to get a chance to talk to you. You are a long way from Buffalo. Are you missing those winters? I was raised in California and didn’t see snow until I was an adult.

Bob Knaier: Ha, I think you may have done it backward. My only fond memories of the snow are from my childhood. As an adult, living in it can be a chore. I have no doubt that doing so builds character—the people of Buffalo are as tough as they come—but no, I don’t miss the snow. I don’t even visit in the winter if I can avoid it. That said, I love Buffalo. I met my wife, Michelle, there. We both have family and friends there. The food can’t be beat. And upstate New York has a long history of fostering “freethought” and other similar movements. Buffalo is the home, after all, of CFI! It is also, however, the source of perhaps my one residual indulgence of full-blown irrationality, of belief without evidence. I have no doubt, every year, that the Buffalo Bills will make the playoffs.

Photo by Susan Gerbic.

Gerbic: I love the Sunday paper presentations; the talks are fifteen minutes, and I always learn something new. Tell our readers about your talk on homeopathy and this trial, Allen v. Hyland’s.

Knaier: My talk was about the rules for admitting expert testimony at trial, the responsibility of courts to act as evidentiary “gatekeepers” by precluding such testimony when it has no proper scientific basis, and how that gatekeeping function failed in a trial against Hyland’s, Inc., a manufacturer of homeopathic “medicine.” The admissibility of expert testimony is one of the things on which I focus in my practice. I have been doing this for years but only recently realized the extent to which it overlaps with my interest in skepticism more broadly.

Expert testimony can be a critical part of complex litigation and, for perhaps obvious reasons, can be quite persuasive at trial. But it can also be misused. Litigants sometimes offer expert testimony that has no reliable scientific basis. When that happens, juries can be misled into believing things without sufficient evidence. That should sound like a familiar problem to skeptics. In litigation, however, there is an answer to that problem. The rules of evidence preclude experts from offering speculative, unfounded testimony. In the context of scientific issues, the rules are intended to ensure that expert testimony has a reasonable scientific basis—that juries are not being fed “junk science” or pseudoscience.  

So, you can imagine my excitement (and dismay) when I came across an example of expert testimony being offered in support of a classic piece of pseudoscience: homeopathy. In the summer of 2015, a case went to trial in Los Angeles in which consumers alleged that Hyland’s misrepresented the efficacy of its homeopathic products—given that those products, by the very principles of homeopathy, generally contain no active ingredients. Hyland’s nevertheless offered testimony from several expert witnesses, purporting to explain how homeopathic remedies can and do work. In my view, those experts should never have been allowed to testify. Under the rules of evidence, their opinions were unfounded, unreliable, and wildly unscientific. The court thus should have exercised its “gatekeeping” function and precluded them from misleading the jury. Regrettably, it did not do so. It allowed the experts to testify, and, as a result, the jury found in favor of Hyland’s.

Photo by Karl Withakay.

Thus, in my talk I explained the responsibility of trial courts to preclude the admission of unreliable evidence in support of purportedly scientific claims; discussed the nature, history, and evidentiary basis of homeopathy; and described the Hyland’s trial and its outcome. I also considered the harms that can flow from allowing unfounded expert testimony to reach a jury and spoke about the importance of ensuring that litigants and courts focus their efforts on precluding pseudoscience from distorting the civil justice system. In case fellow skeptics want to read more about this, I am publishing a paper on it in the Spring 2017 issue of Jurimetrics: The Journal of Law, Science, and Technology (a journal of the American Bar Association Section of Science & Technology Law and Arizona State University’s Center for Law, Science & Innovation).

Gerbic: Can you give a few pointers to those people who are hoping to apply to give a paper this October?

Knaier: Presenting at the Sunday Papers session is really an honor. The audience includes not only other conference attendees but also conference speakers. In other words, if you get to speak on Sunday, you may very well be presenting your ideas to some of the renowned skeptics, scientists, and thinkers you came to the conference to see. Let’s face it, there are few things more challenging than giving a talk to a group of highly accomplished, intelligent skeptics. But doing so can also be tremendously rewarding. So give careful thought to your topic and prepare as thoroughly as you can.

With regard to a topic, consider how you might apply skeptical inquiry to your own work or life experiences. That way, you can tell the audience something they might not already know, but through the lens of a shared methodological worldview. If you can strike that sort of balance, you might be able to make your initial proposal stand out.

If you are then chosen to proceed further into the selection process, preparation is key. Ray Hall does an extraordinary “gatekeeping” job of his own by vetting candidate talks. Be sure to meet his deadlines and substantive requests. You’ll be asked to provide, within a matter of weeks, a draft paper and a set of presentation slides. So be prepared to work hard. Your ultimate submission should be polished and well-written. And again, you are proposing to make a persuasive presentation to a room full of skeptics, so it needs to be thoughtful and well-supported. Treat it as a labor of love. If you don’t love your topic, and care for it accordingly, it will be hard to make others care for it.  

Gerbic: You have attended a few skeptic conferences. What brings you back to these?

Knaier: I think of these conferences as an intellectual vacation—not a vacation from deep thought, but rather a vacation to deep thought. Many of us may not get a great deal of intellectual stimulation in our everyday lives, or at least may not regularly be among others who share a commitment to skepticism, reason, and free inquiry. These conferences offer a brief opportunity to experience that. They can be a real oasis in that regard—particularly when held in the Las Vegas desert! Michelle and I attended our first TAM in 2010, attended every year through 2015, finally came to our first CSICon in 2016, and are looking forward to coming back in 2017 and beyond.

There is really nothing quite like these conferences. One thing that makes them stand out in my mind is that they do not generally revolve around a specific subject matter. Unlike, say, a specialist academic conference, a skeptics’ conference revolves around broad methodological commitments. We thus get to see, meet, and listen to intellectual heroes of all stripes, discussing and explaining a wide variety of subjects. I always leave re-charged and ready to keep fighting for the cause of reason.   

Hunter Perrin as Zombie Trump with Bob Knaier. Photo by Susan Gerbic.

Gerbic: Can you give me some of your favorite moments?

Knaier: There are so many! Presenting at the Sunday Papers session was an unforgettable experience. In addition, the talks at CSICon 2016 were outstanding. Seeing and hearing from James Randi and Richard Dawkins was inspiring as always. Lawrence Krauss explained, like nobody else can, our place in the universe. As a practicing lawyer, I took away valuable insights into human psychology and decision making from speakers such as Elizabeth Loftus, Carol Tavris, and Maria Konnikova. And it was an honor and a pleasure to see Harriet Hall speak—given that her work on homeopathy helped inspire my own talk.

But CSICon is about more than the talks. It’s also about the moments before and after those talks. Michelle and I met Richard Dawkins in the registration area, chatted with Joe Nickell before heading into an excellent Halloween party, and got to meet like-minded skeptics from all over the world. And speaking of the Halloween party, I will never forget the sight of Richard Dawkins dressed as a lepidopterist (butterfly catcher)—giant net and all. The fun, friendly atmosphere at CSICon was truly shared by everyone. I can’t wait to be back.

Gerbic: Thank you so much, Bob. I’ll see you at CSICon 2017. A reminder to readers to put in your vacation requests now. October 26–29, Las Vegas, Nevada, Excalibur Hotel and Casino. Arrive in time to attend the workshops usually held Thursday morning, and stay for the Sunday Papers. My advice is to join the Facebook group that will keep you informed where people are hanging out, ‘cause that is what happens at these events. There will be an area somewhere with people looking forward to meeting you. And get all the extra sleep you can beforehand. Don’t forget your Halloween Costume!

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.