Interview with Amardeo Sarma
Beautiful Berlin will be the place to be in May, celebrating the contributions of global skepticism with the great James Randi himself—even if 2012 isn’t the end of the world as we know it.
The Sixth World Skeptics Congress will be an intellectually stimulating three-day event dealing with paranormal and supernatural claims, fringe science issues, and scams. Major topics at this event will be science and pseudoscience in education, in particular anti-evolution claims and origin myths, and the problems of risk and benefit assessment, especially in alternative medicine. Chris French, Harriet Hall, Tomasz Witkowski, Luigi Garlaschelli, Massimo Polidoro, Samantha Stein, Gita Sahgal, Eugenie Scott, and Simon Singh are just some of the world-renowned presenters who will be taking part, taking apart the claims and conspiracies of the modern world.
I spoke to Amardeo Sarma, the founder and chairman of the German Society for the Scientific Investigation of Para-Sciences (GWUP), chairman of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO), and fellow and Executive Council member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He has written, lectured, and debated on dowsing, methods of investigation, the Shroud of Turin, homeopathy, and the goals of skeptical organizations.
Kylie Sturgess: So what’s the skeptical scene in Germany like?
Amardeo Sarma: It’s been growing quite a bit over the last year. In fact, last year has been a record growth in our membership, which was very pleasing for us. We were founded in 1987, so this year the World Skeptics Congress is also our 25th anniversary. Before that was there were many individuals who were taking up paranormal claims time and again, but there was no coordinated effort at all. But, also promoted by CSICOP (now CSI), we formed a group in Germany like those in many other countries in Europe in 1987. That’s when things took off.
I’ve been at quite a few of the World Skeptics Conferences. In fact, one of the previous ones was also in Germany, in Heidelberg in 1998. That was quite a big event twelve years ago. So this is the second time, in fact, that we are having the World Skeptics Congress in Germany.
Kylie Sturgess: What do you think has changed over that time? Certainly technology—people bringing iPads to conventions?
Amardeo Sarma: That’s right. I think last time when we had the conference we still had to deal with overheads for some people—that’s completely out these days!
Otherwise I think many of the topics have remained quite the same with some new things coming in addition. One of the things that have been bothering us in Germany—and in much of Central Europe in fact—over the last twenty or thirty years has been alternative medicine. Homeopathy in particular has become quite a bit of a nuisance here, because it’s being promoted by politicians too.
Kylie Sturgess: Really? So the 10:23 Campaign was certainly something of interest to Germans?
Amardeo Sarma: Yes, in fact we had quite a few cities participating in that last year. So that was quite successful as well. We got quite a bit of attention for that!
Kylie Sturgess: What’s the education system like in Germany? Does pseudoscience creep into the classroom?
Amardeo Sarma: One thing that has not crept into the classroom as yet, for example, is the problem of creationism. But the other side of the problem is that there is religion being taught in schools [in Germany, religion is taught in schools as part of the curriculum] and the kids learn about the Bible and the way the Bible [teaches] that the whole world was created. It’s not part of the science education at all; however, by the time the children get to learn anything about evolution, it’s many years later. So that’s one of the problems. On the other hand, I must say that in Germany “evolution versus creationism” is not really an issue yet. But we see that coming up a little bit, not because of the Christian variants of creationism but because of the Islamic variants. That’s not an issue so much in Germany, but it is in some of the other countries like in Belgium.
Interestingly, even though that’s the case, at the same time in Germany it’s not been so much of an issue yet with the Turkish population here as far as I can see. But it is becoming a problem more and more in the last years. That’s something I think we should be aware of and that’s why this has been one of the topics that we’ve taken up for this particular conference: is there anything different between the Christian and the Islamic variants of creationism? What are the different cultural backgrounds? Who are the people who are trying to push creationism in its various forms, or trying to reject evolution?
We’ve heard from the United Kingdom that there have been cases where some students refuse to go to evolution classes because they say it’s against their religion. That’s not from the Christian fundamentalists but from the Islamic fundamentalists.
Kylie Sturgess: So having Eugenie Scott speak, for example, will be extremely relevant to the German audience?
Amardeo Sarma: Yes. In fact, in addition to her we’re going to have two people who have practical experience with that: Anila Asghar from Pakistan, who is now teaching in Canada, and the Belgian, Johan Braeckman, who is also going to be talking about numbers—how things have been developing from the European context. I think that’s going to be very interesting, because in addition to listening to the overall controversy between evolution and creationism, we’re going to hear the specific challenges that the Islamic variants offer.
For example, if you look at the first day of the convention—which is going to be very much [focused] on science versus evolution but also beyond that, on general education issues—we have you, Kylie, speaking about “teachers being more like scientists” [in a discussion of] pseudoscience in education. We have Samantha Stein speaking about engaging children in science. Then we have Gita Sahgal, who is going to speak about myths of origin in the classroom, referring very much to Indian schools. So there’s going to be quite a mixture of different topics dealing with how pseudoscience is getting into schools in different forms. Creationism, in fact, is just one of those.
Kylie Sturgess: Popular science and the communication of science, for a skeptic, is quite important too. I noticed that Simon Perry will be talking about that?
Amardeo Sarma: Yes, he’s going to be talking about how to fight nonsense with technology. So that’s something I’m looking forward to very much myself—what he’s going to propose and how we can be more effective in what we are doing.
Kylie Sturgess: Simon Singh is a wonderful presenter; he’ll be a highlight of the show. There’s a focus on risk management as well—that’s something I’ve not come across at a skeptic’s convention. What can you tell me about that? You’re going to be chairing this, in fact!
Amardeo Sarma: Yes, in fact, one of the [questions] that we’re looking at is, what is the behaviour? We notice, very often, that people don’t look at the science when they look at risks. There’s a very big difference between the real risk and the subjective risk. It can be both ways. It can be that people think something is very dangerous when it’s not. On the other hand, people will think things are not dangerous when they, in fact, are. So we’re looking at both sides of the issue. That’s going to be one topic.
In addition to this one particular session we also are going to have Chris Mooney, who’s going to speak about a different aspect of this, if you like, about science and politics. Looking at how there’s denialism not only in the area of evolution, but also as far as global warming is concerned. So that’s going to be a very interesting topic as well.
Kylie Sturgess: Global warming is incredibly relevant to everyone these days—I’ve noticed that the National Center for Science Eduction (NCSE), of which Eugenie Scott is the head, has been encouraging a focus on that?
Amardeo Sarma: I think that’s another thing that we skeptics should be doing more in the future: look at how to encourage the use of science and detect when, from whichever political side of the fence, people are trying to attack science to promote their own agenda, whether it is evolution, genetically modified food, or global warming. In the case of global warming, we see a denial of the risk. On the other hand the risks of genetically modified food are being completely blown out of proportion. In the case of global warming, science is rejected by many conservatives and free market enthusiasts, while genetically modified food is vilified by “greens” and many on the left. They always quote science when it backs their position, but when it doesn’t they are quite happy to be against science and to question the motives of scientists.
Kylie Sturgess: Of course, it wouldn’t be a skeptical convention unless we looked at psychology and pseudoscience! We have Chris French, Ray Hyman, and the great James Randi appearing.
Amardeo Sarma: Well, Ray Hyman, of course, is quite well known to a lot of people who have been at conferences before. What he is going to be speaking about, and he’s been involved in this for some time, is why smart people go wrong. Especially how smart scientists, even those who are very good specialists in their field and have done a lot of good work, suddenly go haywire in a completely different area. That’s one of the things he’s looking into; it has been interesting him for quite a long time.
I think that’s going to be a very interesting presentation because it shows that even if somebody has a very good reputation in science, perhaps even a Nobel Prize winner, he or she might be wrong when looking at fields [outside his or her expertise].
Kylie Sturgess: Always very good for skeptics to know and to learn about!
Amardeo Sarma: Yes, and also people are going to enjoy the conference—we’re looking to meet a lot of people from all over the world. One thing I did forget to say, not directly related to the world conference, is that just a week later there’s going to be an European atheist conference as well. If there are people who want to make more out of their trip and not only come to a World Skeptics Conference but also attend an atheist conference, it is going to be held just a week later in Cologne. So that’s not so far away.
Germany is not as big as Australia. It should be quite easy to get from one place to another. It could be something for people who want to have, for example, an extended trip. In fact, it’s still quite short—a vacation of maybe ten days by starting off with the World Skeptics Congress, having a look around Germany, and then ending their stay in Cologne and attending the atheist conference. That’s just something that might be worthy of note.
Kylie Sturgess: Wonderful. That will be happening in May, from the 18th to the 20th, including a few tours I’ve signed up for already!
Amardeo Sarma: Yes, exactly! There are tours all around Berlin, a city that’s worth visiting anyway. We hope people can combine that with a bit of holiday at the same time, and enjoy the city as well as the conference.
The Sixth World Skeptics Congress site can be found at www.worldskeptics.org.