CFI 12th World Congress

CFI 12th World Congress

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is an international advocacy group for both skepticism and secularism that seeks “to contribute to the public understanding and appreciation of science and reason, and their applications to human conduct.” Its skepticism branch, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), publishes Skeptical Inquiry magazine. Our friends at CFI Ontario, headed up by Justin Trottier in Toronto, are the local CFI chapter.

CFI has held World Congresses in places like Italy and China, but just over a week ago, their 12th World Congress was hosted in Bethesda, Maryland, so I decided to pop down. The theme of the conference was “Science, Public Policy and the Planetary Community”, and as I have come to expect from CFI, the presentations were rich in content and a valuable update of current skeptic issues. In the presentations reviewed below, I focused on the skepticism topics; there were other secularism presentations at the Congress.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Creationism and the First Amendment – Eddie Tabash

Eddie Tabash is a constitutional lawyer from Los Angeles who takes on First Amendment (i.e., separation of church and state) cases for CFI. He reviewed the rationale for why the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in public school science classes is a violation of the First Amendment. He also explained that, although evolution can be depicted as having religious implications (e.g., the age of the universe), the teaching of the scientific facts of evolution without discussing those implications is not a First Amendment violation. He added that, similarly, insisting on the equal treatment of females and homosexuals at school without discussing the religious implications (e.g., biblical verses to the contrary) is not a First Amendment violation because it concerns basic human rights. When asked if teaching paranormal topics is against the Constitution, he said that it would only be a violation if the topics were also identifiable as part of a religion. For example, it would be legal to teach astrology but not reincarnation. During the question period, a high school chemistry teacher commented that it is impossible to avoid discussing creationism completely because the kids ask genuine questions about it (e.g., how is it that the chemical elements originated in the stars instead of being divinely created) since they receive so much creationist indoctrination at home and are surprised by the science.

Update on The Wedge: Intelligent Design Creationism Since the Dover Trial – Barbara Forrest

Barbara Forrest is a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of the influential book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, which exposed the Discovery Institute’s (DI’s) strategy to have creationism or intelligent design taught in public school science classes. She briefed on further anti-evolution incursions since the Dover trial in 2005, especially state stealth creationism legislations based on DI’s Model Academic Freedom Statute. These bills, using code terms such as “academic freedom”, “teach the controversy”, “strengths and weaknesses” and “critical analysis”, have been introduced in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas over the last two years. To date, only the Louisiana Science Education Act has made it all the way through, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Louisiana Family Forum. Since the act encourages the use of unconstitutional supplemental educational material, it is expected that a First Amendment case will happen eventually. She also reviewed the disappointing situation in Texas, where Christina Comer was fired from the Texas Education Agency for forwarding a e-mail announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest and where the State Board of Education voted to undermine science standards.

Darwinism and Creationism: Do They Conflict and Does It Matter – Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science who has studied the conflict between public advocates of creationism and evolution. He reviewed some of the historical background of the conflict, pointing out that many are unaware that aspects of evolution theory pre-dated Darwin and didn’t achieve consensus until its synthesis in the early 1940s, people don’t tend to turn away from religion just because of exposure evolution theory, and biblical literalism was not a traditional part of Christianity until it was invented in the US in the 19th century. He argued that science and religion are separate and that, when advocates like Dawkins argue that evolution implies atheism or agnosticism, then they are setting up the teaching of evolution for a First Amendment challenge. This point was refuted by Eddie Tabash with his discussion on teaching facts not implications (see above).

Lincoln and Darwin: Rebel Giants – David Contosta

David Contosta is a Philadelphia history professor who wrote the book Rebel Giants: The Revolutionary Lives of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Although their lives had many differences, Lincoln and Darwin shared many similarities, starting with the same birthdate. Both lost their mothers at an early age, rebelled against their fathers, took advantage of a pause in their lives (i.e., a psychosocial moratorium) to discover their avocation, married late, suffered from depression throughout their lives, had personal religious struggles, and led paradigm shifts.

Friday 10 April 2009

The United States, A Former Global Leader in Science, Apologizes for the 2001-2008 Service Outage – Patricia Schroeder

Patricia Schroeder was the Democratic US Representative from Colorado for 24 years and is currently the CEO for the Association of American Publishers. She talked about the politicization of science during the Bush administration – such as appointing unqualified people to science posts, censoring government scientists, not using outside sources, allowing conflicts of interest, leaking partisan information, not funding stem cell research, pressuring the FDA on approval issues, intervening in the Terry Schiavo case, indicating support for creationism and denying anthropogenic global warming (AGW) science – and how it has undercut education. She explained how the process of state-level adoption of textbooks was implemented in the southern states after the Civil War to guard against their fear of propaganda from the northern states. Now, this process is being used to try to incorporate anti-evolution material in science textbooks, as was done by the State Board of Education in Texas. She believes that this effort, along with the involvement of anti-evolutionists on local-level school boards will have a detrimental effect on education. Already, a million students drop out of US schools every year. She despairs of her engagement in the past with people who have had entrenched pseudoscientific views. As a Representative, she dealt with the Colorado Crazies who demanded, amongst other things, that the University of Colorado Medical Center be shut down because they were beheading people and keeping them alive. She arranged for members of the group to visit the Center with complete access, after which they claimed that the visit had been just a show.

The Age of American Unreason: What’s Next? – Susan Jacoby

Susan Jacoby is the director of CFI’s New York branch and author of several books, including The Age of American Unreason. She spoke about the trend in the US toward anti-rationalism, anti-intellectualism and intellectual laziness over the last 40 years, which she blames on the rise of video media, the renewal of religious fundamentalism and the failing of the public education system. The result is the predominance of junk thought, where there ceases to be separation between opinion and fact. When challenged in question period that video games can be mentally stimulating, she indicated that time spent on electronic media is distracting and displaces reading, which is reflective in nature and more thought provoking. A librarian complained that the pressure for libraries to increase numbers through the door is motivating them to stock more and more DVDs and video games.

Resistance to Science – Phillip Kitcher

Phillip Kitcher is the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. He reviewed the philosophical, sociological, religious and political resistances to science, indicating that some people feel alienated because it seems that academic elites are subverting sources of popular comfort and disproportionately benefitting the few. Darwinism seems to be advocating for atheistic materialism, the consensus on AGW seems to be supporting the ideology of elite, liberal values, and genetically modified foods seem to be foisted on the public by big corporations. Biomedical research is focused on heart disease and cancer, rather than TB, malaria and other tropical diseases. He advocates for adopting a more democratic ideal for prosecuting science, where there is improved public understanding through better and more deliberate transmission of ideas and where well informed representatives from different perspectives deliberate to set scientific agenda. More grassroots public engagement will lead to more public buy-in. Resources for scientific research should be invested in accordance with the burden of the problem being solved. During question period, people questioned whether the public could be informed and ideologically neutral enough to provide proper guidance and feared that basic and esoteric research would be disfavoured over applied research.

NASA Update – John Mather

John Mather is an astrophysicist with NASA. He gave an overview of the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), the Kepler Mission, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Terrestrial Planet Finder. He also discussed the age of the universe and the concepts of dark energy and dark matter.

The Science of Climate Change – Drew Shindell

Drew Shindell is a NASA climatologist. He explained how the General Circulation Model (i.e., the global climate model) demonstrates AGW, how the model can be tested with satellite data and what the consequences of AGW are. He pointed out how climate change deniers like to cherry-pick quotes and findings out of context, such as Dr. Steven Schlesinger and Senator James Inhofe who like to quote the 1972 National Science Board report Patterns and Perspectives in Environmental Science, which states “Judging from the record of the past interglacial ages, the present time of high temperatures should be drawing to an end, to be followed by a long period of considerably colder temperatures leading into the next glacial age some 20,000 years from now” but fail to include the follow-on “However, it is possible, or even likely, that human interference has already altered the environment so much that the climatic pattern of the near future will follow a different path.” (See also The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus.) He stated that the effect of human activities dwarfs natural forcings, that 80 percent of CO2 comes from fossil fuels and that industry lobbyists outnumber environmental lobbyists eight-to-one. He explained that global warming is resulting in increased sea surface temperatures, more hurricanes, increased heat waves, more droughts, loss of arctic sea ice, loss of glaciers and sea level rise.

Can We Survive the Next 1,000 Centuries? – Roger Bonnet

Roger-Maurice Bonnet is the president of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) and author of the book Surviving 1000 Centuries: Can We Do It? He overviewed the previous global extinctions (i.e., Ordivician, Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous) and the scientific assessment done for the book on how human civilization will fare over the next 100,000 years. He doubted that terraforming and extraterrestrial colonization will be a practicable strategy and emphasized the need to conserve a habitable climate on Earth. Some questioners thought that he underestimated the technological innovations that will occur over the next 100,000 years to facilitate space colonization.

China’s Science Communication Policy – Ren Fujun

Ren Fujun is the executive director of the Chinese Research Institute for the Popularization of Science (CRISP). Unfortunately, he had difficulty speaking English, so he was difficult to follow. He briefed on how the Chinese government used liaison staff and billboards to communicate scientific aspects of government plans, such as energy conservation, to local groups, such as municipalities and farmers. It was a very bureaucratic speech, and he stuck very close to his prepared text. In fact, during question period, he seemed to have a page for any question thrown at him.

How People Can Be Fooled – James Randi

Randi arrived and departed to standing ovations. He spoke off the cuff, mainly about how easy it is for eyewitnesses to be fooled, especially if they are being manipulated, because people make assumptions about what they are seeing. He did the mentalism trick of guessing the word that an audience member had randomly picked from a book, and he showed the video of him doing psychic surgery on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He discussed some other anecdotes. He also announced that the JREF Million Dollar Challenge will live on. It was due to end in 2012 because it was only attracting the deranged and the disillusioned, instead of high profile hustlers, and it was a lot of capital to keep tied up. However, too many scammers and true believers declared the proposed cancellation to be a victory for them and an assumed surrender by JREF. Now, all those people are free to apply for the challenge.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Rich, False Memories – Elizabeth Loftus

Elizabeth Loftus is a cognitive psychology professor at University of California, Irvine, who studies human memory, especially its malleability and reliability. She reviewed a number of cases of false memories, such as Hillary Clinton’s 1996 trip to Bosnia that she misremembered as occurring under hostile fire, the legal convictions based on eyewitness testimony that have been overturned by subsequent DNA analysis, and the Ramona repressed memory case in which a therapist who convinced a daughter to remember that her father had sexually abused her was subsequently sued. In fact, due to all the lawsuits against therapists over false repressed memory cases, insurance companies are refusing to cover therapists who do this work. She then described the experimental work that has been done recently on implanting false memories. For example, when people received suggestions that they had been lost in a mall as a child or spilled punch at a wedding or suffered an animal attack, 25 percent remembered the false event. This result and the accompanying sensory details even occurred when implausible suggestions, such as being licked by Pluto at Disneyland or even having a conversation with Bugs Bunny (not a Disney character) at Disneyland, were suggested. Implanted memories, such as getting sick from eating hard boiled eggs or dill pickles or beginning to like previously despised foods such as asparagus, even caused subsequent changes in diet and food choice, which were found to last even up to four months after implanting the suggestion. She quipped that the oath taken in court should read, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and whatever you think you remember?”

Investigating Rather than Debunking – Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell is a well known skeptical investigator with CSI. He mentioned some of the jobs he has had, including poet, carny, draft dodger, magician, bar waiter, steelworker and private investigator, and these are but a small number of the 160 or so personas listed on his website, many of which he did in Toronto and Niagara Falls. He also spoke of his PhD in folklore from the University of Kentucky, which he has made use of in some of his investigations. He talked about the importance of actually carrying out investigations rather than merely debunking them and, because anyone can be fooled, being respectful to investigation subjects, although not to charlatans and fraud artists. He described his first big case from 1972 at MacKenzie House in Toronto where ghosts had been reported for 10 years going up and down stairs at nights. He interviewed the night cleaning crew in the next building, which had a parallel staircase, and they said that no one had ever asked them about the noises they had been making. He discussed other cases involving a house of blood, Nazca lines, the psychics at Camp Chesterfield and lake monsters. About lake monsters, he quipped that investigating them in a small boat is dangerous because, if one ever turns out to be real, then one gulp and he’s gone.

Quirkology – Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman is a University of Hertfordshire psychology professor who studies Quirkology – that is, the psychological aspects of deception and luck, as well as the skeptical analysis of paranormal claims. As usual, he gave the funniest presentation at the Congress. He presented his famous video the Colour Changing Card Trick, about which he has received notable blog comments “After someone explained it to me, I figured it out” and “Ha, ha, you spelled ‘color’ wrong”. For the Edinburgh International Science Festival, he invited people to submit ghost pictures to his The Science of Ghosts blog and asked readers to explain the pictures. He also presented a video that he did with the BBC show Tomorrow’s World on firewalking. For it, he explained that, due to the heat transfer properties of wood embers, anyone can firewalk quickly for 12 to 15 feet without injuring themselves. However, some people believe that they can create a protective field around their bodies, so he advised BBC to make the burning ember bed 60 feet long in order to test their claim. The video shows the true believers jumping painfully off the ember path at about the 20-foot point and into the arms of waiting paramedics. A friend told him that he missed a great opportunity, saying that they should have had two aid tents available – one with paramedics and one with psychic healer – to see towards which one the injured walkers would lunge.

Science Challenged: The Move to Change the Rules – Armadeo Sarma

Armadeo Sarma is the executive director of Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP), Germany’s Society for the Scientific Investigation of the Para-sciences. His description of “para-sciences” sounded like a collective term for pseudoscience and the paranormal. He pointed out that the study of parapsychology has often used good methodology but failed to establish the phenomena. The marginal and evasive results from this objective testing is often explained away by true believers as the decline effect. Meanwhile, alternative medicine in Germany has been self-regulated and exempted from the objective testing of health claims since 1976. In both areas, para-science practitioners are calling for “a change to the rules” so as to give credence to subjective evidence and testing. They suggest that, if the tests don’t show their pet phenomena to be true, then the test methodology must be wrong. Often they invoke quantum physics to justify an observer effect. An example of this pushback by the para-sciences is the Potsdam Manifesto. He pointed out that what makes matters worse are the scientists who are indifferent to confronting colleagues that support or practise pseudosciences, especially alternative medicine, and academic institutions that are allowing quackery to seep into medical curricula with the silence or even support of the medical establishment. Sarma fears that the pressure to subjectify science will soon infect North America from Europe.

Panel: The Future of Skepticism – Ken Frazier, Barry Karr, Sean McCabe, Ben Radford, Jim Underdown

The panel comprised Ken Frazier, the editor of Skeptical Inquirer; Barry Karr, the executive director of CFI; Sean McCabe, James Randi’s personal assistant and editor of the Weird Things blog; Ben Radford, the managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer; and Jim Underdown, the executive director of CFI West. They talked about the continuing need for skepticism to educate the public on critical thinking, to support science standards and to expose charlatans and fraudsters, especially since the internet provides fertile ground for spreading pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs and since the mainstream science community tends to dismiss or avoid getting involved with the skeptical heavy lifting. Each succeeding generation must be educated of the pseudoscientific and paranormal issues that have been critiqued in the past but keep getting resurrected. We are now in the second generation of skepticism.

A couple of perennial discussion topics came up. One was the balance between discussing skepticism amongst ourselves (i.e., preaching to the choir) and conducting public outreach. In the end, both are needed. The other issue was that the term “skepticism” is unfamiliar to the public and somewhat negative sounding. Some felt that a change is needed and perhaps something like “public science” should be adopted, while others felt that “skepticism” has a rich heritage and is becoming cool with the younger generation. An uncontested point was the need to exploit information technology to the fullest. Sean indicated that the James Randi Speaks weekly YouTube video receives ten times the hits that the JREF Swift blog gets. On television, despite the existence of the ridiculous ghost-hunting shows, the UFO pseudo-documentaries and series like The Medium, the science-based shows predominate, such as House, the CSIs, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Mythbusters, Penn & Teller, and almost anything on the National Geographic channel. The pilot for The Skeptologists is still being pitched but has no takers yet. Some producers have investigated turning the JREF Million Dollar Challenge into a show, but they always demand that there be a winner in the end, which cannot be guaranteed.

A number of skeptic outreach programs and activities are available or are in the works. The Skeptic’s Toolbox is an annual workshop run by Ray Hyman in Eugene, OR, to teach attendees how to apply science and skepticism to analyze pseudoscientific and paranormal ideas and claims. There are also a number of SkeptiCamps being conducted, and some skeptic groups hold science cafes and get involved in local science fairs. CFI has opened numerous campus groups lately and subsidized 50 students to attend this Congress. CSI has collaborated with the University of Buffalo to create a Masters of Education program called Science and the Public. Before his death, Barry Beyerstein was developing a Science and Pseudoscience curriculum for science teachers until the grant money ran out. The website is being constructed but is not online yet. Finally, CFI/CSI is holding a strategy meeting with a member who is in the advertizing business to look at rebranding. However, they caution that it took 10 years to go from CSICOP to CSI and, when they got there, the acronym had already been taken.

19. April 2009 by barry
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