SkeptiCal 2010

By John Conway | April 25, 2010 10:37 pm

I attended SkeptiCal 2010 on Saturday, a conference on science and skepticism organized by Bay Area Skeptics. The conference sold out all 200 slots, and the audience is a pretty lively bunch. I was invited here to speak at a breakout session in the afternoon on “Myths and Facts about the LHC” which I trust was entertaining, given all the media attention to the possibility that the LHC will destroy the world by producing a black hole, that the Higgs boson is coming back from the future to prevent its discovery, and the various notions about CERN in Angels and Demons such as that the lab is using the LHC to create an antimatter superweapon. All relatively standard topics for the skeptics…

The opening talk, but Eugenie Scott, addressed the rather deep question of how skepticism relates to science: is one included in the other? Do they overlap? Her conclusion, arrived at with humor, grace, and thoughtful examples, was that science is contained within skepticism, that the general approach to knowing we call skepticism is applied in the case of science to understanding the natural world. As a physicist, I need to continually put myself in the mindset of the (mostly) non-physicists in the audience. Skepticism is to a physicist as natural as breathing…this is not true of everyone in the world!

David Morrison, senior scientist at NASA Ames’ Astrobiology institute, gave a truly mind-boggling talk about the rapidly increasing end-of-the-world-in-2012 phenomenon. It all started with Nibiru, the planet that the Zetas told a Wisconsin woman, Nancy Lieder, would crash into the earth round about then. Of course the thing snowballed and led to the movie 2012 (actually the movie appropriated the 2012 meme a few years into prouction). Morrison has received over 3500 emails about the phenomenon, ranging from death threats against him (because, natch, NASA is covering it all up) to suicide threats (who wants to live to see the end of the world?) and everything in between. He made a youtube video trying to allay fears of the world’s imminent demise. (Of course I told my session that the LHC was scheduled to resume at full energy on Dec. 21, 2012, the particular date in question.)

I had a difficult choice of parallel sessions to attend, but chose the one on psychics by Karen Stollznow. And, of all things, I learned something very interesting about quantum physics that I had been blissfully unaware of. Watch for a future post once I read up on that.

In the afternoon, Brian Dunning, creator and host of, delivered a devastating blow to the myth of the origins of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the most pervasive symbol of Catholicism in Mexico. What becomes clear is that this was another example of the Catholic church appropriating the symbols of the indigenous population it was attempting (ultimately successfully) to convert. In the beginning, though, he lamented the failure of the skeptical movement as a movement. He pointed out that all that skepticism can offer is negative: we kill sacred cows and remove the scales from peoples’ eyes. But how will we save critical thinking?

All in all I found the conference quite eye-opening, and I have realized that we have a long way to go to counter the rising tide of ignorance of science and what it means to adopt a skeptical world view. Even once-respectable types like Bill Nye and Michio Kaku are starting to fall to the dark side. Too many think of skepticism as simply disbelief, when all it means is to place rationality at the base of our intellectual foundation. Help!


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