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!

  • Stanley H. Tweedle

    There not much sense in that ‘Angels and Demons’ book is there, judging by the title. I haven’t read it so, can you you just give me a quick ‘what’s it about’?

  • mitchell porter

    “end-of-the-world-in-2012 phenomenon. It all started with Nibiru”

    To think that such ignorance exists in this modern year of 2010. :-) As all scholars of 2012-ism know, it started with the ancient Mayans, for whom December 2012 is the end of an epoch, and it was taken up in the late 20th century by the New Age subculture. The crossover with Nibiru “twelfth planet” beliefs is a late and superficial development.

  • aged discoverer

    the rather deep question of how skepticism relates to science: is one included in the other? Do they overlap?

    Are Venn Diagrams deep now? It just seems to me that this question is nonsense unless one wants to do something mechanical with it, otherwise it is purely dependent on the definition of the words. Science is strictly derived from the word knowledge, skepticism is about uncertainty. Is there skepticism about science? Absolutely, science is an object, skepticism is an attitude.

    The question is whether we have doubt about our state of knowledge, and the fundamental answer is yes.

  • Michael

    Note that the guru of skepics, James Randi, is very skeptical of AGW. Isn’t it rather odd that when it comes to man-made global warming all of the vaunted scientific skeptics are in hiding or silent? I am an atheist, but it seems to me that it doesn’t take any moral or intellectual courage to attack Christianity while leaving unproven, destructive, and downright dangerous politically inspired bad science untouched.

    Organized religion is mainly an attempt to persude folks to believe in a set of inconsistent fairy tales in order to gain some sort of control over them. Sort of like the avocates of AGW…

  • rob

    Funny — I came in here to mention Randi as another example like Bill Nye and Michio Kaku, a one-time skeptic and rationalist caving to the kind of nonsense he supposedly opposes. Of course in Randi’s example it seems less like a case of “imprimatur for sale” and more like a case of skepticism being no protection against stupidity.

  • jpd

    “while leaving unproven, destructive, and downright dangerous politically inspired bad science untouched.” such as the arguments opposing AGW ?

  • John

    aged, the question is not whether one can or should be skeptical of science, but whether science can be done at all without it…

  • John

    Regarding the anti-AGW skepticism, see my post from a year ago on Freeman Dyson’s skepticism of global warming. It drew quite a number of comments on the topic of skepticism itself and the true meaning of the word:

    My thoughts have not evolved too much on the GW topic since then despite ClimateGate and all the rest. And I would never deny anyone the right to question scientific claims…but eventually, in the face of overwhelming evidence, it can become irrational to do so.

  • changcho

    D. Morrison gave a great talk about the 2012 baloney at Foothill College last week; I am guessing it was very similar to the one for SkeptiCal 2010. He also singled out M. Kaku for amplifying nonsense: Kaku was referring to the solar maximum, but still within the context of ’2012′.

    I am not surprised about Kaku doing this sort of thing, but I am somewhat surprised at B. Nye promoting a (supposedly) bogus product.

  • diogenes

    Didn’t know about Bill Nye going to the darkside. Disappointing but not particularly surprising: his only degree is in engineering and he really hasn’t been all that successful as an entertainer, so he’s probably going for the “big bucks”. So now we have to add him to the list of Kaku, Randi, Shermer, and Penn Jillette (who did I leave out?). With friends like that does the “skeptical” community really need any enemies?

  • aged discoverer

    aged, the question is not whether one can or should be skeptical of science, but whether science can be done at all without it…

    Interesting. The answer first hinges on semantics, as science defined as knowledge does not require skepticism. Skepticism leads to the scientific method though, so in the modern sense, science is a codification of skepticism (at least in the context of the scientific method, which for all practical purpose is statistical method). I think the real paradox is that science still requires a degree of faith (not in the religious sense), because the doubt introduced by pure skepticism is irreducible (as the scientific method always leaves an element of uncertainty). In the sense I was using, I think science has well demonstrated that it is prone to overfitting of data when left to the devices of those who are overly enamored of the scientific method. The scientific method is just a tool, it isn’t a religion, and I think that we have many “scientists” who see themselves as pastors to the flocks of layman, and place themselves as ultimate arbiters of truth. My view is that there is a horrible abuse of the power of the scientific method in the hands of those who have allegedly been trained to know its limitations. I think some of the problems in finding funding for the hard sciences is that there are too many people claiming to be “scientists” saying things about the way the world “should” be, and by doing so they have made applying the scientific method contextually equivalent to asking an oracle questions in the minds of the public.

  • John

    My goodness, aged discoverer! I’ve known a lot of scientists in my day, and I have to say not one of them fits this description.

    I think we need names. of the “pastors” you speak of…willing to give some, and perhaps yours?

    Anyway, any true scientist is completely willing to abandon her or his cherished theories or conclusions, but only in the face of evidence, confirmed by other observations. “Overly enamored of the scientific method” you say? You mean because it produces only falsifiable results?

    If faith is involved, it’s not in the results of science – quite the contrary. We should always be questioning, always skeptical, always wiling to give up our theoretical inferences when they no longer fit the observations.

  • slw

    Skeptics don’t enjoy being right, they enjoy being less wrong than everyone else ;)

    AGW is an interesting subject since it is so incredibly complex and chaotic, omitting something minor in your reasoning can bring you to a completely wrong conclusion.

    Personally, with regards to AGW, I’m content with simply saying “I don’t know”. Having small-scale independent energy production is a good idea regardless if AGW holds or not and the most promising technologies for doing that are also “green”. It is a fact that we need to move off fossil fuels, simply because we are running out of them.

  • Charon

    slw: as far as I know, the “wrong conclusion” regime we’re in with climate change is specific effects, and magnitude of change, etc. Not whether or not anthropogenic climate change is occurring. Anyway, that certainly how it appears to me, though I’m not a climatologist.

    There is a scientific consensus among climatologists, though. Given that this seems to be a non-coerced consensus, and the climatologists can explain the basics of it in ways that make perfect sense to the educated public (and physicists, like myself), I’d say let’s listen to the consensus. Although, as you point out, it’s worth working on alternative energy sources for plenty of other reasons, as well.

    This has gone past the “I don’t know” stage, in terms of our certainty. (Although, as always in science, we never leave the “I’m not sure” stage :) )

    What really puzzles and upsets me, though, is how the whole climate change thing is viewed as a political fight. As one can see in Michael’s comment, many conservatives feel that they must say climate change is false, because otherwise they’d be bad conservatives. If they admit AGW is happening, that would be a victory for the Democrats – in the warped minds of these people…

  • mgw

    For the record, the “Michio Kaku” link to the Vodopod video labeled “Michio Kaku on 2012 Solar Storm-Fox TV” returns a message saying “This video is broken.”

    Also, and I’m honestly not trying to start a flame war here, but what is it that has Dr. Kaku said to fall from the ranks of respectability? I’m not particularly familiar with his science advocacy work, but the title of intended video would seem to suggest he is a believer in/has promoted some of the end-of-the-world in 2012 nonsense. However, in the “Related Videos” box on the linked page, there is a three minute and sixteen second clip dubbed “Michio Kaku Dismisses 2012 Hysteria” in which he says of the movie, “I give them an A for special effects, but an F for science…” He later goes on to say, “In 2012, I’ll be sleeping just fine…”, and even shares a few knowing laughs with the rather dim-witted hosts. Poor taste in cinema aside, what’s the problem here?

  • aged discoverer

    I am really no one important, just opinionated. I certainly have met some very good scientists, who are always behaving as you say, but I think if we read the recent discussions about how the scientific method should be used to make moral statements, my points are justified. I think if you do a simple google search using the words “scientists say” you’ll find some interesting articles (and I am just picking these things as I scan the articles):

    Now I grant you that the media is largely responsible for sensationalism, but am I to believe that there was no effort by the scientists to contact the media? What am I to believe about the articles? Running bearfoot might be healthy until I slice my foot open, then I might have a different opinion; and if dolphins are so smart, then why do they live in igloos?


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