Skepticon Reflections

Last weekend, I once again attended Skepticon in Springfield, MO.  I would link to the website, but it’s apparently expired sometime in the last few days.  This was a the third year the conference has been held, and it’s been bigger every year.  The first year, it was just Carrier and PZ, who were great.  Last year, it expanded to two days, and this year it was three.  I really hope it continues to grow, as it’s really nice to be able to spend some time around like-minded individuals.

That said, the conference had one major problem this year: it allowed itself to be defined by some criticism that occurred before the conference started by someone who wasn’t even attending.  The criticism was that the conference would have been better named “atheistcon” instead of “Skepticon.”  I really think this criticism is pretty ridiculous, so I’m not going to spend time talking about it here, especially after hearing so many people talk about it at the conference, especially DJ Grothe and Randi.  They both seemed very defensive to me and I didn’t understand it at all.

Phrases like “atheism is skepticism about only one thing” and “I’m an atheist because there is no evidence” were hammered on so much, I just wanted to yell “get on with it.”  I mean, it’s 2010, is this really an issue?  Was this actually unclear to anyone?  Never-the-less there were some really good points made, and it was great to hear Randi in person.

DJ Grothe made a really good point that I had to applaud.  He said that he would rather hang out with someone who is skeptical about everything but god than someone who is skeptical about only god.  Examples given were Bill Maher, who is a prominent atheist, but pushes some really bone-headed ideas, compared to Martin Gardner, who was very skeptical, but believed in a deist god never-the-less.  I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more.  I’ve stopped going to some of the local skeptical meetups because they are populated with people whose only concern is religion and have really strange ideas about other things.

Don’t get me wrong, Religion is an important topic to discuss and be skeptical of, but listening to atheists who believe the crap about vaccines and autism, or push Zeitgeist as a good source for information is not my idea of fun.  I’m not going to accept atheism as ‘good enough.’  The end goal is skepticism.

There were several speakers at the conference I had never heard of before.  The best speaker at the conference was John Corivino, a philosophy professor, gay rights activist and skeptic.  It’s safe to say that I’m now a fan, and I hope to get more opportunities to hear him speak.  His best trait?  The ability to effectively explain and communicate nuance.

David Fitzgerald was someone else who I hadn’t really heard of before.  He gave a talk on the historicity of Jesus which was very good.  He has a book out called “Nailed: Ten Christian Myths that show Jesus never existed at all.”  After hearing his talk, it’s definitely on my wishlist.  The historicity of Jesus is a topic that’s very interesting to me, even though it has a reputation of being somewhat ‘out there.’   In the last decade or so, it looks like the scholarly case for a mythical Jesus has really been put together, though, and can hold up to criticism.  I would go so far as to even call it compelling.

Other new speakers included Debbie Goddard, Amanda Marcotte, and Greta Christina.  These talks were all very good, though I don’t have much to say about them.  Marcotte’s presentation on Skepticism and Feminism was very good to hear.  I haven’t paid much attention to feminism; it just isn’t something that I’ve been interested in, but after hearing her talk, I think it’s something I should be interested in.  It’s important, and I should learn more.

I did have an interesting conversation with a Christian who stopped to witness to me in the hotel.  It was very cordial, even though his accusations of “you never really were a real christian” irked me.  Who is he to say that?  I didn’t go that route, though, and I think we had a pretty good conversation.  I was helped by the fact that he had a background in psychology, so I was able to bring up our cognitive biases when he started talking about ‘evidence’ for god.  He didn’t really have a reply to that, and kept complaining about superficial christians.  I don’t think either mind changed at all, but these are the conversations we need to be having.

Overall, the conference was great.  We had some of Ray Comfort’s people outside handing out copies of their annotated Origin of Species, and there was a gun show right next door.  Other than the expected “you’re going to hell” accusations, everything was very civil.  I can’t wait to attend again next year.

Creativity and a War on Science

Lifehacker is talking about the benefits of skepticism.

Creativity – The best way to prevent new solutions is to believe you already have the answer. Allowing a gap of doubt can allow creative alternatives to flow in. If you are adamant that advertising will not work for your product, you might cut off hundreds of ideas for improving your business.

Amen to that!  There are several others listed, and I completely agree with what is being said.  Skepticism has been the route to balance in my life, the route to understanding.

There is also an amusing story from The Big Room calling for a government War on Science. I find the idea amusing.

Marco Polo’s Dilemna

From a blog entry about psychiatry:

“When Marco Polo saw the exotic one horned quadruped, his frame of reference required that it could be none other than a unicorn, even though it did not conform exactly to his prior conception of it. Marco Polo made his observation fit his existing paradigm of zoology. While superficially (and in retrospect) this may seem silly and arbitrary, it is in fact the opposite, Marco Polo believed the only thing he could believe—because the alternative was to believe he had discovered an entirely new, unheard of, creature.

While the original post dealt with psychiatry directly, I think there is a wider lesson to be learned here. Our assumptions about knowledge and authority can lead us down the wrong path.

What is Scientific Skepticism?

I’ve been a scientific skeptic for over nine months now, and I’ve discovered that most people don’t really know what this means. So, I’m going to attempt to explain it.

You can boil down the concept of scientific skepticism down to one single concept: we know things based on empirical evidence. But what does that mean? It means that the only evidence acceptable in support of something is that evidence that is available to everyone and can be verified by anyone.

When looking at the phrase ’scientific skepticism’ it’s important to focus on the first word. A scientific skeptic uses science and the scientific method to verify or discover new evidence.

There are many famous scientific skeptics you probably already know about. Here is a short list: Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Penn & Teller, and even the Mythbusters crew.

Using the scientific method, there are several things already know. We understand the effects of gravity (but are still working on how it works), the concepts of thermal-dynamics, the workings of the atom, evolutionary biology.

The things that there isn’t empirical evidence for are the things that the skeptic rejects. Examples of these things include: homeopathy, psychic readings, telepathy, and faith healing.

Sometimes the question arises about things everyone feels that they know, but we don’t really have evidence for. There is a scene in the movie, Contact, that illustrates this. The main character is asked to ‘prove’ that she loved her father. The point is that this was something she knew was true, but couldn’t really prove.

But is this a proper application of the skeptic epistemology?

There are several ways I’ve approached this problem. The first goes something like this. Personally, she has a lot of evidence for the fact that she loves her father. She has no problem knowing beyond all doubt that it is a simple fact. However, getting proof to this fact demonstrable and verifiable to a third person would be a bit more difficult. Some say that it would be possible for her to be hooked up to an MRI or EEG machine and readings of her brain to be taken. Or perhaps measurements of her body chemistry and how it reacts to thoughts of her father. In the end, however, there is an important thing to note that makes all of this rather pointless. She’s not trying to get other people to believe that she loved her father. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else believes. If she were to take on the task of trying to get other people to believe, perhaps then it would be necessary to provide such evidence.

When approaching a new idea, a skeptic will take a neutral stance and then look at the evidence. If the evidence contradicts the idea, then the idea is wrong, or incomplete. If the evidence is not enough to render a judgement either way, the skeptic will withhold judgement. This is an extremely important point. Skeptics are more tied to the method of knowledge discovery than to the knowledge itself. If contradictory evidence appears, the original idea is discarded and the search for a new one begins, one that fits with the evidence. Sometimes such new ideas are easily located, others may forever be out of our reach.