The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Convergence/Skepchicon Day 1: Skepticism 101 Panel

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 2, 2010

I said in my previous post that I would live blog various panels I attended here at Convergence 2010, but that was before I figured out I couldn’t get wireless Internet access because I’m staying in a different hotel.  Oh bugger – that’s okay, I’ll just pseudo-live blog 🙂

My first evening at Skepchicon consisted of getting checked into my hotel, running into PZ Myers in the lobby, meeting up with some of the lovely Skepchicks in a restaurant, taking copious notes at the Skepticism 101 panel discussion tonight in the Science & Technology track, and partying with the Skepchicks (btw, “Buzzed Aldrins” kick a lot of ass!).  While I could go on and on about it all, I will only elaborate on the Skepticism 101 panel – what follows below is my accounting (as best as I could do it) of the discussion.  Enjoy…

Day One of Skepchicon @ Convergence, 2010

Skepticism 101 Panel

with Steve Thoms (editor of – a Canadian skeptic blog), Pamela Gay (from the Astronomy Cast podcast), Lois Schadewald (chemistry college instructor), Greg Laden (paleontologist)

Pamela Gay is introducing the panel and saying hello, and since we have no moderator at the moment, she’s taking over.  The panelists are introducing themselves now.

Pamela Gay says the real universe is far more awesome than the shit some people make up.

Pamela: How do you inflict skeptical thinking upon others?

Greg: Why are the skeptics in the room here?  I never really thought of skepticism as a movement until recently, by interacting with people via the blogosphere.  People engaging in this movement have to understand that this is not a highly monolithic thing.  Some people invited to panels like Skepchick panels are actually offended, because not all skeptics are like the Skepchicks.  It is an important community, but it isn’t necessarily a warm & fuzzy “welcoming” movement.

Pamela: At least skeptics are much more polite than people who tell you that you’re going to hell.

Pamela:  How many people here are involved in fighting various kinds of woo & pseudoscience?

[Four or five people raise their hands]

So how do you engage people in such a non-confrontational country like Canada? [to Steve]

Steve: The Canadian skeptic movement is stuck in a rut and has been for about 20 years, because we’ve been riding the coat-tails of the Americans since there’s so much action there.  There is no nationwide skeptic movement (east linking up with west coast) in Canada now.

There are regional issues, such as in Alberta there’s trouble with creationism, and in Ontario there are problems with anti-vaccination.

Pamela: How do you get Canadians involved? What do you tell them to introduce them to the idea of skepticism?

Steve: We don’t discuss atheism or partisan politics, yet we still wish to influence policy.  So in a weird way we’re shutting out big ideas, but we’d like to make the tent as large as possible.  We don’t want to alienate religious people who would otherwise be receptive to skeptical messages on homeopathy, for instance.

Pamela: Skepticism is a philosophy which can be applied to a broad range of people.  For example, some skeptics, like me, are deists while others are atheists.  In addition, some skeptics go to chiropractors while others think it’s a good way to kill yourself.

Lois: For example, my brother has become good friends with YECs and others like the president of the Flat Earth Society.  He thought that every person has some kind of idea(s) that are a bit flaky.  He tried to reason with people and tried to talk with them about what was their basis for belief, and while he was friends with some people who were polar opposites from him and he brought some of them around (like a YEC friend of his he “converted” to OEC).

There was a particular man who was a friend of Velikovsky who was a friend of my brother, and he eventually became a vocal critic of Velikovsky through many discussions.

Pamela: Different people take different approaches – some are in your face, and others take a more Socratic stance.

You [Greg] deal with the biological side of things, where if you don’t get it right there are immediate and potentially very bad repercussions.

Greg: You hear things like “you can never convince a creationist to change their minds”, and many of my colleagues say that – it is a widely held belief.  But this is a belief that is a kind of academic bias, not a skeptical look at the situation.

For example, in a biology lab there are words associated with the immune system that only biologists will really understand, and if you don’t know these terms can you then effectively counter the anti-vaxxers?  Yes, you can, if you know how to reference the people who really are scientific experts.  However, there are some skeptics who take too much of a “faith-based” approach.

Fluoride isn’t good for babies, but it doesn’t cause autism or brain damage, etc.  But what it does do for babies is stain their teeth – so it’s not “all good”.

Lois: This reminds me of something that I do with my students in terms of whether or not we should be fluoridating our water, and through a careful analysis we can see that it’s a bit more ambiguous.

Audience member: Greg, if I’m having a conversation with some people who are scientifically trained who don’t agree, how do I know who to trust?

Greg: Read the research, and if you search for research online (such as at Google) you can get to a lot of original research by clicking on “Google Scholar”.

Pamela: A simple answer is to check the references that people are making.  You look at the reviews of those references, as well.

Audience member: If you type a question into Google, you can frequently get less reputable sources, because we [skeptics] aren’t so good at it, but the people trying to sell nonsense are very good at it.

Audience member: Say you’re at a bar and talking to someone about some skeptical topic, how do you go about approaching them?

Steve: Address them by talking to them about the facts.  For example, when H1N1 hit, I blogged about it from the point of view of a personal story (some of my students got sick), and it is a very popular post on our blog.  People listen to stories, and they have a huge effect – a combination of scientific facts & data with personal stories make a big difference.

Pamela: Also, like your mother told you, you catch more flies with honey.

Lois: Tell people why you believe what you believe, as opposed to necessarily attacking other people’s belief.

Greg: I like to just humiliate them until they shut up [laughter].  As a teacher, I have a captive audience and have the luxury of pinpointing when people might be coming up with some kind of conflict and can prepare them for it.

Audience member: Evolutionarily speaking, aren’t we geared towards seeing false positives more often than any other kind of patterns?

Pamela: For example, we are geared towards pattern recognition, such as with the poster around the con which looks like the Swamp Thing but it’s actually a picture of a real-life astronomical object.  But Swamp Thing (anthropomorphic) looks like a more familiar pattern.

Audience member: Humans are really lousy at risk assessment.  As to inoculation, people don’t really understand the numbers – our minds don’t balance the idea of people dying by taking a vaccine versus the much larger number of people who would die without the vaccines.

Pamela: You can address statistics for people through statistical & data visualization.  Such as, for the HPV vaccination, showing the data in a visual way (representing people who got the vaccine, didn’t get it, those that got cervical cancer, those that didn’t, etc. as circles) is a very useful way to get the information across.

Greg: I’d like to say this about evaluating information – you do want to run away from the fake tiger, because if it’s real, you’re dead.  Look at monkeys – small monkeys will alarm call & startle on a leaf falling, but large monkeys will not.  Small monkeys will alarm and then look at the big monkeys, and if the big monkeys run, everybody runs.  This is relevant because the big monkeys are the good science blogs, NPR Science Friday, and the places that you can trust a bit more than all the “little monkeys”.

Audience member: I work with children with autism, and I have had to deal with the anti-vax stuff from parents and my staff.  I looked up info on this and found there is no vaccine-autism connection because I had my own kid and started to ask these questions, and I think that makes me more effective in dealing with my own friends who are troubled about vaccines.

Steve: I have a similar story – I teach music at a private school, and when H1N1 came around I started to ask kids if they were going to get the vaccine because lots of students were missing lessons.  One kid, whose mother didn’t want him to get it, yelled at his mom about “Hey Mom, Steve want s me to get the vaccine!”  That was tricky.

Pamela: Other questions from the audience?

Audience member: Where do you go for sources you can trust?

Pamela: I suggest places like JREF.  If there’s a question about whether or not there is an asteroid coming to destroy the earth, try Phil Plait.  Also look for message boards online that can be a wonderful resource.

Steve: Science-Based Medicine is a wonderful place to ask questions regarding medicine.

Audience member: Has the $1M Randi Challenge been withdrawn?

Various discussions: It’s still going.

Greg: The $1M is basically a challenge that says “if you can prove your paranormal assertion, you get a million dollars”.

Audience member: Look at P&T Bullshit is kind of biased, but they’re funny and they are biased in terms of the weight of evidence and can send you to much better sources.

Audience member: I think the question of finding an appropriate source is a very good one.  For example, you can show that “Doctor” Wakefield is not trustworthy since he’s been thoroughly discredited.

Lois: I think one way to go about it is to look at the tone of the information coming to you.  If it sounds too grandiose, that might be a warning sign.

Pamela: You have to be careful, because some psychopaths are very charismatic and come across as reasonable.  This is where the critical reviews come in, and people who’ve been investigating claims for a long time to sit down and critically attack things in many ways.  Just as there are snakes in educators’-clothing, there are people who are correct but are very aggressive.

Audience member: Good science is done by scientists, as in plural.  You should be wary of the “lone wolf” scientists who haven’t had their work peer reviewed.

Greg: The “lone wolf” scientist meme is largely mythical, because a phenomenon isn’t usually accepted until the community can replicate it.

Pamela: Dark matter/energy is a great example of the scientific community working through a problem.  When you look out in the universe you find that there should be a whole lot of stuff out there that we cannot see (due to gravitational interactions) – this is bad, because this means that 96% of the universe is made of stuff we cannot see, or we don’t understand gravity.  There was a theory called MOND, and up until 2000, we had a strong cadre of scientists that went with MOND (modification of gravity), but eventually we were able to use gravity lensing to build detailed maps of this dark matter stuff.  This is the process of science, where we finally settled on one idea based upon the weight of the data.

Audience member: This “lone wolf” thing has struck a chord with me; because I keep hearing this stuff from this guy Kevin Trudeau and I wonder how much of this is that he just talks a good game.  I’m suspicious, and how do I know whether or not to trust my instinct?

[Various discussion and advice]

Steve: For example, Sylvia Browne makes many claims and just drags people along, trying to convince people that all kinds of things can happen if they just let her talk to dead people.  Folks like her and Kevin Trudeau will often play this “lone wolf” card, because the story of the underdog really resonates with North Americans.

Pamela: Any other questions, we have five minutes left.

Audience member: It seems to be a problem that culturally we seem to have lost respect for science & critical thinking.  If you look at the 19th century and the Enlightenment, it seems there was much more respect for facts, but nowadays there is so much baloney and why are we addicted to it?

Steve: I think what happened is in the 1950s it was scientism/modernism and an over-selling of science as something miraculous.  Then came the atomic bomb, the Vietnam War, and post-modernism – post-modernism is swinging too far in the opposite direction.  It’s kind of nebulous because there are claims that “all claims are valid”.  People die from both modernism & post-modernism, and we have to work this out.

Greg: I would make the opposite argument.  The average person in North America who gets sick is treated with a science-based approach, whereas this didn’t happen two hundred years ago.  If you study the history, there are examples of all kinds of things happening with loony claims, but all along science has kept moving forward.  However, most people in modern society to benefit from science yet don’t really seem to know about it or where those benefits come from.  Scientists’ influence on everyday life is really there, but it isn’t obvious to the average person.

Pamela: One of the things we’re fighting with is that there was a big change in the 1980s where religion became a big part of the platform of the Republican Party.  We live in a multi-cultural age, and we as scientists need to step forward in the classroom and say “no, that’s wrong!”  Some things don’t have multi-cultural answers, because the laws of nature work the same for everyone regardless of culture.  We’ve run into political problems, like teaching people in Africa about how the stars work where stars are sacred objects to them.  Pick your fights, and don’t start off by offending people – but don’t be afraid to tell them they’re wrong either.

3 Responses to “Convergence/Skepchicon Day 1: Skepticism 101 Panel”

  1. […] Convergence/Skepchicon Day 1: Skepticism 101 Panel « Th&#1077 Skeptical … […]

  2. Ed Kohler said

    Thanks for writing this up. Great stuff. The politicizing of religious does seem to be playing a role in at least some of cases of not supporting scientific, proven, solutions to problems, but there are plenty of other reasons for people to pick solutions based on faith (religious or not) over peer reviewed, proven treatments.

  3. Greg Laden said

    Great job writing this up! I’m still working on the whole Buzzed Aldrin thing.

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