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CFI Summit: Highlights

Conference Report

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 38.2, March/April 2014

CFI Summit logo

Skeptics, Humanists Come Together in Tacoma in First Joint Conference
Skepticism, Humanism, or Both?

It was billed as the CFI Summit—An International Congress in the Pacific Northwest, and it was a kind of experiment. “The time has come: humanists, skeptics, and other critical thinkers coming together to work together for a more rational world.” That was the meeting’s call to action, as the first joint conference of the Center for Inquiry and its affiliate organizations, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer) and the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH, publisher of Free Inquiry), convened in a stylish, modernist hotel in Tacoma, Washington, October 24–27, 2013. The conference thus included/subsumed what otherwise CSI would have called CSICon 3, following the first CSICon in New Orleans in 2011 and CSICon 2 in Nashville in 2012.

The weather outside was foggy, though the talk inside was anything but, as skeptic and humanist speakers explored all the areas in which their interests and passions overlap, and a few that some may (and others may not) wish to keep separate.

We offer two reports. SI Editor Kendrick Frazier highlights several representative sessions1 that may be of particular interest to SI readers, and skeptic Susan Gerbic offers a more personal, impressionistic account of the conference.


The opening plenary session, “Humanism, Skepticism, and Inquiry,” was a theme of much of the conference and the point of continuing discussion throughout. Is it about time the two major arms of the Center for Inquiry—skeptics with their love of science and evidence-based inquiry and humanists with their naturalistic philosophy and distrust of religious intrusions in public life—come together, at least once a year, in a conference like this? Or are there still good reasons that the two groups keep their own separate conferences?

If you drew two circles representing the interests and values of members of the two groups, they’d probably overlap by about two-thirds or three-fourths. But the overlap isn’t total. Philosopher Paul Kurtz, who founded CSI and CSH, considered both organizations and their missions equally important. Yet while he himself embraced all their values and goals in one over-arching personal philosophy, he, for various practical reasons, including the wishes of many members, kept the two organizations and their conferences separate, with the later-created Center for Inquiry as mainly a logistical and administrative connective.

Panelists in the opening sessionPanelists in the opening session on “Humanism, Skepticism, and Inquiry” take questions. (Photo: Brian Engler)

Ronald A. Lindsay, now the CEO and president of all three organizations, opened the plenary session with an explication of what they all have in common: a commitment to critical thinking and a conviction that beliefs should not outstrip the evidence. He suggested that there are no irreconcilable differences between skepticism and humanism. “They are compatible. . . .We need to examine all things carefully and go where the evidence takes us. That unifies us.”

Ray Hyman and Daniel Loxton took a contrary view. Hyman, a founding Fellow of CSICOP (now CSI), said, “The real problem is the perception.” He referred to a sometimes “uneasy tension” between the skeptics and humanists and an early concern in the organizations’ histories in which skeptics became upset at what they considered “religion bashing” by some humanists and some humanists became upset at what they considered skeptics’ bashing of parapsychology. In Hyman’s recollection this led to Kurtz’s determination to keep the two groups’ conferences separate. Hyman also noted that in the skeptic movement a lot of people can be at least somewhat religious and still good scientific skeptics. “Skeptics are more inclusive by nature,” he said. “It’s probably not a good idea to mix these two groups.”

Lindsay quickly emphasized—as did CFI Board Chairman Edward Tabash later in the conference—that CFI doesn’t “bash” religion but examines it. It emphasizes that religion should not have a privileged place in society exempt from critical scrutiny.

Loxton, though, echoed Hyman’s theme. Loxton, editor of the Skeptic Society’s Junior Skeptic and author of several books (including some on evolution), has become a kind of informal historian of the skeptic movement. He says he feels intimately connected to both traditions, skeptic and humanist (he is both). Nevertheless, said Loxton, “I am a CSICOP-style skeptic” and noted that the creation of CSICOP filled a large gap in scholarship. “I care about keeping scientific skepticism unencumbered and independent,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we believe. The question is what we can demonstrate to be so. Skepticism matters.”

Barry Kosmin, founding member of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College (and a board member of all three organizations) described what he calls “The Rising Secular-Skeptic Generation,” based on his national surveys of college students (the latest this summer carried out in collaboration with CFI). The 2013 survey found that only 32 percent of college students self-describe themselves as religious. Twenty-eight percent refer to themselves as secular (males more prominent in this group) and 32 percent as spiritual (females more prominent). His point is that “a large constituency of millions of young people is emerging” favorable to the viewpoints of CFI.

Michael De DoraMichael De Dora, director of CFI’s Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brian Engler)

Michael De Dora, director of CFI’s Office of Public Policy in Washington, DC, said he thinks skeptics and humanists can work best together. They have complementary values on many issues, he said. He agreed that CFI presents a bit of a challenge because it is a “mish-mash” of many things, but that can be overcome.

Some other panelists, like Ophelia Benson (an author and Free Inquiry columnist) and Mark Hatcher (CFO of Black Atheists of America) expressed impatience with the whole debate. Instead of emphasizing this internal issue, Hatcher urged focusing on a far bigger, external problem, endemic to both groups: “We are terrible at communication.” He said both humanists and skeptics need to take a lesson from the churches. “Churches do things correctly as far as communications. They have found the beat. They have found the rhythm and how the heart works. If you want people engaged, you’ve got to get your finger on the beat. If we do, we have the advantage of actually having facts.”

Bill Cooke, director of CFI’s transnational programs, also spoke out with some impatience. In Kenya and Uganda, where he has worked on behalf of CFI, “there are serious issues of life and death” that involve both parts of the organization, including the skeptic side, such as belief in witchcraft that often leads to murders. “There this issue is irrelevant.”

The discussions continued a while longer in this way, all polite and civil. If any fireworks were expected, none were set off. By conference-end, it seemed most everyone, skeptic or humanist, had learned a little bit about the other’s concerns, and in fact found that their issues tended to blend one in to another in a more or less seamless way.

Zack Koplin, Young Education Activist

Zack Koplin is the amazingly dedicated and self-possessed college student from Rice University who as a high school student in Louisiana fought vigorously against efforts to introduce creationist teachings into the schools. He gave an inspiring lecture about his fight for science in Louisiana, Texas, and across the country.

“Louisiana has an addiction to creationism,” he said. The state’s Science Education Act “is so open-ended you can bring anything into it. . . . It’s not about critical thinking. It’s really a creationism law.” Even Governor Bobby Jindal has said it’s about creationism, Koplin said. “It’s crystal clear this is only about teaching creationism.”

In Texas, official reviewers of science textbooks include fellows of the creationist Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research. “The publishers have resisted so far,” said Koplin, but he wasn’t sure whether their resistance would continue to succeed.

The problem in both states is “backwards, antiscience legislators.” Louisiana passed a voucher system that takes money from the public schools and gives it to creationist schools. He said $4 million of public money was taken away that way the first year.

“I want scientists who have been educated well,” Koplin concluded. As for the sometimes nasty attacks he has encountered from creationists, he has endured them, “but sometimes you want to just go to sleep for a week.”

Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”

Bill NyeBill Nye delivers the summit’s keynote talk. (Photo: Brian Engler)

At the evening banquet, conference attendees filled the round dinner tables. Looming at the back were four empty rows of folding chairs spanning the entire width of the ballroom. A bad sign? No, as it turned out. As dinner ended and the time neared for Bill Nye’s keynote talk, suddenly the doors at the back opened and in rushed an exuberant crowd of mostly local people, including a fair number of youngsters. The talk had been advertised on the sides of city buses, and outside the banquet hall CFI sold tickets for just his talk. (He was still in a leg brace from his Dancing with the Stars appearances, and it was now just a few days before his November 7 appearance on a typically witty episode of the CBS television comedy The Big Bang Theory pitting Bill Nye “The Science Guy” against Bob Newhart as “Dr. Proton.”)

Nye’s was a rousing talk, roaming over how we determined the age of the Earth at 4.6 billion years (“Why then try to pretend the Earth is 10,000 years old? Amazing!”), the makeup of the universe (“90 percent hydrogen, 8 percent helium, 2 percent ‘everything-

elsium’”), the fragility of the atmosphere, our spacecraft now soaring on beyond the edge of the solar system, and some of our external views of Earth from distant space. All this led to a passionate advocacy for interest in science and science education. And that led in turn to Nye’s frequently repeated mantra: “We can change the world!” By midway through his talk the audience was thoroughly with him. Their chants “We can change the world” reverberated along with his.

Example: “If we can harness the energy of young people and get them passionate about science, it is reasonable to think that we can . . . change the world!”

“It is with great joy and reverence and passion that I talk about the impact of science education.” He ended by showing the Cassini spacecraft’s new view of Earth from beyond Saturn as a tiny dot barely visible in the distance far past Saturn’s rings, an outside-in view of the solar system that provides sobering cosmic perspective. “We are a speck on a speck, orbiting a speck.” But by our experiencing “the passion and joy and beauty of science . . . we can change the world!”

There followed an especially lively Q&A period. Most all the questions came from the newly arrived audience members, and two nearly moved Bill Nye to tears by their stories of how he has inspired them to pursue a lifetime interest in science. Said one person: “You have been a major influence to me personally. Thank you for being who you are.”

“I have tried to influence young people,” Nye said. “The scientific method is the best idea humans ever had.”

It should be easy to draw people in, he added, because science deals with some of humanity’s most profound questions. Among them: “Where did we come from?” and “Are we alone?”

“We are made of stars,” he concluded. “If that doesn’t fill you with some sort of joy . . . I don’t believe it!”

Leonard Mlodinow and New Point of Inquiry Hosts

Josh Zepps interviews Leonard MlodinowJosh Zepps interviews Leonard Mlodinow on a live edition of Point of Inquiry. (Photo: Brian Engler)

Physicist and writer Leonard Mlodinow (author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, winner of CSI’s 2008 Balles Prize for critical thinking) gave a lecture presentation on the topic of his new book, Subliminal: How Your Mind Rules Your Behavior. He presented recent research from cognitive psychology and the new field of social neuroscience about the automatic aspects of our consciousness, which happen without our awareness or intention.

“Our perceptions, memories, and social judgments are all constructed by our unconscious, from limited data,” said Mlodinow. Even with just perception, it is a process of construction. “Your retina sees things fuzzily and incomplete”—he showed examples from experiments. “Your brain sharpens and fills in. Your unconscious mind does this for you, and it’s a great gift.”

This happens with hearing as well. He played the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” backward. You seem to hear “Satan” three times and also “666”—if that is suggested to you. Similar things happen with all our other senses (experiments show how a light touch can create a sense of trust and even lead to higher tips to waitresses). Memory is of course a reconstructive process as well. “Just like vision, your brain takes the gist of memory and reconstructs it.”

He described how we all do what psychologists call motivated reasoning. “We look for data that supports what we want to believe.” This explains why people can come to vastly different judgments even when the factual evidence before them is the same. “They’ve generally sincerely judged the evidence differently—it’s unconscious.”

Lindsay Beyerstein, producer Joshua Billingsley, and Josh ZeppsThe new Point of Inquiry team: Lindsay Beyerstein, producer Joshua Billingsley, and Josh Zepps. (Photo: Brian Engler)

Laboratory tests show these processes in various ways. Experiments, for example, show that in elections, seventy percent of the candidates judged to be “more competent looking” won.

At the end of that afternoon, Mlodinow was back on stage. The occasion this time was the first interview (and before a large live audience) with the new cohosts of CFI’s weekly Point of Inquiry podcast, Josh Zepps and Lindsay Beyerstein. An Australian, Zepps joins the CFI podcast as a founding host and producer at online talk network HuffPost Live, after hosting stints with Bloomberg TV, the Discovery Channel, and as anchor for CBS’s Peabody Award–winning Channel One News. Zepps conducted the interview with Mlodinow, who got the chance to expand some about the fact that most of our thinking comes from the unconscious and about motivated reasoning (“thinking like a lawyer, not a scientist.”)

The other cohost, Lindsay Beyerstein, is an investigative journalist and staff writer for In These Times. Longtime SI readers will remember her late father, psychologist and CSI Fellow and Executive Council member Barry Beyerstein. She interviewed conference lunch speaker Katherine Stewart (author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children) on religious extremism and how the Christian right has managed to gain so much influence actually operating in public schools. These two interviews are online at www.pointofinquiry.org.


Note

1. Noteworthy skeptic-related sessions I’ve not reported on here include Eugenie C. Scott’s lecture presentation on science education, “Keeping the Good Stuff In”; Scott Lilienfeld’s lecture presentation on the subject of his book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (topic of our November/December 2013 cover article); the pre-conference Skeptics Mini-Toolbox workshop (Ray Hyman, Harriet Hall, and Loren Pankratz); and a Skeptical Breakout session I moderated on “Skeptical Investigation and Activism” (Joe Nickell, Benjamin Radford, James Underdown, and Susan Gerbic).

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.