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Fourth World Skeptics Conference in Burbank a Lively Foment of Ideas

Article

Kendrick Frazier and Ben Radford

Volume 26.5, September / October 2002

Scams, intelligent design, urban legends, fringe psychotherapies get critical attention

Nearly 500 people attended CSICOP’s Fourth World Skeptics Conference June 20-23 in Burbank, California, hearing a first-ever opening session on confidence games and financial scams, a fascinating semi-debate-format session on evolution and intelligent design (featuring, among others, evolutionary biologist Kenneth Miller and ID proponent William Dembski), another plenary session on urban legends, and a variety of paired concurrent sessions challenging attendees to make difficult choices about what not to miss.

It seemed impossible not to miss something interesting, however. The concurrent sessions focused on fringe psychotherapies, space-age pseudoscience, medical claims, “The Investigators” (Richard Wiseman, Joe Nickell, Jan Willem Nienhuys), educating our future (moderated by Young Skeptics Program director Amanda Chesworth and featuring, among others, Diane Swanson, author of Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain, a book about science and skepticism for young people; and Charles Wynn, co-author of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction, a book for the general public about pseudoscience) and the paranormal around the world (with speakers from China, India, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, and Germany).

Toss in a raucous luncheon address by the irrepressible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison (recipient at the awards banquet the next night of CSICOP’s Distinguished Skeptic Award), that ranged widely over politics, religion, and skepticism, an evening keynote address by MIT cognitive scientist and artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky, and a side-splitting Saturday night awards-banquet stand-up comedy routine by television actor Gabe Kaplan, and all the ingredients were there for an entertaining and mind-expanding three-day intellectual and skeptical feast.

The conference appeared to match up well with its predecessor world skeptics congresses in Amherst, New York (1996), Heidelberg, Germany (1998), and Sydney, Australia (2000).

Due to solid efforts by CSICOP’s public relations crew, the news media were well represented, with reporters from BBC Radio, Fox News, the Learning Channel, KABC, the Burbank Leader, and Australian Broadcasting Corporation showing up, as well as The New Yorker. A correspondent from the Latin American media giant Telemundo was also on hand, interviewing several attendees and speakers for a Spanish-speaking audience.

This one’s overall theme, “Prospects for Skepticism: The Next 25 Years,” seemed appropriate since CSICOP had just completed a yearlong celebration of its twenty-fifth anniversary. This first-ever West Coast-sited world conference, at the Hilton, Burbank Airport and Convention Center, was hosted by the Center for Inquiry-West, CFI’s recently established Southern California outpost for skeptics and humanists, situated a few miles to the south in Hollywood. CFI-West just late last year dedicated the first floor of its new building on Hollywood Boulevard, central to the world’s entertainment media, which communicate and miscommunicate so much, good and bad, to global audiences via television and film.

CSICOP founder and chairman Paul Kurtz opened the conference by pointing out that the modern media, with their insatiable interest in “entertainment and titillation,” are at the root of the phenomena of interest in the paranormal. In contrast, he noted, CSICOP has pressed for alternative scientific and rational investigation of claims, and “for balanced presentations, not only the pro but the con.” Throughout, he said, the broader goal is “public appreciation of the scientific outlook.”

“It is the science and the scientific outlook that is truly breathtaking,” he said. “You don't need fantasy and fiction to feed the human imagination.”

He also noted-as would happen several more times in the conference-the recent death of CSICOP Fellow Stephen Jay Gould, and the losses in previous years of scientist/skeptics Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. “Where are the new heroes to emerge today, to integrate science and to explicate and defend science?”

“We've been doing this for twenty-five years,” Kurtz said. “This conference is on the next twenty-five years.”

Following are brief summaries of several of the key sessions.

Don't Get Taken!

The opening Thursday evening session, “Don't Get Taken,” focused on a mostly new subject for CSICOP, confidence games and financial scams. All end up taking innocent people’s money, in ways that may seem clever or may seem crude, but nevertheless prey on people’s trust.

CSICOP Fellow Robert Steiner, a certified public accountant, professional magician, and author of the book Don't Get Taken!, listed several myths about con games:

Most scams have been around in various forms for generations, but some are new. New in just the last few weeks, Steiner said, was one involving an offer to have your name taken off telephone-solicitation lists-something appealing to most everyone. The only request: Give us your social security number!

Richard Lead, an accountant and international taxation specialist (and treasurer of the Australian Skeptics), who writes a regular column on financial scams for the Australian Skeptic, expressed outrage at scammers. “How dare they take other people’s money!” he said. Scams are bad for two reasons, he said: “Good people lose money. Bad people make money.”

The reasons people fall for scams are far more complex than greed. He said they are analogous to optical illusions. In both, “the mind is fooled.” He described a wide variety of pyramid schemes, the secret to which is hiding the pyramid with a product. The product may be something people want or it may be essentially worthless, but it disguises the real intent of the pyramid, to make money for the few people at the top, at the expense of all the rest.

Virtually everyone is familiar with the notorious Nigerian letter. ("How many have not received one?” Lead asked the audience. Only one hand went up.) Nevertheless the Nigerian letter scam, which seeks the recipient’s help in getting large sums of money out of Nigeria under various ruses, continues to draw people in and take their money, or worse. “A friend lost $90,000 to the Nigerian letter,” Lead said. “He thought all the others were hoaxes, but that his was real!” The Nigerian letter is so successful, Lead said, that $200 million U.S. are flowing into Nigeria each year as a result. And when people whose money has been scammed from them get so upset that they travel to Nigeria to try to find a way to get it back, they can be in mortal jeopardy. “Twenty people are murdered each year who go there,” Lead said.

A similar scam is the selling of nonexistent credit cards for a Caribbean tax haven that promises a $4,000 credit. The only thing one has to do to get this wonderful bargain is to send $150 to the tax haven. That’s the last they see of their money-or of the credit.

The “Wall Street tease” was the topic of Richard Schroeder, a certified financial planner and registered investment advisor. “I can't think of anything more paranormal than modern Wall Street,” said Schroeder. “Most of what Wall Street tells us is baloney and does not work.”

Enron, Arthur Anderson, and dot-com IPOs are not the worst Wall Street has to offer, Schroeder said. For decades, he said, Wall Street has lived with a nasty secret: Modern financial markets are efficient and it is next to impossible to beat them. And yet people, shelling out commissions of 0.5 percent to 1 percent, pay $35 billion to $70 billion a year “to handle your investments,” with the hope of getting an edge, that their expert will be a winner.

Schroeder said fifty years of well-validated academic research show that security investments follow a “random walk"-meaning no useful information is embedded in the historical price information of securities. Schroeder described the research, published in many journals and in the 1973 book A Random Walk Down Wall Street.

As for typical advice such as “buy 'undervalued' stock,” Schroeder says, “It doesn't work. There are so many brilliant people and so much information so readily available, it is impossible for anyone to gain an advantage.” And, he said, the stock market is efficient-it processes all information immediately, so no one has access to information that others can't get.

“Scores of empirical studies for fifty years show . . . no basis for the value of investment management,” said Schroeder. “Yet financial management interests continue to charge billions of dollars a year.”

Moderator Ray Hyman concluded the session with some remarks on scammers and the psychology of deception. Con games work within a social situation and depend upon the normal workings of social dynamics, he said. They “are a play within a play.” “We are social creatures. We've evolved to react to social cues.” Furthermore, he said “no one wants to admit that they were taken.”

“All these deceptions depend on social trust,” Hyman said. “It is because people trust other people that society functions as well as it does-and also why cons work.”

Evolution and Intelligent Design

One of the highlights of the conference was the Friday morning plenary session pitting two prominent defenders of evolution, Kenneth Miller and Wesley Elsberry, against two leading proponents of “intelligent design” (ID), William Dembski and Paul Nelson. ID is of course the latest tactical approach of those who seek to dethrone evolution in the schools and contend that intelligent design is a scientific theory, or at least a philosophical theory, that should get some kind of equal billing.

Moderator Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee (and author of the just-published book Denying Evolution), worked out in advance with the participants a format in which all speakers first made short presentations, followed by a segment in which the participants questioned, and responded to, each other. It made for a lively and interactive session.

Pigliucci began with a historical overview tracing the first critique of intelligent design theory back to Hume in 1779. As for the evolutionary biology, he emphasized that “natural selection is a satisfying, not an optimizing, process.” It is not “survival of the fittest,” he said, but “survival of the barely tolerable.” Perfection is not required.

He outlined the neo-Darwinian synthesis that draws on insights from modern genetics (mutations and recombinations) and modern paleontology, which has identified several human ancestors. In the modern frontiers of evolutionary science genes and the environment interact and real organisms are seen as a complex outcome of many forces (there is no “beanbag” genetics, he said). There is also much recent research interest in the evolution of development.

He then described modern ID theory (and its leading proponents Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, and Dembski), various scientific and philosophical responses to ID, and concluded with a list of questions for ID:

  1. Is ID a scientific research program? If so, what testable predictions does it make?
  2. Is ID a philosophical theory? If so, is it likely to make a valuable contribution to science?
  3. Should we teach ID in schools, and if so, in science classes, or elsewhere?

Biologist Wesley Elsberry led off the panelists’ presentations with an examination of the “wedge” tactic of the ID movement that, as he says, seeks nothing less than a redefinition of science itself. Appropriate for the conference theme, he began with a “25-year view,” first asking why, when there are so many real problems facing society, should we be concerned at all about ID?

The answer, he said, is because it aims to affect science education and because its most high-profile advocates are creationists.

He spoke of ID’s anti-evolution, antiscience agenda (with its theistic alternative), its social-political wedging tactic, its primarily religious motivation, and its primary institution, the Discovery Institute, with which both of the ID speakers on the panel are affiliated.

He said ID’s notorious “wedge” document surfaced in 1999, outlining goals of the Discovery Institute for the next five, ten, and twenty years. The goals included: Attack the definition of science, defeat scientific materialism, and seek to influence education and politics.

The original intention was to carry out research first, but Elsberry said ID advocates started their political agenda before doing the research program. He outlined a variety of ID political activities, including ID-promoting bills in Kansas and Georgia, the Santorum amendment in Congress (which contrary to ID propaganda did not become law), and the 2002 effort with the Ohio Board of Education.

He said when ID proponents are asked what their scientific program has been or what it has accomplished, they can give no satisfactory answer but contend that the reason is they “need more funding.” He finds that response “ironic” given the enormous financial support funneling into the ID movement.

“The ID approach is to bypass skeptical scientists and go directly to the public,” he said. “Political activism is the primary focus.” ID “science” is “on the backburner,” he said, “and the pilot light is out.”

Paul Nelson, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and editor of the ID journal Origins & Design, then spoke on “why this debate will not go away in American culture.” He asked why ID should be disqualified a priori. He disagrees with “the rule of methodological materialism,” in which the statements of science must invoke only natural things and processes.

“Why not be curious?” he asked. “What if the world were designed? Naturalism might be false. Why not suspend naturalism as an a priori hypothesis and let the evidence decide? The dilemma the scientific community faces is not being open to all possibilities. Naturalism might not be true.”

Then it was the turn of Kenneth Miller, whose presentation was titled “Unmasking ID.” Miller is a professor of biology at Brown University and author of Finding Darwin’s God. He has been one of the most outspoken and effective defenders of the scientific integrity of evolutionary biology.

William Dembski’s calculations “essentially assume what they are trying to prove,” Miller said. In contrast, Darwin’s ideas made testable predictions. “His predictions have been fulfilled overwhelmingly by subsequent developments.”

“It is disingenuous to speak of design without speaking of creationism,” he said. “Design theory is creation(ism).”

ID'ers still say everything is the result of design, said Miller, adding, “A theory that can explain anything in reality explains nothing.”

He incisively critiqued various ID contentions about biology, including its claims that the bacterial flagellum or the blood-clotting cascade could not have progressively evolved. ID makes the same claim that the Krebs cycle (the cyclic series of chemical changes that result in carbohydrate metabolism and produce energy for living organisms) could not have evolved. “But there is a literature of how it did evolve,” Miller countered. And, he said, the individual parts do have function.

“Dembski’s calculations require an assertion we already know is false,” said Miller. “The 'evidence' for ID requires a priori assumptions that an evolutionary pathway to a structure is impossible.

“Intelligent design creationism is nothing more than old-fashioned creationism dressed up in new arguments of information theory and molecular biology,” Miller said.

He ended by countering the ID contention that science is closed-minded to the novel. “Science is not hostile to new ideas,” he said. Novel ideas lead to new research, which is then subjected to peer review and obtains scientific consensus before reaching the classroom and textbooks.

Intelligent design, said Miller, wants to bypass all that messy science “and go directly to classrooms and textbooks.” This was met with prolonged applause.

Dembski, in his presentation, did not so much make any scientific argument as assert the primacy of ID’s political and popular power over science and evolution. (Dembski, who has Ph.D.'s in both mathematics and philosophy, is author of The Design Inference, among other pro-ID books.)

“Over the next twenty-five years ID will provide the greatest challenge to skepticism,” he said. “ID is threatening to be mainstream,” he said, asserting that polls show 90 percent support. “ID is already becoming mainstream within the public themselves,” he said. “The usual skeptical retorts are not going to work against ID.” He contended that ID “turns the tables on skepticism.”

Dembski contended that Darwinism “is the ultimate status quo,” that it “squelches dissent.” Young people, who “love rebellion,” see that and are attracted to ID as a result, he claimed. “The public supports intelligent design. The public is tired of being bullied by an intellectual elite.” He contended that skeptics resort to rhetoric and “artificially define ID out of science,” allowing in only material matters.

Intelligent Design, in contrast, “paints the more appealing world picture” whereas skepticism works by being negative. “This doesn't set well with the public. . . . To most people evolution doesn't provide a compelling view.” And to scientists and skeptics who defend evolution and the scientific process Dembski ended with a sarcastic “good luck.”

The point/counterpoint segment that followed allowed pointed questioning of speakers’ positions. Some of the interactions were interesting indeed. For instance, Nelson at one point referred to a scientific paper on the evolution of the Krebs cycle. He said its authors “cannot close the cycle” unless they de novo postulate “a missing enzyme.” Without that assumption, “the evidence doesn't work.”

Miller asked for a few minutes. He explained he had the paper in question in his laptop computer and would like to find the specific passage. He found the paper, displayed it on the ballroom screen in full pdf format, and went right to the passage, showing where Nelson had misinterpreted its meaning.

Said Miller, in returning to the general point: “In the evolution of metabolism, the achievement of the fundamental steps of the Krebs cycle was not difficult at all. Almost all of its structure primarily existed for very different purposes, and cells had to add just one enzyme . . . to convert a collection of different pathways into the central cyclic pathway of metabolism.”

At another point the two ID proponents were asked if they believed in the great age of the earth. Nelson answered that the earth’s age didn't matter to him. Dembski said, “ID is not dependent upon any particular view of the age of the earth. It is not relevant.”

Miller then returned to the question: “Paul, how old do you think the earth is?”

Nelson (after a pause): “It’s well known I have a young-earth position.”

Miller: “That is not so hard, was it?”

Nelson: “I still think it’s irrelevant.” He said skeptics ask the earth-age question “because they get rhetorical mileage out of it.”

To Nelson’s credit, he, in contrast with Dembski, was generally amiable in his interactions with the skeptics. He contended at the beginning that he himself was a skeptic and he liked the questioning attitude of skeptics when he reads the Skeptical Inquirer.

Nelson also consented to appear in an impromptu informal late afternoon question-and-answer session the next day in a room off the conference hotel lobby for a continuation of the back-and-forth discussions with Elsberry and Pigliucci (Miller had left), again moderated by Pigliucci. Eventually the small room filled up with seventy-five or eighty conference attendees, most all seemingly vociferous skeptics, with Nelson, the lone ID proponent among them, genially maintaining that science should be open to the possibility that naturalism just might not have all the answers and that science should be open to other hypotheses (design). Nelson, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in philosophy, generally spoke from a philosophical not a scientific viewpoint, in maintaining that design, not evolution, just might have played a role in shaping the world. At one point, an audience member praised him for his courage in coming into the wolf’s den to take part in the informal session. He indicated he enjoyed the interplay. The audience, although clearly unconvinced by his arguments, appeared to as well.

-K.F.

Fringe Psychotherapies

Fringe psychotherapies was the topic of one session moderated by Scott Lilienfeld of Emory University. Lilienfeld spoke about the proliferation of fringe psychotherapies, and claimed that there are over 500 such untested techniques currently in use. Far from being a case of a few bad apples, Lilienfeld said that surveys suggest that the majority of practitioners do not use empirically supported methods with their patients.

Dr. Gina Green gave an overview of the pseudosciences surrounding autism, a disease that usually strikes the young and leaves them mute, with impaired mental and motor skills. Because the cause(s) of autism are still unclear, there is a lot of mystery and magical thinking associated with the disease. The unproven, discredited beliefs and techniques include Facilitated Communication, the hormone secretin, and the belief that vaccines somehow cause the condition. Green said that the problem isn't as bad as it used to be, due in part to skeptical exposés, greater public awareness, and recent court decisions.

Steven Jay Lynn, of the State University of New York, discussed recovered memories and pointed out that “even under the best of circumstances memory is fallible.” Though the heyday of recovered memories has passed, many therapists still use recovered memories and believe them to be an important part of treatment. Carol Tavris also gave a talk, discussing the pathologizing of everyday problems and the danger to patients of unregulated therapists. New, unproven (and frequently outlandish) therapies pop up with alarming regularity, threatening patients unaware of the shaky foundations of such treatments. Those needing help, she said, need to be wary of people who read about (or take a seminar on) some new, unproven technique and anoint themselves therapists.

During the question and answer session, one woman complained that most of the topics covered were old news, and that the panelists were “beating a dead horse.” Lilienfeld noted that though some treatments have been discredited, other unproven therapies are unfortunately alive and well: “The horse is not dead yet.”

Urban Legends

The session on urban legends featured author and folklorist Jan Brunvand, Barbara and David Mikkelson (co-creators of the urban legends Web site snopes.com), and Tim Tangherlini of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Brunvand discussed the popularization of urban legends and surveyed the different ways in which they have been commercialized, from teen slasher movies to advertisements. Urban legends have turned from a folklore topic to marketed, prepackaged entertainment.

The Mikkelsons focused on the rumors and urban legends surrounding the September 11, 2001, attacks. Such stories included the tale about a Bible that miraculously remained unburned in the fiery Pentagon attack (it was in fact a dictionary); that dead airplane passengers, still strapped in their seats, were found in apartments adjacent to the World Trade Center; and various rumors that Nostradamus had predicted the attacks.

Tim Tangherlini approached the topic from a different angle, examining the role of the mediator in reports and legends dealing with monsters, aliens, or other “outsiders.” For example, one element that both urban legends and accounts of aliens or monsters have in common is that they are almost always told not by the person who supposedly actually experienced it, but by a mediator, someone telling the audience the story.

Though not as well attended as some of the earlier sessions (partly because it was the last), the session titled “Paranormal Around the World” was an important forum for international skeptics. Speakers came from China, Germany, Holland, Australia, Peru, Russia, Argentina, Venezuela, and India to discuss the paranormal and skeptical movements in their native lands. Sami Rosenbaum, a skeptic from Venezuela, spoke of the prestige that his conference attendance would bring to the skeptics movement in his part of South America. Already, he said, interviews were being lined up for him back in the capital city of Caracas. All the speakers discussed the need for more skepticism in their countries, and most credited CSICOP as important in helping get the local groups started. Across varied skin tones and accents, the unifying message came through that critical thinking and science are important in all societies.

A few grumblings were heard, mostly about the sporadic technical difficulties and the tightly-packed schedule that allowed little time to meet with other skeptics. On the whole, however, the conference was a great success, and Los Angeles proved to be a good place for media outreach and communicating the skeptical message to the world.

-B.R.

Kendrick Frazier and Ben Radford

Kendrick Frazier is Editor, and Benjamin Radford is Managing Editor, of the Skeptical Inquirer.