Highlights of CFI’s Twelfth World Congress: Science, Public Policy, and the Planetary Community
The Center for Inquiry’s 12th World Congress in Washington (Bethesda, Maryland, actually) was grandly yet appropriately titled “Science, Public Policy, and the Planetary Community.” In one way or another it covered just about every topic CFI and its affiliated organizations the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer) and the Council for Secular Humanism (publisher of Free Inquiry) deal with.
Everyone seemed to enjoy it. The day afterward, CFI founder and chairman Paul Kurtz called the congress “exhilarating.” As he said, “The responses of our readers and supporters were overwhelmingly positive. What a stunning response that we received from them!” Ron Lindsay, CFI’s CEO and president, likewise called the conference very successful and said many attendees commented favorably to him “that they noticed the skeptical/scientific side of our organization was on display more than usual, which they appreciated.”
That’s true, I think. Many people in the audience told me at various times how much they appreciate and value the Skeptical Inquirer. SI and its articles and the work of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry got a lot of public mention, too, in the talks, intros, and sessions.
Here are a few highlights for me:
- The opening session on Darwin and Lincoln, evolution, ID and creationism, and legal challenges of church-state separation involving the latter. Civil rights lawyer and CFI board member Edward Tabash emphasized repeatedly that in opposing creationism, we are “fighting not religious belief but the infusion of religious doctrine into public policy.” Philosopher/historian Barbara Forrest updated developments in the intelligent design wars since the Dover decision in 2005, including the latest troubling activities of antievolutionists in Texas and Louisiana. And Lincoln/Darwin historian David Contosta said: “I am convinced Lincoln was a deist. He did not believe in the divinity of Christ. He was not baptized. He questioned miracles of the Bible. He liked to tell jokes about preachers.... He probably couldn’t get elected today.”
- Former twelve-term U.S. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder’s rousing talk defending good science against political indifference and, worse, interference. Her lively title tells the story:“The United States, a Former Global Leader in Science, Apologizes for the 2001–2008 Service Outage.” In her current job she represents textbook publishers for grades K–12. She warned that only a handful of people pick the textbooks your children use. “They are not teachers, usually. They are scary people, some of them.” She lamented that just the previous week in Texas opponents of evolution in textbooks declared an “insufficiency of evidence” for natural selection.
- Author Susan Jacoby’s (The Age of American Unreason) litany of “anti-intellectualism and sheer intellectual laziness” in America over the past forty years. “We are in serious intellectual trouble. We don’t value knowledge enough.” She gave a long series of examples of what she calls “junk thought,” ideas that are “impervious to evidence.” She also defended the virtues of reading, a practice much marginalized in today’s hectic age of instant electronic communications.
- Paul Kurtz’s luncheon address on the planetary perspective. He said humanism includes genuine caring for others and a respect for the dignity and value of every person on the planet. “We have common ground with all members of the human family.” He said we need a new planetary ethic that mitigates human suffering and increases the sum of human good and happiness. “As skeptics and rationalists, we need to cultivate a new planetary ethic. We need to be concerned with the planet Earth. It seems to me that is the positive statement of humanism.”
- Astrophysicist John Mather’s (the first NASA scientist to win the Nobel Prize) beautifully illustrated talk on the entire history and future of the universe, from its origin in the “Horrendous Space Kablooey” (as he calls the Big Bang) 13.7 billion years ago to the time when the Sun goes out 7.6 billion years from now ... and beyond. He reported on the 1998 discovery that the cosmic expansion is accelerating, the mystery of dark energy, the plans for the next big space telescope to be launched in 2013 (the James Webb Space Telescope), and the quest to directly observe more exoplanets. Cosmology may have no practical benefits, he said, but space science sure does. People often forget that their weather reports, GPS devices, telephones, and television all “depend on things out there in space.”
- NASA climatologist Drew Shindell’s full report on “The Science of Climate Change.” He noted that our knowledge of climate change comes from detailed scientific observations, and he reviewed the interplay and repeated testing that goes on between scientific observations and computer models of climate. Some conclusions: the planet is getting warmer, natural forcings (solar variation, volcanoes, etc.) have been flat in recent years, the twentieth-century warming is largely caused by greenhouse gas increases, and the rate of future warming is likely to increase. He noted that apathy and resistance to change in this area goes back to the 1840s when a smokestack-cleaning technology for ships of the Royal Navy was squelched by industry.
- James Randi’s lively participation in many sessions, hallway discussions, and his own late afternoon talk about how easily we all can be fooled. “I know the art of deception. I know how people are fooled. And I know how to do that.” He described repeated examples of very smart people being fooled by trickery. “You can be fooled as well,” he said. It’s the conjuror’s warning not to take at face value any proclaimed evidence of psychic powers. At the end, Randi announced that his famous one-million-dollar challenge to claimants for proof of paranormal powers under controlled test conditions, which was to end, will in fact be renewed. “It was going to terminate in 2012,” he said, “but now it will continue.”
- Major awards to Paul Kurtz, Randi, and Lawrence Krauss.
- A session I moderated on Skepticism and Science seemed well received (due especially to the presentations by the witty and lively Richard Wiseman, with lots of video demos on perception and misperception, and equally so Elizabeth Loftus, with her research demonstrating false memory, plus Joe Nickell, on investigating rather than just debunking, and Armadeo Sarma, on alternative medicine fads in Germany and the rest of Europe).
- A small lunch given by Paul Kurtz for international participants in the congress, including the Chinese delegation (where we were able to renew acquaintances with several of the Chinese colleagues we met in Beijing in October 2007) and those from the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, France, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Senegal.
- A lively audience-participation, packed-house session at the end of the afternoon Saturday on The Future of Skepticism. Run by Ben Radford and myself, I gave some introductory comments. Barry Karr and James Underdown also participated. Sean McCabe of the James Randi Educational Foundation (he also writes a skeptical blog for the general public at www.weirdthings.com) emphasized the positive messages of skepticism, noting that there are now nine network TV shows featuring scientists or science oriented. Proclaimed McCabe: “Skepticism is cool ... and it’s getting cooler.” We then opened it to the audience. A lot of good ideas and discussion came out of the session.
- A sobering presentation by Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy on the very recent Talibanization of Pakistan, even in Islamabad, where he teaches at a university. It has become very dangerous, he said. Terrible things have begun happening there in just the past several months. (The day after the conference ended, news organizations reported the imposition of Islamic law by the Taliban in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. Further Taliban inroads have prompted subsequent military action.)
- The Saturday evening awards banquet featured a live oratorio of composer Richard Einhorn’s new original composition (personally introduced by Einhorn) “The Origin,” a celebration of the life and work of Darwin based on Darwin’s own words in On the Origin of Species.
- Awards banquet speaker Lawrence Krauss’s (a CSI fellow and Arizona State University physicist and author) talk on “Science and Public Policy: An Oxymoron.” He concluded with the call, “We must all become evangelists for science. We cannot tolerate unambiguous nonsense in a democracy.”