Sixth World Skeptics Congress–Berlin 2012
It’s rare for a gift of homeopathy to be welcomed by skeptics, but at the Sixth World Skeptics Congress every presenter was given a sample of Murus berolinensis, a homeopathic remedy made from the remains of the Berlin Wall. While sugar tablets can’t be guaranteed to bring harmony and unity in every pill, they certainly brought an ironic smile to the face of James Randi. The conference, held in Berlin from May 18–20, 2012, was a lively mixed gathering of people with a great number of countries represented both on the stage and in the audience.
(Photo by André Sebastiani)
Despite the long weekend dedicated to the congress ahead, there were a number of well-attended tours on Wednesday and Thursday before the event that allowed attendees to learn more about the history of the underground bunkers and towers around the city. An open-day on Thursday featured magic shows, lectures, and a German session of “Science Slam”—an event similar to the traditional “Café Scientifique” but with a competitive edge.
Eugenie C. Scott started off the main event on Friday with a brisk but disturbing look at creationism outside the United States, involving the intersection between politics and creationism in Italy, Serbia, Brazil, Great Britain, and Russia. Scott’s message on how “science is not a democracy” was reiterated by Dittmar Graf of the Institute of Biology and Education at the University of Dortmund, who outlined comparative studies on the acceptance of evolution in Germany and Turkey and the difficulties in achieving such acceptance. Johan Braeckman of Ghent University and the Flemish skeptical organization SKEPP presented on creationism in Belgium and the Netherlands, with an amusing tale about the potentially London-Olympic bound “authentic” Noah’s Ark built by Dutch creationist Johan Huibers.
The high level of acceptance of creationism in the Islamic world was the focus of research conducted by McGill’s Evolution Education Research Center, presented by Anila Asghar. An extensive study involving more than one hundred Muslim scientists and teachers and five thousand student surveys across Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Indonesia, and Pakistan revealed that while the reconciliation of faith and evolution was possible for scientists, exposure to American creationist materials and religious messages produced conflicted responses from students.
Gita Sahgal, director of the Centre for Secular Space, began the sessions on pseudoscience in education. Her lecture unveiled the early history and myths of India and Pakistan and the influence they have had on nationalist movements and education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My presentation followed; inspired by a 2006 Australian paper on autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it showed how the “unsinkable rubber ducks” like Dore, the “Mozart effect,” Brain Gym, and Facilitated Communication persist even now—despite damning research, court cases, and even company bankruptcy.
Samantha Stein from Camp Quest echoed my overall point on the need for all stakeholders to develop greater responsibility when improving education. Her dynamic presentation on “Engaging Children in Science” critically examined the state of U.K. science education, the need for education reform, and the promotion of science literacy beyond the classroom. Her talk prompted a passionate outburst during the question-and-answer session by audience member Simon Singh, who agreed with Stein’s observation about the sorry state of science education. Stein is currently writing a book, Atheists, Tents, and Unicorns: The Story of Camp Quest in the UK, on her experiences as the founder and director of Camp Quest UK. The day concluded with awards for Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, Luigi Garlaschelli, and Wim Betz, recognizing their ongoing efforts to promote science and reason worldwide.
For the start of Saturday’s proceedings Professor Jürgen Windeler delivered a presentation on evaluating the benefits of conventional and complementary medicine, looking specifically at some misunderstandings of medical evaluation—what is involved in randomization and how simple blinding methods are not always possible. He also presented a case for ignoring the claims of homeopathy rather than giving them any potential therapeutic credibility. The topic of diagnostic and therapeutic interventions was expanded upon by Gerd Antes of the University Medical Center in Freiburg, who interrogated the systematic research into the deficiencies of the research and publication process and how this contributes to what would be otherwise avoidable diseases and deaths: “Don’t fight belief; fight the justification of belief through the abuse of science and knowledge.”
Harriet “Skep-Doc” Hall, MD, a popular science writer for a number of skeptical publications including Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, discussed the bogus and bizarre treatments that are touted as so-called complementary/alternative medicine (or “SCAM”). She presented on the issues that arise from meta-analyses and systematic reviews of pseudoscience in medicine (drawing on a paper by Ioannidis). Hall is the creator of the “tooth fairy science” analogy for the seductive appeal of such claims, and she introduced us to the German translation: Zahnfeewissenschaft! This was her first overseas presentation at a skeptical convention, and considering the extremely positive response to her work from the audience, it should certainly not be her last.
The sessions on alternative medicine concluded with an in-depth and entertaining look at acupuncture by Benedikt Matenaer, who has a background in anesthesiology and palliative care. He critically analyzed the economic influences acupuncture has had on the German health system and the reasons that public health insurances and public health systems should be held accountable for promoting acupuncture (particularly why practitioners are acquiring a “pseudo-education” to “put needles anywhere”). The assumptions made by acupuncturist “professionals” are “stupid” and “disgusting lies”—and he proposed a hilarious quiz on chi for the next time skeptics encounter their claims. One canny audience member inquired about potential cheaper health insurance policies due to hypothetical companies not endorsing pseudoscientific practices.
The end-of-day sessions on “Psychology and Pseudoscience,” chaired by James Alcock, brought us the very first public demonstration of Ray Hyman’s PowerPoint skills for a lecture on the history of testing psychic claims, and he included some impressively deft rope tricks. Although Chris French’s original presentation was beset by technical difficulties, his new lecture certainly captured the audience’s attention with a tale of scientists attempting to replicate Daryl Bem’s precognition studies and the frustrating and sometimes bemusing lengths that must be taken to be published in peer-reviewed journals. Polish skeptic Tomasz Witkowski’s talk on pseudoscience in psychology investigated not only how dodgy claims in the field are detrimental for science in general but also how they mislead those who hope to find help with health issues such as brain damage and cancer.
On Sunday, skepticism entered the political sphere when Chris Mooney discussed his recent investigations into cognitive differences between liberals and conservatives—which may help or hinder the development of a civil society—as discussed in his new book, The Republican Brain. Simon Perry’s talk on the advent and application of fill-in-complaint-form website Fishbarrel (adapted by a handful of countries to help target pseudoscientific products online) was well received by the mostly German audience; this may also be due to another innovative example of using similar methods of social media manipulation by Germany’s Piratenpartei (Pirate Party), which has influenced local political change. The last session featured a standing-room-only Houdini Séance with Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Massimo Polidoro delving into some of the lesser-known stories of the great magician. We were then treated to a lengthy question-and-answer session, ranging from the history of the Million Dollar Challenge (lauded by African skeptic Leo Igwe as invaluable to activist efforts worldwide) to the danger of lie detectors to budget spending on paranormal claims worldwide.
The event concluded with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO), and the Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissen schaften (GWUP) releasing a resolution calling for high standards of scientific practice in scientific institutions and in science education—to focus on challenging pseudoscience when it is being established within academic and instructional institutions, particularly when funded by tax-payers. (See below for text.) Considering the scope of the topics and presentations at the congress, a call for international action was a fine way to finish a dynamic and stimulating weekend of skepticism.
The next World Skeptics Congress will be held in Sweden in 2013.
Resolution: Scientific Standards in Academia and Education
On the occasion of the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), the European Council of Skeptical Organizations (ECSO), and the German skeptical organization Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP) adopted the following resolution calling for high standards of scientific practice in scientific institutions and in science education.
Scientists and skeptics from around the world are deeply concerned with the growing tolerance, acceptance, and even promotion of pseudoscientific and occult ideas and practices within scientific, academic, and educational institutions. Students worldwide are in danger of being instructed in the unsubstantiated claims of ideologues and purveyors of pseudoscience, rather than learning to base conclusions on dependable, scientific knowledge. Scientists and academics may be reluctant or afraid to speak up, even when scientific principles and criteria are blatantly violated, fearful of antagonizing colleagues or those on whom their own careers may depend.
At the occasion of the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin, CSI, ECSO, and GWUP call for high standards of scientific practice in scientific institutions and in science education. They call on scientists and academics worldwide to raise their voices when pseudoscience is being established within academic and instructional institutions. When such institutions are publicly funded, it is additionally of crucial importance that taxes not be used to promote pseudoscience or ideologies.
Specifically, we call on all those responsible to:
- Ensure that universities, medical institutions, and colleges teach dependable, scientific knowledge and resist the temptation to let unproven claims enter professional education; such institutions are obliged to assist students to clearly distinguish between science-based and unscientific methodologies within the context of science and evidence-based medicine; and
- Ensure that scientific standards of evidence-based medicine are applied without compromise, resisting attempts to grant exemptions for ideological or commercial reasons to some forms of therapy that potentially risk patient welfare; and
- Ensure that schools base the science curriculum on accepted science, rejecting attempts to influence the curriculum on ideological, political, or religious grounds, such as has occurred with the teaching of evolution and climate change.
We also call upon our sister skeptical organizations from around the world in the spirit of consumer protection to commit themselves to ensuring good science within academia and schools, in addition to continuing their efforts to promote science and critical thinking to the public.