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LaRae Meadows Reports on SkeptiCal 2014

LaRae Meadows

August 5, 2014

On the last day of May, a bevy of west-coast skeptics gathered to discuss scammers, science, psychology, and public awareness above the hurry and fuss of Chinatown in Oakland, California.

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The day opened with a call to make science an understandable and accessible public matter for even the least among us—politicians. Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, illuminated the shocking condition of scientific literacy of political leaders, media, and the public.

During the 2008 election, candidates for president in the United States were asked over 3,000 questions in interviews. Of those 3,000 only six were about climate change. In 2012, the networks other than MSNBC spent fifty-one minutes on climate change but over one and one-half hours on Joe Biden’s smile.

The media’s coverage is probably only a symptom of the overall scientific illiteracy in our society. When the public was asked in a survey to name the top three scientists, they answered Albert Einstein, Al Gore, and Bill Gates. Only 74 percent could answer that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around.

The scientific ignorance of the American population is also caused by the rift between scientists and the public. Most Americans do not personally know a scientist. Deep understanding of what it means to be a scientist does not really exist outside of academia. The unbridged rift, possibly created on both sides, has made scientific inquiry a low priority for American political leaders.

According to Kirshenbaum, a scientist and former political staffer during the Kennedy Administration, research and development was then 12 percent of the budget and now it is only 3.4 percent.

Kirshenbaum made specific suggestions to improve communication between the public and scientists.

Patrick O’Reilley moved the discussion from the realm of valid inquiry into the land of exploitation. In his talk, “Cons, Scams, and Undue Influence,” he discussed the vulnerabilities confidence artists cultivate and exploit to get money or influence.

Criminals use gullibility, distraction, lying, fear of looking foolish, group pressure, creating personas similar to the targeted victims, social proofs, magical thinking, cognitive dissonance, the pressure of reciprocity, diminished personal control, deference to authority, focusing on the positives, and methods of self protection in order to influence the behavior of their marks.

O’Reilley’s talk did not discuss the implications beyond the world of crime, but it lent insight into the pressures that make victims in other areas important to skeptics. The same pressures are used by more than just people selling bridges that do not exist; they are used by psychics, water diviners, and vaccine deniers to influence decision-making and rationalizations.

“A Discernible Human Influence on Global Climate Change,” a talk by climate scientist Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, widened the discussion from people’s influence on each other to their influence on the planet and some people’s hostility to the idea.

Dr. Santer was the lead author of Chapter 8 of the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I Report addressing the causes of global climate change. The chapter suggested global climate change may be influenced by humans. In response to the mere suggestion of human influence in the change of the climate, he faced a range of harassment and personal attacks.

Santer showed the evidence for climate change and explained how scientists came to their conclusions. He also discussed and refuted some typical climate change denier tropes. The well-informed skeptic probably was only reinforcing their existing knowledge but hearing an expert clearly explain the evidence in a new way always gives new tools for discussion.

The program left the global perspective and entered the celestial with Andrew Fraknoi’s talk, “An Astronomer Looks at Astrology.” Some of the humorous facts shared by Fraknoi were:

Fraknoi suggested a new, more reasonable birthday and celestial body connected personality destiny gauge—Jetology. Jetology is a description of the personality types set where jumbo jets were in the sky when a person was born.

Other equally reasonable personality and psychological theories were described in Sheldon Helm’s talk, “Fringe Psychology.”

Helm explained the psychological treatment therapies:

Helm also offered a criticism of the Stanford Prison Experiment; primarily that there was no control group and some of the guards may have been instructed to be sadistic.

Dr. Paul Doherty explained the edge of good science and when to admit we simply do not yet know in his talk on the “Boundaries of Science.”

Norm Goldblat rounded out the day with scientific comedy.

The best lesson of the day came from a participant. Throughout the day the audience member sat in the front row and interrupted the speakers to make unnecessary, pedantic corrections when the speaker used relaxed language because the speaker realized they were in company that could understand the context without repeated explanation or hyper-precise language. He butted in during jokes, killing the punch lines and corrected experts in truly trivial matters any reasonable audience members understood as linguistic short hand.

Public speaking did not come naturally to one of the speakers. The speaker was appropriately sharing a story to make a point more salient. In one particularly flabbergasting moment, the front row blurter decided to interrupt the speaker, during the story. The speaker was embarrassed and flustered.

Skeptics have been accused of being a smug bunch of know-it-alls, more interested in putting people down with intellect than actually discussing the topic at hand. While the interrupting audience member certainly is not representative of all skeptics or even the vast majority of us, his behavior did bring up something important—being a rude, obnoxious jerk simply to bolster one’s own ego does not further debate or discussion, and it is not an expression of superiority. It is just a reason to turn a deaf ear to skeptics in the future.

SkeptiCal 2014 delivered a pile of tools for skeptics to choose from the next time they engage a climate change denier, a scammer, or simply want to check themselves.

LaRae Meadows

LaRae Meadows is bent on investigating important topics, contorting herself to discover new views, and sharing her discoveries. Her dangerous lack of self-preservation makes writing on controversial topics fun for her. She has a background in legislative and policy advocacy for foster children in California and owns a small business.