‘Reason for Change’: Quacks and Cranks, GMOs and Climate, Science and Philosophy
The Center for Inquiry returned to its founding and headquarters site, suburban Amherst, New York, outside of Buffalo, for its 2015 conference, June 11–15, and by any measure the event was a fine success. The conference sold out with close to 500 registrants packing the various ballroom sessions and participating in lively intellectual and social interchanges.
“Reason for Change” was its multiple-meaning theme, which seemed to serve the conference well. It was the second consecutive annual conference combining the work of both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (copublisher of the Skeptical Inquirer) and the Council for Secular Humanism (copublisher of Free Inquiry) as well as CFI’s overall mission. But it was the first since those two entities became programs of CFI rather than separate nonprofit organizations.
Scientific skepticism and secularism/humanism blended fairly seamlessly, with numerous plenary sessions where these interests overlapped (about two-thirds of the conference) and some parallel separate-track sessions where the interests seemed distinct (often posing difficult choices for some attendees who wanted to attend both).
There were optional pre-conference tours to the Center for Inquiry headquarters building (only about a mile away) and its extraordinary library of 72,000 books on freethought and scientific skepticism. The library includes a first edition of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and the notebooks and files of famed skeptics such as Martin Gardner and Steve Allen and early UFO critic Thornton Page (plus papers Keay Davidson used in his biography of Carl Sagan). And there were post-conference bus tours to nearby Niagara Falls and to the home of “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll, a three-hour drive away.
The Board of Directors of CFI also met for the better part of three days before the conference, with a few impromptu sessions during the conference itself. The Executive Council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (after being featured at a conference Skeptic Track public session Sunday morning) met in a business meeting for five hours on the Sunday afternoon immediately following the conference’s end. I am on both, so it made for a long if stimulating week; it also required my missing a few conference sessions I wanted to see.
Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s president and CEO, welcomed participants at an informal Thursday evening reception. He would later point out that the two strains that unite all aspects of the now-combined organization are a respect for critical, evidence-based thinking and a disdain for dogma.
The next morning things got underway in earnest, with Jim Underdown of CFI–Los Angeles beginning his conference emcee duties. I opened things with a twelve-minute illustrated overview of some historical highlights of CSICOP (now CSI) and SI. The organization got its start thirty-nine years ago, almost exactly across the street from the conference hotel at the then-new Amherst campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo in May 1976, when philosophy professor Paul Kurtz called a conference on “The New Irrationalisms” and announced the founding of CSICOP.
I told the story mainly through the way others (especially outside media) reported on us in our early years. Articles in the New York Times, Time, Science News, Smithsonian, Reader’s Digest (then translated into dozens of foreign language editions), Psychology Today, and the Wall Street Journal heralded the creation and early work of CSICOP. One such example was Carl Sagan’s famous “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” article in Parade, the national Sunday newspaper supplement. The article included a box about CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer, calling SI “cheerful, irreverent, instructive, and often very funny.” This was early input to Sagan’s later book about pseudoscience and irrationality, The Demon-Haunted World, published the year he died.
An even more important article was cognitive scientist (and later CSICOP fellow) Douglas Hofstadter’s March 1982 Scientific American article thoughtfully contrasting the two modes of inquiry of the Skeptical Inquirer and the National Enquirer, the era’s best-known sensationalist tabloid. Hofstadter had clearly read the Skeptical Inquirer deeply and carefully. He quoted at length from key articles. He strongly recommended CSICOP and SI. He called us “a steady buoy to which one can cling in the sea of [irrationality] that all of us are drowning in.” This wonderful article prompted so much interest that over the next few months SI’s circulation nearly doubled. (The article also had a ripple effect in other countries, such as Germany when published two months later in the German-language edition of Scientific American.)
Hoftstadter later reprinted the article in his book Metamagical Themas, with a lengthy epilogue commenting upon reaction to it and providing further thoughtful consideration of the issues SI struggles with. I told the audience that I considered Hofstadter’s article “the most substantive, detailed, and positive article ever written about us. It may still be.”
I then jumped ahead to recent times and the present. “Overall,” I concluded, “I think SI and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry have been a major influence helping to contain the influence of [pseudoscientific and antiscientific] impulses and to keep alive among the public the idea that the wonders of science and nature far exceed the false mysteries of pseudoscience and bogus science.”
Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry and director of the Council for Secular Humanism, followed with a similar illustrated overview of their history and recent influence.
Here are just a few highlights from the conference that struck me as of particular interest for our readers. (Again, I couldn’t get to all sessions.)
GMOs: Potential and Promise
New Yorker writer Michael Specter spoke on one of the hottest and most surprisingly controversial topics of recent times: GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Specter’s book Denialism won CSI’s 2009 Balles Prize for Critical Thinking, and he applied the same critical thought to the GMO topic. He said he’d tried not to write about GMOs for twenty years but can no longer avoid the topic, as society’s unfortunate view seems to be that scientists are concocting “some Martian-like different species.” He emphasized that GMOs can help fulfill global shortages of food and said to think they are more a danger than a boon to addressing hunger is a “big disconnect” from reality. “These are important tools,” he said. “Over the next thirty-five to forty years, we must grow more food than through all of history.”
He chided opponents of GMOs living in wealthy enclaves in the United States and Europe who shop at expensive health food stores (“which no one should ever do”), think “natural” is somehow a meaningful and meritorious term, and seem unaware of how serious the problem of feeding and providing necessary nutrients such as vitamin A to less-developed parts of the world is—and will become, unless the potential of GMOs can be realized.
“We have been modifying food for 10,000 years,” Specter noted. Adding or modifying genes to make key crops have bigger yields or be more resistant to pests is along that same continuum of progress.
"What GMOs really can do, they are not being allowed to" because of fear-mongering opponents, he said. He said he likes Monsanto, one of the main companies making GMOs and a target of GMO opponents. Nevertheless, he said, “There are tons of [GMO] products that have nothing to do with Monsanto. Some include a gene that kills pests, so the farmers don’t need to spray insecticides.” That, he implied, should be considered a good thing. As for the Roundup brand spray that is also a frequent target of GMO opponents, “Roundup replaced two other products that were far more toxic.”
Critical thinking and better appreciation of the science is needed, he said. Perhaps it would help, he said, to point out that (injected) insulin is a GMO. When you say that, he said, people get it and may realize, just perhaps, that GMOs can be useful.
For her lecture, anthropologist Eugenie C. Scott, the longtime fearless defender of teaching evolution in schools, shifted gears (“back to my roots,” she put it) and addressed a topic of classic pseudoscience: crank anthropology. She gave a little primer on the differences between science and pseudoscience. One of her comments CSI Fellow Dave Thomas later put on Facebook as a nicely designed Internet “Thought for the Day”: “Pseudoscience claims the mantle of science, but fails to earn it.” She described a few examples of pseudoscience in her field, including the Aquatic Ape hypothesis, alleged human/ET hybrids (she outlined the barriers evolution provides to hybridization of vastly different creatures), and a number of fake Bigfoot claims. “All passed the test of being pseudoscience,” she said.
Alternative Medicine Panel
Steven Novella, Harriet Hall, and David Gorski (all physicians and fellows of CSI) took part in a panel exploring the troubling trends in popular and institutional encouragement of non-science-based medicine.
Novella began by lamenting that alternative practitioners are promoting a double standard, “literally carving out an alternative universe.” He ended answering a question from the audience about critical thinking. “Once they are true believers, evidence doesn’t help,” Novella said. “You have to do it earlier.” Hall emphasized that there is no such thing as alternative medicine, only medicine supported by science. The term is nevertheless used for what used to be called “quackery,” “folk medicine,” or “fringe medicine” and “includes fanciful things that couldn’t possibly work.” Troubling signs of it are uncontrolled, poorly designed, never replicated experiments, statements from physician proponents beginning “In my experience” (she calls that “a very dangerous phrase), and anecdotes. Another problem is that proponents use the same word evidence that scientists do “but with a totally different meaning.” (This is why Novella and colleagues are promoting the concept of science-based medicine; see Novella’s recent SI column “It’s Time for Science-Based Medicine” May/June 2015.)
Gorski gave an overview of “quackademic” medicine, noting (as have a number of recent SI investigative articles) that the U.S. government is spending close to half a billion dollars a year on “complementary and alternative medicine.” “Medicine should be based on science,” he emphasized. He noted one prominent proponent of alternative remedies at Yale has called for “a more fluid concept of evidence” than typically demanded by science, meaning one where controlled experiments aren’t required. “Integrative medicine” is now the new faddish term for the same thing as before. Gorski calls it “integrative quackery.” He ended with a pungent equation: “Integrative Medicine = Medicine + Myth.”
Two Philosophers, on Science... and the God Argument
Philosopher, novelist, and MacArthur Fellow Rebecca Goldstein gave a spirited luncheon keynote talk about what she calls “mattering.” That night she received CFI’s Morris D. Forkosch Award for Best book for her Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (2014). Mattering starts with questions. The question “What is?” is our trying to get our bearings. And that captures something very distinctive about our species. It has resulted in science, philosophy, and religion. Religion’s answer to that question is “God is.” If that were true, if “God is,” Goldstein said, “that would change the entire decor of the universe.”
“What matters?”—including whether we ourselves matter—is a second universal question. Both religion and secular reason have distinctive approaches to these two questions. Religion says, “God matters, and we matter to God,” since we are made in his image. In this view, Goldstein says, “He appears to take us almost as seriously as we take ourselves—which is gratifying.”
The problem is some people matter more. “And that leads to terrible atrocities.”
A seeming corollary to this view is that “If God isn’t”—if there is no God—then human life doesn’t matter. And if life doesn’t matter, it’s a “moral free-for-all.” This is an invalid inference, she notes; it’s the fallacy of denying the antecedent.
With the ancient Greeks, mattering didn’t depend on gods. “They kicked the gods out of mattering.” They were intent on “keeping the terrible gods out of it.” And that created the preconditions for philosophy and then science.
The tools of science are powerful, but “there’s nothing simple about the scientific methodology. Even calling it a methodology—as if there are simple step-by-step rules—is misleading.” Science makes use of observation, theory, induction, deduction, abduction, intuitions, prediction, experiment, modeling, and computer simulations. “Science is not a simple follow-the-rules procedure. But the most essential fact about science is that it always leaves open the possibility that we’re getting ‘What is?’ wrong, even at the most fundamental level.” Science “directs its ingenuity to trying to get nature to correct us when we are wrong.”
Says Goldstein, “We need fellow knowledge-seekers to show us the blind spots in our thinking.”
The two arms of reason—what used to be called natural philosophy and is now called science and moral philosophy—have made progress over the course of the centuries, expanding our points of view both scientifically and morally.
Goldstein praised the conference theme, “Reason for Change,” with its “deliberate ambiguity, the kind of semantic gestalt switch it forces the mind to make.” And she concluded: “Why shouldn’t we get to be inspired, reasonably inspired, by reason itself?”
In a Sunday morning lecture, Stephen Law, senior lecturer in philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, and provost of the Centre for Inquiry–UK, described what he calls The Evil-God Challenge. He wrote about this previously in the Skeptical Inquirer in an article titled “The God of Eth” (SI, September/October 2005, available on our website at csicop.org).
It was an interesting complement to Goldstein’s talk. He called it “a simple argument.” It began with most believers’ sense of God as omnipotent and all good. He asked, Is belief in this God reasonable? He found that the typical arguments “provide no grounds to suppose that this being is all good or all powerful.” He then brought up the question of gratuitous evil. “If gratuitous evil exists, God does not. But gratuitous evil exists. Therefore, God does not exist.”
“It is a great argument,” Law said, “but Christians are ready for it.” They simply say, “God works in mysterious ways.” They say God gave us free will, and it follows that suffering results. Bad experiences can make us suffer, “but no pain, no gain.” Anyway, free will leads to more good than suffering. He restated this view as, “It’s arrogant of us to suppose we can understand the mind of God—an infinitely wise being. . . . So belief in God is not so unreasonable.”
He then proposed an alternative hypothesis: “There is a God. He is all powerful and all evil.” “This is just as well-supported as the other arguments,” Law said, “Yet Christians would reject it out of hand as ludicrous.” Why, they ask, would an evil god give us sunsets and mountains, healthy bodies, children, and good deeds and bestow on many of us good fortune and wealth?
“We can reasonably rule out an evil God,” Law argued. But, using a similar argument, “Then why can’t we rule out a good God?” The argument is the same. “The real mystery is, why do so many fail to see this?”
The first question from the audience following Law’s talk came from Richard Dawkins. Dawkins said if he believed that way he’d just say, “The God I believe in is unconcerned, indifferent.”
Law’s quick answer to that was, “Then why should I worship—and be eternally grateful to—this being?” And the lively discussions went on from there.
Climate Change Panel
A big gap continues between the abundant scientific evidence for climate change and global warming and the public’s perception that even if true (which many in the United States doubt), humans aren’t responsible for it. The Skeptical Inquirer has been reporting on the scientific evidence and these issues of troubling anti-science since 2007.
As moderator of an afternoon panel on climate change, I offered one new data point: The alleged hiatus in global warming that opponents have made so much of doesn’t exist. Using newly developed and more accurate data sets of land and ocean surface temperatures, and two additional years of data, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the hiatus vanishes. The rate of warming from 1998–2014 is almost identical to the rate of warming from 1950–1999. (See theconversation.com/improved-data-set-shows-no-global-warming-hiatus-42807.) This announcement came just a few days before our panel and is now published online in Science (http://scim.ag/TKarl). Yet, I cautioned, don’t expect this to sway contrarians, because factors other than the scientific evidence, such as whom one trusts and identifies with, tend to carry more weight.
Scott Mandia, professor of earth and space sciences at Suffolk County Community College and cofounder of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, expanded on that point in his presentation “Sometimes It’s Not about the Science.” Mandia outlined a number of factors other than the science that influence opinion about climate change. Public confusion is being driven by “merchants of doubt” who have very deep pockets and a desire to maintain the status quo. Numerous conservative “think tanks” with “experts” (a significant proportion of whom have no scientific training) result in a loud megaphone, with 108 climate change denial books written just through 2010 linked to them. Ninety percent undergo no peer review, allowing authors to recycle scientifically unfounded claims. Political ideology plays a big role.
“Republicans are motivated to deny climate change and other environmental problems because of their aversion to the perceived solutions which may infringe on their ideological values,” Mandia said. He described Dan Kahan’s research indicating that “individuals subconsciously resisted factual information that threatened their defining values.” Other research by Kahan shows that the message (in this case about climate change) is trusted when the messenger is from the same peer group. Climate scientists are not in most conservatives’ peer group.
So what to do? Use examples that relate to that audience’s worldview. Point out that the evidence for climate change is accepted not just by scientists and science academies but also by the U.S. military, health officials, and insurance companies. All consider it a serious problem. None are considered liberal tree-huggers. Putting it all together, Mandia counsels to lead with the facts, keep arguments simple, warn the listener before stating the myth, align the message with the person’s cultural worldview, and provide a more credible alternative.
Jan Dash, Climate Initiative Chair and managing editor of the Climate Portal website for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, is an expert on risk management. He spoke on managing the risks of climate change and of contrarian obstruction. The risks are higher in the future (the next fifty to 100 years) than they are now, and that is one problem; we’re not good at assessing future risks. Economic risks include breakdown of supply lines and markets via increased political instabilities and other serious impacts. Energy risks include a collapse of the fossil fuel sector. Financial risks include over-leveraging by our descendants for future borrowing to cope with climate impacts. But there are also risks to the oil industry, a loss of reputation and possible legal risks. Underappreciated are the positive opportunities to business in mitigating climate change. Dash offered no silver bullet: he said we need innovative strategies by individuals, business, and all levels of government.
Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy manager for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), said climate change is a critical part of science education and warned that deniers, just like antievolutionists, are targeting the schools. More science and better education matter, and there’s a lot scientists and skeptics can do on that front. But he suggested we can’t just win with better education or by throwing more science at people; we need to forge effective cultural and social connections to diffuse this fight. He said NCSE can help folks find the best ways to make those connections and get involved.
Albuquerque computational physicist and CSI Fellow Mark Boslough, another panelist, was the primary mover behind the December statement “Deniers Are Not Skeptics” signed by fifty-two Committee for Skeptical Inquiry fellows (SI, March/April 2015) and more than 28,000 others so far (see http://act.forecastthefacts.org/sign/skeptics/). At the panel he spoke on his proposal to create climate futures markets, a way to “bet” on future climate trends. This would allow businesses at risk from global warming, such as agriculture, to hedge against climate-related losses and would provide a market-based consensus on the rate of change that could be used as an index for a carbon dumping fee that would increase automatically with future temperature. His interest in climate futures markets led him to propose a challenge to deniers based on that concept. Immediately following the planned presentations by the climate change panelists, CFI President Ronald A. Lindsay came up to the lectern and announced the Committee’s challenge to the Heartland Institute. It is described in the sidebar on page 17.
Lindsay concluded the conference Sunday morning on a moving note, describing the recent history, role, and future of the Center for Inquiry as he sees it. His brief remarks are published as a special essay on page 35. It was a fitting end to a stimulating conference that took us back to the founding roots of the modern skeptical movement, examined where we are now, and looked ahead to the challenges to come.