Skeptical Adventures in Europe, Part 5
March 2, 2018
I’m joined by European Skeptic Podcaster (ESP) and Associate Member of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO), András Gábor Pintér. We are now about to start day twenty of my About Time Tour. András and I dropped Mark Edward off at the Bologna, Italy, airport for his flight back to Los Angeles and then we took off in the car for our next destination, Slovenia.
Ljubljana, Slovenia – October 2, 2017
Okay, I must say that this was personally a major highlight of the entire tour, only because my paternal grandparents came from Slovenia. My father was born in Euclid, Ohio, in 1918 to extremely poor parents. He grew up speaking Slovenian and lived in immigrant-rich neighborhoods. Listening to him tell the stories of growing up there, it sounded pretty awful. His father died when he was twelve and things only got worse for his mom and brother. He went to fight in WWII and ended up in Salinas, California, after being demobilized in 1945. I’m telling you all this because we had almost no contact with Slovenia or our relatives at all. The Internet did not exist, and the only way you could research anything was to spend hours at the library. I was fascinated with this very distant place and its exotic people and tiny villages. To say I was clueless is an understatement. On this tour I had already traveled to Scandinavia, Poland, Germany, and more, but Slovenia just seemed impossible to visit. But András arranged a lunch in Ljubljana with three Slovenian skeptics. Wow!
András and I crossed over the Dragon Bridge, which was built in 1901, and I got a thrill knowing that my grandparents must have walked on this same bridge. I know it may sound silly, but it was really meaningful to me. We met up with Maja Žorga Dulmin and her husband, Nejc and their friend Mark Bizman. We met in one of the most beautiful locations alongside the Ljuljanica River in downtown Ljubljana.
They explained that they run the only skeptic group in Slovenia. They do monthly Skeptic in the Pub events (Skeptiki v Pubu). Maja came to skepticism by watching an MIT lecture with someone dissecting frogs. She thought that this wasn’t for her and then found an essay on how linguistics works in the brain and she said, “This is great.” Maja and Nejc soon discovered a science podcast called The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) and after a lot of episodes they realized that the rogues were “debunking bullshit.” After that, Maja and Nejc started self-identifying as skeptics.
I asked what skeptical content there is in Slovenian and was told “If you are under forty-five, you speak English” but there are a few Slovenian resources, a popular TV show called Science on the Street and one science podcast exists that mostly focuses on biology. There are influential books such as Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, with other popular authors being Dawkins, Wiseman, and James Randi.
Anti-vax, homeopathy, and general New Age beliefs are the biggest issues in the country. Because Slovenia was a Communist country, there is less belief in God. But as god beliefs fade, New Age beliefs increase. Also, the Roman Catholic Church is becoming bolder, aggressively entering politics.
Székesfehérvár, Hungary – October 2–3, 2017
After lunch with the Slovenian skeptics, András and I drove to Székesfehérvár, Hungary, which is where András lives. He had business to do on the third in the morning, so I had time to wander around the historical town. Its history goes back to the Middle Ages as the place where all the Hungarian Kings were crowned and buried. I took a lot of photos and video in the few hours I visited. I also got to meet András’s mother and visit her incredible garden with grapes and vegetables, one of the highlights of the day. The town has a lot of beautiful buildings and terrific public art; some is whimsical and fun, some serious and painful. One memorial was devoted to the Jewish population of Székesfehérvár, erected on the site of a Synagogue that had been torn down in 1944. The carving says that 3,000 Jewish people were removed from the town, and only 290 returned after the war. Very sad.
Budapest, Hungary – October 3–4, 2017
We next drove to Budapest where I was to speak later that evening. The Szkeptikus Társaság Egyesület (Hungarian Skeptic Society, HSS) was founded in 2006 and holds monthly lectures. The HSS has participated in Darwin Day and the 10:23 homeopathy campaign. They also hosted the 14th European Skeptics Congress in 2010. The current president is Gábor Hraskó, who until a few days prior was the Chairman of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations. The HSS and Hungary as a whole was very active in the March for Science event in April 2017.
András’s own involvement in the skeptic community happened because he discovered an essay contest sponsored by James Randi for Hungarian students. András responded and won, and he began to come to all the meetings and lectures he could.
András told me about a chemtrail event the HSS infiltrated a few years before. They designed a professional looking website with all the skeptical info about chemtrails they could find. They wrote it in a neutral way so that believers would be comfortable reading it; at no time did HSS want to appear to be ridiculing believers. At the very bottom of the website it mentioned that the page was sponsored by the Hungarian Skeptic Society. About 100 people attended the chemtrail event, and HSS showed up also wearing bright blue t-shirts with an airplane logo and their website name. They looked like the organizers of the event, which made the believer attendees and the media approach them for information. It was very clever, and it seems replicable for other skeptic groups for other pseudoscience topics.
My lecture wasn’t very well attended. It was pouring rain most of the day; only about ten people showed up, but I gained one new Hungarian editor, László Makay. They asked good questions and I think it was a good discussion. Here I left András behind and headed to my next stop of the tour, Bulgaria.
Sofia, Bulgaria – October 5–7, 2017
My plane landed in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the early afternoon. Bulgarian science conference organizer Liubomir Baburov, who toured with us through Germany and Switzerland, met me at the airport. Liubomir runs a science group called RATIO. They put on Skeptics in the Pub events monthly, but a few times a year they organize much bigger events with hundreds of attendees. Liubomir explains that he wants to show people that science is “sexy and fun,” and he sure does pull in attendees. The European Skeptic Podcast has been talking a lot about a November event where Jelena Levin and Pontus Böckman were a part of a panel discussing vaccinations. Professor Chris French was also a speaker, and the event sold out with hundreds attending.
Liubomir had set up a Skeptics in the Pub event for my lecture and told me that the Bulgarian skeptics would probably not be interested in any activism. They love science, but Bulgaria even skipped the March for Science event that year. He thought I should just explain how Wikipedia works and how we shed light on forgotten scientists, and maybe generally suggest that they also can improve Wikipedia pages. The event was like nothing I had seen before. It was dark, with very loud American hard rock music playing, and it was very full. Maybe forty people showed up. I gave my “March for Science – Now What?” lecture a bit more toned down, and after it was over I was flooded with people asking questions. We went to eat afterward and about twelve people came with us; we continued the discussion of science activism. It was very heart-warming and informative.
Madrid, Spain – October 7–8, 2017
For the very last part of the About Time Tour, I flew to Madrid. When I was still in the planning process of this tour, I received a tweet from Luis García Castro who is with Alternativa Racional a las Pseudociencias – Sociedad para el Avance del Pensamiento Crítico (Rational Alternative to Pseudoscience – Society for the Advancement of Critical Thinking, or ARP-SAPC) asking if maybe I could stop in Spain for a lecture. At the time I was planning on flying home (to California) from Italy, but then got talked into Hungary, which led me to get talked into Bulgaria. When I saw how difficult it would be to fly from Bulgaria to San Francisco, I decided I should stop part way; it was either France, Spain, or Portugal. Spain was the one that had asked, so I went to Spain. ARP-SAPC asked if I wanted to go to Madrid or Barcelona. There wasn’t money to do both, but apparently there are active skeptic groups in both areas. I’m not sure how we decided on Madrid, but that is where I went.
What an amazing city! Terrific public transportation and lots of things to see and do. Oddly there seemed to be some fuss over Catalonia. There were flags draped all over Madrid—orange and yellow flags hung from almost half of the city’s balconies. I had been on the road by this time twenty-five days and really wasn’t keeping up on the news. Claus Larson warned me not to talk about Spanish politics when I got to Madrid, so I managed to do some reading before I arrived. Claus was incorrect; politics were everywhere and all the skeptics I met wanted to tell me what was going on. It was really enlightening to be there at that time. Luis García Castro and I spent the day on a historic walking tour around one area of Madrid. I learned so much from that tour that I decided to make sure to do one of them every time I travel.
There was a March for Science held in Madrid and Barcelona. I don’t know how many went to the Madrid march, but “hundreds” attended the Barcelona event. According to Science magazine reporting, “A roundtable discussion was held that included journalists, scientists and science policy officials. A ‘pro-science manifesto’ was read in Spanish, Catalan, and English.”
During lunch, Luis and I discussed the ARP-SAPC. I learned that there are over 400 members and they host lectures and Skeptic in the Pub events every month that average about sixty people. Spain has lots of science and secular humanist organizations but very few skeptic ones. ARP-SAPC often has science-focused speakers at their events, but the skeptics prefer to focus on scientific skepticism, so they usually ask the speaker to add in a critical thinking element.
Luis explained that religion is more cultural and less church attendance; even church weddings are down. People are still getting married in church and baptizing their children, but more from tradition and to keep grandma happy than because they really believe in God.
The ARP-SAPC produces a beautiful professional skeptic magazine called El Escéptico three or four times a year. They also have a digital magazine, and their website has many critical thinking articles in Spanish. I asked about their readership and the expense of publishing a print magazine in this era of the Internet. I was told that they produce the biggest collection on skeptic topics in Spanish of anyone. They have a large readership in Mexico and Latin America. Luis told me that the printed articles will all be released eventually for free online. About the print magazine, he said, “as long as we can afford it, we will continue to print it.”
The ARP-SAPC has an annual assembly that rotates between cities, bringing the whole board together. Currently the president is Alfonso López Borgoñoz. Apparently, the ARP-SAPC began as a group because of an interest in UFOs; the group was called, Objeto Volador no Identificado (OVNI). The group decided to become more diverse and called itself Alternativa Racional Council (ARP) Then again, the group wanted to change names and they came up with Sociedad para el Avance del Pensamiento Crítico. But in order to please original members and the newer people, they kept both names, which is why it is ARP-SAPC.
My lecture had a good turnout with about thirty people. Lots of terrific questions were asked, and I was interviewed in English by the podcast Pensando Críticamente about the GSoW project. A group of us went out to eat afterward, and I was able to add a few more GSoW editors from this lecture. The ARP-SAPC has an active Facebook group called ARP-Sociedad para el Avance del Pensamiento Crítico with over 9,000 members.
The next day I was on a plane headed back to California. I landed Monday October 9, tired but not exhausted. My SD memory cards, as well as my luggage, were all full up. It would take me days to get everything uploaded and posted. It was a once in a lifetime adventure. I had a complete blast and can’t wait to do it again.