SkeptiCal: The Northern California Conference of Science and Skepticism
July 22, 2015
When Skeptical Inquirer asked me to report on a skeptical conference happening in my backyard of San Francisco, I was, well, skeptical. I’ve been attending and occasionally speaking at skeptics’ conferences for the past decade, and with that investment of time in a relatively tiny subculture, one tends to see the same “big ticket” speakers over and over again, to the point that in case of a skeptical disaster I’m fairly certain I could fill in for at least half of them if given their PowerPoint presentations and a reasonably convincing bald cap/mustache combo.
So, I was pleased to note that the 2015 SkeptiCal line-up contained no speakers I had ever seen before. It’s a bold strategy for an organization to take, but it clearly paid off for SkeptiCal since not only was the program entertaining, but the venue appeared to be sold out.
The conference was held in the lovely Oakland Asian Cultural Center, which was easily accessible by BART, car, or bike. Oakland’s Chinatown is a great neighborhood with a lot of delicious lunch and dinner options, and the Cultural Center itself had a steady stream of adorable children taking classes. What could be better?
The day started with Dr. Peggy Lemaux of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley, speaking about the use of genetically modified (GM) crops. While it was a mostly basic overview of the importance of GM research, I learned a few things. For instance, I tend to think of the public as being mostly distrustful of GM, but Lemaux pointed to the success of some SUNY researchers who developed a blight-resistant version of the nearly extinct American chestnut tree and relied on crowd-funding to begin a restoration project to plant 10,000 new trees. Their Fundly project raised $10,000, twice what they were originally asking for.
Lemaux’s talk was also refreshing in that she didn’t hesitate to share some of her concerns with GM, such as an overreliance on Roundup Ready crops. Too often, people who speak up for GM whitewash their concerns for fear that anti-GM activists will take them out of context. It’s an understandable fear, but if the public is truly to trust scientists, they need to understand that science is messy and full of healthy disagreement.
Periodically, SkeptiCal had breakout sessions. For the first, I saw Kenzi Amodei of the Center for Applied Rationality give a talk titled Your Inner Simulator: How to integrate logic and intuition. I’ll be honest, I was expecting for this talk to be full of pseudoscience, considering that the description asserted that humans’ logical reasoning “evolved independently” from our intuitive reasoning, which seemed like a gross oversimplification at best. The actual talk, though, was simply a good overview of dual process theory and focused primarily on how people can use the theory to improve their ability to meet goals. I enjoyed it until Amodei announced that we would be splitting into groups to practice using the techniques she described to achieve our own goals. As the nice man next to me turned to introduce himself, I panicked and apologized, saying I had to go. I am deathly allergic to audience participation workshops.
I ran to the other hall, where the audience sat silently in darkness watching videos while Ron Hipschman of the Exploritorium explained the science behind science-fictional ideas like teleportation. It was exactly what I needed.
Next up was astrophysicist Dr. Natalie Batalha, Mission Scientist for NASA's Kepler Mission. Kepler is the space observatory which has thus far discovered more than 1,000 Earth-like planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy. Batalha covered the techniques used for identifying those planets based on the data available—information that may be familiar to those who are already fascinated by the search, but Batalha’s passion and intelligence on the topic was inspiring to hear, and anyone in the room who wasn’t already invested probably left with a new curiosity for the important work that Kepler is doing.
Batalha also had a great method for putting into perspective the search for habitable life in our universe: imagine the entire universe is only the size of the United States, and our conference was Earth. The best chance of finding live in the universe would be within ten light years, or in this analogy, a few city blocks away. Lord knows what’s happening over in New Jersey.
Ann Reid was next on the schedule. She’s currently most well-known in the skeptics’ world for taking over the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). She had big shoes to fill, considering that Eugenie Scott was NCSE’s previous director and over the years became well-known for being sharp, tenacious, and extremely charming. I’m happy to report that NCSE has developed some kind of cloning technology, since Reid appeared to demonstrate all of Scott’s best traits as she spoke about her area of expertise: viruses. Reid was instrumental in the sequencing of the 1918 influenza virus, and as such had a lot to say about how viruses mutate, what people panic about with no reason, what we should panic about, and why vaccines are incredibly important.
Another breakout session followed, during which I had to choose between Isil Arican discussing international skepticism or Frank Mosher conducting a “workshop for producing skeptical children.” Considering my personal avoidance of workshops in general, I certainly wasn’t up for attending one where the audience interaction would be focused on producing children (of any kind), so unfortunately I had to skip that one.
Arican gave an overview of the work of well-known international skeptics such as Indian rationalist Sanal Edamaruku and Nigerian humanist Leo Igwe. The interesting part of her talk concerned her own area of expertise, though: skeptical activism in Turkey, where a common phrase is “don’t bring new ways to the old village” and the Minister of Science and Technology once went on record to say, “We should train more pastry chefs instead of physicists.” I’m not one to disparage a good pastry, but that doesn’t seem to bode well for Turkey’s future scientific achievements.
Arican also described a particular fortune-telling method I’d never heard before. Apparently, in Turkey one can get their fortune told by holding a bowl of water on their head and dropping molten lead into it to see what shapes form when the lead cools. Unfortunately, many of the accurate fortunes go something like this: “You’re going to drip molten lead on your face.” I’ve since learned the practice isn’t restricted to Turkey, and elsewhere is known as Molybdomancy.
The final speaker was Dr. John Ioannidis, Professor of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University best known for his research on why so much published scientific research is wrong. This was a particularly relevant talk considering that it came just days after the discovery that a well-publicized Science paper was a fraud.
Ioannidis gave a thorough overview of the main problems with the current peer review system, and then ended his talk with his suggested solution, which essentially involves a complete overhaul of the culture behind scientific publishing. In large part Ionnidis blames the way the system rewards scientists for publishing large breakthroughs, and not for producing small, quantifiable, and reproducible results. He’s given his reengineered reward system the acronym PQRST:
Sharing of data
He asserts that if this reward system replaces the current system, it will all but eliminate the problem of research being published that is simply wrong. It’s an interesting idea, and one I’ll talk a bit more about in a future post.
SkeptiCal ended the day with a magician, Robert Strong. Strong is a capable performer who is keeping alive the unstated rule that every skeptics’ conference must have at least one person on stage who can complete a 4x4 magic square.
All in all, it was a fantastic conference and I look forward to next year’s line-up. If you’re anywhere nearby, I recommend getting tickets and meeting some of the Bay Area’s best and brightest scientists and skeptics.