Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

My weekend at NECSS

First off, I am a tardy, tardy, lame blogger. I am sorry I have not gotten around to this for so long. Real life caught up with me in such a big way. A new kid is really getting in the way of maintaining my outlet for stress relief.

Second off, sorry I couldn't Tweet. The auditorium was underground and there was no cell service. However I have very few followers on Twitter, so I doubt it was really a big deal.

So lets get started... The North East Conference on Science and Skepticism!

The night before the conference there was a skeptic's in the Pub event at a place called Dewey's Flatiron in NYC (uh, because it was near the Flatiron building). I'm originally from NYC, it was not really a problem to find it.

Well, I showed up alone which is always a weird feeling. Upon enetering, I noticed it was relatively empty. Strange for a friday night at 9:00, but whatever. After asking a waitress, it turns out the skeptics had, for the most part, parked themselves upstairs. So, even after 500 years of college, its still weird to jump into a large group of people you don't know and start mingling. I'm afraid my method is to make scene and point at people who are going to be stuck with me for the short term. It works pretty much every time because people are generally nice and everyone is basically in the same boat.

At the bar I met a few skeptics, but of course the one guy I end up talking with was brought there by his skeptic friend. This guy, who I will call Sam because I have completely forgotten his name, was a proud Catholic and obvious (after a short amount of conversation) libertarian. Nothing wrong with that, except his unbelievable pomposity was abhorrent.

We started out with some small and somehow we got on to Joe Wilson, you know the "You Lie" guy. I simply mentioned that it was such a weird thing to risk your career on when he was easily demonstrably wrong.

Sam, was like "What do you mean?"
I pointed out that part of the bill (the house version at the time), that stated simply that benefits for paying for insurance was not to be given to unauthorized residents. The rest of the plan is what we have now, anyone can buy insurance if they wish.
Sam said that there was not enough teeth, no verification.
I said, that it's irrelevant how it is enforced as far as this bill goes, its illegal to give benefits to illegal immigrants under the bill and Wilson is demonstrably wrong.
Sam entered into a litany of how its so horrible that we don't enforce our laws, democrats want ACORN around to give them votes, etc etc. I pointed out that being illegal and enforcing the laws are two different issues, Obama would have won with or without any of the folks ACORN signed up, etc etc.

But then he got to the good part. Socialism is bad. His point was that, in theory, socialism simply can not financially work. I have no idea if that is right or wrong. So I said, "OK, which country is purely socialist?" My point obviously being that it doesn't matter if something doesn't work in its pure form if that isn't what anybody is actually doing and not something anyone is proposing.

Same thing happened later. He told me he was the head of something or other that represents 28 biotech firms and that America has the best healthcare system. I pointed out that he was conflating healthcare technology and healthcare system. And even at that, its quite disputable that we have the best healthcare when so many countries have longer lifespans than we do (and at half the cost for healthcare). But he was adamant...we have the best healthcare in the world. So fine, I asked him how his 28 biotech companies are primarily funded.

Lets just say he got quiet for a moment. I knew that they exist on government funding. It was an easy win. Regardless he was a true believer, it didn't really matter what I said. Socialism is bad in any form because in theory pure socialism is financially unsound.

It's pretty much par for the course for me to get hooked up with someone like that during an event that is supposed to be fun. I didn't see anyone else getting in a heated conversation.

Anyway Sam left, I spoke with a few other skeptics in a much more calm way on more interesting topics. I even met Rebecca Watson. From her tweets, Skeptic's in the Pub seems to be her element. She was very friendly and nice. Sadly I was too drunk by this time (3:00 AM) to be anything even close to witty. Oh well. I'm long past the age where I can do this more than one night in a long while.

I have no idea how I got up for the conference (felt I had to be there by 8AM since I had misplaced my ticket), but I did and I was pretty chipper too. It was at the French Institute which has a pretty good auditorium. However, as is typical for NYC theaters the freaking rows of seats are too close to each other which sucks for the long legged members of our society like me. after an hours my knees we killing me. For the second half I changed seats to a place where there was a little more space.

One more little note: Its such a strange feeling to see these people who I have been listening to for over a year every single week. I saw the Novella Clan on the street while they were arriving to the event. I couldn't help it but I made a crack about them being early (they were) as if I knew them. They must get this all the time, but still, I had a hard time not being an ass in that way. I'm glad the skeptical community is generally made up of truly nice people.

Bios for all the speakers can be found here.

Jamy Ian Swiss
Mr. Swiss was our host for the day. He was energetic, amiable, a little dorky like the whole audience, and a good choice for this event. He said he was a magician by trade and cofounder of the New York City Skeptics. He got the ball rolling with our first presenter.

Dr. Paul Offit
I didn't know what to expect from Dr. Offit. Would he be angry at his treatment by antivaxxers? Was he this evil character the nut jobs have made him out to be. No, he was a very eloquent speaker and really hammered home many of the issues of science in the media that we are all familiar with. It was during his presentation that I realized I didnt really learn anything. I got a dull pang of worry that this whole event would be worthless if I was not going to learn anything.

During his talk I couldn't help but think, "Why the hell are you preaching to the choir?". His presentation contained a lot of information that people who are on the fence need to hear. Happily he addressed that and pointed out that he is simply not invited to speak at events that pander to the woo. Further he doesn't get to go on shows like Oprah to provide a little sanity. They specifically said no to him. Its a pretty sorry state we are in. Anyway, it was a good talk, but not one in which anyone in this audience actually needed to hear.

I did learn one thing. He mentioned CAM and in particular about how the Gonzalez protocol for treating cancer was recently belatedly reported to be utter bullshit. Orac really covered the same thing afterwards and in much greater detail. But I heard about it first during this presentation.

We then got treated with a live presentation of Skeptics Guide to the universe.
After almost all of them coming out poorly timed, we were treated to Dr. Richard Wiseman as being part of their panel for the day.

I have to say this right now: if you ever get to see something with Dr. Wiseman in it, Go! He is very funny, charming, superlatively optimistic and enthusiastic and really adds to anything he is part of. I say this in light of the fact that while I also listen to his podcast, I am not that enamored with it.

OK, by the way, I found this picture of the event from Tim Farley's (of Facebook page. There is me with my shiny head.

When Steve Novella came out he took a picture of the audience with the camera he has mentioned a lot in the podcast. But I don't see it posted anywhere. So you are stuck with this one. Sad, I was hoping to see it somewhere.

Anyway, the SGU talked about a number of topics as the always do. I gotta say, Rebecca was on a roll that night, Bob, not so much (was he hungover?). She was very charming and funny. Some jokes went on and on too long (like the overdone joke mentioning Dr. Wiseman's new book 59 seconds). It was far more juvenile than normal (lots of penis/sex jokes), but still funny for us geeks.

Their latest podcast is the one they did at NECSS, so I wont rehash it here. I just wanted to say that it went well but Bob novella was having an off day. It really appeared that he didn't do his homework. Steve had to step in to clear up his topic.

There were questions, some were good, but only one was memorable. Someone asked about dealing with a talk that Robert Kennedy was about to give and what they thought he should ask him. Steve rightly pointed out that there was not one question tht would ruin the day for him, that Kennedy would simply weasle out some lame answer and move on. Rebecca hit it on the head with an excellent suggestion, which I think is the only way we can deal with this sort of thing.

The goal is not to change the mind of the speaker, the goal is to put information into the heads of the audience. She suggested that the best thing to do would be to get a group of skeptics to go to the meeting and barrage him with a number of questions that include data (like your body makes more formaldehyde naturally than is being injected in a vaccine and why should it matter, or that there is a difference between ethylene glycol and polyethylene glycol and so forth). That way, the audience would know that they were fed a bunch of bull.

I can't stress enough of how good I think this idea is. She was right on.

George Hrab
I finally got to see George. He just did songs, was totally cool about people leaving for lunch. I stuck around for "Skeptic" and left because my stomach was hurting from lack of sleep and hunger. Sorry George.

After lunch (which I had at some fancy schmancy place with the guy who sat next to me during the first part, but the food was very good), Mr Swiss came back out and showed us some weird optical illusions. I'm not going to describe them in detail, but apparently your brain is weird enough that if you stare at a spinning spiral for 30 seconds or so and then look at someone's head, it will puff up. If you look at the ame spiral spinning the other direction and do the same thing, the head shrinks. We are weird animals.

Panel: Rachel Dunlop, Howard Schneider, John Snyder - moderated by John Rennie.
I had never heard of Schneider or Snyder, but it was neat to see Dr. Rachie and listen to John Rennie. Mr. Rennie wrote "15 answers to creationist nonsense", one of many sources which I used to create my Creationist Bingo.

It was a good panel discussion. Dr. Rachie and John Snyder both took the side that "balance" in the media is truly hurting the advancement of science and the proliferation of knowledge. They also pointed out that the media never distinguishes between scientifically controversial and socially controversial.

Dr. Schneider took the side that presenting balance is in fact a responsibility of the media. However, I couldn't help thinking that he was presenting some No True Scotman fallacy there as he was obviously distinguishing between news, and newslike programs like Bill O'Reilly. I don't think a lot of america actually makes that distinction and that to me is a big part of the problem.

I wanted to ask about this, but here is a tip: If you are going to a conference and are the type of person who would like to ask a question, dont sit in the center of the row. The effort to get out far out weighs the desire to ask a question.

I really thought this panel was going to be a bore. I found it pretty interesting in the end.

I was really looking towards the next panel.

Panel: Why is it so difficult to be a skeptic?
Richard Wiseman, Massimo Pigliucci, Kaja Perina and moderated by Michel De Dora

First off it was nice to see such a young dude being a moderator. Mr. De Dora is currently involved with the Center for Inquiry. While there was some nervousness, he did a really good job.

Its too bad the panelists were such a bore. uh, except Dr. Wiseman. Maybe I misunderstood the title, but I really was hoping for some insight to quandries like I have written about before. But Alas it was not to be found. I think the academics don't really find being a skeptic in a normal life to be very difficult. I don't think these guys truly encounter poor critical thinking on a day to day basis. At least it didnt seem that way.

Massimo read notes off his iPhone. I could swear he wrote them on his trip down from wherever he lives. I didn't glean anything valuable from Ms. Perina.

Only Dr. Wiseman really got the topic. He mentioned some stuff that I have directly experienced, like when I told someone about the conference. Dr. Wiseman asked "What do you say, when asked what this is?". And he went on to explain that while its hard, and while its frustrating, its working. I dont know how we measure this (for another post one day - are we doing anything?), but he is really able to delineate true enthusiasm and honest optimism on what we are getting done. I really want to believe him, but I'd really like to know how we measure progress. As you can tell by the name of my blog, I am not as optimistic as he is (although I am a very optimistic person).

Finally we came to Carl Zimmer.
Dr. zimmer gave a great presentation on skepticism in general. He pointed out a lot fo the good work bloggers are doing and covered a lot of typical skepticla issues. He is a clear speaker and a great asset to the skeptical movement.

I finally asked a question. Here is what I wanted to ask:

"What things would you suggest that we, as fellow technology literate bloggers, can do to help the non technically oriented to discern the scientifically supported subject matter we present from the nonsense dressed up like science?"

What came out was something far longer, mentioned my PhD, mentioned my Techskeptic pseudonym, mentioned Skeptico and Skeptiko, mentioned my wife, mentioned a host of other things and I'm guessing, from his response, I was completely unintelligible. In my head at the time it sounded great, as I was saying it my head is going "What the fuck are you trying to ask, moron?"

He pointed out that this is not a new issue. James Randi has been dealing with it for years. Yeah, duh, thats why we are all here. Are non professional bloggers helping or not? So to Dr. Zimmer, I'm sorry I was a rambling moron.

I have left out tons of funny and interesting stuff from this event. While the anti-vax issue dominated the entire event, it was still widely varied and I enjoyed it. I will most certainly go again next year. Especially if Dr. Wiseman chooses to participate again.

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