“I want to believe, and you do too. in fact, I think my thesis here is that belief is the natural state of things”. This important observation formed the foundation of Michael Shermer’s talk,The Pattern Behind Self-Deception, presented at TED back in February and made available for viewing earlier this week. He takes on the pitfalls of the human “belief engines” that are found in our pattern-seeking brains with a nice review of some of the relevant research. Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, was appearing at TED for the second time. He also spoke there in 2006. TED, which has become a showcase for some of the world’s most respected thinkers, has had its share of skeptics including James Randi, Julia Sweeney, Richard Dawkins, Adam Savage, and Dan Dennett, among others.
A reader recently sent me an article (that I sadly can't link to) about some Missouri ghost hunting groups. Oh, I'm sorry... they don't hunt ghosts, they "investigate paranormal activity." The two groups in question are Mid Missouri Paranormal Investigators and Jefferson City Paranormal Investigations. Like every single other ghost hunting group I've encountered, these folks are dedicated, "skeptical," and "use science" to investigate. And they freely admit that most of what they encounter is easily explainable, but it's that 1% that isn't that interests them.
Let's talk about that 1% for a moment. 100 birds fly past your window, and your job is to identify them. So you record... "robin, robin, sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, blue jay, crow, house finch, tpnom, robin, swallow, sparrow...and so on." You pack up, go home and review your data.
Lots of sparrows and robins. Boring. Yawn. But wait... tpnom? What's that? You search and search, but you can find nothing that matches that particular entry. What could it be?
Last night, I was a guest on a Dallas-based radio talk show called "On the DL." The hosts, Don and Lane, were very friendly and I'm very happy they invited me on the show. The topic was so-called "faith healing," which was of particular interest in light of the radio station's proximity to evangelist Benny Hinn's corporate headquarters. (The phrase 'Benny Hinn's corporate headquarters' tells a story by itself.)
While there's no question that Randi should have been the one on the show, his lecture tour in Europe prevented that outcome. So, armed with my copy of his seminal book, The Faith Healers, I took their call and their questions. I found that I was more prepared than I needed to be.
While I believe that a scientific and skeptical outlook is important in many aspects of life, it should come as no surprise that feel it is especially important in health care. And yet, even among skeptics, medicine is an area where misconceptions, ideology, and emotions tend to predominate. We all take our health very personally.
That is why I am very excited that the JREF is taking an increased interest in the promotion of science-based medicine (SBM), and this is reflected in this year's The Amazing Meeting - TAM8.
I will be hosting two SBM workshops, with my colleagues David Gorski, Harriet Hall, Kimball Atwood, and Rachael Dunlop. These workshops are designed to give attendees practical knowledge - the first focusing on how to recognize dubious sources of health information, and the second on how to find reliable sources of health information. The topics are obviously closely related, but we are coordinating the content of the two workshops so that they are not redundant. Along the way we will discuss many details of pseudoscience in medicine.
In addition I will be moderating a panel discussion during the main program of TAM on pseudoscientific healthcare systems, such as chiropractic, homeopathy, acupuncture, and naturopathy. David, Harriet and Rachael will be joined on the panel by Simon Singh and Ginger Campbell. Together we will explore why these unscientific health systems develop and flourish, and what, if anything, can be done about it. This panel will be a dynamic discussion - and I anticipate some areas of disagreement on the panel as we delve into some of the more tricky issues regarding autonomy and quality control.
I'm looking forward to another great Amazing Meeting (is that redundant?). The JREF has put together a great lineup of speakers and I am glad that many of my medical colleagues are counted among them.
More information about TAM 8, including the Science Based Medicine workshops and panel, can be found here.
Among the many highlights to be found in the jam-packed TAM8 schedule, is the robust lineup of expertly-led workshops offering practical, and often hands-on reviews of important topics relating to science, critical thinking, and skepticism. Many will be pleased to hear that among them is a teacher’s workshop focusing on some of the specialized skills needed to bring the tools of scientific skepticism into the classroom and beyond. I am very excited that the workshop is being presented by Barbara Drescher and a number of experts with many accumulated years spent learning the "ins and outs" of this sometimes tricky endeavor. Below is a sneak peak at the workshop from Barbara.
The "E" in JREF at TAM8
You do not need to be a teacher to educate. Each of us takes on the role of educator when we promote critical thinking, science, and skepticism through private debate and public talks. So, you do not need to be a teacher to take home something of value from a workshop to be hosted by Michael Blanford, Director of Educational Programs for the James Randi Educational Foundation, at The Amazing Meeting 8.