…Conference on Science and Skepticism, that is.
Yes, I’m back in San Diego after a week in New York City, where I served as on-stage host for the NECSS conference. This was our fifth NECSS – the Northeast Conference on Science & Skepticism – and as one of the organizers, I have been thoroughly engaged with its creation and year-to-year planning and programming since the start. This year garnered our largest attendance yet, and the second time we had two full days of programming plus a night-before performance event, and although the official feedback forms aren’t in yet, the anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that every day in every way, things keep getting a little bit better. Success!
Not unlike at TAM, JREF’s The Amazing Meeting, the NECSS audience is a mix of both experienced skeptics and repeat attendees, along with a strong component of first-timers and those relatively new to the movement. We try to always have a few skeptics-in-good-standing on the program – in the past we’ve had Randi, DJ Grothe, and Joe Nickell among others – and this year we were pleased to have my old friend and colleague Michael Shermer, who gave a thoughtful and provocative talk about the extent to which science can inform our ideas about ethics and values.
We also had Massimo Pigliucci present his own take on similar issues, and then, echoing their online exchange some months ago, they engaged in an onstage debate of sorts, moderated by journalist Julia Galef. (No wagering was permitted, but next year we may consider arm-wrestling.) Julia and Massimo regularly collaborate on both the Rationally Speaking blog and the podcast by the same name, and so also produced a live version of the podcast onstage at the conference.
NECSS is co-produced by both the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society. Of course that means that Dr. Steve Novella is always a strong presence at NECSS, both onstage and behind the scenes, and as well, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe does an onstage episode every year at the conference, and a second one with a small audience that pays for the privilege to attend. For many of their countless fans, the chance to see the entire SGU gang up close and personal is a major feature. Steve also took part in an excellent panel on psychopathy, which included Jon Ronson, the author of New York Times bestsellers The Psychopath Test, Lost at Sea, and The Men Who Stare At Goats. Although perhaps I am biased, as one who has seen, appeared on, and moderated a great many panels over the years, I found this year’s NECSS panels to be particularly engaging and informative.
We also like to talk science for its own sake at NECSS, and among other presenters, this year my friend Simon Singh, the British science writer, talked about the origins of the Big Bang, about which he wrote a marvelous book some years ago entitled, appropriately enough, “Big Bang.” Simon is a terrific science communicator and can make complex subjects clear, with wit and style, but without any sense of “dumbing down” the content. I also did an onstage interview with Simon about his landmark libel case in the UK in which the British Chiropractic Association eventually failed in their suit against him for calling chiropractic “bogus” among other accurate terms. This case has since led in turn to an attempt at serious libel reform in the United Kingdom, which we hope will soon succeed and put an end to so-called “libel tourism.”
I’ve often said (and I’m sure I’ll say it again) that the greatest benefit of my life in skepticism is the great people I get to meet and the great friends I get to make. At last year’s NECSS I met the physicist and science education promoter and activist, Dr. Deborah Berebichez. Although she was then relatively new to skepticism as a movement, in the year since she has been kind enough to get involved behind the scenes at NECSS and help us with programming, including moderating an interesting panel about storytelling, and what makes the skeptic “story” more or less appealing to people than the storylines of our cultural competitors. This panel was an eclectic group – including Mariette DiChristina, Editor in Chief of Scientific American; narrative and neuroscience researcher Cat Bohannon; business startup guru Nathalie Molina Niño; and Michael Shermer – and each brought a different and very specific expertise and take on the subject, and I found it extremely interesting.
Debbie Berebichez gave her own talk as well about the skeptic perspective, from a personal vantage of her own experience. This is the kind of talk that often resonates with skeptics and that many skeptics seek, because it helps to provide a context and comfort for the shared experience that skeptics are often faced with in, as Debbie put it, being “a lonely skeptic in a believer’s world.” Her talk included funny anecdotes, like being “fired” by an expensive life coach who did not share Debbie’s rational worldview, and powerfully revealing moments as when she talked about the difficulty of dealing with her father’s recent and unexpected death, and being repeatedly faced with the “helpful” assistance of so many who insisted that she seek comfort in a belief in her father’s existence in the afterlife.
One of the great new friends I made was Sharon Hill, a geologist and skeptical activist who writes the “Doubtful” blog and edits Doubfulnews.com, a wonderful source of news about paranormal, pseudoscience and anomalies that I consult regularly. Sharon gave a fine talk about “Sounds Sciency,” about which she writes a column for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) website), and which introduced me to her fabulous new word, “scientifical!” This is a talk that I hope all skeptics get to hear, as Sharon provided significant insights, both scientific and compassionate – and humorous – intended to help us understand why people believe in the paranormal and other pseudosciences, why it’s difficult to change their minds about such beliefs, and why it’s important to understand that believers are not simply stupid or crazy, as some skeptics are too oft inclined to assume.
There were two more talks that, while not presented by skeptical activists, were also particularly useful for skeptic audiences. Leonard Milodinow, physicist-cum-TV writer and best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, gave a talk about the subject of his latest book, Subliminal: How Our Unconscious Mind Rules Our Behavior. Both informative and entertaining, I am looking forward to reading this and would enthusiastically recommend that skeptics seek it out, to learn about what a lousy job human brains often do of observing, creating, and reporting on events and experiences around us, and as well, how in fact our minds routinely fool us – and we often simply can’t help but be fooled in these myriad of ways. As a professional magician I can tell you that anyone can be fooled, and not just by others but by ourselves as well. Leonard’s talk (and book) is a spot-on lesson for skeptics, and one that is perhaps biblical in scope, to wit: Judge not, lest ye be judged.
Mathematician John Allen Paulos, the best-selling author of many titles including Innumeracy – Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, spoke about “stories versus statistics,” with many examples of how telling a good story is often at odds with communicating the mathematical facts, and with advice on how to get both elements right. If you haven’t read Innumeracy or its sequel, whether you think you like math or perhaps even more importantly if you think you don’t, I highly recommend these books.
While this is by no means a complete report or listing of all of the NECSS 2013 presenters and participants, I would be remiss if I overlooked some unusual performances, including the return of mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn who, accompanied by Matthew Schickile, sang “songs of science and skepticism,” featuring among several other pieces, a number of quotations, by past and present science and skeptic writers, put to classical song – simultaneously witty, original, and beautiful.
And Friday night there was a well-attended separately ticketed event, “Stimulus/Response,” conceived by George Hrab and Brian Wecht and produced with the support of NECSS. The three-part evening consisted of performances and discussions and concluded with a very effective performance of improv comedy, based on and beginning with an onstage interview of Jay Novella of SGU fame. Even if you missed this, you might want to read a bit more about the evening’s concept here.
And that’s my “gazette,” as Cyrano might have said. Although my brief report can’t do justice to the experience, it does give me the chance to consider the questions of why we work so hard to produce events like NECSS and TAM (both of which I am significantly involved with, onstage and off), and why we attend these gatherings.
We created NECSS because we felt there was a need for a regional skeptic conference in the Northeast, and because the parties involved, organizers and activists from two organizations, were intrigued by and attracted to the prospect of creating the concept and content of such an event. No matter how much work you might think it takes to produce an event of this size and scope, the reality is – it takes more than that! And it requires the investment of money and risk and time and the labors of countless invaluable and often all but invisible hands of folks busy finding and networking with potential speakers, booking travel plans and hotel stays, the invaluable assistance of onsite volunteer workers, stage and production crew, and on and on. The work is not always fun but it is rewarding, and the positive and grateful feedback from our attendees, both new and repeated, comprises our chief payment and satisfactions.
Personally, although the work can be challenging in countless ways, I love attending skeptic gatherings, and particularly those that while keeping to the skeptical side when it comes to activism, stretch beyond those subjects to also include interesting and informative explorations of science. Skeptics are essentially science buffs, and since I’m not a scientist but I like hanging out with them, skeptic conferences are an opportunity to learn about science firsthand from some of its leading practitioners and professionals, and sometimes share a drink afterwards in the bar.
Conferences also provide support and inspiration, encouraging people to join the cause, supporting their continuation of it, and lifting spirits to help face the never-ending battle for rational discourse. These are useful purposes as well and conference producers should not overlook these ambitious but important needs.
And perhaps even above all that comes the social aspect – the Drinking Skeptically and Skeptics in the Pub, the dinners and luncheons and speakers gatherings and fundraising meals, and just the casual conversations in the hallways during the breaks. Whether it’s at Manhattan’s Connolly’s Pub on E. 47th Street into the wee hours, or hanging out in the Delmar Lounge into the even wee-er hours at TAM in Las Vegas, I rarely fail to reunite at such gatherings with welcome old friends, and meet and make new ones as well. As an ever growing and maturing movement, we skeptics have magazines and journals, podcasts, blogs – countless ways of informing ourselves and interacting around our common skeptical interests. But nothing – and I really do mean nothing – can compare with real live human interaction, the sharing of ideas and ideals among the smart quirky passionate eccentric committed bunch of folks who call ourselves skeptics, and have the delightful habit of getting together from time to time to talk about it and share the fun, folly and foibles of the skeptic racket. NECSS and TAM comprise some of my favorite days of the year, and I look forward to sharing many more of such days to come. I hope to see you at NECSS 2014 in New York City, and TAM 2013 this July in Las Vegas – and if you haven’t yet registered for TAM – what are you waiting for?
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.