The first talk of the day was Michael Shermer presenting his last book The Believing Brain, which seemed interesting enough, but I would say it’s fairly standard skeptic stuff. If you have been following skeptic media for a little while, you are probably already familiar with this. But if you are new, that would be an excellent start. He also gave us a few anecdotes on his appearance at the Colbert Report, which was great.
Then, we had a panel discussing Skepticism on TV featuring Phil Plait, Michael Shermer, Joe Nickell and James Randi. These guys were describing their experiences with the TV industry in the US, and how hard it is to convince executives and producers that skeptical topics can be good TV. James Randi has got several offers from broadcasting companies over the years to make a show out of his 1 million dollar challenge. He described how he always ended up refusing the offers because some marketing guy always insisted on actually giving the million dollars at the end of the season. However, there are still lots of good science programming. Nova science now was highlighted, as well as Mythbusters, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and the excellent science programming of the BBC such as the Wonders series with Brian Cox.
Next up was Eugenie Scott who delivered an excellent talk on climate change denial. She made a lot of parallels between the creationist movement and the climate change deniers on the tactics they employ to make their point. She had a couple of very clear examples of how they cherry-pick the data and take things out of context. To my disappointment, she didn’t address the Bjorn Lomborg case, but like she said, she isn’t an expert on the topic yet, but that seems to be becoming her next big thing.
Then, Lawrence Krauss told us about Richard Feynman. Being such a huge Feynman fan myself, I never get enough of hearing Feynman anecdotes over and over again, even if I know all the most famous one almost by heart. He was basically promoting his last book, Quantum Man.
The morning session ended with the Project Alpha restrospective. Basically, two very talented magicians (Michael Edwards and Banachek) infiltrated a paranormal research project pretending to be psychics. They managed to completely fool the researchers during over 100 hours of interaction with them, whether in supposedly controlled conditions of not. A fascinating tale.
Then, the afternoon session started with Jennifer Michael Hecht talking about the history of skepticism. She made the very interesting argument that since rules against doubts and non-belief have existed even before the time of Christianity, there must have been non-believers way before they explicitly said in writing that they were non-believers. Skepticism is far from being a novelty of the last couple centuries.
PZ Myers presented a series of biological arguments why we shouldn’t expect intelligent lifeforms to resemble us at all. The point he was making wasn’t new to me, but the arguments were. His arguments are most dramatically summarized when he points out which types of animals on Earth have shown signs of intelligence. There are some species of birds, some cetaceans, and some cephalopods who have shown capable of complex social interactions, tool using, curiosity, problem solving, etc. They just don’t look anything like human. Evolution is a diversity machine, and convergence is more the exception than the rule.
After that, Pamela Gay presented a very moving talk about the future of science and space exploration. She told her own story of how she became an astronomer because NASA just kept providing new interesting discoveries while she was growing up. She shared her worries that today’s kid wouldn’t have this kind of environment. With the possible cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope and the 9% funding cuts to NASA, her talk couldn’t have been more relevant.
But her talk was only the start of the epicness that would follow. The next event was a panel discussion between Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay and Lawrence Krauss, moderated by Phil Plait on the future of space exploration. It must have been painful for Phil to be the moderator, cause I could feel him boiling to get into the discussions on many occasions, especially when they started discussing the upcoming role of private business. One interesting argument that was made by Neil is that we cannot count of private corporations to actually advance the space technologies, since this would require them to engage in huge and very, very risky investment. Historically, only governments have been willing to fund these type of pioneering endeavours. On the other hand, once the terrain has been explored, the private companies are usually good at taking it from there and making it better and more efficient, which is what Space X is currently doing.
Finally, Neil made his keynote address, which by acclamation, lasted an additional half an hour than originally intended. It was absolutely brilliant. He talked about how science is misconstrued all around us by authoritative entities such as big companies making advertisements, politicians making statements, etc. He also got into religion and science, and he made an astonishing parallel between the 10th century Middle Eastern countries and the United States today. There was a time in the middle ages when the majority of scientific advancements were made in the Islamic world, but then an Imam (which I unfortunately can’t remember the name, but he was pretty much the muslim equivalent of St. Augustine) showed up, saying that playing with numbers is something of the devil, and it all died away. The effect lasts to this day, the islamic countries never recovered from the influence of religious dogma. He didn’t say it explicitly, but he seemed to hint that the way Christianity is influencing science through politics in the United States is taking them the same way. He showed a few maps showing the number of publications per country, and in the past nine years, the science output of the US and Canada have been significantly declining, while China’s, Japan’s and Europe’s have been steadily increasing. He pointed out that Brazil is now getting its own space program… That was a lot of consciousness raising.
Tonight is Penn Jillette’s private Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon party, which sounds completely awesome, but I will not be attending. I however made friends with a few people who will, so I may be able to tell you what this was all about tomorrow! Good night!