Pseudoscience Friday – The DA swallows Food Babe’s babble

downloadIt’s taken less than a week for dedicated time-wasting to begin, for some members of the Democratic Alliance in the Eastern Cape. Soon, they’ll bring this time-wasting to Parliament, if we are to trust this DA statement telling us that MP Annette Steyn will take questions on the issue of Sasko (and others) adding ADA to their bread to the relevant Minister.

Briefly, for context: ADA (Azodicarbonamide) is a chemical used in bread production (as well as in the production of yoga mats, among other things), and ADA is legal for use in quantities smaller than 45 parts per million. It helps with both bleaching of bread, and giving it a lighter and fluffier texture.

And, says the Eastern Cape DA,

according to the World Health Organisation ADA is known to cause respiratory problems such as asthma, allergies and skin problems. Scientists are of the opinion that ADA has the potential of causing cancer.

Furthermore, the

people most affected by this potential health risk are the poor people of the Eastern Cape who do not have access to information about ADA. They are the very people who need the most protection from questionable foodstuffs that could compromise their already precarious health status.

The fact that something is a legal additive doesn’t mean it’s safe, of course. However, the fact that a chemical can be dangerous under certain circumstances does not mean that it’s unsafe under other conditions – for example, in the production of bread. As this superb Guardian article reminds us, it’s the dose that makes the poison.

And, the fact that Australia, the UK and some countries in Europe have banned ADA in bread does also not demonstrate that it’s harmful either – it might just be that they have succumbed to the fearmongering propagated by the likes of Vani Hari (the self-styled Food Babe), who is so dedicated to over-reacting to the mention of any chemical in food that I’d not be surprised to see her falling for the Dihydrogen Monoxide panic next.

Vani Hari started a petition that was instrumental in getting Subway to remove ADA from their bread, where she cited the same World Health Organisation (WHO) information quoted above. However, she either didn’t read what the WHO said, or she’s happy to lie in service of fearmongering. The DA also don’t seem to have read the WHO report, which says (my emphasis):

Case reports and epidemiological studies in humans have produced abundant evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers.

In other words, factory workers – working with large quantities of ADA – could be at risk. This has zero relevance to 45 parts per million (or less) in bread. Steve Novella addresses this misrepresentation of scientific evidence, alongside other examples, in a superb blog post on Vani Hari’s Subway petition. (Here’s another by him, on Hari’s concerns regarding DoubleTree Hotels adding “antifreeze” to their cookies.)

Then, as David Gorski points out, there might not be any ADA left in finished bread in any case:

Moreover, azodicarbonamide arguably not even in the final product. According to this article, once flour is wetted with water, reaction with azodicarbonamide with the constituents of flour is rapid. In the experiments described, it only took 30 minutes for all the azodicarbonamide to disappear, with trace amounts left. By 45 minutes, there weren’t even trace amounts left.

In other words, what we have here might be worse than simple “chemicals are bad” panic – we’ve might have a homeopathic version of that panic!

Also on the topic of the naturalistic fallacy and pseudoscience, you might want to take a look at this open letter to Woolworths, which manages to combine a moral panic around GMOs with the more sensible point that food should be adequately labelled.

As a friend pointed out on Twitter, it didn’t take long for the food version of Godwin’s Law – namely the invocation of demon Monsanto – to crop up in the comments. But emotion doesn’t resolve scientific queries, and if you want to read a more sober account of what we know and don’t know about GMOs, I’d recommend Grist’s “20 questions” roundup to you.

(Pun fully intended.)

Ken Ham is concerned about Aronofsky’s “psychopathic Noah”

imagesA few nights ago, Ken Ham and a few of his fundie friends went to go and watch Aronofsky’s new film, an adaptation of the Biblical story of Noah. Ham’s blog makes his attitude toward the film clear – it’s “disgusting”, “evil”, and left him feeling “unclean”. It was allegedly also “boring”, which it pretty much the only complaint of Ham’s that might hold some water.

It’s in the review that TIME magazine somehow thought worth printing that Ham turns his irony-meter completely off (assuming irony is something that fits with his rather alien worldview, that is). He says:

Except for some of the names in the movie, like Noah, his sons’ names, and Methuselah, hardly any remnant of the Bible’s account of the Flood in Genesis 6-9 is recognizable. Yes, there is an Ark in the film that is true to the massive biblical proportions, but it did not look like a seaworthy vessel. There were many animals that came to Noah and went on board the Ark, but there were far too many creatures crammed inside and certainly many more than were needed.

So, you’re upset about a lack of realism in a Hollywood movie? That’s par for the course – especially with a big-budget blockbuster. Furthermore, complaining about the number of animals in an ark that supposedly held thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of animals seems pretty rich. Even on Ham’s version from Answers in Genesis, the ark held around 16 000 animals, and Ham’s version is a rather conservative reading.

But regardless of the exact number, the point is that the story is a fable, and you’re a little deluded if you think it literally true, regardless of whether it’s 16 000 or 60 000 animals. And on a more trivial matter, if the film version of the Noah pictures “far too many animals crammed inside”, then Ham seems to be a really quick – and eerily accurate – counter of animals, because I’d imagine that even 16 000 would look like “far too many” when pictured on screen.

Most amusing of all is Ham’s closing observation:

“Noah” is an insult to Bible-believing Christians, an insult to the character of Noah, and most of all, an insult to the God of the Bible. As a result, I believe Hollywood will have a much harder time in marketing future biblically themed movies to Christians.

“Hollywood” must be quaking in their boots, wondering how to cope with the loss of custom from fundamentalist creationist folk. As for me, I’ll skip Noah, and wait for Noah II, “the story of how two koalas get from Mount Ararat to Australia” (as a Twitter friend put it).

Scientism vs. Philosophism?

Earlier this week, Twitter user @fardarter alerted me to a paper recently published by Massimo Pigliucci, in the journal Midwest Studies in Philosophy. The paper isn’t very technical (and, not behind a paywall), so non-philosphers shouldn’t be afraid of taking a look, assuming that you’re interested in its core topic, namely what Pigliucci describes as the “scientistic turn” in the atheist movement.

Pigliucci’s paper has strong words for Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Stenger and PZ Myers, setting them up as exemplars of a

totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

As you might expect, the paper has attracted responses from some of its targets. Jerry Coyne’s response is rather ill-tempered, even as he criticises Pigliucci for his “arrogance” and “attack-doggishness”. PZ Myers is characteristically snarky in his dismissal of Pigliucci’s paper, pointing out that Pigliucci needs to cherry-pick examples for his case to have any merit at all.

Before I add my own (slightly tangential) contribution, I’d also want to remind you of 50 Great Myths About Atheism, in which Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk address the topic “Atheism implies Scientism” as myth #43. My brief review of “50 Great Myths” is available on that Amazon page, but in brief, this chapter – and the rest of the book – are well-worth reading for a nuanced take on this and other important issues.

And, nuance is precisely the problem with the two responses to Pigliucci highlighted above, as well as with parts of Pigliucci’s paper itself. There’s a world of difference between the “proper”, and unapologetic, scientism of Alex Rosenberg and the strong naturalism of a Coyne or a Myers, just as there’s a world of difference between the out-there philosophising of Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation argument” and the (typically) pragmatic work of a Daniel Dennett, for example.

The fruitful discussions – in my experience at least – have been in the spaces between these caricatures, and I think that a commenter on Myers’ post, Dominik Miketa, gets it right when he says

I think that atheism itself is not a scientific position, but a philosophical position heavily informed by science, the difference arising due to the fact that, as Massimo has noted, it is pretty much impossible to pin down a set of specific ‘God hypotheses’ that we could mechanically verify or falsify. To be more concrete, you say “Why shouldn’t we reject ideas that might be pretty to some people, but contradict reality?” To which I reply: because you can’t actually show that those ideas contradict reality. What you can do is show that given the theories which form our best-supported science and a satisfactory philosophy of science, those ideas ought to be rejected. To say that science itself has done the work is to skip a step, which may seem nitpicky here, but can be crucial when the science is at least a bit hazy and can be perceived by some as ambiguous – in the case of evo psych, say.

Scientific reasoning and philosophy are partners in a truth-seeking endeavour, and it’s precisely because of this intersection (in atheism) that we need to be aware of nuance, because when you have firmly-held beliefs – and when you’re challenging firmly held-beliefs in others – it can be easy to become complacent or dogmatic about our strategies, and even our epistemic habits.

Spending a lot of time with younger atheists, I notice plenty of the smugness (unwittingly, no doubt) captured in the picture below. Here Neil deGrasse Tyson is used to make the point that science is awesome (which it certainly is) – in fact, so awesome that nothing else can make an impact.

DGT

In my experience (and a similar point is made at the conclusion of the comment that I quote above), this sort of attitude is contiguous with the attitude that says “religion is universally bad”, and gets in the way of many attempts at cross-cultural understanding, or interfaith work.

And to my mind, this attitude is currently being reinforced by the fact that many of the prominent new atheists are scientific in outlook, even when they are trying to do philosophy (cf. Sam Harris). Now, this isn’t the fault of these new atheists – as Myers points out in his response, for example, it’s not at all plausible to describe him as being hostile to philosophy.

For readers, philosophy is (or, can be) difficult, so it’s no surprise that we might remember, and have more conversations about, scientifically-framed debunkings of the latest quackery from Deepak Chopra or whomever. That pleasure of finding “the evidence” that destroys some opponent’s case is seductive, to be sure, just as it’s satisfying (mostly for reasons of ego, I’d wager) for Pigliucci, Myers and Coyne to trade insults across their respective bows.

But perhaps, while they are doing so, readers might want to remind themselves, and sometimes be reminded, that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Blog squabbles are just another example of framing things as a contest, a verbal smack-down, where each party defends turf that they’ve either claimed or been pigeonholed into.

In this case, as is so often true, there’s something to be learned from everybody. As Russell Blackford said in a Twitter conversation we were having on this, a few hours ago, “we need patience and doxastic openness all round!”

Amen to that.

Homeopathic anecdotes aren’t data either

When I tweeted the negative sentiment below, about the author of a book on how to ‘treat’ your toddler with homeopathy, little did I know that the irate replies would still be coming in 6 hours later.

homeopathyYes, my tweet was hyperbolic, and the answer to my question – in a direct sense at least – is most probably zero. But what the question hopes to provoke is reflection on the indirect consequences of recommending that parents treat one-year-old babies with homeopathic ‘remedies’ instead of medicine. Even if, as one person admonished me, the book claims to “aid basic ailments like constipation and insomnia. Hardly life-threatening.”

First, because the reply presumes that parents can diagnose a basic ailment in the first place. If a parent is told that her child’s constipation can be treated with homeopathy, she might persist with that course of treatment for long enough that the problem becomes more than “basic”, requiring proper medical attention. And the time wasted in seeking that, or in not giving the child proper medicine, could indeed be life-threatening. Ask Gloria Sam, the 9-month-old who died when her (perfectly treatable, and not life-threatening) eczema was ‘treated’ with homeopathy instead of a visit to a GP.

Second, because the book claims more than that, and my critic was cherry-picking examples. Other things that homeopathy can treat, only according to the Amazon blurb, are “breathing difficulties” and “vomiting”, both of which seem to be things that you’d hope concern parents more than simply inspiring the application of some sugar pills or water (in other words, a homeopathic “medicine”).

Because that is of course the third, and most important reason. Trial after trial has shown that there’s nothing to it beyond the placebo effect, something that a group of friends and I satirically demonstrated by joining the 10:23 protests a couple of years ago, where we each downed a bottle of a homeopathic ‘remedy’ (I think mine was arsenic). Here’s James Randi doing the same, taking a bottle of ‘sleeping pills’ as he often does to make this point (the clip also includes him making other arguments worth hearing).

And no, there’s no good evidence to suggest it has to be more than placebo, “because it works on animals” – we’ve got no reason to believe it works on animals any better than it does on humans (in fact, the perceived effect on animals seems to simply be an effect on humans, in terms of how they perceive the treatment and health of their pets).

But evidence isn’t what defenders of homeopathy are interested in. For them, anecdotal evidence is ‘argument’ enough, even though they would never stop to think about how they would reject similarly weak claims if they came in a version they don’t like. Kitten blood! It works for me! Crystals! Prayers to the Pink Unicorn! (Or, prayers to a ‘real’ god, just not one of the ones you happen to believe in.)

Racists defend their views with anecdotal evidence, as do sexists – reality is ignored in favour of confirmation bias. And we don’t think that doing so is a good, or a reasonable thing to do. Because the evidence is meant to matter, and the evidence isn’t “up to me”, and the experiences I might have had or not had. Part of the point of science is to provide us with resources that offer objective guidance, because we go into decisions knowing that – by and large – we’re too prone to various cognitive errors to be trusted.

The point is that a double-standard applies in people who are willing to defend their consumption and prescription of homeopathic ‘remedies’, in that they are willing to accept a very low standard of evidence on the grounds that the risks are low – “any responsible homeopath”, I’m told, “will advise their patients to take antibiotics where necessary, or to seek conventional treatment”.

But some homeopaths are less responsible than others. The coroners report was pretty clear in highlighting how Penelope Dingle would have suffered far less harm if not for her homeopath’s advice, and more generally, as Ben Goldacre makes clear in the Lancet, homeopaths simply get in the way of effective treatment:

Homoeopaths can undermine public-health campaigns; leave their patients exposed to fatal diseases; and, in the extreme, miss or disregard fatal diagnoses. There have also been cases of patients who died after medically trained homoeopaths advised them to stop medical treatments for serious medical conditions.

More prosaically, you’re simply wasting money if you spend it on homeopathy. This is one of the most annoying #middleclassproblems for me – alongside things like anti-vaccination sentiments, or obsessions with angels, or The Secret – in that it’s only the middle and upper classes who have the luxury of glamorising their anecdotal evidence in such a fashion. If homeopathy worked so well – given that it’s possible to produce it so cheaply – why would Bill Gates (etc.) not simply distribute it to those dying of malaria instead?

Of course “Western” or allopathic, or “chemical” (pick your favourite pejorative term) can’t cure everything. Nothing can. But homeopathy doesn’t outperform a straight placebo, meaning that any good effect you observe after taking a homeopathic remedy can’t have anything to do with that remedy. And much of ‘regular’ (by which I mean, real) medicine does. Furthermore, the stuff that doesn’t work – and the doctors that are quacks – tend to get driven out of the market over time.

Except for homeopaths, partly because of this almost religious devotion to “alternative” medicine (and the associated conspiracies around mainstream medicine), and partly because what homeopaths say, and prescribe, involves completely unfalsifiable claims. And that’s a bad thing – not only in general, but particularly when lives are at stake.

Check out What’s the Harm for a partial catalogue of homeopathy’s victims.

Politics, science, and the art of the possible

Green policy_0Otto von Bismarck observed that politics is “the art of the possible”, but the statement holds true in many more domains than that. It’s only trivially true to say that anything is constrained by what is possible and what is not – yet that sort of retort is usually as far as the conversation might go (on social media in particular).

It’s more likely that Germany’s first Chancellor was trying to say that there’s frequently a mismatch between our ideals and what can reasonably be achieved. Not, in other words, that things are literally impossible – more that we need to bear the trade-offs in mind when making judgements as to whether people are doing a good job or not.

Cognitive biases like the Dunning-Kruger effect describe how we overemphasise our own expertise or competence, leading us to ascribe malice in situations where the explanation for someone’s screw-up is most probably simple incompetence, or simply that the job in question was actually pretty difficult, meaning that expecting perfection was always unreasonable. (As some of you would know, this paragraph describes a more gentle version of Hanlon’s Razor – “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.)

So, instead of paying attention to the arguments and their merits when it comes to something like blood deferrals for gay men, we claim prejudice. Or, when someone dies after taking the advice of a homeopath too seriously, some of us might be too quick to call the victim stupid or overly gullible, instead of focusing on those who knowingly (because some quacks are of course victims themselves) exploit others for financial or other gain.

The point is that some problems are difficult to solve, and certainly more difficult than they appear to be from a distance, or from the perspective of 20/20 hindsight. So, when you accuse your local or national government of racism, or being anti-poor, or some other sort of malice, it’s always worth pausing to think about the problem from their point of view, as best as you are able to. They might be doing the best they can, under the circumstances.

In case you aren’t aware of two recent resources for helping us to think these things through more carefully, I’d like to draw a recent comment in the science journal Nature to your attention, as well as a response to it that was carried in the science section of The Guardian.

In late November this year, Nature offered policy-makers 20 tips for interpreting scientific claims, and even those of you who aren’t policy-makers should spend some time reading and thinking about these (though, don’t sell yourselves short in respect of not labeling yourself a policy-maker, because on one level of policy, you’d want to include for example parenting. And what you choose to feed your children, or the medicines you give them, would usually be informed – or so one would hope – on scientific claims of whatever veracity.)

The Nature piece talks about sample size, statistical significance, cherry-picking of evidence, and 17 other import issues, many of which you’d hope some scientists would themselves take on board – not only those scientists who might play fast-and-loose with some of the issues raised, but also simply in terms of how they communicate their findings to the public. If you’re asked to provide content for a newspaper, magazine or other media, the article highlights some common areas of confusion, and therefore helps you to know where you perhaps be more clear.

Second, and in response to the first piece, The Guardian (who had also re-published the Nature list) gave us the top 20 things that scientists need to know about policy-making. And this piece I’d commend to all of you, but especially the armchair legislators that routinely solve the country’s political problems on Twitter, or make bold claims about how little or how much governments might care for the poor, and so forth.

In short, making policy is difficult, and doing good science can be difficult too, because among the things we can be short of is time, money, attention, the public’s patience, and so forth. In the majority of cases, both policy-makers and scientists might be doing the best they can, under those situations of constraint. So before we tell them that they are wrong, we should try to ensure we at least know what they are trying to do, and whether they are going about it in the most reasonable way possible, given the circumstances.

They don’t get the luxury of ignoring what is possible and what is not when doing the science, or making the policy. When criticising them, we shouldn’t grant ourselves that luxury either.

Thinking Things Through: A national conference on secular humanism and science

On Sunday, December 1 2013, the SciBono Discovery Centre in Newtown will host the 3rd national conference of the Free Society Institute (FSI). The conference theme is “Thinking Things Through”, and it will focus on resources and ideas that help us to make more informed decisions about what to believe, and why.

Why “Thinking Things Through”?

We all make choices every day – decisions that impact the way we live, the health of our families, and the things we spend our money on.  The FSI believes that taking time to carefully think things through leads to better choices, and that better choices lead to better lives, and help to foster freer societies. This conference is dedicated to the idea of thinking things through – and we hope it’s just the start!

What is the Free Society Institute? What are their goals?

The FSI believes in the value of thinking things through, and that every person can improve the choices they make and the lives they live with better thinking.

We work to keep people accountable; to challenge those who take advantage of others; to make debates more informed, and to be a rational voice on issues such as free speech, free thought and other values – in short, on the things that matter in our society. We believe that thinking things through can improve the quality of life for everyone – and that we all deserve the best life possible.

Who should attend?

Anyone with an interest in science, secular humanism, skepticism and the role of religion in society will benefit from attending Thinking Things Through. The conference will address these and other themes, with an emphasis on showing how careful consideration of issues can lead us to more robust – even if sometimes surprising – conclusions!

Who will be speaking?

Chester Missing, Cecilia Haak, David Spurrett, Eusebius McKaiser, Sarah Wild, Gareth Cliff, Jacques Rousseau and Barry Bateman

For more, visit: http://thinkingthingsthrough.co.za

 

Contact: Jacques Rousseau / Jacques.Rousseau@fsi.org.za

We “orgone” to die. No matter what the quacks say.

mq1The message at The Amaz!ng Meeting (or, TAM) earlier this year was “Fight the Fakers”, with the point being that it’s no much use ridiculing the victims of quackery or woo-woo for being taken in by charlatans. Sometimes, we’re desperate for a cure, or for hope, and this leads us to believe things we might not otherwise.

Also, some quacks and fakers genuinely believe that they have magical powers, or that they have cottoned on to some sort of secret. For example, even though I haven’t been shy of expressing my view that Professor Tim Noakes sounds increasingly like a pseudoscientist, I have no doubt that he’s sincere in believing what he tells his disciples, whether or not he ends up being right or wrong.

Of course there are difficult boundary cases, where we really should know better, and can’t escape taking on a healthy portion of the blame either for misleading others, or allowing ourselves to be misled. The distinction I’m making, though, highlights that there is more that is blameworthy about your conduct if you know you’re deceiving people, or if you’re knowingly on the side of deceivers.

An example of the latter – being on the side of the deceivers, and against common-sense, or science – has recently come to my attention via 6000, and involves a TEDx organising committee ignoring the lessons learnt in the Sheldrake affair. In case you’re not familiar with Sheldrake, he’s a fairly controversial scientist who wants you to to believe in “email telepathy” (never mind the humdrum sort of telepathy in dogs and other non-human animals) in addition to various other odd things.

Sheldrake (and Graham Hancock, he who believes the Ark of the Covenant is real, and that aliens built the pyramids) spoke at TEDx events, but  both of their talks were removed from the TEDx archives following widespread protest regarding TEDx being used as a vehicle to promote pseudoscience. These episodes led to a joint TED (the mother-ship) and TEDx policy reminder that pseudoscience was not welcome at these events.

So why, then, is Ivan Jakobović, inventor of the water-powered car and the “orgonic launcher” (which – as you no doubt know already – fires the universal life force “orgon” into the air, to strip pollution from the atmosphere), speaking at TEDxMaksimir today? And furthermore, why is it that Željko Svedic has been banned from today’s TEDx event for pointing out that Jakobović is a crank, and that TEDx events are not supposed to host cranks?

You can read all about it on Svedic’s blog, including what he recalls of the abusive phone call he received from the TEDxMaksimir folk, before they deleted his comments from their Facebook page, refunded his registration fee, and posted the following announcement:

Mr Zeljko just got a phone call he will be refunded entrance fee.. ..We need to protect speaker reputation.. ..Ivan Jakobović will speak about his rich experience as an inventor.. ..one of the inventions Mr Zeljko is criticizing (ozonic exhaust) was already presented by Ivan on our first TEDx event in 2010.. ..that invention was sold and is successfully produced in Canada.. ..Thank you Mr Ivan Jakobović for sharing your rich experience with us and for honoring us again.. Karlo Matić, TEDxMaksimir license holder

There are numerous fantastic talks on both TED and TEDx. But by contrast to when TED began, and you could normally expect a fairly high level of quality (and, sanity) in the presentations, it now seems to be more and more of a lottery. The TED – and especially the TEDx – brand no longer offers any guarantee of the content being worth watching, and judging from this episode, some licence-holders of TEDx events don’t seem at all concerned about upholding the standards they’re supposed to.

It’s about time that TED either enforce those standards more rigorously, or instead shuck off the TEDx brand entirely. The latter seems to make more sense, seeing as there seems to be a TEDx on every street corner these days, never mind in every big city – making it an impossible undertaking to ensure quality is maintained. But until something changes, I’ll keep ignoring TEDx entirely, except for when it’s someone I know on the programme.

#TAM2013 wrap-up

Those of you who also attended The Amaz!ing Meeting last weekend were probably as overwhelmed by content as I felt, and continue to feel. Halfway through the first of three full days (8am – 6pm) of plenary sessions, I blogged some impressions – but that proved to be the last time I found the time to write anything about what was going on. Not only was the schedule very busy, but it was filled with content of sufficient quality that I could hardly bring myself to miss anything, despite the fact that evening entertainment, then drinks at the Del Mar and elsewhere, meant an average of 4 or so hours of sleep per night. TAM is worth not sleeping for, or at least 2013’s edition (my first) was.

photo
Some of the SiN writers (with me on Randi’s right).

To supplement what I’ve already said about the first morning, here’s some comment on (aspects of) the rest of the programme:

Cara Santa Maria: Perhaps the lowlight of the entire weekend for me. Beginning a talk by telling your audience that they might want to temper their expectations, in light of the speaker having played poker until the early hours, didn’t seem like the most effective route to audience engagement for me. When the talk that follows was mostly personal anecdote, my skepticism turned into downright annoyance.

The philosophers: One of the things that made TAM far more intellectually rewarding than most of the conferences (in related areas) I’ve been to in recent years was the strong representation of philosophers on the programme. Speaking as someone who studied, and has now taught philosophy for the past 15 or so years, having these creatures on the stage is by no means a guarantee of comprehensibility or enjoyment, as each can delight in being more obscure and technical than the other. Plus, philosophy is often home to needless obscurantism, or sometimes, simple bullshit. But Massimo Pigliucci, Peter Boghossian, Susan Haack and my SkepticInk colleague Russell Blackford all gave engaging and insightful talks. Watch them all when the videos appear on YouTube – I’ll certainly be re-watching them. Susan Haack was particularly good, I thought, speaking on credulity and its consequences.

Bacon & donuts: Penn’s party on Friday night was good fun. Ribald and loud, he ensured that all pretensions were checked at the door, and entertained us mightily in the process. Beginning with a rant regarding Dr. David Gorski’s (also on the programme) open letter to Penn regarding Penn & Teller’s appearing on Dr. Oz’s show, Penn basically told Gorski that if he was here, he wasn’t welcome and should simply f*** off. That effectively set the tone, whether or not you agree with Penn’s response to the letter – this was not a place for sacred cows. (Gorski was there for the first few minutes, but left shortly after this rant began.)

James Randi: What an inspiration to those of us who spend time “fighting the fakers” (the theme of this year’s TAM). The man is unfailingly generous with his time and his affection, and continues to set an example for the rest of us of how one can fight the fakers while retaining sympathy for their victims, who frequently merit our understanding rather than our condescension. His career has been guided by exposing the fakers in order to help the next (hypothetical) set of victims from becoming victims – and ridiculing those who fall for the tricks and promises of charlatans does nothing towards that worthwhile goal.

D.J. Grothe and the JREF in general: The event would not have been the success it was without meticulous planning and careful, attentive execution. Besides the occasional tech glitch with microphones or slides, everything went off smoothly. For an event this size – 4 days of content, with over 1000 people in attendance, this is no mean feat. So, thanks and congratulations to all of you who were involved in making TAM such a success.

SkepticInk: It was great to meet, or in Russell’s case, re-acquaint myself with, my co-writers on the SkepticInk network. Russell Blackford, Caleb Lack, Ed Clint, Damion Reinhardt and John Loftus were all great fun to hang out with, and we made the most of TAM, attracting plenty of interest at the SiN table (selflessly manned for many an hour by Ed Clint in particular). We were able to have numerous fruitful discussions, which will hopefully result in the network growing from strength to strength.

To conclude, an index of how rewarding I found TAM2013 to be is simply this: even though getting there involves at least 24 hours of transit and a frightening impact on my bank balance (not because TAM is unduly costly, but because 1USD costs 10ZAR), I fully intend to go to every TAM after this. It was just too much fun – and too instructive – to miss out on again.

Here are a couple of other round-ups, from Bob BlaskiewiczEmily Dietle and my SiN colleague Caleb Lack.

#TAM2013 in Las Vegas, Day one

Well, not even day one yet – just the first morning, but there’s already been plenty of things to report on – if only there was time to do so! I’m glad to be here, and to have had the opportunity to meet fellow SiNers Ed Clint, Caleb Lack, John Loftus, and to see Russell Blackford again.

SiNers

The SiN panel yesterday morning went pretty well. The five of us (John hadn’t arrived yet when that photo was taken) offered some tips on skeptical blogging, then took questions from an engaging audience that included Sharon Hill and EllenBeth Wachs.

Speaking of Sharon, her talk this morning is one of the highlights for me so far. She spoke of her website, Doubtfulnews, but what I appreciated most was the attitude she described with regard to skeptical blogging, which resonates strongly with mine.

Some of the issues she discussed were importance of fairness and balance in skeptical blogging (while avoiding false balance) – but crucially to not allow your objectivity to lead you to being so vacuous as to not add value at all. The audience needs to know what’s in it for them, as it were – it can’t all be about you.

And also, Sharon reminded us that it’s vital to try to get inside the heads of the people you’re trying to persuade. This is something I also addressed on the panel yesterday – the dangers of the filter-bubble and confirmation bias in allowing us to caricature or belittle our opponents. People are unlikely to believe downright odd or unlikely things for no reason at all, or because they are somehow irreparably defective, inferior, or what have you. People come to strange views because of a particular worldview – and unless we make an effort to understand that worldview, we’re unlikely to change anyone’s mind.

Other presentations this morning have included Michael Shermer on science and morality. I found this very unpersuasive, but I’d like to watch it again (or better yet, read the book when it comes out). While I agree with him that the arc of social progress has tended to conduce towards certain norms and away from others – and also that it’s right to regard our moral norms as “provisional” (contingent on evidence, just like other forms of knowledge) – the bit I didn’t like at all was the claim that we can get a strong indicator, most of the time, of what’s right and wrong just by asking the people affected.

The first problem here is that (especially interpersonally) their reasons for saying “X is right/wrong” might be entirely idiosyncratic, inconsistent and unprincipled. Even if moral norms end up being arbitrary, they become significant through being fairly consistent and reliable – their force is via consensus, which requires some form of reliability.

Which leads to the second problem: on a social level, if everyone believes the same weird thing (like, that men are superior to women), asking the question of what’s right and wrong is going to reliably result in getting the wrong answer. Democracy doesn’t determine truth. Shermer did stress that his rule-of-thumb was useful most of the time, for most cases, etc., but I’m suspicious that the truth is entirely opposite to that, and that the principle will only be useful in exceptional circumstances (where “the answer” will most likely be obvious for other reasons in any case).

Then, briefly, George Hrab is a great host, and his introductory monologue was fantastic. Karen Stollznow was entertaining in her talk on exorcisms, but I didn’t find much to chew on there. Marty Klein was very good, on moral panics, porn and sex. I look forward to talking to him later, as he’s a colleague of Dr. Eve, someone I worked with in South Africa to (successfully) prevent moral panics from blocking a local TV station from showing pornography.

Finally, it’s been great meeting or re-meeting DJ Grothe, Sharon Hill, (The Amazing) Randi, Michael Shermer, Miranda Hale, Steven Novella, Jerry Coyne and others. The programme for the rest of the weekend looks great, and I’m sure there will be plenty of value – so long as I get enough sleep to stay awake for it all. Vegas is a treacherous place, after all.