From Abracadabra to Zombies
TAM8: Something for Everybody
13 July 2010. The highlight of this year's Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas for me was hearing Simon Singh deliver his positive and uplifting message that despite the annoying disruption to his personal life caused by being sued by the British Chiropractors Association, the greater good has been served. Britain's draconian libel laws will be reformed largely because of his courageous refusal to apologize to the BCA for telling the truth about unproven and dangerous medical claims being made by many chiropractors.
Simon was in good spirits when he spoke, for early in the morning Las Vegas time he got the good news, which he joyfully shared with the 1,200+ audience:
Justice Minister Lord McNally announced during the second reading debate of Lord Lester of Herne Hill's Private Members Defamation Bill that the Government will publish a Bill to reform the libel laws early in the new year. It will focus on freedom of speech and protection of public interest debate. McNally stated the Government is firmly committed to legislation on a statutory public interest defense and the multiple publication rule. He said the Government has "a firm commitment to action."
Earlier in the year, Simon got the good news that the BCA had withdrawn its lawsuit, a suit that never would have gotten off the ground in the U.S., where libel laws, while not perfect, put the burden of proof on the accuser. Even more good news followed. Simon had been sued by the BCA for referring to unproven and dangerous chiropractic treatments as "bogus" in an article published by the Guardian. Through the work of a couple of tech-savvy skeptics, chiropractors who were advertising on their websites that they provide the bogus treatments were tracked down and official complaints were filed. Over 500 complaints of false advertising against chiropractors were filed within a 24-hour period. The Guardian later reported that about 25% of all chiropractors were "now under investigation for allegedly making misleading claims in advertisements, according to figures from the General Chiropractic Council."
For those who don't know much about chiropractic, see here. One shouldn't reject chiropractic simply because it originated with a grocer who believed healing energy is released by manipulating the back, a process referred to as subluxation. (According to classical chiropractic, a "subluxation" is a misalignment of the spine that allegedly interferes with nerve signals from the brain.) Chiropractic has come a long way since D. D. Palmer. For example, the General Chiropractic Council recently announced that it was rejecting the very idea on which their art is based: "It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease or health concerns." What Simon Singh and other critics of chiropractic are concerned about are claims that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for many disorders. If there were compelling empirical evidence for these claims there would be no complaint. Here is what Singh wrote that got him sued and set into motion all these wonderful consequences:
You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.
Simon Singh never asked to be a champion of free speech, a libel law reformer, or even a critic of bogus medical claims. His field of expertise is particle physics. He has a Ph.D. in the subject from Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. He's been a science writer for several years, but his first books were about mathematics and physics. He had no background and little interest in "alternative" medicine until he was awakened by a BBC program that made outlandish claims about acupuncture. He did a little investigation and found that one of the main stories in the program hadn't told the public the whole truth about an open-heart surgery it presented. Yes, no general anesthetic was used and the featured woman was conscious during the procedure. Yes, acupuncture was used. What the audience wasn't told was that the woman was also pumped full of powerful drugs and a local anesthetic. Viewing this false and misleading piece of journalism from a highly respected source aroused Singh's curiosity (among other things) and set him off on a quest to find out what other propaganda is being passed off as science in the field of so-called "alternative medicine." The rest is history. He hooked up with Edzard Ernst and together they produced Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts about Alternative Medicine.
update: 09 Dec 2010. Dr. Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame and also a victim of Britain's libel laws has made a documentary for the BBC World Service on libel and science. It’s really good, he says, so go and listen to it here. While you're at it buy his book.[/update]
I was fortunate enough to spot Rebecca Watson as I was entering the reception area on Thursday evening. We'd never met, but I knew her from e-mail exchanges and her exceptional work at Skepchick and the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. I stopped to say hello and introduce myself. Through her I met both Sid Rodrigues and their friend Simon Singh. The next day I had a chance to chat with Sid and learn more about the amazing Dr. Singh and his exemplary moral courage. He is an inspiration to us all. I'm talking about Sid, of course, and his promotion of Sceptics in the Pub. Really, can anything be more important than exercising freedom of speech in a good pub?
There were a couple of other inspirational stories told at TAM. Dr. Harriet Hall overcame many obstacles to become a physician and pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Dr. Pamela Gay went on to become an astronomer, writer, blogger, and podcaster despite being given a "C" by her high-school physics teacher because he didn't want her to get into a university program in the field. We didn't get a chance to hear such stories from keynote guest and non-speaker, Richard Dawkins. There was no keynote address or talk, just a "keynote event," which featured D. J. Grothe interviewing his guest.
We were also told that Hal Bidlack is severing ties with the JREF and won't be back to MC TAM 9. We'll miss his clean jokes and puns. If David Javerbaum doesn't return, we'll miss his brilliant and insightful humor. If I ran the big tent, Javerbaum and the three other people on the planet with his talent, would form a tag-team to take over for any speaker who starts to lecture the audience about manners, morals, or taboo subjects for skeptics.
Much of TAM is repetitious and recycling of ideas, of course. How could it be otherwise? Michael Shermer gave the same talk (basically) that he gave at TED and is posted on the Internet. (I call this shermericity.) Joe Nickell told us once again about some of his investigations of haunted houses and religious relics. Randi told stories many of us have heard several times. That's all right, though, since many of the attendees are new to the show. When a speaker is up who will repeat what you've already heard, that is your opportunity to roam the halls and chat up people, look at the book displays, go to the bar for the libation of your choice, insert a piece of plastic into a slot machine, or make that important phone call to the home planet.
One of the speakers who was new to me was Bruce Hood. He gave a great talk on science and superstition, the subject of his book: The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs, which, as far as I can tell, is the title of the paperback version of SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. Both are described on Amazon as explaining "why, in the face of dubious evidence, humans so readily put their faith in supernatural forces. Dubbed supersense, Hood’s theory traces religious inclinations to how the brain processes information: a hardwired tool kit for making sense of the world that begins in childhood." I think I'll buy Supersense because it has the cooler title. Hood is the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol. Some may find it amusing that after his talk on relics and magical thinking, an announcement went up that there was still time to put in an auction bid on some duct tape used by Adam Savage on one of the Mythbusters shows. Hood was a bit amused by the fact that after his talk, several people sought his autograph. Well, at least they weren't trying to steal a bit of his hair! He has a humorous blog post about his experience at TAM that is more informative than anything I might write.
Another speaker who was new to me was Sean Faircloth, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. He's a former majority whip in the Maine legislature who now devotes his time to working for a more just and humane America. The laws in many states allow parents to use religion as a justification for not having their children vaccinated and for not seeking medical care for their children. Faircloth characterizes faith healing as faith killing. Religions also cost us millions of dollars every year in tax breaks. Faith-based programs often go to promoting a religion's religious proselytizing rather than promoting the general welfare or providing some charitable activity that does not discriminate on the basis of religion. Finally, the law protects religions when they discriminate against employees on the basis of their religion or lack of it. The Secular Coalition for America represents all our interests in trying to create a more just distribution of benefits and burdens. The organization is also concerned with providing counter-arguments to those who try to demonize non-theists.
There has been some concern expressed in the skeptical community about whether atheism should be a part of skepticism. Secularism is not the same as atheism or anti-theism. It is not anti-religion to advocate equity in the law. Individual skeptics, who don't represent anyone but themselves, shouldn't be expected to limit their skepticism to non-controversial subjects. Leaders of major skeptical groups and organizations, on the other hand, are in a different position. I assume they want to attract members by representing themselves as advocates of science, critical thinking, rationality, and the like. Since anti-theism is not implied by any form of skepticism that I am aware of, inviting anti-theists to speak at skeptic conventions about the horrors of religion may not be a wise idea. Inviting a speaker to point out how the law allows parents to harm or kill their children in the name of faith is different, however, from inviting someone whose goal is to let everyone know how repugnant and stupid he finds all religions. Such speakers belong at atheist conventions. I'm not even sure that speeches about being an atheist are beneficial to organizations like the JREF. Unless a skeptical organization wants to promote itself as an atheist organization, there seems to be little to gain from inviting anti-theists to bash religion or atheists to extol the virtues of non-belief in deities.
There were some 1,300 people at TAM8. Many came to see the stars (Adam Savage, Penn & Teller [who were off touring], Randi, Dawkins), learn a few things, and be entertained. Some of them may have been surprised that a few of the lectures were aimed at telling them what topics they should avoid and how they should conduct their speech. Others may have found this self-flagellation healthy. We should criticize ourselves and be skeptical of science as well as of religion, etc. Some might have been shocked to hear that at least one skeptic thinks he's done something admirable by not humiliating a child in front of her classmates when she announced she is a young-Earth creationist. Since when it is honorable not to humiliate a child? Have we degenerated so far that expected behavior is praised as if it were exceptional? Apparently so. Phil Plait will now be remembered as the one who gave the "Don't be a Dick" talk at TAM8. I am so out of the loop that I don't know what inspired Phil's talk, but when I got home I found this piece by Chris Mooney that seems to be what he had in mind. I had no idea that an eminent skeptic was calling another person's blog a slum.
Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.
Some may have found it ironic that one speaker, who is not a physicist but who has written about string theory, admonished the audience not to criticize science unless you're a scientist whose area of expertise is the area you are criticizing. Some may also have found it a bit ironic to imply there are many skeptics who are dicks while reminding those dicks that calling people names never changed anyone's mind. (Phil gave no examples, but he could have used his own experience with Jenny McCarthy as "proof.") Other speakers echoed Phil's comments. Steve Cuno, in his talk "Confessions of a Skeptical Advertising Man," put up a picture of a baseball bat with the caption "this is not a light switch," which some took to mean "Don't be a Dick." I think this is good advice, but whether the TAM8 audience needed to hear it is another matter. While it may be true that you are not likely to change anyone's mind by calling them names and insulting them, you're probably not going to change anyone's mind by providing them with evidence and cogent reasoning, either. It's mostly a lose-lose situation in this business. That is why I was elated to hear the Simon Singh story. Most of our stories end with the Popoffs, Sylvia Brownes, and Gellers of the world continuing on their merry way. Few have happy endings. Another "success story" involves the arrest of the man who sold the ADE-651 dowsing-rod to the Iraqi military and others, causing the deaths of many people. Hal Bidlack was given an award by James Randi at TAM8 for his TV interviews debunking the deadly device.
But, as I said, most of our stories don't have happy endings or result in conversions to skepticism and critical thinking. I refer the reader to these two examples from my own engagements: here and here. The first example is from an anti-vaxxer and fan of Dr. Mercola. I never heard back from her. The second is of a lengthy exchange I had with an M.D. who practices homeopathy. In any case, I don't measure success by my conversion rate. My goal in engaging such people as the fan of Mercola and the devotee of homeopathy is not to change their minds, but to provide an example of cogent reasoning (I hope!) for others to see and evaluate. I have had enough feedback over the many years I've been doing this to know that other people read these arguments and sometimes doing so is a step in a transformation process. At TAM8, for example, a young man introduced himself to me and thanked me for helping him give up his devotion to conspiracy theories. He'd seen what I'd written, which, along with the writings of other skeptics, provided him with an alternative way of looking at things.
Tim Farley, Swoopy, and Derek Colanduno were all gracious with their time at TAM8. Tim runs the What's the Harm? website, does the Daily Skeptic History as Krelnik on Twitter, and joins the Skepticality crew each episode to provide a little skeptic history. I want to recommend the latest episode of Skepticality (#134) to anyone who is, like I was, unfamiliar with the life and work of George Price, one of the most amazing men of the 20th century. Swoopy interviews author Oren Harman, who was given access to Price's private letters and papers. The book is called The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness. I've downloaded the Kindle edition to my iPad and if the book is half as interesting as Harman's interview with Swoopy, I'm in for a real ride.
* AmeriCares *