A Neophyte Visits NECSS

With an extra Monday to play with this month, I’ve decided to do two separate “Revisit” posts.  The usual  look back will happen on the 29th.  This entry focuses on recounting a real life, three dimensional event, as I attended the 5th annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) in Manhattan on April 6th.  NECSS is co-promoted by the New England Skeptical Society, founded in 1996, and the New York City Skeptics, a group not much older than the conference itself.  The first NECSS took place in 2009 and boasted 400 attendees, a number that has only grown, if my shaky estimation skills can be trusted.  While the lectures span an entire weekend, 2013 was the second year in a row that I could only make the Saturday session, as other social engagements unfortunately overlapped.  I missed the Sunday in 2012 because… well, I had only found out about the damn thing shortly before it was to occur and I had no idea what I was getting into.  That and I’d have been in the doghouse had I completely blown my girlfriend off to dork out for two days straight.

When that day concluded last year, I was kind of shaken.  The legendary conjurer and debunker of flim-flam, James “The Amazing” Randi had given the final talk of the afternoon, concerning his unequivocal expose of despicable televangelist Peter Popoff, a tale recounted in Randi’s famous tome The Faith Healers.  Tears welled in his eyes as he told the stories of disabled children who, looking to be made well by his divine guidance, left Popoff’s revivals no healthier (but more destitute), as the money-hungry swindlers cackled over the radio connections they used to pump the crowd for seemingly impossible to attain information about their ailments.  I too became misty, but the sadness turned to revulsion when Randi revealed that despite his irrefutable recordings of Popoff and his crew hoaxing his revelatory, “God given ability,” the charlatan was experiencing an inexplicable resurgence in popularity.  Randi implored that we all band together to combat such debilitating deceit, and I was inspired to agree.  But what could I do?  I carried that question with me all year, and into the 2013 edition of NECSS.

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The event’s activities had expanded since 2012 to include a series of workshops the day before the conference proper.  The first was led by Julia Galef, still a member of the New York City Skeptics board of directors in addition to her position as President of the San Francisco based Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR), who offered a helpful presentation on her work with the Center and their goals.  She gave several suggestions on how to keep your reason about you during a discussion, such as dissociating yourself from your argument so as to not react defensively, and she further explained how CFAR teaches these skills through seminars.  When Julia finished, I wanted to ask what kind of people signed up for these sessions, but at least two others beat me to the punch, amidst many more thoughtful queries.  I guess we’re a boisterous bunch.  The answer was not unexpected; that the participants were usually leaning toward those tendencies already.  While it’s nice to get us all on the same page and sharpen our own skills, I think we all left considering how to bring in the people who could most benefit from those techniques.

NECSS officially began on Saturday morning with a presentation by physicist Leonard Mlodinow related to his most recent book, Subliminal:  How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.  Mlodinow’s prior popular works include a joint venture with Stephen Hawking, and another with Deepak Chopra of all people, whom Leonard playfully apologized to while looking skyward when experiencing technical difficulties with his talk.  My personal highlight here was the playing of the infamous Led Zeppelin SATANIC BACKWARD SPEAK~!  I had never actually heard it, so it just sounded like gibberish until the “lyrics” that some nutbar pulled out of the aether were shown alongside the sounds.  Suddenly, I couldn’t NOT hear them!  We’re designed to find patterns, not ignore them!  Again, another helpful lesson that drives home how fallible we all are, partly due to our biology, but one still likely destined to not reach beyond the already sympathetic audience.

During the break for lunch, I perused tables set up outside the auditorium that were helmed by groups such as the Center for Inquiry and the James Randi Educational Foundation.  There seemed to be at least twice as many in 2012.  Maybe it was a smaller room then.  More psychological effects.  I spoke to the kind gentleman at the New York City Skeptics table and asked what sort of things the organization was involved in.  He told me of lectures and meet-ups of fellow skeptics (often involving alcohol).  I’m a fan of the creature myself, so that’s cool, but not exactly what I was looking for.  “Do you guys do any kind of community outreach?”  I think he was unsure of what I wanted him to say.  I’m unsure of what I expected.  Steven Novella, neurologist and prime mover of the wildly popular and hilarious Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, was also asking the poor guy if anyone had found out the Wi-Fi password yet.  More technical problems.  Not wanting to distract him from his actual work, and realizing that we had probably reached an impasse anyway, I ceased to pursue the issue.

It seemed to me the most important points were raised in a panel discussion that included Michael Shermer, Editor-In-Chief of Skeptic Magazine, Mariette DiChristina, who holds a similar position at Scientific American, and Cat Bohannan, who studies how narrative influences cognition at Columbia University.  Led by the “Science Babe,” Deborah Berebichez, the group discussed how people tend to (wrongly) be more influenced by stories rather than data, and how the “other side” uses that to great effect while the good guys can sometimes overlook such a utility.  Debbie’s frustration was shared by everyone as she noted how many skeptics struggle to make ends meet while Deepak Chopra rakes in millions (Deepak took a beating this day).  Another member of the panel, Nathalie Molina Niño, suggested abandoning the war metaphors that we “take into battle” with us, to lessen the appearance of confrontation.  We’re all on the same side in wanting to figure out the truth, after all, we just approach it (not “attack” it) from different angles.  Shermer remarked that offering the story of how you yourself came to skepticism can often elicit empathy from suspicious adversaries listeners.  While some think the facts should speak for themselves and almost see such “framing” and storytelling tactics as cheating, I wonder if using the system against itself isn’t the worst idea in the world.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

So that’s my story.  My 2013 NECSS experience was even more enjoyable than the previous year’s, and I got a further glimpse at just how hard the volunteers and everyone involved work to make this happen.  It’s clear by the crowd size and the technical problems however that as a group, we skeptically minded folks who ask for evidence of everything are still a niche group (though I guess even the most prestigious academic conferences still experience computer glitches, so maybe that point’s moot).  But the crowds do indeed seem to be growing and everyone’s enthusiasm was undeniable.  I witnessed how brilliant people are doing great things, but left still contemplating just how it is we can reach the folks outside our little circle.  Are these incremental gains enough?  Is there a way to make bigger breakthroughs?  I guess those are questions everyone else has been carrying with them forever, and ones we’ll all likely continue to shoulder for years to come.

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