Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 11, 2014

#TAM2014, Day 1, Afternoon

Filed under: general science,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 7:23 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Panel: The Psychology of Pseudoscience in Medicine

The first panel of the afternoon featured three people in the program — Steven Novella, Harriet Hall, and David Gorski. They added two people, I think Paul Offit and Scott Williamson. One of those five was the moderator, and it wasn’t Steve nor Harriet. It started at 2:10. The panel wrapped up at 2:46, at which point several questions from the audience were taken. They ended at 2:59.

It started with A/V issues, slides not progressing/working/etc. Is it worth ranting again? Not right now, I only worked in a 10-minute nap. FYI, the slides not being up issues continued.

– Harriet Hall: “I think the concept of mind-body medicine is stupid.” Rather, it’s all one thing.

– Steve Novella: “When you can’t ever prove that something can’t possibly work, you can never prove that it does work, either.” (slightly paraphrased)

Wrap-up: Don’t take my lack of notes and quotes as being necessarily more or less interested. I found this panel an interesting discussion on “mind-body” medicine versus “mind and body” medicine — approaching medicine from the standpoint of whether you do energy stuff because everything is mind-consciousness that then fixes the body, or treating the mind and body as a physical thing and physical (real) things affect them.

Non-Talk: From Klingon to Close Encounters: Theories About Alien Language

Presentation by Karen Stollznow, which was a schedule change, switching with Jamie Ian Swiss who’ll go in the 3:00 slot tomorrow. I was hobnobbing in the Speakers’ lounge with her a few minutes before-hand and the reason that she started late was that she was not told before that she would not have a computer in front of her, and she needed the slide notes. So … the A/V guys moved the presentation computer from backstage (she would’ve just had a remote) to the lectern so that she could have her slides.

In the interest of disclosure, I’m friends with Karen, and we see each other at parties and outings amongst the greater Denver Skeptics. With that said, Karen, please work on giving presentations without notes. You never know when you will or won’t have promised or unpromised equipment and ability to see or not see notes. It also usually forces you to give a better talk and be more engaging with the audience, instead of remembering to glance down to remind yourself of what you want to say. Your slides (visually and textually) should be enough to remind you what you wanted to say. IF they don’t, then they should be altered (if you can’t follow them, if they don’t tell the story you wanted to tell, then how’s the audience supposed to?). Also, don’t expect to be able to use or be handed a laser pointer (something I’ve had issues with😦 ).

I must say that at the very least, while I’m not a fan of George Hrab’s singing (sorry, I’m not), he is a very good Master of Ceremonies at keeping the banter interesting and engaging the audience.

Talk: Why Neuroscience Matters

This talk was given by Ginger Campbell. George Hrab announced at 3:19 that because of the A/V issues with Karen, Ginger would be going (she was slated at 3:30-4:00). So at 3:20, she started. She finished at 3:49, after saying she was bad at not leaving time for questions. I say that any speaker that finishes just at their time limit is okay by me on time.

– “One investigator’s possible correlation is another’s absolute causation.” — A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves by Robert Burton

– Implications for Skeptics: As much as we admire Enlightenment thought, we may need to revise our vision of the ideal of the “rational mind.” And neuroscience literacy is needed for the 21st century so we can make better, more informed decisions, like even things like when should children be allowed to start drinking.

Wrap-Up: I paid attention during this, I swear. But, as with the first talk this morning, I’m not really sure what it had to do with skepticism, other than re-hashing the general materialist vs not paradigm that brain = mind, as opposed to a mind can exist without a brain. She mentioned some things about evolution that I found interesting that I didn’t know (like the entire genome was duplicated in creatures very early on, which let many more mutations happen), but otherwise this should not have been at a skeptics convention. Still interesting, just not as relevant to the topic as I would’ve liked.

At least, that was my impression. If someone else was here and thought differently, let me know in the comments!

Talk: From Klingon to Close Encounters: Theories About Alien Language

Karen started at about 3:52, and she ended at 4:20.

The idea behind her talk was, ¿how would we ever communicate with aliens? How / why would we expect them to “speak” like us? Writers of science fiction usually have devices to get around it, like the babble fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, translator in Star Trek, or other things. But in the Darmok episode of Star Trek TNG, when the language was translated directly into English, it didn’t work. It was all metaphors.

Karen then showed slides of stupid translations amongst the 6000+ human languages. And we’re on the same planet, of the same species. How could we even think we could start to communicate with aliens, when we can’t even communicate with creatures that use chemicals, color, or taste on our own planet? And telepathy’s fun to think about. What about ancient cultures that we still can’t translate? Think Egyptian Hieroglyphs prior to the Rosetta Stone.

That’s actually one thing I really liked about Stargate: SG 1, where in one of the very first episodes, they had the Translation Episode which all decent sic-fi has to do: How can all these folkseses from different planets all speak-um English? In Stargate, they had one planet, where the Four Great Races from ancient times had all assembled to figure out how to communicate. They simply started with the chemical elements. The episode only used it as a plot device, rather than focusing on the linguistic deciphering, but the language issue definitely had a role throughout the series, pointing to things like the Ancient language being able to be read one way or upside down to mean completely different things, and that being a key to unlocking a very powerful Ancient weapon … or bringer of life.

As another example from sci-fi, there’s the Star Trek TNG episode where the interpreters for a dumb (can’t speak) negotiator, and Data has to learn the sign language so that he can stop a war. Diana Troy explains to Picard that the language isn’t that easy, that the interpretation wouldn’t be perfect because he had communicated with his “chorus” by telepathy which had many more thoughts involved. Her example was to pick up a mug of tea, and say some random syllables stuck together. What did she say? Picard said (effectively), “Cup. No, tea.” Or something like that. But she responded that she may have meant “hot” or “liquid” or “beverage” or “white” (the color of the mug). Without some sort of common experience, common way of viewing the universe, how do you even begin to understand each other and even form that kind of common linguistic translation matrix?

Extended Short Coffee Break

To try to make up a bit of time, the coffee break from 4:00 to 4:15 went from 4:20 to 4:30. I went to the Speakers’ Lounge because Ray Hall said to meet him there at 4 to transfer my talk for Sunday … I thought that meant the coffee break, so I went at 4:20, not 4. Guess I missed him.

But, it was all good — I got to thank Sharon (of Doubtful News) for linking to my Cydonia / Mars movie a few weeks ago. And while talking with another guy (sorry, forgot your name …), Bob Novella came in, and overheard that I was an astronomer. Tomorrow at the SGU live recording, he’s going to be talking about the new story that planets Gliese 581d and g are actually not planets, specifically 581d. He wanted to know if I could tell him a little more about what was going on, why the planet “was” and then “wasn’t” there.

In return for helping him — and I have Miranda Hale as a witness! — he agreed to come on my podcast at some point. So, I downloaded the paper, read through it, read a press release and another story, and tried to summarize it. Without being a guy who does spectra or study stars. My understanding of the story is that the detection of 581d had always been disputed. We use tried and true methods of detection, in this case the red/blue shift of the star, caused by the planet and star orbiting around a mutual center of gravity. This requires that the star itself have no natural variation of red/blue shift. Which can happen in strong magnetic fields. The latest study was much more detailed with respect to the spectral lines of the star, and it updated the rotation period of the star, which now with an updated orbital period of the planet, is twice the planet’s period. Which raises a red flag. And, when they do more detailed study of how these magnetic fields affect the red and blue shift of the spectral lines of the star used to discover these planets, it accounts for most of the signal of what had been attributed to 581d. The “detection” of 581d is now below the level of the noise, meaning it’s no longer a detection, and so far as we can therefore tell, it does not exist in the data.

Got all that?

Talk: Who’s Lying, Who’s Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said / She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations

This talk was given by Carol Tavris and started at 5:02. Running about 15 minutes behind due to Karen’s A/V issues. For some reason, Carol was awarded 45 minutes for her non-keynote talk. Her talk ended at 5:46, and the claps went noticeably longer than others.

– As soon as the brain makes a hasty decision, especially a hasty one not based on evidence, it will do everything it can to justify that, including ignoring otherwise incontrovertible evidence. The example Carol used the Duke rape case as an example.

– Man: “Rape is just a form of aggressive sex.”
– Woman: “If I hit you no the head with a frying pan, is that a form of cooking?”

– A large point in the last ~1/3 of Carol’s talk was that in her view, feminism should not mean that only men are responsible for “rape.” Women can be wrong, make stupid decisions that lead to sex, etc. For example, if both are drunk, why should the man automatically be the only one held accountable for the sexual act that follows when the woman later decides she didn’t want it? On this point, I’m not sure how I feel. I think “no” should mean “no” no matter what, but I understand the point in theory, that the default should not necessarily be that it’s the man’s fault. But as I write this, Carol is talking about studies where “no”: (1) is hard for sometimes women to say clearly, (2) sometimes hard for the man to hear / understand, and (3) it isn’t always clear that “no” DOES mean “no.” As in, she doesn’t always mean it, it’s a token resistance, it means “convince me,” etc. I think that says more about our culture of sex and culture of language than accountability, though.

Wrap-up: I think from the last paragraph, you can tell that I enjoyed this talk and found it both topical to the conference (“skepticism and the brain”) and skepticism. It was also stimulating (brain-wise -> thinking-wise), and I think that Carol is a good speaker, having control of her audience.

Keynote Talk: Can Churches Survive the New Transparency?

Presented by Daniel Dennett. I missed the first few minutes because I decided to try to make to the lavatory, but there was a mad rush / line so I gave up and came back at 5:49. Dennett was in the middle of a diagram of the Great Tree of Life.

– “I respect their opinions. They’re wrong, but I respect their opinions.”

– AJ Johnson: “The internet is the best thing to happen to atheism since Darwin.”

– Dennett brought up a “recursive hall of mirrors” effect. That in 1975, thousands of people knew that thousands of priests had sexually abused children. Today, millions of people know that millions of people know that thousands of priests have sexually abused minors. That raises an interesting paradigm shift, and various organizations are struggling to cope with that new amount of “mutual knowledge” that “changes the epistemological environment in which all organizations must survive.”

– Dennet spent awhile drawing parallels between cells (biology) and cells (social), specifically the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Debutants, Ponzi schemes, and the Catholic Church. They all have energy capture, reproduction, and a membrane (to keep out the bad and let in the good).

– “It takes 20 years to raise a Christian. It takes only a few minutes to lose one.”

– Drawing a similarity with churches: “If the mafia had only opened a few more daycare centers, maybe they’d still be going strong.”

Wrap-Up: Overall, I’m not sure this keynote was great. I found parts of it really interesting, parts of it not so much. The comparisons between biological cells and social cells was interesting. Unfortunately, an hour is a long time, and you have to have a really good speaker not only for a keynote, but also to just speak and hold an audience’s attention for an hour. Dennett was good … but I’m not entirely sure he’s THAT good. (Says the guy who’s never been a keynote speaker.)


Dinner at TAM is always on your own unless you buy into the special dinners which are for fund-raising. Having had a 1000-calorie lunch, I opted to stay in my room and attempt to briefly catch up on sleep for an hour or two. I plan to meet some folks at the infamous (for TAMers) Del Mar lounge around 9, and then head to Penn’s bacon and doughnut party which starts at 11, but I’ll probably head up around 10:30 to get in fast — last year, there was a long line that formed. LOOONNNNGGGGGG.


  1. Do you have a suggestion what should be used as a replacement for the concept of the “rational mind”? It is a bit dated, especially as we learn more about how the brain functions, but I’m not very well versed in neuroscience, so I’m uncertain what would work better.

    The Star Trek episode writer obviously didn’t understand that every human language is a conglomeration of metaphors and similes. Every word is a symbol of something, after all. When we agree on the symbols, we communicate. When we don’t agree or don’t understand the cultural concepts behind the the symbols, we have trouble communicating. Been like that as long as humans have used language.

    Sad to hear those two planets turned out to be just noise. Oh, well.

    Dennett is one of the few philosophers I can tolerate for more than a few minutes, before I shut down and ignore what’s said. His observation about the Mafia was interesting, especially considering the recent news that Pope Francis excommunicated the lot.

    Comment by Rick K. — July 12, 2014 @ 11:07 am | Reply

    • I’m definitely not a neuroscience, so I can’t really respond to your question about an alternative to the “rational mind.” Look at Hoagland or Bara or Horn for evidence against that concept in humans.

      Karen did talk a bit more about the TNG episode to use that as a point of idiomatic expressions, like “drinks are on the house” in English is an expression like “in the eye” in French. But with TNG, the entire method of communication was to refer to mythologic stories and analogies from those. So, much more inspection than idioms, I think.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 12, 2014 @ 11:45 am | Reply

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