Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 11, 2014

#TAM2014, Day 1, Morning

Filed under: general science,skepticism — Stuart Robbins @ 11:58 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Introduction

Well, last year I didn’t get past day 1. I thought I would. Yeah … didn’t. So, I thought that this year, I would just try to live-blog this where “live” is me writing, not posting. This will also help keep me awake because of the massive sleep deprivation that usually accompanies TAM. So, this will be a bit more stream-of-what-happened than last time.

Waking Up, First Things

I did not get a meal ticket this year, so I got up between 7:30 and 8:20 (yes, it can take awhile to get up, my pillow has a large gravitational field), and I had a truffle for breakfast. I headed down to the main hall and sat down at the fifth table on the right side in a seat saved for me by THE Karl Mamer and “Nigel St. Whitehall.” We talked very briefly, they read the newspaper, and I worked on proofing a paper that took a year to get accepted and they give me 48 hours to tell them if their typesetting is accurate.

Introductory Remarks, George Hrab

George Hrab did the introduction again this year, and it was a pretty humorous video that included cameos by the Novellum and others. All about Randi exposing The Truth.

The only problem with it was that it exposed the A/V issues bright and early on Day 1, yet again. In this case, the video kept stuttering and pausing, in some cases for a second every-other-second. Fairly pathetic. Allow me to explain why this is not a minor quibble for me: this is a known thing, that A/V at TAM has issues. It is in Las Vegas, at a major hotel/casino. Smaller hotels, smaller conferences, lower budget conferences, and higher budget conferences, all that I’ve been to, don’t have A/V issues.

Okay, I will try not to rant anymore. Here were some of the more humorous quotes by George:

“There are as many answers in Answers in Genesis than history on the History Channel.”

Dr. Oz testifying at Congress: “it was so good to see an advocate of raw food, get grilled.”

Regarding the re-doing of Cosmos: “Originally it was going to be subtitled, ‘Let’s piss off some fundamentalists.'”

Introductory Remarks, DJ Grothe

1038 attendees, 23 countries represented, including United Arab Emirates, large contingent from Australia, India, Japan, Norway, Russia, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK. (I didn’t get all of countries down.

There were many scholarships this year. Brian Walker funded 20 educators to come to TAM. Sara Mayhew also raised funds for many people to attend. 26 people were funded by JREF forum members.

Perhaps most interestingly, for the first time ever, we get free wi-if in the TAM meeting room (I just switched over to it). Yay!

Oh, and lots of sponsors, etc. etc.

Introductory Remarks, Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer spoke next, probably because his organization was the primary sponsor of TAM.

Introductory Remarks, Randi

Randi was introduced at 9:25, and started by parking his cane and telling it to “stay.”

Randi announced that Massimo Palidoro (sure I messed that up) is writing a book about Randi. And that we are supposed to try to find him, say hi, and offer all information we have about Randi.

Based on a show of hands, it appeared from where I was sitting that well over half of the attendees saw a showing of a documentary that had been made of Randi, “An Honest Liar.”

Randi was getting fairly sentimental about a review of the history of TAM and all of us coming, and he said the following: “I want to thank you from the very bottom of my heart, as if there’s a place down there that stores these things …” He got to the sentimental part after a few minutes and left the stage to a half-standing ovation. I almost wonder if sometimes the jokes are a coping mechanism.

Panel: Can Rationality Be Taught

This panel had: Daniel Dennett, Julia Galef, Barbara Dresher, and Scott Lilienfeld. It started at 9:36, and they went to questions at 10:25 and ended at 10:31.

Based on opening remarks by most of the panel, “thinking is hard” (as Scott put it). Critical thinking / rationality can be taught to some extent, but not all the way. The example that Scott used was brilliant Nobel Prize winners who are at the top of their field, but then believe in the lamest pseudoscience in other fields (my words, not his).

– A point made by Barbara was that intelligence is definitely not equal to rationality or critical thinking. FYI, today I wore my, “Critical Thinking: it’s not just for smart people” t-shirt.

– People get invested in their views, particularly scientists and philosophers (and, I would add, pseudoscientists), and it was argued that that can be a good thing.

– “When we debunk these beliefs, we assume that everyone’s going to be as rational as we are, but that’s not always the case.”

– On backfiring, Daniel was talking about a conference he went to where there was a debate, and afterwards MORE people believed in the pseudoscience. He asked people why, and the response was: “If you smart people work this hard to disprove it, there must be something to it!”

– More on the backlash point, Scott raised the issue that while we can do debunking, and that it can be important, we also have to be careful to emphasize RIGHT information, rather than just focusing on WRONG information.

– Another point raised, I think by Julia, was that we almost inoculate ourselves from realizing that some of our beliefs/thoughts are wrong because it’s SOOOOO obvious that homeopathy and astrology don’t work, but that OUR beliefs look nothing like those, so … .

That was an interesting point for me, something I hadn’t really thought of, and is why I try to be generally open to new ideas. This is why critical thinking is so important. It’s not what you think, it’s how you think about it, how you reach that conclusion. That’s also what separates science from dogma.

Wrap-up: Not entirely sure how much I got out of this panel. It could be my aversion to philosophy or that the panel would have been better for me 6 years ago, when I was just starting to self-identify as a skeptic and didn’t know as much about skepticism stuff. This hour-long panel was followed by a 15-minute coffee break.

Talk: Fifty Shades of Gray Matter: Healthy Skepticism & the Illuminated Brain

This talk was given by Sally Satel. It started at 10:50, ended 11:16.

A/V issues continues this talk, where for some reason the tech people think that we actually want to see the speaker standing there talking most of the time, instead of seeing the slides that the speaker prepared to show to talk with. Sigh.

Anyway, I thought the talk topic was interesting, even though I was familiar with most of it.

– “When we focus only on the brain, we are in neurocentrism.” (or something to that effect)

20140711-110537-39937858.jpg

– The military implemented Operation Golden Flow, which was an attempt to mitigate heroin addiction when soldiers were coming back from Vietnam. It required a urine sample. Oye.

– “No one who is obese chooses to be fat [or maybe she said wants to be fat], but it’s a build up of incremental [feel-good] moments.”

Wrap-up: Overall, I thought this talk was interesting, but I don’t think it had much to do with skepticism. If this were a general science conference, sure! The only real connection was skepticism about whether the brain is the level at which intervention should be, or if it’s more psychological type interventions. I think.

Talk: Uses and Abuses of Brain Imaging: A Skeptic’s Guide

This talk was given by Scott Lilienfeld. It started at 11:17, ended at 11:50.

20140711-112258-40978109.jpg

– Interesting point about The Winner’s Curse, where in fMRI scans, especially with small sample sizes, there is a lot of noise in the imaging technique. To the point that they got a positive signal of brain activity from a dead salmon.

I found this one particularly interesting because it’s the EXACT SAME THING that I see in a lot of astronomy-based pseudoscience. The problem is people simply do not understand the inherent limits of their data. They thi that it’s a pixel, it has a certain value, that value is, well, certain, therefore (insert interpretation). But it’s just image noise.

– He went into issues with reverse inference, something I hadn’t heard of before. But, it sounded basically like the correlation = causation fallacy. Application to fMRI-based lie detectors. Or that you “literally love” your iPhone.

Wrap-up: I thought this was also interesting, and a bit more skeptical-oriented.

Keynote Talk: a History of Skepticism as Detailed in the Pages of Scientific American

This was given by Marriette di Christina. It would have started at 11:52, but due to more technical A/V issues, it was delayed until 11:58. I’ll refer back to my rant at the start of this post: for everything that the JREF pays for for this conference, WTF is wrong with these guys!?!?

I actually did not stay for this keynote, but I left early so I could get a quick lunch and finish up some work and nap before the 2:00 panel.

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