What I saw at NECSS 2012

I was introduced to the skeptic community by Rationally Speaking, a podcast I found while wandering aimlessly on the iTunes Store. I also joined the New York City Skeptics Meetup group, which meets once a month to discuss issues related to science and skepticism. That’s where I learned about the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS, pronounced nexus.) On April 21 and 22, four hundred eager skeptics were packed into the auditorium of the Florence Gould Hall in Midtown Manhattan. The speakers, a veritable who’s who of science and skeptical inquiry, blended passion and humor as they discussed among other things the wonders of science and logical skepticism.

Even though his presentation was titled Dance your Ph.D., John Bohannon talked about war statistics for almost half his time. His presentation was interesting and informative, but the title led me to believe that his entire presentation was about videos of people describing their research through dance, which, to be fair, the other half was. PZ Myers, on the other hand, shafted us on Sunday morning by calling his presentation Cephaloporn, and then telling us why he loves biology.

Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox, all of 25 years, explained how she had to sneak around to read books during her cloistered Hasidic upbringing, complete with private, religious-only education, arranged marriage at 17, becoming a mother soon after (seems redundant, Hasidic Jews are hardly known for family planning), and leaving the fold to pursue an independent but undoubtedly intimidating life as a single mother shunned by the people she once called her own. I couldn’t even imagine kids growing up in Brooklyn, NY bereft of English and an egalitarian education.

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is responsible for some cognitive dissonance. It blows my mind but I always feel there are better uses for that money, and Seth Shostak didn’t affect that position. Ethan Brown, the 12-year old genius, squared and cubed and cube-rooted numbers on stage, proving once more that some minds are phenomenal. At one point, he asked for four random numbers, to form a four-digit number that he would square on the fly. The fourth number called out was a zero. He replied, with a puzzled-expression like, “Could someone be this dumb?” that this would be like squaring a 3-digit number and multiplying by 100. He walked out, just like he walked in, our jaws near the floor during the whole thing. James Randi, the amazing one himself, was on on next. He spoke from the heart, if that expression has ever been true it was that day, about the vitriol he has for psychics, homeopaths and faith-healers who swindle people with anything from pseudoscience to plain trickery. He was followed by the physicist Debbie Berebichez, who appealed to us to encourage more young girls into the hard sciences, or at least, to convince them that they aren’t misfits in calculus class. I agree, although I disagreed when she expressed her disappointment that working women (but not men) who are competent are often less-liked. I’m sure men feel something similar, but it is possible that they have fewer affiliation needs at work.

Florence Gould Hall (Courtesy: nytb.org)

The highlight of the evening was a fundraising reception. For skeptics with means, this was one of the ways to support NECSS. So yours truly decided politely to sit this one out (Why? Please google means and then graduate student). Then our host, Jamy Ian Swiss, called out a seat number randomly for a free pass to the fundraising reception at Connolly’s pub. So there I was, one out of four hundred, with a dose-dumping of a life’s worth of luck and a chance to rub elbows with the luminaries of the weekend. What I learned later was that I also got a tête à tête with James Randi – who’s very approachable  and down-to-earth, thank you for asking – over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. What do you know, being randomly selected has positive connotations too.

With Randi at Connolly’s (Fundraising reception)

At the reception, Jay Novella of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe invited me to watch as they recorded the show live (to be aired on May 6) at the Hilton hotel that night. Thanks Jay! The usual cast, with Seth Shostak and James Randi guest-starring, discussed a bunch of things, culminating in a powwow over whether sloths could swim. Apparently sloths climb down trees to crap at their base. I don’t remember much else, except my bladder being ready to burst.

“Seriously, I think we need to take a break before that guy in the corner wets the carpet.”

I took the elevator down 43 stories to pee when they took a 5-minute break. On my way back, guess what, the elevator needs a key-card to take you above the 39th floor, so I got some exercise. Well, the more you sweat, the less you want to pee. After the taping, which ended around midnight, I took an F train back to Queens and the real world.
Sunday morning, I was back at the venue at 10 am. After PZ Myers’ Cephaloporn, Joe Nickell, probably the only full-time investigator of strange occurrences told us about the case of the two Will Wests, the case that made fingerprinting official in the U.S. Robert Olsen is skeptical of how actually significant that case really is.
Then I watched a live recording of a special episode of Rationally Speaking in that they spoke about The Simulation Hypothesis and the problem of natural evil, but also that Massimo was out-worded by David Kyle Johnson.

Julia Galef, David Kyle Johnson and Massimo Pigliucci on The Simulation Hypothesis

George Hrab explained dealing with grief as an atheist. We non-believers vacillate between being tired and offended at being asked, “What do you think of when you’re sad?” or told that we will need god when we lose a loved one. Seriously, only a megalomaniac would foster complex relationships between people and then develop elaborate schemes to separate them, often with pain and suffering as by-products, just so they need his murderous shoulder to cry on. I don’t know how many logical fallacies believers help themselves to, but Hai-Ting Chinn mocked out a quite a few in her operatic solo and then a duet with George Hrab.

Probably the most awkward part of the conference was the pre-fist-fight between Massimo Pigliucci and J. Scott Armstrong on futurism and the ability of experts to predict outcomes better than laymen or a tossed coin. Good thing Michael Rogers was in the middle, really. Predicting the future does seem riddled with publication and confirmation biases, if you ask me. We remember successful predictions and successful predictors more often, and it’s possible by sheer probability that some people are right far more often than they are wrong. That doesn’t make them any better than the rest of us.

J. Scott Armstrong, Michael Rogers and Massimo Pigliucci on futurism

Brian Wecht came on next, and spoke about theoretical physics, bosons, fermions and particle accelerators to name a few topics. He ended his speech by calling string-theory haters d**ks, and I agree. There it was: a great conference, which brought together bright and insightful people to meditate, cogitate and debate questions of morality, spirituality and religion and to agree that people who hate string theory are d**ks.

“That’s all you’re taking from my presentation?”

Call me an atheist, a non-believer, a rationalist, a skeptic or really whatever but NECSS was the first place where I realized how not alone I am in this transgression. Attending a geek-fest is fun in itself, but the cherry on top was a shot at meeting some really impressive  people, and learning simply how much smarter than me they are. It is actually quite liberating. The weight on one’s shoulders gets considerably lighter knowing there are people far more significant. Skepticism, to me, has always been about not having an allegiance to anything except the truth. In so doing, skepticism sets the mind free, and I don’t ever want to be tethered again, no matter how comfortable, how reassured or secure it makes me, and those who disagree probably hate string theory.

Unbridled blasphemy

As I was gumming down a bowl of soup that some diet-friendly misanthropic nihilist might have invented, I noticed a banner which read, “Maybe God is the answer?” That was the message verbatim.

Now, most of my regular readers know my cynicism about religion and might consider it hypocrisy that I joined a catholic university, but let’s move past that for now. Please note that this is not a slight on Christianity but on religion in general. In fact, my kind of atheism is strangely ecumenical as it unites all religions while calling them crazy. What hurts me deeply is the marketing of religion that is done today. Many a graduate student can testify to being accosted by a missionary with the dangling carrot of free tuition in exchange for accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior. “God wants you to give till it hurts” is one of the many lines smoothly delivered by buff evangelists as they continue to mercilessly fleece poor innocent people.

Another cheap shot especially practiced by religion is that it attacks people when they are the weakest. Terminally ill patients are often known to have complete conversions during their last hours. While the religiously fanatical lobby notches this in their victory column, it can also be explained as a form of mental anesthesia that people crave when their fear, desperation or pain gets too much to handle.

The Hindu, Muslim and other religions are not far behind in their hypocrisies and their endorsement (and sometimes instigation) of atrocities. They too captivate people when they are most mentally feeble.

Richard Dawkins, the geneticist & acclaimed atheist, says that religion is the best product to sell because neither its virtues nor its promises are vulnerable to scientific testing. This is a product whose qualities you cannot experience until you die. The funniest part is that the people who tell you what happens after death lack serious resume points in the experience category themselves. If, in a scientific discussion, someone throws conjecture after conjecture at you without a shred of data to back them up, you would show that person the door. Yet, we grant religion a free pass and complete immunity from all logical accusations.

Sam Harris says that most people who follow one religion are atheists with respect to others. They believe in no god but their own god. Atheists, Harris says, simply go one god further. Bill Maher notes the pejorative connotation of the word atheist in modern times, and prefers the word rationalist. A rationalist is simply a person who does not conform to an ideology in principle but questions everything and is a natural skeptic. You need to convince such people, and not preach to them or command them.

I have met many people who argue that as I cannot disprove the existence of god, there has to be a god. To this, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed a theory that there is a small teapot orbiting the sun and that its orbit lies between that of Mars & Earth such that it is too tiny to be seen by the most powerful telescope. As we cannot disprove the existence of said teapot, it must exist, and we are free to worship it. This kind of juvenile logic would be rejected by most children if said in the context of the teapot, and rightly so, for it is impossible to prove a negative, and hence the burden of proof should be shouldered by the people who claim the existence of any object.

The least these religious people could admit is that they don’t know. I would still respect that. It is their unwavering certainty in the face of many a contradictory proof that baffles me the most.

A friend of mine once gave me a patronizing smile during one such argument and said, “We must not critique these stories & fables in religious texts, but merely take the good out of them.” Is that not a critique in itself? Does it not take critical thinking to separate the grain from the chaff? And who is to decide which is which? Are we free to choose?

I consider it an offense to be told to suspend my critical thinking for any reason whatsoever. Richard Dawkins opines that we can lead perfectly moral and decent lives without being taught so by religious scripture. Having considered that, let us weigh the damage wrought by religion against the little (not unique) good it does. It pains me to visit ground zero in NYC. That horror would not have happened if there was no religion. If there was no promise of an afterlife, no one could have convinced young men to throw their lives away and take many others with them. There would have been no Holocaust. Closer to home, we Indians have seen enough brutalities committed in communal riots to know what I’m talking about.

If you woke up one day and saw that Princess Diana was speaking to you, you would suspect that you were hallucinating. Substitute that with the voice of god (which, by the way, you have no way of identifying) and you might just be called a prophet or a messiah.

I am very cynical & venomous on this subject simply because of the time, money, energy and other resources I see being wasted on this selfish mental anesthetic. Let’s face it. We humans fear the unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown. So no matter how incredible the explanations offered to us are, we swallow them down just like I swallowed that soup-we have a void to fill, and when we are really desperate, anything goes.