While some people were off enjoying the sights and sounds of Las Vegas at TAM9, myself and three other members of the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (which bears the much-needed acronym of CASS) were in Toronto having our own little skeptical conference. This is my brief summary of the talks.
For those of you who don’t know, CASS is a group comprising mainly scientists and educators who act as the core of CFI Canada’s pro-science policy. The group was recently successful in securing an afternoon of programming at Polaris 25 (formerly Toronto Trek), a science fiction and fantasy convention, which happened this past weekend (15-17 July, 2011) at the Sheraton Parkway Hotel in Toronto. Our presence was advertised to a greater extent than I was expecting and for that we are grateful to David Ennis, our liaison at the conference. I am sure I speak for everyone at CASS and CFI Canada when I express my gratitude both to David and to the conference organisers for giving us the opportunity to take part.
First speaker up was Jeffrey Shallitt, author of the Recursivity blog and professor at the University of Waterloo, who spoke on “How Creationists Abuse Mathematics”. Jeff is probably best known for his work on debunking intelligent design and was slated to appear as an expert witness at the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial until William Dembski pulled out. First, though, he opened by highlighting his sci-fi heritage. Holding aloft two classic sci-fi magazines from the early 1950s, he showed stories to the crowd written by both his mother and his father. Jeff ploughed through a number of creationist arguments that ranged from the absurd (rates of human population would result in more people than we currently have, therefore young earth) to the subtly (but fatally) flawed (there isn’t enough moon dust for it to be millions of years old), finally arriving at Intelligent Design. His criticisms focused on misunderstandings and vague definitions that creationists and ID proponents make in their arguments. In particular, to which type of information (Shannon or Kolmogorov) they were referring. More details can be found in Jeff and Wesley Elseberry’s paper. It was standing-room only for Jeff and the crowd were certainly entertained!
Alex Manafu, a PhD student at University of Western Ontario, spoke next on “Could Science Prove the Existence of God? (Or, Must Science Be Naturalistic?)”. A braver man than I to tackle philosophy in front of a lay crowd but Alex did an admirable job. Beginning by defining his terms (science, methodological naturalism, metaphysical naturalism) he described how the concept of the supernatural fits into the scientific method. Alex made the interesting point that science “naturalises” phenomena. He discussed how, if science were to discover an effect of prayer (and it has tried) then it would then seek to explore further: does prayer to Krishna work better than prayer to Allah? Do the prayers of two people for one hour equate to the prayer of one person for two hours? At the end of this, prayer is just another phenomenon that we understand and the investigation brings the phenomenon from the supernatural and into the natural. Alex likened this to the study of lightening, which was brought from the supernatural (weapon of the gods) to the natural (atmospheric electrostatic discharge). Thus, he concludes, science cannot study the supernatural because as soon as this occurs these phenomena are drawn into the natural world.
Larry Moran, author of the Sandwalk blog, and professor at the University of Toronto, spoke next on “What’s the Difference Between Science and Science Fiction”. Larry couldn’t help himself and had to point out to the sci-fi fans that they were actually fans of “engineering fiction”. “Where’s the science in science fiction?” he asked. This formed the basis for discussion on whether sci-fi fantasy really is a method by which the public can be engaged over science. Larry argued that all we see in Star Trek and Firefly are the technological applications of science rather than the scientific discoveries that led to those applications. He went so far as to ask whether the sci-fi genre was “friend or foe” in our goal to popularise science. The audience was divided on this. Some stated that they had become more interested in science as a result of science fiction while others had embraced a genre of writing that reflected their love of science. Clearly an interesting question and one which I had not thought about.
It was left to me to round things up (I’m pretty sure that’s because I was late submitting my registration, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that I was the star of the show). For those of you who don’t know, I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa and I was discussing “The Evolution of Superstition: People, PCs and Pigeons”. Superstition is a great topic to discuss in public lectures because there are any number of weird and wonderful examples that you can throw out to break the ice. I like the idea that aeroplanes, an example of one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements, have row numbers that omit those associated with superstitions (almost always the number 13). I also discussed work on pigeons by BF Skinner, which demonstrated not only that non-human animals could form superstitions but also that these false beliefs were very easily created. Skinner placed pigeons in boxes and fed them when they pecked a white dot. He then fed them randomly. The pigeons associated whatever behaviour they had been performing at the time of the food’s arrival as the cause of the arrival of that food. Hence, some pigeons would spin around in circles in an attempt to make more food appear when there was no causal relationship. I discussed some recent research by Kevin Abbott and Tom Sherratt, my lab mates at Carleton University, who have demonstrated that under certain conditions even entirely-rational computers will form superstitions. I made the point that, while some superstitions are harmless (carrying rabbits’ feet) some superstitions (witchcraft, dowsing, alternative medicine and psychic abilities) have serious, tangible costs for those who believe in them. I finished by discussing how people can make themselves more “superstition-proof” by seeking scientific evidence, thinking scientifically about the evidence that they have, acknowledging pre-existing biases (such as the placebo effect), and being aware of logical fallacies.
I think all of the talks went down extremely well and it was nice to have a really engaged crowd who were sympathetic to our cause while also asking insightful questions. I saw at least one “Extraordinary Claims” CFI t-shirt, but I’m pretty sure that there were a lot of people hearing about CFI and our mission for the first time. If anybody wants to offer me another free pass to a sci-fi convention in exchange for a talk, I’ll gladly take them up on it! Oh, and I met Quark and he called me “The most professional sceptic I have ever met!”. A perfect way to leave the convention!