The last day of The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) 9 had finally arrived. After three days of skeptical talks I was physically wearing down, but mentally I was still going strong. (See my accounts of thee first three days in my Prologue, Day 1, and Day 2 posts.) I decided to skip the previous night’s festivities in order to catch up on my sleep. From the gossip it sounds like the Max Maven – Thinking in Person show was interesting. Others were commenting on the Penn & Teller show they saw over at the Rio. For me, a good night of sleep felt great and worth skipping out on a few shows.
Day 3 of TAM started off a little different than the prior days. Up to this point the stage was given either to a panel of experts or an invited speaker. The third day began with a series of “papers” presented by a number of lesser known skeptics. Over the span of two hours, seven speakers were given the mic. Admittedly I did step out for one random speaker, so I only heard six of the speakers. Of those that I did listen to, it was interesting to hear the range of skeptical topics. One speaker covered paranormal investigations, another chiropractic practices in Los Angeles, and yet another on the use of Rogerian argumentation. (For a more complete report of the contributed papers see the Friendly Atheists‘ live blogging entries for TAM 9.) My favorite of the papers was given by Phil Ferguson from the blog Skeptic Money. His talk was on scams in guaranteed mutual funds investments. In short, they don’t work because of all the hidden fees. The main outcome of Ferguson’s talk is, don’t invest in anything you don’t understand ahead of time. Good advice indeed.
After the contributed papers, Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, gave a joint talk on the relationship between magic tricks and neuroscience. It was interesting to see how easily our minds are fooled because our eyes only have the ability to focus on a very narrow portion of the world. Our limited visual stimulation allows magicians to use misdirection techniques to force our attention one way while performing a sleight of hand elsewhere. Although I’ve never been drawn to magic, as I watched the many talks at TAM, my interest in magic grew. This talk, which demonstrated links between magic and science, was the final straw. I now want to learn more about magic.
The next speaker, Sara Mayhew, turned out to be an unexpected surprise from my personal perspective. Mayhew is the author of a number of manga stories, which is why I wasn’t familiar with her work prior to TAM. As I listened to her speak it was clear that she is a very talented author and illustrator. She’s seems to be very careful to incorporate a number of skeptical elements into her stories. She also noted a number of faults with other famous fictional stories. For example, the central theme found in Star Wars is the concept of a Jedi. The problem is that Jedi skills are a bestowed property to a select few that are born with Jedi qualities. It’s very much a nobleman-like quality. No matter how much someone strives to be better, unless they’re born with Jedi abilities they will never acquire them. Conversely, the immensely popular Harry Potter series demonstrates that when confronted with an situation practice, studying, and critical thinking will lead to a desirable outcome. (Okay, you may argue that only certain individuals are born with magical powers in the Harry Potter series, but the point being made here is that JK Rowling uses standard skeptical tools to solve the characters’ problems.)
The afternoon session included a talk by Jennifer Ouellette. Ouellette is the author of a number of books (including The Calculus Diaries which I reviewed here) and blogs at Cocktail Party Physics. If you’re interested in the lighter side of physics, and even science in general, I would suggest reading Ouellette’s blog and following her on twitter (JenLucPiquant). Ouellete’s talk, The Universe Through the Looking Glass, was an intriguing overview of our place in the Universe. She used a mixture of scientific knowledge with cinematic interpretations and science fiction speculations about the future. The last example was particularly fun when she showed a clip from the 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon. It’s amazing to think how rapidly our view of the Universe has evolved in the last century, hell in the last ten years. Scientists are learning about Nature at an exponential rate.
The last speaker for TAM 9 was Sean Faircloth, the Executive Director for the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). Faircloth is a former legislature from Maine. His political background was more than evident, if from nothing else, his presentation style. Most skeptics are very humble, and are often hesitant to over extend their claims. Faircloth was the opposite. His speech was fiery, with a lot of promises about what the SCA will do in the coming years. I liked his talk. In short, the SCA has developed a list of measurable goals and plans on expanding to include more lobbyist in Washington.
So that was it for the formal part of TAM 9 from Outer Space, my first TAM experience. To close things out James Randi once again came to the stage and gave yet more inspiring words. Over the course of three days I learned a lot of new things, became interested in magic, spent a lot of money book sold by vendors, and had the chance to talk with other skeptics. I can’t wait to come back next year.
Epilogue for the Last Day
Although the main part of the meeting was over, there were two workshops offered in parallel after the closing remarks. Being a parent of two young boys, I found myself in the workshop on Raising Skeptics. My reaction: wow, nothing is sacred amongst skeptics. In less than two hours, the workshop covered how to speak to your kids about skepticism, how to handle non-skeptics’ attitudes toward your family, Santa Claus, and sex education. The last topic was more than I expected out of this workshop, but it was also the most helpful. If I’m going to call myself a skeptic, then I must be consistent and approach every topic on an evidence based approach, even if it’s a socially taboo topic. Besides sex education, I found this workshop helpful for the simple reason that it was nice to see other skeptical parents having to address the same issues that my wife and I struggle with at home. (I still say that we should have told our kids the truth about Santa Claus from day one, but Jamy Ian Swiss was convincing in arguing it may be worth lying to them, and let them enjoy the thrill of Christmas morning.)
The Raising Skeptics workshop was the last official TAM 9 event I attended. However, being in Las Vegas, and having never seen Penn & Teller in person (two celebrity skeptics), I thought it was worth heading over to the Rio and catching their show. Lucky for me, Penn & Teller offered a 2 for 1 deal to TAM participants. Also, lucky for me a fellow skeptic that I met at the meeting (Joshua Humphrey, host of the Twin Cities Theater Connection podcast) had a second ticket. So off I went to see Penn & Teller. The show was amazing and well worth it even if it meant I was only able to squeeze in three hours of sleep before my 6:00 am flight the next morning.
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9:
In two prior posts (My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Prologue and My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 1) I covered the pre-meeting workshops and the first full day of The Amaz!ng Meeting, TAM 9 from Outer Space. Following in order (which seems like a natural thing to do), it’s time for day 2.
After a late night of eating doughnuts and bacon, chased down with Corona, and listening to the No God Band play rockn-roll, it was hard to get up for the 8:00 am panel on the Ethics of Paranormal Investigation. I’m not necessarily drawn to skepticism because of the paranormal, but it’s still interesting to listen to those that investigate paranormal claims using a scientific approach (I do love science after all). In the course of these investigations there are times where ethics needs to be addressed. For example, consider situations that involve kids with claimed psychic powers. In the end I’m glad to hear that unanimously these skeptics are always considering the emotions and sensitive feelings of those on the other end of the investigation.
A common theme for the morning talks was the mind and its ability to trick itself. The first talk on this was actually a panel discussion on Placebo Medicine: The Ethics and Mechanisms of the Mysterious Placebo. As I learn more and more about various topics that skeptics are actively discussing I find myself more interested in medical skepticism. While listening to the panel consisting of six doctors (counting Steven Novella, the moderator) it was interesting to learn that the effects of placebos depend on their application. One topic I found fascinating but I hadn’t considered before was how to test the placebo effect in extreme situation like birth control and cancer. For these situations, ethical standards step in and make it very difficult to directly measure the effects of placebos.
Next up was Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist that specializes in human memory. During her talk she gave fascinating examples in the use of the scientific method to demonstrate that it’s possible to plant a false memory into a person. It was amazing to see how simple and susceptiable people can be. For example, it possible to convince a person that the intersection they thought had a stop sign on the corner really had a yield sign. Of course, photographic evidence quickly demonstrates that there really was a stop sign there the whole time. Sometimes all it takes to plant a false memory is a set of leading questions. It seems just too easy. Scary!
Personally, I think the next talk was my absolute favorite for TAM 9. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, demonstrated how easily our mind can be fooled through visual stimulations. One of the best examples was a series of images that displayed how the mind will naturally fill in the blanks when certain parts of an image are removed. On the first slide he showed a picture with three beautiful women wearing bikinis. Then he showed that by using a pattern of circles to limit the visibility of seductive parts of the picture, the mind fills in the blanks so that you think the girls are naked. The next picture showed that it also works for an image of a man. And then the best part, he showed that using a similar pattern applied it’s possible to picture a naked Mickey Mouse in your head. Besides giving some very amusing examples, his personality and showmanship was outstanding. If there was ever a style of presentation I would like to mimic, it would be his.
Following a catered lunch that wasn’t all that bad, the hosts of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe returned to the main stage to complete their live podcast from the previous day. As I already mentioned in the My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 1 post, I was very impressed with the SGU and I’m going to make sure to start listing to their podcast.
The late afternoon found two highly anticipated speakers talking back-to-back. The first speaker was Bill Nye “The Science Guy”. Like many others in the audience I watched Bill Nye’s show as a kid. There’s no doubt that it influenced me toward becoming a professional scientist (along with the later shows of Mr Wizard). Recently Nye was made the Executive Director of the Planetary Society. The Planetary Society is an independent advocacy group with the vision of promoting future space exploration. During Nye’s talk he explained some of the current and future society missions. They do so much more than I expect. I guess this is why I became a member while at TAM. Most impressive about Nye was his emotional presentation. It was clearly evident in his tone and content that Bill Nye is passionate about science.
The second of highly anticipated afternoon speakers was Richard Dawkins. Having read some of his writings, and watched a number of his YouTube clips, I’ve been interested in hearing him speak in person. In short, I wasn’t disappointed. Dawkins’ talk centered around his upcoming young adult’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. The book looks amazing! Dawkins teamed up with artist David McKean to present big picture questions in a graphically inviting and intriguing manner. Chapter titles include, “What are things made of?”, “What is the Sun?”, “Who were the first man and woman?”, and “When did everything begin?”. What will be unique about this science book is that it will directly address our evolving (all pun intended) views of science. Each chapter begins with a overview of classical mythology and legends pertaining to the topic. This is followed by a scientific explanation given our current understanding of Nature. After giving an overview of the book, Dawkins focused specifically on chapter 9 (it was TAM 9 after all) which asks the daunting question “Are we alone?”. Following in a similar fashion to PZ Meyers’ talk the previous day, Dawkins outlined what we can glean from evolutionary biology to predict what an alien life-form may look like. At times, this part of his speech did get a bit technical and dry. After he was done, Dawkins presented James Randi a signed page from his new book. Below is my blurry attempt to capture the moment.
As Richard Dawkins took questions from the audience, it came to our attention that across the hall from the ballroom hosting TAM, was a karate competition banquet dinner. The guest of honor for the banquet was none other than Chuck Norris. (Richard Dawkins had no idea who that is.) Because of the large turnouts for both events, the organizer allowed Dawkins to spend extra time answering questions to prevent too many people being in the hall. A number of tweeters noted, “we’re trapped in here by Chuck Norris!” Although I didn’t see him personally, someone claims that Chuck Norris had body guards. WTF is up with that?
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9:
The 2011 edition of the The Amaz!ng Meeting, TAM 9 from Outer Space, represented my first foray into a skepticism meeting. Having heard so much about TAM through podcasts, twitter, and the blogosphere I thought it was time to experience TAM for myself. In a prior blog post, My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Prologue, I described the general idea of TAM and the workshops leading into the meat of the meeting. Now for my retelling of day 1.
[Side note: I apologize for the length of this post. This was my favorite day at TAM 9 and a lot of what happened on this day I found so cool.]
Having flown in from the east coast the day before it wasn’t too hard to wake up for the 8:00 am live recording of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast. Admittedly I’ve never listened to SGU before. My podcast time is usually taken up with Skepticality, Monster Talk, and Skeptoid. I may have been the only person in the audience that hadn’t listen to SGU. They seem to have a cult following and now I see why. Even without a frame of reference to know what the usual SGU format is, I still found the podcast interesting and even a bit funny. I’m going to have to find time to listen to SGU.
Following the SGU recording, the first in a parade of invited speakers took the stage. Being my first TAM I was admittedly star struck to see the likes of James Randi and Michael Shermer right out of the gate. Throughout TAM my admiration for Randi grew. Not only has he dedicated his life to spreading skepticism, he has the absolute greatest, most welcoming personality. Unfortunately I was not able to talk with Randi personally, but I continually heard conversations about those lucky ones that were able to get a hug from him. It seems James Randi is big on hugs, which he repeatedly professed throughout the meeting.
After Michael Shermer spoke about his new book The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, a panel discussion on skepticism on television ensued. There were some interesting points made, such as the unavoidable problem of producers editing out information skeptics would love to see on television. (I’ve even fallen victim to this in An Astrology Interview that gets Us Nowhere.) Avoiding the cutting room floor seems to be a losing battle, but all the same it seems better to get an ounce of skepticism on tv rather than letting woo-woo run unchallenged.
Next was Eugenie Scott, the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Dr Scott speak before on the NCSE’s original focus of combating the Intelligent Design’s movement to include creationism in school curricula. This time Dr Scott’s talk illustrated the parallels between Intelligent Design proponents and Anthropomorphic Global Warming deniers. It’s amazing to see how loud, but poorly supported rhetoric can be effective in persuading individuals to believe garbage. The most important outcome of Dr Scott’s talk is that the NCSE is now going to expand its already effective anti-Intelligent Design efforts to now include producing resources for addressing global warming deniers.
Immediately following Eugenie Scott was astronomer Lawrence Krauss. Dr Krauss’ talk was exclusively on one of my favorite physicists, Richard Feynman. I find Feynman fascinating for a number of reasons, including his seemingly superhuman intelligence coupled with his fun loving appreciation of life. Dr Krauss’ talk covered a number of stories from Feynman’s early years, one of which has now become my favorite Feynman tale: Early in Feynman’s career he found the love of his life, Arline Greenbaum. Despite knowing that his eventual wife was going to die of tuberculosis, Feynman married Arline all the same. Sadly she did die at a young age with Feynman at her side. At the time of her death Feynman notice that the clock in her hospital room had stopped. For many this would have been a sign of divine intervention, but to Feynman there was a simple, natural explanation. Despite watching his love die before him, through the grief he figured out the clock probably stopped because the nurse accidentally stopped the clock when she recorded the time of death.
Heading into lunch magician Jamy Ian Swiss interviewed James “The Amazing” Randi along with Steve Shaw (Banachek) and Michael Edwards on their involvement in the infamous Project Alpha. I cannot do the Project Alpha justice here so instead I’ll direct you to Wikipedia entry. Although I had heard the story before, it was still entertaining to hear directly from the participants. If there’s ever a case study in the proper use of ethics in a skeptical investigation, Project Alpha is it.
During the afternoon session, biologist, and author of the Pharyngula blog, PZ Myers spoke on A Skeptical Look at Aliens. Being an astronomer and Dr Meyers a biologist, I had never had the opportunity to hear him speak in person before. Although his topic covered some technical aspects of what we might expect out of how an alien life form may look, PZ’s eloquent presentation and simple explanation made his talk completely accessible. I’ve always respected PZ’s willingness to speak out against bad information and bad arguments on the sensitive topic of religion, but from one scientist watching another, I now have a new admiration for his professional work as well. (To be clear, Dr Myers’ credentials stand on their own, but witnessing him in person really put his talents into perspective.)
Following PZ was astronomer Pamela Gay. Dr Gay’s talk summarized our sad current state of space science. She noted how inspirational NASA has been and how the allure of space is so accessible and enticing to young kids. Yet as our government continually tightens its fiscal belts, it has repeatedly reduced funding for space exploration and science education. During this emotional speech she spoke about our country’s youth and how we were failing them, taking away their scientific aspirations. In the end, this was one of my favorite TAM talks.
Sticking with the space theme, following Dr Gay’s speech was a panel discussion on Our Future in Space. The panelist included Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss. The panel discussion was moderated by astronomer Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy fame. To state it simply, this panel
discussion fracas was pure entertainment. Between some very valid points about the financial cost, what has driven space exploration in the past, and the expected science returns of space exploration, was entertaining banter between the panelist. The coup de grâce of the discussion was when Dr Gay shushed Dr Tyson so she could speak. It was obvious that there was much mutual respect amongst the panelist but it was just as obvious that they truly have differing viewpoints on our future in space exploration. Although the panel consisted of only four individuals, their disagreement is reflective of the astronomy community as a whole. There really isn’t a clear consensus of what we should do, with the exception that all astronomers are in agreement that all of science is not receiving the appropriate financial government support.
The final talk of the day was the keynote address by Neil deGrasse Tyson. This was the third time I’ve heard him speak and some of the material was repetitive to earlier talks, but regardless, I was informed and entertained. The central theme of Dr Tyson’s talk was America’s drifting away from being a superpower in science innovation. Although we were the first country to put a person on the Moon, we have slipped away and allowed such nonsense as not labeling the thirteenth floor of skyscrapers, bad news reporting, and not recognizing scientists as public figures like other countries do. Most telling from Dr Tyson’s talk was a pair of maps that displayed the scientific output from all the countries. While the United States does produce a substantial amount of scientific findings, if you look at the change in output over the last ten years, countries like Japan and China are sky rocketing to the lead of scientific results. The finale of the keynote address was a reminder of how cosmically insignificant humans are, yet we have the ability to learn so much about the Universe, but only if we try.
I would feel remorse if I didn’t mentioned Penn Jillette’s Rock & Roll, Doughnut and Bacon Party. Yes you read that right. Penn Jillette (from Penn & Teller) hosted a party for all TAM participants. At the party Krispy Kreme doughnuts were served along side bacon. Drinks were served through a cash bar. I can now say that Corona does a nice job of washing down Krispy Kreme’s famous glazed doughnuts. For entertainment, Penn’s band No God played original and cover songs.
While I found the party entertaining it was just as fun to watch how the skeptical audience members interacted with one another. Let’s face it, there’s a selection bias in that most people that are drawn to skepticism are not former high school jocks and cheerleaders. Most skeptics were probably, to put it gently, socially awkward growing up. Me included! (The rumor amongst my former students is that I am still socially awkward.)
So that was it for day 1 of TAM 9 from Outer Space.
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9:
About eighteen months ago I started listening to the podcast Skepticality, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. The hosts of Skepticality would often begin a podcast by promoting the upcoming annual skeptics meeting known as The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM). At that time I had no idea how big TAM really is, so I made the mistake of not attending TAM 8. After the meeting came and went, it was clear from all the dedicated podcasts and blog posts that TAM was something special and needed to be witnessed in person, so this year I made the trek out to Las Vegas and experienced TAM for myself.
For those that haven’t been to a TAM, the meeting lasts four days and consists of a combination of workshops, talks, and activities. This year’s meeting was formally called TAM 9 from Outer Space as a homage to the classic(?) movie Plan 9 from Outer Space. Although the general theme was space, topics ranged from the paranormal to medicine and psychology to magic. The list of invited speakers was a who’s who of skepticism, which included the likes of Michael Shermer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott, Richard Wiseman, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins. This year’s meeting had a record attendance with over 1,600 participants, roughly half of which were experiencing TAM for the first time.
Originally I was going to write a single blog post on my personal retrospective of the meeting, then I began writing. It was quickly evident that this meeting had a large effect on me. That single post quickly grew into a monster, so I’ve decided to break apart my account into a sequence of posts each of which will represent a single day at TAM.
I will not be able to comment on everything. There simply was too much. Instead I’m going to describe what I personally found most memorable. For those speakers I don’t mention, my apologies. Every talk—and I mean this sincerely—was fascinating, but from my point of view certain talks piqued my interest more than others. For a more complete retelling of the events at TAM 9 see the live blogging at the Friendly Atheist.
TAM 9 started off with a full day of workshops. Unfortunately, because I flew in during that morning I missed the first set of workshops. From what I heard from other TAMers, the workshop on faking your own UFO pictures was interesting. Although I missed it, this workshop gave me an idea for a future Astro 101 assignment. More on that in a later post.
The first workshop I was able to attend was on Problems in Paranormal Investigation. After famed paranormal investigator Joe Nickell spoke (which was fun and interesting to hear), the guys from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society spoke on their punking of a claimed ghost detective. Their talk was not only interesting, but it led into some very interesting questions and discussions on the ethical boundaries paranormal skeptics must work within. Is it justifiable to lie, work undercover, or blatantly deceive an individual to gather pertinent information about a supposed paranormal occurrence? There’s not a simple answer to this question. Sometimes it may be worth fighting
fire with fire ghosts with ghosts.
The second workshop was on Skepticism in the Classroom. While most of the discussion was not directly applicable to my own teaching, I was impressed with how effective the use of simple magic tricks could be in a physics/astronomy course as a gateway for discussing the scientific method. (The intersection of magic and skepticism was a common theme at TAM—well duh given it was hosted by the James Randi Education Foundation.) It seems I may need to learn a little magic before the start of the next semester.
At the beginning of the year I became aware of the skeptical community. Skepticism is a way of viewing the world through the use of critical thinking. It’s intimately related to the scientific method which is why I find it appealing.
My introduction to skepticism came through reading Dr Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog. His blog regularly discusses issues such as the anti-vaccination movement, intelligent design in the classroom, the moon hoax, and a few other topics addressed by skepticism.
His blog was only the start. After poking around the internet I found the Skeptics Society, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, numerous skeptic related blogs, and a handful of interesting podcasts with a skeptical theme. In exploring these resources I quickly realized that there’s a few central figures and texts associated with skepticism. Among them is Dr Michael Shermer and the many books he’s written. Clearly anyone interested in skepticism should read Dr Shermer’s work.
As a starting point I began with Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and other Confusions of our Time. Admittedly I started with this book because I thought it would investigate the psychological mindset of individuals that believe fringe ideas. The book does do this but most of the explicit explanations for the psychology of beliefs are contained in the last chapter of the book. This chapter is well written and definitely satisfied my appetite for wanting to learn about why people believe weird things. As I scientists I especially liked the possible correlation analysis of variables—such as gender, age, education, and intelligence—on accepting pseudoscientific ideas.
The book starts off with an excellent description of science, the scientific method, and the many fallacies we typically make in examining phenomena. The first chapter can be found on the Skeptics Society’s website under the Skeptical Manifesto. The initial chapters should be standard reading for incoming science majors. (Really, I wish everyone would read them but at a minimum future scientists should.)
The intermediate chapters are dedicated largely to case studies. Even though I expected the whole book would be dedicated to the psychology of believing weird things, I enjoyed learning about the various ways critical thinking has gone awry. Among the topics discussed in the book are near death experiences, alien abductions, creationism, and pseudohistory.
While I found each chapter enlightening it was the discussion on pseudohistory, specifically the description of holocaust deniers and their beliefs, that I learned the most. I had heard in passing about holocaust deniers but I had no idea what their claims were. The book does a nice job giving the background and then critically analyzing the beliefs of those that dispute certain ideas about the holocaust.
Overall I enjoyed reading Why People Believe Weird Things. I can see myself returning to it again in the future. For now I’m off to read other titles by Dr Shermer and other books about skepticism. High on my list is The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan.
Recently I decided to have fun with the members of the CCU Astro Club. About once a month we head inland into rural South Carolina and have a star gazing party. For the past few trips the star parties have been held at Playcard Environmental Education Center. Playcard is a great location for observing. There’s a large field surrounded by tall, thick trees which lends itself to nice, quiet dark skies. Over the course of the night the conversation usually wonders into spooky topics. One great examples of this is a student once asked, “What would you do if you looked over to the trees and saw a clown just standing there smiling?”
Personally I’m the skeptical type. I think the evidence is overwhelming that monsters, ghosts, ghouls, and the like don’t exist. But I did’t think that most of my students had the same point of view. So I tried an experiment on them.
There’s a nice little iPhone app called Ghost Capture. With this app you can take a picture from your photo album and insert a ghost into the image. I couldn’t help myself. I did just that and posted the doctored photo on the club’s Facebook page. The caption reads, “This is a bit creepy. Notice the figure in the background.” After posting the picture I just sat back and waited to see how the students would react.
The reactions were split. Some students tried what they could to figure out what’s seen in the background. They blew up the image in an attempt to identify the person or to look for some telling features that may give them a clue to what it is. The students that took this route could never find anything definitive. At one point they considered submitting the photo to a website to have someone else analyze it. (I’m not sure where they planned on submitting it to but there is the Can You Explain These Photographs blog hosted by noted psychologist Dr Richard Wiseman which gives an open forum for analyzing alleged ghost photos.)
The other camp, which was the majority of students, assumed the figure was real and they tried to remember who it was. I find this one funny, because if you spend just five minutes on any state university campus in America you’ll find that no students wear what appears to be a long dress, especially while at a social star party.
What I found most interesting is that nobody accused me of posting a doctored picture. They had all assumed that the picture was real. I guess I’m too much of a trustable guy. This will teach them.
I was pleased that nobody in the CCU Astro Club actually thought it was a ghost—at least they never admitted it to anyone. Everyone took a scientific approach. They analyzed the photograph. They looked for alternatives. They came up with their own hypotheses. Of course there is a selection bias in the audience. The members I tried this experiment on elected to join a scientifically based student club and, therefore, probably have already embraced the scientific method as a means to gain knowledge.
To bring the story to a close, months after the photo was posted, I slowly let it out that it was a doctored photo. Some have forgiven me and have laughed about it. Others, not so much so.
I’m normally not a comic reader, but as I become more involved in Web 2.0 I’ve found a few that I really enjoy. Among the web comics I read regularly is Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Recently there was a posting on SMBC that rings so true it’s worth repeating here.
The first time I read this I laughed so hard because it is so true. Some of the most competitive and stubborn people I’ve ever met are scientists. I’m no exception.
Then again, it’s a good thing that scientists are so ruthless. It’s the competitive nature of scientists that makes us double check and challenge each other’s work. In doing so the strongest theories are found and the inaccurate theories are weeded out. Through the skepticism of scientist the best scientific theories are discovered.
So next time you walk into a room and you find two people physically assaulting each other, listen to what they’re saying. They may be fighting over the next greatest scientific discovery of our time.
There’s a television commercial currently in circulation by Gillette for their Fusion ProGlide Razor. The product isn’t what’s important here. What’s more at issue is the commercial ends with the announcer stating that it “turns skeptics into believers”.
The intent of the catch-phrase is obvious. For a product, any product, the statement “turns skeptics into believers” would imply that once someone uses the item, the abilities of the product is apparent enough to overcome any doubt someone may have of its capabilities. But that’s a mouth full to say.
Let’s now consider the two key nouns in the catch-phrase: skeptic and believer. In everyday language a skeptic is an individual who tends to question or doubt generally accepted claims. I’m sort of okay here. There are people, me included, that would like to strengthen the definition to say that a skeptic is an individual that uses supporting evidence and logic to arrive at provisional conclusions. In other words, someone who uses the scientific method to derive new knowledge. For an extended description of what a skeptic is check out A Skeptical Manifesto.
The word believer, on the other hand, tends to denote an individual that accepts a conjecture based on a limited amount of evidence. A believer could be someone with anecdotal evidence, or even an individual who ignores established ideas or corroborated observations to continue to hold onto a certain belief. A believer is often a person that claims knowledge without having the ability to produce substantiating evidence. Here’s the beginning of where I have a problem with the statement “turns skeptics into believers.”
A true skeptic uses the scientific method. They collect empirical data, characterize observations, and use logical inferences to form a testable hypothesis. If after the test, or better yet multiple tests, the hypothesis is supported a skeptic will be confident in the hypothesis and will formulate a provisional conclusion. A good skeptic’s conclusion is only as strong as the supporting evidence. The point is that skeptics do not make leaps across knowledge gaps. The everyday connotation of a believer is someone that does.
So is it really possible to convert a skeptic into a believer? From the proper usage of the words skeptic and believer it would seem that such a transformation is not very likely. An individual that holds to the skeptical ideology would not be willing to accept the suggested anecdotal evidence to formulate the conclusion that a given product is superior. At best, a skeptic would use the singular testimony as a starting point to a more thorough investigation.
Sorry Gillette. A more accurate catch-phrase would have been that the Fusion ProGlide will “turn believers into skeptics”.
Recently a colleague in chemistry forwarded an email to me and asked, “Any truth to this?”
Two moons on 27th August 2010
27th Aug the Whole World is waiting for………….
Planet Mars will be the brightest in the night skystarting August. It will look as large as the full moonto the naked eye. This will culminate on Aug. 27 when Mars comes within 34.65M miles off earth. Be sure to watch the sky on Aug. 27 12:30 am. It will look like the earth has 2 moons.
The next time Mars may come this close is in 2287.
Share this with your friends as NO ONE ALIVE TODAY will ever see it again.
When I first read the main content of the email it was obvious that something was fishy, but I’ve been trained in astronomy and I’ve built a background of experiences to tell me this isn’t right. I don’t think any less of my science PhD colleague for asking me “Any truth to this?” In fact, I would praise him for doing so.
I have mixed feelings about these kind of emails. On the pro side, the purpose of the email is to get people excited about astronomy (assuming a malicious virus isn’t attached). The hope is that on August 27, 2010 people will go outside and look at the sky and try to see this event. For at least a short time people will be thinking about science.
On the flip side, there’s the perpetuation of bad information. I did not include the forwarded email headers in the quote above, but it was clear that this email has been passed around. What gets me is that apparently no one in this chain stopped to ask themselves if the claims seem reasonable. If you look at Mars tonight it’s definitely bright but not large in size. In fact, Venus looks larger and is much brighter. Is the expectation that Mars will grow substantially in the coming weeks until it becomes the size of the Moon? Moreover, if you type “mars closest to earth 2010″ into Google the top site returned is by Hoax-Slayer, a site dedicated to debunking email and internet hoaxes. The entry on the Mars-Earth closest approach does a fairly good job of debunking the claim of a super sized Mars this coming August. If one site is not enough, then many of the other websites returned by the same Google search also demonstrate that this email is a hoax.
But back to why my colleague should be praised. In reading the email it was obvious that the claims being made were not true, but that was because of my training. My colleague is trained in chemistry. If I had a question about a chemistry related topic I would, and have gone to him before to find out if something is true or not. The point here is that he didn’t blindly assume the information is true but instead sought out a second opinion. Rather than doing an internet search he shot off a quick email to me.
Although I like that the purpose of the email is to get people excited and involved in astronomy, I would also like to see some consideration of what’s actually being said in these emails. I also worry about the individual that does go out this August and looks for an oversized Mars and doesn’t find one. Does that person think less of science, or do they chalk it up to being duped by an email hoax?