First up this morning was a marginal breakfast. I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit. Cooked fruit is not chocolate. It does not make things better. It makes them measurably much worse. Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside. It’s gross.
George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker. It was pretty funny.
Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about. I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.
Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV. I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view. When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t. Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.
Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff. If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.
Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there? No, not at all. And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines. Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids. Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV. Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV. There’s more than the Discovery Channel.
They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be. I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor. They’re tricksy people.
Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.
Next up was Lawrence Krauss. A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls. There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM. If that happened, I couldn’t tell. There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.
He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.
Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing. Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians. It shows how lame psychics are.
Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around. I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around. I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.
And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people. Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved. So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it. If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities. South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion. Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time. These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live. Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate. And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.
Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.
After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.
Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast. She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History. She was fantastic. She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention. Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.
They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious. Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary. He was talking about the biology of aliens. I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.
He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like. Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science. What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science. The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue. Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in. It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on. That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere. I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.
And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever. I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again. It was a panel on the future of humans in space. It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss. NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass. He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything. The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence. Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.
NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end. I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine. He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about. Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up. His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true. I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud. Hysterically funny. I want it to happen.
And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day. I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs. I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books. It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table. After that, I went down to eat. Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party. I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.
Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them. They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well. I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others. I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun. It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half. Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.
AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!
Super exciting, my first “article” for SheThought is up. I am writing for like a realer blog than my own .com. So, go read this on SheThought, there are pictures there: http://shethought.com/2010/08/25/pop-psychology-and-the-media/ If you want to comment, please comment there. I’m including it here for those lazy RSSers… you know who you are.
Today I read an article that I found infuriating, but then I’m easily infuriated, because of what appeared to be either really bad methodology in a study or really silly conclusions by the journalist who wrote the piece. Since I can’t see the study and I can read the piece, I’ll try to avoid pointing a finger in either direction. It was posted several months ago, but came to my attention today. It reminded me of how important it is to be critical of the media’s handling of scientific studies.
The piece is called “The Psychology of Knock Offs: Why ‘Faking It’ Makes Us Feel (and Act) Like Phonies“. The basic premise is that, through a study recently conducted, scientists have concluded that people are more dishonest and cynical when they wear knock off goods.
I’ll be the first to admit that this sort of thing falls well below my normal threshold of caring. People who wear things because they are a specific brand or because they look like they’re a specific brand are a little alien to me. It strikes me as fairly shallow behavior, but if it makes them happy, it’s really no skin off my back. If you can buy something for $5 from a dude on the street in New York and it impresses all the ladies back home because it looks like a $500 purse, good for you, right? How on earth does a purse cost that much anyway?
In any event, the basic methodology for the study was that they had girls come in and they gave them sunglasses. Half were told they were super expensive awesome sunglasses, and the other half were told they were cheapo knockoffs. They were then given a battery of tests in which lying would earn them more money. They were also given a survey that asked them their views on the world. The women (and it was all young women, why no guys?) who were told they had cheapo sunglasses were much more likely to lie and be cynical.
From this, the journalist concludes that people who buy knock offs are paying a hidden moral cost that makes them more likely to lie and be cynical.
Wearing counterfeit glasses not only fails to bolster our ego and self-image the way we hope, it actually undermines our internal sense of authenticity. “Faking it” makes us feel like phonies and cheaters on the inside, and this alienated, counterfeit “self” leads to cheating and cynicism in the real world.
That would be a really interesting conclusion if the methodology at all allowed you to make it, but it doesn’t.
I have some questions that aren’t answered in the article. Did they all get the sunglasses at the same time? Did they know other people had supposedly real sunglasses? Were they tested by the same person who told them that the sunglasses were real or fake? Did they get to take the glasses home, or did they think they would get to take the glasses home?
But there are problems I can see with just the information in the article:
1) The volunteers given “real” sunglasses were told they were authentic, so they’d already been rewarded and were therefore more likely to do what they thought the researchers wanted.
2) The volunteers given “fake” sunglasses had been told, essentially, that they didn’t deserve real sunglasses when the researchers told them they were fakes, and were therefore less likely to do what they thought the researchers wanted.
3) The volunteers had just been cheated, of course they felt more negative.
4) The volunteers were gifted sunglasses, they didn’t buy them knowing that they were knock offs, so it’s impossible to extrapolate the behavior to people who buy their own sunglasses.
5) The volunteers received no benefit from wearing fake sunglasses because they didn’t buy them — the entire reason people buy fake brand names is to save money, in what way is a study that excludes the primary motivating factor at all useful in studying a behavior?
6) There’s no way to be sure that the behavior is linked to wearing the sunglasses rather than linked to being given sunglasses of one kind or another.
The only reasonable conclusion from the study is that people who are given things they’re told aren’t very nice don’t feel terribly good about it. This is, of course, not a broad and moralistic statement and it doesn’t really make good news, and that’s a big problem with a lot of science reporting. When something interesting happens in a study, the response is to exaggerate it, make huge claims, and moralize wherever possible. Interesting patterns are often pointed to as conclusive results and people with pre-determined moral opinions take things and run.
If you want to tell me that “[c]ounterfeiting is a serious economic and social problem, epidemic in scale,” I’d love to hear the whys and wherefores, but I’d much rather hear the facts and figures accurately explained.