Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skepticon 4 Recap

I'm still recovering from Skepticon this past weekend which seriously messed up my sleep schedule to the tune of a nearly 5 hour shift that's not wanting to jump back. Ugh.

Regardless, it was a fantastic time. Unlike last year, I didn't try to force myself to attend many talks that didn't interest me which probably helped. I skipped the Creationist Museum tour (I've heard this story so many times it's just boring now). I skipped the Give a Damn screening (which I want to see, but not when I've just finished driving for 4 hours). I skipped Dave Silverman (I just don't must care for what he has to say). I skipped Eliezer Yudkowsky's talk on Heuristics and Biases (I've had enough basic logic kthxbai). I skipped the panel on how skeptics should deal with death (I've got my own approach that suits me). I skipped Dan Barker's talk (I've seen him elsewhere and know what the FFRF is doing).

The first talk I did catch was Julia Galef's on "The Straw Vulcan" which looked at how Hollywood portrays "rational" characters when they're anything but. Her key example was Spock from the original Star Trek series. Her definition of rational had two variations:

1) Epistemic Rationality - The method of obtaining an accurate view of reality.
2) Instrumental Rationality - The method of achieving your goals, whatever they are.

In general, these two are related since, if you want to achieve your goal, it helps to have an accurate picture of reality. But for characters like Spock, he's often depicted as not achieving his goals or being able to accurately predict outcomes which would come from an accurate understanding of the world. Obviously, while he's portrayed as rational and logical, he doesn't fit either definition. So where was the disconnect?

Julia introduced five principles where there's a disconnect.

In the first, straw Vulcan logic is unable to deal with emotions. The example used came from an episode where Spock engaged in some saber rattling to attempt to scare off an alien species, but only proceeded to enrage them. When confronted with this, Spock blamed the issue on the irrationality of the aliens.

But at Julia noted, Spock was the irrational one given that he'd seen time and again the emotional capacity of others. He chose to willfully ignore that for some reason.

Her second principle was that pseudologic refuses to make a decision without 100% of the information. In any situation, its unlikely that we can know all the information necessary, but logic and reason gives us guides to do with what we have. Additionally, the time and resources often necessary to gather more information is generally tied to the law of diminishing returns.

The third principle was the straw Vulcans never rely on intuition. While intuition and quick reasoning is often subject to flaw and bias, the fact is, the vast majority of the time, it works (hence why we can have so many people running around not thinking at all. The trouble is that we, also not thinking, let them become politicians).

Fourth, Julia noted that to straw Vulcans, being rational meant not having emotions. Her counter was to point out that emotion is the root that gives us goals on which we can apply rational thought to inform actions. Without emotion, there would be no drive to do anything in the first place.

Lastly, straw Vulcans only valuable quantifiable things like money and efficiency. As a response, Julia showed two clips that demonstrated even Spock is expected to have deep emotions, although he hides them.

Her final statement summed things up pretty well: "If you're trying to be rational but keep ending up with the wrong answer, it's not proper to assume rationality is bad, but you're bad at rationality."

This sums up Creationists and other pseudoscientists perfectly. They try to be rational, dressing up their gibberish in scientific language, but they can't seem to produce any sort of models that, you know, work. So instead, they criticize the scientific method, crying that it's too dogmatic for now allowing the supernatural, and try to rewrite the definition as they did in Kansas in 2005, or just sneak it in without anyone noticing, as Behe admitted to on the stand at Dover.

The next talk was Greta Christina's. I'm not going to bother to summarize much of it because it's a rehash of this blog post of hers from 2007. It hasn't changed much. It's on why atheists are "angry". The short version is that they have good reason to be.

The second portion of her talk is whether or not that anger was a good thing. Her conclusion, one that I've agreed with completely for a long time, is that yes, anger is useful. As Julia pointed out in the previous talk, emotion is the driver of most actions. If we wish to effect social change and stop all the evils she'd listed, then we need that anger to fuel the movement. To take that away is to disempower ourselves.

She makes a fantastic note that anger is not violence, it is not bigotry, or hatred. It is an emotion stating displeasure and antagonism with the current state of affairs.

"Lastly, most harm is not about harm being done to atheists. Most of the things that make us angry, most of it is about harm that's being done to believers. We're angry on other people's behalf. We're angry because we have compassion and a sense of justice. We're angry because we want this to stop. We care about humans, not because we hate God or there's a God shaped hole in our hearts. We're not angry because there's something wrong with us; we're angry because there's something right."

I missed Rebecca Watson's talk because our dinner took FAR too long to arrive (waited nearly an hour), so PZ's was the next we caught. Last year his talk wasn't very exciting. It was a bit of fluff on genetics and how it drives evolution, but lacked a solid sticking point to really make it work. This year, he fixed that.

He opened with some quotes from Dumbski and Stephen Meyer about how DNA actually proves intelligent design because "junk" DNA actually has a function. And what's more, they stated this as a testable prediction. Demonstrating this was wrong would be another way to show ID was wrong.

So PZ went through the various types of DNA showing just how much was useful. I won't go through all of the details, but it stacked up like this:
5% - Functional DNA that codes for traits
10% - Structural DNA that keeps everything organized and running
45% - Parasitic DNA from retroviruses, transposons and the like
40% - Completely is completely unknown

At best, only 15% of that DNA can be considered directly useful. The rest can eventually provide fodder for mutations to potentially develop new traits, but that's a LOT of baggage to be reproducing every time a cell divides and not really worth it.

That was the last talk I attended for the day. Sam Singleton was up next, but I just don't find him interesting. So I skipped out and talked with some people. However, I will note that Sam's talk contributed to an event that's come to be known as Gelatogate which I'll be sharing my thoughts on in another post.

I slept in the next morning, skipping most of the early talks and only came in on Hemant Mehta's talk. This was disappointing since it meant I missed Jen McCreight's and she's always worth listening to.

Anyway, Hemant is a math teacher in Illinois and very much in the vein of Dan Meyer who I really like, so I made sure to attend this one on adding critical thinking to math classes.

Sadly, there wasn't much of that in the talk. Instead, it was more about getting students engaged in math thinking. It's much of what I've been saying elsewhere: Shoving kids through formulae that they don't understand or know where they came from, doesn't teach them anything about math. We make opportunities for them to arrive at "correct" answers without knowing math, and then wonder why math learning doesn't take place.

After having taught a few math courses, I know exactly why math teachers do this: Expecting a high school student to actually, think through a problem is damned near impossible. They have several years of education before high school training them to do the exact opposite and that builds up a lot of non-thinking momentum.

So if we're going to do it, we're going to have to be sneaky about it. And this is where Hemant and Dan Meyer really shine. Both of them have been doing the same thing I've been doing with my Anime Mythbusters talk, but in the classroom. They bring in clips from popular media and teach the math concepts behind it to make predictions that can be either checked against the footage (in the case of more reality based shows like Mythbusters), or used to show just how ridiculous something is (as in the case of the clips I show from anime).

Hemant showed a few really good clips that introduced some concepts, such as using the 2/4 Rule for poker for which he showed some edited footage from the World Poker Championships with the percentages blacked out so students could calculate. Another was dealing with playing pool and going "double or nothing" on a series of games, which would be an example of exponential growth. The last he didn't have a use for, but it was from the Office and had a screensaver with a logo that would bounce around and everyone watching it wanted to see it go perfectly into the corner.

Regardless, Hemant had three strategies to improve math education:
1) Use open-ended questions
2) Let their creativity run wild
3) Be less helpful

Spencer Greenberg was up next and was talking about using self-skepticism and realizing our own biases. But I severely tuned out on this one as it became mostly a bunch of fuzzy relativism.

David Fitzgerald gave a talk on "The Complete Heretic's Guide to Western Religion: The Mormons". In short, it was a roast of Mormon theology. Nuff said.

Darrel Ray gave the second to last talk on Sex & Secularism. The basis for this talk was a survey that got passed around the blogosphere earlier this year and garnered around 14,000 responses. It looked at the sexual practices and satisfaction of those that had left various religions as well as guilt when they were religious. Greta summed up the study very well when it first came out, so I'm not going to rehash it again. The key points are that leaving religion vastly improves sex lives, religion imposes a lot of guilt, but doesn't actually keep anyone from having sex.

The only point that Darrel did make in his talk was that when secularists were asked where they received sex education, only something 34% said they got it from their parents. Not very good. But when he looked at those that grew up in strongly religious households, he found they were far lower: only around 17%. This underscores the strong need for sex education in schools. While conservatives try to pretend that it's something that should be done at home, the fact is, they just don't do it.

The final talk was JT Eberhard. And what a marvelous end it was. JT talked on the need for the skeptical community to involve themselves with mental disorders.

For those that don't know, JT is anorexic and it almost killed him. He's blogged a lot in the past year or so about his struggles with it, and the majority of his talk was a very personal and emotional history of what he went through. But the takeaway was this: There's a lot of incorrect stereotypes about such disorders, such as they're something that you should just be able to "get over" with sufficient willpower. But like any other disease, it's not just a matter of willpower, it has physiological causes that are often ignored.

Additionally, there's many people out there that try to give misinformation about the medications involved in treatment. By trying to restrict these, they deny people the help they desperately need. Lastly, there's a bunch of alt-med (read: BS) treatments that give false hope while not really fixing the problem.

If the skeptic community is honest about countering falsehoods wherever they are, then this topic is one that has a lot loaded into it and effects more people than we realize. One in four people has a mental disorder in one way or another. Most aren't very severe, but some, as JT's is, are. And so JT asks that we be friends and advocates to those that need it.

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