Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism—Definitely worth the trouble.

On May 12-15, 2016, I attended Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (or NECSS [pronounced “Nexus”]) in New York City.  I have wanted to attend this annual conference since I heard about it several years ago, so this year (having a little extra time), I decided to jump in and attend. The current Skeptic movement differs from Humanist and Atheist movements, but there is a lot of overlap in content and people. Just my opinion, but the Humanist movement seems to focus on separation of church and state, as well as human values through “non-revealed truths.” The Atheist movement seems to cover pure atheism.  The Skeptic movement is mostly silent on those 2 topics and focuses more on rational approaches to living.  It focuses on debunking pseudoscience, but as far I can tell, that is not for pleasure, per se, but in reaction to dangerous products and thought from some contemporary groups.  This meeting was described as “a celebration of science and critical thinking.”

I had a great time and I think it was totally worth the time and money.  I propose that next year we get a group of New Orleans Skeptics to attend to together.  This article is a brief write-up of my general take-aways and some of the highlights.

There were probably several hundred attendees.  The event took place at “Fashion Institute of Technology” in midtown Manhattan, on 27th and 28th streets, between 7th and 8th Avenues.  There was nothing “fashion” about it; that was just the venue, with a nice auditorium and foyer area.  The foyer area had tables set up with probably half dozen local and regional groups, such as the sponsors, New York City Skeptics, and other similar groups, such as CampQuest (a nonreligious summer sleepaway camp for kids), Center For Inquiry, American Humanists.  They also sold books by some of the speakers.  I bought 2 books.

What I most enjoyed was being in such a high density of similarly–minded science and rationality enthusiasts. Although this was my first conference of this type, I felt right at home. I was able to chat and meet a handful of like-minded individuals. Also, they had several pub events, so I was able to meet some of the speakers.

The talks were almost all informative, entertaining and worthwhile. The speakers were all well know authors and thinkers in these areas.   I did not attend everything, and, in particular, I missed the musical presentation “Broad Street Score” and the SGU (Skeptics Guide to the Universe) “Extravaganza.”  Thursday, May 12 was actually preliminary workshops, for which there was an extra charge and I did not attend (they were sold out). In the future, I would attend these.  Considering the expense of the trip, the extra charge was minimal, and there were very interesting things there also.

The main conference was 2 full days, Friday and Saturday. Below, I have a table of some of the speakers with summaries of the take-home messages that I got.  The first day (Friday) was mostly science-based medicine, with lots of debunking pseudo-science. It ended with a panel of all the speakers, who answered questions that audience members had submitted on index cards. (They did use one of my questions!) Topics on Saturday were broader, with 2 highlights for me. One was Bill Nye the Science Guy and the second highlight for me was the live podcast of SGU.  In addition, Saturday featured the Keynote Speaker, Richard Wiseman.  He was very upbeat and entertaining. He also did a show called “Experimental” which demonstrated a lot of psychological phenomena with no actual human speaker in charge. 

I re-iterate: I think it would be great if a group from Nola attended NECSS next year in May 2017. First, it would just be a lot of fun and we’d learn a lot. In addition, we could network to get skeptic speakers here in Nola.   We would show that we are not so backwards here in Louisiana!  Obviously, costs would be airfare, hotel, registration, food and incidentals, so it would take some advance planning to get the lowest rates. Folks could combine it with other trips or make a vacation out of it. We could try to get a group rate on a hotel, outside of the high midtown Manhattan rates.  

MARION’S SUMMARY TABLE OF SOME OF THE NECSS TALKS

Harriet Hall, MD, retired physician, army pilot 

Functional Medicine is Dysfunctional

http://www.skepdoc.info/

There is a new scam called “functional medicine.” Examples are: Jeff Bland, Mark Hyman. They are cloaked in the language of science.  Whatever is actually functional is due to conventional medicine. The rest is hype.  “What’s unique is not good. What’s good is not unique.”

Grant Ritchey, Dentist

Dental CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) “Where truth meets the tooth.”

http://www.prismpodcast.com/tag/grant-ritchey/

Discussed mercury in amalgam (NOT dangerous) and fluoride in water (essential!!). Places without fluoride have much higher dental cavities in children.  For example, Baton Rouge voted it down!

Scott Gavura, pharmacist

Natural Disaster: Dietary Supplements-1

https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/contributors/scott-gavura-bscphm-mba-rph/ ,

Supplements may be: herbs, vitamins, amino acids, homeopathy, probiotics, sports enhancements. Supplements are basically unregulated, while prescription drugs are over regulated. He asked for a “level playing field.”

Jann Bellamy, attorney

Natural Disaster: Dietary Supplements-2

https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/supplements-lies-and-a-lengthy-transcript/#more-42233

Senator Orrin Hatch ensured that the DSHEA (Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 ) does not permit the FDA to regulate supplements. There have been 33 deaths from supplements.

(Not from the conference, but this article is exactly what she discussed:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/21/us/politics/21hatch.html)

John Snyder

Chronic Lyme: When Life Hands You Lemons

https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/contributors/john-m-snyder-md/

Bottom line: there is no such thing as “Chronic Lyme.”

Clay Jones, MD

Your Baby’s Spine Will Be Just Fine Without Chiropractic Adjustment

“The crack heard around the world.” Showed a viral video of a baby getting Chiropractic. Completely unnecessary and possible dangerous.

Steve Novella, MD

Bayesian Statistics

https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/p-value-under-fire/

Most scientific findings are wrong. Not because the science is bad, but because most new things do not pan out.  This is why critical thinking is so important. Also, he argued against the use of “P-vlaues” and for Bayesian statistics which asks “What is the probability that the hypothesis is true given this new data?”

Panel: Should Physicians “Fire” Anti-Vaccination Patients?

Saul Hymes, Clay Jones, & John Snyder

There are arguments on both sides: To allow unvaccinated children in waiting rooms puts all children at risk. But is it fair to deny patients medical care?  Some argued that if the physician tries really hard to convince the patients, and you know they have other providers, it is OK to refuse treatment.

Deborah Berebichez, PhD

Outrageous Acts of Thinking

http://www.sciencewithdebbie.com/

Made a 4-way grid of “True/False” (scientifically) vs. “Reasonable /Outrageous” to point out that it’s easy when true things seem reasonable or false things seem outrageous.  The hard part is when false things appear reasonable (example: the geocentric view of the universe) or true things appear outrageous (example: general relativity). This is where skeptics must remain clear-thinking.

Shari Berkowitz, PhD

Wrongful Convictions: The Importance of Science and Skepticism in the Courtroom

Dr. Shari R. Berkowitz is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Administration at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Memory is RECONSTRUCTIVE. Memories can be false. She is working to reverse wrongful convictions based on eye witness testimony or forced confessions. She does experiments that show that 68% of people will falsely confess to something under sleep deprivation or other conditions. She also trains lawyers and judges.

Bill Nye

Video Judo: Science Guy versus Anti-Science Guys

http://billnye.com/#home

Gave a wide-ranging talk. He fights the creationists.  Example, a huge replica of Noah’s ark is being paid for with tax $ in Kentucky. He’s fighting the climate deniers. Yet he is optimistic. http://thesolutionsproject.org/ has evidence that we can solve the problem of climate change NOW with available technology. Space exploration is essential. Possible discovery of water on Mars suggests that life started on Mars.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Live

Evan Bernstein, Bob Novella, Jay Novella, Steve Novella, & Cara Santa Maria with special guest Bill Nye

http://www.theskepticsguide.org/podcast/sgu/567

Weekly discussion of science and skepticism.   Covered many topics.

One thing they covered: why are there 3 dimensions?

http://www.seeker.com/why-does-our-universe-have-three-dimensions-1765597008.html#news.discovery.com

Panel: Diversity in Science & Space Exploration

Deborah Berebichez, Rachel Crane, Hussein Jirdeh, & Jennifer Lopez

Rachel Crane: http://www.cnn.com/profiles/rachel-crane-profile

Dr. Hussein Jirdeh is the Head of Communications and Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

Jennifer Lopez is commercial tech development lead at CASIS (The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space)(International Space Station) http://www.iss-casis.org/

This panel discussed the importance of media and role models to battle unconscious bias.  Dr. Berebichez said that in Mexico she encountered overt discouragement, but in the US, subtle bias is worse. Dr. Jirdeh said that science loses a lot of minorities in the education pipeline. Ms. Crane is working on getting females as lead scientists in movies and TV. Studies show that people’s performance conforms to stereotypes when shown stereotypical role model images.

Richard Wiseman

Positive Skepticism/Experimental

https://www.youtube.com/user/Quirkology

“Quirky mind stuff for curious minds”

Showed a lot of optical illusions and explanations of magic tricks.  This is often explanation for “paranormal” (Paradolia).  He debunked “walking on hot coals.” Noted that the people sought medical help, not paranormal help, when burned by the hot coals.

Michael Mann, PhD

The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving us Crazy

http://www.meteo.psu.edu/holocene/public_html/Mann/index.php

He was one of the first meteorology professors to document climate change. 2001. Shared Nobel prize to IPCC.  Has several books about climate science deniers. Thinks carbon emissions may be declining, due to intentional efforts.

Jennifer Lopez, MS

Destination: International Space Station

(See above)

Described the ISS: private/public partnerships in almost any science field.  Tries to recruit minority high school students into science. Anyone can propose an experiment!

Rationally Speaking Live

Julia Galef & Jacob Appel (Bioethicist, lawyer, psychiatrist)

http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/

http://www.jacobmappel.com/

Discussed bio-ethical dilemmas. For example, should lithium be added to water supplies? A study showed that suicide rates were inversely correlated with the lithium content in the local water supply.