The Amaz!ng Meeting [TAM9]: Some Notes
Workshop: Skepticism in the ClassroomFirst I would like to thank those who attended our workshop at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 for your patience as we recover from the meeting and organize our thoughts. I have created a permanent page (under “Resources”) where you can access the materials we promised. Some of the things you will find are videos of Skeptical Teacher, Matt Lowry’s Self-Tying Knot trick its solution, a few exercises Matt has developed, my presentation with additional slides to provide notes and explanations (both embedded and in downloadable PDF), and links to purchase the books that I recommended.
Matt recapped the most important concepts from his piece last year and presented more of his fun and interesting demonstrations. I used to think that cognitive psychologists had all of the fun because we study the interesting ways that our brains and minds fool us and can blow those minds by showing them. However, after some thought I realized that the physics teachers I know have the coolest, scariest, ickiest, and most surprising demonstrations. They deal with the physical world and there are almost as many bizarre things in the physical world as there are in the mind.Matt did not walk on fire or lie on a bed of nails, but he has done those things and has the video to prove it! What he did do is show the audience that getting your hands dirty can be a great way to reach minds.
I was a bit nervous about this workshop because some of the material I presented is very different from my usual “Oew” and “Ah” and “aHA!” stuff. In addition, its connection to promoting skepticism is distant, at least on the surface. The title of my presentation was Deep Thoughts: Facilitating Critical Thinking at All Ages. In teaching critical thinking, the age of the student is extremely important in determining methods and focus. For adults, the biggest roadblock to critical thinking is overconfidence. This is just a nice way of saying “arrogance” or “closed-mindedness”. The irony is that we humans are so overconfident that we think the term applies to other people and not ourselves.
For young children, there are few roadblocks. What we should focus on is guiding cognitive development in a way that minimizes overconfidence. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to encourage the practice of consideration and deep thinking. This, I suggest, is accomplished through discussion of philosophical questions.
I have yet to read a review of the workshop. However, the immediate feedback I received was very positive and I heard my words flowing from the mouths of others all weekend, including on the stage. It is entirely possible that others have been thinking about the same issues, but I choose to take it as evidence that my ideas were discussed and found worthy of some consideration.
A Short TAM9 Review
Unfortunately, I was still tweaking my workshop presentation and was unable to attend the other workshops. I caught only some of the activism workshop – the one I needed the most – but luckily there is a wonderful manual available which was produced by Desiree Schell and Maria Walters. Last year’s reception, which kicks off the official meeting on Thursday night, featured music and live interviews. This seemed to defeat the ‘meet and greet’ purpose of most attendees. The reception this year returned to the usual format of conversation, but there were so many people that it was difficult to find anyone. Friday morning JREF president D.J. Grothe announced the final headcount. Attendees, organizers, and presenters at TAM9 From Outer Space totaled 1652, approximately 300 more people than last year, which was 200 more than the year before.
In general, the long list of speakers booked for this year included the most inspiring scientists and science communicators in the skeptical community. The original keynote speaker, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, is a personal hero of mine. His talk repeated much of what he covered in his very long and satisfying TAM6 talk, but I never tire of the material or his presentation style. Unfortunately, the other keynote speech, delivered by Richard Dawkins, was as boring (to me, anyway) as Tyson’s was entertaining. I have never found Dawkins to be a dynamic speaker, but this was particularly snore-worthy. He chose to spend much of his time describing his soon-to-be-released children’s book rather than discussing anything of note. Likewise, I find PZ Myers’ style a little bit dull, but I usually enjoy his talks simply because he chooses to talk about some of the most interesting topics. This year is no exception. His was one of the few talks that I missed, but I am looking forward to his discussion of alien anatomy when the JREF posts video of his talk (they committed to making all of the content available online).
Every other talk (not including the Sunday Paper Session, which varied in quality) was fantastic.
Some of the highlights for me:
- Carol Tavris delivered a speech about reducing cognitive dissonance by first considering the target’s vantage point (i.e., empathy). This was probably the best speech I have ever heard, and I have heard a LOT of speeches and talks.
- Dylan Keenberg, a former student and collaborator of mine, delivered a wonderful Sunday talk describing one method for talking to others (Rogerian argumentation) which is highly likely to reduce both cognitive dissonance and misunderstandings. The most important aspect of this method is, once again, empathy. In order to more than simply fake empathy, though, one must be open to the possibility that one’s current understanding is wrong. My informal polling of TAM9 speakers and other community leaders tells me that I am justified in feeling extremely proud.
Daniel Loxton’s discussion of these two talks (Tavris’s and Keenberg’s) as well as the two which specifically addressed activism (one by JREF Communications Sadie Crabtree and the other by union organizer and radio host Desiree Schell) is much more thoughtful, thorough, and interesting than what I could write at the moment.
- Daniel also wrote about the panel to discuss diversity. In a nutshell, the discussion was quite a mess for the first half, but the more they discussed the more each clarified, and in some cases, changed their views until they settled on a middle ground that I think all could embrace. Essentially, they agreed that applying skepticism to a more diverse set of problems/questions/domains would result in a more diverse community without compromising the integrity of skepticism as a movement. Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity. In addition, untestable claims (e.g., “Does God exist?”) are off-limits because they cannot be addressed scientifically.
I am always thrilled to hear D.J. speak about such things from a stage because he tends to be clear, firm, and directly on-message. Last year, for example, he made a point of asking nearly every speaker to clearly define the scope of their organization and each answered with some form of “scientific skepticism”. This year, he elaborated on this by noting that he strives for a diversity of religious views.
However, I did not leave TAM9 with the optimism that Daniel Loxton left with. One reason for this was that D.J. made those statements while discussing “Diversity in Skepticism” with Debbie Goddard, Greta Christina, Jamila Bey, and Hemant Mehta. Debbie Goddard is the campus outreach director for CFI, a secular organization with a branch devoted to skepticism (CSI). The panel’s moderator, Desiree Schell, is firmly rooted in the skeptical community as the host of Skeptically Speaking and an occasional blogger on Skeptic North. The other three panelists are closely identified with atheism and, in my opinion, have contributed little, if anything, to skepticism itself. I kept wondering who this “we” was in the discussion (e.g., “We could offer…”).
The conflation of atheism and skepticism is a very serious problem with dire consequences. The most important of these is the degradation of the integrity of skepticism itself. The scientific method only works when scientists are open to interpreting any result objectively – to consider all evidence with an open mind and to hold all conclusions tentatively. The conclusion that there is no God cannot be arrived at empirically, so it cannot be “the result of properly-applied skepticism” as some claim. I am very worried about this trend to conflate these two for several reasons, including the manner in which the majority of atheists talk to and about the faithful.
- Bill Nye’s talk was condensed from the longer talk he gave at the Skeptic Society’s Science Symposium last month. In his position as the executive director of The Planetary Society he is concerned with science education and the consequences of failing in this area. For this reason, he is another hero to me.
- The panel discussion of the future of space exploration was almost as lively as the diversity panel would be two days later. Most notably, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s verbal sparring with Lawrence Krauss left Bill Nye and moderator Phil Plait with little room to get a word in. However, Pamela Gay managed to do so by literally shushing Tyson – three times! For that, if not for the plea during her solo talk for all in the audience to be activists for education, made her another hero. Phil’s talk last year still rings in my years, so the odd man out on that panel – Lawrence Krauss – was the only one on the stage that I would not walk a few miles, breaking a path in the snow, to hear speak.
- Speaking of heroes, there were two announcements at TAM9 which deserve to be noted. One was that The Richard Dawkins Foundation has committed to fund child care at meetings and conferences like TAM. The other involves everyone’s hero, Genie Scott. At the end of a talk in which she described the parallels between evolution denial and AGW denial (described and discussed in a great post by Donald Prothero), she announced that the NCSE is beginning an initiative to fight climate change denial in public education.
- Finally, two Jennifers, Jennifer Michael Hecht and Jennifer Ouellette, merged poetry and popular culture with skepticism and science, respectively, in the most uplifting and inspiring ways. Hecht condensed a normally hour-long history of doubt into half an hour by speaking quickly, but this only enhanced the talk. Jennifer held a cultural mirror up to science and space exploration, showing clips and images from A Trip to the Moon to Doctor Who and beyond. These were as, if not more, intellectually fulfilling as the talks given by the psychologists (okay, I’m biased) and neurologists (Elizabeth Loftus, Richard Wiseman, Susana Martinez-Conde, and Stephen Macknik all spoke). Wiseman even introduced me to a new favorite ‘suggested lyrics’ video, so I think that I will leave you with that.