The first (intended to be annual)[1] Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism was held on Saturday, sponsored by the New England Skeptical Society and the New York City Skeptics. The conference was meant to present the views and opinions of some skeptics — including comments on what it means to be a skeptic — and to give skeptics a venue to get together, meet, and talk. They cutely gave it a name that they could abbreviate as NECSS and pronounce “nexus”.

The conference was mostly very good, with a few slow spots. For the most part, the speakers were engaging and interesting. These were the best bits, to me:

  • Dr Paul Offitt, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, talked about how the media covers the anti-vaccine folks, and the “controversy” about whether vaccines are harmful. His talk was excellent and interesting, as he discussed the recent Dateline NBC program, “A Dose of Controversy. Because that program ran recently, it came up throughout the day, in much of the discussion.

    Dr Offitt talked about controlled medical studies vs emotional appeals, the difficulty in dealing with the media in this regard, and his experience with appearing on the program.

  • Continuing in that vein was a panel discussion of skepticism and the media, moderated by John Rennie, until recently the editor in chief of Scientific American. The panelists were Dr Rachael Dunlop, an Australian medical researcher who is part of The Skeptic Zone podcast; John Snyder, Chief of the Section of General Pediatrics at Saint Vincent’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College; and Howard Schneider, the founding dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University.

    Mr Schneider had a different perspective from the others, holding the view that the media cannot be blamed for how the public interprets what’s reported. The media, he says, has a responsibility to report what’s happening, and the public needs to be educated to think critically about it. There clearly are controversies about some of these things that we consider to be settled facts — such as the vaccine/autism connection and evolution/creationism — and the media must show that.

    My rebuttal to that, as I said on the microphone in the Q&A period, consists of three points:

    • The media choose what they cover, and they make those choices every day. They don’t have to put it on the news every time someone stands up and says something about not vaccinating children, or about the president’s not being American-born. The disproportionate coverage of that stuff is a choice the media make.
    • I agree that the media have a responsibility to tell us about these controversies, but they also have a responsibility to make it clear that they are social controversies, not medical or scientific ones. They have a responsibility to be clear every time that there are ample studies that show no connection between vaccines and autism, for example, and no credible studies that show a connection. They are not making this point clear at all.
    • The media have a responsibility to report facts, and at some point, things become established facts that transcend opinion. It isn’t necessary to bring out a source to say these things, making an appearance of competing opinions. The media needs to be putting these facts out every time, and being clear that they are facts.
  • Following that panel was another, addressing the question “Why is it So Difficult to Be a Skeptic?” Michael De Dora, executive director of the Center for Inquiry - New York City, moderated this panel, and the panelists were Professor Richard Wiseman, professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire; Kaja Perina, editor in chief of Psychology Today; and Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York’s Lehman College. Dr Pigliucci is on the NYC Skeptics board of directors, writes the blog Rationally Speaking, and has spoken to the NYC Skeptics group several times before. Professor Wiseman specializes in research into unusual areas of psychology, including deception, luck, and the paranormal.

    This was an interesting panel to have, because it’s hard to explain to people what it means when you say you’re “a skeptic,” or when you tell people you’re going to a “skeptics’ conference” (which, as I noted before the meeting started, is rather like telling people you’re going to a dorks’ conference). Some of the answers to the basic question posed to the panel include these:

    • People don’t understand what a skeptic is. Dr Pigliucci said that the best explanation he’d heard was that a skeptic is someone who considers the evidence before making a decision or believing something, and I certainly agree with that explanation.
    • People think of you as an egghead, or, worse, an unemotional automaton, always analyzing and never feeling.
    • There’s actually a premium put on “faith” in our society; belief with no evidence behind it is often considered praiseworthy. Inversely, refusal to believe something without evidence is often derided.
    • News media and popular culture support credulity and downplay skepticism, usually portraying skeptics as dorks, nerds, misfits, or all of the above.
    • Perhaps most importantly, critical thinking is little taught in schools. Unless children are exposed to it at home, they’ll become adults who have not been trained to question.
    An odd aspect of this is that, often, people who rely on faith, magic, or pseudoscience do actually question things... but what they question is the bits that are based on evidence, reality, and science, often questioning everything except what they should be questioning.

It was a good day, and the venue worked well — it was easy to get to, comfortable, and well laid out for this sort of event. If they have NECSS again next year, I’ll be attending again.

[1] They just say “first annual”, but, well, it wouldn’t be skeptical to accept that without evidence, would it?