Colorado Skepticamp Recap (by Reed Esau)

Here’s a recap from Reed Esau, one of the Colorado Skepticamp organizers. Phil at Bad Astronomy has written a recap, too.

I (Reed) opened the day with a talk on the basics of modern skepticism, the purpose of which was twofold. First, to introduce some of our newer skeptics to the meat and potatoes of modern skepticism, covering some fascinating recent research describing how our expectations introduce bias and shape our experience of the world. And second, to establish some context for the talks that would follow, covering for example, how we skeptics can distinguish legit mavericks from the cranks.audience shot

Gary Barker, a retired teacher who recently moved to Colorado from Michigan, followed on my talk covering pareidolia in all its forms. He described our brain as a pattern-matching marvel, showing how it can tease out human faces from the most unusual situations. To my surprise, pareidolia has broader application as well, covering audio (“Paul is dead“, e.g.), numerology, Drosin’s Bible Code and even interpreting the quatrains of Nostradamus. Gary concluded with the need to teach critical thinking in the classroom.

Jeanette and Micah were up next, daring to enter the edgy realm of the collaborative talk. Their focus was to detail the characteristics of denialism, including the non-sequitur fallacies employed and the fake experts (like Dr. Stephen E. Jones) that represent their Argument from Authority. The excellent Hoofnagle brother’s Denialism blog was mentioned by J & M as a great resource in assembling their talk. I particularly enjoyed their observation that cranks love to talk about their crankery, even in inappropriate social situations.

Larry's Powerpoint

Larry Sarner was up next to describe the basics of Naturopathy and a recent win at our state legislature. Larry described how Benedict Lust introduced Naturopathy to America and how the vitalism of the practice trumps all else, including germ theory. He mentioned that 13 states presently license Naturopaths as practitioners of medicine. Recent attempts to license here in Colorado were beat back by Larry and his allies, with grudging help from the Colorado Medical Society and a key contribution by the next speaker.

Next up was Joe Albietz, M.D., a big skeptic and pediatrician at Denver Children’s Hospital. Wow! We have in Joe a tremendous speaker. He detailed the common misconceptions about vaccination, bringing to bear the mountains of data in favor of its effectiveness in controlling communicable disease. He gave a history of smallpox and its successful eradication effort. He went through the CDC data showing how diseases have been brought under control through the use of vaccines, including pertussis(whooping cough), polio, measles, mumps, haemophilus influenza, tetanus, diphtheria and chickenpox. I was surprised to hear that chickenpox isn’t a harmless kid disease, but can be life-threatening to those whose immune systems have been compromised. Joe showed data on cases where vaccines were withdrawn and the associated diseases returned. Finally, Joe spoke with great empathy for the families impacted by autism and demonstrated the absence of a thimerisol-autism link, again by carefully citing the data.

trivia challengeLunchtime featured the second Skepticamp Trivia Challenge hosted by retired ‘Dogma Free America‘ podcaster Rich Orman. The victory was taken narrowly by Amy with Rachael in second place and the men nowhere to be seen. As the prize Amy won an invite to the next Festivus party at Stately Orman Manor.

R. G. Price spoke next, providing a focused debunking of the Family Tomb of Jesus television show from last year that was associated with filmmaker James Cameron. He spoke of the challenges faced by researchers to confirm or reject the authenticity of ancient ossuaries — the boxes of bones. The television show was a classic case of superficial research rushed to production and serves as a terrific example of where science is undermined by pseudoscience when the media cannot distinguish between the two.

Linda Rosa offered some history and details on the practice of therapeutic touch (TT) and how it has become a staple on the fringes of the nursing profession. Interestingly TT doesn’t involve any touching — hands hover about 3″ above the patient’s body — and its extravagant claims of therapeutic benefit are highly questionable. She enlisted the help of her daughter Emily who demonstrated the practice molding the patient’s aura like it was a big hunk of clay. For those not aware, as a 4th grader Emily had tested TT as a science fair experiment, enlisting 21 TT practitioners to go through a simple test of being able to detect Emily’s human energy field. Not surprisingly, the testees failed to beat random chance. Stephen Barrett, M.D. of Quackwatch encouraged the development of an academic paper on the research that was eventually published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1998 when Emily was 11 years old. There was much favorable media attention (and some controversy) that served to discredit TT, at least for a while.

Crystal introduced the new Fund For Thought initiative. An organization focused on supporting critical thinking efforts like skepticamp as well as education programs. With an emphasis on minimal administrative overhead and high transparency, it’s intended to complement existing skeptic organizations. They’re filing for 501(c)(3) status so that all donations will be tax deductible. They’re looking for volunteers, especially one to help build out a professional website.

Arthur proceeded into edgy territory by attempting the first extemporaneous talk at skepticamp on the ‘Social Cache of Skepticism.’ He spoke of the successes of skepticism and where it has fallen short. He spoke of the nobility of the fight against woo, but despondently noted its futility given all the forces arrayed against objectivity, including the bias that has evolved in our own brains.

Wrapping up the day was another visit by by Rocky Mountain Paranormal. Those who attended the inaugural skepticamp remember their presentation to have been unexpected and a refreshing change from that of typical paranormal research groups. They failed to disappoint yet again. Bryan and Baxter spoke of their rebel status as skeptics within the community of paranormal investigators — for instance they consider their methods similar to those of skeptic author and investigator Ben Radford. They were careful to emphasize that there are no instruments to detect ghosts and that the tools they use merely ‘document’ the site to discourage and detect hoaxing attempts. B & B took pains to say that they have no evidence for the paranormal, though they occasionally capture some spooky audio and video (unaccounted for breathing noises, e.g.) that they cannot yet explain. Why do they do it? A few reasons. They say that they hold out hope that they’ll find something remarkable. They feel an ethical obligation undo the damage caused by less scrupulous and less competent thrill-seeking investigators. And finally they revealed what I think is the real reason: they enjoy having unfettered access to cool historical sites like the Stanley Hotel.

It made for an engaging, interactive and intellectually-exhausting day. But sadly all was not sunshine and roses. A couple of the talks went on too long which significantly detracted from their impact. Other talks suffered from a notable lack of practice. Future skepticamp efforts should emphasize the need for talks that are both lean and mean and well-rehearsed.

Based on feedback I received, the day brought the new insight that our skeptic groups, particularly the new ones populated by the skepti-curious, are thirsty for the basics of skepticism. Skepticamp is in a good position to meet this need, as well as to cover an array of eclectic topics and investigations that appeal to the seasoned skeptics among us.

A big thanks to Rich Ludwig for organizing this event, who remained stubborn even when I was encouraging him to delay until August. Thanks also to JREF for sponsorship of the food and swag. And most of all thanks to the 50+ individuals who took time out of their holiday weekend to join us.

For those of you outside Colorado, let our experience with this innovative conference format give you some indication what might be possible with your own local skeptic group. Many great resources exist describing how to organize your own event. Feel free to contact us through the Google Group, Facebook page or email if you have any questions. In addition, you’ll be able to meet many of us mentioned above at The Amaz!ng Meeting 6 in Las Vegas in June.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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