VIDEO: Skepticism 101 Panel, #SkepchickCon

Here’s another informative and funny panel video and transcript from SkepchickCon, the science and skepticism track at CONvergence. Sci-fi/fantasy cons are perfect for science and skepticism education and outreach because they attract so many people with an interest in science who simply don’t know that much about skepticism. We also attract people from the large skeptical community in the Twin Cities and other areas in the Midwest, so we try to do a mix of panels, demos, and activities that appeal to people across the knowledge spectrum.

Skepticism 101 with the Skepchicks is obviously one of the panels meant to appeal to people new to skepticism, although it’s also a very entertaining video for those of us already well-versed in skepticism, if only because it was a chance to get so many of the Skepchicks together and joking around in one place.

We are already planning for 2014, including a way to cram in even more science and art activities as well as a record number of scientists and other experts who are just as excited to be there as we are. If you can spare a dollar or two (seriously, it adds up) to help with increased materials and travel costs, we would really appreciate it. Just Paypal directly to skepchick [at] with “SkepchickCon” in your comment.

Other SkepchickCon videos and transcriptions we’ve posted so far:

Evolutionary Psychology
The Amazing Skepchick Cure-All
Climate Change & Superstorms
The Science and Art of Bioluminescence
Philosophy of the Golden Compass
Fight the Trolls
Science Resources for Children

Skepticism 101, with the Skepchicks, Video

Panelists L-R: Debbie Goddard, Heina Dadabhoy, Rebecca Watson, Amy Davis Roth, Bug Girl, Nicole Gugliucci, Jamie Bernstein

Recorded by David McConnell
Transcribed by Angelina
Titles by Jason Thibeault, with designs based on the work of Donna Mugavero.

Skepticism 101, with the Skepchicks, Transcript

[Panelists chat while people come in. An unsuccessful attempt is made to combine panels with the Worldbusters panel next door.]  
Rebecca Watson: All right, so welcome, this is on your schedule as Skepticism 101, so we will talk a little bit about what skepticism is in case you’re not familiar, and what it is used for, what we are all doing here, what has brought all of us together in one place.

Basically, briefly, what skepticism is is critical thinking, it’s applying the process of science to everyday life, and skeptics as a community can be investigating anything from Bigfoot to cosmetic claims to vaccinations to global warming. Obviously, I’m not equating all of those things, just to make it clear. Just to make it very clear. Global warming and vaccinations are over here; Bigfoot and things are over here.

It’s about learning what questions to ask and how to divide truth from fiction. I’m sure most of you here… I mean it’s ten o’clock at night on a Thursday. I’m guessing most of you already know the basics of this, but I thought I’d throw that out there just in case. So the people up on stage right now are, everybody at the table here are writers for Skepchick at, where we discuss skepticism, science, critical thinking, feminism, secularism—

Bug Girl: Pubic lice.

RW: Pubic lice, thank you, Bug Girl. We do have a—
[Inaudible comment from audience]    
RW: Do we have a question about the pubic lice?

Amy Davis Roth: He’s fixing it, yeah.

RW: So, sorry about the feedback. I don’t even need the microphone. Honestly, I’m very loud.

Nicole Gugliucci: Oh, really?
[Someone spills water]    
RW: Oh, man, there are iPads up here, dude!

BG: I know. I’m sorry.

RW: It’s all right. It’s all right. So yeah, that’s what Skepchick is about, but we’ve also, over the years, over the past eight years or so that we’ve been in business, we’ve grown into a network of sites all based on similar ideals. So that includes Mad Art Lab, which is all about the intersection between art and science. [applause and cheering] We have a number of Mad Art Labbers here. I’m going to quickly buzz through the rest of the sister sites so they don’t feel slighted.

NG: Thank you!

RW: In case there aren’t that many people here who want to applaud for them. Our latest sister site is School of Doubt, which is for teachers by teachers. [Applause] All right! We have Teen Skepchick, which is like Skepchick without the profanity. [Laughter] We have Queereka, which is about LGBT issues and science. We have Swedish Skepchick, Escéptica. It’s grown into such a great, thriving network.

And so, to give you a brief discussion about some of the sort of things we talk about, I asked Anne over here, from Mad Art Lab, to come and talk to you very briefly about what she’s doing up at our party room, at room 227 tonight. She’s going to go first because right after this, she’s going right back to room 227 to rock people’s socks off. But Anne, tell us you what you do here.

Anne Sauer: Thank you. And Ryan’s going to assist as well because we both have things going on in the party room you’re going to want to check out later tonight or later this weekend.
RW: Not like that, you perverse people!
[Joking around]    
BG: That’s a different room.

ADR:: I’m terribly sorry.

AS: Wrong floor. No, so you should come and check out our party room if you want to check out what the amazing Skepchick Cure-all can do for you. You know, there are a lot of snake oils out there, claiming to cure everything from dysentery to palpitations to jaundice to incontinence to impotence. And I’m saying you should not believe any of those people at all. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, but the amazing Skepchick Cure-all is scientifically proven to cure sobriety, so you’ll definitely want to come and check that one out. And Ryan has…

Ryan Consell: Along with the Skepchick Cure-all, and a presentation as to the fabulous scientific making of the Skepchick Cure-all, there is a display of wild species collected in the forests of Borneo and the gardens of England, skinned, mounted as beautiful skeletons then brought back as excellent forgeries. So come check out our dragon and fairy skeletons as well. They are on display.

AS: Thank you very much. So again our party room is 227, and the drink demos that I’m doing are happening at some select times of day, a few times each evening. But we also have our ever-popular Buzzed Aldrin and Punched in the Kisser drinks on the balcony at all times during party hours. So we hope to see you there later this weekend.

RW: And of course the leader of Mad Art Lab is sitting just to my left, Ms. Amy Davis Roth.

ADR:: Hello.

RW: And Amy has a… Actually, you know, let’s… should we go down the line and tell? Because I know that we’ve got more people up here than these placards suggest. So why don’t we go down the line and everybody introduce yourselves and tell the audience who you are and what you do, starting with Jamie.

Jamie Bernstein: All right, hi, I’m Jamie. I write on Skepchick. I’m kind of the resident economist, social scientist, and I write about politics as well.

NG: I’m Nicole, the Noisy Astronomer. I am obviously an astronomer. And I write on Skepchick very occasionally and I write on School of Doubt as well, about science education topics.

BG: I’m Bug Girl, and I’m an entomologist, and I have not much else to say about that [?].

RW: Pubic lice.

BG: Yeah, well, yeah, I have a lot of training and stuff.
RW: She’s our most modest member of Skepchick and… I think Bug Girl’s most popular article is about pubic lice, which is why it comes up again and again and again.

BG: Actually, I think I’m our most sleep-deprived member.

RW: That’s true.

ADR:: Except for Melanie.

RW: Actually, Melanie, could you stand and wave to everyone? Melanie is the reason this panel and all the other SkepchickCon panels exist. Please give her a round of applause.
ADR:: She did everything while me and Rebecca took a nap.

RW: I did nothing! But I take all the credit.

ADR:: This is a fact.

RW: I give her one round of applause… that I almost forgot about.

ADR:: Hello, I’m Surly Amy, I’m the managing editor for Mad Art Lab. I’m the creator of Surlyramics I’ve written for Skepchick I think going on six years now or something ridiculous like that.

RW: Something like that.

ADR:: I’m a fan of science. Stuff like that.

RW: And I’m Rebecca Watson. I run Skepchick, and I’m on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast.

Heina Dadabhoy: I’m Heina Dadabhoy. I’ve been writing for Skepchick for almost two years now, and I’m authoring a skeptics’ guide to Islam, currently in the works in case you backed it and have been wondering where the hell it is.

Debbie Goddard: My name is Debbie Goddard. I’m an organizer and activist and occasional writer for Skepchick as well, who should write more, but I don’t. [Laughter] But I will!

ADR:: And out in the audience we have one other member that refused to come up here, but I would like to point out that we have the managing editor for Teen Skepchick in the audience.
RW: Whoever just now turned around missed her middle finger.

ADR:: That’s not allowed on Teen Skepchick.

RW: That’s not allowed on Teen Skepchick, ironically enough.

ADR:: We’re really, very happy to have Mindy with us as well.

RW: Yes, and Melanie also helps with Teen Skepchick and our events team and of course she pretty much single-handedly runs this event. So we are very, very much here in force. So let’s talk a little bit about what we do with skepticism. And I think we should start with Amy because she’s got shot glasses in front of her and I want to see them gone soon.

ADR:: So I thought I would give a quick sort of run-down on what we do as skeptics. So we will take a claim or product and we will try to figure out whether or not it is effective.

Something that we like to look at a lot is homeopathy. And a lot of people see homeopathy on the shelves at your local pharmacy, and you think, “Oh, that’s an herbal medicine that probably has an effect of some sort.” And it’s an interesting product if you actually stop to look and see how it’s created.

Samuel Hahnemann was the guy that invented homeopathy back in the day. And when he first created this medicine, it was during a time when the most popular medicine around was blood-letting. So if you had gotten sick from something, the cure that the doctors would do was try to bleed out the evil spirits or whatever sickness you had, and Hahnemann thought to himself, “Well, that’s pretty shitty. I’m going to try to find a better way to heal people.” So he would look and see what type of an illness you had. So, say, you were vomiting and you could not stop throwing up. He would say, “OK, well, what would cause a healthy person to projectile vomit?’ And that would be like a poison, right?”

RW: Carl’s Jr.

ADR:: Carl’s Jr. or…

RW: Just me?

ADR:: Just you? Or say, cyanide or nightshade. So he would take that poison. Because he believed that like would cure like. So if you took something that caused the symptoms in a healthy person and gave a diluted amount of that to a sick person, it would heal them. So he would take nightshade or cyanide, which I’ve brought here. [Amy tries to pour some “cyanide” into a glass bottle.]

RW: Is that what that is? Cyanide? That’s a big bottle of cyanide?

ADR:: It cost me a lot. And I haven’t taken time to open the cyanide because I had to order it special from… I don’t know what country. [RW drinks from the glass bottle.] Don’t drink my vodka! [Laughter] We have this trouble on every… [RW turns away and pretends to spit] On every… Oh, OK! [pours ‘cyanide’ into the glass bottle]

RW: What have you done? You’ve ruined their tablecloth!

ADR:: No, I’ve put… I may have ruined their tablecloth.

RW: We are never invited back here.

ADR:: So I’ve put some poison into the vodka.

RW: This is our like fifth year. This is it.

Audience member: Hey, bleach exists.

ADR:: Yeah, they can work it out.

RW: [to audience member] This is a cream, this is cream. You can’t bleach cream.

HD: [to audience member] Do you have evidence that bleach exists?

ADR:: So this is how you would make homeopathy. You would take a pure poison and then you would mix it with alcohol like I have here, or water. Water will work also. And then you would dilute it. And they would also shake it. Cause there’s this weird little story about him driving around in a buggy and he cured a deaf guy because he shook it and it was very strange.

But we’re not going to shake it because I’ve already ruined the tablecloth as it is so we don’t need to do that. So we take the pure poison and we drop it into this vial. [Amy adds a dropper of the mixture to a full shot glass] And then we take it and we dilute it and we shake it. And we take some and we add it to the next one. [Amy continues with three more shot glasses] And we keep diluting it until there is not even a molecule left of the original poison. And then we would give that poison—or the lack of it—to a person. [to Rebecca] And just hold your horses.

And you’d give this to a sick person and the memory of the poison is what would cure them. Does that sound rational to you guys? And Rebecca can’t seem to control herself. So we’re just going to give her the straight poison so she’ll leave me alone.
[Rebecca drinks from the glass bottle]    
How’s that poison tasting? Good?

RW: It’s delicious. It’s cured the poison inside me.

ADR:: Soon my dream of taking over the Skepchick network will be complete. So this is the kind of product we look at, and this is sold on the market. Literally, traditional homeopathy is prepared this way. So they take something that’s poisonous, like, for example, sleeping pills—or not poisonous. Like something that will cause you to stay awake is what they will use for sleeping pills. So they’ll put caffeine and they’ll dilute it, dilute it, dilute it till just the memory of caffeine is left in the product and then they will sell that to you so you’re literally buying sugar pills when you buy homeopathy.
So these are the types of things that we look at as skeptics and try to pass this information along to the public so that you’re not getting ripped off. So that when you go to the pharmacy, you’re going to actually purchase a product that has an active ingredient in it. That it’s not just water, or alcohol or a sugar pill.

RW: It’s delicious though, still.

HD: Although I will point out that a lot of herbal remedies that actually have ingredients sometimes will call themselves homeopathic because they want people to buy it, and they think people will buy it if says homeopathic. So it’s not really regulated anyway.

RW: Well, yeah, it’s not regulated at all. And I think it was Zicam, right? Zicam was a squirty thing you shove up your nostrils to clear up stuffiness. And that was sold as a homeopathic treatment for stuffiness and in fact…

ADR:: But it actually had zinc in it.

HD: A lot of zinc!

RW: A lot of zinc in it. Which, as chance should have it, can make you lose your sense of smell if you jam it up your nose. A number of people, some of them permanently, lost their sense of smell through this and sued. And it was only then that Zicam was taken off the shelves and forced to rebrand.

So one of the nice things for homeopathic companies is the ability to sell things without government oversight. And it’s the same with vitamins and things like that. On my podcast, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, not this upcoming Saturday but the next Saturday, we’re going to have an interview with Paul Offit, who just wrote a book on this very subject, about alternative medicine and how easy it is for companies to sell whatever they want to the general public. And how Paul himself works at a hospital and they have a policy in which they allow patients to bring medications from home so long as the doctors can guarantee what is inside those medications, so they know whether or not it’s going to interact with the medications that the doctors are prescribing.

And the problem they’ve been having is that patients are bringing in these supplements and Offit would call the company and say, “Can you guarantee that what is in these pills is X, Y and Z, what you have on your label?” And they refuse to guarantee it. They say “That’s proprietary information.” And he’s like, “I’m not asking you how you make it or what magical ingredients are in it. Just tell me the active ingredients. Can you tell me for sure that there is X amount of Y drug in this?” They will not guarantee it because they want to be completely safe from prosecution. They have no oversight so they have no reason to see what’s in their products. So it’s one of the huge problems we have with homeopathic medicines and naturopathic medicines. On another tack, one of the things we talk about—we delve into the other areas of science. Nicole.

NG: Hello.

RW: Hello. I would like to hear about how skepticism helps you in the astronomy field.

NG: Well, when I tell people I’m an astronomer, about half the time people ask me, “OK, so about black holes…” and they will ask me a question about black holes.

RW: It’s all about black holes?

NG: Well, that’s only half of it. The other half the time they tell me their sign.

RW: Ahh.
NG: So there’s this… surprisingly, there’s still a (we were talking about it at dinner) a large contingent of people who assign some credibility to the field of astrology. And so something I can do as an astronomer is to literally turn back the clock in computer simulation and show, “OK, here are the zodiac signs and here is where the sun is on your birth date if you were in ancient Greece,” and then you turn it back to the future and your zodiac signs according to the birth date in the newspaper don’t match up to the actual constellations that things are in. So you may have heard this fooferall a year or so ago when an astronomer said something to a reporter, which has been known in astronomy for a long time, but the sun goes through Ophiuchus, and so some percentage of the population have the zodiac sign Ophiuchus. And it’s made a big deal.

RW: That’s like in late December, right?

NG: Yeah. It’s like two weeks in there. And it’s interesting because you think, “OK, astrology doesn’t have a big influence,” but to what extent it has an influence and people believe in it and actually might make decisions based on that is something that you can talk about and clearly show, “Hey, it’s just the math of the celestial mechanics.” Another interesting thing to do is show what the… you get people talking about what forces might be influencing, what astronomical forces might be influencing them at their birth and show that the gravitational force of the doctor in the room when they’re born is greater than that of the planets. [Laughter] Just by proximity.

So my focus has been more on a lot of basic science education and using astronomy as a lure. Because astronomy is a gateway science, right? Everyone’s like, “Oh my god, I like seeing things in the sky!” And using that as a lure to bring science to people who otherwise aren’t über pro-science or who hold different viewpoints. And astronomy is a nice gateway of showing how science works and showing how things work.

RW: I was just at a science conference, and a number of people were asking me how I got interested in science and asking if I had a science degree, and I’m like, “I don’t have a science degree and was not at all interested in science from 9th grade through, until I was in college.” And I didn’t get interested in it until I got interested in skepticism. Because I got interested in how people lie to others or how people fool other people. Or fool themselves.… And I use astrology as one example. When you’re talking about something that is wrong and that is obviously wrong by every fact we have at our disposal, you can debunk that for people, but in order for it to really take hold, I think, it’s helpful to replace it. And with astrology, I think it’s remarkably easy to replace it with the wonder of astronomy. It’s two sides of a coin. On one side, we have the utter shit show that is astrology.

NG: And yet Galileo, one of our most esteemed astronomers, his real job was as an astrologer. Astronomy and astrology were hand-in-hand for most of human history. It’s only recently that science and superstition split.

RW: Yeah, a huge number of scientists made their living doing astrological charts for kings and things like that.

NG: Yeah, yeah.

RW: So on one side you’ve got the bad science of astrology; on the other side you have the wonders of astronomy, which can be… you can catch somebody’s imagination with one photo from astronomy picture of the day.

NG: Thank you, Hubble space telescope. Everybody thank Hubble.

Audience: Aw! [Laughter]

ADR:: My ruling planet is Uranus.
[Mixed reaction from audience]    
RW and ADR:: No? No?
NG: You’ve got to be way more creative with me.

RW: Actually, I made a Uranus joke to Phil Plait a few years ago, and he just goes “Rebecca, it’s Uranus [?yu?r-?-n?s].”

NG: Galactic bulge is what you replace it with.

RW: I was like… No, no. Like, Uranus[yu?-?r?- n?s]/Uranus[?yu?r-?-n?s]… Do you really think Uranus[?yu?r-?-n?s] is less childish?
You think I can’t come up with something for Uranus[?yu?r-?-n?s]? You are mistaken, my friend.

NG: There’s no hope for that planet.

RW: Heina, please tell us about the impact that skepticism has had on your life.

HD: On my life?

RW: I know, it’s a big question. Answer it as you like.

HD: It’s a giant, giant question. It’s made me a wet blanket that everybody hates.

RW: That is not true! You are a lovely person!

ADR:: That’s not true. That’s not true.

HD: No, no. I’m being [inaudible] ridiculous.

RW: That was a blatant attempt to get free drinks from this entire audience.

HD: Because the drinks are already free.

ADR:: Here you go, Heina. [Hands drink to Heina]

RW: They are, they are.

HD: I deconverted from Islam. I grew up Muslim. And it wasn’t really skepticism that got me. I mean, it was a skeptical approach, but it wasn’t… I didn’t think of it as skepticism per se. But once I de-converted, I realized that there was so much in my life that I wasn’t examining critically that wasn’t necessarily born entirely of religion. One example would be, my mother is a big believer in what she calls homeopathy. What she means is naturopathic or herbal medicines. And through my interactions just with my family, because in a lot of ways a lot of them believe a lot of funny stuff besides religion. What I’ve learned is to be more tactful.
And that’s what I’m going to talk about right now! You know, when I first de-converted, I thought that I had come up with ideas and de-bunking that no one had ever heard of. I was sure that if everyone just heard my arguments, then they would all just see the light. And so I go to my mom and dad and go (this is literally what happened) “I’m an atheist now because I have these arguments,” and they look at me like “You’ve never heard these arguments before? Of course they’re false!” And I go “Oh, OK.”

RW: So have you ever seen these newspapers that are like “12-year-old girl destroys Islam.”
HD: To be fair, it took me all the way to 18 to de-convert. At 12, I was still a good, obedient child. But through that, I learned that it’s all about how you present it, and it’s all about going for the things that are most harmful. So it’s not… even though you can sit there kind of on your high horse and say, “Well, I don’t believe all that stuff. It’s all irrational.” It’s not so important to convince everyone that you’re right. It’s more important to convince people that the things they’re doing that are directly harmful are not the best idea.

So I’ve become more strategic, and I’ve become more tactful. And I think it’s, in a lot of ways, it’s way more helpful. So with my mother’s herbal remedies. One day she comes up to me and she goes, “You take all these chemicals.” What she means is the Zyrtec for my allergies. She’s upset by the idea that I take a pill every day. Very upsetting to her. She comes up to me with these dried green pea-looking, like little peas. And she goes, “Oh, your uncle got these from India when he was there, and the hakim (which is like a witch-doctor, kind of) he’s been prescribing these to people for years, and you should take this instead. It’s more natural.” I looked at my mom and said, “You know what’s also natural? Marijuana.” And she looks at me—

NG: That’s not a bad thing.
HD: I know it’s not a bad thing. I’m from California. I’m allowed. I have the script and everything.

That sarcasm didn’t work, but what did work was when she came to me with another kind of remedy, and I said, “Well, Mom, do you have any information from people who have been taking it for all these years? Are they really OK? Because the hakim has an interest in selling it to you. So he may be withholding information from you. Have you asked around to the village he’s from, like see if anyone has been harmed by it?” And she’s like, “You know, I never thought of it that way.” And so it’s all about sort of sneaking it in.

I think my favorite example of sneaking in a little skepticism is Avatar: The Last Airbender. There’s a whole episode where they go to see a fortune teller, and it becomes clear throughout the whole episode that she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about. And there’s one point where one of the characters is asked, “Well, can your science explain the rain?” and he goes “Yes! Yes, it can explain the rain!” But it’s being more tactful, it’s going for the more harmful things rather than just trying to be right all the time, and also making it entertaining. So another thing I’ll do is with family and also friends, I’ll share really cool science stuff. Who doesn’t love a cool picture of those creatures that live off of chemosynthesis in the hydrothermal vents? Everyone goes “Whoa!”

RW: Like Snipply the furry lobster?

HD: Yes. The furry lobster.

RW: Really? Do you guys not know Snipply the furry…? He was like this white, long, furry lobster that they found on the edge of deep sea vents. Amazing. Google “Snipply the furry lobster.” I named him.

HD: And now with the internet, so much is accessible at our fingertips, for better or for worse.

NG: I’d think my voice recognition would have picked that up.

RW: Let’s go from a family full of stuff you’re always trying to explain. Debbie,

DG: Uh oh.

RW:You’re one of the few people I know that, I think I can say that you have been a skeptic your entire life.

DG: Maybe not.

RW:You have never believed in anything that you didn’t have ample evidence to believe.

HD: She never used to believe in love or joy or friendship.
ADR: She doesn’t believe she’s here right now.

RW: Buy her a drink later.

DG: I guess part of my story is similar to Heina’s, that I also thought I invented atheism. I didn’t know the word for it, but in 8th grade in Catholic school, I had a lot of questions.

Audience: Oooh…

DG: Yeah, Catholic school makes a lot of people atheist, actually. My dad was Jewish, and it was clear to me that they couldn’t both be right, so I figured I had to pick one, but then I thought about the other religions and was like, “Wait, how do I know? And what about what the Greeks believed? And also what if everyone 2000 years from now is worshipping Aslan?” [Laughter] I can totally imagine that, so thank you also to C. S. Lewis for making me an atheist.

RW: Yeah, you’re not even… I want to make it clear that you’re not even exaggerating. Tiny Debbie was actually sitting there stressing over Aslan being a Jesus figure.

DG: I didn’t know he was a Jesus figure until years later. I just… He was cool enough to be something that some people could fall into worshipping in the future, I figured. And so I thought, like, “Maybe they’re all just stories. Maybe there is no God. What?” And I told my teacher the next day because I was really excited by this idea, so I told Sister Terese [?]. [Laughter] She was less excited about it than I was. But I honestly thought she was going to be like, “Wow, that’s so cool. What a great… I have to think about that! Let me talk to the other nuns about it.” It would be too much for them, and they would bring it to the priests.

NG: A 6-year-old overthrows Catholicism.

DG: No, I was like 10.

RW: Hey there, nuns, have you heard about this atheism?

DG: I didn’t have a word for it.

RW: Twelve-year-old girl destroys Catholicism.

DG: I didn’t have a word for it until a couple years later in my religion book in 8th grade when they were like “Atheist: one who denies God. Agnostic: one who says they can’t know,” and I was like, “Oh, there’s other ones!” So I started a philosophy club when I got to high school, which was a Catholic school too. And then I eventually lost my scholarship there because I started a philosophy club and wrote the wrong kinds of papers in religion class. So yeah, then I became more of an atheist activist type.

But also, simultaneously, my father used to be a professional magician. And I wanted to mention this because Rebecca, you have a similar background, your… I think part of what got us into skepticism was being magicians and learning about magic, and magic is the art of deception. How do you deceive people? How do you distract their attention from this to that?

So there’s a lot of psychology, and there’s just a lot of the tricks and manipulation. But as a magician you tell people, “I’m deceiving you. Watch this.” And you’re not like, “Hey, I’ve got psychic powers. I just did this thing.” And so when you see people who are like, “Hey, I’ve got psychic powers. I just did this thing. Hey, I can bend spoons with my mind. No, for real. Now give me money,” you get really mad at them. You’re like, “You are peddling a bunch of bullshit, and really, that’s not right.” Anyone could learn this and then they’d see that you’re not bending a spoon with a mind, you’re not able to predict the future, you don’t have psychic powers.

And for those who are engaged in that, who are making money from it, and really harming people with it. Yeah, you get mad. You’re like, “No, if I just teach people how brains work, how to think, how to address this stuff, if I can also show them that sometimes people are out there to kind of harm you and to trick you, then things will be better and the world will be a better place.”

And so as a teenager doing magic shows and stuff, I got into skepticism that way and there’s a long history of people involved in the skeptic movement and skeptic organizations who were magicians and got involved for the same reasons and used that background to be able to teach people about the art of deception so that they are less likely to get fooled in the future.

RW: The most famous being Houdini, probably. Houdini spent a lot of his time in his later life investigating psychics. He did one of the most famous investigations of Margery, who was this famous psychic medium in Boston who would produce… She would do these sessions in the dark where people would be gathered around a table all holding hands, and then there would be knocking and sometimes productions of ectoplasm. I think one of my favorite Margery facts is that the ectoplasm… She was occasionally forced to do this naked to prove that she wasn’t hiding anything in her clothing. And yet, she still managed to produce this ectoplasm.

NG: Her favorite Kool-Aid. To this day [?].

RW: So the prevailing theory on this is that she was hiding it in a very clever place that they could not strip from her. And despite the fact that Margery—

NG: Vagina.
HD: Fun linguistic fact, the word ‘vagina’ comes from the word ‘sheath,’ so, you know.

RW: There you go, yeah. And there is a history of other mediums producing things like rabbits, by giving birth to rabbits. There’s a long history of women using their vaginas in very interesting ways. And even though today these are the sorts of people that I would be investigating and exposing as frauds, I have a certain amount of respect for them. Like Margery was married to a, by all accounts, a cold man who had no interest in her whatsoever and he was wealthy, she was well off, but kept her locked inside.

She was a remarkably intelligent woman. When Houdini went out to Boston to investigate her with a Scientific American panel, what they found was she was a very charming, very intelligent woman who was expected to just sit inside all day and cook dinner for some jackass. And instead she went on to have this amazing career.

Her story is horrifically tragic, though. She became a drunk and ended up dying fairly young because of it all. So it’s a complicated story, I think, of women finding a certain amount of empowerment in performing these tricks that unfortunately continue today in the guise of women like Sylvia Browne in a day and age when I don’t think we actually need that anymore. We can do away with that sort of false empowerment and replace it with, as I was saying with the astrology/astronomy dichotomy, we can replace that false empowerment with a real empowerment. We can start reminding women that they are capable of being logical and using science and getting involved in the sciences and allowing them to find empowerment that way.

So we haven’t heard Jamie too much on the skepticism involved with economics.

JB: So I’m sort of, I’ve got this weird combination of a bunch of stuff. I have a policy degree, so it’s like economics and politics all combined in game theory. And there’s… What I do is I build models. I do big data, so I take a whole bunch of data and I build models. And people just don’t understand this stuff. In fact, usually the people who are doing it don’t really understand it. So any of you at home with your own computer and just Excel, you could do the same stuff that somebody like Nate Silver is doing. But you wouldn’t necessarily understand it.

RW: But Nate Silver is like a super-genius, right?

JB: No, like everybody’s doing it. In fact, I worked on the Obama campaign at headquarters, and we were all doing the exact same stuff as well, and any of you could do it. It’s actually fairly simple, but the math behind it is very complicated. And even me, I studied this, I can derive all these formulas, and yet when I’m taking all this data and going through and then… I click the button to run the model, it still kind of feels like magic.

And I understand the math behind it, and so trying to explain that to other people is very difficult. People look and it’s just, models are this weird black box. And very few people understand how you get from the inputs to the outputs, which are often probabilities and predictions, maybe even predicting things about you. And it’s very, it’s scary. And I want to make math less scary, and I want to make statistics less scary, and I want to make it not quite seem like the black box. Even though I can’t give you all statistics degrees, it’s not as scary as it seems, and it’s not magic. A lot of stuff like in social science and economics, a lot of studies come out that are using models like this and when you read them, you have no way to just read the study and know whether it was a good model or whether they did it right or whether what they put in was the right thing. It’s almost impossible. So I’m trying to get people to be a little bit more skeptical about stuff like that and maybe teach you a little so you can read these papers and even if you don’t really understand, kind of know what questions to ask.

RW: Yeah, I think there are two huge ways statistics are important to skepticism and need to be conveyed to the public as a whole. See if you agree. One is evaluating studies, definitely. What’s a p value, and what’s a sample size, and things like that. And the other one is problems like confirmation bias. It’s something we deal with a lot in skepticism. It’s the thing where you’re thinking of your best friend from second grade who you haven’t spoken to in fifteen years and suddenly the phone rings and you pick it up and it’s your friend from second grade. And you remember that and if you’re prone to this sort of thinking, you think, “Oh, I’m psychic. I’m psychic about the most mundane thing on the planet, but I am psychic.” And you forget about all of the times that you thought about a long lost friend and the phone didn’t ring. You forget about all of the times the phone rings and it wasn’t the person you were just thinking about. That’s confirmation bias.

JB: Yes. So within economics, there’s kind of two big things of thought, and one of them is the human as the completely rational being that nothing you do is ever irrational. And the other one is humans as irrational beings who make mistakes. And actually we’re all kind of a little bit of both. And so understanding the ways that people are irrational and how they act sort of rationally on their irrationalities is really important because if you can fix the parts that are irrational, then they’ll just act rationally on their rational assumptions, I guess.

NG: If they could just understand, that’s part of it.

JB: Yeah, so just understanding your own biases and where your own brain breaks down, it’s weirdly mind-opening. I had to take a class on behavioral economics, and it was just like, “What? I’ve been doing everything wrong,” and now I question everything, and I’m always like, “I think this, but what if I’m wrong because maybe I’m thinking about it this other way?” But understanding, being able to go through the biases that I know about and going, “Am I doing this? Am I doing this? Am I doing this?” really helps in getting over that, or at least being a little more open-minded and understanding that I can be really wrong even when I feel like I’m really, really right.

RW: I think one good book on the subject might be Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational. Have you read that?

JB: I haven’t read it. I heard it’s really good. I haven’t read it because it seemed, at least for me, like the study—

RW: You already know everything.

JB: Yeah, I studied all this.

RW: Yeah, yeah, like old news.

JB: And it seems a little… I really like Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which is a little heavier read—

RW: Oh, I’m sorry, you’re so much better than me.
JB: No, Dan Ariely’s book is really good, but if you read that and you want even more, Kahneman’s book is very good, as well.

RW: No, thank you, that’s a very good recommendation. If you’re smart enough to get it.

Before we move on to audience questions (we’ll get there in like five minutes), first I think the world needs to hear about Bug Girl’s pubic lice. [Laughter] Right? Doesn’t everybody want to know?

NG: Go for it!

RW: Even I heard this story, and I still want to hear it again. Bug Girl has been on Skepchick the longest I think of any other contributor. I started out blogging on my own and pretty quickly added Bug Girl because I don’t do science like a scientist does science. And Bug Girl is great because she does hard biology but from a hilarious perspective. And one of those times is when she ordered pubic lice on the internet.

BG: Seriously though, I mean, I’ve been telling this story for—

RW: You don’t have to tell the pubic lice story. If you would like to tell another. They want to hear the pubic lice story though. I don’t want to blame it all on the audience, but they’re kind of into the pubic lice.

BG: So, well, a little background. So basically, as an entomologist online, you get a lot of emails. And the emails are almost always something along the lines of “Dear Bug Girl, I think I’ve had a botfly living in my ass for the last 25 years.”
RW: By the way, any children in the audience? No? Great.

BG: “So I’ve attached 10 JPEGs for you to look at. Could you tell me what you think? I’d like your professional opinion.” And so I got one of those emails. And this one was “Dear Bug Girl, My boyfriend says he wants to give me pubic lice. He calls them ‘love bugs’ and he says it going to be the ultimate expression of our love as they scamper between us while we’re making out and share our blood. Is this a good idea? I’d like your professional opinion.”
And so I wrote her back and I said “No! That’s not a good idea.” And she got really mad. Because when she emailed a random person on the internet about her sex life and whether she should get crabs or not, voluntarily, she apparently was expecting a different answer. So she emailed me back and gave me a link to this website that sells you crabs, supposedly. And it’s, I think. I can’t remember off the top of my head. And it’s kind of amazing. So basically, for a buck, you can order your own, they call them ‘love lice.’ And their tagline was “It’s like sea monkeys in your pants.”
RW: Get a little crown. Get a little castle.

BG: I’m trying not to go too… yeah. Anyway, so they were also claiming that these were special Japanese pubic lice. Because everything cool comes from Japan, right? And they didn’t really suck your blood. They just sort of nibbled. And so I wrote a blog post about that and said this is really BS. And then a reporter called me and said, “Hey, if I order some lice for you online, will you look at them and tell me if it’s really pubic lice?” And I said sure! Because I mean, it’s a scam, right? Who is going to sell pubic lice online? No. No. And so I gave him my address, and he ordered them, and then about a month later, I get this box—from New Jersey.
RW: Having grown up in New Jersey, I can verify that the finest pubic lice—

NG: They all have tans.

RW: …originate in New Jersey.

BG: And it was from the Love Bugs guy, and it had this note, and it basically was a baggie of short and curlies and sand.

RW: It’s from the shore. It’s from the shore.

BG: Fair enough. I hadn’t thought about that. I’ll have to add that. And basically it said, “Put this in your underwear and don’t change your underwear for two weeks.”
[Sounds of disgust from audience]    
I didn’t do that. [Laughter] She’s never going to share a car ride with me again. [Gestures to NG] What I did was I took them out to the lab and looked under the microscope to see if I could actually see any pubic lice. And there was nothing there other than… I mean, I can tell you that, I mean I’m pretty sure that Mr. Sea Monkey Crab Lice is a natural blond. And that’s about it.

HD: Carpets match the drapes.

BG: That was a little difficult… I’d only been at my new job about a month, so it was a little difficult to explain when you walk in with a baggie full of pubes. “I bought it on the internet. It’s science!”

HD: Wait, let me get this straight. A man called you and said, “I’m going to send you pubic lice” and you gave him your address?!

RW: We need to have a long talk about what skepticism truly is.

BG: It was the San Francisco Chronicle!

NG: So he said.

BG: Do I only order pubic lice from the New York Times?

RW: Well, you do need to draw the line somewhere. Well, all right, thank you for sharing that.

We did have a few questions. We have a little more than ten minutes to chat with audience questions. So we have one over here.

Audience: I was about to ask a question you sort of answered. And the question is well, how to read models is fine, but maybe there needs to be some sort of crowdsourcing, I guess. I kind of do that when I read an article and I read the comments on it. And some of the comments on the article say, “This is all wrong because…,” and some of the others say, “This is all wrong because…,” and “You’re wrong,” “You’re wrong,” but sometimes I think I’m getting some good information. Maybe it needs to be more organized. I have no idea how I would read it even after the model and find out whether the two different economics were wrong about what they—

JB: Yeah, so one of the problems is that a lot of economists do not have very good communication skills. That’s kind of the stereotype, and it’s fairly true. But a lot of it, sometimes it’s just so complicated that a layperson, you’re not really going to understand it. And I don’t know if crowdsourcing is necessarily best, but going to an expert or seeing what experts have to say about it.

RW: There are actually crowdsourcing solutions. There’s one that already exists, and there’s one that I’m currently in talks with, some really interesting people that are trying to launch a cool project that will probably go into beta soon, and so when that happens, I’ll announce it on Skepchick and maybe through my Twitter feed.

But in the meanwhile, there’s another project called RBUTR. R-E-B-U-T-T-R, I think. And RBUTR is an add-on you can download to go onto your browser and what happens is when you load up an article, it’ll pop up little flags to show that the thing you’re looking at is rebutted at this link. And they’ll flag logical fallacies and things like that. They’ll call out problems in whatever you’re reading.

So the problem with it is, you know, you need to get a lot of people on board with it. And the only people who are seeing the rebuttals are the people who downloaded RBUTR, so it’s probably not getting out to the people who really need it. But there’s this new project that I’m helping out on, that is pretty exciting and we’ll do kind of what RBUTR does, but more expansive. So it would involve having people read an article and evaluate it in full and look at the logical fallacies and whether the headline matches what the article says and whether or not this is backed up by data and things like that. It’s pretty exciting.

Audience: Could I just ask, how far back does this go? There’s some, I guess, articles that have been withdrawn, years and years ago.

RW: Yeah, RBUTR has only been around for, well it’s been around for a couple years now, I think, right? But you could call up a website that’s several years old and add a RBUTR thing to it. So there’s no expiration date on it, in that respect. The new project would deal with new articles that are coming out, although I have been talking with them about this very problem that we have, mostly with people that you get in an internet argument, let’s say about homeopathy, someone will cite this study as proof that homeopathy is real. I’m in talks with people to figure out how to solve this problem.

It would be nice to have one place to go to look up an article and immediately get a concise response of what’s wrong with that, explain what the sample size was, for instance, or explain that it was a preliminary study and that follow-up studies have shown X, Y and Z, things like that. Basically explaining scientific studies in more layperson language to allow people who are having arguments on the internet who are using science to back up their arguments to do it better. So these sort of things are in the works.

I’m sorry, I don’t know who had their hand up first. I’m going to go here, and then I’m going to come back over here.

Audience: So speaking of internet arguments on homeopathy and that kind. What about those common sort of arguments that I hear when I talk to people on that sort of thing, is like, “Western medicine is funded totally by pharmaceutical companies that are just looking to make a buck and this makes me feel better, so what is the deal? What is the harm?” And so I was wondering how you’d respond to that.

RW: So for those who couldn’t hear, the question was about “What do I do when someone in an internet argument says ‘Well, that’s Western medicine, it’s funded…’ you know, the Big Pharma argument. Somehow I think we all know it. And it’s a great question to bring up because it does happen all the time. And this is another thing we just talked about with Paul Offit on the SGU episode that’s coming up.

It’s funny that a lot of people, because of really excellent marketing, a lot of people don’t understand that alternative medicine, “natural remedies,” are Big Pharma. Big Pharma saw that they were selling loads of stuff and walking all over their territory and they did what any large industry that doesn’t really give a shit about people does. They bought up those companies. So the natural medicine is still seen as this mom-and-pop sort of thing, when in fact it’s Big Pharma. With exactly the same goals of Big Pharma, selling you something.

My first response to anyone making the Big Pharma argument is first to get them on my side by saying, “I hate Big Pharma, too.” Because I think, as skeptics, as people who are interested in science, that are interested in real medicine that helps people, I think we all have to admit that the pharmaceutical industry, especially in the United States, is fucked up. You know, we don’t have good health care. Our prescription medications are through the roof compared to any other country. Look at the recent study that came out that shows how much money it costs to have a baby in America, compared with literally any other country in the world.

Audience: The lawsuits.

RW: It’s ridiculous. The lawsuits. Yeah, the pharmaceutical lobby is the most powerful lobby group in the United States. So, talking about things like that. I think putting yourself on the same level as someone you’re “arguing with” can really help. So that’s usually what I start with, and then I go on to point out that yeah, and the pharmaceutical industry now controls the natural medicine industry. And one other thing I’ll mention (not to dominate, I’m sorry) but one of my top recommendations for anybody, you know, who’s on the fence or who likes natural medicine and you want to bring them over to the light side, is a book that Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst teamed up to write, it’s amazing, which is called—

ADR:: Trick or Treatment.

RW: Trick or Treatment. It’s one of the greatest books because they write for the person who is on the fence. They start out, their opening example is the greatest example I’ve ever read of any in my life, and it is the story of the first clinical trial, the first blinded trial, talking about how the British navy figured out scurvy by one doctor onboard a ship separating sailors into groups. One group gets apples, one group gets lemons, one group gets meat, and one group gets whatever everybody else was normally getting. And what they found was in two of the groups, they kept dying. In the apples group they stayed sickly.

NG: They didn’t have IVs back then?

RW: They stayed sickly, and in the lemon group they got better. They didn’t know how it worked. It didn’t matter! But what they knew was “Let’s immediately give lemons and limes to our troops,” and that’s why we call them limeys. And that single-handedly, pretty much, won a battle, won a war for England. And today, we would call that solution alternative medicine. Because, I mean, isn’t it? The solution was just fruit! Doctors didn’t know why it worked; they just knew that it worked. But we don’t call it alternative medicine, we call it medicine, because it works. I think it’s a great example of the difference between real medicine and alternative medicine. So Trick or Treatment is a great book, highly recommended. Anybody have anything to add?

BG: I do actually, because I worked at a pharmaceutical company.
[Boos and laughter]    
And I also worked for a pesticide company. And usually, well, I have learned to say, “Do I look evil?” That’s not good. But generally, just if you ask someone you really like about “Do you really think that people are competent enough to have a massive conspiracy at that level? Really?” But a lot of it also is talking about the history of our drugs and our medicine.

And I agree with everything you’ve said about how our health care system could be a lot better. But ultimately, we are so lucky. I mean, I would not be alive right now if it were not for pharmaceutical drugs. That sounds a little bad too. But so it’s both a curse and a blessing. And to be able to think about, “OK, what’s the evidence that someone could put forward?” One of the websites that I want to shout out to is in one of the things you said: “What’s the harm?” There’s a website called What’s the Harm, that’s about basically people who have managed to really, really hurt themselves. And so that could be one way to say “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I do want you to think carefully about the choices you’re making and make an informed choice.” Because that’s often the best you can really hope for sometimes.

RW: Yes?

Audience: This question is for Jamie. With things like global warming, there’s a scientific consensus, so it’s easy, I could say to trust scientists, because there’s a consensus. But with, I mean, we have to go in and vote and with at least, from what it looks like all you can really do [?]. Economists disagree with each other on a lot of things. And so how is a layperson to know if he should agree with Paul Krugman or with… I forget, the conservative economist. It seems like there’s all sorts of different kinds of economic thought that are, none of them has a very large consensus that I can tell. And I don’t know how I should be skeptical when evaluating things.

JB: So, with something like with climate science, that’s science. So the basic questions like “Are humans producing…” That’s all the scientific side. When you get into “What should we do about it?” that is both the science and the economics of it. “How costly is it going to be? How efficient is it going to be?” There are definitely economists who agree, but economists also have a lot of consensus on a lot of things the public does not have consensus on.

There is… I read about it on Skepchick, I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s a panel. It’s something run through the University of Chicago, where they have a panel of economists. And it’s 40 economists from both the progressive side and the more conservative side. And every week they ask them a question, and a lot of times you can look at it and you can see “Oh, they’re very divided.” But there’s a lot of issues for which there is a lot of consensus, and in fact, they pretty much all agree.

So when you’re talking about how we’re going to reduce fossil fuels, they actually asked that question, economists agreed that a carbon tax is the best, the most efficient and effective way to do that. It’s going to cost the least; it’s going to have the biggest effect. And they all agree, no matter what side of the spectrum that they’re on. So it was really interesting because there was another study done where they took that and then they went out to the public and asked people what economists thought. And they totally thought it was this hugely controversial thing, and it’s really not.

So there’s definitely a lot of things, it’s sort of like science, there’s lots of issues where people don’t agree. But there are a ton of issues where economists are totally in consensus, but just like science, like if you’re a politician, and you want somebody who disagrees with it, you go out and find the one guy who’s going to sell out or is just crazy or whatever. There’s always the one outlier.

Audience: So how do you know what the consensus is?

RW: And do it in like two seconds because we’re about to get kicked out of here. It would solve all our problems.

JB: I would use economics flags or that kind of things, but right now we don’t have the same kind of education in economics that we have in science. So there’s not as many good sources for stuff like that.

RW: Read Skepchick, basically. We’ll blog about this later and give you all of those. We have to run. Thank you so much everyone, our party is in 227. Thank you for coming.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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One Comment

  1. Is the audio kind of skippy for anybody else? Every couple seconds or so it skips for me. I was thinking it was some bandwidth limiting by my employer, but other YouTube videos play just fine. I also had this problem with the “Fight the Trolls” panel video.

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