Society for Secular Humanists in Calgary


The Amazing Meeting 2 Day 3

The first up was Dr. Bob Park of the American Physical Society, a.k.a. "Feisty Bob". His talk was about "Voodoo Science" creeping its way into government projects and courtroom trials. Recently, judges have been instructed to act as gatekeepers to attempt to keep bad science out of the courts. How to do this is still up for debate. The problem facing judges is that they don't know what to look for.

Dr. Park has compiled a list of 7 warning signs of voodoo science:

  1. A discovery is pitched directly to the media. Good science relies on peer review and debate. Poor science relies on media feeding frenzies and public gullibility.

  2. A powerful "establishment" is said to be suppressing the discovery. Whether it's car manufacturers that are trying to suppress cars that run on water or physicists suppressing research into cold fusion, these claims explain away the indifference of the science community.

  3. An effect is always at the very limit of detection. This reminds me of the claims of astrology, esp, telekinesis, roulette systems, or even prayer.

  4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal. I know I've been told many a time how "magnet therapy works for me" or "my grandma saw a ghost once". Yeah right! It's actually surprising how much is out there. All of Karl Jung's evidence for personality archetypes for example.

  5. A belief is said to be credible because it has endured for centuries. I really don't understand why people would buy into this one. Aristotle's theory that heavier objects fall faster than light ones endured centuries as well.

  6. An important discovery is made in isolation. Maybe in Mary Shelley's novel, but not in real life.

  7. New laws of nature are proposed to explain an incredible observation. Like the homeopathic claims of water remembering.

The next speaker was the esteemed Dr. Stephen Barrett. Dr. Barrett is board chairman of Quackwatch, a board member of the National Council Against Health Fraud, a Scientific Advisor to the American Council on Science and Health, and a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). He has published 49 books and edited or co edited over 20 more. He has received an FDA Commissioner's Special Citation Award for Public Service, an honorary membership in the American Dietetic Association, and the 2001 Distinguished Service to Health Education Award. In addition to all of this, he apparently also operates 9 websites.

Dr. Barrett has many more accomplishments to his name that I can't list here without becoming his unofficial biographer. His talk was similar to Peter Bowditch's, except that it focused on the state of alternative medicine (otherwise known as "alternative to medicine") in North America. In particular, homeopathic "medicine" is much stronger than it should be. Homeopathic medicine looks at a patient's symptoms and tries to find a substance that will copy those symptoms. That substance is then dissolved in water. The resulting solution is diluted again and again, sometimes hundreds of times. In fact, the solution is diluted so many times that the chances of it containing even one molecule of the original substance approaches zero.

During his lecture, Dr. Barrett gave the example of a homeopathic remedy that was rated "400C". The "C" part refers to a dilution of 1:100 or one part per hundred. The "400" part means it has gone through 400 iterations of this one part per hundred nonsense. So do the math, it comes out to 1 part per 10 to the 800th power. To give you an idea of the scale of this, the most generous credible estimates for the number of atoms in the universe is well under 10 to the 100th power.

The "Bad Astronomer" himself, Dr. Phil Plait was next. Dr. Plait has authored a book called Bad Astronomy and has a website by the same name. The field of astronomy is apparently very fertile ground for producing utter nonsense. Consider for a moment astrology, or moon landing conspiracy theories, or "War of the Worlds". These things are all history, there are new fictions being fed to the gullible almost daily on the subject of astronomy.

Planet X is one of the latest panics. Planet X is (supposedly) a large planet that will sweep by the earth in May 2003, flipping the earth's axis and killing billions. How is this known? Mostly by Nancy Lieder channeling the "Zeta-Reticulans" (a species of benign aliens) who graciously provided the information. If you want some amusement, go to Google and type these search terms in: "Nancy Lieder" "Hale-Bopp" In my humble opinion, this woman needs her meds upped.

Many will know Julia Sweeney as the androgynous Pat from Saturday Night Live. She has also appeared in Stuart Little and Pulp Fiction among others. She's a writer, director, and a creative consultant. She lost a brother to cancer and managed to survive her own cancer. Her most recent literary work was "Letting Go of God" from which she read us an excerpt. "Letting Go of God" is Julia's personal story of slowly coming to terms with her growing disbelief. It traveled a wide range of emotions from sad to happy to funny to serious.

Her story started out with two Mormon missionaries who showed up at her door one day. She invited them in and also invited them to share their beliefs with her. After they had given her a crash course in Mormonism and they had left, Julia pondered their beliefs and chuckled a bit over their more silly beliefs. She stopped chuckling as she began to ponder her own Catholic beliefs and realized that they were quite silly too.

And so began her journey of disbelief. She continued to struggle with her beliefs trying to make them operate along side of her reason. She found that even trying to think of her beliefs as metaphors rather than actual fact still led her into contradiction with Catholic dogma. She began investigating other religions. Her research into Buddhism led her to the far east. There she met an old woman who was caring for a chronically deformed child. She expressed her sympathy for the child and listened in horror as the woman explained that her sympathy was misplaced as the child was born deformed to pay for an evil past life.

Eventually, she came to terms with where her reason was taking her and gave up her belief in god. She went on to explain how her ethical reasoning changed, becoming stronger with more clarity. At the end of her presentation, she received a well deserved standing ovation. She was, in my opinion, the highlight of the conference.

Julia's act was a tough one to follow. However, Dino and Victor's Nigerian Spam Scam Scam skit was a hilarious light comedy to nicely contrast the depth of the previous presentation. Almost everyone I know with an email address has encountered the Nigerian scam. There are variations of it, but essentially the letter asks for your help in transferring a large amount of currency out of Nigeria. The sender claims to be under heavy scrutiny of the government and can not transfer the funds without your help.

Now of course most of us prudent rationalists will delete such email, barely acknowledging it with a sneer of contempt. Dean Cameron, however, saw it as an opportunity to scam the scammers. He initiated correspondence with the scammers and dozen's of emails began to fly back and forth. His presentation was a skit based on these emails. I won't go into great detail but his hilarious correspondences can be read at his website. He actually got these cretins to send him a dollar!

Then Lance Burton took to the stage and amazed us all with his astounding straitjacket escape. The straitjacket escape is a magician's classic first popularized by Houdini. Although Houdini apparently used the dislocating shoulder trick to accomplish this (much like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon 2), Lance apparently did not need to resort to these extreme measures (and no doubt had a healthy respect for pain).

Lance also showed us a trick where he changes a scarf into an egg. He first stuffed the scarf into his fist, blew in his fist, and "presto" produced an egg. He then showed us the far side of the egg to reveal the trick was accomplished by stuffing the scarf into a hollow egg that he had previously palmed. He then repeated the trick for us but this time, instead of showing us the hole in the back of the egg, he cracked open the egg to reveal that it was no fake!

And so ended our third day...

Day 1, Day 2, Wrap Up