Apr 19 2010

Report from NECSS 2010

This past weekend was the second North East Conference on Science and Skepticism, or NECSS (meant to be pronounced “nexus”). The conference is jointly sponsored by the New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society. While I have a completely insider view of the conference, I want to share my thoughts about it in the context of what, if anything, it says about the skeptical movement.

First, I think it reflects the fact that the skeptical movement is heading in the direction of greater collaboration and cohesion. We are slowly weaving together the many threads that make up what is very loosely called the skeptical movement.

This was more than a conference run by two local skeptical groups – the keynote was given by D.J. Grothe, president of the James Randi Educational Organization (JREF). James Randi himself gave a talk and participated in two panels. There was also a live taping of the Skeptics Guide podcast (SGU), a performance by George Hrab who produces the Geologic podcast, and another panel on promoting skepticism which included Steve Mirsky from Scientific American and was moderated by Julia Galef who hosts the Rationally Speaking podcast.

And finally there was a Science-Based Medicine panel that included myself along with David Gorski and Kimbal Atwood, both popular science bloggers.

This was a collaboration among many groups and new-media producers. What I think this reflects is the degree to which the skeptical movement has come together spontaneously using social networking and new media tools. I know I have made this observation before, but NECSS really reinforced for me the transformation of the skeptical movement brought by Web 2.0 and new media.

But it did more than just connect existing strands of skepticism – it has brought new people into the movement, and has shifted down the average age of a self-identified member of the skeptical movement by several decades.

As a result the movement is more vibrant than ever. There is an energy that was simply not there 10 years ago, and you can really feel it at events like this.

The conference also reflected, most notably in the speech by D.J., that the movement is intellectually vibrant as well. What this means is that skeptics have fairly deep and sophisticated ideas about what it means to be a skeptic, and what the skeptical movement is and should be. There is a passionate and reasoned exchange of ideas.

This brings with it meaningful differences of opinion, and this inevitably leads to conflict. What are the boundaries of skepticism? Should we engage directly with moral, political, religious, and social issues, or stick with empirical science?

I have taken the “big tent” approach myself. While I emphasize science, I also freely explore the intersection of science with these other areas, although I do not engage with “purely” social or moral issues. While others are as likely to opine on their political opinions as on a scientific topic, or to directly engage with faith-based claims. In my opinion, it’s all good, and I do not think I am in a position to define the limits of what others do in the name of skepticism. I simply define what I do.

Meaningful substantive differences of opinion are inevitable in any vibrant intellectual movement. The trick is to engage in an internal discussion about these issues, without fracturing the movement itself. The skeptical movement, while increasingly vibrant, is also quite fragile (there isn’t a lot of hard infrastructure to create stability or permanence). This makes us dynamic, but also unstable.

Right now there is vociferous debate among the “new atheists,” the “accommodationists,” “scientific skeptics,” and other poorly defined and delineated factions about whether or not there is even one skeptical movement, let alone what its limits and strategic approach should be.

This is all good – as long as we remember that most of us have vastly more in common in terms of our world view than the issues that separate us. We don’t all have to agree on everything to work together to make the world a bit more rational and scientific. A little bit of internal tolerance is in order, I think. Otherwise we are likely to fracture before we even fully come together. That is what generally happens with such movements – they splinter along ideological lines having to do with “strategic vision.”

But I am encouraged by NECSS and other similar skeptical events (like TAM and DragonCon) that we are a community – increasingly young, vibrant, and connected. The future seems bright.

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24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Report from NECSS 2010”

  1. Draalon 19 Apr 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I’m interested in seeing if the skeptical movement will ever formulate “agendas” or projects that a large number of people can participate in or contribute to. For myself, my efforts in a skeptical movement has been relegated to following a few blogs and podcasts. But I know there’s always something more to be done. However, the extent of my efforts probably won’t include organizing a local chapter or starting a blog. I’m thinking along the lines of a weekend warrior participation, activities that could be accomplished within a few hours or days.

    Take for example the hubbub with Texas text books. I feel I’m too far removed geographically too really do anything of importance, like pass out fliers or campaign for new board members. But a local mobilization may really make a difference. Another example is recruiting help for finding references for Skeptoid’s older podcasts. I didn’t help out but it’s something I’m really good at doing.

    So I’m looking for things to do but not requiring a whole lotta effort.

  2. cwfongon 19 Apr 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Skeptical Rationalism might be a better and more encouraging way way to describe the evolving movement.

  3. daijiyobuon 19 Apr 2010 at 1:17 pm

    Per: “the future seems bright…”

    And then Skynet gained consciousness.

    Oh, wait. That’s not science.

    I enjoyed NECSS okii this time around.

    And that isn’t simply okay.

    -r.c.

  4. locutusbrgon 19 Apr 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I feel very strongly about critical thinking and skepticism. I am a strong advocate in my work, home life, and patient teaching. Although I am a strong fan of SGU. I have felt, on occasion, that because I do not accept all aspects of atheism or agnostic philosophies I am not truly a skeptic.
    I do respect your big tent aspect of skepticism. I feel that occasionally Rebecca pushes a little hard on atheism. That type of attitude is a little too persuasive in skeptical groups. I am not Knocking Rebecca in any way I accept and understand atheism and I have no problem with it. I find her to be witty and entertaining as well as bright.
    Still I find the argument about god/religion/atheism to be tired and pointless. My overarcing point is, I shy away from meetings where people are trying to sell me on budda/jesus/muhammed/jehovah etc. The same can be said for meeting where others are sneering down their nose at you for believing in a non-scientific higher power. For this reason I feel on the outside of the skeptical movement. Intellectually I know it is not true but it is still is a barrier to increased involvement for me and I am sure there are others. It is my perception that this is a stumbling block in the perception of the general public, that portrays skeptics as narrow minded, critical, atheists.

  5. TimonTon 19 Apr 2010 at 1:27 pm

    To state very simply a view that coud be elaborated a length, my greatest concern is people whose thinking is ignorant and simple-minded, whether they are “skeptics” or not. And I see plenty of thinking on the part of skeptics and atheists that is ignorant and/or simple-minded, a prime example being Bill Maher’s promotion of dangerous medical pseudoecience.

  6. locutusbrgon 19 Apr 2010 at 1:46 pm

    TimonT
    I agree.
    That was partially my point you just said it better.

  7. TimonTon 19 Apr 2010 at 2:20 pm

    @ locutusbrg – Thanks for the kind words. We must have posted at almost the same time since I did not see your first comment before mine was posted even though yours appears first.

    I’d like to elaborate a little on what I said: Some well known skeptics/atheists like Dawkins and Myers are very clearly highly qualified and expert scientists. But my impression is that in their education and work, they focused so much on science failed to learn much about history, sociology, anthropology, and psychology. And that, therefore, they have a poor appreciation of “the human condition” and how people come to believe as they do.

    And secondly, in spite of the fact that they think extremely well in their scientific work, that outside of that realm, their thinking can be just as simple-minded and ignorant (and therefore UN-scientific) as those they attack so mercilessly.

  8. ccbowerson 19 Apr 2010 at 2:21 pm

    TimonT

    I disagree.
    Ignorance and simple-mindedness are completely incompatible with skepticism.

    Perhaps this is a semantic issue, but a person who is often ‘skeptical’ (without a grounding in critical thinking, logic, and science) is not what I understand to be a skeptic. If you meant ‘skeptic’ in a loose sense, then I agree, but if you are refering to skepticism in the way it is used in blogs like this… I completely disagree.

    There are overlaps between skepticism and lots of other “isms” including atheism, but lets not confuse distinct categories. Bill Maher is a person, and he does not represent skepticism (nor does he purport to). He is a ‘skeptical’ person who is not a very good skeptic. He is mostly ‘skeptical’ in the sense that he is resistant to ideas that conflict with his. He is an ideologue on many topics, which occasionally fit with skepticism.

  9. artfulDon 19 Apr 2010 at 2:29 pm

    @ccbowers
    You just proved TimonT’s point with that ignorant and simple minded comment. As you will now say I have done, and am pleased to have done it.

  10. TimonTon 19 Apr 2010 at 2:39 pm

    @ ccbowers

    I think we are actually in agreement, and it’s a matter of semantics.

    By “skeptic” I was referring to particular people often identified with the skeptical movement, not to skepticism in the abstract.

    And while the term”skeptic” is useful and meaningful, I prefer to think in a broader sense of “scientific thinking”, which means, very simply, thinking that places very high value on understanding the world using the best evidence and best logic possible.

  11. ccbowerson 19 Apr 2010 at 2:54 pm

    ArtfoolD… always around for uncalledfor ad hominem. Never talk about issues…keep lobbing those attacks to distract from your lack of logical points.

  12. artfulDon 19 Apr 2010 at 3:02 pm

    ccblowhard: Ad hominem? Tit for tat is more like it.

  13. artfulDon 19 Apr 2010 at 3:41 pm

    As to “issues” I’m one of the few posters here who ever floats a new idea or concept. I get a lot of “logical point” feedback, which is what I’m seeking – except so far no such points have been made by ccbowers, his recent utterances not excluded.

  14. Bytoron 19 Apr 2010 at 7:10 pm

    @locutusbrg: I was feeling the same way, but I decided to go to NECSS anyways, even though I am one of those “nasty” theist (if not strongly) skeptics. And you know what? Nobody cared! I felt liked and accepted and I am seriously considering going to TAM8. Those very few atheist skeptics who do nothing but ridicule non-atheists are, IMNSHO, no better than the fundamentalist religionists because they act in a similar manner with a seemingly similar black & white outlook on life.

    After I registered for NECSS back in February and spent all those $$ on hotel and flight, I felt a bit of “buyers remorse” and I, an introvert, was very worried about whether I would have a good time or whether I would have a disappointing weekend. But as I said it was awesome. Everybody I had met in person was nice and friendly and the discussion at our table during the Speakers Dinner was great.

    Not a single one of those “fundamentalist” atheists I have encountered on Usenet and other Internet fora. Though in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised because of how easy it is to unintentionally come across as a jerk in a text forum like Usenet.

    So please don’t let it be a stumbling block to increased in the skeptic community. NECCS was my first dip into the pool and I found it enjoyable. After all, one cannot affect the future of a group for what one sees as the better without engaging with and/or joining that group.

  15. halincohon 19 Apr 2010 at 11:04 pm

    I had the pleasure of sitting with you at the speaker’s dinner and, as always, I deeply appreciate your willingness to share such “insider” information.

    As a complimentary point to your, “while I have a completely insider view of the conference, I want to share my thoughts about it in the context of what, if anything, it says about the skeptical movement ” statement, I want to share my outsider view, molded by many conversations with insiders, outsiders, the young, the old, the scientists and the artists.

    When I entered this movement I had no idea what I was entering or that I was entering anything specific in the first place. I simply enjoyed the SGU podcast because topics were being discussed by people I found accessible and interesting. I found it purely by chance. The SGU introduced me to the movement.

    Over time I have had difficulty knowing if I really fit into this movement because I am not , as Randi would say, an atheist of the first degree. I think I’m 1/4 cultural Jew, 1/4 deist, and 1/2 religiously apathetic regardless of label. The radical first degree atheists have been difficult for me to handle at times; to me they felt like aggressive believer/ fundamentalists, except their process is different. Over time I have learned that as I MEET these people, what I perceive as aggression is simply a passion.

    One person at the meeting commented that the problem with an internet based, grass root movement is that most of us are nameless and faceless. In my opinion, the two most important points about our meetings are, first of all, to keep the content diversified to represent the growing diversification of the people who attend these meetings ( we are indeed info tech people, artists, engineers, physicians, students, retirees, men, women, show bizzers, business people, gay, straight, atheists, non atheists, Star Trek geeks and sport’s geeks and all those inbetween in this “big tent”). Diversity of content is important for two reasons: this will allow something for everyone under this tent and it will decrease the likelihood that the meetings become redundant, which would be a death knell for the most experienced. Key components MUST be repeated and tweaked, but there always must be optional tracks and add ons at the bigger meetings.

    Secondly, the importance of these meetings is also the meeting of each other. When we meet we discover not only each other’s names and faces, but perhaps more importantly, each other’s voices. The blogs, these opportunities to reply, the forums, allow us all to connect and interact, which is what grows the movement. But connecting a living, breathing, walking, talking, smiling, laughing, thought provoking person to the words, at least for me, confirms that I do and deed belong.

    What we have in common is the process of how we view our world. We choose critical thinking over magical thinking to determine what is probably true and what is probably false, and to borrow from D.J Grothe, “what is right and what is wrong.”

    As you stated, “we don’t all have to agree on everything to work together to make the world a bit more rational and scientific. A little bit of internal tolerance is in order, I think.”
    In fact, I’m glad we don’t exactly agree. We are not a cult. I celebrate our differences. I also deeply enjoy our similarities.

    I look foward to seeing you, Steve, at the next meeting, as well as my other skeptical friends, and, importantly, to friends not yet met.

  16. johncon 20 Apr 2010 at 6:01 am

    “”There is an energy that was simply not there 10 years ago, and you can really feel it at events like this”"

    I love it when skeptics talk about mysterious kinds of energy that can’t be measured.

  17. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2010 at 6:20 am

    Except that it’s not a mysterious kind of energy. It’s merely a metaphor for enthusiasm

    (But then, of course, you were probably joking)

  18. johncon 20 Apr 2010 at 11:04 am

    No I was alluding to skeptics’ irritating habit of stamping out false dogma then spreading their own (almost identical) in it’s place.

  19. Steven Novellaon 20 Apr 2010 at 12:00 pm

    johnc – any examples? If it is a “habit” as you assert, there must be many.

    And really, I used “energy” as a metaphor, if you are implying something else to make a point I doubt many will take it seriously.

  20. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2010 at 5:46 pm

    artfulD,

    “As to “issues” I’m one of the few posters here who ever floats a new idea or concept.”

    ArtlessDodger, you are a legend in your own mind.
    It’s hard to strike a blow in a shadow boxing contest.

    “I get a lot of “logical point” feedback, which is what I’m seeking.”

    That’s nothing but pedagogical self-delusion.
    You are not here to teach.
    You are here to learn.
    Get out from behind the shadows, my friend, and show us who you really are.

  21. BillyJoe7on 20 Apr 2010 at 5:52 pm

    artfulD,

    BillyJoe: “Except that it’s not a mysterious kind of energy. It’s merely a metaphor for enthusiasm”
    Steven Novella: “I used “energy” as a metaphor”

    Who knows, maybe one day I’ll even have an artfulD moment! :D

  22. artfulDon 20 Apr 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I can see why BJ identifies with ccbowers, but even cc knows that feedback is not metaphor for teaching.

  23. [...] in a panel discussion at NECSS with John Snyder, Kimball Atwood, and Steve Novella, who reported on the conference last Monday. What I mentioned to some of the attendees is that I had managed to combine NECSS with [...]

  24. [...] our recent panel discussion at the NECSS, a member of the audience identified himself as a clinical pathologist at a major medical center, [...]

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