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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