Vicki Hyde reports from the 4th World Skeptics Conference

I knew Someone was smiling on me – there I was going to be stuck in Los Angeles for three days waiting for a flight back across the Pacific – and what should chance to be on at that time, in the neighbourhood, but the 4th World Skeptics Conference…

The theme was “Prospects for Skepticism – the Next 25 Years”, with sessions on evolution and intelligent design, fringe psychotherapies, urban legends, medical claims, skeptical investigations and more – it sounded like my kind of conference.

As with most skeptics conferences, national and international, the real buzz was in being there amongst a group of (mostly) like-minded people, opinionated, informed, inquiring minds.

The notion of inquiry was one taken up by Paul Kurtz, a founding father and Chair of CSICOP, who argued that perhaps it was time to get away from the “skeptical” label and rebrand ourselves as “inquirers”. It’s an argument which has its merits – there is a lot of “baggage” associated with the term skeptic, as many of us know. All too often it is taken as a synonym for cynic, or to represent a dogmatic, close-minded authoritarian view of the world.

However, I have to confess to being a little dismayed at hearing Paul call for organised skeptics to take on all areas of inquiry, including the areas of religion, economics and politics. He had made similar comments at the 3rd World Conference in Sydney in 2000, and clearly this is an important issue for him personally. Judging by discussions outside the sessions, he doesn’t have unanimous support for that, despite the apparent presumption at the conference that skeptics, by definition, had to be vociferous humanistic, if not atheistic, Democrats. It made more than just me uncomfortable, particularly when a challenge to this was knocked back rather harshly.

(As a consequence, we’re looking at finding out what our members here believe should be our core functions and focus. I suspect that we are a more diverse group than in the US, and I urge you to take part in our survey within this issue or online, to see if we have some basis for that belief!)

Those questions of who we are and what are our interests were reflected, in some respects, in the opening session, Don’t Get Taken, which saw a focus on scams, ranging from the kerbside cons of three-card monte to those of Wall Street. Amongst the sleight-of-hand and financial analysis, came a thought-provoking comment from CSICOP fellow Ray Hyman.

In discussing how con artists rely on the confidence people place in one another and in the general level of trust within a society, Ray noted that the only societies which did not see scams or cons were totalitarian ones because under such systems, trust is non-existent.

Therefore, he concluded, scams are a sign of a healthy democracy…

The next morning, it was hard to drag myself away from the wonderful range of books available from the Prometheus Books display to get to the first session on Evolution and Intelligent Design. It was worth it, as it turned out to be one of the liveliest sessions of the whole conference, putting two supporters of each approach on the stage and on the spot.

It would be hard to remain complacent about the forces behind intelligent design having seen the “Wedge” document which outlines the strong, well-supported campaign to have it taught and accepted throughout US society. It appears that the “research” component of this campaign has evaporated (apparently in response to problems associated in proving intelligent design concepts…), but there’s good evidence that the political push has been taken up with enthusiasm.

Take a look at the document (a copy is at It’s very impressive as a strategic planning document; it’s chilling in its thoroughness and implications.

Ironically, given the public image of skeptics as dogmatic and dictatorial, the only person who came across as that was William Dembski, described as associate research professor in the conceptual foundations of science at Baylor University and senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (where renewal basically means defeating the forces of godless evolution).You can get the flavour of his presentation with the following rhetoric:

“What’s a skeptic to do against this onslaught [ie the fact that intelligent design is broadly accepted], especially when there’s a whole political dimension to the debate in which a public tired of being bullied by an intellectual elite find in intelligent design a tool for liberation?”

There were lots of untenable assertions like this, which you can read for yourself at 1185&program=CRSC

Paul Nelson, editor of Origins & Design, came across as more reasonable until the Q&A session when he was asked directly if he accepted the fact that the world was more than 10,000 years old. He paused, he squirmed, he attempted to deflect it by saying that geology had nothing to do with biology(!), he attempted further digression, until he finally had to admit to being a proponent of the young-Earth theory…

I have to confess to bailing out halfway through the next session on fringe psychotherapies. Three-hour-long sessions, small hard seating and persistent problems with the technology made even those with long attention spans vulnerable to the seduction of the comfy chairs and conversations outside.

We were lured back in by the evening address from Marvin Minsky, but his disappointingly rambling address didn’t hit the spot except for this line:

“We [ie Skeptics] love mysteries too – we just want to get rid of the dumb ones.”

Saturday started off with Urban Legends, including the great researcher and raconteur Jan Brunvand (author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker), and a presentation by the online urban legend folk from (David and Barbara Mikkelson).

Then came the hard choice – concurrent sessions on medical claims and skeptical investigation. I knew the latter would be immensely entertaining and interesting. After all, with the likes of long-time investigator Joe Nickell and the ebullient Richard Wiseman, it could not fail, but I had heard them both speak in Sydney and so headed for the medical session.

The speakers included Wallace Sampson, editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine; Stephen Barrett of fame; and Marcia Angell, Harvard lecturer and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. It was the strongest line-up of the conference and one of the meatiest subjects. One of the most memorable comments came from Stephen Barrett:

“Complementary medicine is not a form of medicine – it is a marketing slogan.”

Now how can we get that spread as a general cultural meme?!

The evening banquet was entertaining if only because we had the famously egotistic Harlan Ellison dash over to our table to grovel at the feet of a bemused-looking Jan Brunvand. Harlan was being honoured for his services to skepticism or, as noted in the conference programme, for his attempt to become the “biggest pain in the ass in the Western Hemisphere”.

And so to Sunday, when the conference concluded with concurrent morning sessions on Educating our Future and Paranormal Around the World. I would have liked to have heard of the experiences of our counterparts in India, China, Peru, Mexico and Germany, but I had been commandeered by the highly energetic Amanda Chesworth for the education session.

So I ended up on the stage, abetted by Diane Swanson, author of Nibbling on Einstein’s Brain, a book for teaching the scientific method to children.

Chemistry professor Charles Wynn, author of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction, had some very promising research showing how his honours colloquium on teaching skeptical thought made a big impact on his students. Almost all questionable beliefs showed a significant drop amongst his honours students by the end of his course, but the sobering thing was just how much effort was involved in shifting those beliefs. It would be great to find out which of the various techniques were the most effective; clearly more research is required…

Biases apart, I do think that this session had the greatest relevance to the conference theme and deserved better placement, particularly when Amanda began to outline the highly ambitious programme she is running as director of the Young Skeptics and Darwin Day initiatives. We, the New Zealand Skeptics, will have a part to play in those initiatives as a result of contacts made at the conference, and I confidently predict that the next 25 years will see good prospects for us all.

Conference Highlights

  • Being pounced upon by a Fox TV crew in search of exotic accents as an example of international skepticism.
  • Figuring out a card trick top-flight magician Bob Steiner did for me, looking for the “smoking gun” move when he repeated the trick at the conference opener…and not seeing the move I expected.
  • Arguing about adverbs, religion, gun laws, science fiction movies, wines, medical treatments, with all arguments characterised by strong opinion and even stronger humour.
  • Waving goodbye to Joe Nickell as he headed off to examine what was claimed to be a genuine vampire hunting kit (we were just down the road from Universal Studios…)
  • Hearing a great example from Diane Swanson about how to get sampling errors across to school children (something our media needs help in understanding!)
  • Being able to say a heartfelt personal thank you to all those folk who provide such great online resources that make my life easier as Chair-entity of the NZCSICOP, such as Quackwatch, Snopes, Skeptic’s Dictionary, Young Skeptics, Skeptiseum.

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