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Skeptics celebrate science with excursion in NYC

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Veteran educator Dr. Angie McAllister's words may have summarized the whole conference.

“The quality of our entire lives in society is dependent on our thinking.”

It was a sentiment the crowd no doubt agreed with. They were, after all, there to rally for the skeptical movement.

McAllister was speaking about raising children to think critically at the sixth annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, which took place from Friday to Sunday at the Fashion Institute of Technology in midtown Manhattan. The event brings scientists, activists and other thought leaders from the skeptical community together in the interest of fostering a more rational world.

Despite the regional implication of the conference’s name, organizers said 27 states and seven countries were represented among the attendees who packed the 6,381 square-foot John E. Reeves Great Hall.

Speakers at this year’s conference included such personalities as NASA astronaut Cady Coleman; psychiatrist and author Sally Satel; physician Paul Offit, who co-invented the rotavirus vaccine; and keynote Lawrence Krauss, the famous theoretical physicist, author, and director of Arizona State University’s Origins Project.

For his presentation, Krauss brought a whiteboard to the stage and proceeded, with the flair of a showman, to draw circles representing “cows” to demonstrate why approximations are so important to doing science well. Understanding basic physical limits to the size of biological structures – such as cows - does not require knowing the details of their shapes, he pointed out.

One of the problems in science education, Krauss said, is that approximation isn't taught in school. “We give students problems that can be solved exactly,” he said, but “nothing in the world can be solved exactly.”

The conference also featured a live taping of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast, winner in the science category of The People’s Choice Podcast awards three years in a row.

NECSS began in part out of an effort by the podcast’s hosts to honor the memory of Skeptic’s Guide co-founder Perry Deangelis, who died in 2007. In its short history, the conference has grown from one day to three. It’s become more varied, as well, featuring workshops, debates, special after-hours events and even a second live-taped podcast called Rationally Speaking.

Rebecca Watson, one of the co-hosts of the Skeptic's Guide and founder of Skepchick.org, said conferences like NECSS are important for developing a sense of community among self-identified skeptics.

“I do everything online, and I have some interaction with people through things like emails and comments,” she said. “But it means a lot to meet someone person-to-person, to have someone come up to you and say they’re excited to be at their first conference.”

Going to a conference, she pointed out, is often the first step people take toward getting more involved in campaigning, volunteering and other forms of activism.

It also helps her refill her personal reserves. “I leave completely exhausted – I mean, I’ll probably sleep for two days after this,” she said. “But when I wake up after that, I’ll have the energy I need to continue.”

One highlight of the conference was a debate about genetically modified foods between Kevin M. Folta, chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, and Marty Mesh, Executive Director of Florida Certified Organic Growers & Consumers, Inc. Folta and Mesh traded barbs over the benefits and risks of GM foods for health, plant biodiversity and feeding the poor. It was a contentious topic even for this largely scientifically literate bunch; when the floor was opened for questions, about a dozen people leapt to the standing mic in front of the stage.

Between speakers, participants were able to browse tables set up on the periphery of the hall with information for organizations like the Secular Student Alliance and the Secular Coalition for America. Several speakers remained on hand after their talks to chat with attendees. Coleman was a particular favorite; she hung around the hall most of Sunday as people flocked around her.

John Levin of Norwalk, Conn., had never been to NECSS before, and said his first experience was excellent.

Levin thought Krauss was the most entertaining speaker. He said the most educational talk was by neuroscientist Heather Berlin, who discussed research into the neural correlates of consciousness and the implications for free will.

“Her ability to explain human consciousness and how the brain works speaks to the great personal mystery that she and her colleagues are working on,” Levin said.

Berlin would probably be glad to hear that – she said sharing her work with a broader audience is why she delved into the public communication of science in the first place.

“Being in the lab, you might work for months or years on a study, spend more time writing it up and submitting it to a journal, where it would be read by maybe 10 experts in your area. I felt like it wasn’t having an impact,” she explained. “I thought if people only knew about it, they would be really excited.”

Now, she gets to experience peoples' excitement firsthand. “When I see that,” she said, “I go, ‘Oh, that’s right – that’s why I do the thing I do.’”

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