Last weekend New Orleans hosted the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's conference of 2011. While the event lasted from Thursday through Sunday, I only attended Friday and Sunday. I took advantage of my vacation time to attend and drove from Dallas. Unfortunately, we arrived so early in the morning that we practically went directly to the conference; Awake 35 hours straight, woo!
Death from the Skies!
During this talk we heard from Phil Plait who is quite the enthusiastic astronomer. He discussed asteroids, comets and the likelyhood of these objects striking Earth. One of my favorite quotes from Plait was, "The universe is trying to kill you all the time." He pointed out how movies like Armageddon completely got the science wrong, while Deep Impact was pretty close. It was also very interesting to learn about how we can protect ourselves from being struck by objects, such as asteroids, by utilizing gravity tractors. Lastly, he stressed the need for our community to vote for people who recognize the importance of scientific research and will therefore fund it.
Next up was David Morrison, who discussed some irrational fears held by Americans, such as the idea that the world will end in 2012, and various conspiracy theories involving extraterrestrials and NASA. Regardless of your familiarity on these topics, they seem to be a serious concern for some, as Morrison gets daily emails about these perceived "issues" from those who are sincerely afraid, don't trust the government and are susceptible to believing extraordinary claims without sufficient evidence.
This talk concluded with Seth Shostak discussing his work with the SETI Institute (search for extraterrestrial intelligence), the potential for life on other planets and the science behind the research. While is is interesting research, Seth admits there's not sufficient evidence to support the existence of such life just yet. He also mentioned his opinion that the intelligence we could find would likely be different from our idea of small, squishy, bipeds, and the Independence Day types, but may even be artificial.
Feeling the Future
Next we had to choose between two panels and we chose this one, which primarily featured Ray Hyman. He discussed his involvement in debunking psi research, particularly that of Daryl Bem. Bem was invited to the conference, but could not attend. His article, "Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect" got a lot of attention earlier this year and was included in the 1/27/11 episode of The Colbert Report. Hyman stressed the importance of solid experimentation and skepticism, pointing to the research on faster than light neutrinos as a good example of scientists not jumping to conclusions and being skeptical about their own findings until solid reproduced results lead to a conclusion.
We purchased the separate lunch presentation featuring my favorite physicist, Lawrence Krauss. Among good food and discussion, Lawrence talked about our connection with the universe and the fact that we're all "star children," since nearly all the atoms that compose our bodies are the products of supernovas (exploding stars). I was excited to learn that he has a new book due out in January (just in time for my birthday!) called, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.
Sleights of Mind
Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik kicked off this talk, primarily discussing their work at the Barrow Neurological Institute and their book, Slights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions. Their research seeks to better understand the brain in terms of visual perception. They also tested out some illusions on the audience which was very entertaining. It's amazing just how easily our perception can be altered and how much we miss out on due to our limited observation abilities.
The magician James Randi followed up with a discussion about his acts and why magic works. Magicians depend on our limited observation abilities to make their illusions possible and must become masters of manipulating our attention. He then performed a trick for the audience. Sorry, but you just had to be there.
Superstitions and Hauntings
Once again we had to choose between panels and while we originally intended to hear Eugenie Scott speak, we decided on the other panel, as it seemed to include information we were less familiar with. Here, Stuart Vyse discussed research related to skepticism and how people are conditioned to believe in silly superstitions. He brought up his article in the Skeptical Inquirer debunking The Book of Predictions and the flaws in other belief systems, such as astrology (a pseudoscience).
The last speaker of the Friday general sessions was Joe Nickell. He talked about the difference between folklore (such as Davy Crockett), legendary beliefs/stories passed down through generations, and fakelore (such as Paul Bunyan), manufactured beliefs/stories spread under the veil of folklore. He also discussed the origins of other spooky characters, such as vampires, an Anne Rice creation, and werewolves, which came to North America via the Acadians. Joe is known for his work in researching and debunking the paranormal.
That concluded the Friday CSI events I attended and then I was off to bed.
Up next I'll be writing a review of Sunday's events as well as our experience in New Orleans on Halloween (as you may have guessed, religious protestors were on the prowl).