CSICon: Reporting from the Front Lines

As I started writing this, this year's Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's conference has just finished winding down and I'm still in the process of collecting my thoughts over all of it.   While I will be writing on some of the specific presentations in depth in the weeks to come (giving this blog a distinctive Nashville twang for a while), here are some of the highlights: Csicon-logo[1]

  • The irreverent Richard Wiseman acted as MC for the first few days as he introduced the different speakers and provided us with some quirky examples of magic tricks, illusions, and examples of the different ways our brains can fool us.
  • Even before the conference began, we had preconvention workshops featuring the amazing Skepchicks talking about applied skepticism.   There was also a workshop on investigative strategies for checking out hauntings and other strange things that go bump in the night featuring Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, and Jim Underdown.
  • Along with Jon Ronson and Rebecca Watson, Richard Wiseman covered their recent Paranormal roadtrip as they travelled from Buffalo, N.Y. to Nashville, TN by car.   Along with their exposure to assorted haunted sites along the way (including a haunted honky-tonk) they also visited an underground magic museum situated in an old gold mine,
  • We then had a song/comedy/st eorytelling extravaganza from George Hrab as well as two tapings of the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast featuring Rebecca Watson and the rest of the SGU cast.
  • Kimball Atwood, David Gorski , Harriet Hall g and Eugenie Scott gave a depressing overview on the rise of pseudoscience in modern medical schools and supposedly advanced hospitals (usually under the banner of "integrative medicine").   How much woo does your family doctor support?
  • The irrepressible P.Z Myers gave a quick recap on modern evolutionary biology and why recent discoveries are NOT a death knell for evolutions as hopeful creationists insist.
  • Former stage magician/private eye/homicide detective/current paranormal investigator Joe Nickell gave a presentation on the science of investigating hauntings tand ended with the thoughtful advice: "there are no haunted houses, only haunted people."  
  • Closer to the subject of psychology was a terrific symposium on memory and belief and the question of just how reliable memory can be.   Moderated by the legendary Ray Hyman, we heard presentations from James Alcock, Elizabeth Loftus, and Indre Viskontas.    More on that in a future post...?
  • Did Paul McCartney really die in the much-hyped "Paul is Dead" Beatles controversy of the 1960s? (and, no, Yoko Ono was not a prime suspect in his death).   Massimo Polidoro weighed in with his review of the urban legend and the strange media campaign that accompanied it. 
  • We also heard from Sara Mayhew and the use of art, comics, and movies to promote skeptical characters and critical thinking.
  • There was a great symposium on gender issues in science featuring Richard Lippa talking about the "Gender Similarities hypothesis" and Cacrole Tavris presenting on problems found in research looking at sex differences.
  • Eugenie Scott talked about the new Tennessee Academic Freedom act and why its passage is not the victory for "academic freedom" that its (mostly creationist) supporters make it out to be.
  • There was also a pro and con talked discussing Chris Mooney's new book on the Republican brain with counterpoints from Daniel Kahan and CFI's own Ronald Lindsey arguing that dogmatism is the real threat to public policy on science.
  • Ben Radford gave another great talk on mass hysteria including some bizarre cases that occurred recently as well as further back in history.
  • Is the placebo effect as valid as advocates claim?   Steve Novella gave a great talk overviewing recent research suggesting that much of the recent talk of the heasling power of placebos remains little more than hype.
  • Why are scam artists so effective in cheating people out of their money?   CSI fellow and confidence artist expert Anthony Pratkanis gave a terrific presentation on weapons of fraud and what people can do to protect themselves from being cheated.
  • What about the impending doomsday this December?   Former NASA scientist David Morrison gave a compelling talk reviewing the much-hyped Mayan calendar prediction of global disaster and the very real fear it seems to have provoked in far too many people.  What will happen when doomsday fails to arrive on schedule?
  • Doubtful Sharon Hill gave an excellent talk on how to think about "weird" news items and why people are so willing  to believe the strange things that the popular media keeps reporting.   How does believing these things shape how people view the world around them?
  • The final presentation was by psychologist and skeptic Scott Lilienfeld who weighed in with a talk on popular misconceptions in psychology and the thought processes that make these misconceptions so persistent.
  • We also got a very nice question and answer session with the CSI Executive Council about what is happening with the Skeptical Inquirer and the Committee for Inquiry.    Are the skeptics just treading water or are we making headway?
  • There were also the special events including the Halloween costume party.   Joe Nickell, BTW, made an awesome zombie during the Halloween party (fortunately, no biting) and various other CSICon attendees gave their own amazing costumes a good showing.  My "guy behind the camera" costume failed to win a prize, alas.   Other events included the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe dinner and the Nashville Honky-Tonk experience.    Afterward, at the stroke of midnight, we had the annual Houdini seance giving the late Harry Houdini one more chance to make an appearance.   My lips are sealed over whether Harry showed up this time...

And that was it for this year except for the wonderful opportunities to socialize and network with skeptics from around the world.    The next CSICon will be in Seattle,Washington next October (assuming the world is  still here by then).    In the meantime, here is a video I made featuring the CSICon Halloween party.   Enjoy.




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