The NECSS Report.

Because I live in a magical wonderland called New York City, I enjoy virtually endless opportunities for live exposure to interesting, infamous, enlightening and extraordinary primates — at least in theory.  Unfortunately such engagements are often dismally disappointing.  Take that time I witnessed a “debate” at Radio City between Bill Maher and Ann Coulter; before the show, I attempted to pass along a handwritten note with a really good question to the producers, but I was rebuffed with a disappointing response along the lines of “questions are already scripted, and there’s no Q&A.”  *sigh*  And so, my evening was spent listening to Mr. Maher flirt shamelessly with Ms. Coulter, his “friend” and “witty, fun drinking companion,” while the host, the odious Mark Halperin, bored us to tears tossing them softball questions.

Oh, how I detested them all.

Hey, do you want to know what my question was?  Do ya?  WELL, DO YA?  It was really good:

Ms. Coulter, given that you are ultra-conservative, if by some fluke you were born and raised in Saudi Arabia instead of the U.S., would you be a fierce advocate for Sharia law, Islamic jihad, and female circumcision?

The correct answer to this question is of course yesas we know, the authoritarian conservative mind is as predictably conventional (and amoral) as it is possible to be.  I just thought it would have been absolutely freaking hilarious to hear to Ann Coulter insist that no, she would have somehow found Jeezus in some shithole in Riyadh, and then — despite a lack of education to the point of near illiteracy on account of her gender — gone on to become a prominent Christian polemicist and propagandist for American-style capitalism, presumably on account of her super-specialness.

But I am very happy to report that I was not at all disappointed at NECSS 2012 (pronounced “nexus” for the uninitiated, among whose ranks I no longer dwell and now neither do you).  The annual conference, now in its fourth year, is a joint endeavor by New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society, and I found the whole weekend both entertaining and thought-provoking (as the absurd length of this post surely attests).  I was determined to attend this particular shindig if for no other reason than to finally meet the one and only PZ Myers, official patron saint of Perry Street Palace, who was scheduled to speak at the event.  And meet him I did:  PZ was as gracious and cool and sharp and engaging and… well, as nice in person as he is ferocious in print.  He was kind enough to indulge me in taking a picture with him (I will not be posting it here, as it’s strictly for the Palace’s private collection).  Although he may demur when it comes to his sweet teddy-bear persona — I suppose it doesn’t quite strike the appropriate note of terror into the hearts of creationists — PZ is nevertheless a world class badass.  That is why I will always picture him like this:

PZ Myers, badass.

I’m just kidding.  PZ would never allow himself to be photographed without his human costume.  (Obviously.)  Here is perhaps the finest portrait of the man I can find, and one that truly captures his essence:

PZ Myers, badass, lounging around his badass lair.

PZ’s talk, entitled Cephalaporn!, was scheduled for 10:00am Sunday morning.  But by the time we were at the cocktail party Saturday night he said he still hadn’t finished it.  “Have another Guinness,” I helpfully suggested.  “It will really seem to come together.  Then have another one.  I’m telling you, it will seem absolutely brilliant.”

When Sunday morning rolled around and hundreds of bleary-eyed of skeptics strolled into the auditorium, PZ revealed that his presentation was not, in fact, going to be about cephalopod porn (yes, it’s a thing).  The title of his talk was nothing more than a ruse to get all of us presumed perverts to show up.  He planned to regale us instead with tales of stuff he really loves about biology.  He recounted his career from the moment as a grad student when he discovered the wonders of zebrafish, in particular their remarkable ability to grow from a single cell into, well, a fish in a single day.  He showed time lapsed video of this phenomenon occurring under a microscope, and it was amazing to watch.  While the speed of zebrafish development is a developmental biologist’s dream, it turns out that all of the zebrafish in labs and aquariums around the world are derived from a small ancestral population, and are now so interbred that they exhibit little genetic diversity—and thus there is virtually no potential for evolution.  If one wished to study evolutionary biology, one would need to focus on organisms with great genetic diversity.

Enter the cephalopod, an astonishingly diverse species including the octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus, with an evolutionary trail tracing back to ancestors in the ancient Cambrian seas.  There are of course many classes of organisms that would fit the same bill, but the reason PZ fell so hard for cephalopods is their outright weirdness.  Virtually everything about cephalopod morphology is different from our own.*  He showed us a stunning video of a squid releasing hundreds of her young into the wild ocean before propelling herself into the blackness of the deep.  One word: wow.  PZ says he tells astronomers and cosmologists they can all stop wasting their time looking to space for aliens because they’re right here, in the waters of our own planet.

The domains of evolutionary biology and developmental biology are currently integrating (“evo-devo”), although not without problems and conflicts.  As an evo-devo d00d, PZ is in the vanguard of this new frontier, and we are extremely lucky to have him there.  He has an extraordinary ability to distill complex scientific concepts and cutting-edge research into engaging stories, ones that anyone can grasp.  (Well, anyone except dumbass creationists, apparently.)  Thanks in no small part to PZ’s writing about scientific discoveries on his blog, I have experienced the unparalleled pleasure of many a “wow” moment, in that instant when I understood something incredible about life on Earth.

PZ ended his all-too-short presentation with some “entirely gratuitous cephalopod porn,” a picture of octopuses mating.  I strongly suspect that no one in the room was sexually aroused by it in the slightest, but if so who am I to judge?  Let your freak flag fly, I always say.  (If nothing else, it drives conservatives nuts.)

I met another one of my heroes, Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchick, and all-around promoter of women in the atheist and skeptical communities.  She was wearing a PZ Myers t-shirt.  Of course I embarrassed myself by gushing like a deranged fangirl: I told Rebecca how I was a long-time admirer of hers and that I appreciated everything she fought for, especially the way she handled the raw ugliness of Elevatorgate.  I wanted to let her know that she is appreciated for so much than that particular Internet shitfest.  Rebecca was…well, really nice.  (What is it with these people?  They’re badasses, fer chrissakes.)

Rebecca was on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast recorded on Saturday morning. The special guest was the Amazing Randi, who later gave an impassioned and moving speech about his long career battling the evils of faith healing and quack medicine.  At 83, the sharp and spry Amazing Randi is truly amazing for many reasons, not least of which is his foundation’s $1 million challenge for “anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” Randi’s  paranormal challenge has been offered in one form or another going back to his original cash offer of $1,000 for paranormal proof in 1964; donors quickly grew the prize to $1 million.  To date, despite hundreds of applicants, no one has ever claimed the prize.  And as Randi says:

Where are James Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, George Anderson, John Edward, and the rest of the current “big names”? And why hasn’t Uri Geller, the professional spoon-bender (remember him from the 70s?) snapped up this easy cash? One can only wonder.

(Randi doesn’t really wonder of course.  No one has ever claimed the prize for the simple reason that paranormal claims are bullshit.)

Award-winning journalist John Bohannon gave a wildly entertaining presentation regarding, among other things, his unexpectedly popular Dance Your Ph.D contest, now in its fourth year.  In 2008 he was planning a party at which there would be many Ph.D. students, who, he notes, “usually suck at explaining their work.” To liven things up for the party, he proposed a contest in which the students would explain their scientific research via the expressive medium of… interpretive dance.  The results were surprisingly hilarious, interesting and informative.  After writing it up for Science, he was stunned to find in his inbox a flood of emails: Ph.D. students from all over the world were excited to know when the next contest would be, and how they could enter.  Out of practical necessity Dance Your Ph.D is now judged by video submission, and contestants have stepped up their game.  Here is last year’s winner, Joel Miller, in his piece entitled Microstructure-Property relationships in Ti2448 components produced by Selective Laser Melting: A Love Story:

A high note for me was mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, who co-hosts the weekly podcast Scopes Monkey Choir.  (Did I just use “high note” metaphorically in the same sentence as “mezzo-soprano”?  Aw, shit.  I’m sorry.  Well it’s too late to do anything about it now.)  With piano accompaniment, Hai-Ting performed a series of short operatic pieces, the lyrics consisting of a series of amusing quotes from well-known skeptics, and a longer, more informative piece, in which she explained in song the concept of libration (an oscillating motion of orbiting bodies relative to each other) while Earth’s own librating moon slowly waxed and waned on a huge video screen behind her.  She closed her show with a really funny and clever duet with George Hrab about… logical fallacies, of all things. And why not?

George Hrab gave an incredibly moving talk entitled Small Comfort: How Non-Believers Deal With Grief and Loss.  It struck me during his presentation, as it has before, that perhaps the most formidable barrier to a rational worldview is pain.  Not just the profound pain of grief and loss, either:  any kind of deep emotional anguish or physical pain.  It is easy to see how the devastating loss of a loved one makes the notion of an afterlife, where you will be reunited, extremely compelling.  It can be a comforting thought, especially in the early stages of grief when the sense of loss is so raw and profound.  Unfortunately, clergy (and other charlatans) are uniquely positioned to exploit this vulnerability.  The problem is the complete lack of any evidence whatsoever for an afterlife.  Even if you do not want to accept that it’s unlikely in the extreme, it’s impossible to get around the fact that if there is an afterlife, we know absolutely nothing about it.  (See above re: Randi’s long-unclaimed $1 million prize for any observable evidence of the paranormal—and so-called near-death-experiences are “evidence of nothing but the creative power of the human mind.”)

As I told PZ, I can understand how frighteningly easy it is, even for skeptics and rationalists, to fall for the scams of alternative medicine, homeopathy, and the ministrations of outright quacks when one is in terrible pain and desperate for relief.  A few years ago I severely injured my lower back at the gym, and from the moment it began I was in intense, excruciating, endless pain, day and night.  My regular doctor said the standard of care was to wait it out:  more often than not, back pain usually goes away by itself within a few weeks.  Weeks later when I could still barely sleep or move any faster than a garden slug, he sent me for an x-ray and referred me to a specialist.  Thus began a string of countless visits to new York’s finest orthopedic surgeons, back specialists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, and a pain management specialist who gave me a series of (painful) steroid injections into bulging and herniated discs, and when that failed, malpractice amounts of Percoset.  After a full year of life-sucking agony, the relentless pursuit of modern medicine had provided precisely nothing.

If you were in my shoes, wouldn’t you at least try acupuncture — or almost anything else that held even the slightest promise of relief?

Fortunately for me, it turned out that I did not have to travel down that road. Years ago, my co-worker had survived a terrible car accident, and found herself in a situation similar to mine:  constant, chronic pain that no one was able to address until she met this rather strange doctor.  He’s an M.D., board certified in orthopedics, and associated with NYU medical school, however he is also known to occasionally engage in some questionable practices from a science-based medicine perspective, such as chiropractic adjustments and prolotherapy.  As you might imagine by this point I was pretty pessimistic, but at the same time desperate enough to try pretty much anything.  At my wit’s end, I went to see the d00d.  He took a thorough history and gave me a thorough exam, looked at all my x-rays, CT scans and MRIs, and then explained that the source of my problem was a badly injured sacroiliac joint, and the resulting spinal instability would virtually ensure that those discs would never stop bulging and herniating.  For any improvement to occur, it would be necessary to first stabilize the SI joint (and thus the lower spine) via targeted physical therapy, and only then would the discs have a chance to slip back into place.  It was a daunting and arduous proposition, but to my utter astonishment within weeks I was noticeably better.  Within months I was a lot better, and off of all pain medication.  I think this doctor’s gift is that he is an excellent diagnostician, and fortunately my problems did not warrant any of his…shall we say, “less conventional” treatments.

But my point is that in that state, there is no question in my mind that I would have tried absolutely anything that this doctor recommended.  I doubt anyone could have talked me out of it.  I cannot even imagine the experience of a terminal cancer patient, or the parent of a young one, who finds out about some wacky, unproven, and ridiculously expensive treatment at some unregulated clinic in Mexico.  The temptation to try anything must be overwhelming.  I wanted to discuss this with James Randi and get his take on it, but he left the conference early and I missed him.

Further, there are a whole host of painful emotional states driving the desperate into the outstretched arms of the well-meaning-but-deluded, as well as the outright frauds.  To a person who has just lost the family business to bankruptcy, or to a woman whose life is completely shattered after her husband has left her, a tarot card reading may appear to offer some much needed hope or solace, and in any case for $40 it seems harmless enough.  But is it?  In the hands of a skilled practitioner, a gullible and emotionally fragile person is a veritable ATM machine.

Along my journey from Christian to pagan to deist to atheist, I dabbled in tarot cards for a short while with the primary intention of satisfying myself as to whether there was indeed anything to it.  One of the critical observations I made while doing these readings was this: while the powerful images on the cards and the stories they evoked were certainly provocative, they were also open to wide interpretation—which the subjects almost invariably supplied for themselves.  For better and for worse, this is something that human minds do extremely well: we find meaningful patterns in symbols, sights, sounds and sequences, whether those meanings and patterns actually exist in reality or not.  Many subjects told me that my readings were incredibly personally relevant, “spot-on!”, or expressed that there was no way I could possibly “know” whatever it was that I was telling them at a reading.  But I just couldn’t get away from the strange vagueness of it all, the obvious universality of so much of human experience, the subjects’ effortless eagerness to connect the cards to their own lives — and the fact that it was impossible for me to falsify or corroborate their experience of a reading.  They experienced what they did, and I have little doubt it that the readings held real meaning for them.  The only question that mattered to me was where that meaning came from, and I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that tarot cards merely provide an opening for the unconscious mind to walk through.

For what it’s worth (nothing), I never charged anyone.  Still, despite my emphatic protestations to the contrary over the years, one d00d I know swears to this day that I am a witch.  And although I’ve long since left the woo behind, one of my most prized possessions is a deck of tarot cards designed by Salvador Dalí.  They are badass.

* Especially given their relatively short lifespans, octopuses are extraordinarily intelligent — a key distinction between that species and our own.

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