Tuesday, May 31, 2011

SkeptiCal 2011

My sister Karlacita! used to be an author of New Age books. In the past few years, she has come to question the things she used to believe and in some ways has become a pariah in her old field. She found some like minds in the skeptical community, so she decided to attend SkepiCal 11 this past weekend in Berkeley. She asked me to come along as moral support, to be that person she could turn to and ask the all important question, "Is it me or is it them? It's them, isn't it?"

I won't say I felt "right at home" in a conference of skeptics, but I certainly had been in similar situations before. It was a nerd herd. It was somewhere between a professional nerd herd and a amateur nerd herd. For me, an amateur nerd herd is a board game convention or about back in the 1990s, a sealed deck Magic The Gathering tournament. Professional nerd herds have been things like the Computer Game Development Conference back when I did that for a living or math symposiums now.

Since the idea of SkeptiCal was plunking down money to hear people talk, it's more like the professional. By that standard, this was pretty weak. I will be kind and name the only speaker worth his salt, while others will be described but not named.

The first fellow was a member in good standing in the skeptical community who had appeared on Survivor a few times. We spent an hour learning about the ins and outs of a show I have never watched all the way through. (Personal note: The last drummer for my old band The Wonders of Science has been on more than one season, and I still haven't watched one full hour of the show in my entire life.)

Here's the inside dope. What you see is real, but it's all about the editing.

Thanks. I already figured that out without watching. I didn't need an hour's explanation of it. (Karlacita! tells me that in the line to the ladies' room after, my feeling about that hour was echoed several times.)

The next speaker was Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute, a climate scientist who is also a blogger on the Huffington Post, giving a talk entitled Climate Change Misperception. His inclusion on the speakers' list was a source of controversy for reasons I will discuss later.

Gleick's talk was the only one where I actually learned something from the speaker. (I learned plenty from Karlacita!, but that can happen when we're just hangin' out and I don't have to plunk down forty five simoleans to do that.) He discussed several of the critical thinking fallacies - ad hominem attacks, appeal to authority, appeal to consensus, cherry picking data, etc. - and showed concretely how climate change deniers use these tools. He also stated that climate science consensus might look like an argument by consensus, but that it is more that the scientists are convinced by the data and that data forms a valid scientific consensus.

The skeptical community, if one can call it that, is a very contentious bunch and internecine squabbles are common. Gleick showed an e-mail from a skeptic who would not attend because Gleick's inclusion showed the group had obviously caved to the Warmists, as deniers sometimes call the vast majority of climate scientists. This was the last mention of any alleged grudge or slight in Gleick's talk.

There are dozens of tacks the deniers take to poke holes in the climate data. Having only an hour to talk, he only brought up a few examples directly and showed Power Point slides that proved the statements, some of which I had heard before, were egregious examples of cherry picking.

1) Polar ice coverage is not shrinking because April 1989 coverage was less that April 2009 coverage.

Refutation: Yes, April 1989 was less than April 2009, but every other month in 2009 had less ice coverage than 1989, often quite a bit less. Classic cherry picking, especially since there was exactly one cherry in twelve matched pairs of data.

2) Global warming stopped in 1998, even though CO2 levels continue to rise. (I hadn't heard the first argument before, but I had heard this one, notably from George F. Will, who couldn't prove the Pythagorean Theorem with an hour's head start and the address to mathworld.wolfram.com.)

Refutation: Average yearly temperatures go up and down. 1998 was warmer than 2008, but 2005 was warmer than either, and now that 2009 and 2010 data have been added, both far warmer than 1998, this argument is complete bunk, though deniers still quote it.

Again, Gleick's talk was the closest to the quality I would see at a math symposium, most of which are free of charge. (Quibble: everyone who used technology had trouble with it, including Gleick. For most of his talk, the computer resolution was wrong and his slides were cut off at left and right. To his credit, when the problem was pointed out, Gleick is the only one who fixed his technical difficulties.)

You may not have heard of the skeptical community. For example, when Karlacita! told the Gosh Darned Pater Familias about where she was going, neither he or any of his friends had ever heard of people describing themselves as skeptics.

In this small community, the great celebrity is The Amazing Randi, a magician and debunker of paranormal claims. His greatest moment of glory is going on Johnny Carson's show and showing the famed spoon bender Uri Geller was a fake. He is the founder of the modestly titled James Randi Educational Foundation, or JREF.

In December 2009, The Amazing Randi wrote a piece doubtful of climate change, which he has since recanted with a standard non-apology apology. For me the money quotes are using the wry quotations marks around "politically correct" label he gave to the academics who do the hard work he is not willing or able to do and most damningly, the first sentence in paragraph six:

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid.

For those of you unaware of The Petition Project, climate change deniers got it into their heads to put together a petition of scientists NOT in the field, as though ten sociologists counterbalance one climate scientist. This is obviously both an appeal to completely unearned authority and an appeal to consensus.

Many skeptics fell in line behind Randi and have not changed their position even though he has weakly recanted.

I've seen this before in nerd herds. Way back in the day, a guy named Chris Crawford, a writer of video games that didn't sell well but that he thought were "important", started the Computer Game Developer's Conference (CGDC) to get his ideas out. I had more than a few run-ins with him and his tiny cult, but eventually the business was making too much money to have such a meeting be a yearly pilgrimage to his shrine and he left, though the level of volunteerism in departure is disputed. Once The Great Man was dislodged, the CGDG actually became a Big Damn Deal.

Here's the thing. We can all of us fall prey to these problems with critical thinking. When it comes to hero worship in math, I am honest to Lenny* proud of the fact that I shook the hand of Donald Knuth, the author of The Art Of Computer Programming, and can remember chapter and verse the conversation I had with Frank Harary, the father of graph theory.

Here's my defense. Knuth and Harary actually moved human endeavor forward. As someone who teaches math, it is my job and my glad duty to make sure their names, and more importantly their ideas, are never forgotten.

I cannot say the same for the Amazing Randi.

* For those new to the blog, "honest to Lenny" is my oath to my favorite mathematician in history, Leonhard Euler. Yet another example of hero worship and one I will defend to my last breath.

Here endeth the lesson.


ken said...

Chris Crawford has one of the world's great egos.

I almost knocked Don Knuth down one day, stepping out of Stacey's Bookstore in Palo Alto. Didn't shake his hand, though. Did shake hands with Timothy Leary at CGDC once.....

Knuth has done a lot more for the world than both of the others together.

sfmike said...


Matty Boy said...

Hey, Ken. I remember meeting Leary at CGDC as well.

I may have set up a false equivalency comparing The Amazing Randi to Chris Crawford, but the adulation I saw for Crawford back in the day reminded me of the adulation I see for Randi now, the same creepy blind faith of nerds.

As for your opinion of the merits of Leary, Crawford and Knuth, I can only agree. The evidence is too strong to do otherwise.

Hey, Mike. I didn't do any photo journal style blogging here, but this post was about getting out in the world and reporting back, which makes it much more like your blog's style than what I usually do. I'm glad you approve.

Karlacita! said...

Hero worship is a problem everywhere, I think. But it's really hard to tolerate in people who are supposed champions of reason.

On the topic of hero worship: http://rjosephhoffmann.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/american-heroes/