SkeptiCalCon 2019

A warm welcome on a warm day. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Sunday June 9, 2019, I attended the 10th SkeptiCalCon, a 1-day conference on science and skepticism. The event was sponsored by the Bay Area Skeptics (BAS) and the Sacramento Area Skeptics (SAS).

BAS and SAS remain focused on what (Carl) Sagan called “extraordinary claims” (which require “extraordinary evidence,” as his adage reminds us) but we also seek to improve the general public understanding of science and critical thinking. Scientific skepticism is independent of other movements which sometime also claim the term “skeptic.” Scientific skepticism can be embraced by all, whether religious or non-religious, trained in science or new to the scientific method, or anyone interested in better understanding truth and reality.

From the SkeptiCalCon website. Source:

The event was held in the Hyatt Regency hotel next to San Francisco International Airport. It was an unusually hot day and temperatures got pretty toasty in the Garden Pavilion. But it was a great conference.

The conference was held in the Garden Pavilion at the Hyatt Regency near SFO airport, just South of San Francisco. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Here is a summary of all the talks and activities. You can also read about it on Twitter using the hashtags #SkeptiCalCon or #SkeptiCal2019.

Welcome and exhibitors

Speakers were introduced by Lauren Camp, Eugenie Scott, and Jay Diamond, who not only had organized the conference, but also made sure that the speakers and breaks stayed on time.

During the breaks, there was ample time to meet with some of the exhibitors in the back of the pavilion, such as the Bay Area Skeptics, Tri-Valley STEM Center, The Journal of Irreproducible Results, and the Sunday Assembly Silicon Valley.

Lauren Camp welcomes all participants and speakers. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

The Beacon of Science in a Fact-Free Fog (Peter Gleick)

The conference is kicked off by Peter Gleick, climate/water scientist, who states that good policy without good science is unlikely, but good policy based on bad science is even more unlikely. There is a long history of abuse or misuse of science. People make non-scientific arguments based on ignorance, error, misinterpretation, ideology, consensus, ideology, cherry picking, etc.

Peter gave the example of global warming data. If you look at the average temperature over a time period of e.g. 100 years or longer, you see a clear trend upward. But it is very easy to pick a short time period in which the trend appears to go downward. Selective data picking can serve anyone’s agenda.

From every aspect of science (biology, meteorology, ice thickness etc) we see evidence of climate change. Climate change is real.

Science policy misconduct unfortunately includes distorted science education in schools, eliminating advisory boards, and bullying of scientists. Scientists who try to convince people that climate change is real, or that vaccines do not cause autism have to deal with social media challenges, include sealioning (feigning ignorance to exhaust the scientist), gish-galloping (overwhelming an opponent with rapid series of half-truths), and false balance (e.g. a debate on television between an educated scientist and a random opponent with a minority opinion).

Peter made a strong point that scientists must speak out against pseudo-skepticism and abuse of science. Funding must be transparent. Policies must ensure the independence of science research. We must understand logical fallacies, and address the flaws of social media. We must continue to push for the use of science in policy making and against the assault on science.

Twitter threads covering Peter Gleick’s talk by Heather Archuletta and me.

Peter Gleick shows how cherry picking data can serve anyone’s agenda. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Feet to the Fire: Investigating Paranormal Claims (Jim Underdown)

James (Jim) Underdown from The Center For Inquiry talked about his work at the Center For Inquiry, which currently offers a $250,000 reward for anyone who can prove they have paranormal activity. The prize has been increased over the years, because there has not yet been anyone who won the award.

Testing of the contestants is done under mutually agreed circumstances, with e.g. screens and blinded windows to prevent cheating. Over the years, nobody has been caught cheating, but all contestants have failed the test. Many drop out at the last moment when they realize they cannot cheat.

Jim’s talk was at times funny, about people who burned their feet trying to walk over hot metal plates, and a guy who claimed to predict a coin toss with 53% probability. Worst. Superpower. Ever.

He talked about a woman who claimed to feel if people are missing vital organs, such as a kidney. There was Sparky the Wonder Dog, who could guess which number his human was holding up. Another person claimed to be able to tell the value of a playing card a person was holding up in another room. Instead of the 47/52 cards he thought he could correctly tell, he had a score of 0.

But there were sad stories as well. Many people who claim to have paranormal gifts actually suffer from mental illness.

Jim closed his talk by showing a video in which their team, together National Geographic was trying to convince a group of flat-earthers that the earth is actually a sphere. They conducted several experiments at the Salton Sea, but the flat-earthers were not convinced.

Twitter threads covering Jim Underdown’s talk by Heather Archuletta and me.

Jim Underdown giving his presentation. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Science Communication & Conspiracy Theorists (Mick West)

Mick West of Metabunk and Contrail Science describes himself as a debunker. He started off his talk by saying that a lot of his explanations rely on science and mathematics, but that most people have very limited understanding of those, and think everything is a conspiracy.

He is a very big fan of explaining specific results of science, not just by theory but also by showing. In his experience, you can sometimes convince people who believe in conspiracy theories that there might be a scientific explanation to certain phenomena.

For example, rainbows can be commonly seen in the sky, and sometimes around the sun. There are many explanations online about how rainbows are formed. However, the way rainbows work is actually very complicated, and it is hard to explain it properly. Lots of diagrams online do not do it justice. There is Snell’s law, Fermat’s principle, the Huygens-Fresnel principle. It gets more and more complicated.

Mick stated that explaining why rainbows happen is like going down a rabbit hole. Don’t go too deep and get lost. Focus on what or when is happening, not the why.

Mick has made and posted several videos online in which he explains that rainbows around the sun or in clouds have been described decades ago. They are not caused by chemicals, as some people believe. Many sky phenomena such as “chembows” and “contrails” can be well explained using science. His video in which he shows the occurrence of strange cloud formations in decades old books, has been very successful. He also made a video explaining how the Twin Towers collapsed using a wobbly cabinet.

Book written by Mick West: “Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories using Facts, Logic, & Respect”.

Twitter threads by Heather Archuletta and me.

Mick West explains how to explain science to conspiracy theorists. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Is There a Universal Biology? (Lynn Rothschild)

I was very excited to hear Lynn Rothschild‘s talk. Lynn is an astrobiologist and synthetic biologist and senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Lynn started her talk by asking the audience: Since the dawn of humans we have wondered if we are alone – is there other life in the universe? How do you search for life beyond planet Earth?

And, how do you look for alien life if you do not know how it looks like? We only know life forms as found on Earth. To know how an alien lifeform might look like, or what it could be made of, we first need to define “life”.

We can try to define life using operational descriptions – should it contain carbon? Lynn makes the argument that carbon is a very likely component of life forms outside of our Earth – if they exist.

Carbon is capable of forming compounds, from CH4 to DNA. Atomic carbon has been detected in interstellar space. Therefore, until proven otherwise, we assume life is carbon based. Even outside of our planet. Astrochemistry and prebiotic chemistry all point towards an organic, carbon-containing life forms as universal.

Lynn also explained that it is assumed that water is essential for life because it is a very good solvent and liquid at higher temps than the alternatives.

To see at what extremes life is possible, we can also look at the extremes of planet Earth – extremes in temperatures, salinity, pH, etc.

But how do the aliens really look like?

Things like wings, spikes, etc. have come up several different times during evolution on our planet. Eg. the thorns on a rose, or the spikes of a porcupine. Maybe similar features can form anywhere. This is called “convergence”. We can perhaps extrapolate that and assume that a complex, yet essential process for life such as photosynthesis, could perhaps evolve in other places as well.

Multicellular taxa are just a tiny part of the tree of life. Most life on earth is unicellular. There are certain advantages to being multicellular (you are bigger and harder to eat, you can move, you can afford to lose a cell or two).

Even though we can make the building blocks of a cell, or convince yeast cells to become multicellular over 60 generations, we cannot make something “alive”, Lynn continued. That is a huge step, much bigger than the evolution from a microbe into a mammal. We cannot make or explain life – but maybe one day we will.

Lynn ended her talk by asking if aliens will look like us. She showed a picture to leave that to our imagination.

Twitter threads by Heather Archuletta and me.

Lynn Rothschild suggests how aliens could look like. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Flat Earth Rising? (Glenn Branch)

Glenn Branch is the Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education. His talk is about the history of “flat-eathery”, which has been on the rise recently.

Even though the world seems flat from most humans’ perspectives, scientists have known for a very long time that the earth is not flat. By 350 BC Aristotle already proclaimed confidently that the earth is a sphere. The flat earth movement that exists now might have started in the mid 1840, but there have been many other occasions where people believed the earth was flat.

The start of the flat-earthery about 150 years ago might have originated from an 1819 pamphlet written by an anonymous writer. It claims the sun is a “movable body” and the earth is flat. It also contains a map with the North Pole in the middle, the South Pole at the top, and an unknown pole at the bottom – in an unknown direction. The map appears … impossible.

Glenn described his hunt for the author of the 1819 pamphlet. Based on certain phrases (“movable body”), he has a strong suspicion it was a man named Foshbury (sp?).

Charles K. Johnson was the president of the International Flat Earth Research Society. When he died in 2001, he got an obituary in the New York Times – something that most scientists will never get. His death did not stop people from actively believing the earth is flat. YouTube actually played a large role in giving a platform for all kinds of conspiracy theorists.

The percentage of people who believe the earth is flat varies between 1 and 2% – although it is not clear if people are just giving troll-like answers in questionnaires. Glenn concluded his talk by saying that he and the NCSE will continue to fight these theories, with the help of people like here at the conference.

Here are the Twitter threads covering Glenn Branch’s talk by Heather Archuletta, Eugenie Scott, and me.

Glenn Branch explained that for most people, their perspective of the world is flat. Or foggy. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

Misconduct in Scientific Papers: Plagiarism, fabrication, and falsification (Elisabeth Bik)

The last talk of the symposium was by me. I started off by saying how science builds upon science, and how publications are the building block that other scientists build their work on. Most scientists are honest, but errors in work, bias, or missing details in protocols can lead to poor reproducibility. On the other end of the spectrum are papers that contain misconduct.

I showed some of my work on detecting plagiarism in papers. All done by hand copy/pasting into Google Scholar, because I cannot afford the expensive software tools. I found 80 papers containing large amounts of not-original text, 35 of which are now retracted.

In addition, I described my study of over 20,000 biomedical papers and found about 4% of those to contain image duplications representing different experiments. This work got published in mBio, with coauthors Ferric Fang and Arturo Casadevall.

My talk also contained an audience participation part in which I showed an unmarked slide that contained several overlapping images. Several members in the audience raised their hands after spotting some of these overlaps.

Besides plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication, science integrity is threatened by predatory publishers and conferences that are more than willing to accept any paper without much – or any – peer review. Here, I also talked about SciGen, the random paper generator, and how that helped me write a paper with 2 cats (still unpublished!).

I ended my talk with briefly discussing how some researchers managed to perform peer review on their own papers using false email addresses, and other authors who use fake affiliations to give credibility to extraordinary – or sometimes dangerous – ideas.

Here are some tweets about my talk by Eugenie Scott.

Eugenie Scott took this photo during my talk. Source:

Skepardy! with Bill Patterson

The conference ended with a fun game of Skepardy! – Jeopardy! for skeptics, presented by Bill Patterson. The questions were all about strange cults, conspiracy theorists, and paranormal celebrities.

Skepardy! with Bill Patterson. Photo: Elisabeth Bik.

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