Over the past weekend I attended The Science Symposium by the Skeptic Society. The event was a three-day all weekend event in which every day consisted of different activities based on science and skepticism. Friday was a dinner and magic show at a local restaurant. Saturday consisted of all day lectures and workshops at Caltech and Sunday was a field trip to Mt. Wilson Observatory and a geology tour (which I opted out of).
When I arrived Friday, there were a lot of Skeptics sitting around drinking and eating while discussing their skepticism. Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic, was there chatting with friends and enjoying the catered food. He sat at another table next to me outside, but was so busy and indulged in his conversation that he never did much besides chat with his friends. At my table there were assorted skeptics from all over California. They were mostly hardcore skeptics who viewed pseudoscience, supernatural or superstition as nonsense. We sat and talked about science and our favorite books and authors, mainly talking about those in science. In other areas of the restaurant, there was table magic being performed by a local magician. A lot of people had gathered around to see his tricks and indeed there was much excitement in his area. After a couple hours the magician took the stage and performed for all the skeptics. With some card tricks and other miscellaneous stunts, he amazed the audience and even surprised Michael Shermer who sat to the side of the stage smiling and amused by his performance. When the show ended, Shermer thanked everyone for showing up and said most of the excitement will be for next day (Saturday) for the lectures.
The second day of the event consisted of all day lectures and workshops from Bill Nye, James Randi, Michael Shermer and Brian “Mr. Deity” Dalton. Each one of speakers had time allocated for them to give a speech on their particular area of expertise. As it turns out, most of them were on science and education with a rare few being on politics and secularism. But the first of the day was none other than the head of Skeptic Society head Michael Shermer.
As a first lecture, Michael Shermer presented one of his notable talks titled “The Evolutionary Origins of Morality: How to be good without God”. Shermer displayed slides and recounted his work in the area—namely, The Science of Good and Evil—to argue that evolution has endowed us with a moral sense over millions of years. Shermer claims that in-group activity was the product of banding together for social functioning like trade and commodity. As the years progressed, boundaries were slowly broken down as one of another species realized they needed another group to survive. Shermer coined phrases like “reciprocal altruism” as one of many factors that influenced moral behavior insofar as one selfless behavior was met with another. He also argued for a gene-centered view of altruism, stating that animals subconsciously invest in their genes rather than themselves individually. Once an animal recognizes that their genes are shared amongst their kin, they’re more likely to help others as a way of preserving and investing in future generations to promote their survival (at least on genetic level). As Shermer’s lecture ended, Bill Nye the Science Guy took the stage to discuss his science and education.
Nye’s lecture consisted of slides about his childhood and what influenced him to become a scientist. He said he had a strange father who was always questioning and doing strange things. His mother, on the other hand, didn’t encourage the science as much as his dad but Nye said she raised him to be passionate about what he does. But the most interesting part of Nye’s lecture was not his family at all but rather his latest projects in science. As head of The Planetary Society, he claimed that the group was just about to launch a couple devices into space, each with its own purpose and course of discovery. The first of these was a solar kite (yes a kite) that was going to be launched into space to practice new methods of interstellar travel. With this project, TPS is going to harness photons from the sun and not solar wind to see if travel in space is much more easily achieved (if it is successful, one can only imagine how it would affect our flight to the stars). To conclude his lecture, Bill Nye briefly mentioned that our science education in America is behind other countries that we should be concerned about the knowledge of future generations. Children going through public education run the risk of being ignorant of science and its use in society, and if we are to build a society based on science we must educate the youth as best we can. Drawing to a close, Bill Nye finished and welcomed James Randi to the stage.
James Randi is a notable skeptic who has debunked the likes of Uri Gellar and Sylvia Browne, along with every other supernaturally powered individual on the planet. He runs the James Randi Educational Foundation which specializes in debunking pseudoscience, the paranormal, supernatural or occult—specifically addressing those who claim to have such powers. He even had a show back in the 90s which pitted individuals with such powers against the rigors of scientific testing to see if their powers withstand the test. At 82 years old, James Randi is one of the most well-known and supported Skeptics.
To begin his lecture, Randi recounted and played episodes from his show in the 90’s where people were challenged and tested to prove their supernatural or psychic powers. All of the clips he played showed the contestants failing miserably, and often in a comical manner. One notable clip had a psychic crime-solver who claimed she could feel the energy of the deceased in crime scene evidence. So James Randi, being a true skeptic, set-up a protocol where various items (i.e. tools, household appliances) were laid out and the lady had to guess which item was an actual murder weapon. Not surprisingly, the lady guessed wrong 3 times and failed the test miserably. Randi later conjectured that the real murder weapon was used in a very brutal crime some years before and that the energy it gave off should have been substantial. Nevertheless, Randi went on to tell other stories about his experiences dealing with psychics and people of the like who claim supernatural powers. He explained that often time’s people attribute their shortcomings and inaccuracies as the product of some of other agent or mechanism that was not accounted for or addressed in the testing. In fact, Randi mentioned that one guy claimed to have a dowser rod that could detect gold and when it didn’t work he claimed the encyclopedia on the shelf in the room had gold etchings in the font that misguided his device (as you could imagine much of the audience laughed and applauded this). To conclude his lecture, Randi said his health was deteriorating and that he thanked those for supporting him over the years. Sad to say the least, but it was an informative lecture.
To conclude this post, and in the interest of time, I won’t detail Brian “Mr. Deity” Dalton’s lecture too much. To be brief, he runs a web series of satirical comedy on religion and particularly the God of Christianity. He showed some clips from his show that were pretty amusing and detailed his experiences in creating episodes and where he gets his ideas from. His lecture was very funny and was mostly a humorous one. There wasn’t much serious discussion, only some brief religious criticism and jokes.
In the final analysis, I enjoyed the Science Symposium. Even though I missed the first lecture of the day Saturday, I was in the audience for all the other ones. I gained a lot of knowledge and insight about how science works and the importance of education. I also learned about debunking and what true science is. All in all, I had a good time and I look forward to an event like it in the future.
Refer to the pictures I’ve posted for a visual.