NECSS 2011 Sign it, baby

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I returned for the 3rd Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) in NYC. There was so much content, I have pages and pages of notes. I could not do it justice to explain in detail but, as usual, the quality of speakers and topics were outstanding.

This year, NECSS was a three-day event. I loved this. It made it much more worthwhile for people to come early and stay late. I arrived Friday evening, just in time to make it to the first pub gathering of the event. The reserved upper level was already jammed with people. It was so busy, it was hard to nab a drink. The usual cast of characters were there, along with some new ones I was excited to meet. I wear my Surly that has my Twitter name “I Doubt It” and was recognized by a few people. Hint: Use your real picture as Twitter and Facebook avatars! A great time was had by all.

But, onto the main event. At 9AM in the queue on a beautiful sunny spring day, I had a fascinating conversation with Sven from Germany (who later that evening became one of the umbrella spinners for Triologic’s performance of “Far”). This kind of pop-up conversation where you discover overlapping interests is the BEST part of skeptic conventions. Coincidentally, the exact topic we discussed in line appeared in John Allen Paulos’ talk the next morning! SpOOOOOky. No, not really. It’s just one of those things that come up when you talk about the public and risk perception – typically skeptical topics.

The keynote on Saturday was given by Phil Plait. It was awesome as usual. Phil’s talk was about how we know what we know and how we should present uncertainty and certainty depending on the audience. If we have 0.999999999…, it is essentially equal to 1. Scientifically, we must maintain the doubt, but functionally, we can be certain of it. That’s the way we live. When talking to non-scientists, you will confuse them by using weasel words and qualifiers to express the indefiniteness of the scientific. We need to be clear to people who are looking to make a decision, not be left wondering. (Reminds me of the old Friends episode when Phoebe argued with Ross over the sliver of doubt left in evolution. That was irritating.) I think it’s difficult for many science minded people to be that “certain” because we want to be truthful. Science is the most reliable way to get closer to the truth so we should embrace what it tells us. Once again, Phil’s message is about communication to the non-skeptic crowd: we need to think differently in order to be effective messengers to the non-scientists. I liked the talk.

Carl Zimmer spoke next about viruses, scaring the living daylights out of many of us just like he did with parasites in a previous book. Then, there was the obligatory SGU taping. I’ll not give away the Science or Fiction ending but it was a momentous occasion.

Genie Scott spoke after lunch. The joy of Genie is that anyone of any background can listen to her and understand. She explained how the linguistics of creationism in the public and in law is such a great example of evolution at work. They have adapted to resonate more with the public and be tougher to challenge in court. Her talk was a reminder of how vigilant we must be and how we MUST speak up and speak out. Or else, the teaching of science rolls backwards.

Two panel discussions were included on the first day. The first featured George Hrab, Brian Dunning, Sadie Crabtree and Ken Frazier. This was an interesting choice of participants. Brian and George engage in very informal knowledge transfer through podcasting. Why should we trust them? They are not experts. They are conduits for information. That idea wasn’t really stressed, but they did point out the most important bit of advice: “Don’t have a guru”, don’t just blindly trust a source you like. Sadie, of the JREF, provides a more measured source of info from an established institution and Ken had insight into a respected journal, Skeptical Inquirer. I’d be remiss not to mention Geo’s HILARIOUS gag with the sign interpreter, which I think illustrated an important point of the panel. He fed her a biased line of information to translate. Isn’t that often what we see in the media? Why should we trust the source? What other motives are behind it?

The second panel was about the skepticism of our founding fathers. The panel of three women – Adams, Hecht and Jacoby – were informative and sometimes at odds. A great dynamic.

Saturday night, George and Triologic filled an Irish pub to near physical capacity. Highlights were “Ms Information” with Donna bopping in the crowd, elated, and all of us singing along. And, of course, Dr. Phil adding the live narrative to “Death from the Skies”. Awesome. In the back room, people watched card tricks done on the pool table and we talked about rather unconventional topics.

Sunday’s first talk was John Allen Paulos. I was so very tired from the late night but could not snooze because his discussion about how irrational we are with numbers was so entertaining and important. The live podcast of Rationally Speaking featured a stellar panel speaking on humanities: death and life. I loved that. You do not notice that it is a live recording – it is just like any other panel discussion. Throughout NECSS, the audience had ample opportunity for questions – I just wish more people thought out good ones beforehand. It might have gone smoother had someone been holding the microphone to cut people off when they went off track.

The second half of Sunday featured skepticism and art. While not everyone thought a singer was appropriate for a conference presentation, I thought it was soothing and enjoyable. I wonder if Hai-Ting and company knew that the author of the book they used for their song about mammals was a well-known popularizer of the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot and other weird things! (Ivan Sanderson)

At 2PM, I trekked back to the train station and home. In the days that followed, Facebook friends were added, pictures were tagged, projects were arranged, and we looked forward to the next time we’ll meet. To me, it’s the social aspect that make these cons a success. What fantastic person will you meet or sit next to or have dinner with? (I sat next to Terence Hines and nearly freaked out, geek that I am…wished I could have asked him a dozen other questions.)

At the first NECSS, I bemoaned the inability to socialize because of the venue and one-day schedule. The weekend schedule, I believe, brought more interest. I’d still prefer that it be held a little outside the city (for parking and costs convenience) but understand many appreciate the metro setting.This is no TAM and no other con probability could be. The speakers were happy to remain sequestered in the balcony and “green room” (where there were bagels, I heard). TAM is unique in the ability to mob the guests. Next year, I would suggest bigger, perhaps quieter locations for social events. Yet, this year was an improvement. I plan to fill out the survey and quite possibly attend next year as well. Good job, NECSS organizers!

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One thought on “NECSS 2011 Sign it, baby

  1. Yogzotot

    Great post – I will point friends rather to your summary than doing one on my own, I guess. It was nice to meet you, and thanks for the double mention (yes, I am the umbrella-twirling German).

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