Virtual skeptics in real life: NECSS in NYC

NECSS, the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, was last weekend in NYC. I had gone twice before. I had skipped last year because I was not fond of some speakers. But this year, I was invited to BE a speaker. NECSS is a high-quality event. The speakers are often stellar and many are not whom you would hear at other skeptically-themed events.

Hosted by Jamy Ian Swiss, the first several speakers I found enlightening. I talked about the key note speaker, Leonard Mlodinow, on Virtual Skeptics this week – see embedded video below. I made a connection with what he was saying and what paranormal believers miss – that we humans perceive stuff and perceive it wrongly all the time. This wrongness is just good enough but, I thought, NOT good enough to say “I KNOW what I saw”. Because you know what your brain is telling you it saw. But that has been constructed. Fascinating stuff. I bought his book.

Then Massimo Pigliucci gave me two of my favorite new words: eudaimonia and trolleyology

Eudaimonia: Having a good demon – flourishing, happiness, well-being.
Trolleyology – the study of the trolley ethical thought experiments.

I didn’t get a chance to thank Massimo in person for his help with the Media Guide to Skepticism. But I finally got to chat with Jon Ronson, meet Simon Singh, hug Debbie Berebichez, have lunch with John Allan Paulos, converse skeptically with Jamy Ian Swiss, and just kvetch with Barb Drescher and Bob Blaskiewicz (also on VS below). It was lovely to meet up with some of my NY area friends and I made new friends who follow my writing or who like Doubtful News.

Shermer gave a disturbing (but necessary) talk on morality that featured images of female genital mutilation. Sometimes, a strong emotional context is needed, necessary and appropriate at a event full of people who claim to be rationalists. We are humans first. Some things are just not right. So, Shermer’s talk was important.

Other than the array of speakers, I REALLY loved that the program included none of the New Atheism stuff. I don not want that at a skeptics conference. Jamy’s talk made sure to address that conflation that seems to be going around in the Atheist camp. It was not as passionate as his “Don’t move my tent” speech at TAM but it was timely and many found it extremely valuable. He cares about stuff. It shows.

Conferences are a great way to meet people face to face and connect other than through the distortion of social media interfaces. Though, you will hear tons of rumors, stories and gossip, as Massimo mentioned, gossip is social glue. But take this stuff for what it’s worth. Some of us are friends. Some of us may appear to be rivals. But I don’t feel that way. I’m not sure what to think about rumors and stories. There’s little evidence.

These events often include other types of presentations to break up the monologues. It works well. I’m not a fan of live podcast events; or panels where people come unprepared. I can’t see everything and some is just not my area of interest. Yet, I was truly enlightened and entertained by the psychopathy panel. Well done, all. Sometimes panels can be stellar. This was fascinating.

I spoke about Sounds Sciencey. This was followed by Debbie’s talk about being a skeptic in the everyday world. It blended perfectly together.

NECSS is not a cheap event because of the stay in the city but it is well worth it to go. I enjoyed it immensely. It went smoothly for me too thanks to excellent organization and lots of volunteers. Consider putting NECSS on your schedule for next year.

Special thanks to Mike and Trisha Feldman for inviting me and making things work.