Briskepticon Reflections

Margaret Kittson, convenor of Briskepticon 2009, takes a personal look back at the Skeptics conference – a successful event that raised a few concerns about skepticsm.

Back in April 2008, people from the various skeptical groups scattered around Australia met up in Wagga Wagga to have some conversations about future directions for the Skeptics movement in Australia. It was a great weekend, one I enjoyed so much I got a bit carried away and nominated not only Brisbane as the location for the 2009 Australian Skeptics national convention but also myself as the convenor. When I first mentioned my bright idea to Qld Skeptics President Bob Bruce he responded, while wearing a very wry grin, that it would be a lot of work. I must say he wasn’t wrong. However, I was fortunate with the people I had helping me, particularly Sheryl Backhouse whose contribution was enormous. I ended up being very happy with how everything turned out and enjoyed the whole process enormously.

The only thing I am really kicking myself about was forgetting to bring Darwin K Bear, my furry friend and skeptical mascot with me to the convention. Darwin was less than impressed with being overlooked in this way and missing out on lots of photo opportunities. He does, like a former Queensland premier, tend to be a bit of a media tart, and has had a bad case of the sulks ever since!

On the plus side, there were some things which I think we got absolutely right, especially the choice of venues – for the convention proper at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland and for the night functions at the University of Queensland Club. One of the things I most enjoy about skeptical conventions is mixing and mingling at break times, something which on-site catering makes possible. For similar reasons there was a ‘no entertainment’ policy for the Saturday night convention dinner. Another bonus was the access to on-site budget accommodation. From what I could observe, a lot of people did what I did and either stayed at Emmanuel or at one of the neighbouring residential colleges. Since I got in early, I was able to get an air-conditioned room, which was great. Shame about the bed, though … I’ve slept on better!

Another plus factor was having Embiggen Books set up a display in the room and having books available for purchase. This is Warren’s ‘best seller’ list:

1. Beyond Belief: Skepticism Science and the Paranormal by Martin Bridgstock

2. Denial: History Betrayed by Tony Taylor

3. Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World by Peter Macinnis

4. Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Science by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

5. Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat by David Gillespie

Since all of these people were guest speakers, that probably comes as no surprise. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science (coming in at number 6) was also popular, as was Simon Singh’s Trick or Treatment (7th place).

A key reason I volunteered myself as convenor was that the idea of being the head honcho in charge of the program content really appealed to me. Having attended every Australian Skeptics convention bar one since 2000, a New Zealand one in 2006 and TAM in Las Vegas in 2007, I felt I had accumulated a fair bit of insight into what works and what doesn’t appeal, at least from one audience member’s perspective.

My first ‘executive decision’ was that there would be nothing about climate change in the program. This topic had been dealt with at the two previous conventions. The theme of the 2007 Hobart Convention was ‘The Use and Abuse of Scientific Data in the Climate Change Debate’ and at the 2008 one in Adelaide the Sunday morning was given over to a ‘head to head’ between geologist Ian Plimer and climatologist Barry Brook. (Sidebar: both men have a lot to learn about what works in PowerPoint – incredibly detailed graphs with lots of colours and lots of dots just don’t!)

I had a major win early on. I was on a quest to get a high profile person to be our opening speaker, so I asked former Australian Skeptic of the Year Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. I was totally chuffed when he agreed. His presence on the program provided the inspiration for the convention theme: Myth and misconception: because all evidence is not equal. Since I find the whole issue of the nature of evidence and the processes underlying what we think we know fascinating, it was within this framework – what we believe and how we come to believe it – that the program was structured.

I wanted to ensure that some guest speakers came from within the skeptical cohort. Fortunately there was some incredible local talent available: Loretta Marron, Martin Bridgstock, Peter Ellerton and Theo Clark; as well as a couple of Sydneysiders: Barry Williams and Rachael Dunlop.

I was keen on having a focus on the weird and whacky world of alt med. Since this is an area I know very little about, I asked someone who does, Loretta Marron, to suggest some guest speakers. This is how Pete Griffith (vaccination) and Geraldine Moses (the Medicines Lines) came to be on the program.

Not very long before the start of the convention, Martin Bridgstock contacted me with what proved to be a wonderful piece of serendipity. He was having his book Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal published by Cambridge University Press, and asked if the book launch could be incorporated into the program. Of course I said yes, and this became the core component of the Friday night part of the convention program.

Jim Allan approached me and agreed to do something light and funny in what was potentially a ‘death seat’ time slot, that is, the final session before the convention dinner on the Saturday afternoon. It what was another case of serendipity his topic “Why Skeptics are Dinner Party Nightmares” segued brilliantly into the presentation of Tim Minchin’s “Storm” (at the insistence of a number of people in the room, I should add, particularly Kylie Sturgess). If you have yet to hear it, do yourself a favour, find it on YouTube and enjoy.

Krissy Wilson (area anomalistic psychology) was also keen to present, and having heard her speak in Hobart in 2007 I had absolutely no hesitation in adding her to the program. Rosemary Aird had presented at one of the Queensland Skeptics’ monthly dinner meetings and was recommended by Sheryl.

There were a number of guest speakers, apart from Dr Karl, whom I head-hunted. 2009 being a significant Darwinian anniversary, I wanted to acknowledge this in some way. I was intrigued by the thesis Peter Macinnis presents in Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World. If you want to know what it is, I recommend reading the book, but essentially Peter argues that the time was right for Darwin’s ideas to emerge, and that if he hadn’t come up with his theories, someone else would have!

I wanted a presentation from someone with real credibility in education to provide a counter balance to the assertions that testing regimes and league tables are good things (they aren’t!) which get dream runs in the print media, especially The Australian. This is why I asked Bob Lingard to speak on ‘Testing Times’. Bob’s talk had an alternative title, a great analogy: “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it”!

I read a review of Denial: History Betrayed by Tony Taylor in January 2009 and was so impressed with it I went and bought a copy that day. History is a discipline I actually know something about (as is education), and I was impressed with Tony’s investigation into denial as a 20th century phenomenon. Tony deals with six case studies – Armenian massacres in Turkey, the Holocaust, British communist denial from the 1930s to the 1960s, Japan and the culture of denial after World War II, Serbian atrocities in the Balkans in the 1990s, and our very own Keith Windschuttle.

(On a side note, Tony’s appearance at the convention obviously upset at least one holocaust denier. There was a bearded gentleman with an accent hanging around on the Friday night handing out bits of paper from the Adelaide Institute. I think he may have come from interstate as he obviously hadn’t come to grips with the fact that we don’t have daylight saving in Queensland and turned up a couple of hours early. Fortunately since Tony didn’t arrive at the convention until the Saturday afternoon and didn’t present until the Sunday morning, their paths didn’t cross.)

I had first considered inviting David Gillespie as a possible guest speaker after reading a couple of reviews of his book Sweet Poison: Why Sugar is Making Us Fat. I had planned on seeing him at Riverbend Books at Bulimba in August, something which I wasn’t able to do because of a date I had with a surgeon! While I was in hospital recovering from this encounter, I had a conversation about David’s book with the stoma nurse who was looking after me. She recommended it. I took notice of this since diet and nutrition are her areas of professional expertise. After I got out of hospital, I visited Riverbend and asked the people there how David’s talk went and got a positive response, so I purchased a personal copy. I enjoyed reading the book and thought (and still think) that the hypothesis he presents is well-argued.

In the book, David describes a personal journey, where he endeavours to find out why he, like lots of us (myself included), have a weight problem. His conclusion is that a big problem with our diet is too much sugar, with fructose being of particular concern. Once consumed, fructose goes on a fast track in our systems and is metabolised as fat without doing anything much else on the way. We often don’t realise just how much sugar we are consuming because much of it is hidden. It is also very easy to eat lots of it.

When I announced David’s inclusion in the program, I received some negative feedback, something which surprised me but which I took on board as it came from people whose opinion, as a general rule, I value and trust.

There were two main concerns expressed to me:

  • That the book is ‘pseudoscience’
  • The potential for damage to the skeptics image.

With respect to the pseudoscience charge, I asked for evidence to support this assertion and was told that it is demonstrated by references to some discredited and pseudoscientific sources. I was hopeful that some of the questions from the floor after David’s presentation would highlight flaws in his argument, but as I saw it this didn’t happen. Since then, I’ve been waiting for someone to show me that the ‘science’ behind what David is saying about how sugar is metabolised in our system is bollocks. At this point in time, I am still waiting.

There has been one answer which does call into question some of David’s evidence and some of the conclusions he draws from it. Last year, David was a guest on ABC Radio’s Ockham’s Razor program (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/ockhamsrazor/stories/2009/2621415.htm). As a follow up, Robin Williams interviewed nutritionist Chris Forbes Evans (http://www.abc.net.au/rn/ockhamsrazor/stories/2010/2770728.htm#transcript).

Chris identified errors in David’s work, but he also acknowledged that David makes some valid points. Chris also mentioned something I’d picked up on with respect to the influence of David’s legal background on his research methodology and how the book has been written. His discourse is framed in adversarial terms, with fructose cast in the role of serial killer and David on a mission as the prosecuting attorney.

This brings me back to the issue of the nature of evidence. Evidence means one thing in a courtroom and something rather different in a science lab. Context does matter. I wonder if some of David’s critics are rejecting his argument because of the way it has been framed. I also wonder how many of David’s critics had actually read the book.

This criticism made me feel just a bit uncomfortable and it has taken me a while to work out why this may be the case. One inference, which disturbs me if it is true, is that since David is not a scientist, he has no business writing the book that he did. This has more than a touch of elitism and ‘closed shop’ mentality about it. I hope I am wrong and this it is not a manifestation of an ideology that has been labelled ‘scientism’. In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth.

Are we really prepared to accept the proposition that the scientific method is the only valid mechanism by which one can gain knowledge of the world or reality? I don’t dispute that the scientific method when used properly and appropriately is the best tool we have come up with to make sense of the natural world. However, it denies a lot of what makes us human and what adds value to our lives to say that it is the only valid path to enlightenment and the only way we can learn things. Stories are a wonderful platform for sharing ideas, sparking debate and providing inspiration. Unlike some of his science colleagues, this is something Carl Sagan understood.

My final point is this. Since when as an organisation or as individuals have skeptics been concerned about the potential for collateral damage to their image, especially with respect to issues on which the jury has yet to deliver its verdict? We investigated water divining and fire walking. We’ve also debated creationists who really do have no case to argue!

Let’s not forget what it is that we do:

  • We think critically where there is doubt
  • We analyse claims
  • We are open-minded
  • We seek the evidence!

Margaret Kittson, Brisbane, January 11, 2010

SKEPSIS: that passion not to be fooled and not to fool other people. (Paul Meehl)