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European Skeptics Congress, day 1

by Bruno Van de Casteele

August 23, 2013

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I'm currently attending the European Skeptics Congress (15th Edition) here in Stockholm (23-25 August). Organised by the Swedish Skeptics VOF, it provides a very diverse line-up of speakers from the European skeptical community (and beyond).

The first speaker today is kind of a "rock star" when it comes to scientific talks. Hans Rosling (Sweden), assisted by his son Ola Rosling, is rather popular within the TED lecture circuit. He presents demographics data, based on the facts. That may sound boring, but it is far from! His talk, and his supporting website, is very entertaining. With a combination of high-tech (animated graphs) and low-tech (his long stick used as a pointer and ... toilet rolls), he managed to challenge the public on several misunderstandings and gaps.

For instance, he asked the public, given that an average 30 year old guy has 8 years of schooling, how many years a woman of the same age has. The public could vote electronically, but we went for 3 or 5 years, instead of the real answer 7 years. Even though there are places were indeed girls get hardly no schooling at all, on average most of the girls have as much schooling as boys. This then is correlated (and it was shown through various graphs that animated through time) with falling birth rate. Mind you, Rosling speaks about "babies per woman" and "rubber scale" (logarithmic scale) in order to reach as large an audience as possible and keep them interested.

Next up was Denis Caroti (France). He came to present his organisation,, a group of people wishing to promote education and critical thinking by creating and sharing educative resources (in French). They are freely available on the website. As such, interesting to know but I would have preferred he gave some more details about those materials (examples, ...) instead of focusing on organisational matters.

Concluding the session before lunch, there was Kristine Hjulsted, from Norway. She presented part of her program for 8-12 year olds. And even though you know you are being fooled, the magic tricks and optical illusions presented still give us a reminder that even though we know, we don't see how our brain fools us. Getting that across in an entertaining talk was very nice to see.

She didn't stay at just tricks, but explained how she discussed concepts like perception and creativity with those kids. It seems that we "unlearn" to be creative and think out of the box, and that we should stay "playful" to find solutions to problems presented. Because, and that is my opinion, for all the problems and challenges our world faces, sometimes strange and out of the box ideas might make a real difference.

After lunch we got a nice talk from Max Maven (US). He filled in at the last moment, so it doesn't fit the educational theme of the day, but he managed to keep the audience on the edge of their seats with an entertaining talk. It was the same talk he gave this year at TAM in Vegas, and he focussed on the question if deception could also be good in certain cases. He made a big mistake when discussing the libel suit from Psychic Sally, but apart from that, it was quite good. As a philosopher, I'm also happy that Kantian ethics and consequentialism get discussed (something that's become very rare at skeptic talks). In that context, I appreciate his insistence that we skeptics should also be aware of the context, and that no issues are uniquely black and white. The danger here lies that we start thinking in a "us-and-them" mentality, which in the end is counterproductive.

Next up was Beatrice Mautino, a science writer from Italy. She presented the approach she and her Italian skeptics colleagues have done to educate teenagers on myths and hoaxes. This was an extremely interesting talk, and I cannot do justice here to the multitude of interesting points she made and examples she gave.

She presented first a small theoretical background to their work. The approach to education and knowledge is in three steps. First debunking the hoax or mystery, whereby knowledge is "destroyed", and potentially the person is destabilised. This is the first and most important step (to remove error) but it can't stop there. That is correct in my opinion, as it risks creating a sort of unhealthy cynicism. The next step is to explain some scientific facts, in a playful way but focussing on learning and educating. Finally, there is the application of the scientific method to the real world, in order to learn and apply those things in the future.

Then she presented a lot of examples how they applied those things. From firewalking, over nail beds to crop circles and many other examples that were realised by the group together with teenagers. This skeptical group has been very productive, and all that with a rather limited budget. I'm a bit jealous, but I also gathered some interesting ideas. And from what I hear around me, a lot of other countries will be applying these ideas, too. This talk was a highlight of the day.

After that there was a panel discussion on education of critical thinking. I'm not a real fan of panel discussions, so even though some interesting topics were discussed (can you be critical all the time, how much basic knowledge do you need, can we trust experts, how can we know which expert to trust, ...) there isn't really much I can say about it.

Last talk of the day was a real treat by magician Tom Stone (Sweden). He performed under our eyes some impressive magic tricks. I have a big bias towards magicians using just their hands and some coins, but he was really good. It wasn't just showing off, though, as he explained several scientific concepts (e.g. change blindness of the eye while moving). It made me realise that magic is not just having quick hands, but also a very good understanding of how humans work.

For instance, Tom Stone showed the same tricks a total of three times, the second time very slowly and in parts. And even when he announced that he would be looking at his hands and then at the audience, and that this was so that you would look at him and don't see him fiddling around with his hands (small field of precise vision), and then proceeded to do exactly that, I felt my eyes obligating and watching him, too. Creepy, to say the least. And even he admitted that when he sees himself on video, he fools himself too. As with the presentation by Hjulsted in the morning, it really shows that even if you know, you still can be fooled and deceived. You have been warned ...

In all a day that was quite interesting and succesful. Tonight there is an evening entertainment program with the aforementioned Max Maven, to which I look forward, and tomorrow another interesting day planned here in Stockholm. Many thanks already to the Swedish Skeptics for such a fine congress, and for creating such a pleasant atmosphere where it is very easy to meet and discuss with other people.


by Bruno Van de Casteele

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