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NECSS 2014: Astronauts, Physics, and STEM, Oh My!

by Stephen Propatier

April 17, 2014

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Donate NECSS or the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism recently concluded. I was happily able to attend it this year. This is the first time I have been able to go a skeptical conference of any kind. The conference is quite an experience, admittedly not what I expected. My prior conference experience is mostly with medical conferences. Medical conferences have a predictable pattern, I know in advance what classes I will be attending and what will be taught. Those conferences are not for enjoyment, just focused learning. I almost never participate in the meet and greet social gatherings at medical conferences. For many reasons I was greatly anticipating this conference and its social activities. For the first time I was going to go hang around with a large number of like minded skeptics and have some fun in addition to learning.

I am going to share my impressions and critiques from NCESS.

I have minor conflicted feelings about my experiences at the conference. I alternated between awe and mild disappointment at times. Overall I found it to be a thrilling experience and it gave me a skeptical boost.

I think the best part of the conferences is meeting and getting a chance to speak with like minded skeptics at the conference. As a long time fan of the top skeptic personalities in attendance I couldn't wait to see them in person. People like the Novellas, Evan Bernstein, Rebecca Watson, George Hrab, and Massimo Pigliucci. In addition to the regulars there were terrific guest speakers like Lawrence Krauss. The highlight of the meeting for me was guest speaker Cady Coleman NASA Astronaut. Having a chance to meet a NASA Astronaut was thrilling. Talking to an actual Astronaut and getting some Q&A time is a once in a lifetime experience. She was worth the price of admission alone.

I have have worked with some of the major skeptical personalities prior to the conference on a large project (which is still in post production). I wouldn't say that we became friends but we know each other. In skeptical circles podcaster personalities are definitely treated as celebrities. When you put yourself out there podcasting weekly you make yourself a public figure for both ridicule and admiration. That said, a podcast listener can gain a false impression about the hosts. If you listen to someone weekly you can begin to think that you know them personally. Intellectually you know that you don't know them and they don't know you. It is easy to forget when you listen to them every week. I imagine that for the podcasters themselves demanding fans can be tiring. Almost universally the speakers at NECSS seemed to have endless smiles and attention for all their adoring fans.

George Hrab and Jay Novella were stand out personalities at the conference. Among a group of great science communicators they were remarkable to observe. I would characterize them as ambassadors for skepticism. They seem to be at ease with public scrutiny. They stood out by being smooth, open, and approachable. George and Jay don't have the academic acumen of a Steven Novella, or Laurence Krauss, but they do have intangibles that make them great mass communicators. They have an easy open style with people that makes them crowd pleasers. A combination of wit with just the right amount of general like-ability


George has been performing for years and you expect him to have a well developed rapor with an audience. What surprised me most about him was observing him deal with people who approached him (myself included) at drinking skeptically. George makes everyone feel like they are important, and that their presence is needed and appreciated.

Jay Novella was constantly in demand, people always wanted to talk with him. I have been around jay quite a few times one on one he is a gifted instinctual communicator. He never ever seemed to lose focus or seem distracted no matter how long someone demanded his attention. What impressed me is his onstage persona it has become so smooth and genuine.

Overall he conference was chock full of terrific people and great guests. I will stop gushing for a moment. It was not all wonderful. I have a few conference issues related to the movement and this conference in particular.

As a scientific skepticism supporter I would love to happily pronounce that the conference was a symphony of science, and science communication. I would also love to find flaws. Most skeptics know that a scientific skeptic is unlikely to judge a conference as perfect. Finding flaws is part of the skeptical movement. Admittedly I did feel that there were a few small issues.

My one major nit pick for this conference is a small amount of content tone to the talks.

There was (of course) a strong atheist undercurrent to the proceedings. That is not surprising because many skeptics are atheists/agnostics. Yes many are atheist but not all and that is my concern. I reconnected with some fellow skeptics at the conference. Some of these guys were new like me, some were regulars, all are Atheists/Agnostics. Anecdotally we all felt a little uncomfortable with a lot of the strongly mocking anti-religion commentary that popped up from time to time. Initially I thought it was some kind of bias but when someone else brought it up I felt that I had to add my concerns.

We had no problem with specific criticisms that were made like Dr. Paul Offit "that your religion doesn't allow you to spread death and disease." That is in my opinion a appropriate skeptical viewpoint. He was critiquing the legal handling of a Philadelphia religious group's faith healing stance. A ridiculous stance that killed children and placed us all at risk. He was offering a focused purposeful point that has a clear factual danger. You can't argue with that type of stuff. My objections stem from more subtle attacks consisting mostly of an undertone that seemed to involve multiple talks.

There was a consistent/repetitive attack on religion and or believers. It was subtle. It wasn't obnoxious just "uncomfortable". I object because it was not specific to a science issues. Just generalized opportunistic narration, mocking religious people and religion as a whole. It was a small but consistent commentary underlying several talks. Talks that had nothing specifically to do with religion or religious persons. The commentary seemed to be off the cuff and lacking in a productive goal. In my estimation it seemed to be gratuitous crowd pleasing. It bothered me. To my circle of associates it seemed like presenters were being slightly petty for no good purpose.

Scientific skepticism needs to have more a "big tent" type of a feel. More accepting of different ideas both political and religious. Specific science issues need to be addressed but mocking needs to be avoided. Scientific skepticism can bring people around to atheism. In my opinion, it is wrong to make a believer/skeptic feel like lesser because they aren't atheists.

Atheism is not a good lever to force critical thinking on the general public. It is an insurmountable task to try convince everyone that there is no religion first and then teach science. The opposite is achievable. Give people the tools of science and critical thinking and then let them analyze religion critically.

Specifically for this venue you don't want new initiates to the movement feel that their beliefs are highhandedly dismissed. Humans naturally fear death and trying to get people to realize that when they die they die, and their loved ones are lost forever is difficult in the best of circumstances. Mocking them doesn't enhance your chances to gain someones support. Believers at skeptical conferences are selected to be your most receptive audience to the message. People have to come around on their own. I think we should support all who want to join avoid segregating or belittling theists of all walks. The common points should be critical thinking and science, not atheism Then you deal with individual psuedoscientific/supernatural beliefs. Look for common ground not differences.

I think we need to focus on the commonalities of skepticism, science, critical thinking, skeptical inquiry and science education. I am not 100% sure that NECSS really gave that vibe to the general crowd. Admittedly I cannot gauge how insulted a believer may have been.

I have another small critique. Nothing really bad just an interesting observation. Laurence Krauss is a great science communicator. He is a delightful and energetic speaker that is funny, witty, and he has well prepared talks. That said, he is an overwhelming presence on stage. All the panel/talks he participated in he dominated the conversation. The live taping of rationally speaking was basically a 40 min rant by Krauss. If Massimo Pigilucci had a hard time butting in on him, you can guess that others panels struggled more with him. In medical conferences there are moderators for a reason and he needed one on several occasions. Still I was thrilled to hear him talk, meet him, and have him sign his book.

These are small points that didn't significantly detract from my overall experience. I look forward to participating in the next conference.

It is fun as a skeptic to share some time with like minded people and enjoy a good debate with some fun. I highly recommend attending one if you have the chance. In a woo filled world sometime you need a place to recharge your batteries and remind you that you are not standing alone in a crowded room screaming and being ignored.

by Stephen Propatier

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