Yesterday the fortieth world-wide SkeptiCamp event took place at Airey’s Inlet along the Great Ocean Rd. Around 35 people attended, ten of them giving talks. It was the second SkeptiCamp I had attended, the first being in Melbourne last year. I had such a great time at that one and got to know so many fantastic people that attending this one was kind of a no brainer.
Tim Harding opened the show with a talk entitled “What is rationality?” He told us of a wonderful research study where people were given two choices of travel insurance. Both of them offered $100,000 in the event of death but while the first choice included death for any reason, the second policy only covered acts of terrorism. Bizarrely enough, most people preferred the second choice, despite it being more restrictive. We were taught the difference between irrational and non-rational, those things that fall outside the scope of rationality such as personal taste.
We were presented with the uncomfortable fact that rational beliefs can be false and irrational ones can be true. If you’re a member of a tribe and your witch doctor successfully predicts the weather 100% of the time, is your belief in his powers irrational? If scientists claim that no life can be supported by arsenic then how does your rational belief hold up when NASA proves them wrong? Some good questions were posed and there was a lot to think about during this talk.
Nick Croucher of the SkepticBros gave a beginner’s guide to using the Internet for scepticism. Nick is a great speaker and there were lots of people laughing along. He suggested thinking about whether you should use your real name or a pseudonym online. He advised people to pick their online battles wisely and to be reasonable, no matter how unreasonable your opposition is. His best point by far was that you will probably never convince your opponent so you should aim to convince your audience instead.
He also recommended that anyone thinking of starting a blog should specialise in a particular topic, research their posts thoroughly, set a consistent pace for posting, be aware of libel laws and please, please, please consider the design of your site.
Nick brought along a lot of Placebo Bands and I highly recommend you purchase a few. Much cheaper than the “real thing” and just as effective!
Mick Vagg, SkeptiCamp organiser and ex-conspiracy theorist spoke on the 2012 hoax. He pointed us towards a wonderful website, 2012hoax.org and a terrible website, Uncensored, official site of the conspiracy theory magazine. A discussion came up about the number of children who are genuinely terrified of the end of the world and for the need to learn the truth about it to help alleviate their fears.
As a high school teacher I am aware of how many students worry about it. I haven’t met any who are genuinely terrified of dying, but it’s definitely something at the back of their minds. I recalled a conversation with a student who told me that it was going to happen because Nostradamus predicted that the world would end in 1992 and you have to add 20 years to everything he said.
Terry Kelly, president of the Vic Skeptics used his experience as a social worker dealing with anger issues to explain to us that while anger is a valid and legitimate emotion it is our behaviours that really count. He stressed the importance for targeting aggression. Shooting zombies is probably ok but victims of pseudoscience need to treated with compassion. He also spoke of the importance of intellectually understanding our emotions to better control them.
Jo Benhamu gave a repeat performance of her wonderful 2011 Melbourne SkeptiCamp presentation, “Getting to the bottom of colon cleansing”. We learnt that some people poo everyday and others poo every few days. Apparently it doesn’t matter too much because everybody’s different. We should only be concerned when our patterns change.
She gave us a history of colon cleansing from the ancient Egyptians to Mr Kelloggs (of corn flakes fame) using enemas to “cure” people of schizophrenia.
We saw many example of various devices, including radioactive radium suppositories and the horribly named “Rectorotor“. Also, do a Google image search for “mucoid plaque” if you’re brave. Don’t worry, the pictures aren’t of what you think they are but the people in the pictures think that they are what they think they are. I think.
More seriously, she pointed out that there are no accredited colon hydrotherapy courses offered in Australia and that anybody can set up a centre as long as they keep it hygienic. People can die from colon cleansing but apparently the government isn’t too concerned with this.
Graeme Hannigan’s presentation “Not even wrong” focused on science’s wonderful ability to self-correct. The title of his talk was from the physicist Wolfgang Pauli’s comment that some theories are so stupid that they’re not even wrong. He pointed out that a claim must be falsifiable to be valid. If no mechanism exists with which to disprove your claim then it becomes a pointless argument. He recommend that we always read the disclaimers on websites selling medical devices because some of them state that they are for “entertainment purposes only.” He also pointed us to Michael Shermer’s video, the baloney Detection Kit.
Jason Ball shared his research on the Kenja Communication cult operating here in Australia. They believe that all negative emotions are caused by evil little spirits being attached you and that they can remove them through a process called ‘energy conversion’ which is nothing more than staring into your eyes. They encourage their members to engage in theatrical pursuits, one of which involves acting like a small child and is called ‘klowning’. They enforce happiness and do not allow negative comments to made, making it effectively impossible to criticise them from within. They kick out members who are mentally unwell which has caused no end of stress and pain.
Their leader, Ken Dyers has somehow managed to survive 11 accusations of child sexual abuse until he recently committed suicide following another such claim. The members travel Australia with a stage show entitled “Guilty until proven innocent” which aims to promote his innocence.
Graeme Watkins read some very funny items from a book of psychic predictions from the 1970s. Many of them predicted encounters with aliens and far-fetched science-fiction like technology, but my personal favourite was the claim that in 1989 there will be a ‘moat revival’ for home security.
Carolyn Coulson discussed alternative therapies and asked us why do people fall for them? She believes that the naturalistic fallacy is one of the biggest culprits, along with many false dichotomies such as natural vs. artificial and pure vs. toxic. We saw examples of people buying $20 magnets with the justification that they can’t hurt, so why not? It seems that people are scared of missing out on potential cures so will buy into anything they can afford. It also doesn’t help that doctors have to be honest and admit that they can’t cure anything. Quacks on the other hand have no such compulsions.
Closing the day’s events was a brief talk by Charles T about his experiences with testing people for supernatural powers and his time spent at Science Works. I followed with a brief description of my club and a desperate plea for people to watch my appearance on The Circle on the 31st of Jan.
The only thing marring the day was the very aggressive woman who kicked us out because the Catholic church was setting up for Mass and they didn’t want us around. As somebody who was brought up in a really lovely church it saddens me when people like this go around reinforcing the belief that Christians are all horrible people.
The whole day was really wonderful, entirely due to the people attending. I’ve only been involved with the sceptical community for a few months and I will honestly say that they are the nicest, most generous and open-minded group of people that I have ever met. My life has changed a lot since getting involved, all for the better. I truly believe that everything they do is for the good of the community and that all the time they spend should be considered a sacrifice for the sake of others.
Big thanks go to Mike Vagg, Nick Crouch, Carolyn Coulson and the Great Ocean Road Skeptics for their efforts in setting up this event. If you missed this one make sure you follow the Skepticamp Australia website for information on future events.
All photos courtesy of Jo Benhamu and Mick Vagg.