2009 Skepticamp in Denver

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Now that my grades have been submitted on time, I can admit to you that I spent all day Saturday, May 9, attending the annual Skepticamp in Denver. Skepticamp is the brainchild of Reed Esau, and the 2009 Skepticamp is the third so far. Since their inception, there have been a half-dozen other Skepticamps in the US and at least one abroad. The 2009 Skepticamp lasted from 9 in the morning till 7 at night and was the shortest 10-hour conference I have ever attended.

To give an idea of the content, I’ll outline some of the talks I heard. My own talk was entitled “Evolution Confers Morality,” and I took issue with the claim by Francis Collins that morality is unique to humans, could not have evolved, and must therefore have been given by God. Stuart Robbins of the blog Exposing PseudoAstronomy debunked four astronomical arguments used by creationists, and Geoff Price argued against the existence of the historical Jesus, claiming that the Gospels are essentially literary allusions to the Hebrew Bible.

Concerning pseudoscience, Eric Marquardt discussed the science behind cryonics (freezing cadavers in hopes of reviving them when medicine advances sufficiently) - or, rather, discussed the lack of science behind cryonics. Jeff Loats of Metro State College in Denver gave what amounted to a splendid tutorial on musical acoustics and used it to debunk some kind of ripoff whose name escapes me, but where they use a recording of your voice to send you a CD that evidently contains on it your own personal frequency.

One of the most troubling talks was an hour-long presentation, “For Entertainment Purposes Only,” by a duo known as Bryan & Baxter. These paranormal investigators showed clips of people supposedly talking to ghosts on commercial television programs; Bryan & Baxter claimed, plausibly, that some of the people may have suffered real psychological harm. In a considerably lighter vein, Chuck Wilcox of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival discussed a handful of superstitions that are peculiar to the theater (don’t whistle on the set; don’t pronounce the name of the play Macbeth) and showed that some of them had practical origins.

Alas, not every paper was as interesting as these. I suffered through one unprepared and incomprehensible talk that may have been trying to debunk global warming. In addition, I came in on the last half of a 1-hour talk by a speaker who seemed to think that everything will be ducky and we will all get along fine, if only we will have our amygdalas removed.

Unfortunately, because of parallel sessions and inelastic collisions I suffered with people in the halls, I did not get to hear all of the papers, but the authors and titles are given on the Website that I specified above.

Only one quibble with the organizers: Speakers were told to show up by 9 in the morning and sign up for a time. As a result, the schedule was shifted around for a bit, and I noticed some friction when someone insisted on a time that was already taken. Additionally, since the talks varied from 15 minutes to 1 hour, it was sometimes hard to decide where to go. It might have been better to arrange the schedule in advance and group like papers together so that there would be fewer conflicts.

Finally, Rich Orman arranged and emceed a brilliant quiz show that engaged contestants for a few minutes between talks, while speakers were setting up their visual aids. The only rule that I recall was that you may not answer with a question (what is Bigfoot?) or you lose 2 points. The finals took place around 6:30; I have never seen more pictures of Jesus, Mary, or the Buddha on pieces of pizza, slices of grilled salami, wasps’ nests, or grilled cheese sandwiches.

11 Comments

Matt Young said: “My own talk was entitled “Evolution Confers Morality,” and I took issue with the claim by Francis Collins that morality is unique to humans, could not have evolved, and must therefore have been given by God.”

You (Matt) are correct.

Regarding the “For Entertainment Purposes Only,” many, many years ago I worked in a commercial photo studio making B&W prints. Whenever the papers came up with someone who said they’d photographed an image of Jesus/Mary/FSM in a pane of glass I would invariably receive numerous negatives from people who’d photographed their screen doors from as many angles as possible, etc., trying to get that million dollar picture bringing them fame & fortune. They never succeeded.

Is there anything you could point me to about your “Evolution Confers Morality” talk? I am an agnostic, but I find I am also a pretty moral person (though, I presume everyone thinks of themselves as moral). And I offer wonder about/ get frustrated by the presumption that one has to believe in a God(s) in order to live a good life. Interesting observation to go with this..a few weekends ago, my best friend from highschool was staying at my apt, to attend a conference for his profession (a youth minister) and we were talking about how we both in our dreams have tried to shoot people but the gun never works, or we always miss or can’t kill anyone.. Now, “common thoughts” would be that my friend can’t do these things because he is a moral christian minister…but I am agnostic, why do I have the same problems? Unless, our particular take on religion has no connection with how we behave.

I will shortly post the slides to my talk on my home page. You may also be interested in my book

Young, Matt. 2001. No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe. Bloomington, Indiana: 1stBooks Library.

Some of the material in my talk is written up in the book, but some is much newer. The slides will have 6 or 7 references.

By the way, Collins’s book is

Collins, Francis. 2006. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Please buy it from your local independent bookstore.

I don’t want to review the book, but I have to confess that I was somewhat taken aback by how credulously he accepted the theology of C.S. Lewis.

Matt Young said: I don’t want to review the book, but I have to confess that I was somewhat taken aback by how credulously he accepted the theology of C.S. Lewis.

Judging from his remarks at a panel discussion I attended shortly after the book came out, he accepts it because he dearly wants to believe, and Lewis provides theological cover for him. There’s no real evaluation going on.

I have heard that there is a waterfall in Colorado called Professor Falls, because it dries up in the summer. I must be starting to dry up, because in my answer to Mr. Vick, I forgot to note that my talk was based largely on Chapter 17 of

Young, Matt, and Paul K. Strode. 2009. Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails). New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

which will be out in June or July.

Alas, I missed attending SkeptiCamp due to a flood. No, really. While no animals lined up two-by-two or by sevens (well, except two humans of the same sex), it was flood enough to block the only road out of the canyon I live and work in. I so very much wanted to attend: I spent several hours preparing a paper on “free energy,” with an introduction / brief refresher course on just what the heck “energy” and what “work” means— using 65 pound iron bars.

Skepticamp, what a great idea.

Here’s something like the opposite, so I’ll call it “Gullicamp.”

Upcoming Event: Grill the ID Scientist, 9 June 2009, University of Pittsburgh

With all due respect, you lose some credibility when you endorse people who deny that Jesus was a historical person. Ironically, it’s intellectually analogous to espousing young-earth creationism. One does not need to be a Christian to recognize that there is quite a bit of evidence for the traditional account of the life of Jesus.

… you lose some credibility when you endorse people who deny that Jesus was a historical person. … there is quite a bit of evidence for the traditional account of the life of Jesus.

Daniel is incorrect. There is no contemporaneous account of the life of Jesus. The earliest Gospel, Mark, was written perhaps 40 years after the Resurrection. The other Gospels are based on Mark and a hypothetical document called the Q document.

I know of only 2 other ancient, non-Biblical sources that refer to Jesus explicitly: a passage by Josephus that is thought to have been inserted by later Christian redactors, and a reference by Tacitus that postdates the Gospels.

If there is any additional evidence, I would be interested to learn of it.

As a scientist I find all this info about Darwin and his hypothosis about “natural selection” a bit of guess work and the fellows that continue to search for the “missing Link” are honest in their findings but way off track when they consider the full implications to their findings!Only the evolution of Man is under the microscope but what about the “evolution” of all animals and plants that have withstood the passage of time without evolving into something different? Put a hundred chimps in front of a typewriter and wait a million years. They or their offspring will not have typed an intelligent sentence! Please don’t show me pics of chimps or knuckledraggers and tell me that one of these forms of life were my forebears! Physics teaches that nothing may be obtained from nothing, so tell me with absolute truth that all life-forms mentioned came about from nothing! They are so diverse so I ask you in all seriousness,where did the chimps come from?

Am sorry, but April Fool’s Day was exactly two months ago:

des prout-jones said:

As a scientist I find all this info about Darwin and his hypothosis about “natural selection” a bit of guess work and the fellows that continue to search for the “missing Link” are honest in their findings but way off track when they consider the full implications to their findings!Only the evolution of Man is under the microscope but what about the “evolution” of all animals and plants that have withstood the passage of time without evolving into something different? Put a hundred chimps in front of a typewriter and wait a million years. They or their offspring will not have typed an intelligent sentence! Please don’t show me pics of chimps or knuckledraggers and tell me that one of these forms of life were my forebears! Physics teaches that nothing may be obtained from nothing, so tell me with absolute truth that all life-forms mentioned came about from nothing! They are so diverse so I ask you in all seriousness,where did the chimps come from?

May I suggest you acquire a copy of British microbiologist Mark Pallen’s superb “Rough Guide to Evolution”, or if you prefer something with more scientific rigor, then the latest edition of American evolutionary ecologist Douglas Futuyma’s college textbook on evolution?

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on May 12, 2009 2:13 PM.

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