2009 Skepticamp in Denver

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.