Friday, June 20, 2008

Breasts, Genitals and Profanity in the Service of Skepticism

It's time for another report from TAM6, coming to you from sunny downtown Las Vegas, where it got up to 107° F (41.7 ° C) today.

Highlights from today:

Ben Goldacre, M.D. is a British physician and journalist, and author of The Guardian's weekly Bad Science column. He spoke today about homeopathy in the U.K. He pointed out that in 1846, John Forbes, the Queen's own physician, was a strong opponent of homeopathy. He contrasted that to today, where the Queen's personal physician is a homeopath. Only partially tongue-in-cheek, Dr. Goldacre wondered if this movement toward wacky medicine correlated with the loss of the British Empire.

Richard Saunders gave a short summary of skeptical matters in Australia. The best part of his session was an audience-participation experiment of dousing. This elegant experiment was designed to help teach critical thinking to school children. With 5 plastic buckets, a bottle of water, a simple dousing rod, and about 15 minutes, he showed how elementary school kids can grasp and even derive for themselves the principles of randomization, and single and double blinding of an experiment. The next time one of my residents seems a bit hazy on these concepts, I'll bring out the dousing gear.

Penn and Teller hosted a short but zesty Q & A session about their Bullshit! TV series, politics and skepticism. As a longtime fan of their stage act, it was a great treat for me to hear Teller actually speak, which he does quite eloquently, by the way. My favorite Teller quote today:
Q. What skeptical accomplishment are you most proud of?
A. Bringing bare breasts, genitals and profanity to the service of skepticism.
My favorite Penn Jillette quote today:
Q. On your Bullshit! show, are you trying to be fair and unbiased?
A. No. We are trying to be fair and extremely biased.

Alexander Jason told us about some of his exploits as a crime scene analyst, and pointed out how helpful a critical mind was in his line of work. He also described his work with James Randi in the 1980's to help debunk fake faith healer Peter Popoff. The video clip below summarizes some of the events of this scandal.

George Hrab, singer, songwriter, and author extraordinaire entertained us with a number of his creations. My favorite Hrab line, when he had some early sound problems with his guitar: "It's a PC guitar." To a Mac user, 'nuff said.

Dr. PZ Myers, biologist and author of the excellent Pharyngula blog, did not actually disembowel a Christian on stage, as was earlier predicted by some. Instead he gave a nice discussion of the evolution of bat wings. He wrapped up his presentation with a slide of "gratuitous squid porn". It is noteworthy that his presentation is the only one so far in which video clips have worked flawlessly. As you might expect, he uses a Mac.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, chairman of the Planetary Society and PBS Nova scienceNow host, gave a truly spectacular keynote address, which he called "Brain Droppings".

These "droppings" covered a wide variety of topics, all built around the central theme of the close relationship between the scientific literacy of a population and the intellectual and creative health of their nation. Tyson gave a vivid account of the role of rising religious fundamentalism in the fall of the Islamic intellectual empire around 1100 CE -- a disaster from which the Islamic scientific community has never recovered. Parallels drawn by Dr. Tyson between this disaster and the current U.S. decline in scientific literacy were quite chilling. One hopes that the next administration can begin to repair some of the great damage done in the last 8 years to U.S. scientific research by the current administration.

A brief list of some of the questions considered in this 90-minute talk:
  • would an iPhone user have been burned at the stake 10 years ago (maybe so)
  • is there life on other planets (almost certainly)
  • does swami levitation work (yes, but only with sufficient flatus)
  • should we put pictures of scientists on our money (yes, and equations too!)
  • can lunar tidal forces affect your brain (yes, but they are a trillion times less than those exerted by your pillow)
  • is breathing, eating and drinking through the same orifice evidence of intelligent design (duh, no -- this is a stupid design that actually kills people)
Note to self: Never, ever, ever speak after this man. I'm pretty sure that everyone on the program following Dr. Tyson was thinking the same thing. Neil deGrasse Tyson combines a keen intellect and a strong background in science and history with the passionate lecture style of an evangelical preacher. He makes a powerful advocate for science and its essential role in society. One can only hope that we begin to elect politicians worthy of such an advocate.


Rommel said...

Penn & Teller will be blogging their thoughts on the new season of Bullshit! and will include outtakes and deleted scenes each week.

They have already posted some great stuff from last weeks War On Porn episode. Check it out:

I particularly enjoyed the Mother/Daughter interview at the porn convention. Heartwarming...

Rommel said...

If you liked that Penn & Teller Bullshit! episode the War On Porn, there are deleted scenes and outtakes on Penn & Teller's blog.

I especially enjoyed the Mother/daughter interview at the porn convention. Heartwarming.

The Samurai Radiologist said...

@ rommel:

Thanks for the great P & T links -- the mother/daughter clip is especially sweet.