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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kritisk Masse - Norway's first conference on skepticism!

I might be a bit biased since I am one of the organizers, but I just have to say how awesome this is!

Kritisk Masse (that means Critical Mass, what an awesome name) has finally released our webpage, and with that announced the list of speakers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this, Kritisk Masse was started by a group of people in Oslo after the last TAM London in an inspired moment. It's a conference with speakers, panels, entertainment, dinner, and a workshop.

The topic is skepticism. Lately, this has been on my mind so much that I've had to tell peripheral friends and acquaintances (now there's a word I don't spell every day!) about skepticism. Just in case you're new to it too, I'll give you some pointers.

Skepticism is about employing doubt and science in order to find out things about the world. Most skeptics frown upon the use of the word skeptic with some-word-and-a-hyphen in front, such as 911-skeptic, climate-skeptic or vaccine-skeptic. We are not hyphen-skeptics. We are skeptics all round, and we follow the scientific concensus. Let me say that again; we are not conspiracy-skeptics, we follow the scientific concensus.

We believe science, as in psychology, statistics, and a throrough understanding of scams and why people fall for them is a sufficient explanation for most of the paranormal claims we meet.

Sure, paranormal phenomena may exist, but they have not been proven to exist yet. We just want thorough evidence. It seems to us that most people are not aware of skepticism and how useful it can be for orienting in the world and all the offers we get. That's why we need more public efforts like this conference in addition to blogs and our little pub-based community.

So, to the point. The conference is in Oslo, 29. - 31. of October, and the program containts skeptical heroes such as:
Simon Singh
Rebecca Watson
Asbjørn Dyrendal
Erik Tunstad
Kristian Gundersen
and a few more science-based speakers:
Sissel Rogne
Øystein Elgarøy
Bjørn Vassnes

Also, there is an evening of entertainment featuring:
Evig Poesi
Physics-hunk Andreas Wahl
and comedian Iszi Lawrence

More about all these wonderful contributors can be found at our webpage.


  1. I'm really disapointed to see Simon Singh on top of your list.

    I don't know much of what else he's been engaged in, but I have witnessed his crusaded on chiropractics (via RichardDawkins.net), and read several things he has written on that subject. And I do not see him as "true skeptic" at all.

    Must skeptics are skeptical towards treatment with no scientific basis. But being skeptical towards a certain treatment doesn't automatically make you a "true skeptic".

    I don't remember every detail of what I've read, but I do remember Singh using the exact same methods we as skeptics criticizes. For example using anecdotal evidence to "prove" that chiropractics is dangerous. This puts him squarely in the same box as quacks who use anecdotal evidence to "prove" that a certain treatment works.

    So what I mean by "true skeptic" is a person who keep an open and skeptical mind in general, and not a person who are only skeptical towards certain things. The latter is just as closed minded and dogmatic as those we usually like to criticize.

    I see the phenomenon a lot. People group together under the flag of skepticism, because they share certain sympathies and and are negative towards the same things. But in the end, they are just as religious about their common cause as those who they criticize.

    Don't fall into that trap. When Singh speaks, apply your skepticism. Be aware of the use of anecdotal evidence and similar.

  2. I was out for a walk, and there is no better time to think. So here are a few more points about Singh, chiropractics, critical thinking and science.

    About Singh: Two other things I reacted to in Singhs crusade against chriopractics are:
    * using the origin to criticize todays practice
    * using the quackery that some (too many) in the business deals with to attack chiropractics as a hole

    If Singh had attacked the different national organizations and accused them of not cleaning up the chiropractics business, I would have supported him. Because there are a lot of chiropractors who deal in quackery, either by adding other kinds of treatment, or claiming chiropractics can do more than it can. But he didn't, instead he attacks chiropractics in general, with arguments that are illogical, and claims that has no support in science/statistics.

    About critical thinking: Consider creationists who deny evolution. They see themselves as critical thinkers, because they are skeptical and critical towards evolution. Compare this to being skeptical towards alternative health care.

    We humans tend to agree with those who which we share the same sympathies, or those facts that support what we like to believe. So for someone who is skeptical towards alternative treatment, it is easy to agree with someone who is making accusations towards something that is claimed to be alternative.

    But that is no more being a critical thinker than evolution deniers are critical thinkers.

    Being a critical thinker means trying to be aware of your personal sympathies, and try to apply the same skepticism even when you sympathize with a cause. And I find that many who claim to be skeptics are just as dogmatic in their world view as those on the other side.

    About science: I love science. I claim that the scientific method is the only real way to gather high quality knowledge about our shared reality. It's a strong claim, I know.

    But I don't like it when people use arguments like "scientific consensus". Because that is making science into an authority, and then appealing to this authority. I hate that. Science gives us knowledge. And we should all appeal to this knowledge, and never to science itself.

    One important thing about science is that science never proves anything. Science is about gathering evidence that supports or falsifies a hypothesis, in order to build evidence based theories.

    Appealing to "scientific consensus" is in my mind not being a skeptic at all. Instead it makes a person easy prey to political manipulation and propaganda. If you think something is true because "it's scientific consensus", you are at the mercy of those who tell you this. It's dangerous.

    I'm sure I had more to say, but don't remember anything else right now. And by the way, I write all this because I care about science, and I care about what being a skeptic really means.

  3. Ukorrigert: Have you read Singh and Ernst's Trick or Treatment?

    Yes, in genereal there is little risk from chiropractic treatment (see here for a recent review by Edzard Ernst: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1742-1241.2010.02352.x/abstract)

    But these are the published cases, the tip of the iceberg. The risks wouldn't mean much if neck manipulation really had any true benefits for any condition, at least not for infantile colic, which Sing wrote about. Always remember the risk/benefit ration.

    Perhaps you are confusing philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_skepticism) I think most skeptics, including Simon Singh, subscribe to the latter position. Scientific skepticism is a method, not a position.

  4. "Scientific skepticism is a method, not a position. "

    Exactly. And what I criticize Singh for is defending a position, and not applying skepticism towards the results supporting his case.

    Look at your own statement: "But these are the published cases, the tip of the iceberg."

    This is taking position! This is speculation! And you write as it was a scientifically confirmed fact. It's not!

    What you (and Singh) are doing, is making conclusions based on superficial evidence. Just as bad as any quack who appeals to the positive results he or she knows about.

    I 100% agree with Singh on his criticism against UK label laws. I 100% support the demand that chiropractics should show scientific confirmation that their methods do what they claim.

    But I do not support the general attack against chiropractics that Singh has been engaged in.

    I 100% support science. But science is not about taking position or making superficial claims. Science is about good method that produces verifiable results, and then applying enough time for others to verify the results. It's this that makes science self correcting.

    So appealing to science, like the blog post do, is wrong. Scientific method does not guarantee truth. You need to apply enough time as well. Science is not an authority. The only authority are verified facts.

    When you understand that, maybe you also understand scientific skepticism, and where and why Signh crosses the line.