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NECSS 2012

This weekend was spent at a conference on science and secularism in Manhattan. It was held by a number of atheist/skeptical/secular/ethical groups I've been trying to familiarise myself with over my time in NYC. I didn't see many people I've seen before in this one; it seems to be mostly a regional one with only a bit of a population from outside the greater-NYC area. Still, it was pretty nice.

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Let's go over the schedule, for more detailed commentary:


  • John Bohannon - Dance your PhD - This was a lot of fun; he talked about how his project started, and showed some of his videos while talking about its history. Light humour.
  • Deborah Feldman - Unorthodox - She was raised in the Satmar sect of Chasidic Judaism in NYC, and managed to leave the group and build a new life in secular America; she told her story and talked about her adjustment. After her presentation I asked her about her experiences with secular jewish culture (she apparently has had very little), and followed it up with a conversation (with her and another person who had left the Chasidim) about identity and politics. This was a great presentation and a good conversation afterwards (conversation actually happened later in the day)
  • James Randi et al - Skeptic's Guide to the Universe - This was a live podcast. It was okay; it wasn't as interesting as I hoped, but I liked the bit at the end where they presented 3 possible facts and asked us all to pick out the fake one. I got it wrong, but the crowd was pretty split over it.
  • (Lunch - failed to get company, ate alone at a salad place)
  • Debbie Berebichez - A look at the world through Physics Glasses - I unfortunately missed most of this because I was talking with Deborah, but the bits I caught I rather liked; it was about science education.
  • (Panel) - Critical Thinking Education - This was a really insightful panel on the process of learning critical thinking; basically the whole crowd considered themselves self-taught skeptics, and it was interesting hearing people's stories about how education can help inspire critical thinking in more people. Meghan Groome's experiences teaching evolution to children with strong anti-science religious backgrounds were neat; she taught the material as a topic to be tested-on, and with the understanding that the kids don't *have* to accept evolution as truth, her classroom was a centre for a type of critical learning that sounds very active. The other presenters were similarly engaging
  • Ethan Brown - (Magic show) - I missed this due to another conversation
  • James Randi - Surviving the Quacks! - Missed this too, mostly, due to same conversation. This might've had a magic show in it.
  • (walked down to "Drinking Skeptically", took about 40 minutes, good exercise)
  • Drinking Skeptically - I had a few good conversations, but sleep debt sent me home pretty early.
Today (Sunday):
  • Slept in a bit because I was pretty exhausted
  • PZ Myers - Cephalaporn - I arrived late to this, catching the last half. Instead of being saucy (or fake-saucy, which PZ sometimes is on his blog), this was a really good lecture on phenotypic and genotypic diversity. I already understood most of this stuff, but it's also a topic that always gets me pretty excited (Genetics is one of those topics I probably could devote my life to happily).
  • Joe Nickell - Investigating Strange Mysteries - He's an investigator at CSICOP, a skeptical organisation that investigates claims of the paranormal, and talked about his experience investigating a mystery and talking about fingerprints. Great lecture. I was amused at his little jab at the way we normally talk about bunk; he prefers language that's more friendly and neutral, because often while debunking (or whatever term he prefers) we find new things about local environments when people make honest (but deep) mistakes. He has a point; he gave an example of people mistaking some cool follow-the-leader behaviour by known animals as some mythological larger animal in areas with poor light. I don't entirely agree, but it's interesting to think about
  • Massimo/Galef/Johnson - Rationally Speaking Live - A live podcast that Julia Galef, Massimo Pigliucci (whom I've met in a meetup he runs), and David Johnson run (normally not live). This was pretty decent; it was on the Simulation Hypothesis (which I've written about a few times before on my blog, I think), and later on theodicity. There were more than a few times I think things wern't being adequately addressed where I wish I had been on the panel, but that's the sign of a good philosophy conversation, not a bad one.
  • (Lunch - had a nice sandwich with two people I've met through meetups who were at the conference, good conversation)
  • George Hrab - How nonbelievers deal with loss - This was incredible. Hrab has a good sense of how people worked and how the hyper-rationalist models of human nature are flawed, and talked about his efforts of dealing with loss of people and pets close to him. I think this is important, both directly as a topic and as a humanising topic for the group; I don't want us losing touch of the emotional and community needs that people have. This was my favourite presentation at the conference.
  • Kevin Slavin - Algorithms - (I am not sure why, but I don't remember this presentation; might've been out-of-the-room for another conversation)
  • Hai-Ting Chinn - (Singing quotes) - She's an opera singer (whom I met a week or two ago at Massimo's philosophy gathering), and sang some quotes on science and skepticism and performed a skit. It was pretty funny and enjoyable.
  • (Panel) - Futurism - This was probably the most complicated part of the conference, because of the unusual views of one of the three people on the panel. The panel as a whole was about futurism; what it means to be a futurist and how we can best look at future trends and events in human society. Julia Galef moderated the panel, and added Massimo (her co-blogger) to the panel at the last minute; joining them were Scott Armstrong and Michael Rodgers. Michael Rodgers talked about futurism as journalism and inspiration, Massimo did a philosophical-scientific defense of traditional academia and expertise, and Scott Armstrong made that defense necessary. What I mean by that is that Scott pushes, as his life's work, a particular type of prediction (which is probably fine-in-itself as one useful tool), but is also dismissive of expertise and academia, claiming his tool is much stronger. Initially, I got the strong impression that he's a crank, but as the panel went on, I began to wonder if he's just presenting his ideas very badly; there's a tension in philosophy of science between an emphasis on theory and an emphasis on data, and we can imagine different ways of doing science, one focusing almost exclusively on studies and "data mining", the other on experiments and deep meaning. I am pretty hostile to his dismissal of academia, but his actual methods might have some validity as an extreme form of the former. It would've been interesting to use it to start a deeper discussion on philosophy of science, external and internal validity, and the like, but that couldn't happen with the main topic being futurism; there was considerable friction between members of the community, and Armstrong got unhappy when he saw how badly his ideas (or presentation of them) were going down. If I were interested enough, I'd look more into what he's written; right now I'd peg him as somewhere near the margins of good science rather than a true crank if I had to guess, but my certainty is low (and his highly unorthodox views on many current issues that he sprinkled his talk with point towards crank)
  • Brian Wecht - Controversies in Modern Particle Physics - Wecht is a researcher in particle physics, and talked about three big questions where there is not yet a scientific consensus in that field. This was generally far above my head, but he did a reasonably good job at trying to give enough background for us to vaguely understand the controversies. Enjoyable brain-stretching.
Afterwards, I grabbed dinner with a few folk at an East-Asian fusion place, where we had a discussion on tactics, factions, and advertising; my hopes to see all advertising by corporations banned didn't go over all that well, but it was spicy and respectful.

Moving back to general impressions and thoughts:

  • There was a bit more nickel-and-diming than I was happy with, with a bit of pressure to buy raffle tickets or mementos or things
  • If I am going to find a philosophy circle here to meet my intellectual needs, chances are I'm going to need to actually gather it myself. I'm hoping for weekly meetings, ideally without any person at the centre of discussion; Massimo's group is nice (and I do intend to keep going to that), but it's definitely *his* group, not the group's group. He doesn't stop others from talking, but he gets to talk first. I get the impression that we actually have fairly similar worldviews in philosophy, and I do respect him, but I need something that's more equal (and more frequent).
  • I'm going to try to volunteering with CFI.
  • There are people I met at the conference whom I'll definitely try to see again.
  • Saw Neil DeGrasse Tyson briefly; he attended some talks incognito and ninja'd out of the conference afterwards.

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It's finally raining in NYC, but unfortunately it's a very cold rain. I'm also still hobbling from the combined effect of a rough discipline in trying to get back into barefoot running and build foot pads rapidly, and my new shoes, both of which are rough on feet in different ways. My introvert-version social batteries are pretty drained, and I don't have the luxury of being entirely reclusive tomorrow to recharge, eep.

The conference has me regretting the low-profile I've kept over the years; I'm not interested in being a star, per-se, but being more known and taking part in philosophy panels would be nice, and maybe having a better-known blog would expose me to more members in the secular blogging community and lead to more conversations. I'd probably need to split my personal life into a separate blog to make that more possible, and maybe go over topics in a more systemic way rather than just blog on whatever's been on my mind recently. I've generally hoped that my blog is interesting and provocative and might fling a few ideas into the heads of people who read it regularly, but I've been pretty lazy about it, and I can do better if I give it more attention. Certainly better than Eliezer, haha. Still thinking about whether I should do this; my blog fills a pretty complex role in my mental life.