Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Thirteenth Meeting of the Skeptics' Circle: A Change is in the air

"Something's in the air," said Brent. He was sitting, along with other assorted in a dark, wood-paneled meeting room in the back of a familiar old tavern frequented by scholars and scientists, the smell of beer and brats mixing with the musty odor of the old wood paneling.

"What do you mean?" Orac looked up from his beer at the host of the most recent meeting of the Skeptics Circle just two weeks ago. He had enjoyed the western theme, although he still hadn't quite been able to figure out why Brent had made him show up in a western saloon in his scrubs, surgical hat, and booties. Somehow it just didn't fit with the Old West ambience. (Did they even have booties 125 years ago? Orac would have rather shown up dressed like Doc Cochran.) For his second turn at hosting, Orac had decided to return to the scene of the crime of the second meeting of the Skeptics' Circle (even though he realized he risked repeating himself too closely). But there was a purpose to his returning to the Circle's roots. Brent was right. Something was up. Orac even knew what it was that was actually going on. He had been sworn to secrecy, though, and hoped Brent wouldn't push the issue.

"Yep, sump'n's definitely up," Brent repeated to no one in particular, draining his beer and asking for another (and apparently reverting back to his old west persona from two weeks ago).

"Well, you know what they say about the number thirteen, and this is our thirteenth meeting." Orac couldn't resist baiting Brent with a comment that would provoke any member of the Circle worth his or her salt to start expounding upon why belief in such silly numerology supersition was utter crap, but for some reason Brent didn't rise to the bait.

Members of the Circle were slowly filtering in, and a low hum of conversation and debate was rising. Skeptics by and large tend not to be the most punctual lot, but the senior members had been emphasizing that this would be an important meeting; so by 9 PM sharp, everyone was there (and well on the way to running up an impressive bar tab) when St. Nate, Founder, proprietor and organizer of the Circle walked in. Indeed, a couple of newbies were there, too, shifting nervously in their seats, uncertain what would be expected of them. They would not have long to wait.

"Hi, everyone," said Nate, although Mark, the next scheduled host for the Circle, could not help but notice that he seemed at once subdued and elated, if that were possible. Nate took his place behind the podium and began: "Welcome one and all to what will be a very eventful meeting! You'd think from the fact that we're back here in this musty bar again that Orac must really like this place." A low murmur of chuckles arose; everyone knew this was Orac's favorite hangout. "But, on with the meeting!" Cheers arose, as everyone lifted their glasses in what had become the tradition first chug that signified the official start of the meeting (at least when Orac hosted).

Orac wiped the beer foam off of his upper lip. He had expected Nate to go on for a little while longer, allowing him to finish his brew! "First, I'd like to thank you all for coming," he said, taking his place behind the podium. It's been a half a year since Nate got the ball rolling, and in that time our little Circle has grown and become quite the event! I want you all to give yourselves a round of applause for your hard work!"

The Circle did just that.

"Next," he continued, "let's all raise a glass to our favorite fictional engineer, a character whose resourcefulness and prowess were inspirations to entire generations of geeks like me. Alas, James Doohan (a.k.a. 'Scotty') died yesterday."

Everyone bowed their heads for a moment of silence, then, in Doohan's honor, broke out the scotch.

Orac continued, "The last time I hosted, it was winter, and the big issue was a New York Times article by Michael Behe pushing "intelligent design" creationism. We all had a great time ripping it to shreds. This time around, there's a new pseudoscience in town, antivaccination pseudoscience. Believe it or not, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., of all people, is one of the big ones pushing the paranoid conspiracy theory that the CDC, WHO, and drug companies are all in cahoots to 'cover up' a link between mercury and autism. (I'm still taking heat from activists for the posts I made showing how weak the evidence for this 'link' is!) There was even a march on Washington yesterday by advocacy groups trying to get money out of the government on the basis of this fallacy. We touched on it a bit last meeting, but there was a boatload of interest in it for this meeting; so I'm going to lead off with it. Skeptico?"

Skeptico strode confidently to the podium. "Did you know that aliens at a pharmaceutical company are plotting to take over the world through vaccines? Really, they are. Just ask Ray Gallup!" He then went on to regale the Circle with the tale of a really bad novel about just this topic, leaving them in stitches. When the Circle had regained its composure and stopped laughing, Alyric pointed out that some of those pushing a dubious mercury-autism link were pushing the antithesis of science and skeptical thinking called "democratic objectivity," as if objective scientific knowledge were subject to opinion.

"Well, what do you expect," chimed in Citizen Cain, "given the way 'journalists' like David Kirby flub the California data and twist it to make it seem to support the supposed link between mercury in vaccines and autism."

"Yeah," added Autism Diva, "it's shameless the way they misrepresent that data! Of course, they also take animal data and claim that giving mice thimerosal-containing vaccines produces autistic mice. Never mind that they never explain just what the heck an autistic mouse is and forget to mention that even the behaviors they describe in these mice do not resemble autistic behavior! Next, they'll be claiming they have Rain Mouse."

Next, Kevin Leitch approached the podium to take his turn. "I've written a letter to a chelationist named Dr. Rashid Buttar, who claims that he has a cream that can transdermally chelate mercury and cure autism. Please allow me to read it here." And he did. And it was devastating, particularly this part: "Blimey! You’re one busy guy! Cures for autism, cancer and even old age! Now, I know many people would find this suspicious but not me. Anything that says they can ‘reshape my body’ without exercise or diet gets my vote! Can I still drink beer?"

"Of course," Orac said. "In fact, let's have another round for everyone!"

The Circle roared its appreciation.

"I'd like to have one more talk on this topic, if you'll indulge me," said Orac. "I found this guy, and he's good. I think we should let him in. You'll see why. His name is Prometheus."

Prometheus slowly, tentatively approached the podium. "As I have mentioned before, the more I look into the various autism-related 'alternative' hypotheses and therapies, the more amazed I become. And not amazed in a good way. 'Appalled' might be a better choice of words – occasionally 'disturbed' and 'disgusted' are appropriate choices, as well." He then launched into a blistering attack of how two of the biggest "scientists" pushing a link between mercury and autism go dumpster-diving in the VAERS database, producing a "garbage in, garbage out" result.

"Kind of like the folks who claim there had to have been a massive conspiracy to steal the 2000 election," said Jeff.

"You have a point, but just because a massive conspiracy probably wasn't necessary, that doesn't mean that the 2000 election actually was stolen," Nate couldn't resist pointing out. (He tended to prefer to keep the Circle relatively apolitical in the wake of some unpleasantness that occurred a few months ago.)

You know," whispered, Orac to Kevin and Nate, "this Prometheus guy's alright." The Circle agreed. Orac continued, "And this looks like a very good segue to my personal favorite topic, quackery."

"You know, of course," said Michelle, "that the boys of summer wear titanium necklaces. They really believe it helps their play."

"Yeah," laughed Skeptico, "hard to believe, isn't it?"

"Sports is such a ripe area for quackery," added Radagast, "just look at all the quackery and ridiculous claims out there involving exercise equipment!"

Lord Runolfr
, always one of the more flamboyant members of the Circle in his medieval garb, couldn't help but point out, laughing, "That stuff reminds me of homeopathic Similesin, ineffective, but probably harmless."

"Or quantum touch," chimed in Beajerry, "just a repackaging of therapeutic touch, something that even an 11-year-old can debunk!"

"They're not harmless," hissed Orac. "They trick people who don't have the medical or scientific background to see through the fraud and delay their seeking effective treatment."

"Just like Adam Dreamhealer," added Anne. "He's even got newspapers writing glowing pieces about him. It just burns me up."

"At least with something like the question of whether Vitamin E can protect against heart disease, randomized double-blind trials can answer the question once and for all," said Skeptico. "People might even believe the results. But with this stuff, no matter what the science shows, believers will never accept it."

"In that, there is much about this sort of quackery that reminds me of creationism," said Orac, "which is as good an excuse to move on to one of my other favorite topics. You might think that, once indoctrinated into such beliefs, creationists can't be shown what real science is. But you'd be wrong--fortunately. That's why I'd like to introduce Matt."

Matt (a.k.a. Pooflinger) approached the podium, smiling. "You're going to like this," he said. "Let me tell you why I dumped young earth creationism and how it got me into loads of trouble with my teachers in the fourth grade." He then went into a hilarious tale, all vividly accompanied with wild gesticulations, of how, at a very tender age, he put his teachers on the spot about the creationism they were trying to teach him, concluding, "If you are a creationist with a skeptical child, you had better come up with a cohesive explanation for the world and not ever vary your answers. Otherwise, you'll end up with more kids just like me. Scary thought. If a couple of 'lost sheep' don't concern you, may I remind you that someone like me, once we turn from your illusions, dedicate our time to flinging turds at them everywhere we can. Under the weight of enough feces, any structure will eventually collapse."

The Circle gave him a standing ovation.

"No wonder he calls himself the Pooflinger," observed Orac drily. "Of course, that is often what we do as skeptics, metaphorically speaking, of course. Indeed, as a skeptic, I've been called worse, as no doubt all of you have too."

"I wonder if I could get him to fling some poo at the federal scientists thinking of shooting a bunch of barred owls in a rather dubious experiment to 'protect' spotted owls," said Mike.

"Nice," interjected PZ. "But I still have a bone to pick with you, Orac. You laid this article by Frederick Turner on me about the three sins I supposedly committed as an 'evolutionist,' and I had to demolish it. Why do you send me this stuff by such idiots?"

"Because you're so good at eviscerating their idiocy, of course, which is why I sent it to you in the first place. You did it so nicely in your usual inimitable style," said Orac, ducking. (PZ could be pretty rambunctious when provoked.) "Also, I figured the whole 'evolution=atheism' angle would get your attention. And it did. But fortunately young earth creationism is, for the most part, a thing of the past, at least as far as serious threats to the teaching of evolution go. What we really have to worry about is its bastard offspring, 'intelligent design,' where creationists say that lie must have been 'designed,' butgo through all sorts of logical contortions to claim that they don't mean God when they refer to a 'designer.'"

"Right you are," said Jan. "They just can't help themselves, lying about Darwin and trying to claim the mantle of science when they don't deserve it."

"The funniest thing about 'intelligent design' advocates" added J. M. O'Donnell, "is that they refuse to acknowledge the logical conundrum that their claims produce when they go through their usual contortions to deny that when they say 'designer,' what they really mean is 'God.'"

"It doesn't help how badly the media covers the whole debate," said Archy.

"Of course, it's disturbing that one religion that once accepted evolution without all this ID-iocy appears to be wavering," said Michael.

"Oh, I don't think that the Cardinal's op-ed piece was as big a victory for 'intelligent design' advocates as they would like to claim," said Orac. "But time is running short (and we're going to have to pay more if we run too late), so let's move on. What would a meeting of the Circle be without some good old-fashioned paranormal debunking. Mark?"

Mark, who will be hosting the Circle in two weeks' time, couldn't wait to provide a little taste of the sort of old-fashioned skepticism he'd like to see during his turn. So he weaved a tale of a haunted mansion in Massachusetts and the hilarious 'arcs of light' used as 'evidence' that there were ghosts there. He even included PowerPoint slides of some of the 'light anomalies' that looked to everyone else like bad photography. Calling Peter Venkman!

"Heh," said Nate, "those 'light anomalies' look like nothing more than just bad photography!"

"And on that note," said Orac, "I want to introduce our Founder, who has an announcement to make. However, first I have a little slideshow."

Orac launched into a multimedia slideshow and video show. These included highlights from some of everyone's favorite St. Nate moments, including "The Oft-quoted Charles E. Popplestone," "Quantum Rocks," "Alternative Ire," and "Modern Day Alchemists." He concluded with hilarious (and profoundly embarrassing) out-takes from Nate's hosting of the First Skeptics' Circle. When he finished, there was a brief moment of ponderous silence, during which nothing could be heard except the clinking of glasses and a random burp. It was as though the Circle was not quite sure whether more was coming or not, and when they realized Orac was finished, they erupted in applause.

"And, now, I give you St. Nate," bellowed Orac with a flourish.

Nate approached the podium to applause that echoed throughout the structure, shaking the floor, and temporarily drowning out the bad rap music coming from the main room of the bar. "Thank you everyone," he began. He then launched into an amusing discussion of the conspiracy theorists who believe that the moon landing was a hoax, very appropriate, given the recent anniversary of the first moon landing. After he finished his story, to the appreciation of the assembled Circle, he started hesitantly, "As Orac mentioned, I have an announcement. But first let me take the opportunity to thank all of you for your support and fine blogging!"

Here it comes, thought Orac.

"Unfortunately," continued Nate, "I've come to a difficult decision." He paused, suddenly uncertain. "I think it is the right decision, but it's not a happy decision." The Circle was silent, with their complete attention focused on their Founder. "Due to personal and professional reasons, I've decided to give up blogging. That means I can no longer continue as the President of the Skeptics' Circle."

And there it goes, thought Orac. The circle sat there, stunned. Before they could react, Nate continued, "I don't do this lightly, I assure you. I will host the 18th Carnival of the Godless, as I promised, and after that, on July 25, I will post my last blog entry. After that, I will turn the reigns of the Skeptics' Circle over to the capable hands of Orac, who has agreed to take over after my departure from the blogosphere. It's been a pleasure and an honor to work with so many distinguished experts throughout the internet. While I am stepping out of the blogosphere, I will keep up on the Skeptics' Circle."

"Thank you all, and keep critically thinking."

Here we go, thought Orac, as he approached the podium. "Like you," he said, "I was very sad to learn of St. Nate's intent to depart the blogosphere. However, he has told me his reasons, and I think I understand. He offered this to me because of my early support for the Circle. I have to admit that I hesitated a while before accepting, because of the high bar that has been set. In the end, however, I decided that I would give it my best shot. Little will change initially, but, over time, and with your help, I hope to build on the work Nate did to get this going. After all, he did the heavy lifting to get this organized; I only hope to keep it moving on an upward trajectory. But I'll need your help to pull it off. Our most pressing immediate need is for more hosts. Nate's done a great job of picking hosts and of lining up more hosts through the end of August, but I'd like to have hosts scheduled at least a couple of months further in the future if I can. So, please, especially those of you who haven't hosted before, now's the time to step up to the plate and show us your best stuff. And the rest of you, help me out by continuing to produce the same high quality skeptical blogging you've been doing all along!"

The Circle broke out into excited chatter at this news.

"Last call" shouted the bartender. Both Orac and Nate took this opportunity to leave the podium and plunge into the crowd, mingling, shaking hands, taking both farewells and congratulations. As usual, the Circle broke up into smaller groups and continued its boisterous fellowship and debate more informally. Over the next couple of hours, members filtered out one by one, until there remained only Nate, Orac, and the next host Mark.

"You know," said Nate, " you don't know what you're getting into."

"I'm afraid I'll find that out soon enough, although I'm looking forward to the challenge" replied Orac. "You'll be around for a while for advice?"

"Yeah. For a while, anyway," replied Nate. "By the way," he continued, "you told me you had a really bitchin' idea for how you were going to host this time around? I understand that it probably wouldn't have worked for such a somber occasion, but what was it?"

"You know, you would have made a good Ken Jennings. And that's all you're going to get me to say about my original idea. Period."

Note from Orac: Thanks to all the contributors to and supporters of the Skeptics' Circle, past and present. I'll be posting more next week on how things will be run. There won't be much in the way of changes for now, as Nate's already done the heavy lifting to get this thing off the ground and running smoothly. However, it's inevitable that I'll be making some tweaks over the next several weeks or months to try to make it even better, even if it means (gasp!) I have to blog less on my own main site. In the meantime, the next host will be Be Lambic or Green and the next meeting will be August 4. Oh, and if anyone hosting a blog carnival figures out what my original gimmick was going to be and wants to use it, do me a favor and at least give me props.

5 example(s) of insolence returned:

At 7/21/2005 2:13 PM, Blogger MichaelBains said...

Talk about Presentation! That was awesome! And it must be shared.

Kudos to St. Nate for handing off one of the most Intelligent bloggin' concepts I've yet to discover.

Now to the links! LOL!


At 7/22/2005 1:58 AM, Blogger Kev said...

Great read, thanks to Nate and Orac for starting and continuing respectibely.


At 7/22/2005 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Based on this tale alone, I think you're going to make a great host!


At 7/23/2005 2:46 AM, Blogger Autism Diva said...

Nicely done, and no small feat.



At 8/04/2005 1:35 AM, Blogger xiangtao said...

I'd just like to add my own small bit of applause for my brother the pooflinger for getting himself included in this great little online gathering.


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