The 2013 edition of the Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium is now over. It was quite the whirlwind for me (for reasons that will become clear in the coming weeks). I met some amazing people, learned a lot about common scientific misconceptions, and felt a certain relief at being surrounded by a large group of people who similarly felt exhausted by the self-blinding behaviour of denialists and the uncritical hype generated by the over-eager media. Luckily, we had four surprisingly optimistic speakers (well, OK, three, with the fourth giving voice to our boiling resentment), who believe the fight against ignorance, misinformation, and irreproducible science can be won.
Here then are four “facts” I learned at this year’s symposium. (Dr. Schwarcz would frown at my definition of a fact, hence the quotation marks)
The best way to lose weight is to write a book about how you’re trying to lose weight. Timothy Caulfield wrote a fantastic book called The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness, and Happiness in which he calls upon the sciences of nutrition and exercise metabolism to figure out, among other things, how one can maintain one’s weight and whether or not it is even possible to lose weight permanently. He writes that one of his regular snacks was a muffin, for which he was appalled to find out the calorie count reached 750. Timothy told me that, when he was giving a talk at McMaster University after the publication of his book, he was eating a muffin when a reader of his book walked by and went, “A-HA!”. With that kind of scrutiny, no wonder he has managed to keep off the pounds since then.
Criticizing one scientist’s research can get you fired; criticizing an entire field gets you an academic position and hundreds of international collaborators. I was lucky enough that I got to meet and talk to the “rock star” that is Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis, who walked by my table and didn’t run the other way when I told him I was a big fan. I was curious to know why he thought he had managed to hold on to an academic position at Stanford and become so well respected when it seemed all he keeps writing about is how poorly other people’s research is done. He told me he believes that, since he never criticizes a single work but rather an entire field (such as genetics or psychology), researchers tend not to take his analyses as personal attacks. Dr. Ioannidis went on to repeat the same thing he had said at the conference I attended a few months back at the Jewish General Hospital: “I am still a learner.” An incredibly humble man doing some of the most critical science around. My hat’s off to him (and his enormous team).
The only way to convince ideology-driven denialists is not to shovel more facts at their feet but to better understand the consequences they face to accepting those facts. Dr. Eugenie Scott has been fighting the good fight—making sure evolution and not religion is taught in biology classrooms—for nearly thirty years. She has learned a thing or two about dealing with people who keep their fingers in their ears. “We found fossils of transitional species”. La-LA-LA! “We reconciled the chromosome number discrepancy between humans and great apes”. LA-LA-LA! “We see evolution happening with the stickleback fish”. LA-LA-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU! As Dr. Scott found out, facts don’t help these people come around: they stand to lose too much by changing their tune. If the Bible got speciation wrong, where else did it falter? That’s why Dr. Scott favours working with moderate believers, like Dr. Ken Miller, who accept evolution and still remain practising Christians. Hard-core conservatives are more likely to listen to someone with whom they have much in common than someone they perceive as the Enemy.
And, sometimes, you need to vent. Michael Specter, staff writer for The New Yorker, opened the symposium with a long rant punctuated by plosive assaults on his microphone. He voiced our collective anger at denialism: “denial writ large—when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie” (from his book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives). The anecdote that stuck with me was that members of PETA angrily called for the resignation of their leader, Ingrid Newkirk, after she dared to say that synthetic or artificial meat would be a win-win for everyone. According to the more lunatic animal lovers of the organization, even indulging in lab-grown food that tastes like animals is a sin against Mother Earth. Not that Specter portrays Newkirk as a martyr. She is, after all, the woman who once took a guide dog away from its blind owner because it was living as a “servant”.
It was an enlightening symposium and a fantastic two days for me. A much deserved acknowledgement to Emily Shore, from McGill’s Office for Science & Society, who organized the event and who did a lot of work on my behalf (more on that in the coming weeks). Dr. Joe Schwarcz asked for suggestions for next year’s theme. How about hearing from physicists on the (supposed) danger of Wi-Fi? More and more schools are banning wireless Internet signals for fear they cause bodily harm. The evidence? Non-existing. How about “Wi-Fear the Wi-Fi: Waves and Their Misconceptions”? See you next year!
(Oh, fifth thing I learned: the Montréal Science Centre holds an exhibit called Truth or Lie? Unraveling Fact from Fiction, which is open until March 9, 2014. Symposium attendees were given a 2-for-1 ticket discount valid until December 15. Dr. Eugenie Scott stepped away from her carefully constructed schedule to go see it—because even scientists can be surreptitious—and she says it’s really worth a visit. Go check it out!)