Earlier this month I had the privilege of attending The Skeptic’s Toolbox in Eugene at the University of Oregon. This annual workshop began in 1992 under the guidance of Professor Emeritus of Psychology Ray Hyman and the legendary magician Jerry Andrus. The workshop was started to give a field manual for skeptics and “given any situation or challenge, they could consult the manual for relevant information and coping strategies.” The atmosphere was very different than The Amaz!ng Meeting; the crowd was older but several young students were there. Many of the attendees were longtime regulars but everyone was welcoming to the newbies.
Unfortunately, I had to miss day 1 because of school and didn’t get to see Loren Pankratz’s keynote address on Alexis Didier who lived from 1826 to 1886 and was called the greatest psychic of his time. Even the magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (namesake of Harry Houdini) was unable to explain some of Didier’s tricks. After researching Didier, I was even more disappointed to miss the talk since there is a lack of information I can find that doesn’t come from a parapsychological angle. I also missed Harriet Hall’s lecture titled Uncertainty in Medicine, just showing up right after. From what I gathered the talk was similar to the one I heard at TAM (that she ‘recycled’ for SBM).
After that we broke up into groups for an assignment. Our group was mostly made of first-timers and the group project this year was more open ended than usual, but we eventually learned that it could be a presentation, skit, or comedy routine that somehow incorporated the theme of coping with uncertainty using probabilistically-challenged minds. The early conversations drifted into a wide range of topics from medical ethics to transplanting brains into robotic bodies. After lunch was Ray Hyman’s talk, Significance Testing and Science, an informative introduction to the statistics used in science. Our team met shortly after and began to flesh out an idea for our presentation.
Following dinner and a break we were treated to what tuned out to be my favorite lecture of the workshop: Human Limitations in Dealing with Probability from Jim Alcock, professor of psychology at York University. Alcock plainly spelled out many of the ways human intuition can mislead us when it comes to statistics, because “our brains have not evolved to deal with probabilities” and we use “cognitive shortcuts [that] leave us open to error.” I really enjoyed this talk, not just because of his spectacular slide show, because it ties into my academic studies and covers many of the topics in a book I’m currently reading, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Alcock demonstrated his concept of making mistakes from using the wrong model with a magic trick. He asked a volunteer to take a card, then was able to miraculously guess the card (a queen of clubs, if I recall correctly). His secret? All the cards in the deck were queens of clubs. Everyone in the audience unconsciously employed a model of a normal deck of cards in which a queen of clubs has a 1 in 52 (approximately 1.9%) chance of being drawn.
The next day began with a talk from journalist Lindsay Beyerstein, How the Media Stole Our Perennial Uncertainty about Nutrition. It was an inside look at the newspaper industry and the problems faced by science journalists (such as having a headline changed from “Energy Drinks: All Hyped Up” to “The Dangers of Energy Drinks”). I briefly majored in journalism, and am interested in food science and nutrition, so this talk was a real pleasure. One thing Beyerstein said that I thought was particularly insightful is that diet/nutrition is probabilistic. There is no single ingredient that will cure or cause a certain disease or ailment.
Our team met up again before lunch, and this time were joined by Ray Hyman himself. Though he distracted us from planning our presentation, he helped us figure out what was expected of our group and entertained us with his origin story of how he became involved in skepticism after working at a carnival reading palms. Hyman gave us a quick history of the Toolbox and his involvement with CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (since shortened to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry).
Returning from the lunch break, we heard the final presentation, Left Overs, which was just anything left over from the previous talks. Included in this was a lesson in cold reading from Ray Hyman himself. We all paired up and he gave us instructions for one of his methods called a “systematic scan.” Basically, it is sizing the person up; look at their clothing and accessories and see what that tells you about this person. My partner said I was rebellious and liked to buck authority, but that I was easy to read. Not many people wear studded bracelets and safety pins for earrings she said. We did an informal poll of the results judged by the person being read on a 100-point scale
Afterwards our group met again and finally nailed down a plan for the next day when our turn to present came around. We decided to share a way to connect all the topics visited over the weekend and come up with some ways of coping with inevitable uncertainty. Our group’s tech person would finish up the computer portions while the rest of us split up speaking duties. There was a break before the formal dinner and magic show and I used the time to explore the campus. I was a bit put off by all the Nike advertising but I did stumble onto the Eugene Pioneer Cemetery located right next to U of O. Smith Family Bookstore (pictured below) in downtown Eugene was recommended to me by Charles Wynn (whose book Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction I am planning on reading) and I was not disappointed; I found a Martin Gardner book for less than 10 dollars.
Following a somewhat formal dinner and plenty of wine, Harriet Hall used a “skeptical dowsing fork” to locate the winner of this year’s In the Trenches Award. The fork, in its infinite wisdom, chose Richard Wackrow, author of Who’s Winning the War on Terror. Then came the magic show. Ray Hyman did some rope tricks and a bit of mentalism and was followed by Jay Frasier who stole the show. His act mixed humor, sleight of hand, and escapism, and was very enjoyable.
Our team met early that morning for breakfast and to hash out our plans. We decided on a Prezi presentation (it can be found online here but an account may be required to view it) rather than PowerPoint. One group member began by explaining how the Alexis Didier talk relates to the broader concept of the workshop. I followed by summarizing Jim Alcock’s presentation on human liability. It wasn’t my best public speaking performance, but I stumbled my way through it. Another group member talked about how uncertainty in medicine and nutrition tie into the other topics. Our final presenter changed it up by asking the audience for suggestions and tips on coping with uncertainty. Many interesting points were made. The other groups came up with creative presentation as well, particularly group 1 that did an informal survey of all the attendees to determine rates of gun ownership versus meat-eating. The results were skewed by the presence of so many Canadians, they said. (I was one of two people in attendance who doesn’t own a gun and doesn’t eat meat!) Jay Diamond (who I had seen at TAM but didn’t actually meet until the Toolbox) of Reason4Reason and his group came up with a hilarious game show skit that pitted “Hy Rayman” against some parody of Deepak Chopra (I can’t recall the name they used) moderated by “Psi Sperling.”
I can see why some people return to the Skeptic’s Toolbox every year. The camaraderie was palpable. Chatting with skeptical heroes of mine like Ray Hyman and Jim Alcock was especially exciting for me as someone interested in psychology and skepticism. I only wish I could have had a chance to really pick their brains. I would highly suggest attending the Toolbox if you are interested in learning tools for critical thinking and methods of debunking pseudoscience and want to have a lot of fun in a friendly, intimate environment.