I had a teeny tiny notebook with me at TAM, and looking back through my hastily scribbled notes, I have some distinct but scattered thoughts. A few of them link together, and I want to write up a post about the overlap of skepticism and atheism and atheist activism, but first I want to tease out some of my other scribbles into paragraphs (incidentally, my Dad calls everything I write my “scribblings”).
The feminism thing – stay outraged, pick your battles, and support others’ battles
I enjoyed TAM a lot, and forgot really to think about the feminism thing (or maybe I was semi-consciously avoiding it), until Pamela Gay’s talk. She actually has a whole transcript of her talk on her blog, but the gist of it is, DO something! She also talked about the issue of women in the scientific and skeptic community. It was a strong and brave talk, and I was watching her closely, thinking if I were giving it I would be shaking, not from fear but from the sheer strength of emotion it was obvious she was channelling. But this was the bit that really got to me:
Use your social media to advocate for those who are doing good. When you see a problem that pisses you off, find out who is already fighting the fight, and support them. Highlight the issues, and then support the solution. And when something pisses you off, and you don’t see that fighter to support, do like Elyse did and start your own grass roots movement that fights to fix the problems and ignorances that plague our society.
My thing about feminism is this: I get outraged, but it’s not the battle I choose. And I’ve felt really guilty about that in the past couple of weeks – but what I realised is that I don’t have to fight the battle, as in, I don’t have to be-all and know-all about it, but when I’m outraged, I CAN support those who ARE doing something about it. This might sound lazy or non-committal, so let me explain further. Does hunger in Africa upset you? It does me. But are you doing something, really doing something about it? Maybe you are, but I’ll bet the large majority of you are not, and nether am I. And that’s fine, it really is, just as long as you are upset enough to support those who are doing something.
What I’m trying to say is, we can’t all work to fix everything. We have to pick our battles, and be good enough at it that people will support us. And in return, we will support those strongly fighting other battles that we ourselves can’t, either because of time, resources, skill, experience, or a myriad other things. Of course, we have to be smart enough to go beyond our initial outrage and do enough research to figure out if we’re really supporting sensible battles, or else we might end up supporting something dumb like the anti-vax movement!
Physicians are not scientists
Now, forgive me, but I didn’t write down the sources of a lot of my scribblings, which makes me a bad journalist. But I believe it was someone on ‘The Truth About Alternative Medicine’ panel, who made this stunning but true revelation to me: physicians are not scientists. Which is why we end up with folks like Dr Oz who gobble up and spew out pseudoscience at a frightening rate (and reach). A further point was made that was an “ahhhh” moment for me: alternative medicine proponents who do admit a large part of its success is due to the placebo effect and patient face time still say “well, isn’t that a good reason to do it?” No, no it isn’t, and the panel member said here’s why: if Big Pharma said that about a new drug, would they be allowed to sell it? No they would not. So we demand real efficacy from our drugs but not from our miracle cures?
A phrase you’ll hear a lot is “health freedom.” But it’s not freedom to choose they really care about – it’s freedom from those pesky rules of scientific testing, efficacy and safety controls, and freedom from the responsibility if it doesn’t work, or something goes wrong.
The sapphire hard drive
During a live taping of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe the team talked about something that was touted in the press as an everlasting hard drive. It’s not really a hard drive – it doesn’t store computer data, but it can be engraved with thousands of pages of words and numbers and can last a million years. And it’s made of sapphire. This made me sigh happily – I am unashamedly obsessed with this kind of thing – of the far future, when we are gone and some deeply different civilization exists. The “hard drive” is an idea for warning these cultures of the dangers of nuclear waste which we will inevitably bury somewhere. The idea of leaving messages for the deep future is a concept I’ve revelled in since I was in high school, and came up with an idea that I still want to write as a novel. One day. Thanks sapphire hard drive for reminding me of it and making me enthralled again.
Incidentally, I think Vegas would make an awesome post-apocalyptic landscape. And no, I’m not talking about f-ing zombies (I am so done with zombies, sorry). But it’s so shiny, so clean (cosmetically, not morally), so excessive that I feel like it would be the first to be abandoned in a global catastrophe. Imagine it then, sitting there quiet and dark for a change in the middle of a dust storm. Beautiful!
Can science inform morals?
In a particularly brain-straining talk titled “From Particles to People: The Laws of Physics and the Meaning of Life,” Sean Carroll talked about how we know what makes up the universe. He then tried to link it to morality, which can seem a little obtuse, but this is what I think he was basically trying to say: the universe has no pre-defined path or way of being, it does not demand that certain moralities are true, and therefore morality is a social structure created by humans, which is constantly developing. Which is as it should be: basically, thinking that an outside agent has asserted our morals is wrong. At least, I think that’s what he was trying to say.
Neuroscience is frikkin’ cool
There were a few excellent brain-type talks that are all muddled together in my mind (since memory is infinitely fallible), but I do remember a couple of neat snippets.
- Cute works across species and into inanimate objects. teddy bears used to look like adult bears, then they got cuter. But, infants actually prefer the adult-looking bears, as they’re the ones that look more likely to nurture them. This switches over somewhere around 7 years old, when the urge to nurture cute things kicks in.
- We are perfectly happy with the idea of copying or transporting things and that they will be exactly the same as the original. We are even comfortable that our bodies would be copied and be exactly the same. But not our minds. And this discomfort is also experienced by children, who are quite happy to say a hamster’s body and a marble in his belly can be copied, but not that the hamster is the same little guy, that has a name and knows the kid’s name.
- Optical illusions are so cool, and I have no idea how you can make them, but arts people, they get that more. Also, two of the coolest ones we got shown were how to find your blind spot (and how your brain fills in the gap for you) and how the brain just craves patterns so much it will make order out of chaos. These are two very important illusions to remember when thinking about how people “see” things that can’t really be there, and how people see patterns and correlations that are simply not there.