A skeptical tour of the East Coast of USA.

Sorry for my lack of blogging of late. I am away from home, flitting about the East Coast of the USA for a series of talks and conferences, covering science communication, scepticism, and science. I have already done Dragon*Con which was amazing, Vanderbilt Uni at NashIMG_5621ville, NECSS in NYC and am currently on a bus (with wifi) to Boston to do SiTP and a talk at Harvard Medical School. We are currently speeding through New England on the Interstate 90, on the outskirts NYC (see the pic left) on the awesome BoltBus!*

I was thrilled to be a speaker at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) in NYC on Saturday September 12. A joint effort of New York City Skeptics (NYCS) and The New England Skeptical Society (NESS), NECSS was a huge success. The one day conference was a sell out with over 400 people attending and many people turned away at the door. It’s hard to believe that in a town of over 9 million people, the NYCS are only 2 years old. But, based on the success of Saturday’s conference, a skeptical group in NYC is certainly something that the city wants. The line-up was stellar and featured Professor Paul Ofitt, Richard Wiseman, George Hrab, the SGU team doing a live podcast, Carl Zimmer, John Rennie, John Snyder and many others all overseen and slickly mc’eed by Jamy Ian Swiss.


SGU are joined live on stage for Q&A by Paul Offit and Jamy Ian Swiss

The day kicked off with a talk from Paul Offit, the director of the education centre at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, author of “Autism’s False Prophets“, “Vaccinated” and the co-inventor of the vaccine for rotavirus. Paul talked about the public perception of vaccines as a result of the campaign by the anti-vaxers including Jenny McCarthy, in the USA. (See what they have to say about him here at pauloffit.com).

I was on a panel discussing Skepticism and Media with John Snyder, pediatrician and contributor to the Science Based Medicine blog, and Howard Schneider, journalist and academic at Stony Brook College. Our esteemed moderator was John Rennie recently retired editor-in-chief for Scientific American magazine and a recipient of the Carl Sagan award for the public understanding of science. Rennie also penned one of the most downloaded articles for Scientific American called “15 answers to creationist nonsense” in 2002 (I interviewed John for the Zone – listen to upcoming episodes for full details John’s work). We were invited to give a brief overview of our involvement with the media with an emphasis on conveying skeptical information, then John Rennie opened up the panel for discussion. John Snyder spoke about the damage of “false balance” in journalism and whilst balance is important in most stories, when it comes to giving a platform to anti-vaxers, it can do more harm than good.


L-R: Me, John Snyder and Howard Schneider. We were later joined by Carl Zimmer.

Naturally Howard came to the defence of journalists, by asserting that it is not their responsibility to educate the public, rather the public should research the information presented to them to determine where the truth lies. This was where things began to get feisty and interesting!

According to audience members, it was during Howard’s presentation that I was apparently shaking my head and indicating to John Rennie that I has something to say. On the topic of false balance, I suggested to Howard that if he was to do a piece on the Holocaust deniers, he would not get an opinion from a holocaust denier, not would a journo consider a flat-earther a legitimate part of a science based story.

This discussion was in response to John Snyder’s presentation about the NBC Dateline piece on Andrew Wakefield, “A Dose of Controversy” that had recently aired in the USA. This credulous piece by Matt Lauer and co., gave substantial air time to the discredited scientist and his quackery for autism, including invasive techniques such as colonoscopies on children for which there is no evidence of a benefit. John and I asserted to Howard that when it comes to important health issues such as vaccination, any hint of false claims such as they cause SIDS autism, cancer, contain aborted feotuses, toxic levels of heavy metals plants a seed with parents, scares them and as Paul had also stated, people are very hard to “unscare”.


A packed house. Photo by Tim Farley.

This opinion was echoed very succinctly (more so than I did) by an audience member once questions were opened up to the panel. Questions ranged from why are parents who do not vaccinate not held responsible for the death of those who die as a result of a loss of herd immunity to why are the authorities not doing anything about the anti-vax lobby?

It was a lively and interesting panel which I thoroughly enjoyed and it didn’t finish after we left the stage. The four of us continued our discussions in the green room, to the bemusement of several other participants who were milling around. John made a very good point about the social aspects of vaccine deniers and asked why the social and psychological issues of this area are not addressed. We all agreed that this is a story that has not been covered and would certainly be a worthwhile endeavour.

Howard then asked me how much time anti-vaxers should be given by the medias and my emphatic answer was none. I suggested to Howard that unless journos “went in deep” (John’s phrase) and challenged everything they said, instead of letting them state their piece largely unopposed as was my experience, then they deserved no platform at all. Eventually it was agreed that the anti-vax lobby need be treated as different beasts when it comes to balance in journalism. Because they don’t deserve a platform for their lies and misinformation. Even Howard seemed to agree (mostly).


I interview Travis Roy (aka Scooter) on stage after the conference. Photo Tim Farley.

I am very pleased that the feedback since the conference has been overwhelmingly positive for our media panel. Let’s hope we can do more like these, especially given the (perceived?) gap between what scientists really get up to and how it is reported in the media (this was also an underlying topic discussed throughout the weekend).

NECSS was a huge success and plans are already underway for a bigger and better event in 2010. Thanks to NESS and NYCS for putting on a well organised and top notch event. I hope to be a part of the con again one day!

*BTW, I thoroughly recommend the BoltBus from NYC: $14 on a very comfy bus with free wifi and power points, plenty of leg room and space – thanks to Rebecca and Scooter for the tip off).

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