Saturday, July 11, 2009

TAM Day 2

I find myself starting this blog posts quite inebriated. Most of my good conversations comes from mingling with other delegates at the bar after the days performance. Dave and I spent the night drinking with Anthony from Edmonton, occasional contributor to the Skeptically Speaking radio show from the University of Alberta. I am getting the feeling that this is the way things are parsed at TAM. We all sit in a large ballroom listening to what amounts to quite a brilliant array of interesting people tell us what they have been up to in the skeptical or science world, then we all retire to the bar to disagree with them.

I had to awkward pleasure to sit beside David Gorski, a surgical oncologist and a contributor to the Science Based Medicine blog and the man whose skeptical Oprah article was published in the Toronto Star a month ago. During Fintan Steele's talk about the problems with individualized medicine, Dr. Gorski had took issue with several of Dr. Steele's comments about chemotherapy, stem cell research and gene therapy - specifically that they would be either laughed at or come to dead ends in the near future. Dr. Gorski is a surgical oncologist, and deals mostly with solid tumors of the breast, and his talk during the Science Based Medicine conference dealth with, among other things, how chemotherapy is a good adjunct to surgical abatement of solid tumors, rather than the toxin and poison that the naturapathic folks would have us think.

This open, albeit polite, conflict is what The Amazing Meeting is all about. Science and skepticism is dirty and hard. Alternative therapists think nothing of telling their patients that that they will cure what ever their patients are complaining of, even vague symptoms of fatigue, lethargy or generalised pain. Physicians, on the other hand, have science and statistics to answer to and rarely tout any of their therapies as a cure and will often couch the treatment in a way that gives the uncertainty - an unfortunate but very real aspect of real life - of a treatment its due. What doctors do have going on their side, however, are real, tested facts, not conjecture or magic, and it is this that is very unpalatable to the general public, no matter how true.

Our genetic legacies are only one aspect of our bodies health, and environment and epigenetic inheritance play as big a role in the expression of our genes. This was argued by Fintan Steele, a former monk and ordained catholic priest and now a doctor and researcher. This caused Dr. Gorski to roll his eyes a few times but this kind of controversy is one we can handle.

I met many people today in the course of conference and one thing is abundantly clear: this is a big tent. Phil Plait, the president of the JREF (James Randi Education Foundation) several times in his speech made a point of saying that we are made up of disparet political and religious views but we are all welcome at the JREF and in the skeptical community. At this conference there are atheists, catholics, protestants, agnostics, libertarians, democrats, socialists and republicans but we all share one thing in common: a belief in the reliability of the scientific method. The truth is something we cannot ignore. Even more, we cannot ignore a change in the accepted wisdom.,

The theory behind chiropractic has not changed in over one hundred years, since Daniel David Palmer first proposed his theory of subluxation, but in the past 100 years, medicine, physics, chemistry, biology and all of the other sciences have time and again changed their outlook on the world in order to accommodate new findings and fresh and irrefutable research. Irrefutable, that is, until the next time it is refuted. When asked what it would take to convince the anti-vaccinationist camp of the safety and efficacy of vaccines they have no answer. They insist that they want vaccines to be safe for children but they refuse to quantify it and therefore render their position nothing more than empty ideology and conjecture.

There is plenty of conjecture in science, but we have a way of testing it and everyone, well, mostly every one, will change his or her point of view given enough evidence to overturn accepted principles, no matter how entrenched.

The result of this effort this weekend is a community that is very diverse, forward looking and very inclusive. Tomorrow David and I are meeting up with a bunch of the other lesbian, gay. bi and transgendered (though I have yet to meet any transgendered skeptics here) for lunch. There are more than few of us: at last count I counted about 15 or 20 at the bar tonight. This inclusiveness is true regardless of where you are from or your political outlook. It is a true community.

Tomorrow we will hear about more innovation and discovery and grow even closer together. But, as Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame plays with his kids by chasing them around the lobby with a balloon animal on his head, we will learn to communicate better with each other and, hopefully, learn to communicate the lesson of the scientific method and the power of doubt to our families, friends and society at large, in a way that does not further alienate those whose power of reason has been addled by ideology and fear.

p.s. James Randi, our great leader (hee hee) has quite a fantastic magical legacy. The James Randy link above will take you to a breath-taking video on You Tube of The Amazing Randi performing a straight jacket escape while suspended upside down from a crane over the Canadian Niagara Falls - in January!! It was so cold, he told us today, that his beard had completely frozen and he could not speak. Awesome

1 comment:

Brownian said...

Hi Michael!

This is Anthony from Edmonton. I really enjoyed hanging out with you and David at TAM and I'd like to keep in touch. Are you guys on Facebook? Twitter? Other social media-type Web 2.0 applications?

Here's my Facebook URL. I'm glad to hear you recovered from the general debauchery of the event, and I hope to see you there again next year, if not sooner.