I had the unusual experience of being both a spectator and a participant at the same lecture on November 14. Tom Napier had been invited to speak on "Facing Fiction with PhACT" at a meeting of the Central New Jersey Mensa group. Tom did a great job of explaining the skeptical point of view while entertaining a crowd of about twenty-five.
Tom defined skeptics as people who question beliefs which most people take for granted. He admitted that he is a skeptic, and went on to explain the nature and importance of skepticism. He introduced three reasons to be a skeptic: Personal, skeptics are less likely to make bad life decisions; Altruistic, skeptics don't like to see people being taken in; Public, people's beliefs control their voting and which pseudosciences are tolerated.
To introduce PhACT, Tom began with the statement on astrology signed by many philosophers and scientists twenty-one years ago. This unity evolved into the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP inspired the short-lived Delaware Valley Skeptics, and then, with a local educational conference in 1994, it induced local skeptics to form PhACT.
Tom listed some of the notable speakers which PhACT had attracted. He mentioned that he had been to several CSICOP conferences. He compared them to Mensa's national gatherings, but with world-class speakers, no parties, no politics and no weirdos.
He went on to describe PhACT's research efforts; police and psychics, therapeutic touch and free energy. The audience found the videos of PhACT's investigations into therapeutic touch and Dennis Lee's Free Energy quite amusing.
Tom revealed that one of the reasons he now has little contact with Mensa is that he had become fed up with the pro-paranormal bias of so many of its meetings. He closed by pointing out that skeptics should not be seen as a threat -- that they help people to find the truth.
I joined Tom for the ensuing question and answer period. With the unpredictable nature of such a session, we figured two heads were better than one. [Bob is too modest, he can speak on alternative medicine with far greater authority (and urgency) than I can. Tom]
Based on the questions and the tone of the crowd, we learned something about our audience. They had no problem with our material on the paranormal (psychics, ESP) and on pseudoscience (free energy, UFOs). Alternative healthcare was another matter. Several members came to the defense of chiropractic treatments and this led to a discussion on the safety of scientific medicine in general.
We explained that good science requires solid objective testing with repeatable and, when possible, double-blinded studies. As Tom said to a questioner, medicine adopted double-blind testing only when it became apparent that less rigorous methods didn't work. Something was needed to eliminate subjective biases and to reduce error. We also noted that anecdotal evidence wasn't evidence for anything.
We certainly managed to stimulate their interest; Tom has been invited to speak to the group's big regional gathering in March.