As noted in the August issue of Phactum, I was invited to deliver a paper on miracles at the Eighth European Skeptics Conference on September 4-7 in La Coruna, Spain (pop. ca. 200,000). I think that I was the only participant from the U. S. who was there "on my own." (Paul Kurtz, Joe Nickell, and Barry Karr represented CSICOP at the conference.) I'm writing this piece because I thought that other PhACT members might be interested in my personal reflections on the experience.
There were some fifty or sixty people at the conference. They came from the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK, Italy, Hungary, and Spain, as well as from Peru, Canada, and Australia -- and perhaps other countries as well. There were papers on the obligatory subjects -- UFOs, parapsychology, astrology, alternative medicine, science education -- as well as more interesting papers on Averroes, the politics of pseudoscience and skepticism, and on miracles. As nearly as I could tell from the formal and informal discussions, nobody in the international skeptical movement, outside CSICOP, makes a distinction between their skepticism about religious beliefs and their skepticism about non-religious beliefs.
The formal part of the conference consisted almost entirely of papers delivered in either Spanish or English, with simultaneous translation available for the mono-lingual. Because the sessions never started on time, and unanticipated sessions were added to the program (one on the international reaction to Di's death!), there was never enough time for questions about and discussion of the papers. A couple of remarks from the audience would be entertained after each paper, and then we would rush on to the next speaker. I would have preferred that there be half as many papers and twice as much time devoted to their discussion. Still, it was always possible to pursue paper topics later in informal conversation. And the conference organizers intend to publish the proceedings of the conference (bi-lingually, I hope).
The conference organizers had planned two very interesting excursions for us. On Friday afternoon, we all walked to Domus, an interactive museum devoted to our understanding of humanity. On Saturday afternoon, a tour bus with guide took us some forty miles to the old town of Santiago de Compostela (pop. ca. 50,000), the site of some spectacular buildings -- most notably a huge and gorgeous cathedral.
The touristic climax of the conference came on Saturday night, when we rented a local restaurant for a banquet. Many Americans, including myself, think of meals as nuisances to be gotten over as quickly as possible so that we can get on to important things. The Spanish regard meals themselves as very important culinary and social events, to be drawn out and enjoyed as long as possible. This one started at a not atypical 10 p.m., and was still going strong at 1 a.m. when I and a couple of others threw in the napkin and left for bed.
All in all, the whole experience of northwestern Spain generally and the conference in particular was wonderful. The region is beautiful, and the people -- both the locals and the conference participants -- were very interesting and attractive. I can enthusiastically recommend participation in skeptical gatherings abroad.