Inaugural Brisbane Skepticamp is a Roaring Success!

Last Saturday, the 19th of June 2014, I was lucky enough to head along to the very first ever Brisbane Skepticamp. It was held at Hamilton, a handsome river-side suburb in gorgeous Brisbane. Queensland really did turn on the beautiful weather for us too! It was quite the sub-tropical treat for Scotty Harrison and I considering we started our morning in Armidale and a fresh -5C!

If you have never been to a Skepticamp, I would highly recommend you tag along to one. They are generally free events, where just about anyone can put their hand up to speak on any topic they like! Skepticamps have been organised by grass-roots skeptic groups all over the world. A few that have been held close to home include: Sydney, Melbourne, Great Ocean Road and now Brisbane. Due to the dynamic nature of the event, the topics are often widely varied which keeps it very entertaining. Topics in Brisbane ranged from “A Scientific Approach to Swordsmanship” by Scotty harrison, to the “Northern Rivers Vaccination Supports” by Alison Gaylard, and “Weight a minute, That’s Bullshit!” By Chrys Stevenson and so many more! Skepticamp also gives an opportunity for people to present when they mightn’t usually get invited to speak at more formal skeptical conferences. People like me. Most importantly, skepticamp is a chance to touch base with like-minded people and catch-up with facebook friends in the real world!

Brisbane Skepticamp blew everyone out of the water! It was A-maze-ing! From the slick organisation by the newly formed Brisbane skeptics to the high level of the speeches, Brisbane Skepticamp has really raised the bar for skepticamps nation wide.

Scotty and I with the big man himself, Carl Sagan, live in the cardboard.

Scotty and I with the big man himself, Carl Sagan, live in the cardboard.

A few honorable mentions and shout outs go to: Ross Balch of the “Skeptically Challenged” podcast, who put in the hard yards to get this off the ground (and continues to work hard, now putting all our talks up on youtube, complete with transcripts.) Ross and Jake Farr-Wharton, not only MCed the event but also wrote and performed an awesome love ballad dedicated to, of all things, water. Peter Bowditch, of ratbags.com took the opportunity to launch his new book: “things I think about“. Finally to Loretta Moran, who is one of the key figures behind Friends of Science in Medicine, and deserves each of her many accolades. After Loretta’s talk about FSM, my respect and admiration for her have increased even further.

So, I’m going to leave you all now with a link to the introduction, produced by Ross Balch, which opened the event.

Click for the Intro to the Brisbane Skepticamp 2014

Media’s False Balance Trap

Journalism has an overwhelming fascination with balance. Generally this is a positive attribute for a journalist to to have. Usually, when reporting the news, it is important to research the story from all points of view. It wouldn’t be a good look if a journalist were to report a one-sided story containing only the hearsay of someone who is known to mislead and misrepresent information, and just generally lie without seeking an opposing angle (see, here and here).

The big problem with balance in the media, comes when reporting on matters of science. When reporting on issues such as climate change or vaccination, that overwhelming need for “balance” is often achieved by placing a scientist side-by-side with someone with little to no qualifications in the area. The thing is, that when it comes to science, opinion isn’t news.

I recommend this video from HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” as an example of how to more accurately report on the climate change “debate”.

Climate change deniers and anti-vaccination campaigners love to legitimise themselves in the media by using that word: ‘debate’. There lies the main problem. In the scientific community there isn’t any debate on either of these topics. By providing a “balanced debate” on these issues a reporter is in fact inaccurately representing the truth and providing what is known as false balance.

false.balance

I was recently asked to be a part of a short documentary about vaccination that was being filmed by some uni students. I, and some far more learned friends of mine, spent a good deal of time explaining false balance. Unfortunately I was forced to withdraw from their project because of the strong possibility of appearing along side a vaccine refuser or anti-vaccination campaigner. In email correspondence with the students, I explained my withdrawal:

When anti-vaccination views are portrayed side-by-side with scientifically accurate pro-vaccination views, it gives the anti-vaccs opinions undue credibility in the eyes of the audience. It is, in fact, less damaging to the public’s opinion to allow the anti-vaccs to appear alone.

I haven’t just pulled that statement out of the air. Research has been done on the effect that false balance reporting has on audience’s perceptions of vaccine safety. The study shows that those who viewed falsely balanced articles were more likely to question the safety of vaccinations, despite the proof that the link between vaccination and autism is well and truly debunked. According to this article by Dr Rachel Dunlop (who provides a  lovely lay-person explanation of the false balance research):

Unsurprisingly, the participants who read the article saying vaccines cause autism indicated they would be less likely to have their children vaccinated in the future. But what was surprising was those who read the false balance article were even less confident about the safety of vaccines than the “vaccines-definitely-cause-autism” article.

The authors suggested the reasons for this may be that false balance elicits a stronger perception that experts are divided, or that experts truly are uncertain whether vaccines cause autism …

The thing is, at the the end of the day, false balance isn’t even rewarded by your peers.

This year’s National Press Club award for health reporting and award for ‘Best Documentary or Documentary Series – Health, Health Sciences or Innovation in the field of Health and Health Sciences’ went to journalists who had focused on the issue of vaccination. Both “A pox on both your parents” and “Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines” avoided false balance.

My final words to the media: there is no debate. By presenting anti-vaccination views beside an expert on vaccination, you are legitimatising their unqualified “reckons“. I’d go as far as to say that you are endangering a vital health initiative, and thereby partly responsible for the spread of potentially fatal vaccine preventable diseases.

Thinking Science: do it early, do it often

Science is cool and critical thinking is such a valuable life skill. I’m disappointed it took me so long to discover them. That’s why teaching Miss 5 “how” to think has become a vital part of my parenting philosophy.

I have a little story to share. It all starts with the recent Easter holidays when my family jumped into the car to take a road-trip. Like many people in Australia, there are some vast stretches of road that separate us from our extended relatives, and Miss 5 has become quite use to piling the car high with bags and hitting the open road.

On this particular holiday we drove along the Newell Highway. This was exciting for me. Firstly because the Newell spans a portion of this country that I had never visited before, and secondly because the Parkes Radio Telescope is located within that chunk of country.

NERD-TASTIC!

NERD-TASTIC!

The Parkes Radio Telescope, or the “Dish” as it is fondly referred to, is simply brilliant. In 1969 NASA commissioned the Dish as a prime receiving station for the Apollo 11 mission, didn’t you know? It is still operational today and the CSIRO has set-up a very cool and very interactive science center. If you haven’t been to Parkes, you should. Miss 5 loved it so much that, instead of our initial plan to go home via a different route, we visited again on the return journey. How could we deny her a second stop in when she told us she “wasn’t finished doing ALL the science”?

Here’s the thing that got me thinking as we drove the long, straight, wind-mill dotted highway home; we are all born with such inquiring minds. Miss 5 is so keen to investigate her world, eager to learn how things work and explore nature.

We are all born scientists.

Unfortunately, for so many people, somewhere along the way that scientist gets lost. We see the evidence of anti-scientific thinking in vaccination refusers, in climate change deniers, and in creationists. I see it in own experiences with woo and alternative medicine. How I wish I’d had the thinking skills to save me from being lead down the garden path to unproven and sometimes dangerous beliefs and superstitions. I can’t help but feel that it was my lack of scientific literacy that let me down. I used to have no appreciation for the scientific method, and no concept of peer-review. I was quiet happy to naively believe people’s anecdotes, because they seemed so tangible. I gave the experiences of my friend and family more weight than blinded tests or articles in medical journals. Without science it was so easy to fall into a culture of woo.

Critical thinking and reason are skills which need to be practiced. Logic needs to be exercised. The scientific method is the greatest tool we humans have for understanding the world around us, and it needs to be taught. Children are far more ready to learn about (seemingly complex) scientific concepts than we might imagine. A school in Perth has shown us that 11-year-olds are quite prepared to learn the basics of spacetime. I think this is just marvellous!

It makes me proud when Miss 5 wants to grow vegetables from seeds, or says to Ryanoxide “Dad I’m bored, can we to some maths?”, or she makes us drive home the same way we came just so she can do more science. I’m proud because she is developing her inquisitive mind. As she grows up and forms her own opinions, which will no doubt differ from mine, I’m confident that she will have the skills to produce the evidence that proves just how wrong I am.