Another free conference this weekend

I guess it’s that time of year — the Freethought Festival is taking place in Madison this weekend. Go!

Third Annual Freethought Fest To Draw Crowd This Weekend

The UW-Madison student organization Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics is holding their third annual Freethought Festival this weekend, set to take place at two venues in Madison, WI. The Freethought Festival is a free, student-run secular conference held annually in Madison, Wisconsin. Authors, bloggers, activists, and scientists from around the country come to speak on secular and scientific issues.

The event’s headliner is Dan Savage, the prominent gay rights and atheist who
founded the It Gets Better Project and creator of the “Savage Love” advice column and podcast.

Freethought Fest will also include a debate between Dan Barker, the Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Matt Slick, the President of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, on the subject “Does God Exist?”

“Freethought Festival will give the spotlight to many prominent atheists who are making positive differences in the world,” AHA President Sam Erickson said in a statement. “It will be exciting to be a part of that and hear all of the speakers share their experiences and perspectives.”

Along with Barker and Savage several atheist activists will speak, including comedian Jamie Kilstein, fellow Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation Annie Laurie Gaylor, parenting expert and author Dale McGowan, three-­time Emmy winner Jay Rosenstein, and blogger/author Hemant Mehta.

Freethought Fest is open to everybody, free to attend, and has a predicted attendance rate of approximately 1,100.

AHA is one of the largest atheist college groups in the world, and is proud to provide a safe space to nonreligious people on campus where they can express themselves and connect with other nonbelievers, while promoting the discussion of religion on the UW-Madison campus.

“We wanted to create an event that would enrich the UW Campus and inform as well as entertain members of the UW Community,” Erickson said.

The event is funded by AHA through an annual operations budget received from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. AHA is proud to put on an event that will draw a wide range of attendees from the UW community while promoting freethought, secularism, and skepticism.

For more information, please visit freethoughtfestival.org

A good weekend at Skep-Tech

I’m home from Skep-Tech, and I just have to say that that was one of the better conferences I’ve attended — which is remarkable considering that it was student-run and -organized, and completely free.

It was a good mix, too. There were several people I hadn’t heard from before, Kate Greene and Jessica Kirsner, who brought in fresh blood and interesting ideas. There were surprises: Ian Cromwell is a really good science communicator, and I learned a lot about the technical details of managing a health care system from his talk. You mean black people can talk about things other than race? Spread that news to other conference organizers.

Other standouts were Debbie Goddard, who gave a heartfelt talk about bringing meaning to atheism/skepticism, and Rebecca Watson, who gave an evidence-based and humorous talk about using social media — it’s not all selfies and photos of your dinner plate. Jesse Galef also accomplished a great synthesis of pop culture and a game theoretic approach to morality that explained how it evolved. They were all good talks, not a flop among them (well, I had to miss the last few because I had a long drive ahead of me…but I have complete confidence that Heina Dadabhoy was good, because she always is).

It also had an interesting audience. It was down a bit from last year, as Stefanie explains, but it was a healthy mix of familiar faces from the atheist community in Minneapolis/St Paul, and new strangers who wandered in. I didn’t bother to try and count heads — it was held in a gigantic auditorium, with a lot of flux as people drifted in and out (long breaks between talks encouraged a lot of discussion) — so I only took a quick count on Sunday morning, which is usually the worst time as people are recovering from all the late Saturday partying and increasing conference fatigue, and I saw about 60 people there. Total attendance was either significantly higher than that, or the talks were so engrossing that no one wanted to miss even the one held while they were hung over.

It was well worth the time, and it was held right there in my back yard, which was sweet. You should go next time it’s offered. Or if it’s too far for you to travel, organize your own — this was excellent outreach.

Skeptech 2 today!

It’s not too late, get signed up at Skeptech (it’s free, but they do hope for donations).

I shall be there, along with my bodyguard, the mighty Connlann, who happens to be passing through on his way in a transfer from California to Georgia. If you’re thinking of arranging a boycott of my talks (you know who you are, you wacky lunatics), please do — no one is going to show up at my talk this weekend, because I’m not giving one. I’m going as an attendee because it looks to be an excellent event.

Any one of you who is going but is not giving a talk, meet with me and I shall do you the honor of organizing a non-boycott of your non-talk, and then we shall sit out our non-existent sessions in the bar.

Guess who’s speaking at the NSTA National Conference

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The featured speaker at this year’s National Science Teacher Association conference in Boston is…Mayim Bialik.

The lucky ones among you are saying right now, “who?”. Others may know her from her television work, but maybe don’t know the full story behind her ‘science’ activism.

She’s an actor who plays Sheldon’s girlfriend on Big Bang Theory. Right there, as far as I’m concerned, we have a major strike against her: I detest that show. It’s the equivalent of a minstrel show for scientists, where scientists are portrayed as gross caricatures of the real thing — socially inept, egotistical jerks who think rattling off an equation is a sign of intelligence. I think it’s literally an anti-science communication show. Who in their right mind would want to be anything like Sheldon, the narcissistic nerd? Who would want to work with people like that? The message it’s sending instead is that if you are a superficial asshole, you should become a scientist, where you will be loved for personality traits that would get you shunned in civilized company. (We also see the same phenomenon in atheism, where so many people think it’s a great excuse to be the insensitive Vulcan.)

But OK, that’s a matter of taste, I will admit, and maybe not enough of a reason to be appalled to think she is going to be speaking to science teachers (although it’s enough for me). And she does have a Ph.D. in neuroscience, you have to respect that.

But…

Mayim Bialik does not vaccinate her kids. She’s the spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network. I know what you’re thinking: “holistic” doesn’t sound so bad. But take it away, Orac!

Just one look at its advisory board should tell you all you need to know. For instance, there’s Dr. Lauren Feder, who bills herself as specializing in “primary care medicine, pediatrics and homeopathy” and has been a frequent contributor to that bastion of quackery and antivaccine looniness, Mothering Magazine, where she recommended homeopathic remedies to treat whooping cough. It doesn’t get much quackier than that. But Feder is just the beginning. Also on the Holistic Moms advisory board is the grand dame of the antivaccine movement herself, the woman who arguably more than anyone else is responsible for starting the most recent iteration of the antivaccine movement in the U.S. Yes, I’m talking about Barbara Loe Fisher, the founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), a bastion of antivaccine propaganda since the 1980s. She’s not the only antivaccine activist on the advisory board, though. There’s also Peggy O’Mara, publisher of Mothering Magazine and Sherri Tenpenny, who is described right on the Holistic Moms website as, “one of America’s most knowledgeable and outspoken physicians, warning against the negative impact of vaccines on health.” Then there’s Dr. Lawrence Rosen, “integrative” pediatrician who appeared at the NVIC “vaccine safety conference” back in 2009 with Barbara Loe Fisher and Andrew Wakefield. In fact, Barbara Loe Fisher, Sherri Tenpenny, and Lauren Feder are featured very prominently on the Holistic Moms Network page on vaccination.

But that’s not all. If there’s one more thing that should tell you all you need to know about the Holistic Moms Network approach to science-based medicine, then take a look at its sponsors: Boiron (manufacturer of the homeopathic remedy for flu known as Oscillococcinum), the Center for Homeopathic Education (and I bet it is homeopathic too), the National Center for Homeopathy, and a whole bunch of other purveyors of woo and quackery.

And he has a lot more to say, as usual.

So why is this woo-peddling, vaccination-denying sitcom star being featured as a speaker at NSTA? I don’t know. Because she has a Ph.D. and pretends to be socially inept on TV? That doesn’t seem to be a good reason. Will Jenny McCarthy be invited to deliver a keynote next year? How about Ken Ham — he’s very into ‘science’ education, you know. Gosh, if we’re going to open the door to quacks, the pool of potential speakers just expanded immensely! Joseph Mercola? Andrew Weil? Deepak Chopra!

Tsk, NSTA. Do you vet your speakers at all?

Who?

Somehow, I follow a lot of science fiction people and UK residents on twitter, and my feed erupted with convergent outrage this morning. Some guy named @wossy (Jonathan Ross) has been announced as the host for a British SF convention, Loncon 3, where he’ll be handing out the Hugo Awards. Who? Had to look him up.

He seems to have a bit of a reputation as a sexist boor who, as a “comedian”, likes to punch down, especially at women, and substitutes profanity for humor. I know the type; I’m sure he’ll have the lads all sniggering.

One person has already resigned from the Loncon 3 committee, with a quite clear declaration that this was an entirely inapproporiate choice for an organization with a membership a bit larger than the boys down at the pub. It sends a message that your harassment policies are just for show when you take someone who has made a career out of violating boundaries with women and rewarding them with the prestige of being the host for an international award.

The World Science Fiction Convention looks like one to skip this year.

I don’t mean to be neglecting the blog today

But I’m neglecting the blog today. I’m finally at #scio14, and it’s busy busy busy. So far today I’ve been in sessions on reaching diverse audiences and on doing better at serving differently abled communities, because I’d like to do both, and this afternoon there’s stuff on media and networks and who knows what that will keep me engaged.

It’s actually refreshing to be here–it really is a diverse group, and there are lots of younger people (I feel like the crotchety old fogie…oh, wait, I always feel like that). My goal this weekend is to dispel a little bit of my disillusionment with online communities and get inspired again, and this is a good place to do that. So I’m just making little notes on ideas that can give me fresh eyes and change up what I do…and I hope, do it better.

You’ll forgive a little mild distractedness for that, right?

I’m on my way to #scio14

That’s not good news. The good news will be “I’m at #scio14“, because I’ve got a lot of traveling ahead of me. And it’s been one of those days that I always dread: the day I have to return tests in genetics. I write hard tests…well, not really that hard conceptually, but I avoid questions of a form that allows them to be answered with rote execution of a formula, which means that students who are struggling to understand often end up taking weird detours in their answers, and do poorly. And then there’s the usual bimodal grade distribution of a class that emphasizes logic and methodology; some find it trivial, others just freak out. Everyone is miserable, and it makes lecturing no fun at all.

But I can’t do otherwise. I’ll throw more practice problems at them, and drill them through the process over and over again, and usually, most of them will make it through to the end.

Anyway, now I’m off to the airport. Long drive, long night, get into Raleigh-Durham sometime tomorrow. Then I have to be the student for a few days and learn.

I hope there isn’t an exam at the end.

American Atheists…expelled!

Just today I mentioned that American Atheists were going to have a booth at CPAC, which prompted many of you to say that you’d rather atheists didn’t attempt to recruit from that mob of sanctimonious assholes. You didn’t have to worry. CPAC had their own idea.

On Tuesday, American Atheists President David Silverman received a phone call from American Conservative Union Executive Director Dan Schneider informing him that the ACU board is breaking its agreement to permit American Atheists to host an information booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), March 6-8.

They’ve been kicked out, even before the convention started.

The conservatives cited Silverman’s “tone” as a problem, to which Dave makes the perfect reply:

Silverman repudiated Schneider’s assertion: “This is exactly the problem. The ACU, which has invited CPAC speakers such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Sarah Palin, is afraid of my tone? My ‘tone’ was clearly an excuse to back out after our press release angered religious conservatives.”

This is actually the best possible result. We aren’t at risk of tainting atheism with any more of those jerks, and American Atheists has effectively highlighted their intolerance. Win win!