Skeptech: help me!

Miri is justifiably enthused about Skeptech, which has just announced their schedule. It’s full of cool stuff and lots of interesting people — you should go if you’re anywhere near the Twin Cities. It’s free on 5-7 April — I’ll be there the whole weekend.

But I have a sad admission. I’m on the schedule. Look at my name. Look at my topic. TBD. Oh, sure, I’m in good company: Maggie Koerth-Baker is also TBD. But I have to fix that, and I’m planning to do that this week, since I’m staying home for Spring Break. So help me out, people! What should I talk about?

I’m also working up my Seattle talk, which is slowly congealing. I’m going to talk about scientific and atheistic ethics there, and the message isn’t hopeful: I’m going to discuss our woeful failures, and suggest that morality ain’t gonna be found in a test tube. But there’ll also be some optimism for how broadening our foundations to encompass humanist values can compensate.

Now I could do that talk at Skeptech, too, which would simplify things. But I’ve also been considering some other possibilities. Let me bounce a few ideas around here, you can tell me what sucks and what sounds fun.

  • A realistic look at transhumanism. What biology and the evidence of evolutionary history says about it (with some swipes at that clueless hack, Kurzweil, but also some talk about the neglect of developmental ideas by most transhumanists.)

  • Science and the internet. What scientists really ought to do with blogs, social media, open source publishing — where we’re going wrong, where we’re falling down on the job, where we’re succeeding.

  • The coming apocalypse. It’s not likely to be a sudden catastrophe, and it will make a lousy movie. It will be death by a thousand little cuts…but that means a thousand little band-aids might be the best strategy for staving it off. (A related panel is already on the schedule.)

  • The biology century. The 19th century was all about chemistry; the 20th was physics. The 21st will see a surge of biological innovation. What will the equivalent of the atom bomb be? What will be our flying car?

  • Or something completely different.

As you can tell, I looked at the schedule and noticed a dearth of science talks so far (Jen McCreight is also TBD, maybe she’ll help fill the gap), so I’m leaning sciencey, sort of science-fictioney even. If you’re going, or even if you aren’t, tell me what you think would be interesting and relevant.


  1. says

    Oooh, the transhumanism one sounds really interesting. I always hear sciency types bouncing that word around and I know very little about it.

    Full disclosure: I understood almost none of your Skepticon talk, so my science skillz are definitely lacking. :P

    But science and the internet sounds cool too, particularly in light of that damning study on the effects of online comments on comprehension of science articles.

  2. carlie says

    I think it would be really interesting to explore why people rely so much on science, and expect science to do so much for them, whilst at the same time rejecting the conclusions of science and distrusting scientists and all scientific endeavors. Not sure how much extra work that would be to come up with a talk for, though.

  3. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I’m into science & the internet, though I have to say I don’t have a firm grasp of what you would say about the coming apocalyPZe. I have it from a reliable source close to God that you’re going to cause it, so I suppose you should know something about it, but apocalypse as a genre has been overdone. Color me interested if and only if I knew more about what you were going to say and I had reason to believe that your vision of the apocalypse – sorry, I guess that would make the apocalyPZe again – was actually a lot more likely to come true than the run of the mill, plain-ol’ apocalypse.

  4. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Ooooooh! You know, thinking about what Caine said, maybe you could develop each of the topics into an independent post of 4-6 paragraphs, giving us a much better idea of what these are. You could post them one at a time in whatever order they come to you, for your convenience. We could give you better feedback after all are in.

  5. says

    Well, I had to wiki transhumanism, so points for a topic I know nothing about, but my preference goes to “the biology century”, which could tie in to transhumanism (or the coming apocalypse) anyway. I feel that topic can cover a lot of ground, showing both the positive and negative consequences of biology. Envisioning a future where biology is a solution is very hopeful.

  6. Ulysses says

    Too many people have heard Kurzweil and his sycophants boast about how we’re going to be uploaded into computers and live at the speed of light “real soon now!” A discussion of the problems Kurzweil is ignoring and a discussion of realistic possibilities for transhumanism would be interesting.

  7. Gregory Greenwood says

    I would like to add my vote for a talk on transhumanism and how Kurzweil is being… shall we say somewhat unrealistic. If nothing else, it is always entertaining to see just how unreasonably angry some people get when you poke completely legitimate holes in the credibility and technical competency of their would-be techno-messiah.

    A more scientifically grounded and credible discusion of the socio-cultural and technological potential and opportunities – as well as the challenges or even perils – of transhumanism in the coming century (stripped of the ridiculous hype) would be of great interest.

  8. jen says

    Definitely the Transhumanism topic. There’s so much wrong out there about it, that to have somebody speak about the reality of what could be would be great!

  9. says

    The biology century. The 19th century was all about chemistry; the 20th was physics. The 21st will see a surge of biological innovation. What will the equivalent of the atom bomb be? What will be our flying car?

    1. Regenerate limbs & organs

    2. Of all the eggs created by a woman, the capability to select a few ‘good’ fertilized ones

    3. Eliminate virus-caused diseases

    4. Eliminate all the mysteries in DNA

    5. Restore select extinct species

    This should be enough magic for a century.

  10. brucemartin says

    I vote for “the biology century.” I think that would add the most variety to the record of other topics, considering what is already available on youtube and such. But any of these would be interesting. Also consider that some of the topics could be addressed by other people. But how many active research biologists have been invited to present here? I submit that few others could raise the issues you could raise in the biology century talk. Thanks.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Oh, of course our esteemed host should (continue to) not-discuss our impending civilizational/ecological collapse – that’s so unfashionable, and nobody wants to hear about that sort of downer stuff anyway. Bo-o-o-o-o-ring!

    Making fun of ineffectual intellectual sillies, now – we all need that!

  12. says

    I’m with transhumanism. Even people who’ve never heard of it by name will have some sci-fi kind of notions about downloading our minds to computers. Real information about how feasible or non-feasible that might be would be interesting. Plus, you get to tear apart with scathing scepticism someone who talks big. Sounds like fun.

  13. arbor says

    To adapt from Miri (#1),

    Oooh, the transhumanism one sounds really interesting. I always hear pseudosciency types bouncing that word around and I they know very little about it.

    Kurtzweil is a self-impressed idiot. Why he or any of his fanbois are worth preserving, let alone letting out to run on occasion, is beyond me.

    They don’t understand that the end of life is the only thing that makes living worthwhile.

  14. movablebooklady says

    Science and the Internet gets my vote, and I think explicating the scientific method would be really good. Many people I know have no real idea of how it actually works, and misunderstand what a scientific theory is, and what proof is/isn’t. Scientists ought to be getting the basics out on the internet, especially since schools don’t seem to be inculcating them. IMHO.

  15. nonzero says

    Transhumanism + The Biology Century + Apocalypse! They seem to be synergistic and all variations on a theme. Identifying the errors of popular transhumanist ideas and predictions, countering that with real foresight into the biological discoveries and technologies coming this century, and tying it all back into how taking realistic vs. unrealistic attitudes about our progress can result in positive or negative future scenarios.

  16. says

    I was going to put in my vote for the transhumanism topic (but I see that it’s been decided on, yay!), even though I’m not going to be attending. Will this be recorded for those who can’t be there live?

  17. says

    I don’t know much about transhumanism: nearly everything I’ve read has been woo-ish, New Age science fiction about humans abandoning flawed flesh to become perfect mind or spirit or essence or some other buzzy fluffy bunny omega point. A realistic look would be very interesting.

    The apocalypse one sounds like a couple of the panels at Norwescon, maybe you can get some ideas for that one while you are here.

    As for the biological century, I think the big innovation will be the end of antibiotics and what, if anything, we find to replace them. I think that in the 21st century we will actually find alien life; probably very simple stuff that makes archaea look like the pinnacle of complexity, but not Terran and unmistakably alive. That probably won’t be very useful in and of itself, but having something with very different genetic and metabolic processes might introduce ideas for artificial life.

    Tough choice between those three.

  18. Muz says

    I’ve always really enjoyed the crits of transhumanism whenever it has come up. It’s something you just never hear from the techno-utopian side and their arguments are superficially plausible if you don’t know greater detail of development, human biology etc. (well, their wildly linear extrapolation were always suspect to me. History and progress is all about weird jags and hurdles, but anyway…)

    The suggestion at 18 would be great I think. Things we might reasonably be able to expect without jumping to the end like they often do.

  19. delecoix says

    I’d love for you to give a talk on Transhumanism. The resulting smack down you will receive from the transhumanist community might just teach you some humility.

  20. says

    Can you do a talk about the Cephalopod Singularity?

    Or, perhaps you could put an empty chair on the stage and lecture it about evolution?

    Maybe you could talk about possible evolutionary pathways for The Soul? How is it that humans evolved souls and dogs (for example) or bonobos didn’t?

    Transhumanism does sound like a good topic. What are the implications of “scanning” a brain, anyway? Computer guys like Kurtzweil seem to think brains are a bunch of and/or gates that are in binary states but just how “analog” are brains, anyway? What would the sensory channel look like that we’d have to emulate to keep the uploaded brain from going nuts? Would we have to somehow tweak the proprioception to make it think it was in a gravity field so it didn’t think it was puking up its guts? A more serious question: would an uploaded brain feel fully human if the environment didn’t accurately simulate intestinal rumbles such as the one I just experienced?

  21. says

    Less tongue in cheek: is there a danger of biological slavery? What if the oligarchs discover that they can have clones of themselves made so that when they’re old they can cull the clone as a liver/kidney/heart donor? I’m assuming a head transplant would probably not work so well (that idea from Edgar Rice Burroughs)

    What about other life-extension techniques? What’s most promising? What’s scary? (They all scare me: seems like any practical life-extension would simply result in the bulk of mankind being ruled by ancient oligarchs in boxes and the technology would never filter down to actually benefit anyone. I recall reading something recently about that the majority of life-extension gains are among the wealthy and lifespans for everyone else are hardly improving at all, surprise, surprise)

    Just some random stuff. Very much looking forward to it. I’m lucky there’s a computer security conference I’m presenting at, later in the week, so I’m coming out a couple days early! :D

  22. Muz says

    Re: #27 Lol muchly at sci-fi hobbyists painted as some sort of street fighting internet cause you just don’t fuck with.

  23. says

    I’d like the transhumanism one, if only to point singularity enthusiasts at when they don’t understand that Moore’s “Law” is simply an economic contract that will flat-line when R&D costs on new chips rise too high for short-term profitability.

  24. Suido says

    Transhumanism, from the perspective of how ending human suffering whilst retaining free will is, imo, impossible.

    I get annoyed at starry-eyed transhumanists who talk about a utopian future, while ignoring the fact that humans have proven time and again that we are capable of really evil things, now faster and with better technology. I don’t see how becoming transhuman would ever solve romantic jealousies, tragic miscommunications, or sociopathic intentions without also abrogating free will.

    I don’t have a biology background, but my interpretation of deliberate genetic manipulation which influences actions/emotions (Brave New World, Huxley’s Haven, etc) is that those genetically modified humans have lost their free will. Fuck that for a bunch of banananananas. Hearing a biologist speak on this would be very interesting to me.

  25. says


    It’s important to not confuse fictional versions of genetic engineering with the reality. Currently, reality is more like ‘make sure the fetus doesn’t have Downs syndrome’. That certainly has implications for future human actions and emotions, but doesn’t play into discussions of free will (which are knotty enough as they are).

    But it would be good to hear something on the problems of biological transhumanist ideas as well as Kurzweilian “Ave Machina”.

    On the other hand, I will only be able to listen to this particular talk if it is recorded and put online, so perhaps my opinions should be down-weighted.

  26. Ichthyic says

    Maybe transhumanism + some real anticipated 21st century biology?

    so long as I can have chromatophores and a mind controlled laser implanted in my forehead, I’m good.

    *pew* *pew*

    *blends into background*

  27. satanaugustine says

    Definitely transhumanism. IMO, the are far too many atheists putting their faith in transhumanism as a way to circumvent death in spite of the plethora of problems with the entire idea. Please talk about transhumanism and dispel the myths about it and, if you have any say in it, make sure the video makes it to youtube. Thanks!

  28. Emptyell says

    Another vote for Transhumanism. We are the Free Though Borg after all ;-)

    Seriously though, I have long felt the the first true extraterrestrials would be our non-biological offspring. Otherwise I haven’t much to add to all the other stuff people have already said.

  29. John Morales says

    PZ @ 18:

    Maybe transhumanism + some real anticipated 21st century biology?

    I think that’s an excellent idea.

    (I can imagine a rivalry between the hardware and the meatware enhancement advocates)

  30. says

    Science and the internet, especially if you can keep a focus on what can be done to advance public understanding of science.

  31. says

    I know you’ve done your science education thing before but instead of going through the enemies and the football worship *spit*, what about ways to excite kids about science? In fact, what about ways to excite people about science and rationality? Do we need Mythbusters: the Movie? Or possibly ways to use the social media to capture people’s enthusiasm.

    You could do the limits of science in biological weirdness. For example, people talk about cloning and reviving extinct species as if it were a matter of popping something into the oven. Maybe they take “female as incubator” too seriously. Someone cloned an extinct variety of ibex and implanted it into another variety of ibex and the resulting kid lived two weeks before dying of lung insufficiency. Another species was cloned and lived for seven minutes. (Just search for “cloning.”) The same species of frog at different altitudes needs different DNA to develop the same phenotype. Without the biochemical and physical environment that it was evolved for, a zygote does not develop properly.

    Biology’s century and how to save the planet?

    The Republican War on Women and how science gives them the lie?

  32. birgerjohansson says

    A couple of months ago, Science had an article about how unrealistic Kurzweil’s beliefs about soon understanding the brain was. It could be used as a starting point.
    I don’t mind the transhumanists who talk about cryopreservation, nature has been doing that (in more modest forms) already.

  33. jijoya says

    The impending apocalypse seems like a more interesting (not to mention pressing) subject matter to me than any of the others. Yes, it runs the risk of being less popular with your intended audience than Transhumanism, but it strikes me as a “what you want vs what you need to hear” type of situation. I’d like to second Caine’s motion about doing a post (or a video) on the subject in case you choose something else for your talk.

  34. says

    OK, you’ve made up my mind. The title will be:

    Hacking Evolution: Transhumanist Fantasies, Biological Realities.

    But I’ll think about doing the multiple mini-apocalypses idea as a blog post some time.

  35. says

    From an article about a British science fair and what it wasn’t: “Science and engineering education should invite young people to part of a global, multi-generational conversation about the world they want to build, not just the one they’ve been given.”

    Also, apparently the Chinese are posed to start selecting for more intelligent humans by researching the genetic sources of genius and helping parents to choose their best eggs & sperm. That would fit nicely into Biology’s Century and the coming takeover.

  36. says

    Cynthia Kenyon and control of the aging process.

    * she found out that a specific gene is needed in order for UV rays to cause DNA damage. “You would think that UV just causes mutations, but it doesn’t, you need a gene to be active for it,”

    * Partially disabling a single gene – called daf-2 – caused the worms [C. elegans] to live twice as long as normal. Not only that, but the worms appeared to be healthy until the end.

    * “We are trying to find drugs, small molecules, that people could take to make them disease-resistant, more youthful and healthy. Eventually we will find them.”

  37. Randomfactor says

    Maybe transhumanism + …

    Boy, I can’t WAIT for the pushback to begin against Transhumanism +.

  38. nonzero says

    @#19: <"They don’t understand that the end of life is the only thing that makes living worthwhile."

    That is a ridiculous statement. I'm skeptical of transhumanist pontifications, but I would never say that ending suffering in all forms, including death, is not a worthy goal. I don't like how transhumanists escape the realities of the here and now, I'd rather come to terms with my mortality and live life as fruitfully as I can without propping up my psychological maturity with fantasies of mind uploading or cryonics, but I would still like to continue to advance our control of the natural world and maybe one day disease and death will be a thing of the past.

    @#32:<"Transhumanism, from the perspective of how ending human suffering whilst retaining free will is, imo, impossible."

    The question of free will is the same whether you are discussing transhumanism or not. I don't think it is that much more pronounced when discussing future technology that would allow modifying our brains directly compared with discussing how current socioeconomic systems shape our cultures and personalities. On the contrary, the more control over our own destinies technology provides us the more 'free will' we would have. Right now most people are products of genetic + environment with very little we can do to change things, but technology can possibly provide us with more possibilities.

  39. says

    I echo everyone else: I hope this gets posted online. It would be good to hear.

    Boy, I can’t WAIT for the pushback to begin against Transhumanism +.

    Transhumanism was supposed to be humanity++ ( /C++ joke )

  40. gillt says

    I vote for 4, the biology century. Personally, that would be the most interesting.

  41. noastronomer says

    I was hoping for something simple like:

    How science and the Internet will drive the biology century so that we can finally achieve transhumanism and how that will trigger the coming apocalypse.


  42. satanaugustine says

    Hacking Evolution: Transhumanist Fantasies, Biological Realities.


  43. arbor says

    @ Miri 26

    Oh, no! I wasn’t trying to knock you at all!

    You, I like.

    Kurtzweil and his nuts are just begging for mockery. They are the ones who don’t have a clue what they are talking about.