More than 630 people from around the world gathered in Sydney last week with three main objectives: the first, to save lives; the second, to inform the public about the dangers of untested or discredited medical treatments; the third, to prevent the poor, poorly educated and vulnerable from being defrauded. Attendees ranged from some of the world’s leading scientists and academics, to entertainers, business leaders, IT professionals, journalists, educators and just ordinary Aussie mums and dads.
At the same time, just a stone’s throw away at St Mary’s Cathedral, Australia’s leading prelate, Cardinal George Pell, took to the pulpit to publicly malign these people as coarse, uncaring and leading lives without purpose or constraints. Warning against the creation of an “ideological apartheid”, Pell widened the gap by vilifying the faithless and comparing us to Nazis. Meanwhile, in a convention hall groaning with godless geeks, entertainer Simon Taylor leapt onto a table and berated the audience about the need to respect those who don’t share our views, have sufficient humility to recognise our own biases and to find ways of communicating our message without being “dicks”.
“If we share 60 per cent of our DNA with fruit flies, how much do we have in common with those who believe in stupid things?” raged Taylor, urging the audience to exercise a little empathy.
Strangely, I didn’t hear of any Christians staging a similar protest against intolerance during Pell’s speech at St Mary’s.
Perhaps Cardinal Pell may have learned something about leading a caring, purposeful, meaningful life had he attended The Amazing Meeting last weekend. He may also have learned something about actually embracing the universal ethics and morals advanced in the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Amazing Meeting, an international convention organised by the Australian Skeptics in conjunction with the James Randi Educational Foundation, was the first of its kind in Australia, but is sure not to be the last.
Technically, one does not have to be an atheist to join a sceptical group. But, because theistic beliefs so often defy verification or ignore the laws of science, religious belief is rare within the sceptical community. It would be fair to say that most of the presenters and delegates at the weekend’s convention were atheists or agnostics.
So, what did this generally godless group do over three days and nights in Australia’s most hedonistic city? Primarily, they discussed how to counter the damage caused by the anti-vaccination lobby and those pedaling false and potentially harmful alternative medicines and medical treatments. They also discussed ways to mitigate the exploitation of vulnerable people by charlatans claiming to have “psychic” abilities. Another major concern was imparting critical thinking skills to children to protect them from misinformation and exploitation as adults. As far as I know, the weekend involved no binge drinking sessions, no orgies and no crime sprees - at least none to which I was invited! In fact, the organisers of two very well attended “fringe” events held in Sydney pubs lost their deposits because the sceptics simply didn’t drink enough alcohol!
The heroes of The Amazing Meeting were the conveners of the Stop the Australian Vaccination Network Facebook group. This group of dogged volunteers succeeded in exposing the Australian Vaccination Group as a pseudo-scientific, anti-vaccination lobby which provides false and misleading evidence to parents. In an act which defies Pell’s vicious caricature, nearly a thousand sceptics and atheists joined the group and campaigned tirelessly, driven by just one motivating factor - the anti-vaccine lobby endangers children’s lives.
These “coarse and uncaring” sceptics also gave a standing ovation to Loretta Marron, a cancer survivor who spent six months researching and writing 800 individual complaints to Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration about the “dodgy and devious ‘medical’ devices” listed on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods.
At a session on scepticism in medicine, clinical nurse specialist, Jo Benhamu and American clinical neurologist, Steve Novella, were lauded for their efforts in promoting critical thought as a means to improving patient care. As Dr Novella explains, the tendency to diverge from evidence based practices means that, “We don’t do things that do help as well as doing things that don’t help.” The medical panel also highlighted the need for the government to provide better, evidence based, information to patients.
Science journalist, Simon Singh, spoke about his sacrifice for the cause of reason. In 2008 Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. His sin? Suggesting that some of the claims made by chiropractors about the benefits of chiropractics in treating childhood ailments were “bogus”. Singh fought for two years before the BCA dropped the case. Singh’s efforts not only exposed the claims of chiropractors to much closer scrutiny but also highlighted the need for libel law reform in the UK. As Singh explained, the existing libel laws in Britain inhibit free speech and discourage doctors, scientists and journalists from speaking out publicly on issues of important and valid public interest. This is not in the interests of good medicine or public health safety.
Exposing the fraudulent claims of psychics was a smaller, but important part of the convention. While the prattling of television psychics may seem entertaining and harmless, the industry has a darker side. Australian Skeptic, Richard Saunders spoke of the astoundingly insensitive claim by “clairvoyant”, Wendy Rosevall-Brookes, who announced recently, via Twitter, that she knows where missing Queensland schoolboy, Daniel Morcombe’s body is buried. Of course, many credulous Australians lose thousands of dollars each year to “psychics” who prey on their vulnerability. Examining the predictions made by Australia’s leading psychics for 2010, Saunders noted that while they “predicted” that “Nicole Kidman has her best film role yet to come” and that “those that fail to prepare for the global changes afoot will find it hardest to adapt” they completely failed to foresee the Chilean earthquake, the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, the election of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the Chilean or New Zealand mine disasters.
Educators, such as America’s Eugenie Scott, argued against the intrusion of religious dogma into science classes. Concerns about religious sensitivity to evolution are leading to dangerous compromises in both countries. Creationism and Intelligent Design are creeping into science classes, or evolution is being removed from curriculums for fear of offending the sensibilities of religious parents. This results in a second class education for our future scientists. As one panelist said, “Leaving out evolution from biology class is like leaving out the periodic table in chemistry!”
Pell and his vitriol look small and sad in comparison with the many convention delegates who work long hours for no pay campaigning for better health information, improved health care, better regulation of fraudulent practices and a first-class education for our kids. Contrary to Pell’s poorly-informed jibes, they lead lives filled with purpose motivated by love for their fellow humans - theist or non-theist. Far from being frightened of the future as Pell claims, they embrace the fact that they have but one, short life to live. Knowing this, they seek, with gusto, to seize the day and make it count. Clad in jeans and nerdy t-shirts instead of cardinal’s robes, these godless geeks work tirelessly, without the benefit of the Vatican’s billions, to make the world a better, safer, healthier, more trustworthy place for all of us. They may not be Princes of the Church, but they are surely the rabble-rousers of reason.