Skepticamp Kentucky 2012, Part 1

Here is the promised post from three weeks ago about SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012. I will be reviewing the speakers that I heard, though unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well that day and missed the last four talks.

First, an explanation of what a SkeptiCamp is. These are small mini-conferences put on by skeptics groups all over the country. Rather than calling in big names from out-of-town for speakers, the organizers of these conferences call on local volunteers who would like to research and present on a topic of their choosing. As a result these conferences are very low-cost to host, and attendance is typically free. For more information on SkeptiCamp, and to see if there are any in your area, visit the SkeptiCamp Wiki.

SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012 was the second annual SkeptiCamp hosted by the Louisville Area Skeptics. Local guest speakers presented on topics including how to think clearly, global warming, parasites, and the challenges faced by atheist kids in southern Indiana schools.

Darshwood the Conjurer

The first speaker was Darshwood the Conjurer, and the topic of his speech was “Making the Impossible Possible.”In his talk, he explains how anyone can accomplish seeming impossible tasks using the MUST system: Motivation, Understanding the problem, using a system System, and having Time to prepare. He demonstrated this principle by reciting the alphabet backwards fluently, and then showing how it could be done using a story about a “Man named ZY who is an X Warrior Viking…” and so on. It went a bit too fast for me to get the whole story in my notes. Anyway, the idea is that if you could remember how the story went (and stories are always easier to remember than a string of numbers) then recalling the story in your head would allow you to recite the alphabet backwards with no mistakes.  A volunteer from the audience accepted the challenge and did succeed in using the story system to recite the alphabet backwards from the stage.

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Christopher Graney

Next in line was Christopher Graney, who spoke about a classroom study of climate change in Kentucky that was conducted using basic data analysis from physics to analyze climate science data.

Christopher Graney

Students checked for trends in temp and precipitation in Frankfort, Bowling Green, and Williamstown though they found no major overall changes in temperate over 120 years. The practical conclusion from this is that the average Kentuckian has no personal experience of climate change within their lifetime. Most people either accept or reject climate change based on the authority of scientists or media (mostly media).

Christopher also had a point to make about passion and data. While the experiment was in progress, both a student who is a climate change denier and one who strongly supports climate change stated that they would not change their opinions regardless of what the data says. I would understand anyone thinking that the results of this experiment would not be conclusive either in favor or not of the existence of climate change, so some skepticism of the results as expressed by these students is understandable. However, it would be hard to deny that there are political and social factors that play a huge part in whether anyone accepts or denies climate change regardless of what the scientific data actually says. This is a bias that we all need to be aware of.

Shelly Henry and Sarah Henry

Shelly and Sarah are a mother/daughter pair who gave the next presentation for the day. Their talk was on countering religious bullying in public schools.

They started off with a brief history of court cases that touch upon the question of the separation of church and state in public schools such as

  • Engel v. Vitale (1962)
  • McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001)
  • Ahlquist v. Cranston (2012)

After the brief history lesson, they came to what I found to be the most interesting and engaging part of their presentation: Sarah’s own experiences of being an atheist in a Floyd County public highschool. In one incident, Sarah got a “letter from god” in her locker which was targeted at her as a atheist. School administrators would not consider it as bullying even though such religious bullying is acknowledged in school policy. The person who did it was caught on camera, but the school administrators ignored the incident because it was not done with “malicious intent.”

The discussions of Sarah’s experiences lead to a discussion among audience members about what does and does not count as religious bullying. It was generally agreed that merely discussing religion and religious belief is not bullying. Sarah even mentioned having mutually respectful discussions about religion with Christian classmates on her track team. However it does cross the line into bullying when the offender tries to force a discussion, makes threats like “you’re going to hell,” or covertly leaves religious artifacts or letters in the atheist student’s locker. Basically, whatever leads to a chilly or threatening environment for the atheist (or other minority) student counts as bullying.

At the end of their presentation Shelly and Sarah offer advice to parents and students for dealing with religious bullying:

  1. First know the bullying policies of your school.
  2. Then make the schools comply with the bullying policies, even though religious administrators may not understand why students pushing religion on a non-believing student would be a problem.

More on SkeptiCamp Kentucky coming up in my next post!

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