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Stockholm Skeptics Study Self-Deception

2 September, 2013 by David Finer

The 15th European Skeptics Congress in Stockholm mobilized speakers from around 10 countries and about 160 participants. The theme of self-deception ran through most contributions. The lectures will air on the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company´s Educational Channel later this fall. This is the first report by I C´s medical reporter David Finer.

The so-called skeptics’ movement has emerged during the last few decades, principally in Anglo-Saxon countries. According to Wikipedia, modern scientific skepticism can be traced to a book by mathematician/author Martin Gardner in 1952. The Swedish skeptics’ organization VoF (Science and Continued Education) was founded in 1982, its motto being: “for critical thinking against pseudoscience.”

PJ Råsmark, chairperson of the organizing committee behind the congress doesn´t seem entirely comfortable with the term skeptics, however.

– Of course we are skeptics and part of the skeptics´ movement. But we feel the concept unfortunately tends to be equated with something negative and boring. We also want to project a more positive image, tell people that we are involved in training critical thinking for example. There´s nothing wrong in having fun either. We provide entertainment by way of the conjuring acts at the congress for example.

Infected Relations
Unfortunately, relations between the skeptics and their critics are infected. The Swedish members of the skeptics’ movement are not infrequently sarcastic and contemptuous in their attacks on what they perceive as sectarianism, pseudoscience and the like. The movement has in turn been criticized for being overly rationalistic and for persecuting dissidents e.g., by awarding its Bemuddler prize (to an individual seen by the skeptics as advocating irrational or otherwise reprehensible views). The skeptics however deny this completely.

Alternative medicine has long been a preferred target of assailant skeptics, whose criticism sometimes strikes home. Other times, it is not only unjust but also – in its demagogical arrogance – deeply offensive.

Using the language and scientific worldview of the skeptics, almost all complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is synonymous with pseudoscience/ quackery. Interested readers can follow this line of reasoning further on the VoF homepage (, e.g., under the flap on skepticism (in Swedish). This approach was also illustrated by molecular biologist professor Dan Larhammar of Uppsala University, who lectured the evening before the official opening of the congress (see report in our next article).

Admirable Ambition
Self-deception was somewhat of an (unofficial) theme, when VoF hosted the European skeptics in the unlikely venue of Nalen, Stockholm´s legendary ballroom complex. All the lectures I heard (I was only able to attend one of the congress days) were imbued with the admirable ambition of counteracting our tendency to fool ourselves.

  • Hans Rosling, the now world-famous professor of international health and his son Ola Rosling from Gapminder taught the use of pedagogically presented statistics to further a fact-based worldview.
  • Prominent magicians from i.a., Sweden, Norway and the US did conjuring tricks, some even revealing the underlying magical mechanics.
  • Psychologists related the mechanisms behind phenomena such as selective perception, brain gymnastics and paranormal beliefs and experiences.
  • Scientists described pseudoscientific treatments in substance abuse care and alternative medicine in terms of hoaxes and wishful thinking, ascribing putative positive effects chiefly to the suggestion of the placebo effect.
  • Educationalists told the audience about training programs at different levels in several countries to promote critical thinking and the scientific method (or rather “the scientific method” in quotation marks, since the very concept of science itself is contested).
  • Journalists and analysts scrutinized the illusions created by media and PR firms. One of the invited speakers was the medical reporter Anna Bäsén at the Swedish evening tabloid Expressen, who just like Hans Rosling has been awarded public educator of the year.

Art Alone Is Honest
It should at once be said that this objective is very commendable in an age when we are subjected to manipulation from so many quarters. It is a necessary pedagogical task, even, and one which the congress carried out with consistency and apparently a successful outcome. Art, said one of the speakers, is really the only honest human endeavor, since it alone openly operates on the premise that it is lying/creating an illusion.

Max Maven, an American magician, said that conjurers are indeed deceptive, but they are also honest because of the tacit agreement with the audience that collaborates with the illusion-making. Deluding people is not necessarily wrong. In addition, a lot of people are deceptive in their everyday life, he said, for example bearers of contact lenses, projecting an impression that they are ”healthier than they really are”.

Bridging Knowledge Gaps
Opening the first day´s plenary lectures, Hans and Ola Rosling explained the goal of their company/website Gapminder as:” Fighting devastating ignorance with fact-based worldviews everyone can understand.”

Using surveys, the NGO Gapminder tries to determine where there are knowledge gaps in the population och then bridge the gaps, i.a., using their pioneering animated statistics graphics.

–         Gapminder only selects facts around which there exists a stable consensus among the experts. The problem is that our worldview is a product of own experiences, the media and school, all of which are unreliable as sources, Hans Rosling said.

A Crack in the Façade
The congress seems well-organized. The arrangers are even able to replace no-show speakers at short notice. The tone is mostly civilized and respectful.

But then for a moment the façade cracks and suddenly other attitudes become visible. Right before a coffee break on the first day, some slight technical problem occurs, which threatens to upset the schedule. Taking the microphone, organizer PJ Råsmark expresses the hope that the audience will still get their coffee at the appointed time.

A voice from the audience says: “Let´s pray for that”. Råsmark repeats the gag, and now there´s a brief burst of ironical guffawing, as the mob makes merry. Imagine, there are people who for real believe that prayer could make a difference!

With the caveat that I did not attend the whole congress, it seemed to be an event for the already converted true believers of the skeptical cause with an (almost total) absence of reflective or self-critical voices.

David Finer

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