Zero Order


Diving Head First into the World of Skeptics

Posted in Uncategorized by Amy Ross on January 29, 2012

Things went pretty well at Chicago Skepticamp yesterday.

The event was held at Streetside Bar and Grill in Logan Square. Between 50 and 70 people came out to hear short presentations on a variety of topics and socialize.  Camps are informal events, as noted when the organizers showed the program could be made into a paper hat! The bar was open, but I waited until after my talk to drink.

Beth proudly wears her program/hat! Photo by Ivan Phillips

As I mentioned before, my talk was on stem cell facts and misconceptions. There’s enough material on bogus stem cell information to fill a few hours, but I focused on one particular claim: that embryonic stem cells are useless or not as useful as adult stem cells for clinical applications. These claims are typically made by people who have an ideological opposition to embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). If someone has  a moral opposition to ESCR, I can deal with that, they’re entitled to their opinion. But when ESCR opponents start distorting the science, I get angry.  So I discussed the different stem cell categories, advantages and disadvantages to each in research for disease treatment, and argued that all categories were valuable in further research.

While putting together this talk, I actually learned a lot, particularly about hematopoieitic (blood-forming) stem cells (HSCs). We didn’t talk about HSCs as much in class, but they’ve been used in therapy for years and still being investigated for experimental treatments.   I prepared the talk assuming my audience, being interested in science, already knew quite a bit about stem cells, but didn’t know a lot of details, such as the different types of adult stem cells (e.g., HSCs versus mesenchymal stem cells).  I tried not to get overly technical, so no qPCR results, no graphs, only diagrams of stem cell sources or differentiation.

Chicago Skepticamp attendees wave hello to Skepticamp Madrid, joining us via Skype! Photo by Ivan Phillips.

When the event started, I got a little worried my content was going to be too dry and technical. I hadn’t attended a Skepticamp before, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.  One of the early speakers, Ashley, gave a lighthearted talk about bogus anti-aging treatments-all involving lasers, for some reason. The audience got a kick out of the crazy things people will do to get rid of cellulite. I was thinking “Crap, I hope everyone isn’t bored during my talk. The funniest thing I have is a quote from the Institute for Creation Research.”

Despite a little adjustment in speaking in front of such a large audience (and using a microphone-I’m not used to that!) the talk went over well. I had a lot of questions at the end, everything from cost differences to the different phases of FDA clinical trials. During lunch and breaks, many people approached me with additional questions. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to answer all the questions I got, but I did provide resources for more information in my presentation slides.

Overall I had a lot of fun at Skepticamp, although I felt worn out my the end of the day. Everything ran smoothly; very few technical

My talk! The image on the slide is a megakaryoycyte, the cell responsible for producing platelets. Photo by Ivan Phillips.

problems and events didn’t get too far off schedule. My favorite talk was “Canine Aggression and Dominance: Myths and Misunderstandings” by Lynn Liliedahl.  This is a topic I’ve never seen discussed in a skeptical context, but the topic is important because handling an aggressive dog incorrectly could result in physical harm. As much as I enjoy a bizarre conspiracy theory, has anyone been injured from believing the moon landing was faked? Highly unlikely.  I also got a lot out of listening to Ali Marie’s talk “Fostering Curiosity”, focused on encouraging preteen and teen interest in science.

Today I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do with this talk in a longer format. I’d like to go into more detail about the complexity of engineering solid tissues, which I only touched on in this talk. I’d also like to delve into stem cell quackery-charlatans offering stem cell injections (usually outside the U.S.) that don’t actually do anything. What other topics could I bring to Chicago skepticism? Myths about nanotechnology? Studies about belief? The possibilities are numerous!

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