NECSS in Review (Part I)

Would it be too corny of me to say that NECSS was a complete SUCSS?

Perhaps. Too late now. At any rate, clearly I cannot put into real words how great it was. It was great to meet my fellow Labbers, it was great to witness so many great minds together, it was great meeting those great minds and shaking the hands that are attached to their mortal shells.

Now, when I talk about these great minds, I don’t just mean the speakers and panelists. I mean the attendees as well. I can safely say that everybody I met at NECSS, and even the people I met afterwards as facebook and twitter feeds began to cross, was awesome. You are all smart, wonderful people, and I am proud to share a dogmatic belief system with you. Ha HA! See what I did there? You know I kid.

A whole weekend full of great, spectacular people, and I only heard of one instance of infantile heckling and whispered, undeserved mockery of fellow skeptics (You know who you are). Shame on you. But in my everyday life, those people are the norm. That small handful of disrespectful people breaking the Wheaton/Plait Clause is my jaded baseline for humanity. Sitting in a room with over 500 people, and having only two or three dicks? That’s pretty damn good. That’s why I spent half of this article extolling you classy, beautiful, good-natured skeptics.

Because you all make skepticism great. Now that I’ve run out of adjectives, lets talk about a guy who knows something about not being a dick:

Phil Plait’s keynote was spot on as usual. For a man who worries about running out of things to talk about, he sure knows how to make a memorable speech. If anybody asks you “What’s your epsilon on that?” you can thank Phil.

He begins by talking about the Apollo moon landing and the inevitable conspiracy theorists who come out of the woodwork to dispute it. Phil frames these stories around the notion that the burden of proof is on the claimant. But he makes it clear to say that while all arguments against the moon landing can be proven false, we cannot without a sliver of doubt prove that we actually did land on the moon. It becomes an argument of evidence, and the evidence clearly sits on the side of human beings having walked on the moon. But the doubt is there. That is the epsilon.

What’s an epsilon? It’s a funny greek letter. It looks like this: ε

Oh right, you want a serious answer. Seriously, look at it: ε

Alright, alright. Think of Zeno’s Paradox, a topic Nadir and I poked and prodded over at Sci-ence.  The idea is that no matter how close you get to the target, you cannot reach it because there will always be a tiny distance you still have to cross to get there. Mathematically, this actually sort of works. But we know in reality the arrow actually does reach the target. Phil puts it this way,

“…if I had to assign a probability to their being right, it would be a very, very, very, very small number but it would not be zero… however, as a human being, as someone living my life as somebody thinking about this stuff… I can round down.

This is the take-away here.  This is the relationship between being a skeptic and being human. In mathematics, there will always be an epsilon, there will always be that wiggle room, that fudge factor. But as human beings, we can let epsilon get to zero provided it is small enough. Without it, we could reasonably argue a point until the end of time. We, as skeptics, are responsible for making sure our evidence is sound, and our logic correct before we round down and declare empirical truth. With wiggle room.

So don’t be a dick, and watch that epsilon.


In the next part of the Post NECSS Recap, I’ll touch upon one of the final events of the conference. Phil’s keynote speech talks specifically to us as Skeptics, but there was another speech given that applies to us here at Mad Art Lab as artists. Stay tuned.

Edits: Oops! Forgot the more tag. Don’t blog at 1am, kids.

Photo provided by Bruce Press. Who, in earlier times, would have been burned at the stake as a wizard for his photographic skills. Thanks!






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Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner.
He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.


  1. April 13, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Fantastic poster!

  2. April 13, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Ah! The poster is such a great idea. Poor Todd. Did you make more of those? ‘Cause you should. The NECSS Highlights series. Get crackin’!

  3. April 13, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Seh-Yuh-Cheh-Seh-Seh? 🙂

    But yes, it was awesome! I wish it was cheaper for me to get to NYC (It’s cheaper to fly LAX->JFK than YYZ->JFK), though – I’d like to go more often now that I know people from there.

  4. April 13, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    There are more coming. I’m going to try to at least make one a day until I run out of ideas. So many moments to poke fun at!

    Apologies for the lack of “more” tab!

  5. April 13, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Nicely done Maki. Nicely done.

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