Talks at the Ciudad de las Ideas

November 25, 2017 • 10:15 am

So far I haven’t said much about the talks at the Ciudad de las Ideas in Puebla, Mexico.  I’ll mention just a few of them here, but there were so many, and spread out over three days from about 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., that I didn’t hear even most of them. I’ll give just a short report on the highlights for me.

Here’s the venue which, I was told, seats over 5,000 people; it’s the local civic auditorium whose use was donated to the conference. I took this onstage while we did our “practice” (learning how the screens and timer worked). I think there were about 3,000 people during the big talks; there are two levels above the floor:

David Buss gave a good talk the first day on “Beyond strategies of human mating: The evolution of desire”. He reprised evolutionary-psychology view of human mating, described a lot of studies of differential selectivity, adultery, and so on. It was great hearing someone describe the data unapologetically, without those odious nay-sayers who totally reject evolutionary psychology on ideological grounds (though they pretend they reject the whole field on scientific grounds). After his talk, an artist drew David’s caricature, as they did for many of the speakers; here he is (left) with the artist:

The opening talk was by Steve Pinker, called “Beyond violence” (the theme of the conference was “Beyond X”). I had hoped he’d talk about his new book, out February, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (this will be a must-read)but he told me that his publishers wanted him to hold off on that until a bit closer to release time, for talking about a book before it’s out doesn’t really boost sales. He did talk a bit about the values of reason, science, and humanism extolled in the new book, and also struck back, as you can see in the second photo, against his left-wing detractors who repeatedly criticize him for both having faith in progress and, in his last book, documenting it. The slide shows some criticisms leveled at Better Angels. The fuzziness is due to low lighting and a hand-held camera with no flash:

Afterwards I got a surreptitious shot of Steve’s cowboy boots: black quill ostrich. He has six pair now, and I take some credit for that. After all, cowboy boots are the Official Footwear of Atheists and Humanists™

And of course, as a big macher, Pinker was interviewed in the Green Room after his talk by a passel of reporters. The hair is unmistakable, even from a distance. In the background is the pastry bar.

For me the conference’s highlight was supposed to be a 1.5 hour discussion: a “Beyond Doubt Debate” on global warming.  At the beginning it was announced that all the speakers, pro and con, accepted anthropogenic global warming, and the debate was going to be on what we should do about it. But it turned out that the debate was largely about whether global warming was even real, and here we heard the familiar arguments of the climate-change deniers. The “pro-warming and we need to deal with it side”, had, I thought, the better arguments. But I’m sure the audience, faced with a barrage of conflicting statistics, was a bit confused. Andrés Roemer moderated, keeping strict time (one speaker got cut off despite protesting they he more to say).

Here are the “denialists” which I call those who might admit that climate change was real but not a danger. (The names of most everyone are underneath, but I’ll include links, for the Wikipedia pages, sans Krauss, describe their stands on global warming.)

Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist:

Lord Nigel Lawson, a British Tory politician and journalist (he’s the father of cooking star Nigella Lawson):

William Happer, a physicist and professor emeritus at Princeton.

And the “acceptance-ists”: those who thought global warming was a serious problem AND that we need to do something about it now.

Lawrence Krauss, whom we all know. He was eloquent and aggressive, as always, but made one tactical mistake, saying that behind all climate denialists was big money from conservatives like the Koch brothers. When the other side protested that none of their research was funded by any of these groups or people, it made Krauss (who had made a serious point) look a bit ad hominem, and the other side, having no great arguments of their own, tended to harp on that over and over.

Mario Molina, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out what caused the hole in the ozone layer—a very important discovery. I believe he’s Mexico’s only Nobel Laureate in science. He started off amiable and soft-spoken, but after hearing the distortions and arguments of the other side, got increasingly angry—to the point that he told one of them, who had interrupted him—to “shut up!”

Noam Chomsky had an onstage conversation with Andrés Roemer and Lawrence Krauss. Chomsky had his own special chair, something that Julia Sweeney pointed out (below) looked like either devil horns or angel wings. It was largely about politics, and I had trouble hearing it through the monitor. Chomsky had several choice comments on Trump and his administration, which to him was only the worst bit of an America that he thinks (as you know) is generally horrible. Chomsky is 89 now, and his mind is as clear as ever, even if I don’t agree with a lot of what he says.

Julia Sweeney gave the last “talk,” which was really her humorous take on selected talks, mostly from the last day. She had a hard job: I sat next to her right offstage watching her make notes on the talks as she watched the monitor in real time. At the end she went onstage and managed to synthesize the whole weekend into a humorous bit, along with some savvy comments and then a generous acknowledgment to Andrés Roemer and the rest of the organizers. Here’s Julia watching the proceedings. I have enormous respect to stand-up comics who can go onstage (she with just a tiny scrap of paper with notes) and extemporize a good bit.

I got her autograph for the copy of Faith versus Fact that will eventually go on auction for charity. (Other new signers included Pinker and two Nobel Laureates).

38 thoughts on “Talks at the Ciudad de las Ideas

  1. Sounds like a fun conference that took snack duty very seriously!

    It was great hearing someone describe the data unapologetically, without those odious nay-sayers who totally reject evolutionary psychology on ideological grounds

    I’m curious, was there anything new or interesting in his talk? This is one of those areas that can feel a bit like beating the dead horse, and as the conference theme was ‘beyond’, I wonder where he took it.

      1. I didn’t think there was a pejorative connotation; but when I realized there was a range of meaning, I wanted to explore it. I really wanted to learn Yiddish, but difficult to find a class when one is a Goy with no familial background in the language

    1. A “Macher” is an informal German term for someone who gets stuff done, a practical person who doesn’t waste time and brings results; literally, a “maker”. Jerry likely cites it via Yiddish, which emerged out of Middle High German in the Medieval Period (but was shaped by many other influences ever since).

    2. I have clicked from interest on this link, because “Macher” is a very familiar word for me as a German-speaking. That in the article in question for the etymological derivation only to the Yiddish and not to the German language takes reference, I am very surprised, because the roots of “Macher” are clearly in the (Old) High German: from “machen” (make) -> “Macher”

  2. When I see Steven Pinker, I have the urge to listen some harpsichord tunes. I know he has a New Enlightenment book coming up, which I’m eager to read. Not sure if the hair cut is part of the proposal or just method acting to get into the period headspace. 🙂

  3. Re: “Mario Molina, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize for figuring out what caused the hole in the ozone layer—a very important discovery.”

    The discovery of the Antarctic ozone layer was in 1985, 11 years after Molina’s 1974 hypothesis that household aerosols were dissolving the ozone layer. This vindicated him.

    It was actually the Rowland-Molina hypothesis put forward by Frank Rowland and Mario Molina. They both got the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995, 21 years later.

    So it was:
    1) Rowland and Molina predicting aerosols probably were depleting ozone in 1974.
    2) discovery of actual ozone hole in 1985.
    3) Nobel Prize to scientists in item #1 in 1995.

    Molina’s partner, Frank Rowland, is the father of art historian, Ingrid Rowland, who was a childhood playmate of mine, as the Rowland family were our neighbors until we moved when I was 3.

      1. I recall a dinner party at the Rowlands circa 1987, in which Frank was waxing eloquent on Republican science denialism, long before it became the subject of popular books.

        Someone brought up that Democrats were not perfect in this regard, after which I quipped,
        “Let’s not equate the Democrats with truth” to which Franklin Rowland replied, “You’re right, but we should equate the Republicans with falsehood.”

  4. Lord Lawson is an obstinate climate change denier. BBC recently had to apologise for letting him ramble about it unchallenged in a recent interview. Hardly somebody organisers should be proud of inviting to this conference.

  5. I love coming on here. I was going to ask on what do you disagree with Noam Chomsky? Just curious. Looks like a fun conference. My hair is going to look like Steve Pinker’s when I am older. Thank you.

  6. Admission: I’m biased – I absolutely despise Lindzen & Lawson for being crooks. That said regarding the three rogues in the above pictures…

    Note that I’ve included these peoples ages – the good news is they’ll do the world a favour fairly soon! If only Krauss had armed himself with the necessary weapons! Here is what I found out in 10 minutes via the internet – I’m betting it’s fairly accurate & the whole truth is probably much worst.


    [1] Richard Lindzen [Age 77]

    The Guardian reported in 2016 that Lindzen has been a beneficiary of PEABODY ENERGY, a coal company that has funded multiple groups contesting the climate consensus. In 2015, an investigation by the New York Attorney General concluded that Peabody had misled investors concerning the financial risks to the company caused by climate change.

    [2] Nigel Lawson [Age 85 & general all around b**tard]

    Lawson has been corrected face-to-face a number of times regarding his ‘erroneous’ facts & conclusions. He carries on using the same discredited lines of argument entirely without embarrassment.

    During the UK parliamentary expenses scandal, it was revealed Lawson claimed £16,000 in overnight allowances by registering his farmhouse in Gascony as his main residence.

    2009: Lawson became chairman of a new think tank the Global Warming Policy Foundation [GWPF], a registered education charity promoting climate change denial.

    2014: The Charity Commission ruled that the GWPF had breached rules on impartiality – so a non-charitable organisation called the “Global Warming Policy Forum” or “GWPF” [note same initials of the ‘foundation’ & the ‘forum’] was created as a wholly owned subsidiary, to do lobbying that a charity could not

    Because it is registered as a charity, the GWPF is not legally required to report its sources of funding

    The foundation has rejected freedom of information [FoI] requests to disclose its funding sources on at least four different occasions

    Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, commented: “These [FoI] documents expose once again the double standards promoted by … the GWPF, who demand absolute transparency from everybody except themselves … The GWPF was the most strident critic during the ‘Climategate’ row of the standards of transparency practised by the University of East Anglia, yet it simply refuses to disclose basic information about its own secretive operations, including the identity of its funders.

    [3] William Happer [Aged 78]

    In December 2015, Happer was targeted in a sting operation by the environmental activist group Greenpeace; posing as consultants for a Middle Eastern oil and gas company, they asked Happer to write a report touting the benefits of rising carbon emissions. Happer asked the fee to be donated to the climate-change skeptic organization CO2 Coalition, which suggested that he reached out to the Donors Trust to keep the source of funds secret; hiding funding in that way is lawful under US law. Happer acknowledged that his report would probably not pass peer-review with a scientific journal.

    1. Thanks for the detailed bios on the deniers.

      I find it odd that a secular conference would invite speakers who are the climate-change equivalent of creationists. It turns the discussion into a political debate and ultimately adds nothing in the way of solutions. Solutions are impeded when the underlying cause and effects of climate-change (or creationism) are still considered “debatable”.

      1. Thanks – yeah you’re absolutely right

        WARNING: Excessive use of exclamation marks below! [& just then to get warmed up]

        I don’t know why the organisers thought it necessary to package a fixed tag team wrestling match as an intellectual exploration of beliefs & ideas! A complete waste of energy. In 2010 the same venue staged a ‘debate’ [though Dawkins didn’t like that word being used] on the question “Does The Universe Have A Purpose?” with:

        Matt Ridley**, Shermer & Dawkins


        Rabbi David Wolpe, WL Craig & Douglas Geivett

        The podium was inside a full size boxing ring – at least an honest admission it was an entertainment circus! Of course, there was method in the madness – it was broadcast on HBO TV the next night [in English & Spanish versions] just before the dodgy [fixed***?] Manny Pacquiao vs Antonio Margarito fight!!!

        To rub acid into the comedy wounds, that mouthpiece-for-hire Michio Kaku was there in some sort of moderating role, sitting in a suspended sofa!

        ** A climate ‘minimalist’ by the way
        *** The Pac-Man beat the much bigger opponent, but got hurt

        No. I’m not on Acid – all the above is true, ‘cept for my speculation on the authenticity of the boxing match that followed 🙂

        Debates & having ‘sides’ is old hat now as entertainment. I much prefer conversations such as at the Hay Book Festival – those are top value

  7. I had the opportunity to hear Steven Pinker give a talk on his new book at the FFRF National Convention this year, I can’t wait to read it!

  8. I do not understand how people who accept the empirical, documented reality of global warming but have doubts about predictions about the degree of global warming in the future and about the ways to tackle the problem can be called a very derogatory name “deniers”. All deniers deny the empirical reality and proven historical facts, whether it is Holocaust, evolution or the fact that the Earth is not flat. Of course, there are real “global warming deniers” who say that there is no warming whatsoever which is simply wrong if you look at the data. But people who have doubts whether the computer models really got it right about the future do not belong in this category.

    These predictions are not facts – they are not empirically confirmed, they are based on computer models where if you get just one assumption a bit wrong, your result can be wrong, and where you can never take into account all variables which can occur in the future. History is full of wrong predictions. It’s very difficult to be an expert on the future and most broad prediction about the future turned out to be wrong.

    Think about Malthus: the reality was: too many people, too little food; people multiply uncontrollably, we cannot produce more food. Prediction: there will be widespread famine and apocalyptic disaster for the whole humanity. This was science. Many people agreed and urged politicians to do something about it. We know what politicians did and we know horrendous cost of it. And we know that the description of reality of the time was absolutely right and that prediction was absolutely wrong.

    Unfortunately, in this thread I could only see arguments ad hominem, trying to discredit people who express doubts but not touching the problem itself.

    1. Who in this thread is making arguments ad hominem? If you mean me, then pointing out that a sample of climate deniers & climate minimalists are taking money from big oil, gas &/or coal & then lying about it is not ad hominem. Lying about taking money is an indicator of ones commitment [or lack of] to facts – to put it simply there are many, many paid liars in the denier camp & maybe some in the minimalist camp.

      Forget the models side of it for now – one need only look at how these people react to facts about the recent past to see these people are not seeking truth. That’s why I call them deniers.

      In the case of Lawson we have a crook who despite been corrected repeatedly… baldly repeatedly lies about the recent past figures for climate change, repeatedly lies about the comparative global subsidies paid to fossil versus renewable & repeatedly lies about the recent past global increase in frequency of extreme weather events.

      On the first point above he pulled that lie out of the bag one time too many on BBC Radio 4 & got such a barrage of pushback that he was forced to admit that his claim that recent global temperatures have fallen was false. In the end his Global Warming Policy Foundation [GWPF] admitted that Lawson’s ‘official figures’ were produced by a right-wing think tank.

      These people don’t give a toss about the truth – they are as mean, deceitful & disruptive as any Russian online troll army.

      They need to be shown up by facts & figures, by pointing out their dishonest avaricious ways & ultimately to have their reputations & influence dismantled for all time.

      1. Yes, I mean that these are arguments ad hominem: who payed them etc. Somehow it’s as if only some people in this debate took money and the other worked of pure idealistic motives for the good of humanity and the thought of any money never crossed their minds. But grants are given for research in special topics and if your topic is not to the liking of grant givers you get nothing (especially if grant givers get information that “Oh, he is just a denier”). And grants are money – without them you can’t conduct research. Money play huge role for Greenpeace and other envinronmentalist organizations. Without a sense of urgency people would not open their wallets, states would not give subsidies to wind and solar energy (which is produced by “capitalists” wanting profit in the same way as oil and coal producers want profit) etc. So money are present on both sides but only one side is denounced for them. Unfortunately, I know a lot less about these people who were participants in the Mexico meeting than about two other people, slandered and vilified in the same way and also called “deniers”: Bjorn Lomborg and Matt Ridley. Their arguments about the waste of money on a very ineffective ways to tackle global warming are convincing.

        The debate around this problem is not really like other debates in science. I know that in such debates can be plenty of vitriol but still they are debates about the problem and not about everything around it. People do not go to courts demanding that the court decides in scientific debate like it happened recently when Professor Mark Jacobson sued Profesor Christopher Clack. (My husband wrote recently about this strange atmosphere in this strange debate: here

        And you are not answering my question how a person who sees and accepts empirical facts but does not accept a prediction about the unknown future can be called a “denier”.

        1. It is better if you comment directly to the person[s] in the thread you are criticising or just name the poster[s]. Put yourself in my shoes – it feels strange to be alluded too in a sideways manner, while I’m in the same ‘room’ & in fact in the same ‘conversation’. I’m glad we now know your remarks are addressed to me. 🙂

          You seem to be unaware of the absolutely enormous global subsidies to fossil fuels – you only mention renewable subsidies.

          You can’t brush off my point that many [even most] of the ‘deniers’ are being paid to lie & they knowingly lie for personal gain! It isn’t enough to say that Greenpeace etc are funded too. I’m surprised at you pulling that move – a better one would be to point out that there seems to be dodgy dealings in carbon emission allowances market & in subsidies for things like household solar.

          I accept SOME of your Ridley point – you will note he is in my ‘minimalist’ pigeon hole. I follow Ridley with interest despite his Northern Rock faux pas! I think also that he makes good points – now & then… He is after all a big honcho in the British Humanist Association & a very digestible writer on evolution [The Red Queen is a great read on human evolution]. BUT he is hooked up with lying Lawson & the lying GWPF & I ask myself why is the extraordinarily wealthy [rich as god] Ridley in bed with those charlatans? He is politically naive in the extreme to lay down with those fellows.

          I believe Ridley is wrong in the first part of this:

          What I do not accept is that the change is or will be damaging, or that current policy would prevent it

          Only a rich man sitting in his castle could make that fatuous remark. Let the poor buggers who will be living in a desert eat cake! Who gives a damn about polar bears anyway? He has no idea about the coming mass migrations & the bloodshed & plague/famine horror that will come with it. But the guy has his blind spots – he should have seen Northern Rock crashing, but he CHOSE to unsee it!

          Are you aware of Ridley’s unpleasant dust up with Sachs? Ridley is a strange guy – likeable, but with a ‘side’ to him. When he forms an opinion it is very hard to move him off his path – this is a bad characteristic.


          And you are not answering my question how a person who sees and accepts empirical facts but does not accept a prediction about the unknown future can be called a “denier”.

          But I largely have! I have defined my ‘deniers’ as the liars, trolls, agents & thieves of the type named above.

          Then there’s the Ridley ‘minimalist’ type – you might want to look up Freeman Dyson who is roughly in the same place as Ridley in the climate wars map. These people both make good points, but sometimes they ain’t helping! Ridley is not technically proficient in some of the fields he argues in & at least Dyson admits his own lack of expertise in these matters. Ridley’s shifts in bedfellows makes him unreliable & I don’t know what to think about the value of his more technical arguments – I do know he’s a pragmatist who sees the opening of the Northern seas as a jolly good thing! I think Putin feels the same way & so do a lot of oil execs.

          1. A final point before my unchurch break: You will be aware of the methane bubbles coming out of the seabed

            Also the thawing permafrost of the extensive Russian steppe & the big mysterious holes appearing there & the supposed connection to methane release

            There is going to be a sudden tipping point driven by methane release & a warming runaway. It will be catastrophic. It will probably crash civilisation & rich men in their castles will suffer too.

            That’s my climate model.

          2. First, I’m sorry that I didn’t answer you directly. I though (wrongly, as it turns out) that it’s better not to single out anybody when I make an accusation about arguments ad hominem. Living in Poland I would have to be blind and deaf not kniowing about subsidies to coal. This is a huge item here and a subject of quarrel with EU, because coal mines should not be subsidized in Europe but Polish miners are a formidable force and all Polish governments are afraid of them. However, German subsidies to wind and solar power come to unbelievable sum of 190 billion Euros (data from Ridley) so Polish coal subsidies are a tiny fraction of it. I know that Germany is subsidising some of it’s coal mines and that they promised to end it 2018 but I couldn’t find any sums for these subsidies. And was not aware of subsidies for oil and gas. Could you, please, tell me where to look?

            The fact that Ridley was born in a very rich family is not his fault. As it’s not a fault of a poor African subsistence farmer that he was born poor. BTW, for this farmer Ridley, you and I are eqally unbelievably rich and priviledged. So I’m looking at what Ridley says not at his riches. And what he says is that this emission cutting policy is harming poor people in poor countries. He gives examples of installing solar panels in Africa which do not give enough electricity and are not fully reliable but not helping with instalation of gas power stations which would help these people much more and to lower cost (which, of course means that for the same amount you could help more people). So, no, he is not living in a castle without seeing the poor of the world.

            I’m sorry again, but would have to check the information about Nigel Lawson and the others being paid and being liars before I accept it. I’ve seen too many lies about people – repeated in good faith by decent people – to accept such grave accusations without checking.

            And the problem of research grants and money for NGO’s of all kinds is a real problem which you should not dismiss without checking.

            Our website is mainly in Polish. Only sometimes, if I have time, I translate articles by Andrzej into English. There are not many of them.

        2. I’m looking at the link you provided later on today – I must go out to unchurch now

          I did not know your newspaper had an English version – that’s very good news indeed. I will read it later & discover how to sub to it.

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