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).