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Report from the Skepsis Congres on 8 November 2014 in Utrecht, the Netherlands

The Dutch-speaking skeptical landscape

For a bit of context, let me take you on a short tour around the skeptical movement in the Dutch-speaking world. This includes the Netherlands and Flanders (Northern Belgium). In total there are four active organizations; two in the Netherlands and two in Flanders. In the Netherlands the Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij (Society Against Quackery) or VtdK, founded in 1881, is the oldest skeptical organization in the world. The VtdK specifically focuses on fighting harmful or useless (alternative) medicine. The second organization in the Netherlands is Stichting Skepsis (founded in 1987 with the help of Paul Kurtz), which focuses on skepticism in general. In Flanders there is SKEPP (founded in 1990 with the help of James Randi and Skepsis), also focused on skepticism in general. Het Denkgelag, the fourth group, is a recent offshoot from SKEPP (althought they’re not competing, rather completing each other) that was founded in 2012 to hold discussions and lectures aimed at attracting people outside the skeptical community, and stimulating critical thinking. The four groups often work together and support each other’s actions through coordinated events such as the 10:23 Campaign in Amsterdam, and in 2009 Skepsis and SKEPP started up a support fund when the VtdK came in financial troubles because of a lost lawsuit (they could not call a quack a ‘quack’; later this case was reopened, however, and ruled in favor of the skeptics). Besides these four, there are also several humanist and freethought groups that are especially skeptical about religion.

My first conferences

Since I became a skeptical activist 2 years ago, I have been to several conferences. On 17 October 2013, Het Denkgelag organized an event at Ghent University, which was attended by a thousand people, was mainly a discussion between three American top scientists (Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and Massimo Pigluicci, moderated by Flemish philosopher Maarten Boudry) and was not an ordinary skeptical convention. The VtdK symposium on 4 October 2014 was very interesting, but mainly restricted itself to alternative medicine (especially acupuncture), and was principally intended for an ingroup of physicians (non-members had to pay absurdly high entrance fees). Therefore, the Skepsis Congres is the best example of a skeptical conference in the Dutch-speaking world: it is accessible for lay people, there is a lot of interaction with the audience, and they address any and all skeptical issues without specialization. It has been held annually since 1988, most often in Amersfoort or Utrecht because of their central location within the Netherlands. There are also frequently speakers invited from Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom or the United States. Attendees are mostly from the Netherlands, and to a
lesser extent from Belgium.

This would become my fourth skeptical conference; in April 2014, I also attended QED: Question, Explore, Discover in Manchester, which really was a wonderful experience. I was very excited to meet old and new friends, and recruit people for Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW), the project initiated by Susan Gerbic that I’ve devoted most of my spare time to in the past 1.5 years as the Dutch language team leader.

Tribute to Rob Nanninga

crowd watching a lecture
Nanninga’s Wikipedia page on display (Photo: Leon Korteweg).

This year, the Skepsis Congres had ‘Crisis in Science’ as its theme. The first session was about the current state of affairs within Stichting Skepsis, especially after the passing of Skepter editor Rob Nanninga, whose Dutch Wikipedia page I had recently written. I have now also translated his biography to English, which appeared as a ‘Did you know…’ on English Wikipedia’s Main Page on 18 February 2015. Nanninga’s life was discussed in detail, and how, during his 25 years as editor, of which 10 were as editor-in-chief, he had engaged in informing the public with reliable information by critical investigation, including countless experiments he had performed to test extraordinary claims. He leaves a great hole behind him in Skepsis, that could not be immediately supplanted; they were still looking for an apt successor. Simultaneously however, Nanninga has long obstructed modernisation of Skepsis: for example, he wanted no part of
the new social media, articles always have to have been well-researched and serious in style, there could be no quick and short humorous refutations of everyday falsehoods, and during his management, the website kept a ’90s look. With him gone, a lot of reforms are now being conducted that members had been demanding for a long time. Fortunately, as was announced 6 weeks later, renound science journalist Hans van Maanen, who was present at the Congres and discussed the matter confidentially with the board that day, had shown interest and eventually agreed to becoming the new editor.

Skeptical outreach

participants posing for a picture
Clockwise: Emile, Coen, Leon, Vera.

Secretary Jan Willem Nienhuys, who acted as master of ceremonies during the Congres, has a good story about the state of Skepsis. With a great sense of humor, he informed us about recent correspondance and news items, and reported on the finances. Fortunately the foundation is quite wealthy, and there is ample funding available for new initiatives. During the Q & A, he asked if anyone had ‘good ideas for Skepsis’, and that’s when I succeeded in getting the microphone, even though I showed up late and I’m not well-known within the Dutch skeptical movement (yet). I would have met up with my team members, but had no idea yet where in the room they sat. Coen and I, who had been collaborating online for months, made our first real-life eye contact when the microphone was brought to me, and once I started speaking, Vera (who sat in the front row to take pictures of the speakers for Wikimedia Commons) recognised my voice, turned around and smiled at me. I felt tense as 250 pairs of eyes were directed at me (or at least 250 pairs of ears), but I did it. My first statement advocated setting up an official skeptical podcast for Skepsis, and to fund it liberally; –comparing it to the methods used for the
Kritisch Denken (Critical Thinking) podcast–, in order to reach a much broader audience with skepticism. My second statement was to request attendees please join us to improve and expand Wikipedia, with the goal of making it more skeptical! I gave the example of Nanninga’s page, when Nienhuys interrupted me: ‘Yeah, I’ve already shown that,’ and he went back a few slides and put up a screenshot of his WP page!! I said: ‘Wonderful! Sorry I missed that, I was late, but great! So you all already know what we do and how you can help. Come talk to me during the break, I’ll explain everything. We are (*prominently showing my T-shirt*) Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, come join us!’ Nienhuys then said: ‘And what is your name, so people know?’ I said: ‘Leon Korteweg!’ Nienhuys: ‘Thank you, Leon!’ And I got a round of applause. The remainder of the Q & A, Nanninga’s page was shown to the audience; I can’t imagine a better outreach moment for GSoW. Although I was slightly shaking on my legs, and for 15 more minutes afterwards on my chair, I had succeeded.

three people posing for a picture
New recruits! (Photo: Vera de Kok)

Crisis in science

A while later Emile also entered the room; he is the skeptical rogue of the Dutch team, trying to remove nonsense and challenging dubious claims wherever he finds them. The sessions thereafter were all highly informative and often comical though disquieting lectures from top scientists, showing that science is in a state of crisis: sloppy trials are done, there is a lot of fraud going on to pretend the results are positive so that research funds can be secured and products can be sold, and of course there is massive publication bias. The speakers Ruud Abma (teaches General Social Sciences at Utrecht University), Gustaaf Cornelis (teaches philosophy of science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the University of Antwerp), and Yvo Smulders (professor of General Internal Medicine, VU University Amsterdam) focused mainly on medicine. But it happens in other fields like psychology and sociology as well, Diederik Stapel being a notorious Dutch example who confessed his fraud and apologized, but he is just the tip of the iceberg. Such practices are very harmful to society, because costly trials are unnecessarily repeated because earlier negative results were never published, and medicines that don’t work or can even
harm patients manage to slip through the review process due to commercial and financial interests. We shouldn’t just be skeptical about pseudoscience, but also extremely critical of all corruption within real science that is out of control. Proposed countermeasures to make science healthy again included decreased publication and performance pressure and early education in scientific ethics.

A wonderful day ends

I estimate that, thanks to Coen’s design and printing, we were able to hand out our stylish GSoW business cards to about 90% of the attendees, and a number of those we also gave cards of Kritisch Denken. We recruited at least two new members on that day alone, and hope that more will contact us later. During the lunch break I also had the opportunity to hold an informal interview with Catherine de Jong (chair of the Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij and board member of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations), in which I obtained important information for my Wikipedia draft article about her, and I let her review it on my phone (because science!). I talked in depth and also briefly with a lot of different people, and afterwards Emile, Vera and I dined with several Skepsis board members, who are among the most active in the movement, sharing their experiences of how they had and are making a change by reaching the Dutch public with skepticism. What an amazing day.

many people sitting around a table in a dim room
Dining with Skepsis board members.

This article had been originally published in Skeptical Inquirer.

Author: Leon Korteweg
Date: 8th November 2014