SkeptiCal 2015 Speakers

Plenary Speakers



Peggy G. Lemaux

Angst in the Grocery Aisle: The Debate over Genetically Modified Foods

Commercial introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops (a.k.a. GMO’s) occurred in 1995. Today engineered varieties of large-acreage crops, i.e., alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, soybean and sugar beet, represent a large percentage of the crops grown in the U.S. Because ingredients from these crops are used in many processed foods, the percentage of processed foods with an ingredient from a GE crop is estimated to be around 75%. Lemaux will discuss issues relating to the growth of GE crops and their presence in the food supply. Information will be shared on potential benefits and risks of GE crops and foods in developed and developing countries. Attention will be paid to the genesis of consumer response to their introduction into and continued presence in the marketplace.

As a faculty member in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley, Lemaux has responsibility for both a research program focused on crop improvement and an outreach program aimed at consumers, the media, legislators and K-12 educators. Outreach efforts explore the impact of different types of agriculture and food production systems and the impact of new technologies, like genomics and genetic engineering, on these endeavors.



Natalie Batalha

Toward Other Earths, Other Life: NASA's Kepler Mission

The goal of finding extraterrestrial life looms closer as a result of discoveries made by NASA's Kepler Mission. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is exploring the diversity of planets and planetary systems orbiting other stars in the galaxy. While touching on pseudoscience in exobiology, Dr. Batalha will describe the latest discoveries of NASA's Kepler Mission and the possibilities for finding inhabited environments in the not-so-distant future.

Dr. Natalie Batalha is an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center and the Mission Scientist for NASA's Kepler Mission. She holds a Bachelor's degree in physics from the University of California (UC), Berkeley, and a Doctoral degree in astrophysics from UC Santa Cruz. Dr. Batalha started her career as a stellar spectroscopist studying young, sun-like stars. After a post-doctoral fellowship in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she returned to California. Inspired by the growing number of exoplanet discoveries, she joined the team led by William Borucki at NASA's Ames Research Center working on transit  photometry -- an emerging technology for finding exoplanets. Dr. Batalha has been involved with the Kepler Mission since the proposal sage and has contributed to many different aspects of the science, from studying the stars themselves to detecting and understanding the planets they harbor . She led the analysis that yielded the discovery in 2011  of Kepler-10b- the mission's first confirmation of a rocky planet outside our solar system. Today, she leads the effort to understand planet populations in the galaxy based on Kepler discoveries. She served ten years as professor of physics and astronomy in the classrooms of San Jose State University before joining the  Astrophysics Branch of the Space Sciences Division of NASA Ames Research Center. In 2011, Dr. Batalha was awarded a NASA Public Service Medal for her vision in communicating Kepler science to the public and for outstanding leadership in coordinating the Kepler Science Team. In 2015, she joined he leadership team of a new NASA initiative dedicated to the search for evidence of life beyond the Solar System. NASA's Nexus for Exoplanet System (NExSS) brings teams from multiple disciplines together to understand  the diversity of worlds. Kepler has demonstrated that earth-size planets abound in the galaxy. NExSS will lead NASA's efforts to understand which are most likely to harbor life.



Ann Reid 

OMG virus!! Flu, Ebola, Measles and when you really should be afraid

Ebola, influenza, bird flu, SARS, HIV, West Nile, Hantavirus, measles, – one could go on. Each of these viruses has, at one time or another (or in some cases repeatedly), been the subject of breathless front-page scare headlines. Fear, after all, grabs our attention. And fear, when it comes to viruses, can be a highly appropriate response. But our fears are often disproportionate to the actual degree of risk. Furthermore, because fear is a highly effective tool for manipulation, emphasizing––or sometimes exaggerating–– risks plays a big part in public communications about viruses. So what’s a layman to do? When is it appropriate to be afraid, and what kinds of precautions are reasonable? Three case studies will illustrate the complicated ways that fear can get in the way of a clear-eyed view of how much risk a virus poses, and what a reasonable person should do about it. First, the 1918 influenza virus killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. What made it so lethal, and are warnings that bird flu could cause a similar outbreak justified? Second, how concerned should we be about Ebola, and what is an appropriate response? And finally, how has fear of vaccination superseded fear of the diseases it prevents?

Ann Reid became the executive director of NCSE in 2014. For fifteen years she worked as a research biologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, where she co-led the team that sequenced the 1918 influenza virus. She then served as a Senior Program Officer at the National Research Council’s Board on Life Sciences for five years and then, most recently, as director of the American Academy of Microbiology. In both roles she oversaw major efforts aimed at communicating science to the public.



John P. A. Ioannidis

Reproducible Research: True or False?

The achievements of scientific research are amazing. Science has grown from the occupation of a few dilettanti into a vibrant global industry with more than 15,000,000 people authoring more than 25,000,000 scientific papers in 1996–2011 alone. However, true and readily applicable major discoveries are far fewer. Many new proposed associations and/or effects are false or grossly exaggerated, and translation of knowledge into useful applications is often slow and potentially inefficient. Given the abundance of data, research on research (i.e., meta-research) can derive empirical estimates of the prevalence of risk factors for high false-positive rates (underpowered studies; small effect sizes; low pre-study odds; flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, analyses; biases and conflicts of interest; bandwagon patterns; and lack of collaboration). Currently, an estimated 85% of research resources are wasted. Interventions to make science less wasteful and more effective could be hugely beneficial to our health, our comfort, and our grasp of truth, and could help scientific research more successfully pursue its noble goals.

John Ioannidis, MD, DSc, is the C.F. Rehnborg Chair in Disease Prevention and Professor of Health Research and Policy at Stanford University, where he also co-directs the Meta-Research Innovation Center (METRICS) at Stanford. He is the author of many highly-cited papers, including the Public Library of Science - Medicine paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”, the most accessed article in the history of PLoS. He coined the term “Proteus Phenomenon” (from the Greek shape-changing god) to describe the tendency for early replications of studies to refute the original research, though later replications may confirm them. He has conducted extensive studies on the nature of bias in research, and how to correct it.

Breakout Speakers




Ron Hipschman

Science (in) Fiction

Science fiction is about possibilities. Like science, science fiction sets up hypotheses about the past, present and future, and then lets the experiment run to see what happens. Predictions of worlds, technologies, and societies are often wild and speculative. Sometimes they come true. We’ll take a look at a few of these predictions and examine the misses and sometimes surprising successes of these fictional speculations.

Ron Hipschman has worn many hats since he joined the Exploratorium in 1971: exhibit developer, author of two "Cookbooks" (manuals for building Exploratorium exhibits), and frequent writer for the Exploratorium magazine. In 1993, Ron established the museum's presence on the World Wide Web, making it among the first 600 websites in the world. In 1996, he spearheaded the museum's experiments with webcasting; he's contributed technical expertise and has hosted many shows, both locally and from locations as far away as the South Pole.  Ron also taught undergraduate physics and astronomy for 16 years, and he was a laser artist for Laserium concerts at the Morrison Planetarium for 20 years. He has a B.A. in physics and an M.A. in physical Science from San Francisco State University.



Kenzi Amodei

Your Inner Simulator: How to integrate logic and intuition

This workshop will delve into the cognitive science of why your brain can believe and want different things at the same time. Your "system 2" (or logical processes), and your "system 1" (intuitive processes) evolved independently of each other and don't always communicate well. In this workshop we'll go beyond the science to some useful tricks for tapping into your intuitive judgments to make more rational decisions.

Kenzi Amodei is the Director of Operations and a Curriculum Developer for the Center for Applied Rationality, a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading rational thinking skills. Kenzi has also worked as a professional stage manager throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a BA in theatrical stage management from Stanford University and a BS in biology from the University of Oregon.




Isil Arican

International Skeptical Activism

Promoting critical thinking is challenging everywhere. But it is even harder when there are deeply rooted superstitions, widespread denial of science, and political pressures on freedom of speech. Dr. Isil Arican will explore the examples of growing skeptical movement across the world with a focus on skepticism in Turkey, her native country. 

Isil Arican MD, graduated from Ege University School of Medicine in Turkey and has an MS degree in Healthcare Administration from the California State University. After working as a healthcare IT consultant in the Bay Area, she joined Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford as the Ambulatory Information Systems Director in 2014.  She is the founder and the author of Yalansavar, a well known Turkish skeptical website. As science advocate, she also contributes to an online popular webzine Acik Bilim as an author and editor and volunteers at TED Talks as a translator.




Frank Mosher

Workshop for Producing Skeptical Children

Back by popular demand, Frank Mosher will be conducting a hands-on workshop full of fun experiments parents/grandparents/prettymuchanyone can do with children to help them experience the wonder and excitement that is so key to scientific and skeptical inquiry.

Frank Mosher is the President of the Sacramento Area Skeptics, and has taught hands-on science enrichment to thousands of students in the greater Sacramento area.   




Robert Strong

The Comedy Magician

At SkeptiCal we always like to close out the day with a bit of entertainment at least tangentially related to scientific skepticism. This year we will be featuring Robert Strong, The Comedy Magician!

It all started when young Robert Strong visited Baltimore. A magician in the Amphitheater mesmerized him. At that moment Robert vowed to be the best magician ever. His parents considered therapy, but magic lessons were cheaper.

Robert continued training at Tannen’s Magic School in New York and Towson University in Maryland. He then studied with touring stand-up comedians, Cirque du Soleil choreographers, Ringling Brothers circus clowns, Broadway directors, and world-class jugglers.

Because Robert has worked all over the world, he has mastered performing for multi-lingual audiences. His shows are very visual. Robert has starred in a number of national television commercials, and made appearances on every major network! Wherever Robert goes, he still carries that sense of wonder and passion for magic that he first experienced as a youngster in Baltimore, but now he is the one doing the entertaining!