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The Skeptics Society conference held in Wellington over the weekend was a fascinating affair that left me pleasantly surprised.

I had feared a series of slightly smug, self-serving lectures lambasting religion and anything else not explained conclusively by scientific fact. What I experienced was a room full of incredibly intelligent and open-minded people discussing some of the big science-related issues affecting society.It was only when a lone grand stander started mouthing off about UFOs and cures for cancer that the skeptic disdain was fully unleashed – and rightly so.

The Science Media Centre recorded the presentations and will be posting the audio on its site over the next couple of days. Among the highlights for me were Bernard Beckett’s delightful debunking of evolutionary psychology, Matthew Dentith’s evaluation of conspiracy theories as a “species of belief” and Dr John Robinson’s angry but sobering plea for us to take seriously the looming problem of overpopulation. Dr Robinson was interviewed yesterday by Graeme Hill on Radio Live on the subject – the audio isn’t online yet, but I’ll post a link as soon as it is.

Mention should be made of the the Skeptics’ awards – the Bent Spoon which is handed out to the creators of what is considered the worst example of science communication produced in the past year and the Bravo awards, which applaud good critical thinking displayed in reporting.

The documentary “Poisoning Paradise – Ecocide in New Zealand” which condemns use of 1080 poisoning to control possum populations, was slammed by the skeptics as encouraging a political push to stop 1080 poisoning that isn’t based on sound scientific facts.

Among those in the media winning praise from the skeptics are the Dominion Post’s Rebecca Palmer for a piece on the recent mataku court case. Close Up’s Hannah Ockleford received a mention for a piece investigating the dubious sales tactics of an Australian company that was blaming New Zealand water quality on all sorts of ailments. Veteran reporter Rob Harley and colleague Anna McKessar won praise for their documentary The Worst That Could Happen about “the increasing tendency for accusations of accessing computer porn to be made on unfounded grounds, and how it can have devastating consequences for people”.

Radio New Zealand’s Mediawatch show, put together by Colin Peacock and Jeremy Rose each week also won praise for continually taking the media to task for its failings

All up, a weekend that encouraged critical thinking, intelligent debate and arguments based on sound science. There has got to be value in that.

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