This was Benjamin Radford’s review of the First Ibero-American Conference on Critical Thinking, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, September 2005
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormali took an important step in establishing a skeptical presence in Latin America with a conference held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, September 17 and 18, 2005. The conference, co-sponsored by Pensar magazine and the Center for Inquiry, drew over 100 attendees from Chile, Brazil, Puerto Rico, the United States, Spain, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Speakers included Jorge Alfonso Ramírez (Pensar representative, Paraguay); Hugo Estrella (journalist, Argentina); Richard Branham (astronomer, Argentina); Luis A. Gámez (Pensar representative, Spain); Alejandro Agostinelli (journalist, Argentina); Ernesto Gil Deza (oncologist, Argentina); Enrique Márquez (magician Argentina); Gerardo G. Primero (psychologist, Argentina); Joe Nickell (investigator, USA); Norm Allen (editor, USA), Celso Aldao (physics professor, Argentina); Widson Porto Reis (engineer, Brazil); Mariano Moldes (biologist, Argentina); Tim Madigan (philosophy professor, USA); Tim Delaney (philosophy professor, USA); Pablo Mira (economist, Argentina); Benjamin Radford (investigator, USA); Diego Zúñiga (Pensar representative, Chile); and Pablo Capanna (philosophy professor, Argentina). Alejandro Borgo, editor of Pensar and the conference organizer, gave entertaining and informative talks about the need for skepticism in Argentina and his personal experience in trying to test paranormal claimants. Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Center for Inquiry and CSICOP, was unable to attend but delivered a videotaped address to begin the conference.
Among the North American contingent, CSICOP Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell gave a talk on his years of experience investigating the paranormal, including weeping icons and the Shroud of Turin. Delivering my speech in Spanish, I discussed real-world examples of the importance of keeping a vigilant skepticism. Norm Allen, director of African Americans for Humanism, spoke on religion and the growth of home remedies and witch doctor healing in Latin America and Africa. Philosophy professor Tim Madigan regaled the participants with a talk on W.K. Clifford’s 1887 treatise on the nature of belief.
There was a wide range of topics, and the speakers were uniformly good. There were a few tense moments when Luiz Gámez of Spain revealed CSICOP’s role in a global conspiracy. Several representatives, including me, began thinking of ways to silence Gámez before the next day’s sessions, but it soon became clear that he was speaking satirically (or so he thought) and that our sinister mission had not been compromised. We quietly sheathed our ricin-tipped canes.
Enrique Márquez discussed some examples of faith healers in Argentina and the damage they can do. In one case, the skeptics had a celebrity on their side, an actress whose sick father had gone to a faith healer but had not recovered. The news media at first ignored her criticisms of the alleged healer, but relented once she and Márquez pressured them.
Brazil’s Widson Porto Reis discussed the presence of pseudoscience in Brazilian colleges and universities, and the reluctance of many academics to acknowledge and denounce the educational travesty.
Chilean journalist Diego Zúñiga gave a presentation on the paranormal in Chile’s newspapers and magazines. He pointed out that often paranormal topics appear in the social and lifestyle sections, such as a profile of a woman who believes her dead father speaks to her and her family.
Alejandro Borgo was roundly and justifiably congratulated for his Sisyphean work organizing the event. In a bid to show that skeptics are not humorless doubters, Borgo scheduled performances by two entertaining magicians, Marduk and Merpin.
The audience included many journalists, as well as quite a few younger women—a nice change of pace for an organization whose ranks at times seem dominated by older white males. One of the most gratifying things to come from the conference was the sense of community: skeptics and humanists from a half dozen countries and three continents, speaking three or more different native tongues, drawn together for a common purpose. Many were heartened by the enthusiastic responses and the sense that we were in the first stages of a movement that, if properly supported and nurtured, may grow into an important and powerful force for rationality, science, and skepticism in Latin America.
The Ibero-American Conference on Critical Thinking was the first skeptical event in Latin America since 1989, when CSICOP held an event in Mexico City, Mexico. A follow-up conference is to be held in Lima, Peru, in 2006. Other potential conference sites that have been discussed include Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and another in Buenos Aires.
iToday, Committee For Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)
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