Denkfest: Premiere in Zurich

By Sanal Edamaruku

Sanal Edamraruku
Conference photos: Subodh Sinha

The event lived up to its name. In Zurich, the premiere of the Denkfest was put on stage this September. Under direction of the Swiss Freethinkers, it turned out to be a vibrant celebration of critical and scientific thinking on a high level. The idea was to bridge academic world and critical public. The aim was to find out what is to be accepted as confirmed knowledge in today’s world – a challenging question that brought in some clear and brilliant answers. The compact, multi-faceted program presented forty high profile speakers, the finest experts in their respective fields. On the agenda were cutting edge science, skeptical investigations and great innovative projects. And finally, a great panel discussion zooming in on rational thinking drew that “thin line between skepticism and denialism”. Taking part was nothing short of an intellectual adventure.

Sanal Edamaruku and Edzard Ernst
Sanal Edamaruku and Edzard Ernst, who spoke on Homeopathy

Though it’s impossible to do justice to all the excellent speakers, let me give a glance at the programme. There was a panel on Skeptical blogging that brought together some of today’s most brilliant young science bloggers from all over the world. Some talks brought popular therapies under the critical scanner, among them Chi and Brain Gym. And compellingly presented by Edzard Ernst, holder of UK’s first Chair in Complementary Medicine: the case against Homeopathy. The discussion of various aspects of the psychology of superstition and weird beliefs provided deep new insights. There were fascinating talks about neurobiological mechanisms of the “believing brain” and about the cognitive science of delusional beliefs. Christine Mohr, specialist on cognitive and neuropsychological correlates of magical thinking and belief, explained the influence of neurotransmitters on brain functioning and showed how dopamine can turn skeptics into believers.

Then there were highly informative talks about conspiracy theories: of course – on September 11 a must - on “9/11”, but also on 2012 and the obscure “PlanetX” that is supposed to collide with the Earth next year but failed to show up on astronomy’s radar screens so far. An especially ideal and arguably one of the most dangerous topics of conspiracy theories was presented by the immunologist Beda Stadler: it is vaccination.

Thorsten D. Künnemann
Thorsten D. Künnemann speaking on the Technorama

A string of very special talks focussed on “Science for kids”, starting off with a workshop for teachers. Introduced were successful models like Camp Quest and its Swiss counterpart called “Rucksackschule”, the Childrens University Steyr and the famous Swiss Science Centre Technorama, the largest and most renowned science centre in the world. In his inspiring talk, Technorama director Thorsten D. Kuennemann had the audience hypothesise about jumping of balls with a foot ball and a tennis ball. He explained how facts and observation – not theories and indoctrinating “stories” – spark scientific spirit and turn children into young researchers.

There was a presentation of cutting-edge science on each conference day, including new trends in Immuno-bioengineering and the Blue Brain Project, which attempts to reverse-engineer the brain using supercomputers. Ueli Straumann, experimental physicist and head of the Collaboration Board of the Large Hadron Collider experiment, explained all about quarks, leptones, anti-matter and higgs and discussed the boundaries of scientific reasoning about the constituents of matter and the observable universe.

Eugenie Scott, Sanal Edamaruku and Deepali
Eugenie Scott, who spoke on Creationism, Sanal Edamaruku and a member of the Indian delegation, Deepali

I spoke about my efforts to expose the Indian fakir Prahlad Jani, who came to the limelight with the absurd claim that he did not eat nor drink for seven decades. He was tested twice by medical researchers, who chose not to expose him as a fraud, but to protect and promote him as example for the dangerous pseudo-science of “bretharianism” that has many followers in the Western world. Revealing the background of my case, I faced a wonderful audience that rewarded me with attentiveness, generous applause and some interesting questions. Most of the participants were well aware about my work and about the Indian Rationalist Association and used the occasion to express their enthusiasm about the Tantra Challenge with a cordial extra applause that moved me.

Luigi Garlaschelli
Luigi Garlaschelli, who presented his replica of the Turin Shroud

Sharing the section of skeptical investigations of religious claims with me, the American anthropologist Eugenie Scott gave an instructive account of the sports of Creationism and Intelligent Design in the USA. And Luigi Garlascelli, the Italian research chemist, who famously duplicated the blood of St. Januarius in the lab, presented his replica of the Shroud of Turin and explained in detail how the medieval original may have been produced.

Andreas Kyriacou
Andreas Kyriacou, President of the Zurich Freethinkers, initiated and brilliantly organised the Denkfest

The audience in the packed auditorium of the historical Volkshaus came from all over Europe, from the USA and.India (I travelled with a small delegation). The organisers counted more than 400 registrations. Many of the participants were highly educated, most of them showed a high degree of awareness and curiosity, many were quite young and all were exceptionally disciplined and concentrated. They valued the high quality and refreshing open-mindedness of presentations and discussions. Everybody whom I talked to felt immensely enriched, inspired, sometimes thrilled. So felt I. What a sparkling conference! *)

Congratulations to the Swiss Freethinkers for this great success! And special appreciation for Andreas Kyriacou, the young and dynamic President of the Zurich Freethiners, who had the vision and the energy to make the premiere of the Denkfest reality! May it become a regular event! Looking forward to meet in Zurich again!

*) Remember those frowsy clubs of self-styled do-gooders and recreational ethicists who satisfy themselves with vaunt and resolution drafting, and feel the difference...