Radio Freethinker

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The Amazing Meeting was Amazing

Posted by Ethan Clow on July 21, 2011

As I mentioned on the last episode, over the weekend I was at TAM 9 in Las Vegas, TAM is the Amazing Meeting sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation every year in Las Vegas (as well as London and Sydney)

TAM is the largest skeptical conference in the world, this year drawing over 1600 people! It was an amazing event and I’m still just winded by everything I’ve learned and heard over the weekend. We got some great interviews which we’ll start airing next week, I was hoping to have them ready to go today but unfortunately time wasn’t on my side with that. Who knew that saying up to 3am drinking with several pubs of skeptics would adversely impact productivity?

This week I’d like to share my thoughts on TAM, report on some interesting talks and discuss a few things that I learned. Obviously this won’t be a complete summation, and several other blogs have posted some really great responses so do check them out. In addition, the JREF will be posting videos of the talks and panels online, freely available, so do check those out, some of them were very good.

At some point I’ll be posting more in-depth responses to some of the talks, panels and discussions I had. For now, this is more of a “what I did” report. The JREF will soon be posting videos of the conference, at that point I may delve more into all the issues and controversies. In the meantime, others have already set out on this. I’d like to direct your attention to a few other blog posts you might interesting on the subject of TAM9.

Daniel Loxton wrote about his thoughts over at Skepticblog here. Michael Kruse wrote a synopsis at Skeptic North. PZ Myers wrote about communicating skepticism, the panel he was on at TAM9, you can read about it here. Jennifer Ouellette also wrote a piece that touches on many of the themes at TAM including diversity and making women feel more welcome and less sexually objectified.

As for me…

This was my second TAM, I was at TAM 8 last year, met a lot cool people and had a really nice time. This year was even better. I was able to catch with people I’ve met at TAM and other skeptical conferences, met lots of new people, made some new friends, and that’s one of the first things I want to talk about. The social aspect of TAM.

Imagine a family reunion. With skeptics. Because that’s what it’s like, you walk the pub, and your shaking hands with old friends, meeting new comers to the skeptical movement, your making connections, learning about new blogs and podcasts, hearing about other conferences, chatting with the speakers and activists. It’s a very friendly and welcoming environment. It’s really hard to put into words how different it feels to be in a place where you have 1600 like minded skeptics, atheists, humanists and freethinkers.

Another way that it’s like a family reunion is the gossip. Everyone likes to get together and chat about who’s who and what they’re doing. And there’s a wide range of gossip, everything from people complaining, joking, or debating what other people are doing. Lots of behind the scenes stuff from different organizations. We like to assume that skeptics are exceptionally rational people, which is not true, we like to be just as silly, and occasionally petty, as any other group.

The first night opens with a skeptics in the put (of course) the second day is mostly optional workshops, this usually a lot of skeptical activism training. I only attended a few workshops this year, a lot of the material is old hat for me. But I did really enjoy the UFO workshop where Jim Underdown, the executive director of CFI LA, showed us how to fake UFO pictures by tying a coffee machine lid to invisible string on the end of a big pole and then take pictures and it looks like this big UFO is off in the distance. It was really cool and I’m definitely going to try that.

The other workshop that I really liked was the grassroots one, this presented by Desiree Schell  host of Skeptically Speaking, and it was really good. Des is a union organizer, and she brought a lot of information that skeptics don’t know that can really help our movement. She did this by showing how an union runs and effective campaigns. They don’t just try to get awareness, they have goals, objectives, target audiences, and tactics. They also prepared a hand book on how to run effective skeptical activism, and I was really impressed with it.

So the talks begin the next day, and I’ll just briefly mention who was speaking and what they were talking about.

There was the first of the two live recordings done by the skeptics guide to the universe. Michael Shermer discussed his new book the Believing Brain and appearing on the Colbert Report. There was a panel on skepticism on TV, discussing some of the past skeptically themed TV shows as well as what we might see in the future.

I had some interviews to do so I missed a few talks but came back in time to see the Project Alpha retrospective. This was something that James Randi organized many years ago, he had two magicians infiltrate a lab that was trying to scientifically investigate psychic powers. Now it you’ve heard of project alpha before, you know that’s not what they did. Those scientists checked their skepticism at the door and these magicians ran circles around them.

Probably the best event of the whole conference was the panel on “our future in space” which featured Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Pamela Gay, Phil Plait and Lawrence Krauss. You’ll have to watch this when the video is posted, it became quite the heated debate especially between Tyson and Krauss .

After that, Tyson gave the keynote address which was really good. He talked about the ways that America is falling behind in science and critical thinking. He showed a lot of examples from popular culture and politics and even science institutions.

After a while he was running out of time so he asked everyone if we wanted to finish and go have dinner but everyone wanted him to keep going.

Later that night was the SGU dinner party, which was great and later in the evening was Penn Jillette’s bacon and donut party which was, indescribable.

One of the interesting talks the next day was by Sadie Crabtree, one of the conference organizers talking about how to craft a message to the public about skepticism. Some of the important points she made was that the average person isn’t a skeptic. They don’t know what critical thinking is, they don’t know the basics of science and don’t understand our terminology. We have to adapt to this and make sure we use a suitable tone in our communications with non-skeptics.

Elizabeth Loftus (you’ll hear more from her on this show) talked about manufacturing memories. She developed the “lost in the mall” technique – I don’t want to go into too much detail since we’ll hear from her over the next few shows.

Richard Wiseman gave a really fantastic talk next, lots of energy and humour. He showed us a bunch of interesting visual illusions and some neat audio ones. He discussed his new book Paranomality. (again, we’ll hear from Richard as well.)

Although I would like to share a video he showed us, check it out, great example of audio pareidolia.

In addition, I was in the pub after the conference talking to one group of people (people I know, like, respect etc) and listened to how angry and disappointed they were in the panel (in DJ argument and how the panel was conducted) Later I was sitting with another group of people that (I know, like, respect etc) and I was floored by how much they supported the position of DJ and disagreed with the position of Greta and all. For me it was such a strange demonstration of how individual backgrounds and personal experiences can shape the way we view material. Here were two groups of people seeing the same talk and walking away with radically different interpretations of the topic.

Later I also got to chat with DJ and heard more of his thoughts on the matter. I think this allowed me to see his point more clearly, I still disagree, but I wasn’t angry about it.

The last two talks were by Jennifer Ouellette and Sean Faircloth, since we’ll hear from Jennifer later, I’ll only mention how cool she is by telling you that she played a clip from Doctor Who in her talk.

Sean Faircloth gave a political talk about his organization the secular coalition for America. It was interesting, but also I felt like he was manipulating the audience a little bit. He sounded like a politician trying to push buttons and it really had no impact on me as a Canadian.

Whew. That’s a lot of material.

I’ll cut this short and say that TAM is more than just a skeptical conference, TAM is THE skeptical co

nference and its impact on our movement can have profound effects.

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