My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 2
In two prior posts (My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Prologue and My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 1) I covered the pre-meeting workshops and the first full day of The Amaz!ng Meeting, TAM 9 from Outer Space. Following in order (which seems like a natural thing to do), it’s time for day 2.
After a late night of eating doughnuts and bacon, chased down with Corona, and listening to the No God Band play rockn-roll, it was hard to get up for the 8:00 am panel on the Ethics of Paranormal Investigation. I’m not necessarily drawn to skepticism because of the paranormal, but it’s still interesting to listen to those that investigate paranormal claims using a scientific approach (I do love science after all). In the course of these investigations there are times where ethics needs to be addressed. For example, consider situations that involve kids with claimed psychic powers. In the end I’m glad to hear that unanimously these skeptics are always considering the emotions and sensitive feelings of those on the other end of the investigation.
A common theme for the morning talks was the mind and its ability to trick itself. The first talk on this was actually a panel discussion on Placebo Medicine: The Ethics and Mechanisms of the Mysterious Placebo. As I learn more and more about various topics that skeptics are actively discussing I find myself more interested in medical skepticism. While listening to the panel consisting of six doctors (counting Steven Novella, the moderator) it was interesting to learn that the effects of placebos depend on their application. One topic I found fascinating but I hadn’t considered before was how to test the placebo effect in extreme situation like birth control and cancer. For these situations, ethical standards step in and make it very difficult to directly measure the effects of placebos.
Next up was Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist that specializes in human memory. During her talk she gave fascinating examples in the use of the scientific method to demonstrate that it’s possible to plant a false memory into a person. It was amazing to see how simple and susceptiable people can be. For example, it possible to convince a person that the intersection they thought had a stop sign on the corner really had a yield sign. Of course, photographic evidence quickly demonstrates that there really was a stop sign there the whole time. Sometimes all it takes to plant a false memory is a set of leading questions. It seems just too easy. Scary!
Personally, I think the next talk was my absolute favorite for TAM 9. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, demonstrated how easily our mind can be fooled through visual stimulations. One of the best examples was a series of images that displayed how the mind will naturally fill in the blanks when certain parts of an image are removed. On the first slide he showed a picture with three beautiful women wearing bikinis. Then he showed that by using a pattern of circles to limit the visibility of seductive parts of the picture, the mind fills in the blanks so that you think the girls are naked. The next picture showed that it also works for an image of a man. And then the best part, he showed that using a similar pattern applied it’s possible to picture a naked Mickey Mouse in your head. Besides giving some very amusing examples, his personality and showmanship was outstanding. If there was ever a style of presentation I would like to mimic, it would be his.
Following a catered lunch that wasn’t all that bad, the hosts of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe returned to the main stage to complete their live podcast from the previous day. As I already mentioned in the My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 1 post, I was very impressed with the SGU and I’m going to make sure to start listing to their podcast.
The late afternoon found two highly anticipated speakers talking back-to-back. The first speaker was Bill Nye “The Science Guy”. Like many others in the audience I watched Bill Nye’s show as a kid. There’s no doubt that it influenced me toward becoming a professional scientist (along with the later shows of Mr Wizard). Recently Nye was made the Executive Director of the Planetary Society. The Planetary Society is an independent advocacy group with the vision of promoting future space exploration. During Nye’s talk he explained some of the current and future society missions. They do so much more than I expect. I guess this is why I became a member while at TAM. Most impressive about Nye was his emotional presentation. It was clearly evident in his tone and content that Bill Nye is passionate about science.
The second of highly anticipated afternoon speakers was Richard Dawkins. Having read some of his writings, and watched a number of his YouTube clips, I’ve been interested in hearing him speak in person. In short, I wasn’t disappointed. Dawkins’ talk centered around his upcoming young adult’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. The book looks amazing! Dawkins teamed up with artist David McKean to present big picture questions in a graphically inviting and intriguing manner. Chapter titles include, “What are things made of?”, “What is the Sun?”, “Who were the first man and woman?”, and “When did everything begin?”. What will be unique about this science book is that it will directly address our evolving (all pun intended) views of science. Each chapter begins with a overview of classical mythology and legends pertaining to the topic. This is followed by a scientific explanation given our current understanding of Nature. After giving an overview of the book, Dawkins focused specifically on chapter 9 (it was TAM 9 after all) which asks the daunting question “Are we alone?”. Following in a similar fashion to PZ Meyers’ talk the previous day, Dawkins outlined what we can glean from evolutionary biology to predict what an alien life-form may look like. At times, this part of his speech did get a bit technical and dry. After he was done, Dawkins presented James Randi a signed page from his new book. Below is my blurry attempt to capture the moment.
As Richard Dawkins took questions from the audience, it came to our attention that across the hall from the ballroom hosting TAM, was a karate competition banquet dinner. The guest of honor for the banquet was none other than Chuck Norris. (Richard Dawkins had no idea who that is.) Because of the large turnouts for both events, the organizer allowed Dawkins to spend extra time answering questions to prevent too many people being in the hall. A number of tweeters noted, “we’re trapped in here by Chuck Norris!” Although I didn’t see him personally, someone claims that Chuck Norris had body guards. WTF is up with that?
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9: