My First Amaz!ng Meeting – Day 3
The last day of The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) 9 had finally arrived. After three days of skeptical talks I was physically wearing down, but mentally I was still going strong. (See my accounts of thee first three days in my Prologue, Day 1, and Day 2 posts.) I decided to skip the previous night’s festivities in order to catch up on my sleep. From the gossip it sounds like the Max Maven – Thinking in Person show was interesting. Others were commenting on the Penn & Teller show they saw over at the Rio. For me, a good night of sleep felt great and worth skipping out on a few shows.
Day 3 of TAM started off a little different than the prior days. Up to this point the stage was given either to a panel of experts or an invited speaker. The third day began with a series of “papers” presented by a number of lesser known skeptics. Over the span of two hours, seven speakers were given the mic. Admittedly I did step out for one random speaker, so I only heard six of the speakers. Of those that I did listen to, it was interesting to hear the range of skeptical topics. One speaker covered paranormal investigations, another chiropractic practices in Los Angeles, and yet another on the use of Rogerian argumentation. (For a more complete report of the contributed papers see the Friendly Atheists‘ live blogging entries for TAM 9.) My favorite of the papers was given by Phil Ferguson from the blog Skeptic Money. His talk was on scams in guaranteed mutual funds investments. In short, they don’t work because of all the hidden fees. The main outcome of Ferguson’s talk is, don’t invest in anything you don’t understand ahead of time. Good advice indeed.
After the contributed papers, Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, authors of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, gave a joint talk on the relationship between magic tricks and neuroscience. It was interesting to see how easily our minds are fooled because our eyes only have the ability to focus on a very narrow portion of the world. Our limited visual stimulation allows magicians to use misdirection techniques to force our attention one way while performing a sleight of hand elsewhere. Although I’ve never been drawn to magic, as I watched the many talks at TAM, my interest in magic grew. This talk, which demonstrated links between magic and science, was the final straw. I now want to learn more about magic.
The next speaker, Sara Mayhew, turned out to be an unexpected surprise from my personal perspective. Mayhew is the author of a number of manga stories, which is why I wasn’t familiar with her work prior to TAM. As I listened to her speak it was clear that she is a very talented author and illustrator. She’s seems to be very careful to incorporate a number of skeptical elements into her stories. She also noted a number of faults with other famous fictional stories. For example, the central theme found in Star Wars is the concept of a Jedi. The problem is that Jedi skills are a bestowed property to a select few that are born with Jedi qualities. It’s very much a nobleman-like quality. No matter how much someone strives to be better, unless they’re born with Jedi abilities they will never acquire them. Conversely, the immensely popular Harry Potter series demonstrates that when confronted with an situation practice, studying, and critical thinking will lead to a desirable outcome. (Okay, you may argue that only certain individuals are born with magical powers in the Harry Potter series, but the point being made here is that JK Rowling uses standard skeptical tools to solve the characters’ problems.)
The afternoon session included a talk by Jennifer Ouellette. Ouellette is the author of a number of books (including The Calculus Diaries which I reviewed here) and blogs at Cocktail Party Physics. If you’re interested in the lighter side of physics, and even science in general, I would suggest reading Ouellette’s blog and following her on twitter (JenLucPiquant). Ouellete’s talk, The Universe Through the Looking Glass, was an intriguing overview of our place in the Universe. She used a mixture of scientific knowledge with cinematic interpretations and science fiction speculations about the future. The last example was particularly fun when she showed a clip from the 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon. It’s amazing to think how rapidly our view of the Universe has evolved in the last century, hell in the last ten years. Scientists are learning about Nature at an exponential rate.
The last speaker for TAM 9 was Sean Faircloth, the Executive Director for the Secular Coalition for America (SCA). Faircloth is a former legislature from Maine. His political background was more than evident, if from nothing else, his presentation style. Most skeptics are very humble, and are often hesitant to over extend their claims. Faircloth was the opposite. His speech was fiery, with a lot of promises about what the SCA will do in the coming years. I liked his talk. In short, the SCA has developed a list of measurable goals and plans on expanding to include more lobbyist in Washington.
So that was it for the formal part of TAM 9 from Outer Space, my first TAM experience. To close things out James Randi once again came to the stage and gave yet more inspiring words. Over the course of three days I learned a lot of new things, became interested in magic, spent a lot of money book sold by vendors, and had the chance to talk with other skeptics. I can’t wait to come back next year.
Epilogue for the Last Day
Although the main part of the meeting was over, there were two workshops offered in parallel after the closing remarks. Being a parent of two young boys, I found myself in the workshop on Raising Skeptics. My reaction: wow, nothing is sacred amongst skeptics. In less than two hours, the workshop covered how to speak to your kids about skepticism, how to handle non-skeptics’ attitudes toward your family, Santa Claus, and sex education. The last topic was more than I expected out of this workshop, but it was also the most helpful. If I’m going to call myself a skeptic, then I must be consistent and approach every topic on an evidence based approach, even if it’s a socially taboo topic. Besides sex education, I found this workshop helpful for the simple reason that it was nice to see other skeptical parents having to address the same issues that my wife and I struggle with at home. (I still say that we should have told our kids the truth about Santa Claus from day one, but Jamy Ian Swiss was convincing in arguing it may be worth lying to them, and let them enjoy the thrill of Christmas morning.)
The Raising Skeptics workshop was the last official TAM 9 event I attended. However, being in Las Vegas, and having never seen Penn & Teller in person (two celebrity skeptics), I thought it was worth heading over to the Rio and catching their show. Lucky for me, Penn & Teller offered a 2 for 1 deal to TAM participants. Also, lucky for me a fellow skeptic that I met at the meeting (Joshua Humphrey, host of the Twin Cities Theater Connection podcast) had a second ticket. So off I went to see Penn & Teller. The show was amazing and well worth it even if it meant I was only able to squeeze in three hours of sleep before my 6:00 am flight the next morning.
Check out my other reminisces about TAM 9: