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:
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:
About eighteen months ago I started listening to the podcast Skepticality, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. The hosts of Skepticality would often begin a podcast by promoting the upcoming annual skeptics meeting known as The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM). At that time I had no idea how big TAM really is, so I made the mistake of not attending TAM 8. After the meeting came and went, it was clear from all the dedicated podcasts and blog posts that TAM was something special and needed to be witnessed in person, so this year I made the trek out to Las Vegas and experienced TAM for myself.
For those that haven’t been to a TAM, the meeting lasts four days and consists of a combination of workshops, talks, and activities. This year’s meeting was formally called TAM 9 from Outer Space as a homage to the classic(?) movie Plan 9 from Outer Space. Although the general theme was space, topics ranged from the paranormal to medicine and psychology to magic. The list of invited speakers was a who’s who of skepticism, which included the likes of Michael Shermer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eugenie Scott, Richard Wiseman, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins. This year’s meeting had a record attendance with over 1,600 participants, roughly half of which were experiencing TAM for the first time.
Originally I was going to write a single blog post on my personal retrospective of the meeting, then I began writing. It was quickly evident that this meeting had a large effect on me. That single post quickly grew into a monster, so I’ve decided to break apart my account into a sequence of posts each of which will represent a single day at TAM.
I will not be able to comment on everything. There simply was too much. Instead I’m going to describe what I personally found most memorable. For those speakers I don’t mention, my apologies. Every talk—and I mean this sincerely—was fascinating, but from my point of view certain talks piqued my interest more than others. For a more complete retelling of the events at TAM 9 see the live blogging at the Friendly Atheist.
TAM 9 started off with a full day of workshops. Unfortunately, because I flew in during that morning I missed the first set of workshops. From what I heard from other TAMers, the workshop on faking your own UFO pictures was interesting. Although I missed it, this workshop gave me an idea for a future Astro 101 assignment. More on that in a later post.
The first workshop I was able to attend was on Problems in Paranormal Investigation. After famed paranormal investigator Joe Nickell spoke (which was fun and interesting to hear), the guys from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society spoke on their punking of a claimed ghost detective. Their talk was not only interesting, but it led into some very interesting questions and discussions on the ethical boundaries paranormal skeptics must work within. Is it justifiable to lie, work undercover, or blatantly deceive an individual to gather pertinent information about a supposed paranormal occurrence? There’s not a simple answer to this question. Sometimes it may be worth fighting
fire with fire ghosts with ghosts.
The second workshop was on Skepticism in the Classroom. While most of the discussion was not directly applicable to my own teaching, I was impressed with how effective the use of simple magic tricks could be in a physics/astronomy course as a gateway for discussing the scientific method. (The intersection of magic and skepticism was a common theme at TAM—well duh given it was hosted by the James Randi Education Foundation.) It seems I may need to learn a little magic before the start of the next semester.