Day 2 at #TAM2014

10522439_10204090633403483_1996658285948963115_nAs was the case last year, the second day of TAM is rather brutal – there was a complete day of programming, running from 09:00 until around 18:30, followed by various dinners and then concluding (for some, of course) with Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party.

We left the bacon madness at 01:00 or so, meaning that the phone call at 07:00 was rather unwelcome. It was also rather pointless, seeing as it was from some Spanish person who has been calling us since the early days of July, even though our Spanish has not improved one iota since the first of her 8 or so attempts to share her thoughts with us.

After some initial tech problems, which somewhat compromised a highly entertaining skeptical version of “Happy” (with the line “because he’s Randi” replacing the chorus), we got underway with a typically humorous and slick intro from the MC, George Hrab, and welcomes from DJ Grothe, Randi, and Michael Shermer.

The first panel, on whether rationality can be taught, was superb, as was the later one on the psychology of pseudoscience in medicine. Most of the featured talks were on the brain and neuroscience, and as I tweeted at some point in the day, TAM2014 is impressing me with the high intellectual caliber of many of the talks – you might sometimes think you’re at an academic conference, rather than a gathering of skeptics from all walks of life.

The talk that’s going to attract most of the attention is Carol Tavris’s presentation on allegations of sexual mispropriety and assault, and how we should deal with “he said she said” sorts of situations. Her talk was provocative, and certainly met with a receptive audience, but I need to wait until I can watch it again before forming a view on whether I’d endorse it as strongly as many of the folks I’ve been chatting to did.

Tavris clearly thinks that the idea of a “rape culture” is hyperbolic, and that the pendulum has swung far too far towards a sort of prudery which doesn’t allow for people to simply make mistakes, and to navigate through those mistakes without having to be guided by fear, restrictive policies on sexual conduct at universities and particularly, assumptions of (mostly male) guilt when accused of sexual assault.

The problem for me is this: while the statistics she presented on how risks are being overstated seemed compelling, as did her analysis of how a selective (and small) set of cases are being used to construct a misleading narrative, the talk seemed uncharitable towards those who are convinced by that narrative.

As I say, I need to watch it again, but I don’t feel that she gave the most charitable account of either their arguments or their motivations. The talk preached to a particular choir, and the choir lapped it up – and there’s no doubt that it’s going to inflame the choir of the opposing congregation – but I don’t think it’s going to help us achieve any sort of resolution, or get us talking more than we already are.

But then, I’m in the minority here in terms of thinking that these disputes are capable of resolution. As is typical for me, my thoughts on hearing the talk were regarding the politics of the message in a context of trying to find a consensus or middle-ground, but others (on both sides) might be right when they say that there’s no chance of any sort of consensus. As I said before leaving for TAM, those politics are not things I want to get into, but I can assure you that Tavris’s talk is worth watching for various reasons, so look out for it once the videos start being released.

Dennett’s keynote was good, if a little dry – and those of you who track what he has been speaking about over the last few years won’t find much new in it. He focused on the evolution of religion, and the future role of the church (in short, he thinks they will become more akin to social clubs in the future).

Today promises to be good – Eugenie Scott, Steve Novella, Bill Nye, Elizabeth Loftus and more are on the programme. I hope to stay awake for all of it, as well as to get more sleep than on the previous nights, seeing as I’m going to be alone out there on the main stage (relatively) early tomorrow morning

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.