Day 4 at #TAM2014

downloadThis year’s TAM concluded yesterday, with Randi remarking (during the closing address) that this was the best TAM he’d attended. Seeing as he’s been to all of them (13 in total, I think), that’s a strong statement. All I can say is that it’s the best of the two that I’ve attended, and that’s largely due to the high quality of the majority of the talks.

As usual, there were many good evenings and afternoons with friends old and new, but that was simply a bonus. The panels, talks and informal discussions were tremendously rewarding on an intellectual level, not only in terms of skeptical activism, but also for me as a teacher of critical thinking, in that many of the participants are involved in the same or overlapping fields.

One of the things that Randi announced in his closing address – besides the good news that Mythbusters’ Adam Savage will be joining the JREF board – was an increased emphasis on education for the JREF going forward. Those of you who have heard me speak on these issues know that this is exactly what I’d hope they’d do, in that I regard inoculating folk (especially children) against shoddy thinking to be a far more effective long-term strategy than activism is.

There’s room for both, of course – but as rewarding as it is to teach adults, or to expose quacks like Dr. Oz, teaching upcoming generations how to separate sense from nonsense can prevent folks like Dr. Oz ever gaining the traction they do, and that seems a very worthwhile project to undertake. I look forward to being involved in some fashion, if there’s room for that.

One of the talks I was greatly looking forward to on the last day was Patricia Churchland on “Free willing and self-controlling”, but she missed a connecting flight and didn’t get to TAM. So, it ended up being a sparse day of sessions for me. My own presentation was the second thing on the programme, and I think it was well-received.

The topic was an appeal for us skeptics to set an example of epistemic prudence and humility – in summary, my thesis was that as humanism is to ethics (a woo-woo free guide to a moral life), skepticism can and should be for science (a set of resources and strategies that assist regular folks with navigating the claims made in the name of science).

But seeing as teaching scientific thinking involves challenging strongly held beliefs, we need to be aware of how our own message can be lost in the smugness that sometimes comes with thinking you’re on the right side of the argument. Second, our confidence in our own abilities to spot and debunk pseudoscience can result in an overconfidence or laziness, where our own bad habits don’t get exposed as much as they should. So, in short, my talk was an appeal for constant diagnostic checks on ourselves in terms of our thinking.

I’ll not post the talk just yet, as the JREF has first dibs on doing that, and the video might well be released at some point.

Later, I attended Steve Cuno’s fascinating talk on advertising. Cuno is an ex-insider, and walked us through some notable (and rather funny) examples of product launches gone wrong – from ones we all know about (real Coke) to some I hadn’t encountered (like Heinz’s failed attempt to launch purple ketchup for kids). The interesting stuff was more to do with subliminal advertising (it doesn’t work, and nobody tries it anymore) and the extent to which marketers can predict our behaviour (very well).

Then, I attended most of Michael Shermer’s talk on free will and moral responsibility. It wasn’t as disappointing as last year’s Shermer talk, but that’s perhaps because it seemed mostly descriptive to me, in summarising much of the current thinking on the topic, instead of last year’s in which he seemed to be trying to say something original – badly, in my view. I’ll read the book when it comes out, but in short, I’m not a fan of his work on free will.

The World Cup final interrupted my TAM’ing at that point, so I only rejoined for the Million Dollar Challenge at 7pm, the final event on the 2014 programme. As you might expect, the claimant failed to defeat the challenge, in that the subjects taking part in the trial were unable to detect the “forces” he claimed emanated from his right hand. Even though his failure was predictable, it was good to see the TAM attendees respond to him respectfully, and also to see the rigour and fairness with which Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss tested him.

A final few drinks at the Del Mar, and that was it. My thanks to the JREF for 4 highly enjoyable days of a vacation from unreason!

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.