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Skepticism

Day 4 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series TAM

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.

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Skepticism

Day 3 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series TAM


I’d wager that everybody’s batteries run dry at some point over the four days of TAM. Not their cellphone batteries, I mean (even though this is true also), but rather their ability to remain awake for yet another interesting-looking talk. Yesterday – day 3 – was the day I ran out of juice, so I don’t have all that much to report, given that I missed a fair number of sessions.

Elizabeth Loftus’s talk was the first I attended. If you don’t know her, she’s a psychologist with a special interest in memory and how it can deceive us, and this was indeed the topic of her talk, titled “The memory factory“. She took us through some very interesting examples of how eyewitness reports are far less reliable than one might think (or, hope), and left me thinking that I’d hate to be in a situation where my fate depended on someone else claiming they saw or didn’t see something! She’s published a bunch of books on the topic, so there’s plenty to read if you want to know more about this.

Then next session of note to me was Steven Novella on “How to think like a skeptical neurologist“. Steve Novella has been on quite a few panels this year, but has been consistently worthwhile. This talk was on the difficulties of teaching medical students how to diagnose patients, in light of cognitive shortcomings like the representativeness heuristic. Most people who read my posts would be aware of who Novella is, but if you’re not – and care to listen to podcasts – I’d highly recommend The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, a podcast that pre-dates Facebook, Twitter and the like.

The last two sessions of the day were presented by two of the most effective and inspirational science educators out there. First up, Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist, and formerly Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. One of the things we have her to thank for is her role as one of the scientific advisors to the plaintiffs in the Dover trial, which resulted in the ruling against teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools.

Her talk focused on hoaxes, pranks, urban legends and frauds. Besides the many humourous examples of pranks that she presented to us, her talk was a sobering reminder of the harms that can sometimes accrue from our not being sufficiently skeptical of stories we circulate via word-of-mouth or the media.

One particularly sad case she related was that of Oliver, the “chimpmanzee” who came to prominence in the 70’s and 80’s as a purported chimp/human hybrid. Unfortunately for Oliver, he ended up appearing more human than he was via abusive treatment such as removing his teeth, and Scott used this to remind us that we need to extend the net of possible victims in hoaxes beyond merely “our” sort of animal, the human sort. This seems an opportune time to remind you, or let some of you know, about sites like Snopes and the Museum of Hoaxes, both of which catalogue ways in which we have been (and continue to be) deceived.

Last up, Bill Nye (“the science guy”), previously a mechanical engineer at Boeing and now a science educator. This is one you simply have to watch when the TAM videos are released in (if history is any guide) 6 or 7 months time. While he did perhaps spend a little too long speaking about the debate he recently had with the nutbag creationist Ken Ham, the talk was nevertheless an inspirational – and highly entertaining – example of how to communicate complex ideas in an accessible fashion. (Though, I must confess that it’s fun hearing about just how strange Ken Ham’s beliefs seem to be!)

Immediately after the Nye talk, we decamped to the speaker’s reception, where we got to hobnob with Randi, Dennett, Tavris, Novella, Gorski and too many others to mention. Some of the magicians who are involved with TAM, or simply hanging around TAM, did some mind-boggling close-up card magic right at the tables too, which was quite the treat.

Now, it’s midday on the last day of TAM, and I’ve already concluded my talk, which I’ll most likely right a little something about tomorrow. For now, I’ll close with the news that 13 Reasons To Doubt, a book of essays by myself and other Skeptic Ink writers, was released yesterday, and is available as an e-book from Amazon.

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Skepticism

Day 0 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series TAM

The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) is an annual science, skepticism and critical reasoning conference held in Las Vegas, happening this year from tomorrow through Sunday at the South Point Casino in Las Vegas. You can find the full schedule on Lanyrd if you’re interested in knowing what’s going to be happening, and you can follow proceedings on Twitter with the hashtag #TAM2014.

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Skepticism

#TAM2013 in Las Vegas, Day one

Well, not even day one yet – just the first morning, but there’s already been plenty of things to report on – if only there was time to do so! I’m glad to be here, and to have had the opportunity to meet fellow SiNers Ed Clint, Caleb Lack, John Loftus, and to see Russell Blackford again.

SiNers

The SiN panel yesterday morning went pretty well. The five of us (John hadn’t arrived yet when that photo was taken) offered some tips on skeptical blogging, then took questions from an engaging audience that included Sharon Hill and EllenBeth Wachs.

Speaking of Sharon, her talk this morning is one of the highlights for me so far. She spoke of her website, Doubtfulnews, but what I appreciated most was the attitude she described with regard to skeptical blogging, which resonates strongly with mine.

Some of the issues she discussed were importance of fairness and balance in skeptical blogging (while avoiding false balance) – but crucially to not allow your objectivity to lead you to being so vacuous as to not add value at all. The audience needs to know what’s in it for them, as it were – it can’t all be about you.

And also, Sharon reminded us that it’s vital to try to get inside the heads of the people you’re trying to persuade. This is something I also addressed on the panel yesterday – the dangers of the filter-bubble and confirmation bias in allowing us to caricature or belittle our opponents. People are unlikely to believe downright odd or unlikely things for no reason at all, or because they are somehow irreparably defective, inferior, or what have you. People come to strange views because of a particular worldview – and unless we make an effort to understand that worldview, we’re unlikely to change anyone’s mind.

Other presentations this morning have included Michael Shermer on science and morality. I found this very unpersuasive, but I’d like to watch it again (or better yet, read the book when it comes out). While I agree with him that the arc of social progress has tended to conduce towards certain norms and away from others – and also that it’s right to regard our moral norms as “provisional” (contingent on evidence, just like other forms of knowledge) – the bit I didn’t like at all was the claim that we can get a strong indicator, most of the time, of what’s right and wrong just by asking the people affected.

The first problem here is that (especially interpersonally) their reasons for saying “X is right/wrong” might be entirely idiosyncratic, inconsistent and unprincipled. Even if moral norms end up being arbitrary, they become significant through being fairly consistent and reliable – their force is via consensus, which requires some form of reliability.

Which leads to the second problem: on a social level, if everyone believes the same weird thing (like, that men are superior to women), asking the question of what’s right and wrong is going to reliably result in getting the wrong answer. Democracy doesn’t determine truth. Shermer did stress that his rule-of-thumb was useful most of the time, for most cases, etc., but I’m suspicious that the truth is entirely opposite to that, and that the principle will only be useful in exceptional circumstances (where “the answer” will most likely be obvious for other reasons in any case).

Then, briefly, George Hrab is a great host, and his introductory monologue was fantastic. Karen Stollznow was entertaining in her talk on exorcisms, but I didn’t find much to chew on there. Marty Klein was very good, on moral panics, porn and sex. I look forward to talking to him later, as he’s a colleague of Dr. Eve, someone I worked with in South Africa to (successfully) prevent moral panics from blocking a local TV station from showing pornography.

Finally, it’s been great meeting or re-meeting DJ Grothe, Sharon Hill, (The Amazing) Randi, Michael Shermer, Miranda Hale, Steven Novella, Jerry Coyne and others. The programme for the rest of the weekend looks great, and I’m sure there will be plenty of value – so long as I get enough sleep to stay awake for it all. Vegas is a treacherous place, after all.