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.

Day 1 at #TAM2014

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series TAM

Yesterday was the first day of official programming at TAM (see yesterday’s post for my Day 0 experiences), and it was as much fun, and as stimulating, as expected. The problem is: with such a packed schedule (well, to be honest, with every night involving a few cocktails at the bar until late in the night), it’s going to be difficult to post updates that are as comprehensive as I’d like. I’ll try to do better tomorrow (if circumstances – those being Penn & Teller’s Bacon and Donut party – end up allowing for a post at all).

We “orgone” to die. No matter what the quacks say.

mq1The message at The Amaz!ng Meeting (or, TAM) earlier this year was “Fight the Fakers”, with the point being that it’s no much use ridiculing the victims of quackery or woo-woo for being taken in by charlatans. Sometimes, we’re desperate for a cure, or for hope, and this leads us to believe things we might not otherwise.

Also, some quacks and fakers genuinely believe that they have magical powers, or that they have cottoned on to some sort of secret. For example, even though I haven’t been shy of expressing my view that Professor Tim Noakes sounds increasingly like a pseudoscientist, I have no doubt that he’s sincere in believing what he tells his disciples, whether or not he ends up being right or wrong.

Of course there are difficult boundary cases, where we really should know better, and can’t escape taking on a healthy portion of the blame either for misleading others, or allowing ourselves to be misled. The distinction I’m making, though, highlights that there is more that is blameworthy about your conduct if you know you’re deceiving people, or if you’re knowingly on the side of deceivers.

An example of the latter – being on the side of the deceivers, and against common-sense, or science – has recently come to my attention via 6000, and involves a TEDx organising committee ignoring the lessons learnt in the Sheldrake affair. In case you’re not familiar with Sheldrake, he’s a fairly controversial scientist who wants you to to believe in “email telepathy” (never mind the humdrum sort of telepathy in dogs and other non-human animals) in addition to various other odd things.

Sheldrake (and Graham Hancock, he who believes the Ark of the Covenant is real, and that aliens built the pyramids) spoke at TEDx events, but  both of their talks were removed from the TEDx archives following widespread protest regarding TEDx being used as a vehicle to promote pseudoscience. These episodes led to a joint TED (the mother-ship) and TEDx policy reminder that pseudoscience was not welcome at these events.

So why, then, is Ivan Jakobović, inventor of the water-powered car and the “orgonic launcher” (which – as you no doubt know already – fires the universal life force “orgon” into the air, to strip pollution from the atmosphere), speaking at TEDxMaksimir today? And furthermore, why is it that Željko Svedic has been banned from today’s TEDx event for pointing out that Jakobović is a crank, and that TEDx events are not supposed to host cranks?

You can read all about it on Svedic’s blog, including what he recalls of the abusive phone call he received from the TEDxMaksimir folk, before they deleted his comments from their Facebook page, refunded his registration fee, and posted the following announcement:

Mr Zeljko just got a phone call he will be refunded entrance fee.. ..We need to protect speaker reputation.. ..Ivan Jakobović will speak about his rich experience as an inventor.. of the inventions Mr Zeljko is criticizing (ozonic exhaust) was already presented by Ivan on our first TEDx event in 2010.. ..that invention was sold and is successfully produced in Canada.. ..Thank you Mr Ivan Jakobović for sharing your rich experience with us and for honoring us again.. Karlo Matić, TEDxMaksimir license holder

There are numerous fantastic talks on both TED and TEDx. But by contrast to when TED began, and you could normally expect a fairly high level of quality (and, sanity) in the presentations, it now seems to be more and more of a lottery. The TED – and especially the TEDx – brand no longer offers any guarantee of the content being worth watching, and judging from this episode, some licence-holders of TEDx events don’t seem at all concerned about upholding the standards they’re supposed to.

It’s about time that TED either enforce those standards more rigorously, or instead shuck off the TEDx brand entirely. The latter seems to make more sense, seeing as there seems to be a TEDx on every street corner these days, never mind in every big city – making it an impossible undertaking to ensure quality is maintained. But until something changes, I’ll keep ignoring TEDx entirely, except for when it’s someone I know on the programme.

#TAM2013 wrap-up

Those of you who also attended The Amaz!ing Meeting last weekend were probably as overwhelmed by content as I felt, and continue to feel. Halfway through the first of three full days (8am – 6pm) of plenary sessions, I blogged some impressions – but that proved to be the last time I found the time to write anything about what was going on. Not only was the schedule very busy, but it was filled with content of sufficient quality that I could hardly bring myself to miss anything, despite the fact that evening entertainment, then drinks at the Del Mar and elsewhere, meant an average of 4 or so hours of sleep per night. TAM is worth not sleeping for, or at least 2013’s edition (my first) was.

Some of the SiN writers (with me on Randi’s right).

To supplement what I’ve already said about the first morning, here’s some comment on (aspects of) the rest of the programme:

Cara Santa Maria: Perhaps the lowlight of the entire weekend for me. Beginning a talk by telling your audience that they might want to temper their expectations, in light of the speaker having played poker until the early hours, didn’t seem like the most effective route to audience engagement for me. When the talk that follows was mostly personal anecdote, my skepticism turned into downright annoyance.

The philosophers: One of the things that made TAM far more intellectually rewarding than most of the conferences (in related areas) I’ve been to in recent years was the strong representation of philosophers on the programme. Speaking as someone who studied, and has now taught philosophy for the past 15 or so years, having these creatures on the stage is by no means a guarantee of comprehensibility or enjoyment, as each can delight in being more obscure and technical than the other. Plus, philosophy is often home to needless obscurantism, or sometimes, simple bullshit. But Massimo Pigliucci, Peter Boghossian, Susan Haack and my SkepticInk colleague Russell Blackford all gave engaging and insightful talks. Watch them all when the videos appear on YouTube – I’ll certainly be re-watching them. Susan Haack was particularly good, I thought, speaking on credulity and its consequences.

Bacon & donuts: Penn’s party on Friday night was good fun. Ribald and loud, he ensured that all pretensions were checked at the door, and entertained us mightily in the process. Beginning with a rant regarding Dr. David Gorski’s (also on the programme) open letter to Penn regarding Penn & Teller’s appearing on Dr. Oz’s show, Penn basically told Gorski that if he was here, he wasn’t welcome and should simply f*** off. That effectively set the tone, whether or not you agree with Penn’s response to the letter – this was not a place for sacred cows. (Gorski was there for the first few minutes, but left shortly after this rant began.)

James Randi: What an inspiration to those of us who spend time “fighting the fakers” (the theme of this year’s TAM). The man is unfailingly generous with his time and his affection, and continues to set an example for the rest of us of how one can fight the fakers while retaining sympathy for their victims, who frequently merit our understanding rather than our condescension. His career has been guided by exposing the fakers in order to help the next (hypothetical) set of victims from becoming victims – and ridiculing those who fall for the tricks and promises of charlatans does nothing towards that worthwhile goal.

D.J. Grothe and the JREF in general: The event would not have been the success it was without meticulous planning and careful, attentive execution. Besides the occasional tech glitch with microphones or slides, everything went off smoothly. For an event this size – 4 days of content, with over 1000 people in attendance, this is no mean feat. So, thanks and congratulations to all of you who were involved in making TAM such a success.

SkepticInk: It was great to meet, or in Russell’s case, re-acquaint myself with, my co-writers on the SkepticInk network. Russell Blackford, Caleb Lack, Ed Clint, Damion Reinhardt and John Loftus were all great fun to hang out with, and we made the most of TAM, attracting plenty of interest at the SiN table (selflessly manned for many an hour by Ed Clint in particular). We were able to have numerous fruitful discussions, which will hopefully result in the network growing from strength to strength.

To conclude, an index of how rewarding I found TAM2013 to be is simply this: even though getting there involves at least 24 hours of transit and a frightening impact on my bank balance (not because TAM is unduly costly, but because 1USD costs 10ZAR), I fully intend to go to every TAM after this. It was just too much fun – and too instructive – to miss out on again.

Here are a couple of other round-ups, from Bob Blaskiewicz and my SiN colleague Caleb Lack.

#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.


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.

Please look after the place while I’m gone

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesIt’s time for a holiday. In a literal sense, because I am about to go off to a conference in Las Vegas (where some amount of holiday is difficult to avoid), but also in the more general sense of taking a break from what has become routine. One of those things is obsessing over the nuances of South Africa’s racial politics, and another is this column.

The optimism on display at the Agang launch earlier today was good to see. Many of you might share my fatigue at the constant succession of stories that don’t promote optimism – from the classification of the Nkandla report as top secret, to the ad hominem abuse of opposition parliamentarians. Last week, we even heard the absurdist – yet sadly apposite – story of how the very ambulance taking Mandela to hospital ran out of energy.

In the midst of all this, I had a Twitter argument with a black man over Dan Roodt – where I was criticising Roodt’s myopic nationalism and cherry-picking of evidence related to who was killing more of whom, and my interlocutor was defending Roodt’s right to hold those views. As long as the argument went on, I couldn’t persuade this man that while I agree that Roodt’s views can be held and freely expressed, we should certainly be on the same side in condemning them.

So, it’s a South Africa where a white liberal can now find himself disagreeing with someone (who has almost certainly borne a larger share of apartheid’s burdens) over whether a racist Afrikaner nationalist has a worthwhile point of view or not. These are strange days, indeed.

This isn’t to say that I share the pessimism that many seem to feel. I’d like to take a break from a certain form of engagement, a certain sort of discourse. Many of you might already avoid social media for exactly this reason – it’s too full of over-confident ad hoc opinions that tend towards the extremes. Depending on who you listen to, either we’re doomed or we’re in great shape, with little room for any position in-between.

The truth is most likely in-between, though, as it ever is. We’ll one day be rid of Zuma, and we’ll one day somehow get to a stage where we’re a democracy in more than only name – in other words, where the incumbent party feels the real possibility of losing power, and is thus fully motivated to do its job.

In the meanwhile, there’s plenty going on that’s far more local, far more manageable, and where it’s far easier for any and each of us to make an impact. If there’s no community project you can or want to get involved with, give to an organisation or charity that does things you support – Equal Education, DignitySA, a hospice, a hospital.

And, easiest of all, remember that each of us incentivises (and dis-incentivises) certain attitudes, behaviour and speech every day, simply though what we present to others as permissible or advisable. If you have kids, they will learn about how to treat others through you. If you have students, they learn how to think through you. Even in matters most prosaic – if you keep jumping the red light or rolling through the stop sign, don’t be surprised to see that behaviour becoming common.

In short, we can all contribute to upholding a social contract without indulging in the sanctimony of a LeadSA – and our despondency at the examples set by government sometimes allows us to forget that. We might think: with such a rot at the top, what difference does it make what I do? But for all the large-scale importance of what happens at the top, we affect each other’s lives frequently, and could sometimes do with a reminder that not everything can be blamed on the man in the high castle.

One of the things I’ve tried to do in most of the 158 columns I’ve written for the Daily Maverick is to deflate our certainty on various firm convictions. This is because oftentimes, it seems that we cede our responsibility to come to a reasoned conclusion and instead settle for something ready-made by emotion, political conviction or some other powerful force. In consequence, we’re less able to talk, debate and learn, and more often compelled to resort to the safety of stereotype.

In a young country, with a crippled education system, a corrupt administration, widespread economic inequality and still-seething racial tensions, the last thing we’d want to do is to stop thinking. So let’s not – and let’s keep encouraging each other to keep at it too. I’ll certainly be back to play my part – at this point it’s just not clear where or when that will be.