#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.