As hopefully all of you know (and if you didn’t, for shame!), the James Randi Educational Foundatiohtn put on their annual conference, The Amazing Meeting (TAM), this past week. I as privileged to be able to attend this year as a “first TAMmer” (there were buttons if it was your first time, which I thought was great) in a couple of different capacities (which I’ll get to in a minute). I didn’t have a chance to blog any (although some of my fellow SINners did), but I did put up quite a few tweets under the #TAM2013 hashtag, which was very active (and I recommend going and scrolling through them to get a general feel for the conference).
Before I go into specifics of my experience, I want to comment on the conference as a whole. While I had heard, prior to going, that TAM felt like a big family reunion, I thought that was hyperbole and not really how it was going to be. I was dead wrong. This really did feel like a family reunion, but not the kind where you dread going because Uncle Mark will be there drunk and telling everyone that embarrassing story about you while Cousin Sam will inevitably start an argument on why schools should teach the Bible and everything would be fine and dandy in the USA if we just did that. Instead, this was the awesome kind of reunion where all of the family is 98% on the same track in terms of values and ideas, everyone is friendly and there’s little awkwardness and past bad blood, and you meet up in a location that just happens to be hosting dozens of entertaining speakers and events.
The conference was also (as far as I could tell) almost drama-free. That’s not to say there weren’t some heated moments and exchanges (more on that in a minute), but there wasn’t any rage-blog-drama-nonsense there. TAM was billed as a “vacation from unreason” and that was as true for Bigfoot and alt-med claims as it was for interwebz drama. Kudos to all involved for keeping it classy. Now, on to the details!
My first capacity at TAM this year was as a presenter. I, alongside fellow SIN writers Ed Clint, John Loftus, Russell Blackford, and Jacques Rosseau, as well as Maria Myrback of Fledgling Skeptic/JREF and Derek Colanduno of the Skepticality podcast, helped to kick off TAM by presenting the “Blogging Skeptically” workshop at 8 am on Thursday morning. It went really well, with about 60 people in attendance, great presentations from the panelists, a well-received hands-on exercise, and smart questions from the audience during the Q&A section. This was the first year that TAM has had such a large number and variety of workshops, and they all seemed to be well received.
At this point in TAM, my secondary reason for attending kicked into gear. A few months ago, I got to meet JREF president DJ Grothe when we both spoke at the Skeptics of Oz convention. At that time, we began kicking around some ideas for potential collaborations, which has culminated in my spearheading a new research project funded by the JREF. The title of the project is “Skeptics vs. Believers in the Paranormal: What’s the (Psychological) Difference?” and it will examine the potential psychological characteristics and traits that could explain some of the reason why some people whole-heartedly buy into belief systems not backed by empirical evidence while others (like TAM attendees) typically don’t. I won’t go into huge amounts of details, saving that for the JREF’s official press release.
So, starting Wednesday at 10 and closing down at 6 or so every day, I was doing data collection. TAM attendees who wanted to participate had two options: completing the research at our data collection table in the exhibitors area or completing the survey online during TAM. We had almost 200 people take part during the four days, which is many more than I had anticipated, especially given the half hour to 45 minutes it took to participate. This also explains why the rest of my post is pretty light on what happened during the day at TAM this year, since I was doing 10-11 hours of data collection per day.
I was able to attend a few talks, though, which were roundly of high quality and entertaining. On Friday I was able to see Massimo Pigliucci’s talk on the difficulties in demarcating science from pseudoscience and why doing so is crucial. It was highly informative and entertaining, at least to this guy who teaches classes on this very topic. I then attended Susan Jacoby’s keynote talk, which was titled “How to Define Facts when We are not Entitled to our Own,” and enjoyed it for the most part. She definitely comes from the older style of speakers,who write everything out beforehand exactly as they will be saying it, but she made some excellent points. She was quite a nice person, and had stopped our SIN booth earlier and purchased a t-shirt.
On Saturday I was able to catch Dan Airely’s talk on lying and cheating and how those are actually quite normative. He was probably the most entertaining academic speaker, although I could have used a bit more data and a bit fewer jokes. Then James Randi gave the keynote, which was great. He spoke with pride about the accomplishments of the JREF and about his own history. As usual, the wonderful anecdotes of his amazing life provided much entertainment.
Sunday’s talks were highlighted for me by SIN’s Russell Blackford speaking on science, skepticism, and denialism. I am quite eager for the videos to come out from TAM, as I really want to watch this one again. And although I only caught part of it, there was a quite heated panel on the differences between magicians and psychics. Jamy Ian Swiss was very angered by what he saw as Mark Edward’s unethical behavior – promoting himself as a psychic when he know he doesn’t actually have psychic powers. Things got very tense on stage, as well as in the audience.
The TAM after hours events and entertainment were very well attended this year. I only saw the first half of Thursday and Friday’ shows (because I was exhausted), but was very impressed by the Jamy Ian Swiss-produced “Magic, Mentalism, and Mayhem” show Saturday. All the performers were great, although Todd Robbins’ glass eating (the man ate a light bulb!) was my favorite part. The live Million Dollar Challenge was also quite interesting on Sunday night, in terms of seeing the lengths that are gone to in order to create an empirical test of supposed psychic powers. The power in this case was remote viewing, and (in a major surprise) he failed the challenge. We were all shocked.
I can’t end without talking about the loudest event of the weekend – Penn Jillette’s private Rock & Roll, Bacon, and Doughnut party. The bacon and Krispy Kremes were superb, the backup singers were lovely, the music was great, and Penn was a great host and very enthusiastic singer. The other heated moment of the weekend actually happened here, when from on stage Penn called out (although not by name, because he apparently didn’t know it) the person who had written an open letter to he and Teller after their appearance on the Dr. Oz show in February. And by called out, I mean “yelled about the nerve of the person to criticize Penn for five minutes while cursing loudly and frequently, followed by the statement to GTFO.” Said person was actually standing about 10 feet from me when this started. Awwwwwwwkwaaaaard.
So, in sum: THE AMAZING MEETING IS AMAZING. I’ll definitely be back next year, and the years after that. I got to see and interact with some of the best and brightest on the planet, as well as meet two of my personal heroes (Randi and Ray Hyman). Thank you, JREF, for putting this on.