I spent much of last summer preparing my speech for The Amazing Meeting 2014, a large skeptics conference in Las Vegas. It was totally nerve-wracking. I’m shy. I get stage fright. I’d never given a solo talk of that length in front of such an enormous crowd—1200 people! Many of my intellectual heroes would be in the audience. And, I was planning a very emotional talk about beauty and joy and meaning.
So I spent five weeks writing and obsessively polishing that talk, titled “A Rare and Beautiful Thing.” Its themes were built on discussion of skeptics of previous generations, including magician Harry Houdini. I said this:
When Rinn’s old friend Houdini finally did get into the fight, he arrived as a mighty champion. He brought skill and knowledge, and wealth and fame. Houdini studied and investigated and wrote books, and gave demonstrations.
He went to Congress to fight for tougher laws against fraudulent fortunetellers, at least in the nation’s capital. He fought with passion, and gravity of purpose.
And he lost.
There is a strange and heartbreaking beauty in that.
As I worked to cram two thousand years of scientific skepticism into half an hour, I was forced to make cuts. One of the last things I cut, very reluctantly, was this abbreviated quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which had accompanied the Houdini passage:
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…but who does actually strive to do the deeds…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”
When I delivered the talk, the vast hall was silent. I had no clue whether the crowd was coming along with me. Then, as I finished the speech and stumbled off the stage in relief, I discovered that they had. Dozens of people rushed to talk to me. It was among the most amazing moments of my life.
One of those people was a woman named Anna Maltese, who held a piece of paper in her hand. She wanted me to know that the talk had inspired her to share a favorite passage by her favorite American President. She felt sure I’d like it, so she had written it down for me. I looked at the paper. It said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust…”
I was stunned. It was the final surreal touch to an unforgettable day.
Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 255. Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.
The quote is not obscure, but it is not exactly “Four score and seven years ago,” either. It is seen rarely enough to make this feel like a crazy coincidence. And perhaps it was an unlikely event, but there are a few factors which increase the odds quite a bit.
The first thing that we must always consider is that the commonalities we know about (e.g., the Amazing Meeting) are usually related to things we might not have considered–something called confounding variables. Anna’s attendance at the event was not random. The subject matter that brought speaker and audience member together is somewhat academic in nature and those interested in it tend, on average, to be more educated than average. The odds that someone in the audience would be familiar with such a quote are higher than the odds that any random person would. Even the odds that an audience member would count that quote among their favorites are higher.
But I think that the most credit for this incident must go to the simple fact Daniel’s speech communicated his message so clearly that the quote he wanted to use to illustrate it was brought to the mind of an audience member who was intimately familiar with it. That’s a brilliantly crafted and delivered speech.
(Please click here to watch Daniel Loxton’s address at The Amazing Meeting 2014.)