An Amazing Learning Experience at TAM 2015 (“The Amazing Meeting”)
Last weekend, I attended “The Amazing Meeting,” also known as TAM 2015.
It was amazing!
This annual gathering of great minds and provocative speakers comes across as both magnificently entertaining and highly informative. At times, it’s even transformative. This marks the second year that I’ve attended. There have been 13 annual gatherings held here in Las Vegas, dating back to 2003.
Indeed, TAM is far more than just a four-day festival of critical thinking and spark plug of skepticism, although that would be ample reason enough to attend should you wish to broaden your mind and challenge some outmoded assumptions (that we all have). The conference exposes, critiques, tests, debunks, debates, pokes fun at, inflames, and ultimately validates both the pursuit and practice of science and reason over myth and superstition, in all forms. Nothing is sacred, other than a healthy respect for everyone’s pursuit of knowledge and greater understanding. Attend any TAM event and expect some of your deepest held misconceptions to be challenged, and probably even shredded, in light of facts you probably didn’t know and emerging new evidence that continues to be uncovered as increasing numbers of people all over the world reject lies and myths which seem so pervasive in almost all cultures.
The format is simple. Think of a TED talk, only longer in some cases. Past keynote speakers have included Bill Nye, a.k.a. “The Science Guy,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Christopher Hitchens, and other influential voices in the Skeptic/Pro-Science movement. If you’re not interested in one topic, then stick around, because the next talk is sure to grab your attention. In my case, I found all the presentations to be fascinating, some provokingly so.
Over the next week or two, I’ll be writing in considerable detail about some of the things I learned which might be of interest to readers. In the meantime, here’s a brief overview of just some of the many highlights I experienced at TAM 2015 (Note: Headlines and write-ups are mine).
SHOCKER! BIGFOOT DOES NOT EXIST
Natalia Reagan opened up the discussion by blowing the ubiquitous “Bigfoot mystery” away, debunking this man-made, completely fabricated fairy tale that’s been lingering for nearly 50 years now, in and around the Pacific Northwest (as well as other parts of the world, which allegedly have their own version of some giant man-ape that’s claimed to be some kind of “missing link”). As is the case with virtually all the fakes and frauds (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, statues of the Virgin Mary that weep, et. al.), there’s always a considerably powerful and profitable cottage industry surrounding these myths. In other words, “experts” can be found ready to theorize about these creatures (for a profit, of course — with bogus books, documentary television programs, etc.). Now get this: Bigfoot is a fraud, people. Some prankster dressed up in a monkey suit back in the late 1960s, had the charade filmed out the woods, and now those same blurry images are still being shown on various mysteries and paranormal television shows to this day. Totally fake.
STORIES AND STATISTICS
Big surprise (sarcasm)….not everything you see that’s supposedly backed up with statistics is valid. John Allen Paulos gave one of the best talks of the day describing the ways and means these “studies” we see quoted in media so often use flawed modeling, irrelevant source material, and corrupted data, which produces bogus “conclusions.” Yes, some stats are real and are valid. This talk helped us to identify how to tell if the methodology was valid.
REMEMBERING THE LATE MARTIN GARDNER
I already knew of Martin Gardner and his remarkably fruitful life from his many books and writings, but until this prolonged series of three lectures, I had no idea as to his monumental impact on the Skeptic movement. Three different speakers talked about the life and teachings (mostly in written form — he penned 100 books) of Gardener, who passed away in 2010. He was a pioneer of free-thinking and utter conviction who was among the very first intellectuals to openly challenge the inconsistencies of pseudo-science with logic and facts. Diversely talented as a mathematician, magician, problem solver, puzzle-creator, writer, speaker, and above all else a believer in the laws of science, Gardner’s many contributions continue to be a solid foundation on which to base all future skeptical inquiry.
A HISTORY OF COMICS AND CENSORSHIP
I found this presentation remarkably interesting and entertaining, even though I have little to no real first-hand knowledge of comics (referring to comic strips and comic books, not comedians). I also had no idea that comics were heavily censored for many years, here in the U.S. Zach Weinersmith, speaking for the first time at TAM, gave us a wonderfully detailed history lesson of comics in America from the late 1880’s to the present, including a surprising period in our popular culture when comics in the form of crime-solving and detective stories were seen by about as many people as the various CSI-related programs on television are today. At their height in the late 1940s, crime-themed comic books had 5 million readers a month. Mounting concerns about the corrupting nature of comics on society lead to the U.S. Congress instituting various forms of censorship which then ushered in the era of non-threatening superheroes — including Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and so forth. These were figures which conformed to the strict moral codes of the day, which were essentially based on McCarthyism, since the restrictions were actually imposed in 1954, during the time of the infamous McCarthy Hearings. The message of censorship being bad resonates with just about everyone, yet what was most shocking is that even something seemingly as harmless as comics has been subjected to strict enforcement codes.
DESTROYING THE FRAUD KNOWN AS “THE FOOD BABE”
Apparently, there’s some former PR flunkie-turned foodie out there masquerading as a nutritionist, saying stupid things, and misleading millions of viewers on television about how to eat right. Eating healthy sure sounds good, until you realize that much of what she parrots is complete bunk. She goes by the name “The Food Babe.” She’s written a few books, which sold lots of copies. And now, because she’s so successful in marketing herself, people actually think she knows what the hell she’s talking about. Well, she doesn’t. This program’s speaker, Yvette d’Entremont, a.k.a. “SciBabe” began writing about the misleading advice being given out, backing up her claims with actual science. Exposed for her blatantly deceptive practices, let’s hope “The Food Babe” disappears quickly. Unfortunately, she’s made quite a fortune in the meantime with her bogus nutritional claims.
WHEN CELEBRITIES PIMP BAD ADVICE (SOME PEOPLE DIE!)
Let’s get straight to the point. Jenny McCarthy doesn’t have a fucking clue what’s she’s talking about when she claims children are getting autism from getting vaccines. This anti-vaccine movement has now gained enough steam that some forms of certain diseases, once thought to be extinct, are now coming back after they were eradicated! Eradicated by vaccines! Smallpox and polio, for instance, once inflicted millions. The point is — people are dying, or at the risk of dying because we are so utterly absorbed by living in a celebrity-driven culture and confusing with beauty with brains. Why the fuck do we listen to Gwyneth Paltrow, or Jenny McCarthy, or Jim Carey about anything! This fascinating talk, given by Tim Caulfield, showed how we are all predisposed to believe what celebrities tell us, and then follow their lead, which is what makes them such powerful marketing forces. It’s become such a societal sickness that scientists, you know, the actual people who study this shit, aren’t listened to by the public anymore. Instead, we’re obsessed with the movie star’s opinion, or what she’s wearing. This has far-reaching, self-destructive consequences which we are only now beginning to realize. Why the fuck anyone buys a product or endorses a position because a celebrity pimps it is a mystery to me. Jim Carey isn’t a scientist, folks. He’s Ace Ventura. He’s Cable Guy. When he bitches and moans about the dangers of vaccines, he’s just doing it because he was fucking Jenny McCarthy (well, at least at one time he once was, before they broke up).
THE MORAL ARC
Michael Shermer, publisher of SKEPTIC magazine is arguably the most famous face in the movement today, other than James Randi (who’s retiring). The science writer and frequent guest on television, has become the most well-known debunker of lies, fraud, and junk science. In his presentation, Shermer talked about his new book, titled “The Moral Arc.” He argues convincingly that it’s science and our boundless quest for knowledge — not religion and superstition (which usually impedes advances) — that drives all human progress and has even made the world a better place by virtually any metric — in terms of morality, justice, and freedom. I have not read this book yet, but will certainly do so, and will review it later. SEE MORE HERE
Gasp! In recent years, Bible thumpers have attempted to shove the teaching of so-called “Creation Science” down the throats of American schoolchildren in classrooms nationwide, which could have had a profoundly detrimental impact on the future of education (and one could argue, the country, which is already languishing in the sciences behind virtually every other modern nation). Incredibly, there are still powerful political forces, led by the American Right, determined to have “intelligent design,” which lacks any scientific evidence whatsoever, taught in the schools. Fortunately, there are genuine heroes out there like Eugenie Scott, who fight these cases in the courts — and win because real scientists don’t believe in Adam and Even and talking snakes coming out of apples. Scott gave us an overview of what’s going on with local school boards today, subject to the whims of churches (and voters) who want fables of raising the dead and an invisible sky daddy taught to our children. Scott described the most recent case she won where a court in Pennsylvania struck down the teaching of “Creation Science” on the basis that it’s a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. Had that case not gone our way, school boards everywhere would be imposing Jesusism on every schoolchild in America.
YOU WILL NEVER LOOK AT THE FUTURE OF THE WORLD THE SAME WAY AFTER THIS TALK
The best talk I saw was an astounding personal experience. I just hope it’s recorded somewhere where I can post it for readers. We tend to think of the world as a bad place, which is getting worse. We even expect a dire future for our descendants. True, that we have major problems to solve, or at least diminish as best we can. Some parts of the world are going to have a very rough time, indeed (almost entirely due to lack of population control — thanks Catholic Church! — combined with a scarcity of resources). That said, things are going to get better for many people living elsewhere. Moreover, we all share common interests and practices, despite our diverse geography and often clashing cultural values. That’s just one of several conclusions reached by Swedish researchers Hans, Ola, and Anna Rosling. The researchers show us how the world has developed over the past 200 years and where it’s headed, which counties will be better off, and why, as well as the societies that are going to have massive difficulty. This was an astonishing hour filled with massive amounts of research and data that paints a rosy future for some, and a hell on earth for others. More to come on this.
A TRIBUTE TO JAMES RANDI
James “The Amazing Randi” is an absolute marvel. I have written extensively about him in the past (Read more HERE and HERE). I’ll leave it at that, except to say this year’s TAM is to be Randi’s final event as the group’s longtime patriarch and guiding force. Now age 86 and with some health issues, Randi is stepping back and letting others take up the cause to promote critical thinking, science, and skepticism. Several discussions included Randi onstage, and he was honored with a panel discussion where many of the speakers and guests told great stories.
One of Randi’s most provocative challenges to the fakes and frauds and fortune tellers is the longstanding offer of $1,000,000 to any person who can produce a paranormal event under controlled conditions. Each TAM event closes with at least one of the charlatans trying to win the prize, and just as they have all failed in the past, this year’s “psychic” also blew it. In fact, he bombed after just two trials (he supposedly could feel the energy of someone’s hand through a barrier) and wormed his way off the stage. To anyone gullible enough to think these “psychic” frauds really have special powers, then why hasn’t anyone collected the million-dollar reward yet — after 50 years! There it is — all you psychics, fortune tellers, palm readers, astrologists, religious faith healers, dousers, and other paranormal believers. One million is up for grabs if you can just perform the miracle event within a scientifically-controlled setting. A million bucks — unclaimed, so far.
Amazing, isn’t it?
By the way, this short overview merely scratches the surface. I also saw about 10 other presentations. Then, there were at least 20 others I did not have time to visit. As you can imagine, TAM is a “must attend” annual event and I encourage anyone with interests in science and reason to try and attend one in the future. In the meantime, SKEPTIC magazine and SKEPTICAL INQUIRER magazine are both highly recommended and include articles by many of the writers and speakers.
Note: Special thanks to Paul Harris, who introduced me to The Amazing Meeting. I urge you to visit his website HERE where he’s written about his impressions of this year’s conference in multiple essays. I also wish to thank Emily Zolten Jillette for all her kind assistance for being a big help with the TAM staff and dignitaries.