Report from The Amazing Meeting
(This is the long-lost post on the conference material of The Amazing Meeting, 2013.)
If you were to wander into the South Point Hotel in Las Vegas some time between July 10 and 13 this year you would have the very good fortune to find yourself in the middle of The Amazing Meeting (otherwise known as TAM), the largest annual meeting devoted to skeptical thought. Three days of talks, sessions, discussions, gambling, drinking, and late night spa sessions, all in some way related to the fundamental question: how do we know what we know?
Run by the James Randi Educational Foundation, the extraordinary spectacle was witnessed last year by none other than your humble servant. Collating my notes, I shall now attempt to give an impression of the experience.
What is skepticism? Skepticism is not just about making fun of young earth creationists, believers in ghosts, aliens, paranormal stuff, and so on. It's not about having a set of beliefs that those things are silly. It's not even about reductively doubting everything and refusing to have a good time. Rather, it's a cautiously positive statement; I will believe anything if the evidence shows it to be true. The usual response of a skeptic to an outrageous claim is 'show me the evidence'. As we know, outrageous things do occasionally actually exist (like being related to peanuts), and the evidence to support that can certainly be produced.
Stereotypically the obsession of predominantly older, white, bearded, balding and overweight men, skepticism has sent out shoots in all directions, particularly with the internet, and I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity on display. There was even a delegation from Australia!
One of the risks of a gathering of this nature is the echo chamber. Put a thousand people in a room to talk about the silliness of magical thinking and you'll have a thousand heads nodding in agreement and, in my case, sleep. Fortunately, many of the presentations inverted this principle by illustrating just how prone skeptical people were to making exactly the same mistakes. Barbara Drescher gave an account of how, upon infiltrating mensa, she found a group of self-congratulatory 'high IQ' types hosting talks on everything from angels to ESP. Similarly, studies showed that retirees who had been warned about telephone fraud were actually more prone to being conned. Why? No-one likes to think they're stupid!
Some of the presenters gave perspective on first-hand engagement with proponents of 'woo'. As always, most of the victims are sincerely deluded. Only a small minority are opportunistic con artists! Bryan and Baxter bill themselves as a paranormal phenomena investigations team, and gave a rousing talk about their discoveries of haunted houses, UFOs, rejuvenating gazing, demon rape, and everything else you can imagine. Of course, the primary challenge is provide the tools for critical thinking as well as a diagnosis or judgement, and above all, to avoid being a dick about it!
Several skeptical societies have offered large cash prizes for scientific proof of paranormal phenomena. Surprisingly, there are regular attempts to win them, usually by deluded people with cash flow problems. Needless to say, none have ever been won! Less surprisingly, the contestants always have an excuse for failure, ranging from mobile phone interference to orbital precession.
Not all attempts at engagement are quite as successful. Susan Blackmore attempted to set up a large scale double blind study of bio-electric armband shields. What exactly they do or how they work is somewhat unspecific, but the manufacturer was happy to produce a number of placebos. Unsurprisingly, there was no statistical difference between the placebos and the 'real thing'. During a data audit, however, it was eventually discovered that the manufacturer had screwed up their supply data and it was impossible to draw conclusions.
Why are people, skeptics included, so dogmatic in their beliefs? So unable to change their minds? And above all, so prone to believing in stuff that makes no sense? You might be tempted to think that you at least are mostly rational, but that in itself is a prime example of the sort of delusion that is almost impossible to break through. Fundamentally, humans make decisions instantaneously and emotionally. Rational thought swiftly comes along and almost universally justifies the decision. The more rational we are, the more easily we are able to convince ourselves that our decision was correct. But the decision making process was about as sophisticated as a squirrel deciding to flee my oncoming bicycle.
Some of the talks concerned the intersection of skepticism and policy. While readers are no doubt aware of some congressional members wacky and harmful insistence that pregnancy rarely results from sexual assault, Susan Jacoby pointed out that from a factual consistency point of view, aged care policy was just as silly. Why? If you live to 55, you have a 50% chance of senile dementia well before you die, and that's a fact. Whether or not you eat your vegetables and exercise. Yet the mass delusion seems to be that if you do the right thing, you'll be alright. Obviously this has and will continue to have a dire and officially unanticipated effect on aged care.
James Randi himself, wizened yet feisty gave several talks recounting his exploits as a magician and escape artist, and later in debunking Uri Geller (the spoon bender), Peter Popoff (the radio assisted mind-reading preacher), and Project Alpha. He also announced his recent marriage to his long-time partner, to broad cheers.
Skeptics' enthusiasm for rational thought has an interesting corollary; a rabid appreciation of magic and mind reading! Of course, we all know these involve no violations of the laws of physics, but if anything, a heightened awareness for the feebleness of the senses makes for a heightened appreciation of being fooled in a spectacular way. Penn Jillette, a permanent Las Vegas resident, has long been associated with TAM and threw a bacon and doughnut party featuring his very own No God Band. Apollo Robbins, one of the world's best pickpockets, also made an appearance.
I did not agree with everything I saw! Far from it, there is a healthy quantity of dissent throughout the conference. My particular gripe was with usually older distinguished presenters making a negative example of the effects of rapid IT progression. Ranging from the dangers of computer games (show me the evidence!) to denouncements of the profusion of supposedly useless diagnostic information, like whole genome sequencing (we'll work out what to do with it), TAM nevertheless crammed a huge amount into three short days. Hands down the most interesting conference I attended all year!
Of course, skepticism has been around for a very long time, but I was surprised just how detailed and developed the movement is. TAM helped provide perspective on just how many people are doing all sorts of interesting things.
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