Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Amazing Meeting - Day 1

The Amazing Meeting. Two days. 24 Speakers. 1000 Delegates.

TAM is an annual series of fundraising conferences set up for the James Randi Educational Foundation. The subject of these conferences is healthy skepticism; it attracts people like myself who have an open, enquiring mind but who, nevertheless, demand proof before blind acceptance. It's about sanity, good science and the debunking of harmful quackery, dangerous pseudo-science and people who make money - sometimes a lot of money - by promising things to desperate people that simply aren't true. This year's US conference - TAM8 - was held in Las Vegas in July. TAM2010 London is the second such UK conference. TAM2009 was the first to be held outside the USA and sold out in just one hour. Speakers at previous TAMs have included Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, magicians Penn and Teller, Prof Brian Cox and dozens of other noted scientists, entertainers and academics.

TAM2010 has been no less a stellar event and kicked off on Friday night with pub quizzes and a special discounted performance of Andy Nyman's and Jeremy Dyson's genuinely terrifying Ghost Stories at the Duke of York's Theatre. But the main event began on Saturday with a day of speakers that many conferences would die for. Host Professor Richard Wiseman welcomed us all and introduced the man himself - James Randi - who gave a stirring speech in which he assured us that he was fit and well and ready to continue the fight against fraud and fakery. It was extraordinary to hear such strength emanating from such a small and frail looking figure; he has had heart bypass surgery, had a golf ball sized intestinal tumour removed and has undergone chemotherapy in the past two years. His passion for investigating the claims of psychics, mediums, faith healers and such is undiminished. He is on record as saying that he doesn't want a fancy tomb or a museum of magic named after him; what he wants is to 'be cremated and have my ashes blown into Uri Geller's eyes.'

Next up was Dr Susan Blackmore, she of the multi-coloured hair, multi-coloured husband (Adam Hart-Davis) and the scientist more than anyone responsible for expanding the concept of memes and memetics. A meme (a term first coined by Richard Dawkins) is a self-propogating idea or behaviour that transmits itself throughout a culture. It can be a belief, an idea, a practice, even a song or a dance. Applying the idea of memes to such issues as belief in psychic phenomena is an interesting idea. Blackmore explained that she's spent years using the scientific method to prove the existence of such phenomena with the result that she is now a confirmed skeptic.

Next at the podium was Professor Richard Dawkins himself arguing not against religion or god(s) but arguing strongly for the subject of evolution to be elevated to the same status as the Classics. I find Dawkins a little too evangelical at times but he was quite restrained today, his only real vitriol being levelled at American schools. 'My subject, Evolution, is under threat', he said, 'I want to come out fighting.' Among his more notable comments were these that sent a ripple of excitement through the audience:

'Science is the poetry of reality'.

'The evolutionary perspective makes you realise that it's a sheer accident that we able to set up a morality that is so human-centred.'

'If we held hands with our mothers, and they with theirs, back to our common ancestor with chimps, the chain would only be 200miles long.'

Richard Wiseman acted as a splendid host between speakers, treating us to Powerpoint presentations of rubbish ghost photos, and silly examples that demonstrated how easily people can be persuaded to believe something. Among these examples we saw proof (when the IT finally worked) that the Teletubbies are evil and that The Monkees were in league with a fascist dictator. Just listen to their theme song:

'We're just trying to be friendly, come along and see us play,
We're the young generation and we've got Saddam Hussein'.

Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing, speaking with a voice even louder than his suit then gave us a good talk on copyright. His best quote? 'Yesterday's pirates are today's admirals'. You can see his talk here.

Geeks pin-up Dr Adam Rutherford opened his talk by telling us 'I want to talk to you about Jesus' and then revealed some harrowing truths about the Alpha Course, which he enrolled in to see exactly what was being taught. His first fascinating insight was that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than believers (here's the link) so maybe the believers shouldn't be the ones claiming to know it all. A second point worth emphasising is that everyone is welcome on the Alpha Course ... even gays who can be cured as the result.

A lacklustre lunch (this conference cost delegates over £200 each - I did expect better fare) was followed by a very funny interview of Andy Nyman by Richard Wiseman. Nyman is one of those people you know by sight but can't quite name. He was in the British (and vastly superior) version of Death at a Funeral, in Charlie Brooker's Dead Set and he was the hilariously ineffective training coordinator in Severance. But, behind the scenes, he's a superb magician and has co-created many of Derren Brown's most impactful shows. Yes, he's the real Jonathan Creek. And, of course, he's the co-writer of the aformentioned Ghost Stories show.

An interesting chat illustrated with plenty of photos and funny anecdotes. I spotted a beardy Jonathan Ross clapping the funnies along with his flame-haired wife Jane Goldman and a couple of daughters. That's the thing about an event like TAM - the audience boasts as many famous faces as on stage.

Nyman was followed by a spirited sales pitch by Karen James for the Beagle Project and then a talk by Paula Kirby of the Richard Dawkins Foundation who built upon some of the themes in Rutherford's talk to discuss the worrying influence in politics of the Christian Party. These are people who, by admission in their own manifesto, want to abolish all fairness and equality legislation, replace CCTV with street pastors, raise the motorway speed limit to 90mph, make abortion illegal, teach creationism in schools and bring back corporal punishment, solve global warming by enforcing Sunday as a day of rest (lowering the carbon footprint, apparently), and - of course - cure all homosexuals. The gays really get a pounding in their literature. As Kirby pointed out, it's unlikely that these people will ever get an elected MP in the house but, nevertheless, they are vocal and proactive. They protest everything they don't agree with. Not enough of us protest back. Oh, and I loved the fact that their literature insultingly calls people like me a 'secular humanist fundamentalist'. Cheeky bastards. I quite fancy the badge though.

A three way discussion of skeptical activism followed on hosted by Tracey Brown of Sense about science and featuring Dr Simon Singh, Dr Evan Harris and David Allen Green (better known to many as 'Jack of Kent'). Evan harris made the point that so much more lobbying needs to go on within parliament to ensure that dodgy and ill-advised legislation isn't pushed through. David Allen Green talked about coordination between activists and gave us the wonderful quote, 'When cats complain they complain about herding skeptics'. This point was then taken up by Simon Singh who took the platform to announce the arrival on January 1st 2011 of The Nightingale Collaboration. named in honour of nurse and statistician Florence (she invented the Pie-Chart. Did you know that?). TNC will be the first major attempt to provide a focus and meeting point for all of us diverse and geographically divided skeptical bloggers, writers and activists. If you want to know more about it, read this article in The Guardian by Martin Robbins (who I saw several time feverishly live blogging during the day despite the best efforts of the dodgy wi-fi to black him out).

Finally, we had the grandstand event of the day - an interview of James Randi by the wonderfully on-form Robin Ince. It was a wide-ranging discussion from Randi's appearance on Happy Days to his first debunking of a psychic preacher when just a child in Canada. At times the interview was very moving. Randi even choked back tears at one point when telling the story of a crippled child denied proper medical care due to the prevailing belief in prayer and psychic healing. However, he also delighted the audience with stories about how he disproved the abilities of Uri Geller and the money-grabbing so-called psychic minister Peter Popoff. Popoff in particular was the subject of much of Randi's anger. As he described it (and I'm paraphrasing here), 'Popoff had utter disdain and a total lack of respect for the people he was supposedly helping. We raided his trash and found that he threw away small cheques. He was only interested in the big ones with lots of zeroes. And yet these smaller cheques were from the poorest of people; people so poor they'd given their last cent to him, even their bus fare home. And I have a recording in my possession of Popoff's wife feeding him information about the audience members via a hidden earpiece in which she clearly says 'The big fat nigger is next up. I know you. Leave his tits alone'.'

Sadly, despite Popoff being shown to be a fraud, time and time again, he's still raking in millions of dollars. 'It's easier to believe,' said Randi. 'People don't want to hear that there's no hope. They clutch at anything, even proven nonsense. I can't blame them for that. I just detest the predators who benefit from that.'

This led on to Ince asking how Randi kept his enthusiasm and momentum in the face of constant threats of legal action and the fact that, despite the evidence, people keep returning to mumbo-jumbo. 'Because of all the little victories,' said Randi. 'The important thing is to keep informing people and then letting them make their own informed choices'. One of my favourite quotes from his talk was 'Education doesn't make you smart. It makes you more educated' in response to an audience question about why scientists are sometimes fooled by charlatans. 'The other thing you have to remember', explained Randi, 'Is that these people are really good at what they do. Uri Geller has maybe four tricks in his repertoire. But he does them fantastically well. You can't sustain a career on four tricks unless you're the best at doing them.' The other quote I liked was during a discussion about atheism. 'I'm an atheist of the second kind', said Randi. 'The dictionary has two definitions - the first says 'A person who denies the existence of a deity'. The second says 'A person who has not been given sufficient proof to believe in a deity'. I'm an atheist of the second kind. I'm open to examining evidence and proof. I don't deny anyone else's right to believe.'

But perhaps Randi's best quote was his most succint. Ince asked him, 'Have you ever had anything on the JREF Million Dollar challenge where you've thought, 'You know what, actually this might be a little tricky'?' Randi's reply? 'Nope.' He explained that the prize is still available and has been since 1964. 'It's so frustrated the charlatans out there that they've even started a rumour that the prize was won years ago and we've covered it up', said Randi. 'On our website you can see that's not true. And, besides, anyone can ask us for a copy of the bank statement showing that the money is there and available to be won. No one ever does.'

There then followed a short award ceremony in which Ben Goldacre was honoured for Outstanding Achievement in Skepticism and 15 year od Rhys Morgan was deservedly given the Grass Roots Skeptic Award for exposing a terrible profiteering miracle cure. You can read Rhys's story here.

Unfortunately I couldn't stay for Tim Minchin's gig and, instead, had to fight my way through planned engineering works on Chiltern Railways and the peculiar hell of the rail-replacemnet bus service. All totally worth it though.

Roll on Day 2.

Meanwhile, checkout this site that has lots of videos from previous TAMs.


Anonymous said...

Interesting write-up, thankyou.

One thing occurs to me, though; in the section where you discuss the talk on Popoff, does his throwing away the small cheques really show utter disdain? Or does it show a prick of conscience - refusing to take money from the less well off people and only cashing the cheques from people who 'can afford' to get ripped off? Just a thought.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Gnomentum - You may be right. But they were James Randi's accusations rather than mine. I wasn't there to see it. Some pretty damning stuff to watch here though:

Chris Hale said...

Fascinating stuff, Stevyn. Looking forward to part two. But pray tell: when was the English 'sceptic' supplanted by the American 'skeptic'? You know me. I just had to ask!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - A good point and you're right to ask! that's what good sceptics/skeptics do. I don't think I saw it spelled with a 'C' once over the two days. Having checked my OED and Fowler's it does seem that both are equally valid and, it could be argued that the 'K' version is more accurate as it reflects the word's Greek origin. It's a bit like academia's insistence that words ending in 'ise' are spelled 'ize'. we associate it with US spelling conventions but it's supposedly more correct. Me? I don't really mind as long as I can understand what they've written. Life is too short!

Anonymous said...

Stevyn - yes, I understood that, sorry if it wasn't clear from my comment!

Interesting clip, thankyou. I noticed a few others in the same vein by Mr Randi, I'll browse them through the day.

Chris Hale said...

'I'm Skepticos!'

crabsallover said...

thanks for your write-up. Will definitely try to attend in 2011.