Sunday, July 19, 2009

TAM 7, in review

The Amaz!ng Meeting 7

The Amazing Meeting is the de facto annual meeting of the skeptical movement and is held in Las Vegas, NV every year (awesome!). For more info check out the JREF at

Everyone keeps hitting me up to write a review of TAM7, especially since I keep expressing a negative opinion about it.

I want to be completely clear as I can in order to block some objections that will certainly come up: I only went to TAM 7 on Friday. This review is of Friday only, and whenever I talk about attitudes or refer to the conference generally, it is because I’ve already made the qualification here.

I want to say from the onset, that I thought a small portion of the day was fantastic, but the rest of the day (the majority of it) sucked/was disappointing.

So, I showed up a few minutes after 8pm (I was staying on the strip and underestimated how long it would take to get out there) with two friends (Adam and Eric). The reason we only went on Friday is because we were trying to conserve money so we could enjoy a vacation in Vegas and, on paper, it looked like the most appealing day to us. We had just seen Michael Shermer a few months prior and got to have drinks with him so we were okay with missing him this time around, and we really wanted to see the key note speaker (Bill Prady – Producer of the “Big Bang Theory” sitcom), James Randi, Phil Plait, Steve Novella, Joe Nickel, SGU and the other speakers we hadn’t heard of had fascinating topics planned.

Right away we ended up getting stuck sitting fairly far back, the room was already filled with somewhere around 1000 skeptics, which was certainly cool to see. Unfortunately this meant we also could not hear the SGU recording, nor could we read the power points (this is one of my biggest complaints against the organization of the conference – huge oversight, about 1/3 of the room couldn’t read it).

Because this was brunch/SGU I didn’t think too much of it, I figured the day would pick up once everyone got settled in and the speakers came up. I was looking forward to finding out who the MC was (I hadn’t heard of him before), and to hearing from James Randi and Phil Plait. Now, I’d like to make another qualification, I do not get star struck easily. I really cannot think of someone famous that would make me get super excited to the point where I would be happier to see them than, say, a friend I haven’t seen a few months. So, it really wasn’t exciting for me to just see these skeptical celebrities for the sake of seeing them in person. The reason I wanted to see them was to hear them talk and get down to business – they are among skeptics and could now do so. They know we are all science buffs and such, so they could even get technical and speak very freely about their opinions.

However, the first hour and a half or so was just the introduction people going on and on (basically repeating each other) about how we were about to have an awesome conference and how much work had gone into producing the event. They talked about past TAMs, talked about talking about stuff, and demonstrated how inescapable in-group effects are.

Essentially, the first 2.5 hours of the conference consisted of garbled noise, unreadable power points, and a lot of back-patting –wayyy disappointing.

Then, finally, it was time for the key note speaker, Bill Prady. He is the Executive Producer of “The Big Bang Theory” sitcom, which stars book-smart PhD physicists who live across the hall from a street-smart, attractive woman. I really like this show, the dynamic of these hyper nerds trying to get along in the real world while they tell quantum physics jokes and deal with their bombastic super-genius friend Sheldon is great. But anyway, Bill Prady was great. He basically talked about the show, played some clips that relate to skepticism and science, and went into the topic of the attitude NOT to have towards those that disagree with you. He pointed out that the people who believe the strange things we rail again believe them for good reasons, and often rely on their beliefs to console them and to make sense out of the world. In the show, Sheldon’s mom relies on her religion to cope with a hyper-genius she doesn’t understand. Penny (the attractive neighbor) is into pop-culture phenomena such as astrology so she can strike up conversations with people, and so on. Also, during the Q&A someone complained about they think Penny is a typical ditzy women – and he gave a great answer basically outlining the fact that she is intuitive, street-smart, and does amazing well at getting through the world (especially in contrast with the physicists on the show). He recommends taking a second looks at her character, and even reexamine what we think intelligence consists of. Great speech overall.

Then, we had Fintan Steele, director of scientific education and communications, of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard talk about the recent explosion of genomic information. He touched on the advancements, misconceptions, and the ways in which some people are scamming others with this information. Essentially, there are companies out there that claim the gene is the smallest unit of our biology, and if we can understand it then we can know everything. From this, they will map your DNA and give you a read-out on your genetic propensities. However, this is false for many reasons he discussed in his speech. It was very awesome, technical, enlightening, and cutting edge – exactly what I had come to the TAM for.

So, given the last two speakers the day was getting really awesome.

We were behind schedule, which was to be expected, it would be impossible to stick to such a busy schedule, but there were announcements slotted for the next half-hour then it was time for lunch. However, they surprised us – rather than doing some quick announcements and letting us out, they put a man up there to talk about his stroke and having sex with his wife. I really feel sorry for anyone who experiences such drastic medical trauma as he did, but seriously, this was awful. I don’t think anyone wanted to hear him talk about how he had a stroke while having sex with his wife. He went on and on and eventually people were doing everything they could to get him off the stage so we could go to lunch – it even got to the point where people had to just get up and leave because he just wouldn’t stop. Jesus Christ man – it was depressing and awkward.

So we went to lunch and played some slot machines, then came back.

After lunch, it was time for a ‘conversation’ between James Randi and Jamy Ian Swiss (who I’m guessing is a magician). However, all this was, really, was James Randi showing videos of himself when he was famous for doing death-defying tricks and going on talk shows in the 60s-70s while he rambled in the background about how he felt about doing it. It was like having your grandfather go on and on about the stuff he used to do 40 years ago when he wasn’t so old. I have mixed feelings about this: I understand why some people may have enjoyed this, they are the type who probably also love their grandfathers and could listen to them ramble about the car they used to own (or whatever) all day. However, overall this felt like the cult of the James Randi. Everyone around us seemed to really REALLY like it. Also, you could, conveniently, buy everything he had for sale. Speaker after speaker from the beginning to the end of the day praised James Randi. Part of it is rightfully so – I mean, he did start the JREF and is a big part of the skeptical movement. Although I can’t give a real cut-off point where this all becomes too much, I can say it fell like it was crossed half-way through the day. Eric and Adam both felt it – and if felt like the cult of James Randi. Standing ovation after stand ovation for him made me more and more cynical.

The next speaker was Jennifer Ouellette who is a popular science writer and is a part of the Science and Entertainment exchange – a group that helps television and Hollywood get their science right. It’s a very cool group, and was surprised to learn that Seth McFarlane (of Family Guy) is part of it and a very big science proponent and outspoken atheist.

Next was the Anti-Anti-Vax panel with Steve Novella, Joe Albietz, David Gorski, Harriett Hall, and Michael Goudeau. This was essentially a comprehensive look at the anti-vaccination movement, the facts on the rumors of a link between vaccinations and autism, and where to go from here. Although extremely brief, this was very informative. There is absolutely NO evidence that suggests such a link exists now or ever, and the evidence is completely in the opposite direction. Certainly, it was nearly unavoidable to fall into the common fallacy committed by skeptics that assigns rationality to our thinking and emotional overriding to ‘their’ thinking. This is some basic in-group stuff, but the type that is very hard to avoid.

Although there were about 1.5 hours left, this was the last decent event. The rest of the conference was an auction and Joe Nickel talking about his vacation in big foot country and UFO/aliens. Maybe it is just because I didn’t become a skeptic the week of this conference, but come on… big foot and ufos?

All in all, Bill Prady and Fintan Steele were wonderful speakers. The anti-anti-vax panel was informative. All of the other parts of the day were either boring or spent worshipping James Randi. A lot of celebrity worship went into the day, and that’s just not something I can ever get into. My main complaint is that the conference lacked substance, and even creeped me out a little bit. We didn’t stay out at the same hotel as the conference, so I didn’t get to hang out with skeptics very much beyond the meeting, but to reply to this review that I should have, and then I would have liked it is to ignore the fact that I paid $175 to listen to people worship praise James Randi. If the best part of the conference is meeting with skeptics, then there really isn’t any value added in having it. I have friends that are skeptics, I’m in a local skeptics group, and I occasionally drive up to Columbus to hang out with other skeptics up there. Granted, it is refreshing to be around skeptics, atheists, agnostics, intellectuals, and science-minded people – I would rather not pay so much for it. Perhaps I’m lucky to be surrounded by these sort of people already (I DO live in a college town), and I can see the value in it for those who aren’t. But, I still think my criticism of the conference itself lacking substance is valid.

So, what do you think? Try again next year? Maybe this year was just a little weaker than those in the past? Agree? Response?

I’m a skeptic who loves these types of things, and I’d hate to write off the whole movement as a self-serving group of people just because I was turned off by my experience with the conference. Truly, I could have bought tix for the rest of the conference, but I had no incentive too. I expected the added value of another day of the conference was truly less than another $175 I could use at the poker tables.


Eric G. said...

I must say, I mostly agree with David one this one. For the most part I felt one day may not have been the best sample size, but that one day definitely had its hits and misses.

Looking back I guess one of the major things I would have done differently was socialize with other skeptics. We talked to a few, this one OU alum guy who stayed in Lincoln (coincidence?!?!), this cute chick from Missouri wanting to start up her own group, and another guy talking genomic algorithms (boner). I mean I guess the social aspect is probably one of the main reasons people come. Even though we all share the Skeptic movement, I'm sure everyone has their own perspective and opinions on things.

As for the content: Hit or miss.

HIT - The genetics/genetic company scams/gene patenting speech from Steele was really good. This seemed like a breathe of fresh air in the skeptic movement with topics. Instead of the usual UFOs/Bigfoots (Cough Joe Nickels Cough), Holocaust denials, Psychics, etc, this speech seemed relevant and REQUIRES a skeptical mind to investigate.

HIT - Bill Prady, keynote speaker. Really intelligent guy and touching upon mainstream and science issues with his show "The Big Bang Theory". Funny guy and showed some cool clips. Which leads to my next hit...

HIT - Jennifer Ouellette. Speaking about using ACCURATE science in pop culture. Wonderful emerging topic for today. Like David, I have a new found respect for Seth Macfarlan (minus Family Guy/American Dad).

HIT - Anti Vaccine panel. Nice re-cap and information on the current topic.

Basically the hits were all talks about issues happening now and have a relevance to today's world in the Skeptic movement. Topics peopel can discuss and refreshing.

Pretty much everything else was a miss. Though the live SGU would have been better if they prepared the room for 1000 skeptics vs tiny panel. Otherwise David summed it up nicely with James Randi, stroke guy, and Joe Nickels. It seemed like living in the past and disconnected from us.

Otherwise I would give TAM8 a shot if the line-up is decent enough (and hey Vegas is fucking sweet). But as David said earlier, the extra money could be used for poker.

Andres said...

Great review.