Respectful Insolence

Rerun time is over.

Very early Monday morning, a plane touched down, a car drove along a dark and deserted freeway, and my wife and I found ourselves finally back at home. True, we did have a late night diversion to Denny’s because we were starving, but by 2 AM or so we were back home. Time to go to bed. Time to go back to work. No more Las Vegas. No more The Amaz!ng Meeting.

Now what?

I probably should have written this yesterday, or on the plane. It’s really amazing how fast impressions become memory and memory morphs and fades. But I was simply too tired. I used to be able to adjust to a trip to the Pacific time zone in a day or two at the most, longer going east, but I never quite adjusted to Vegas time, and by the time I had started to it was time to go home. Suffice it to say, I’m guessing it will be a couple of days before I start to feel back to normal. More difficult to deal with, however, is the profound sense of discombobulation I feel as I write this. TAM is not the real world, and my wife and I are now back in the real world.

Now what?

I must confess, upon attending TAM7 this year I was a TAM virgin, a TAM newbie. I really didn’t have a good idea what to expect. I had signed on to participate in the Science-Based Medicine Conference that was held the day before the main meeting started. I also was honored to participate in the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel Discussion on Friday afternoon. I had always considered myself at best a passable public speaker, but there was something about the energy of being among a couple of hundred skeptics who wanted to hear what I said about alternative medicine and quackery that inspired me. I had feared that I’d be the weak link in the conference, and I ended up doing far better than I would have guessed I could. (If you were there, feel free to disabuse me of my delusion; better the cold, hard truth than a pleasant delusion, at least now that the meeting’s over and I’m back home.) The response to the SBM conference was overall quite good, as Steve Novella has reported, and I certainly hope we manage to do it again. Indeed, I’m looking for an opportunity to give the talk I gave there to a local group. It’ll actually be a better talk, because I know what parts caused me to stumble and I’ll know how to make it better the next time I give it. (There’s a hint to skeptical groups in my area: You know who you are.)

Then, participating in the Anti-Anti-Vax panel with Joe Albietz, Steve Novella, Mike Goudeau (who, in case you don’t know, is a skeptic, juggler, entertainer, producer, and writer who works with Penn & Teller who also has an autistic child), Harriet Hall, and Derek Bartholomaus, all in front of a thousand or more skeptics, couldn’t help but get me pumped up. How could it not? Joe Albietz had arranged a vaccination drive that garnered over $8,000 in donations that will go towards decreasing the horribly low vaccination rate in the Las Vegas area. This is exactly the sort of thing we skeptics should be doing: Positive action combined with the refutation of pseudoscience, and I was proud to be even a small part of it.

More importantly, the Anti-Anti-Vax panel was powerful evidence that the skeptical movement as a whole has finally awakened to the threat that the anti-vaccine movement poses to public health. Back when I first started blogging about the dangerous nuttiness of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in 2005, I often felt lonely. Not alone, because there were others hammering the same topic, but we seemed few and far between and the skeptical movement as a whole didn’t seem (at least not to me) to view the issue as very important. It is to the new JREF president Phil Plait’s credit that he’s not only realized that that the antivaccine movement is every bit as big of a threat to science as, for example, creationism, but he’s done something concrete about it. The antivaccine movement is a pseudoscientific cultish belief system that, unlike creationism, is not a threat that will undermine science in a decade or two, when children with deficient science educations start hitting colleges and the workforce. Don’t get me wrong. Creationism is an insidious threat to science education and needs to be countered at every turn, but its effects are not immediate and not as direct. The anti-vaccine movement represents a threat to public health now. It’s also a special, particularly vile form of pseudoscience that results in autistic children being viewed as “toxic,” “poisoned,” even somehow less than human, resulting in their being subjected to particularly nasty forms of quackery to “cure” them, including chelation therapy (which can kill), chemical castration, and even quack “stem cell therapies.”

I even “came out,” so to speak, during the panel, revealing my identity to about a thousand seemingly close friends. Not that it’s been that much of a secret for a long time. Not that I’m going to start blogging here under my own name, at least not now. (My favorite quip to people who ask me about that is that knowledge of my identity is like gnostic knowledge revealed to but a few who are worthy.) I will admit to being a bit disconcerted by how many people approached me, wanted to meet me, and even wanted to be photographed with me. It wasn’t P.Z. or Phil Plait numbers, but it was more than enough. No, my mentioning this is not false modesty. I know I’m a really good writer. Rather, it’s a simple, shy streak that I’ve had all my life. (Maybe I really am like my namesake.) Trust me, I’m a lot better than I was several years ago, but if I came off as aloof to anyone who approached me I apologize. I was really trying not to be, and I realize that I probably didn’t always succeed. In the beginning, I started this blog just to amuse myself, but with its growth my readers developed into a community that I

So what about the rest of the meeting? There were some great talks, such as Bill Prady’s talk about one of my favorite shows The Big Bang Theory. One thing he revealed that did surprise me is when he told the crowd that he wanted letters of complaint about the show from which he would find quotes to read as part of his speech. There were none, even after he checked with the network. So maybe there’s hope. A funny skeptical show that openly states that evolution happened and makes fun of beliefs not grounded in evidence has not only drawn little criticism but it’s actually a very popular show. Humor can go a long way towards diffusing such criticism. Even better, Prady mentioned that he had shot a scene involving various dubious cold remedies in a drug store and that he was looking for a chance to take on some alternative medicine woo. I can’t wait.

Another good talk was by Fintan Steele. In essence, Dr. Steele argued that “personalized medicine” is not going to be the end-all and be-all of medicine, as is sometimes claim. He likened the faith in genomics and proteomics as the harbingers of predictive and therapeutic medicine based on an individual’s unique genetic makeup. While I agreed that genomics and “personalized medicine” are overhyped and oversold, I didn’t agree with Dr. Steele’s dismissal of the use of genomics to guide therapy as, in essence, useless. He seemed to me to be very sloppily conflating “overhyped” with “useless,” and I couldn’t figure out if he thought that there would ever be any clinically useful tests that would develop out of genomics. As a cancer researcher, I know that at least one or two already have. In any case, I couldn’t resist challenging Dr. Steele a bit at a reception afterward, and we had an enjoyable exchange of differences.

I could go on with a blow-by-blow of various talks, but I’m more interested in the overall gestalt of the meeting, which was energizing. How could it not be? I got to meet and speak with James Randi himself. His body may be old and frail (indeed, someone commented that every year he looks more gnome-like, and it’s true), but his mind is as sharp as ever, as is his wit. Meeting Adam Savage was also an honor. He is every bit as friendly and jovial in person as he is on Mythbusters. Mike Goudeau was funny and clearly dedicated to his autistic child, a skeptic and a potential force against the antivaccine mvoement, while Joe Albietz is young and dynamic. Then, of course, it was a lot of fun to meet the whole Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe team. Although I had met Steve Novella once before, I hadn’t seen him since collaborating with him, and I had never met the SGU team in person before. Unfortunately, I totally missed Rebecca Watson’s surprise wedding on Saturday morning. My wife and I had been out late and didn’t get up in time. Damn.

Overall, if there was one theme running through the meeting, it was skeptical activism (well, that, and skepticism in the media). Robert Lancaster, creator of Stop Sylvia Browne was big, and Derek Bartholomaus of Jenny McCarthy Body Count got a bigger round of applause than pretty much anyone else on the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel. If there was one question we got at the SBM conference and after the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel more than any other, it was this: What can we do? What do we do now? Once the meeting is over, everyone has dispersed to their homes, and the energy and enthusiasm of being among a thousand people who (more or less) think the way you do has dissipated and you have to go back to the real world, where your way of thinking is definitely in a minority, what can you do to combat what has been called the “age of unreason.”

Now what?

Steve Novella has listed a number of possibilities, and I can’t argue with any of them. The point is to do something. Take what you are good at and apply it to promoting skepticism. I’m good at writing; so I have a blog. Lately, I’ve been branching out to giving talks and networking with others who think as I do. I’ve written letters to local journalists. I’ve done some podcast and radio interviews. Remember how I said I was a bit shy? Well, that realization has led me to understand that writing a blog is well and good but that, if I’m going to take my activism to the next level, I’m going to have to push myself out of my comfort zone. (Who knows? One day a podcast may be in my future someday if I can ever find the time to play with podcasting software enough to figure out how to do it.) If you’re not good at writing or public speaking, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. Echoing Steve, I say that there are always new frontiers in skeptical activism to be explored, and there are old, seemingly mundane but nonetheless critical, activities that need to be done, such as joining school boards and attending school board meetings to speak out against creationism. If you belong to a hospital board, resist the infiltration of quackademic medicine. If you belong to a parents’ group, try to counter the antivaccine nonsense that infiltrates so many of them.

So let me take this opportunity to challenge those of you who were at TAM, some of whom I had the honor of meeting and conversing with, and even those who weren’t at TAM: What will you do now? What skeptical topic are you passionate about? If you were at TAM, how will you try to keep a spark of that enthusiasm that was ignited at TAM alive as it is buffeted about by the winds of your normal, everyday life that threaten to extinguish it? If you weren’t at TAM, what will you do to try to promote reason and critical thinking, while providing a counter to the rampant pseudoscience and credulity.

What now?

Comments

  1. #1 DebinOz
    July 14, 2009

    Just been looking at some of the TAM photos on Facebook – you guys looked like you were having a blast!!! And the hotel pool – wow!

    It was great to see the faces of some of my favourite bloggers (other than the silly mug shots).

    Doing my best here in Australia to promote sceptical thinking!

  2. #2 Ranson
    July 14, 2009

    I’m always excited to see a wrap-up of a conference like TAM, especially from someone who’s never been before. It’s still a pipe dream for me to attend at this point (mostly travel costs and child care), but the addition of the live stream this year made me feel like I was there. I also get fired up on the skeptic side of things, as well.

    I think adding more meetings (the TAM x.5, TAM in the UK) will help keep the fires from dying down until the next main TAM. There are a lot of skeptical conferences out there, but TAM is the “rock star” of the bunch. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and hope your fire inspires others to an even greater degree.

  3. #3 The Blind Watchmaker
    July 14, 2009

    Thanks, Orac, for a nice summary and call to arms. I must add that I thought the paper presentations and the million dollar challenge were, to me, highlights of the event. Some attendees kind scoffed at the paper presentations as the concept just sounds kind of boring. But they were well done and covered many of the core topics that skeptics are interested in. Topics like teaching critical thinking to troubled youth, improving the ‘brand’ image of the skeptical movement, how to run a skeptical website, and much more.

    The million dollar challenge was conducted very professionally. There was a very large crowd in attendance that was completely silent and respectful. Commenters on the net from the live stream were surprised that there even was a live audience. The test demonstrated what happens to perceived ‘phenomenon’ when the proper observational controls are in place (nothing happened).

  4. #4 Marcus Ranum
    July 14, 2009

    Why be shy? You know what you’re talking about! That puts you a fair ways ahead of most of the people who get stuck behind a microphone, and miiiiiiles ahead of Jenny McCarthy. Always remember that “content is king” and just stick with what you know and everything else will follow from there.

    The people who have cause to be nervous speaking in public are the liars. Even the ignorant have little to fear (unless they know they’re ignorant, in which case they’re borderline liars). So – let ‘er rip!

  5. #5 FreeSpeaker
    July 14, 2009

    I wish I had known about the live stream.

    More meetings, with live stream being made available will fire up more people.

  6. #6 Denice Walter
    July 14, 2009

    Synchronicity? Serendipity? I just commented on an anti-AIDS-denialist’s site listing some actions people who oppose pseudo-science can take,including:1. complaining to PBS, NPR,or Pacifica stations that feature woo-meisters(fund-raising or shows),2. attending bookstore events where merchants of woo speak/sell/sign and *questioning* them publicly,3. commenting on You-Tube videos by pseudo-scientists(less moderation and censoring than on their blogs/websites)as well as websites like HuffPo, that *occasionally* print something that makes sense,4.supporting governmental officials who are targeted by whimsy-based medecine advocates(e.g. anti-vaxers),5.supporting skeptical bloggers with compliments,comments,and hits,6. direct challenges to debate purveyors of woo(e.g.Lee Phillips), and of course,7. speaking up when the pseudo-science rears its ugly head in everyday conversation:”spreading the word”.

  7. #7 Karl Withakay
    July 14, 2009

    It was very neat to meet you. Unfortunately two shy people who have never met before does not result in particularly good conversation (or much conversation at all).

    I had envisioned getting into a nice conversation with you, but my plan to play off of your lead was quickly dashed, and I thought to myself, “Crap, he’s not much better at talking to strangers than I am; this isn’t going to go anywhere. Oh well, at least I got to meet him”

    I thought you were a bit better on the Antivax panel than you were on your presentation at the SBM conference, perhaps because you had the other panelists to play off of.

    I am satisfied that I got to meet the two bloogers who got me started on the web portion of my critical thinking experience, Phil Plait & Orac.

    I know you haven’t really been particularly concerned with protecting your identity, what with cross-posting on the other site & all, but I was still a little surprise to hear you say, “I’m Orac.”

  8. #8 The Blind Watchmaker
    July 14, 2009

    TAM7 was a very enjoyable event. The main speakers were interesting, Orac’s especially (suck up, suck up). The SBM conference was great (would have liked the CME though). The highlight was meeting people from all over the world who share a reality based, rationalistic world view.

    Another highlight, at least for me, was the paper presentation portion on Sunday. This was kind of set apart from the main TAM events as it was on Sunday morning and did not have as big a crowd as the Friday and Saturday stuff. In this portion, anyone could have submitted a talk proposal and, if accepted, given the podium for 20 minutes or so to present their stuff. Some core topics near and dear to the hearts of die hard skeptics were presented. Among the topics was the teaching of critical thinking to troubled children (perhaps the population that needs it the most). Others included strategies for dealing with the perceived negative image of the ‘brand’ of the skeptical movement (I particularly enjoyed this one given by author and marketing expert, Steve Cuno). There was a talk given by the “What’s the Harm” website dude on how to run skeptical websites. These talks, in my opinion, should have been sprinkled throughout the conference among the more flashy talks by skeptical celebrities.

    The million dollar challenge really displayed what happens when perceived, seemingly paranormal phenomenons are attempted with proper observational controls. Well, actually nothing happens. The test was done under conditions agreed upon by the challengers and the challengee. I think that the challengee, Ms. Sonne, sincerely believed that her crystal on a string could find things on its own through paranormal means. Turned out that when the dowser is blinded to the usual visual cues, the ideomotor effect produces random noise.

    The challenge also demonstrated a tremendous amount of professionalism on the parts of the JREF, Banachek (the test administrator), Ms. Sonne and the audience. Throughout the tedious and laborious process of the test, not a word could be heard. Ms. Sonne received a courteous round of applause after the test and she graciously acknowledged the fairness of the test and her failure of the test. People watching on the live internet stream commented that they were surprised to learn that there was such a large audience (I estimate about 500 people) was present when the lights were turned up at the end and the camera panned over the crowd.

    Overall, a great experience.

    Great talks by Orac too!

  9. #9 The Blind Watchmaker
    July 14, 2009

    TAM7 was a very enjoyable event. The main speakers were interesting, Orac’s especially (suck up, suck up). The SBM conference was great (would have liked the CME though). The highlight was meeting people from all over the world who share a reality based, rationalistic world view.

    Another highlight, at least for me, was the paper presentation portion on Sunday. This was kind of set apart from the main TAM events as it was on Sunday morning and did not have as big a crowd as the Friday and Saturday stuff. In this portion, anyone could have submitted a talk proposal and, if accepted, given the podium for 20 minutes or so to present their stuff. Some core topics near and dear to the hearts of die hard skeptics were presented. Among the topics was the teaching of critical thinking to troubled children (perhaps the population that needs it the most). Others included strategies for dealing with the perceived negative image of the ‘brand’ of the skeptical movement (I particularly enjoyed this one given by author and marketing expert, Steve Cuno). There was a talk given by the “What’s the Harm” website dude on how to run skeptical websites. These talks, in my opinion, should have been sprinkled throughout the conference among the more flashy talks by skeptical celebrities.

    The million dollar challenge really displayed what happens when perceived, seemingly paranormal phenomenons are attempted with proper observational controls. Well, actually nothing happens. The test was done under conditions agreed upon by the challengers and the challengee. I think that the challengee, Ms. Sonne, sincerely believed that her crystal on a string could find things on its own through paranormal means. Turned out that when the dowser is blinded to the usual visual cues, the ideomotor effect produces random noise.

    The challenge also demonstrated a tremendous amount of professionalism on the parts of the JREF, Banachek (the test administrator), Ms. Sonne and the audience. Throughout the tedious and laborious process of the test, not a word could be heard. Ms. Sonne received a courteous round of applause after the test and she graciously acknowledged the fairness of the test and her failure of the test. People watching on the live internet stream commented that they were surprised to learn that there was such a large audience (I estimate about 500 people) was present when the lights were turned up at the end and the camera panned over the crowd.

    Overall, a great experience.

    Great talks by Orac too!

  10. #10 Ramel
    July 14, 2009

    Just a thought, if you’re not concinved about doing a pod-cast on your own you could always try a joint project with the other SBM conributors. You could even try to con them into learning the tech stuff so that you don’t have to.

  11. #11 PsyberDave
    July 14, 2009

    Orac, your question of what to do now is a perennial one. I have been to most TAMs, though regrettably not this last one and have heard the question posed several times. In fact, I have seen a video of a James Randi presentation that was probably 20 years old in which an audience member complained about woo and asked essentially “what can we do about it”.

    I like your suggestions and I think the Internet is a great forum for blogging and commenting and generally making ourselves heard.

    I would add that it is one thing to make oneself heard, but more specifically, I think it is valuable to share the process of critical thinking and science, rather than just the opposing conclusions.

  12. #12 Chris
    July 14, 2009

    Ramel:

    Just a thought, if you’re not concinved about doing a pod-cast on your own you could always try a joint project with the other SBM conributors.

    Or just to participate in the SGU podcast once in a while. There is an interview with Orac from a couple of years ago. There are couple with Mark Crislip, and at least one with Kimball Atwood. There should be now reason why the SGU couldn’t do mini-interviews every couple of weeks with an SBM blogger.

  13. #13 The Blind Watchmaker
    July 14, 2009

    TAM7 was a very enjoyable event. The main speakers were interesting, Orac’s especially (suck up, suck up). The SBM conference was great (would have liked the CME though). The highlight was meeting people from all over the world who share a reality based, rationalistic world view.

    Another highlight, at least for me, was the paper presentation portion on Sunday. This was kind of set apart from the main TAM events as it was on Sunday morning and did not have as big a crowd as the Friday and Saturday stuff. In this portion, anyone could have submitted a talk proposal and, if accepted, given the podium for 20 minutes or so to present their stuff. Some core topics near and dear to the hearts of die hard skeptics were presented. Among the topics was the teaching of critical thinking to troubled children (perhaps the population that needs it the most). Others included strategies for dealing with the perceived negative image of the ‘brand’ of the skeptical movement (I particularly enjoyed this one given by author and marketing expert, Steve Cuno). There was a talk given by the “What’s the Harm” website dude on how to run skeptical websites. These talks, in my opinion, should have been sprinkled throughout the conference among the more flashy talks by skeptical celebrities.

    The million dollar challenge really displayed what happens when perceived, seemingly paranormal phenomenons are attempted with proper observational controls. Well, actually nothing happens. The test was done under conditions agreed upon by the challengers and the challengee. I think that the challengee, Ms. Sonne, sincerely believed that her crystal on a string could find things on its own through paranormal means. Turned out that when the dowser is blinded to the usual visual cues, the ideomotor effect produces random noise.

    The challenge also demonstrated a tremendous amount of professionalism on the parts of the JREF, Banachek (the test administrator), Ms. Sonne and the audience. Throughout the tedious and laborious process of the test, not a word could be heard. Ms. Sonne received a courteous round of applause after the test and she graciously acknowledged the fairness of the test and her failure of the test. People watching on the live internet stream commented that they were surprised to learn that there was such a large audience (I estimate about 500 people) was present when the lights were turned up at the end and the camera panned over the crowd.

    Overall, a great experience.

    Great talks by Orac too!

  14. #14 coz
    July 14, 2009

    I had a great time at TAM. My sister came over from Australia for it we had a fun reunion aswell.(there were a good number of Aussies, was nice to hear a familar strine)
    The talks were all great. I only missed one, Fintan Steel cause the pool was calling.
    Teller has the loveliest voice.
    The Anti Anti Vax Panel was really interesting and I think gave a good basic understanding of the whole thing. Information I can use if never I get into a argument over it.
    The wedding was ehh…you didn’t miss much.
    I’m happy for them but we were ambushed, a kind of reverse shotgun wedding. I could have left I guess but I was having breakfast dammit.
    I wanted to go say Hi to you but never did…

  15. #15 Dave Ruddell
    July 14, 2009

    No need to worry about The Big Bang Theory; it got picked up for a third and fourth seasons, so it’s safe for a while. Thanks be to FSM.

  16. #16 Mojo
    July 14, 2009

    Are you coming to the London one?

  17. #17 Phoenix Woman
    July 14, 2009

    I can tell you what I’m passionate about: Google rankings.

    Here’s what you need to do: Figure out a way to create a good one-stop-shopping website that has the facts about vaccination set out in an easy-to-read (and understand) manner, and then link to it (and have other ScienceBloggers link to it) like CRAZY. That way, when the average layperson goes Googling for autism or vaccine info, they don’t wind up seeing nothing but garbage sites in the first page of search results.

  18. #18 Billyold
    July 14, 2009

    Thanks for the post. I did speak to you and you did seem a bit “aloof” but I have read about what you call a shy streak so all is forgiven. HA

    Thanks for being there and for the excellent overview of The Amaz!ng Meeting. See you next year.

  19. #19 Melody
    July 14, 2009

    Aw, too bad I couldn’t come, but our travel schedule was in conflict with the event. Regarding Big Bang Theory, that is my favorite show (Sheldon reminds me very much of how I was when I was 13, even down to suggesting that my mom buy pads in bulk, having my own “spot” in the house, and telling people not to buy excessive vitamins, although he has more physics background than I do, even if I would’ve been capable of graduating high school early and indeed took almost 40 college credits in high school and attempted to graduate early before being stopped by counselors for “social reasons”, but definitely not nearly as accelerated as is suggested that Sheldon is in the show).

    Glad to see that the anti-anti-vaccine presentation went well (as well as others). Hopefully, it will inspire others to speak out as well.

  20. #20 FreeSpeaker
    July 14, 2009

    A good pint of the houses best is a good antidote for a shy streak. Next time, buy Orac one.

  21. #21 Derek Bartholomaus
    July 14, 2009

    Hi there.

    It was great to finally meet you outside of your plexi box. This was my first TAM as well and the reaction that I got at the anti-anti-vax panel was a bit overwhelming. Like I said, all I did was make a website. All of the other people on the panel were the really smart ones.

    To coin a phrase, it was just amazing! I cannot wait for TAM8!

    -Derek (Jenny McCarthy Body Count)

  22. #22 Pieter B
    July 14, 2009

    It was great to actually meet and speak with you and your wife after reading the blog for so long and exchanging the occasional e-mail. I’m told that podcasting software isn’t that difficult to learn, and if I lived closer to you I’d offer to get you set up and going.

    If you do take that plunge, don’t feel you have to fill up a half-hour or hour every week. Some of my favorite podcasts seldom run over twelve minutes, and often as little as five or six.

  23. #23 KenR
    July 15, 2009

    At TAM7, a friend with a law background had an idea after listening to the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel Discussion. Hit the anti-vaxers in their pocketbooks. Perhaps over time we could find 10 parents who lost a child due to following Jenny’s advice, and have a wrongful-death or class-action lawsuit for following that advice. (I don’t exactly recall the terms she used, and don’t know much about such laws, but she seemed to think there was a valid way to assign the legal blame.)

    She was also disturbed when one of the audience, in the Q&A afterwards, asked “How can we shut her up?”. She took it to mean “How can we constrain Jenny’s free speech”, which we can’t. We figured that that attendee didn’t apply critical thinking in the right area….

  24. #24 Aaron Golas
    July 15, 2009

    The Anti-AntiVax panel was great. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you face-to-face; maybe next year!

    Are there any plans for you and/or the other panelists to put your presentation slides online?