TAM Thoughts

From last Thursday through Sunday, I was in Las Vegas at The Amazing Meeting!, a gathering of skeptics hosted by James “The Amazing” Randi. Randi, for those of you unschooled in these matters, was a stage magician who got involved in debunking the claims of psychics and other flimflam artists. He orchestrated a rather famous debunking of psychic Uri Geller on the Carson show (you can find it on Youtube).

It was great to meet Randi, who urged us to give him copious hugs, and whose beard threatened to overwhelm the entire crowd of 1600 TAMmers. It was great, too, to watch magician Penn (of Penn and Teller, the long-time twosome of Vegas magicians who were introduced by Randi) and his band perform at a bacon, doughnuts, and rock-n-roll party. It was awesome meeting Bill Nye (the Science Guy!) in the lobby after attending Penn and Teller’s show at the Rio. It was fascinating riding to the show with Genie Scott, Carol Tavris, Elizabeth Loftus, and Barbara Anne, a former Vegas singer who worked the casinos in the era portrayed in Casino, and could vouch for the authenticity of De Niro’s character.

It was great seeing Nye, and Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, and awesome astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, and astro-communicator Pamela Gay get into a five-way smackdown over the future of American space policy. Is manned space exploration a waste of time and energy? Could Neil deGrasse Tyson beat Krauss in a cagematch? Would Pamela Gay turn into ASTROHULK if she got interrupted one more time? Fortunately, we never found out, but it was an awesome conversation.

It was great meeting people I’d only met on twitter before. It was great to meet people I should have met on twitter, but never quite did. It was great introducing Jack Scanlan to Mexican food. It was fun watching everyone walking past nervously beg NCSE’s Genie Scott for an autograph, or a photo, or just a handshake, and to see her graciously acquiesce again and again.

It was fascinating to see the same old fights come up, and to see them mashed up in odd ways. I saw social psychologist Carol Tavris offer a compelling argument against anger, only to see Greta Christian – who regularly delivers a speech in praise of anger – leap to her feet with applause at the end. Tavris also had a charming passage in which she described the various splits within the skeptical community: “Whether you side with Dawkins or Tyson on persuasion, or with Dawkins or Eugenie Scott on religion, or Dawkins or Rebecca Watson on elevatorgate (see a pattern here).” I was about three rows behind Dawkins, and didn’t see any steam coming from his ears.

I also saw Dawkins coming into our session on Defending Evolution in the Classroom. We chatted about it a bit in the hallway later, and he seemed to have liked it. And I got to talk activism with Desiree Schell (@teh_skeptic on twitter), whose workshop on grassroots activism was excellent, and whose talk on the last day worked as hard as any I’ve seen to describe genuine middle ground in the confrontationalist/accommodationist conflict – to account for the time and place for confrontation, a formal account of how something like Overton’s window could be helpful (and therefore which attempts to invoke it are fallacious), and to inculcate a spirit of thoughtful and informed activism.

There was other stuff, dark, odd, and unfortunate stuff, but that’s for another day.


  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    July 19, 2011

    I am very jealous and upset that I wasn’t invited…

  2. #2 J. J. Ramsey
    July 19, 2011

    I saw social psychologist Carol Tavris offer a compelling argument against anger, only to see Greta Christian — who regularly delivers a speech in praise of anger — leap to her feet with applause at the end.

    Bear in mind, though, that Greta Christina has never really been the shock-jock type. If you look at her comment policy, for example, she’s in favor of being lively but respectful rather than resorting to name-calling and flames. For her, anger is useful, especially as a motivator, but I doubt that she’d dispute that it can lead to bad behavior if misdirected.

  3. #3 jre
    July 19, 2011

    Now that Wilkins has spoken up, I think you need to get him for next year, AND he needs to show off his secret stuff once he’s there.

    For what little it’s worth, my impressions of the doings were uniformly positive. Your panel with Scott and Prothero was a huge success: when your worst problem is that you can’t do the group breakout because you packed the house, you can probably chalk that up under “win.” The Skeptical Activism workshop co-chaired by Desiree Schell was a bit more manageable, with each of six groups doing a mini plan for one or another skeptical objective. The same energy you saw in your classroom panel was in evidence there; these are sharp, committed people who will make a difference. Randi was incredibly approachable, and visibly basking in the love. Can’t think of anyone more deserving.

    My one thin cross-section of TAM was all good. But it’s boring when everything is great, and intriguing when stuff is “dark, odd, and unfortunate.” So, out with it.

  4. #4 JK
    July 19, 2011

    Last sentence is a cliff-hanger!

  5. It’s a big mistake for science to go with the Randi-Penn style, even trying to mix it with the cuteness of Bill Nye. That’s been the model of engagement with the wider public for the past thirty five years and it’s been a huge flop. Its major accomplishment has been to convince a lot of conceited sci-guys that they’re superior to the majority of the population and to antagonize that majority.

    Thirty-five years of counterproductive promotion of science, how many more do you want before the experiment is seen for the failure it is?

  6. #6 jre
    July 20, 2011

    That last comment manages to be both provocative and vague.
    Tell you what: if you can
    (1) define the “Randi-Penn style” specifically enough that your definition won’t collapse at the first counterexample, and
    (2) explain how you measured productivity of science promotion,
    then we can start to take you seriously.

  7. jre, perhaps you’re right, I take it too much for granted that the fans of the Randi show know anything about his background.

    The Randi-Penn style, personal attacks, distortions, mockery, no science but an absurdly naive scientism, sleaze…. that enough to be going on with? It’s really funny how many of his fans believe that James Randi is a figure of science when he has never had anything to do with science and has, apparently, never even corrected the ignorance of statistics he gave as his excuse for not understanding the issues in the sTARBABY scandal he was a participant in during the mid-late 1970s. Apparently this is no problem for the promotion of science according to the participants in his extravaganzas. I would guess that Penn would see him as the likely successor as the great figure of sciencyness.

    How about the problem with rejection of climate change based on the same kinds of “skepticism” promoted by the “skeptics”, how about the rejection of evolutionary science on the basis that it is incompatible with a belief in God, a position promoted by a number of those mentioned in the piece. The anti-religious, pseduo-skeptical frat boy tactics that have been promoted since the beginning of CSICOP has nothing to show except for a greater hostility to science by people who have a higher level of belief in those things they slammed. That is the 35 years of counterproductive activity I talked about. Science has not been in worse condition re public acceptance at any time during my life than it is today. I give some of the credit for that to the “skeptics” and their latest incarnation in the new atheism. Of course, show biz has had a hand in that too, and so back to Randi and Penn.

  8. #8 jre
    July 21, 2011

    So, basically:
    (1) You have no working definition of the “Randi-Penn style.”
    (2) You offer no way to even assess whether a given activity is productive, let alone evidence that Randi’s, Penn’s or anyone else’s activities are “counterproductive.”

    Not to put too fine a point on it, you’re blowing smoke.

  9. jre, so, basically, you can’t read.

    I love the Randi-boys, they’re such fanatics in the name of science and reason. Both of which their hero is such an obvious champion, only not.

    The new atheists and “skeptics” have got nothing but conceit and ignorance.

  10. #10 jre
    July 21, 2011

    jre, so, basically, you can’t read.

    That’s it?
    Your whole argument revolved around the proposition that there is a “Randi-Penn style” that is somehow “counterproductive” in promoting science. If you can’t be bothered to explain what you mean by either of these, and have nothing but childish retorts when you’re called on it, I would gently suggest that the rest of us have better things to read.

  11. jre, thank you for serving as only the latest volunteer to illustrate my point.

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