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.