Monday, July 12, 2010

At The Amaz!ng Meeting

I've finally gotten back from The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM8) in Las Vegas.  There were over 1300 registrants, and supposedly about 400 of them were first-timers like me.  The bulk of TAM is in the talks and panels, but there were also workshops, parties, shows, and ever-productive lounging around.

For other reports of TAM8, I suggest this link roundup and in particular, Hemant's liveblogging series (1,2,3,4,5,6).  If you want photos, look elsewhere because my photos suck and I'm not posting them.

Several of the veterans told me that this year's TAM was more introspective than the previous ones.  Which is just as well, because my blog is relatively introspective (if you've never noticed).  There were several speakers who decided to level criticism at the skeptical movement.

Shorter Phil Plait: "Don't be a dick."  And the internet is abuzz!

Carol Tavris, author of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) immediately followed Phil with a psychologist's perspective.  She says that we have three biases:

1) The bias that we are unbiased
2) The bias that we are above average
3) Confirmation bias

The second bias often causes people to cling to beliefs they hold even after they've been definitively proven wrong.  Because to admit that you were wrong is to admit that you were stupid.  Carol says this is one of the major obstacles skeptics face when trying to persuade others.  Also note that this bias operates on skeptics as well; skeptics like to think they are more rational than average, and can be slow to admit errors.  Carol Tavris was probably one of my favorite speakers.

Steve Cuno had a similar message, but from the perspective of an advertiser.  We're trying to sell critical thinking.  But critical thinking is not like ketchup, people won't just choose your product without much thought.  Selling something like critical thinking is a step by step process, and it's okay if it takes years.

Massimo Pigliucci actually went ahead and called out specific skeptics.  He went over Bill Maher's egregiously wrong antivaxxer statements, Penn & Teller's episode on global warming, and James Randi's moment of sympathy for global warming dissidents.  He also named Michael Shermer, but I think as a complement, since Michael Shermer publicly disbelieved anthropogenic global warming, and publicly changed his mind.  Massimo went on to say that there are certain realms that skeptics should leave to the experts.

On the subject of experts, there was a panel on the proper attitude skeptics should have towards climate change.  Should we defer to experts, and to what extent?  Panelists were Michael Shermer, Daniel Loxton, James McGaha, and Donald Prothero.  Of all the panels in the conference, this one clearly had the most disagreement.  Unfortunately, I only saw the first half.

James McGaha thought that we have no obligation to follow experts, because many factors bias them (ie funding sources).  I don't think the crowd liked him very much, and Shermer got applause when he compared McGaha to Intelligent Designers.  Michael Shermer's position is demonstrated by the articles published in Skeptic (which is headed by Shermer).  Skeptic has published for and against articles, but not with the pretense that all sides are equal.  Daniel Loxton had the most conservative position, that in an issue like climate change, skeptics should only explain the science rather than offering their own opinions.

Of course, I've only highlighted five talks out of more than twenty.  There were also talks about traditional skeptical topics like UFOs, psychics, and alternative medicine, and talks from politicians, entertainers, astronomers, psychologists, historians, feminists, investigators, and skeptical leaders.

The last day was reserved for "papers", which were submitted by members of the skeptical community talking about their accomplishments.

Jennifer McCreight, aka the Blag Hag, talked about Boobquake.  Some Iranian cleric blamed earthquakes on women who dress immodestly, so Jennifer joked that women should do an experiment and dress immodestly for a day.  To her surprise, this idea got a lot of support and media attention.  It was the perfect blend of silliness, skepticism, and feminism.  Funny, I had heard of Boobquake, but it never quite struck me how much media attention it got.  It's just like me to underestimate the power of boobs.

Barbara Drescher talked about how science education for kids could be improved by teaching skepticism.  As an example, she explained how her son investigated Phiten wrist bands, which appear to be homeopathic sportswear.  The Phiten experiment is better than say, a potato clock experiment, because it actually teaches the scientific method of investigating new claims, rather than simply demonstrating a scientific principle.  It's a nice idea, but I wonder if it would always play out so nicely as it did with her son.

Brian Hart talked about how the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) went after the California Board of Registered Nursing (CBRN).  IIG saw that the CBRN had authorized Clearsight to teach Healing Touch, and give nurses credit for attending workshops.  After many ignored complaints, the IIG decided to get in on the game themselves.  They invented a new organization "CFI Care" and successfully registered with CBRN.  They were authorized to teach nonsense like "Mobel Kinesiology" (Furniture Moving), "Vapor and Reflective Surfaces" (smoke and mirrors), and Anthropomancy (divination from live human entrails).  And then they actually gave these workshops.

For some reason, they never got any major media attention for this despite involving reporters.  Why not?  It sounds like a great story!  However, IIG won in the end, because Governor Schwarzenegger later fired the entire staff of CBRN.

IIG is based in Los Angeles (though it is currently starting new chapters in other parts of the country), so for me it is local.  I'm an honorary member of the IIG, and I know all the people in the group, sort of.  I spent a lot of time hanging out with them.  They also brought with them Anita Ikonen, who was one of the people tested for the IIG's $50,000 paranormal challenge.  She claimed to be able to detect missing organs just by looking at a person. She failed the test, and now she wants to join the skeptical movement.

However, Anita hasn't gone all the way.  She isn't entirely convinced that her ability isn't real.  I would suggest that this is exactly what Carol Tavris was talking about.

Late Sunday, she gave a demonstration to TAM, but I had to miss it.  (Update: You can learn about the results of Anita's demonstration from other reports.  The demonstration had five people, with one kidney missing, but Anita guessed the wrong person.)

Anita and I know each other from before.  She wants to study physics, so naturally, we get along.  She told me that she hasn't been speaking to Mark Edwards (another IIG member) since he wrote an essay that seemed sexist to her.  Oh, drama...  I don't think Anita is trying to manipulate anyone.  I think magician skeptics like Mark Edwards (or James Randi) tend to overemphasize the role that manipulation plays in woo.  Or maybe it's that I tend to overemphasize the role played by cognitive bias.  Anyways.

I also met an assortment of other people.  I didn't really seek out celebrities, but I did talk to Hemant Mehta, Michael Shermer, Jennifer McCreight, Tim Farley, and probably more.  There were also lots of random people, no more famous than I, and lots of JREF forumites.  They're pretty cool, the kind of people you can just start talking to about skepticism, the kind of people who spontaneously start playing board games in a bar.

Diversity is always an issue when we move from internet to meatspace, and I'd say that the diversity wasn't too bad.  The age diversity is impressive.  There are more men than women, but I'm told that it's been improving over time.  I was most struck by how white the conference was.  Maybe it's just because I'm from LA, but I was thinking, where are all the Asians, Latinos, and Blacks?  You can't say it's just a matter of existing education gaps, because Asians tend to be overrepresented in higher education, at least where I am.  (BTW I am half Asian, in case you didn't know.)

Finally, I'd like to recap the keynote speaker, Richard Dawkins.  This is the first TAM to be cosponsored by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.  Richard Dawkins was interviewed by DJ Grothe, the current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).  Ironically, though Richard Dawkins is the most famous, I think I disagreed with him more than anyone else.

DJ started out by asking whether it's more important to be a skeptic or an atheist.  Dawkins started talking about how skeptics should investigate religious claims same as any others.  That's all well and good, but it didn't answer the question!  Dawkins considered theistic skeptics, but what about non-skeptical atheists?  I would go so far as to say that non-skeptical atheists are not my allies, except on the issues of legal and social discrimination against atheists.

DJ also asked about Dawkins' public speculations about whether reading fantasy promotes superstition.  Dawkins was quick to say that it was mere speculation, a question he wanted researched.  He tried to emphasize that he likes fiction, but basically said he only likes hard sci-fi.  DJ Grothe kept on trying to pin down Dawkins on the subject, so much that it almost seemed like a hostile interview.  It probably isn't good to have a hostile interview with the keynote speaker, but I sure wanted to pin Dawkins on the subject too.

I think that Dawkins should not just admit that it was speculation, but that it was idle speculation, the kind that is irresponsible to publicly state in major media.  It was based purely on Dawkins' personal experience.  There is basically no reason to think it's true, and I'm not even convinced it's a good question.  It also reeks of the wrong kind of elitism, that is, elitism about primarily subjective things like taste in literature.  I don't know about anyone else, but I'm tired of the atheist movement putting so much emphasis on the beauty of reality or whatnot, as if we all had the same sense of aesthetics.

Of course, Dawkins also said some very smart things.  For instance, his discussion of the Drake Equation was good.  He said that if life is very rare, then this predicts that we are wasting our time looking for an abiogenesis mechanism.  That's is exactly what I would say if I ever got around to blogging on the Drake Equation.

Questions?  Comments?  Anyone here also attend?


Norwegian Shooter said...

Thanks for the wrap-up and links to various skeptics. More reading for me. Woman, I wish I could have been there!

Pet peeve - misuse of "ironic". Your statement about RD is analogous to "Ironically, though Brittney Spears is the most popular, I think I disliked her music more than anyone else." Irony means "in spite of" or "the opposite of what you'd expect". Your link to BA led me to a great use of irony:

"how incredibly ironic it is that, when the Pledge of Allegiance was changed in 1954, they actually put 'under God' in between the words 'one nation' and 'indivisible'."

But that's nickpicking (it's that what the interweb is about?) The rest of your comments on Dawkins were great. I would still like to see blogging on the Drake Equation and abiogenesis mechanism. Specifically the idea of wasting our time on trying to find the later. Is that anti-scientific?

miller said...

I suppose it's not unexpected at all that I would disagree most with Richard Dawkins. Outsiders might consider it unexpected if they think atheists are monolithic.

Anonymous said...

Please note, the IIG did not bring Anita Ikonen with them. She showed up completely on her own.