Saturday, October 16, 2010

TAM London Day One

7.30am is a dreadfully early start for someone who has had little more than an hour's sleep, complete with accidental kick in the head from the drunken ape in the neighbouring hostel bunk. But it's another day and I am happy to be at TAM London (the hotel venue does rub it in though!).
I was even happier to witness Susan Blackmore opening the conference with a now rare talk from her on her experiences as a parapsychologist. Recounting her time as a student who entered the world of psychical research on the back of an out of body experience, her story was both inspirational and depressing in equal measure. Thinking that the proof for ESP and life after death lay around the corner, Blackmore engaged in a series of experiments that yielded next to nothing in the way of evidence for the paranormal. Of most interest was the event that essentially acted as the switch that turned Blackmore to skepticism, an instance of possible fraud in Ganzfeld ESP experimentation that involved a colleague. From my own knowledge I am aware that Blackmore encountered an awful lot of criticism after she made her allegations, from both colleagues and the wider community of paranormal believers. It is clear that this has made her a justifiably angry person and I would imagine that any skeptic who has engaged in paranormal research can empathise with her.
Next up, and surprisingly early on the bill, was the atheist godfather that is Richard Dawkins. Rather than repeat the now familiar tract on a godless world Dawkins chose a different approach. He made the case as to why evolutionary theory should be taught as a Classics subject in its own right, embracing elements from other disciplines such as medicine, engineering and cosmology. Whilst not deserving to share any mention in the same sentence as Dawkins I have to admit that I have shared his opinion for a long while. I would be lying, as one of the converted, if I didn't admit to finding his talk heavy going, but it is an honour to be in the same room as someone who is such a master of his subject.
Me being me, I find the whole conference experience to be one that takes in more than just the talks. For this reason I opted to bypass the morning session's other two speakers Corey Doctorow and Adam Rutherford and seized the moment to conduct a few delegate interviews.

Andy Nyman began the afternoon, interviewed by compere Richard Wiseman. Nyman discussed his work behind the scenes as a writer for illusionist Derren Brown on Mind Control and Trick of the Mind. Maybe it was tiredness but I have to admit that I don't recall an awful lot of what was actually discussed.
Dr Karen James is a botanist working for the Natural History Museum and she made an unscheduled appearance to promote The HMS Beagle Trust. The aim is to build a replica of the ship that Darwin used to sail across the world. Its aim is not purely nostalgic, but to facilitate a range of educational opportunities for audiences as diverse as school children and marine biologists. The downside is that the project needs £5m to build the ship and double that amount to support its educational programmmes. Send your dollar bills to...
Freelance writer Paula Kirby took to the lectern to cast a gaze over the policies and aims of The Christian Party, which, as the name suggests is an attempt by fundamental christians to do politics. Albeit very badly. When not obsessed with homosexuality or forcing their religion down the throats of children they're attempting to reintroduce the death penalty, corporal punishment and crack down on stem cell research. It was very interesting to hear Kirby state that the party have no manifesto commitments to educational standards, something that should be of concern to anyone with an interest in what future generations will learn. Regular listeners of Righteous Indignation may remember that I voted for these fools in the European Parliament Elections after closing my eyes and dropping the pencil on the ballot sheet. No harm done, but I hang my head in shame! It's easy to laugh at The Christian Party as they clearly represent a niche fringe but Kirby presented an enlightening look at an oddball but potentially dangerous bunch of christian fundamentalists.
The opportunity to grab a few interviews meant I missed Tracy Brown explain the intent behind the charity Sense About Science (speaks for itself!), but following a much needed gap for a coffee James Randi took the stage. From the back of the hall it was all very surreal as the discussion took the form of what could have been a fireside chat. From Happy Days to Geller and contemporary skepticism it was a cosy moment with everyone's favourite skeptical 'grandfather'.
Talking of favourites, things came to a close for the day's proceedings with the JREF awards for British skepticism. Ben Goldacre snapped up Skeptic of the Year not, I imagine, for any one moment. Instead, his Bad Science articles have become an entertaining and informative fixture on these shores. In contrast the Grassroots Skeptic prize went with little real competition to Rhys Morgan. If you're a listener to Righteous Indignation or SGU you will be full aware that he is the intelligent and driven young man who has tackled sellers of Jim Humble's Miracle Mineral Supplement.
I am writing these notes as I sit in the hall awaiting the arrival of Tim Minchin on stage. I have to admit that whilst I find his material clever it doesn't strike a chord with my sense of humour. I seem to be in the minority. Maybe he will win me over. We shall see.

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