Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections on The Amazing Meeting: Volume Two

Part II: Life Under TAM

Bill Nye on stage
Highlights from TAM: Bill Nye was fantastic.  He had the audience in the palm of his hand the entire time.  No surprise with that one, but he completely met and exceeded my expectations.  The Million Dollar Challenge was fascinating to behold.  Not so much for the event itself on stage, but for the audience’s behavior.  The crowd was completely silently and other than a few coughs no one uttered a peep for the 30 minutes or so of the test.  Carole Tavris's lecture on the skeptics' approach to rape allegations was the most thought-provoking talk of the entire convention.  It was thoughtful.  It was hard hitting.  It was not over the top.  I am sure if I read a transcript of the talk I would find things that I disagree with.  However, taken as a whole, Tavris will likely catch heat for the talk once it is released on video. But, in my opinion, it was the most important talk of the event.  I really enjoyed my time hanging out with Karl (including his lovely girlfriend) and Stuart.  I had a bit of apprehension that our chemistry in person would not match our mutual support online.  I had nothing to fear.  All five of us got along smashingly, and the other folks I got to meet especially Linley and Reed were wonderful people to get to know.  The dinner the Editor and I had with Torkel Ødegård was a wonderful time to catch up with a friend. 

Karl Mamer and I
Lowlights of TAM: I really regret not being able to find the time or gumption to talk for just a little bit with Bob Blaskiewicz.  I was lucky enough to briefly introduce myself and say hello while riding an escalator with him, which was good.  He was one of the folks who I truly have learned to admire over the past year for his work regarding the exceedingly dubious cancer treatment of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and the wonderful and under appreciated Virtual Skeptics vodcast.  It was a bummer.  Maybe the next TAM I attend. At least I was able to thank Derek Colanduno for getting me into skepticism with Skepticality.  

What I found interesting:  Walking around TAM you can just turn a corner and bam! there is James Randi in the flesh.  This running into a skeptical celebrity happened to me more than once.  The second person I spoke to at the entire event was D.J. Grothe who was very patient in helping to work out how to handle the Editor’s conference pass. He was wonderful.  I was nearly knocked over by Penn Jillette when he barreled through a door walking into the main hall from the Bacon and Donut party room.  The thing is that I actually did not go gaga upon seeing these folks.  In person, they all just appear so ‘regular.’ (Penn doesn't.  He actually is larger than life.)  It was an interesting dynamic in that meeting such august folks was not nearly as interesting as I thought it might be. 

Pep talk: Jamy Ian Swiss gave a rousing speech on a year of 'skeptical wins.'  Swiss is a dynamic speaker, although he relied perhaps a tad too much on his notes, but that is a quibble.  While I agree with his skeptical ‘wins’ for the most part, it was the only time upon reflection after the speech that I felt a tad ‘hive mindy.’  I get the reason for his speech –it was a pep talk.  A celebration of things that have been accomplished in whole or in part by skepics.  Yeah, skepticism.  Still, it was the only time I felt a bit put off by the emotional over the logical. I don’t want to over stress this feeling.  It was not Nuremburg.  Still, I felt a bit queazy for a fleeting moment.

Out of place?: Although the JREF and TAM are not atheist or anti-religion, I would note to those of faith who are pondering attending TAM not to expect a sympathetic ear by most of the attendees.  In short while the meeting is secular and a-religious, I think even a deist would find themselves feeling a bit defensive and out of place at times during the lectures and socializing events. I do not think a person of faith would be heckled or mocked, but the general assumption seems to me that the attendees were not pious.  I think a person of faith would not be unwelcome, but would not be cut much slack either.

While I am noting the above on religion generally the same is true for members of Republican party.  Progressives, Democrats, Libertarians, Green Party, etc.  (despite all their differences) appeared to be accepted by each other for the most part.  I doubt there are many dyed in the wool religious Right wing Republicans at TAM.  However, the so called RINOs, and traditional Northeast Eisenhower Republicans all get lumped in with the far right of the Republican party.  Given the leadership of the GOP, I get it as there is a lot wanting these days in the GOP regarding science.  However, for the muted minority (or maybe the silent majority, I hope), all of the GOP gets lumped into the same anti-science ball.  The biggest example was the otherwise excellent talk given by Donald Prothero.  He spent a large chunk of his lecture giving it to the GOP as anti-science as a blanket statement without caveat for individuals.  Yet, he ended his lecture by reminding skeptics to ‘don’t be a dick/jerk.’  Ok.  I agree, but Prothero was just being a bit of a dick regarding a third of the American electorate.  If one writes off entirely a large pool of people rather than give an olive branch to part of it that is not so anti-science, you’ve made the skeptical task a lot harder.   The emotional knee jerk reaction by some in the Republican party might be to dig in rather than lend a sympathetic ear or a helpful hand. 

Randi: I wondered how James Randi was perceived by the attendees at TAM.  On the one hand, it is the James Randi Educational Foundation's conference.  It’s his gig.  Although Randi is treated with all due respect and highly regarded, he is not for the most part considered a secular saint.  I was relieved to get this vibe while there.  Randi is the man.  He is also a man and nothing more. 

Drama: There really was not any that I was aware of while attending.  Everyone generally seems to get along as best I could tell.  As I referred to above, the Carol Tavris skepticism and rape lecture once released I am sure will be fodder for drama in the blogosphere.  

Comparison: Over the past year, I have attended three non-work related conferences, which is a first for me.  I have not attended any non-work related conferences since I worked for the Civil War Institute history seminars back in my early twenties.  I found the Exploring the Extraordinary (ETE) conference to be highly interesting, but mentally exhausting.  Although I only attended one out of three days of the conference, other than Sharon Hill who attended the entire event, I was the only other skeptic in attendance.  While everyone there was perfectly civil and nice, I was a black sheep.  It was taxing.  Also, since the speakers were coming at some paranormal topics from a diametrically opposite world view from myself my brain felt taxed the entire time.  It was a very interesting event, but I would not call it fun. 

I attended a charity meet up for enthusiasts of Disney.  This event was about three times the size of ETE, but this was wonderful fun.  There the editor and I were in a room full of people who didn’t even bat an eye when speaking of going to Walt Disney World, or a Disney cruise, or something else Disney more than once per year.  Everyone at this event was in the Mouse’s trust tree.  It was in no way mentally challenging but a wonderful time and we met some very kind folks. We collectively raised a nice chunk of change for an excellent charity.

TAM was a mixture of the above events.  Here were over a thousand like minded skeptics.  Think about it.  A thousand people who when told one was a skeptic did not get that queer 'what is that' look on their face when told.  It was liberating.  While skeptics have a reputation for being gray bearded old men, and there were plenty of them proudly in attendance,  there were a fair number of twenty and thirty something men and women.  Some conservatively dressed, others with wacky hair styles and colors adorned with tattoos aplenty.  Nobody cared.  I could truly say I did not see anyone who cared how anyone else looked or their gender or age.  I'd see a graybeard chatting it up with a twenty-something with chunky glasses and illustrated arm art.  It was grand.  At the same time, while my brain was exercised with all sorts of information shared, it was the good kind of mental tired rather than the frustrating kind I experienced at ETE.  I would do any of the three type of cons again, but for differing reasons.  Although all three events were of varying sizes, I do think it fair to say TAM was the most diverse other than the mutually shared skeptical world view.

Booze: TAM was far from a temperance meeting, but it was not the bacchanalia that I had read about at previous TAMs from some sources.  At least nothing was obvious to me.  Don’t get me wrong, there was beer and wine consumption. There were not many shots being handed around or trays full of Manhattans swirling through the crowds.  It was responsibly buzzed but not blitzed vibe.  Who has time for a hangover when the lecture starts at 9 am sharp?

In the end, if one is pondering attending TAM and wondering if it is worth attempting to save the money to do so for next year or the year after, I would say yes.  It is not worth
Dr. Stuart Robbins giving his talk
on the main stage.
forgoing food or proper medical care, but if it means sacrificing a yearly vacation one time or some other non-vital event then yes do so.  We altered our vacation plans to attend TAM this year, and I am very glad I did.  As I noted in the other post, I am not planning on attending next year, but I highly suspect I’ll go to one within the following two years.  Others who have attended a TAM or more may very well have a very different take than I have shared in these two posts.  The event is well run.  The facility is pleasant.  The attendees are nice and it's a good place to meet up with online friends in person and make new friends too.  If you have the ability to attend a TAM then take all reasonable steps and go.  I
f one is on the fence about attending a TAM I hope this long rambling post has been of some use.


  1. I completely agree on Donald's talk regarding conservatives. I know many conservatives (who I think are Republicans) who are skeptics (reference Mike Bohler, for example). I was actually slightly uncomfortable with his talk because I think a conservative may find it off-putting; I would have liked him to be a bit more up-front about a disclaimer, such as, "I'm talking about the many in the Republican party who have chosen ideology over evidence, and so have aligned themselves with the anti-science wing of the party" and then gone from there. I try to do that when I address such things in my skeptical endeavors (really, in anything other than my WND Watch blog).

    Regarding getting along in-person: Believe it or not, I worried about the same thing. We seem to get along well online, but I'd never met you or the "Editor," or Karl and his girlfriend. I think that we did get along well in-person, which I was glad about. Otherwise, moving on from here could be uncomfortable.

    And regarding going year-after-year-after-year: I also have mixed feelings on this one. It is *not* cheap when compared with conferences I normally attend, or something like a local Skepticamp. If money were not an issue, I would go every year. But money is an issue, and I'm not 100% sure it's worth the roughly $1k for a single person to attend when normal expenses are taken into account, or at least not 100% sure it's worth doing many years in a row. That said, I have had speaking roles in the last two. Last year I was gung-ho about going regardless. This year, I was less certain. I'm really hoping for a speaking part on the main stage next year that's not a paper presentation, so it's hard for me to preemptively say "don't go in 2015," or "I'm not going in 2015," or even "I'm not sure I'm going in 2015." I seem to end TAM every year (keep in mind this is my third, in a row) thinking the same thing: Unsure if I'll attend the next year. If I'm a speaker next year (please, DJ?), I'll obviously go. If I'm not a speaker, then it's closer to a 50/50 chance at this point, especially considering when it is ...

    ... next July 14 is New Horizons' closest approach with Pluto, and I will be on the team working with the instrument sequences and potentially working on the "New York Times" first-results stuff. If TAM is the first full week of July again, Th-Su, that's July 9-12, and the week before closest approach (along with the week after) is when all the big stuff is planned. So it's possible I may not be able to attend due to work.

  2. @astroguy

    If you get an invite to lecture next year, but cannot make it due to work constraints then feel free to suggest me to take your slot. : )

    Seriousness, if time and money were no object then I'd plan to go every year too. I see why a fair number of people do go every year. I just can't prioritize TAM to that degree. As long as TAM keeps going and it keeps its currently quality I'd like to go fairly often. Maybe two times out of every fives years or so, or something like that schedule. TAM is less expensive per time unit than taking a continuing legal education class, but my employer pays for most of those so I am spoiled all around.

  3. Thanks, Rob.

    Nigel– I've only seen that happen once, where Kare Stollznow got a sudden cad elf laryngitis and so Matthew Baxter was allowed to take her place on a panel. And similarly for me, work pays for work conferences, though for the last two years, I have not had grants to pay for them so I've footed the bill and charged it against my "home business" since my SwRI work is currently under a consulting contract. I think I mentioned that in my first TAM write-up on my blog, that I thought it was expensive and was used to other people paying for me at conferences.

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