TAM London, 16-17th OctoberI spent the weekend in Edgware Road at the TAM London 2010 event.  What a blast! This blog can only give the most cursory summary of the meeting, but I’ll try to pick out some of my highlights.

One of the real highlights for me was the very first speaker, Sue Blackmore. She had an out of body experience in college, leading her to dedicate 20 years of her life to finding conclusive evidence for ESP and paranormal phenomena. Unfortunately, though her work covered everything from Smarties to IRA bombings to Tarot readings, things didn’t turn out quite the way she expected. Her story is one of the most interesting and varied tales I have ever heard. It is a true tale of science, where repeated experimentation lead her to change cherished world views, forcing her to admit that her initial convictions were wrong. If only more people would adopt such an approach in everyday life.

Another highlight was Richard Dawkins. His speech was a tour de force, where he showed that Evolution is capable of providing key insights into such varied disciplines as human anthropology, geology, philosophy, geography, cosmology, politics, mathematics, computer science, engineering, cosmology, linguistics and the history of ideas, to mention a few. Dawkins’ presentation was expansive and poetic, presenting quite a different dimension to Dawkins’ often negative public perception. A pity some of his more strident critics were not there to see his lecture.

Adam Rutherford’s talk on the Alpha Course was delightfully irreverent and funny. He lampooned the methods used by the Alpha Course leaders and questioned their over-reliance on tales such as The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings (“it’s boring and slightly racist. It’s a tale about walking’). Rutherford finished his talk flatly stating his revulsion to the Alpha Course’s homophobic views.

Another memorable moment was the talk with James Randi, as he recalled his origins as a skeptic and his battles with Peter Popoff and Yuri Geller. The room went silent as he recounted how Popoff and his wife operated – taking money from the vulnerable while laughing at them in the most vicious way. Randi, the figurehead of the modern skeptical movement, is 82 years old, yet he is still well capable of holding an audience in the palm of his hand.

Just after Randi’s talk two prizes were announced for outstanding achievement in skepticism. Ben Goldacre won one of the prizes, but it was the second winner who brought down the house. The prize was given to Rhys Morgan, 15 years old, who had the temerity to confront and publicly expose the makers of an industrial bleach being flogged off as a “cure” for Crohn’s Disease. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

I enjoyed Marcus Chown’s lecture on 10 bonkers things about the Universe. There was a great “pictorial interlude” beforehand and afterwards (I’m a sucker for astronomical images) and Marcus proceeded to bring us on a tour of the cosmos and the arcane world of atoms, black holes and multiverses. Arguably nothing that many in the audience had not heard before, but entertainingly delivered nonetheless and a lecture that should be essential on the outreach circuit.

The second day was also a day where the skeptical movement itself was put under the microscope: what we are about, what we are not about, and the level of “dickishness” appropriate within the movement. The two most powerful contributions were from DJ Grothe and PZ Myers. While their styles might differ, both saw skepticism as a force for good in the world – at the heart of the skeptical movements are shared principles and moral values, a way of looking at the world using science as a tool to winnow the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Grothe warned about zealotry within skepticism, saying that being right is not enough, you have to be good about being right too. PZ phrased this sentiment somewhat differently – “Be the best dick you can be”.

There was far more to this discussion than I could describe here, and similar views were brought up by Stephen Fry in his videotaped interview with Tim Minchin. Fry, with his natural humor, depth and sensitivity, is one of the greatest assets the Skeptical movement has. His response upon being doorstepped by an evangelist preacher got a great laugh: “Tell God to send better people”.

Media matters were also a large part of TAM London, with contributions from Graham Linehan, Cory Doctorow and a panel of commentators including Martin Robbins, Kate Russell and Gia Milinovich. Doctorow talked about copyright reform, comparing the digital media wars to the situation in the fashion industry and the database industry and pointing out that many within “old media” come from industries that once bordered on illegality themselves. “Yesterday’s pirates are always today’s admirals”, as he put it. Linehan talked about the amazing impact of Twitter and took us on a quick tour of some of the web’s nooks and crannies, unwittingly creating a dangerous movement where it looked as if we would suspend the rest of the conference schedule to watch YouTube baby videos on the big screen.

There were wildcards too. Andy Nyman talked about his show Ghost Stories; Karen James talked about the HMS Beagle project; Melinda Gebbie talked about female comic book porn (or is it art? or both?) and Alan Moore brought us on a poetic tour through the town of Northampton. He also gave us his theory of the Big Bang happening in 1927. Moore has broadly left comic book writing behind him in order to focus on underground magazines and new projects.

If I had one criticism, it is the UK-centricity of the event. The event attracted a considerable number of skeptics from all across Europe, yet the discussion at times felt exclusive. Proceeds for the event also were given to promote skepticism in the UK, which is an opportunity lost in my view, at least until TAM events become commonplace across the rest of the continent.

Organisation has greatly improved since the first TAM London event but the venue was still not quite perfect. I felt the auditorium format worked better last year as it made the conference much more intimate. People at the back of the room this year were at a disadvantage. The stage seemed light years away and the video displays were inadequate.

In summary I have to say that TAM London 2010 lived up to expectations. It was a barrage to the senses, a magical mystery tour (in the skeptical sense of that word) and an electrically charged coming together of some of the brightest people I could ever have the fortune to meet. Roll on 2011.

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