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TAM London, 16-17th October

What follows is a summary of how the blogosphere reacted to TAM London this week. It’s quite a mix of views and opinions: some quite serious and critical, some hilarious. I encourage you to take a look at some of the blog entries themselves as you will get a real flavour of what worked and what didn’t work at the event.

We start with Iszi Lawrence (@iszi_lawrence). In her blog entry, she loved Jon Ronson, Alan Moore and Marcus Chown, didn’t quite get the point of Richard Dawkins’ speech (sex with chimps or something) and did NOT like the early start. Photo to prove it as well.

Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins) gives the blow by blow account of activities in The TAM London 2010 Live Blog, including some videos, quotes, twitter comments and links to relevant podcasts.

Crispian Jago (@Crispian_Jago) loved the conference but he had a few nitpicks. He was not a fan of the panel discussion accompanying the Storm video and he was slightly bemused about the point of Melinda Gebbie’s appearance. He also felt that Josie Long was slightly out of her depth. The commenters on Crispian’s blog were largely in agreement on this (except PZ Myers – ppfft).

Dave Gamble (@david_gamble) posted some of the most memorable quotes on his blog and also had something to say about the audience being perceived as great “Champagne Skeptics“. More anon.

Scepticool (@scepticool) in his blog post, The Brilliance and the Problems of Diversity, had a few quibbles about Alan Moore’s and Melinda Gebbie’s role in the proceedings. He loved PZ Myer’s speech and Rhys Morgan’s award.

English Atheist (@EnglishAtheistloved the whole event and wants you to sign his Tiger petition now.

Gimpy (he didn’t actually go to the event itself), found the whole idea of TAM London “expensive, insular and divisive” and accused us attendees of being “Champagne Skeptics”. He wrote that greater JREF involvement would suppress grassroots activism and suspects that the JREF have somewhat malign motives towards the UK Skeptic community. Needless to say, this blog entry received a whole pile of critical feedback, most notably from Martin Robbins who accused him of paranoia and having a distorted and fearful view of what is a very positive and noteworthy movement.

Paul S Jenkins (@PaulSJenkins), writing as An Evil Burnee, wrote 2 blog entries. Paul was very positive about the event, his only grumble being the frugality of the conference pack (I hear ya). Paul noted that perhaps there has been more a move this year towards atheism and informality.

Ben Warsop (@BENWARSOP) weighs in on the good vs dickishness debate between DJ Grothe and PZ Myers and finds little fertile territory in shrillness and combat.

Simon Dunn (@sighdone) came up with ten mind-blowingly provoking things about the event. Since I could not find any eclairs there, I must conclude that he’s the one who ate them all. I have no evidence whatsoever to justify this accusation but since he discovered that magic actually exists he must, therefore, agree with me totally. No takebacks or crossies.

Stevyn Colgan (@Stevyncolgan) loved the meeting and wrote two very comprehensive blog entries about the whole thing. His gripes concerned the expense of the event and the technical problems that frequently bugged the presentations.

Jim Christian (@jimchristian) wrote two great entries about the event. He enjoyed the speeches and captured the best moments very well. His only quibble was with the food, which had him nipping over to the local M&S on the second day.  (Day 01 / Day 02)

Trunkman (@TrunkmanUK) starts his review with an enjoyable review of Ghost Stories. I am now intrigued what THAT MOMENT was all about. His review of TAM London is divided into 3 postings where he covers each speaker in turn: how he was pleasantly surprised by Sue Blackmore and Cory Doctorow and awed by Richard Dawkin’s presentation; how he felt the second part of the first day was a bit flat (I agree completely). He also describes the evening show with Jon Ronson and Tim Minchin, and like many he felt it was far too self-congratulatory for his liking. It’s one of the best reviews (warts and all) of the event and I would love to read his thoughts on Day 2.

PadainFain (@PadainFain) doesn’t mince his words in his review. I think a lot of the criticisms are on target. The Green Room, where the speakers were separated from the audience, was brought up as a particular niggle about the event.

Stefano Borini (@forthescience) wrote extensively about the event. He said that the conference this year was perhaps more serious than last year, focusing on the emotional level of skepticism. He captured some of the best quotes from the event and was not a fan of the panel interviews. He also did a great job in capturing the essence of the Grothe / Myers debate.

Dr. Dean Burnett (@garwboy) describes how he tried to pass himself off as Tim Minchin, suspected Richard Dawkins of secretly harbouring an AK47 in his tweeds, uses the “g” word to describe Randi, discovered that the Alpha Course was, well, kind of what he expected it to be and captured defecatively the essence of Ghost Stories.

Snipe also does a review where they describe Alan Moore’s voice as “congealed thunder”. I also note they got the spelling of Crohn’s Disease wrong which makes me feel better – I tweeted it as “Chrome’s Disease” during the meeting myself.

In conclusion, yes, there were tons of niggles and some very pointed criticism, but the general impression is of a very enjoyable, meaningful conference. Roll on TAM London 2011.

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.

Picture 29This last weekend found me in the UK, attending a very unique conference – the TAM London event. TAM (“The Amazing Meeting”) is the brainchild of James Randi, a well known US based magician who is best known for his dogged debunking of the claims of mystics, frauds and charlatans such as Uri Geller, Sylvia Brown and Peter Popoff. TAM is a meeting of skeptics – people who tend to see the world (nay, the Universe) as fundamentally rational and who cast doubt on the extraordinary and often wacky claims of supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and those who believe in different forms of reality.

It’s pretty interesting stuff, because there are myriads of strange, weird and wonderful ideas out there that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some claims are relatively benign (fairies, chakras and fortune telling, perhaps), but other claims are positively dangerous (vaccine denial, AIDS denial, and the rejection of modern medicine for curable complaints). There is just so much material to discuss and investigate, it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. Where do you start? Going to TAM is as good a place as any.

The attendees at TAM were a motley crew of science enthusiasts, magicians, writers, atheists and agnostics, comedians and every shade in between. The speakers were similarly diverse, ranging from bloggers to musicians to scientists to famous authors – each of them passionate about getting the skeptical message across to the general public.

There were a few real highlights.

Brian Cox, for instance, is the public face of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the biggest machines every created by human beings, whose purpose is nothing less than discovering the fundamental nature of the Universe. He gave a wonderful talk on the potential discoveries in the offing, from dark matter to the “god particle” (aka. the Higgs Boson) to the nature of gravity. Brian can be credited with one of the more memorable quotes of the meeting: “Anyone who believes the LHC will destroy the Earth is a twat”.

Then there was Adam Savage. Yes, the Mythbusters guy. Adam, a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm (if you don’t believe me, watch his TED speech), has done more than almost anyone to make science and scepticism relevant and interesting for TV viewers the world over. His talk was all about the efforts the Adam / Jamie team went to in testing the difficulty of swimming through syrup (busted). Adam raised a big laugh when he described libertarianism as “anarchy for rich people”.

Another highlight was the incomparable Jon Ronson, author of “The Men who Stare at Goats”, and who self-describes himself as being “to humorous journalism what Brian Cox is to science”. Jon introduced us to some of the craziest people on the planet. His talk was brilliant – featuring group sex, murderous pieces of plastic, and the (in)ability of American generals to walk through walls. I can’t wait to see the movie, (where Ewan McGregor plays Ronson – huh?).

Not forgetting Tim Minchin, musician, comedian, precise commenter on the follies of modern life – fantastic! If you have never heard his poem Storm, stop now and listen to it on YouTube. He also sang us a wonderful song about looking forward to Christmas. For his efforts he got a well deserved standing ovation.

I was particularly keen to listen to Simon Singh, who wrote an article about chiropractors in the Guardian and has ended up in court because he, um, told the truth. The ridiculousness of the British libel system was devastatingly exposed for all to see. Simon won an award in the meeting for outstanding contributions to skepticism.

I could wax on about Ben Goldacre taking journalists to task; George Hrab singing about the candiru (nasty little blighter – look it up on Wikipedia); Ariane Sherine on receiving hate mail as a result of her atheist bus campaign; James Randi live over Skype from Florida, Phil Plait metaphorically blowing apart the movie “Armageddon”, and Richard Wiseman doing a truly wonderful job as host for the proceedings, but damn it, I need to get some sleep now.

Suffice to say that TAM London was worth every penny spent – it was truly amazing and wild horses won’t drag me away from going to future meetings.

TAM London

I’m going! Or at least I think I am…

TAM (“The Amazing Meeting”) is the brainchild of James Randi, a magician who has spent his life debunking psychics, UFOlogists, quacks and all sort of random frauds and charlatans. He is one of the main drivers of the modern skeptics movement, and an all round good guy.

I first came across him, wow, years ago, when the world was still in black and white and when a row of houses cost thruppence haypenny. Well, about 1995 to be more exact . Randi is pretty outspoken when it comes to people who make money by pretending that they have real psychic powers. Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne are some of his more high profile targets. He has even put up a prize of 1 million dollars to anyone who can prove a supernatural occurrence (ESP, clairvoyance, dowsing etc, etc) in a controlled scientific test. Needless to say, the prize has never been claimed.

TAM is THE event for skeptics and to date it has only been held in the US. No more. In October it comes to London. Attending it will be Richard Dawkins, Simon Singh, Adam Savage and Phil Plait, the author of the Bad Astronomy blog. It’s fantastic!

Access to the website yesterday was a bit of a joke. First of all, the order told me that the fee was 175 pounds, but shipping and handling would be 999.99 pounds. Oops. Then when that issue was fixed it wouldn’t allow me to enter my order because I live outside the UK. My sister’s address in the UK was promptly used and eventually my order went through. I still haven’t seen a confirmation coming through as yet though. Nevertheless the demand was extreme. The whole event sold out in an hour or so, much to the amazement of the organisers and to the intense disappointment of those who failed to get a ticket in time.

I’m lucky I persevered, I think.

Over the past few years, I have developed a habit of skepticism, which perhaps could be described as the careful use of critical thinking in the face of extraordinary, supernatural or highly unusual claims. So, if I hear someone talking about healing crystals or angels or UFO’s or homeopathic cures or divine miracles, my immediate reaction nowadays is disbelief.

Skepticism is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a relatively trusting nature, so for me, skepticism is hard work. I’d love to believe – I really would – it’s just that alarm bells go off in my head which can sometimes make for awkward situations in otherwise polite company. 

So, when I hear about people using the phrase “at first I was skeptical, but..” in the context of “witnessing” something such as a UFO or a miracle cure or some other such nonsense, it’s become clear to me that these people doesn’t know the first thing about proper skepticism. Most people simply don’t realise the extent to which they can be manipulated or deceived by false arguments, hidden prejudices, partial evidence and statistical anomalies.

My journey into skepticism has been a long, but highly rewarding journey. In my teens, I read Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies“, which presented the other side of Homeopathy, Biorythms, UFO claims and Scientology. Much later on, I read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” and his “baloney detector kit”. Around the same time, I came across James Randi’s website with his million dollar challenge. I developed a keen interest in identifying logical fallacies and exposing urban legends using Snopes.com. More recently, I have become a keen subscriber to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid and the superb “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcasts.

In the light of a media culture that seems to thrive on feeding mistaken notions rather than challenging them; in the light of a world where sophisticated marketing techniques are employed by all manner of cults and fringe groups; and in the light of multi-million industries peddling all manner of snake-oil cures, maybe it’s not too late to bolster our skeptical abilities. 

I would recommend the above books, websites and podcasts if you are interested in learning more.

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