The Amazing Meeting, Jan, 13 - 16, 2005
I swore to myself that after the first Amaz!ng Meeting that I would try harder to keep a travelog. Suuuure. I didn't even do one last year, and it's only now, a week after The Amaz!ng Meeting III finished, that I've had time to write anything.
Better late than never.
First, if you don't know who James Randi is, or what the Amaz!ng Meeting is, go read my travelog from the first meeting. It'll catch you up. Also, from here on out, I'll just be calling it TAM III for short.
The meeting this year was once again held in Las Vegas, though at the Stardust Hotel (last year it was at the Tuscany). The Stardust is an aging but reasonably comfortable hotel. Like every hotel/casino in Lost Wages, you need to go through a maze of slot machines to get anywhere, but I'm used to that. Having gone native in California, the cigarette smoke is a bit of a nuisance for me, but for three days, and the opportunity to be at TAM III, it's worth it.
So after that week-long astronomy meeting I was tired, but excited about TAMIII, and already primed to once again assume the mantle of The Bad Astronomer. After TAMII, Randi invited me to TAMIII. But, clearly susceptible to the ravages of aging, Randi decided that I should not give an astronomy talk at TAMIII, but should instead host for one day, acting as Master of Ceremonies (MC). I'm not sure what was the bigger thrill: being able to introduce a stellar line-up of people who gave dynamic and fascinating talks, or getting the red "Master of Ceremonies" ribbon on my name badge. It turns out the duties were better, but more about that in a moment.
Randi's website has an active bulletin board much like mine, with a community of people who know each other fairly well, even though they hardly ever meet physically. I was glad to find out after I arrived in Vega$ that they were gathering at a nearby restaurant, so after I did a quick unpacking I hoofed it over there, and spent the evening getting reacquainted with old friends, and meeting new ones face to face for the first time.
The next day was the unofficial start of the meeting. About 140 people had signed up for a workshop on how to communicate skepticism to the public. This topic is a sore point, since even the notion of what skepticism is is so widely misunderstood. It is not simple naysaying, denial, and curmudgeonly cynicism. Skepticism is instead the process of not simply accepting something because someone told you. It is the process of examining claims scientifically, demanding evidence before making conclusions.
The workshop was interesting; I was not originally scheduled to help, but Andrew Harter, who volunteers for Randi at the James Randi Educational Forum, asked me to join in. We broke up into small groups to discuss the issues. I was paired with noted skeptic, thinker, and friend Michael Shermer. We had an enthusiastic crowd and had fun talking about how to go about getting the word out to people on how to think critically. Andrew had excellent advice, encouraging people to start local clubs, and get together to do just fun activities, like picnics, get-togethers and the like, and not just have monthly meetings. A sense of comraderie and friendship will help maintain a group, and attract others as well.
The next day was the start of the meeting proper. I was excited, but also more nervous than usual. I had never MCed such an event before, and was edgy about it. I had written intros for the speakers (humorous ones, so I thought, knowing that I could improvise jokes and banter if needed), but I didn't know a handful of them, and was nervous about introducing a stranger.
As awful as that is, it serves as a cautionary tale to us all, and should give us reason and determination to continue to fight the good fight.
In happier news, I was then able to introduce a series of spectacular people, including Michael Shermer, seance-debunker Rick Maue, superstition-basher Margaret Downey, iconcoclast Christopher Hitchins, and master magician Jamy Ian Swiss. Randi himself introduced the world-famous duo of Penn and Teller, and they promptly chained him to an anvil. In the picture, you can see him patiently trying each of the 40 or 50 keys they gave him, one of which actually fits. To my delight, Randi was called away for a few minutes (they then gave him the real key, which Penn had palmed, but the last laugh was on them: Randi simply slipped his hand right through the cuff, seriously shocking Teller), and I had the distinct pleasure to give P&T their plaques for service to the JREF. That was a real thrill. P&T help sponsor the meetings in a very big way; Penn even auctions off tours of his house (which he calls "The Slammer") on eBay, and gives the money to JREF.
I did the best I could MCing. It's tougher work than I expected; I was constantly checking my watch to make sure the speakers stuck to their time limits (fat chance), talking with JREF people to make sure things were okay, and so on. I found myself just wanting to sit back and enjoy the talks! But that had to wait until the next day.After the official meeting ended for the day, I didn't get much of a chance to relax, though. I was hustled off to the hospitality suite to do an interview with... (get ready for it) the Penn and Teller TV show! The name of the show is not exactly family-friendly, so I'd rather not name it here. However, here's a link to the show. They debunk all kinds of nonsense, and an upcoming episode is about conspiracy theories, with emphasis on the Moon Hoax. They interviewed me for about an hour about it. I'm not sure how I did-- it's hard to know when you're repeating things many times. I guess I'll find out eventually.
Saturday brought more speakers and more fun. I got to relax and let Michael Shermer MC,
and I enjoyed myself immensely. The surprise hit of the meeting was
Dr. Richard Wiseman, who does research in peoples' belief in luck.
I'll add that at these meetings, I am treated like a bona-fide celebrity. I don't
feel like one! Sure, I've written a book, and a hundred magazine and newspaper articles,
and I'm frequently on radio and TV... oh, wait a sec. OK, I guess I can see why
some people treat me like a star. But I never feel that way. Like Zaphod
Beeblebrox, I'm just this guy, y'know? But it's nice to be treated with respect.
It makes me feel that what I do is important, and it helps inspire me to keep
it up, even when sometimes (OK, lots of times) it's really hard to slog through all
the rotten garbage I fight.
I'll add that at these meetings, I am treated like a bona-fide celebrity. I don't feel like one! Sure, I've written a book, and a hundred magazine and newspaper articles, and I'm frequently on radio and TV... oh, wait a sec. OK, I guess I can see why some people treat me like a star. But I never feel that way. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, I'm just this guy, y'know? But it's nice to be treated with respect. It makes me feel that what I do is important, and it helps inspire me to keep it up, even when sometimes (OK, lots of times) it's really hard to slog through all the rotten garbage I fight.
Sunday was a short day, with "science" presentations; basically, research that people have done. These can be very interesting short talks. One presenter gave a talk called "Legalized Child Abuse: Faith Healers and Child Deaths", a very disturbing look into how pseudoscience quackery can kill, and kill those who have no defense against people in whom they place their trust: parents and church.
Unfortunately, my plane left at 1:30, so I had to leave before the end of the talks, and I also regretfully missed the auction to raise money for JREF (Randi: hold those auctions earlier!). They auctioned off poster-sized versions of the flyer they sent out announcing the meeting, first having had them autographed by all the speakers (including me!). I was sorely tempted to bid on one, but instead got my actual flyer signed by the speakers. I'll frame it eventually, along with my "Master of Ceremonies" ribbon and badge. It will find its way on my office wall, next to my three TAM plaques.I had a blast at this meeting. Personally, it is incredibly stimulating and exhilarating to have so many people confirm that what I do is important, and needs to be done. It gives me momentum. But the meeting is also a place where people can get their eyes opened to the literally incredible amount of chicanery, charlatanism, fraud, and self-deception in the world. But it's also a positive meeting: we show each other that such things can be fought. People can learn how to think, and to do so critically. They can have the scales fall from their eyes, so to speak, and understand that there are people out there trying to fool them, and that people-- the vast majority of people-- are all too willing to be fooled. It's up to us, you and me, to show them that there is more to the real world than there ever will be in the fantasy world.
My thanks to skepchick Margery "Red" Kimbrough for the use of some of her pictures on this page.