Tag Archive: The Amazing Meeting

The Man in the Arena

(Submitted by Skepticality listener, Skeptic Society blogger and Junior Skeptic Editor, friend of the blog Daniel Loxton)

I spent much of last summer preparing my speech for The Amazing Meeting 2014, a large skeptics conference in Las Vegas. It was totally nerve-wracking. I’m shy. I get stage fright. I’d never given a solo talk of that length in front of such an enormous crowd—1200 people! Many of my intellectual heroes would be in the audience. And, I was planning a very emotional talk about beauty and joy and meaning.

So I spent five weeks writing and obsessively polishing that talk, titled “A Rare and Beautiful Thing.” Its themes were built on discussion of skeptics of previous generations, including magician Harry Houdini. I said this:

When Rinn’s old friend Houdini finally did get into the fight, he arrived as a mighty champion. He brought skill and knowledge, and wealth and fame. Houdini studied and investigated and wrote books, and gave demonstrations.

He went to Congress to fight for tougher laws against fraudulent fortunetellers, at least in the nation’s capital. He fought with passion, and gravity of purpose.

And he lost.

There is a strange and heartbreaking beauty in that.

As I worked to cram two thousand years of scientific skepticism into half an hour, I was forced to make cuts. One of the last things I cut, very reluctantly, was this abbreviated quote from Theodore Roosevelt, which had accompanied the Houdini passage:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again…but who does actually strive to do the deeds…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

When I delivered the talk, the vast hall was silent. I had no clue whether the crowd was coming along with me. Then, as I finished the speech and stumbled off the stage in relief, I discovered that they had. Dozens of people rushed to talk to me. It was among the most amazing moments of my life.

One of those people was ‎a woman named Anna Maltese, who held a piece of paper in her hand. She wanted me to know that the talk had inspired her to share a favorite passage by her favorite American President. She felt sure I’d like it, so she had written it down for me. I looked at the paper. It said, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust…”

I was stunned. It was the final surreal touch to an unforgettable day.

Below are the extended notes provided by cognitive psychologist and statistician Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 255.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary. Also, visit Barbara’s blog ICBS Everywhere, and Insight at Skeptics Society.

The quote is not obscure, but it is not exactly “Four score and seven years ago,” either. It is seen rarely enough to make this feel like a crazy coincidence. And perhaps it was an unlikely event, but there are a few factors which increase the odds quite a bit.

The first thing that we must always consider is that the commonalities we know about (e.g., the Amazing Meeting) are usually related to things we might not have considered–something called confounding variables. Anna’s attendance at the event was not random. The subject matter that brought speaker and audience member together is somewhat academic in nature and those interested in it tend, on average, to be more educated than average. The odds that someone in the audience would be familiar with such a quote are higher than the odds that any random person would. Even the odds that an audience member would count that quote among their favorites are higher.

But I think that the most credit for this incident must go to the simple fact Daniel’s speech communicated his message so clearly that the quote he wanted to use to illustrate it was brought to the mind of an audience member who was intimately familiar with it. That’s a brilliantly crafted and delivered speech.

(Please click here to watch Daniel Loxton’s address at The Amazing Meeting 2014.)

A Tale of a First TAMmer

(Submitted by reader Jim Preston)

I went to my first ever The Amazing Meeting this year, held at the Southpoint Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It was not only my first TAM, it was my first skeptical meeting of any kind. When I arrived, I went to the front desk to check in. I asked if I could have a particularly quiet room, away from the ice machine and the elevator. That was the only input that I had into which room I would get. When the desk clerk told me my room number I was amazed that the four digits were the year I was born.

So what are the odds that I’d be given a room whose number is the year I was born? According to their website, the Southpoint has 2163 rooms. So the simple odds are one out of 2163. Now, if I was someone who travelled a lot and stayed in hotels with at least 19 floors a lot, I’d say that this was bound to happen sooner or later. But I almost never stay in a large hotel. I’ve probably stayed in a 19+ floor hotel less than a dozen times in my life. So the odds that one of those times I would get my birth year room is more like 12 out of whatever the average number of rooms in those dozen hotels is, probably something in the one to two thousand range. Still rather long odds.

What I find most interesting about this is how much, even though I was a good skeptic and I knew it was just a coincidence, I found myself wanting to believe that there was some kind of significance in getting my birth year as my room number at my first ever skeptical meeting.

But maybe it was just an opportunity to apply my skepticism. But see, I said “opportunity”; I’m still phrasing it in terms of some kind of meaning.

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 212.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary.

The author of this story did an excellent analysis himself. Even if we only consider the question of the odds of getting a single, specific room number on this specific occasion, at one in 2163, it’s much, much greater than winning the jackpot on any of the slot machines.

But the one thing that is most important to keep in mind is that it’s post-hoc thinking to even consider these odds. What if the room number wasn’t the year of his birth, but the last four digits of his SSN or phone number? Or his street address at home? Our lives are filled with numbers that hold significance for us. The odds of getting a room number that matches some other number of significance are actually quite high–much higher than if we chose one beforehand and tried to predict the incident.