I like to say three of the men I admire most have long white beards: Charles Darwin, Santa Claus, and James “The Amazing” Randi.
I’ll never be able to visit with Charles Darwin, since he’s dead, or Santa Claus, since his existence is unproved (my childhood investigations using milk and cookies yielded inconclusive results, and probably suffered from poorly designed protocols). But every year I get to spend some time with Randi, the brightest light in organized skepticism for decades.
This time next week, I’ll be packing my bags for my fourth trip to the South Point casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, for The Amazing Meeting, put on by its namesake through his James Randi Educational Foundation. It’s the biggest annual event (that I know of) in organized skepticism. Guests this year include Bill Nye, Eugenie Scott, Donald Prothero, and many other scientists, writers, and investigators in the world of science and skeptical thought. For four days attendees will rub elbows and listen to talks and panels examining the world from a skeptical perspective. Each TAM has a theme, and this year’s is “Skepticism and the Brain.” For people who have attended Dragon Con in Atlanta, TAM may be thought of as Dragon Con’s Skeptic Track, if the Skeptic Track were its own convention, and held in a much larger room. Many of the same speakers come to both events, in fact; Evan Bernstein and the Novellas from Skeptics Guide to the Universe, for example.
Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller hosts an annual Bacon and Doughnuts party (officially unaffiliated with TAM, but its ballroom is right across the hall from TAM’s, so, you know). In addition to 1,200 Krispy Kremes and a correspondingly large amount of Hormel bacon, it features a performance by Penn’s rock band.
Randi’s always there himself, and always very involved. He speaks from the stage, he strolls the halls, he meets and hugs and talks with everyone he encounters. If I’m ever an 80+ year old cancer survivor, I hope I can still be so active and engaged. He’s a marvel to behold.
Writing about skepticism can be a lonely business. I guess that’s true of any writing; forget I wrote that. Being a skeptic can be lonely, since we extol critical thinking in a world that seems determined to reject it wholesale. Everywhere I look I see credulous, irrational acceptance of fringe science, alternative medicine, paranormal phenomena, supernatural occurrences, and Republicans.
Las Vegas itself is a city founded on a disbelief in the laws that govern the universe. The odds are stacked in the house’s favor. Over time, all gamblers who come to casinos will lose money. Everyone knows this, and yet still they come. They think they’ll win because they’re lucky, or because they have a “system,” or because they think they’ve figured out how to defeat a particular game’s rules or machine’s algorithms.
They’re wrong, of course. Gambling isn’t a skeptic’s hobby or vice—not a good skeptic’s anyway. We know better. As I said, this is my fourth TAM, and I have yet to gamble even a cent at the South Point. I know better.
The irony in hosting a skeptics’ conference in a gambling Mecca isn’t lost on me. One year, during his keynote, Randi observed wryly, “this building wasn’t paid for by the winners.”
Wherever it’s held, and whatever presentations are offered, the main appeal of TAM, for me, is simply having a few days a year when I’m surrounded by people who mostly share my understanding of the universe and how it works. That’s very refreshing, and it helps to sustain me through the rest of the year.
I hope to blog daily while I’m at TAM. That’s the plan, anyway; it didn’t go off so well last year. I will at least be tweeting often to
Give me a follow, won’t you?