• Having My Doubts: A TAM 2014 Diary (Sunday)

    Yes, it’s been a week since I recapped TAM 2014 Saturday, but I’ve been busy. And the glow has faded some, so now this should bring back fond memories of experiencing or reading about the conference. Right?

    For every previous TAM I’ve been to, I never made it down to the ballroom in time for the Sunday morning papers. I made the effort this year to catch my friend Jacques Rousseau’s “The Responsible Believer.” It was excellent, but I won’t seek to summarize it here. He did talk about something I want to explore in more detail later: “Rapoport’s Rules.” It’s a way to debate a believer without being smug or dismissive; this is a lesson I need to learn.

    Another line that jumped out at me is “Skepticism is not a conclusion, but a method for reaching conclusions.”

    The next paper was Stuart J. Robbins’ debunking of the “Face On Mars.” As I Tweeted at the time, unless Brian De Palma was in the audience, this doesn’t seem necessary anymore.

    The regular panels began with a talk by Steve Cuno, an advertising man, about advertising and its (limited) ability to control people’s minds. He mentioned the famous subliminal advertising experiment at a cinema in the 1950s, which everyone has heard about, but nobody ever hears was a complete failure. Sales of popcorn and Coke did not go up after moviegoers saw the subliminal messages urging them to go to the concession stand.

    Advertisers themselves have perpetuated the mystique about advertising’s persuasiveness. The book by David Ogilvy of Ogilvy & Mather, “Ogilvy On Advertising,” is a prime example.

    Ads reflect societal attitudes much more than they create them. If “Rubenesque” models were the Western standard of beauty, Cuno said, they’re the models we’d see in ads.

    Incidentally, I was bitterly disappointed that Steve wasn’t wearing a crisp gray suit, smoking a Lucky Strike, and holding a highball in his hand.

    The Sunday keynote address was “Science and Justice: Free Will & Moral Responsibility In A Secular Society” by Michael Shermer.

    Shermer’s talks are usually optimistic. This one was more dark than usual, and explored the nature of good and evil. He mentioned a man whose pedophilia was found to have been caused by a brain tumor. After surgery to remove the tumor, he lost all desire to prey on children.

    Another case he brought up was Charles Whitman, the man who climbed the University of Texas clock tower in the 1960s and killed several people, including himself, with a rifle. He knew he was mentally unwell and was hearing voices; he even told a therapist what he was planning, but didn’t get help and no authorities were alerted. He left behind a note asking that his body be autopsied to find out what was wrong with him, and anomalies were found in his brain.
    Shermer lightened things some by discussing the famous “marshmallow experiment” and showing us a video of several children enduring it.

    Here’s the video:

    Shermer showed another video of two monkeys performing tasks for rewards. One monkey was rewarded with grapes; the other, with cucumber slices. The cucumber monkey was able to see the other monkey getting grapes.

    Cucumber monkey not happy:

    Donald Prothero, in his talk about “The Mind of the Science Denier,” shared (among other things) the encouraging news that 60-80 percent of Americans are coming to accept the truth of anthropocentric climate change. He showed us this cartoon.

    The gag is the thing that frustrates me about climate change deniers: even if global warming isn’t happening, all the things we might do to fight it are still good ideas. Why would anyone oppose them?

    I think Donald gave the last presentation, and then D.J. Grothe took the stage to offer closing remarks and introduce Randi himself. D.J. had my favorite line of the weekend: “TAM attendees are overwhelmingly kind, and want to do good by being right.” That may be a paraphrase, but it’s a beautiful and true sentiment.

    He also said that there were 78 walk-up attendees this year, including people from Saudi Arabia.

    As an aside, I encourage every TAM enthusiast to come to Dragon Con and experience the Skeptic Track. It’s like a mini-TAM, and I’m proud to announce that I’ll be part of a panel this year, and I’ll be in costume!

    When Randi sent us off, he announced a new member of the board of James Randi Educational Foundation: Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame. I don’t often watch the show, but I’ve seen Savage at Dragon Con. He should be a good high-profile addition.

    So TAM 2014 was now over, except it wasn’t over: Workshop 5A and Workshop 5B remained. 5A was about the process by which the JREF administers its “Million Dollar Challenges;” I opted for Workshop 5B, which was Robert Blaskiewicz and Susan Gerbic explaining what individuals can do to fight against pseudoscience and the other things skeptics oppose. It was essentially a roundup of skeptical tools: websites, podcasts, etc.

    I think I’ll discuss most of those in a separate post, but here’s a great anecdote they shared. A TV station in Indiana, an ABC affiliate, had a spiritual medium on staff (I’m not sure why). A local skeptic found out about her and waggishly sent a letter to the station suggesting that she take the JREF Million Dollar Challenge. Embarrassed by the publicity, the station fired the medium.

    After the workshop I went to eat at the Garden Buffet and took part in a great conversation. The topic was gender and sex and nonconformity to gender roles and expectations. I had a few things to say about that.

    The Million Dollar Challenge this year was by a young man who claimed he could emit healing energy from his right hand, that recipients could feel. He believed in himself so strongly that he’d emigrated from his native China to Boston, where he hoped to interest the great universities there in studying his power. He did not attract any such interest.

    The test protocols, which were explained in great detail, seemed to me similar to the protocols used to debunk “therapeutic touch” back in the 1980s. By an eleven-year-old.

    “I think I can guess where this is going,” I told the friends I was sitting with, and excused myself to go run. It was already 8 p.m. and I wanted to run and shower early enough to enjoy the informal post-TAM partying in the Del Mar Lounge.

    I ran, showered, got dressed again, and rejoined everyone in the Del Mar Lounge a couple of hours later. I learned the claimant had failed the challenge. He needed to make eight out of nine attempts successfully; the first two failed and it was over.

    I chatted the night away with all the usual suspects, and had the additional pleasure of meeting Max Maven. Max Maven isn’t very famous anymore, but he’s a legendary mentalist. He has written several books about mentalism that other magicians study.

    I got to bed after 3 a.m. I was an early pumpkin; the bar was still crowded with skeptics. But I wanted to get up early and run once more before checking out of the hotel and heading home.

    Category: consumer productsmediaTAM 2014


    Article by: Vandy Beth Glenn

    I'm a writer, editor, runner, and bon vivant in the Atlanta, Georgia, area.