TAM 9! – Day three!

What a nice event this is so far! There are over 1600 participants, and there is a large fraction of the speakers who just mix in with the crowd, not minding being interrupted all the time by greetings, handshakes, photos, autograph signing, questions… So far, I talked to Phil Plait twice, I had a short chat with PZ Myers, and I had lunch sitting next to Justin Trottier with a bunch of other Canadians.

I also met a lot of other attendees. Interestingly, the people that attend that kind of event have their eyes sparkle with curiosity when they learn that I work with the LHC. This is very unusual for me. I am more used to blank stares, rapid changes of topic, or even intimidated looks when I bring up that I do particle physics. The people at TAM are fantastic, it is so easy to start a conversation with random strangers and find interesting topics to talk about!

So, Day three started with a panel discussion on the ethics of paranormal investigation, which I unfortunately missed. I arrived just in time for Sadie Crabtree‘s talk. Sadie is a brilliant strategist when it comes to getting messages across, and her talk was filled with interesting advice on how to do that. Her talk overlapped a lot with what Carol Tavris said later in the day. I will elaborate in a moment.

Sadie’s talk was followed by a panel discussion entitled Getting Things Done, which featured Elyse Anders, Richard Saunders, Jennifer McCreight, Justin Trottier and Maria Walters. It was nice to see Justin there, bringing a canadian success story of campaigning for skepticism to the Americans. After the Atheist Bus Campaign, his next nationwide project is the Extraordinary Claims campaign. He invited the canadian participants he could find for lunch, and we discussed possible ways of advancing CFI in Canada, and how to make it a truly national organization.

Next, a panel discussion on Placebo medicine featuring David Gorski, Harriet Hall, Kimball Atwood, Mark Crislip, Rachael Dunlop, Ginger Campbell and Steve Novella took place. I learned a few very interesting things. For example, recent research have shown that the placebo effect does not manifest itself physiologically. It is a purely perceptual phenomena: it happens entirely in the brain of the subject. This is why it is more appropriately named the Placebo response. Alternative medicine cannot fall back on the Placebo response to argue that they actually heal people, maybe except when they try to reduce pain. The Placebo response can never cure a disease, repair broken bones or correct a nutrient deficiency.

The morning session continued with Elizabeth Loftus telling us about psychological experiments that revealed how easy it is to make people fabricate memories. Try it with your one of your friends. Just tell her that when she was 6 years old, she was running after the cat during a family party and she followed the cat under the dinner table, pulled the table clothe and cause the buffet to crash on the floor. Apparently, you have 1 chance in 4 of finding someone who will recall the story and fill it in with additional details, despite the fact that it never happened.

Richard Wiseman concluded the morning session by presenting us with a number of hilarious and/or disturbing illusions of all sorts that showed how adept our brains are at seeing patterns. We have an especially easy time in seeing faces everywhere. He also told us about a hilarious TV moment in the UK, where a number of people pretending that the reason they could walk on embers was that they “thought up” a protective shield around them. Richard put them to the test by having them trying to break a firewalking record by walking on fiery embers over 60 feet. Guess what happens next… I am currently reading his last book, Paranormality.

The afternoon started with a live episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. It should become available here anytime soon, so I won’t spoil the goodness of it.

Then, Carol Tavris took the stage and she offered us an incredibly insightful presentation on cognitive dissonance and its consequences. Basically, she spent many years of research trying to find out why people get more and more entrenched in their own position as arguments are exchanged during a conflict. One of the major points she made is that we are incredibly proud of our own intelligence. Everybody thinks he is intelligent, nobody likes being called stupid. This is where Sadie Crabtree’s talk fit in. Sadie gave us a lot of advice on how to advance arguments without insulting the intelligence or the opponent. Carol gave a few examples of conflicts within the skeptical community itself. Of course, she couldn’t help but mention Elevatorgate! She ended up with a mild warning about the future of skepticism. As the movement gets bigger, this kind of internal conflict will happen more and more often. Carol and Sadie have shown us how we can get past these, and keep working together on our shared goals. It also sounds like good relationship advice!

And then we had Bill Nye! It was his first appearance at TAM, and he gave an absolutely brilliant presentation. Being a former student of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye is formidable at conjuring a sense of wonder and great enthusiasm in the people he addresses. His main focus was global warming. After looking at how thin the atmosphere of the Earth is from space, and how many human beings are being active consumers on the planet, it is ridiculous to say that we can’t influence climate. He told us that the key to the future is not in doing less. The key to the future is to do more with less. He ended his talk brilliantly by introducing his prototype Solar Sail that will be tried into space next year. With no engine, it is still possible to send probes far in the solar system with this technology, at a fraction of the price. A perfect example of doing more with less!

Richard Dawkins took the stage as the last speaker of the day. He introduced his upcoming book, The Magic of Reality. Let me tell you something. This book may be targeted to children, but it will be tremendously interesting to everyone. It is an absolutely beautiful book. It is very easy to imagine kids just turning the pages, being fascinated by the illustrations and wondering what this is all about. I would certainly have loved a book like that as a little boy. every chapter starts with a question, then it provides a number of mythical and historical explanations, and then it finishes with the most up-to-date answers from science. During his talk, Dawkins focused on the chapter asking: Are we alone? He greatly enriched a topic already discussed by PZ Myers by presenting the case for life elsewhere in the Universe with insights from molecular biology. My father would have loved this part. It was a very positive take on the subject, but also very realistic.

I am just loving this conference. It is heart-warming to see how the JREF is bringing us closer. Humanists, freethinkers, naturalists, atheists, scientists, James Randi has found a way to bring us all together and make us realize how our love of science and rational thinking goes beyond our opinion differences. James Randi is performing the ultimate magic trick my friends: he is herding cats.

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