TAM Sunday: I give a presentation to a zillion people

I got up early to get ready to see the papers, and to make sure I was there to watch everyone else’s papers because they usually aren’t crowded.  TAMmers leave in droves on Sunday before the event is over and the papers were really poorly advertised this year.  There was no program, there was no schedule that anyone had access to, our names weren’t printed anywhere, certainly our subjects weren’t printed anywhere.  It was poorly done, I have to say — we’re not headliners, but we are people who still had to pay despite the fact that we’re talking.  The least they could have done is put our names somewhere so people would know what they were listening to.

Anyway, I went to the papers.  I was fairly nervous, but it was OK, I was the last to go, so I had to sit through 6 other papers before it was my turn and, unfortunately, the paper before me ate into my time a little, so I had to shorten mine up on the fly.  Which was also fine, because I could see anything thanks to the lights reflecting off of my glasses, so I couldn’t really read my notes anyway.

It went over very well.  The presentation was about the importance of using emotion and recognizing emotion in discussions, using the failure of the LGBT side in the Prop 8 campaign as an example of how emotional messanging works.  There’s a huge tone debate in the movement at the moment, for those of you who don’t remember DBAD, because some people think that other people are too mean or confrontational.  The point of my speech was to say that emotional content is one of our most useful tools, and being a dick creates an emotional response.  It’s a useful tool in the tool box.  But most importantly, just because the movement is about logic and rationality that doesn’t mean that ignoring emotion is the right way to go about convincing others — ignoring human emotion is irrational.  Including within the movement — skeptics are not immune from being human, we should start taking that into account better when we argue.

I got a large applause when I was done, and after I left the stage a little crowd of people came over to thank me or talk with me about the issues.  It was very cool.  I was expecting some backlash — perhaps from being on the internet for too long — I thought some people would tell me that emotions have no place in rational debates or that they didn’t appreciate my assumption that everyone in the room was pro-gay rights, but the responses were great.

I was too keyed up to sit through the next presentation, especially as the World Cup Final was about to take place, so I just went into the hallway and talked to people who came up to me to say thanks about my presentation.  To pat myself on the back a little, I’m going to write some of the Twitter responses:

kefox: Great talk this morning on communicating w/emotion. Our side is smarter & really ought to be the Jedi masters of this.

Tasutari: Ashley could easily have given a full talk – good slides, good content, well presented.  Plus, there was a Joss Whedon quote.

charlesj: Ashley tells us what we need to hear, continuing from Tavris’ talk yesterday

jennifurret: Ashley nailed it on using emotions when arguing skepticism.  Sometimes you need to be a dick!

TCTheater: Ashley is kicking ass and taking names.  Excellent capstone to papers segment.

SkeptiCareBear: Propaganda bad, but lack of all emotion worse.  Good talk by Ashley.

StevenTheWonky: Ashley is kicking ass.

ArcheoWebby: A presenter that knows how to use a computer.  Nice.  Good Job Ashley.

So that was awesome.  Then I went to watch the soccer game and it was so depressing, partially because there was no food at the bar and I was starving to death while also watching the US kill themselves — I’m happy for Japan, but we lost that game because we made a lot of stupid, careless mistakes and couldn’t get shots on Target.  My heart goes out to Abby Wambach.

Then I heard the end of the diversity in skepticism panel, which I sort of lost interest in thanks to DJ seeming to think that getting conservatives and religious people in the movement should be some sort of a priority.  I’m with Jamila on the whole getting active about causes that skeptic people should be able to see are ridiculous — the war on drugs, the prison policy.

Sean Faircloth gave essentially the same speech he’d given at the SCA Summit and it went over very well.  He’s a very good cheerleader.

Then there was the closing remarks from Randi and we were done.  I ran into Randi in the hallway and thanked him for letting me speak and he said he’d heard I’d done very well.  I’m sure he was just saying that, but it was still awesome.  I went down to the Del Mar and hung out with a lot of people who were still there and then went to Penn and Teller over at the Rio.  Boy are Las Vegas cabs expensive, by the way.  We were in the first seat in the Mezzanine, which was actually excellent because it was easier to see how they were doing the tricks.  A lot of their tricks have been on their show or on other shows, but it was still a lot of fun.  And then someone in the line for cabs recognized me and thanked me for my talk, so people at the Rio cab line probably thought I was some important person.  Buahaha.

Then I packed and went to bed.

Monday, I got on the airplane and swallowed my crown.  And I’m freaking out about it.  Yep.

Derren Brown vs Faith Healing

There are few things more difficult for the skeptic to let go of than their faith in their own intelligence.  After all, recognizing the untruth of something lots of people believe in (gods, psychics, bigfoots) does give one a sense of intellectual superiority.  I've certainly been guilty of a sort of mental vanity that is borderline absurd — not because I'm not smart but because no one is smart enough to overcome the inherent fallibility of the human mind.  Smart people are often just better at tricking themselves into believing whatever it is they wish to be true.

And this is why I so appreciate the work of Derren Brown, a mentalist and magician who captivated me last year when I read his book "Tricks of the Mind".  He reminds me of Stephen Fry — brilliant, funny, atheist, gay and charming — like something from an Oscar Wilde play, not of this time.  Derren's schtick is to do magic tricks while explaining why the mind falls for them — he's sort of like a psychologist of magic.  It's similar to Penn & Teller, but his tricks are less sleight of hand and more sleight of mind.  He has gotten some flak in skeptic circles because he usually has a trick or two he doesn't explain, retaining some of that appeal to mysticism that he's otherwise debunking, but it's all part of the show.

If you share with me a love of the horrifically compelling documentary "Marjoe" or the delightful Steve Martin film "Leap of Faith", or if you just hate swindlers, especially those abusing religion to take advantage of people, then you'll be interested in Derren's latest TV Special, slated to air in the UK on C4 Monday night at 9.  It is called "Miracles for Sale" which is a rather tame title considering the subject matter.

The special will follow Derren's attempt, which one assumes was successful since it's airing, to turn an average Joe from the streets into a faith healer, using only tricks of the mentalist trade.  Basically, he's going to see if people fall for obvious fraud.  Derren claims that this is not about God, but about exposing fraud, though it can't help but paint religion and the entire idea of faith healing in an intensely negative light.

Although I don't hide my own lack of religious belief, my repulsion at this scam comes as much from my days as a Christian as it does from simply being a human being observing ego- and money-driven fraud.

As a former Evangelical, Derren manages to have street cred with Christians, although many others see his de-conversion as some sort of personal insult or, typically, a sign that he was never really a Christian in the first place.  And of course he's already getting the kind of braindead responses you'd expect from the faith healing crowds.  "U say there's no proof of genuine miracle?  Where have u been looking??  I've personally SEEN the blind SEE the Deaf hear and many other miracles…" "Jesus heals people all the time.  It is not faith healing though.  When Jesus speaks to someone they get healed.  Everything he does works."

So much for helping those in need.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-O9aNl2Xrk&feature=related

Children and the Supernatural

I read this really fascinating article about children and the ages at which they are prone to believing in the supernatural.  So often we think of faith as childlike, and no matter what religion or superstitions you hold to, those of other people always seems silly and naive.  Something a 4 year old might believe in, but not an adult.

Now, I know one study doesn't prove anything, but there are some interesting conclusions.  The younger a child is, the less likely they are to believe that a supernatural being is trying to communicate with them.  And, without being primed with information, children aren't very likely to believe something supernatural is causing events.  Very young children are the most skeptical of all!

The researchers gave the children a game to play and during it knocked pictures off the wall and made the lights flicker — the control group wasn't told anything about it and the experimental group were told there was a friendly ghost in the room ahead of time.  The control group didn't make anything of the supposed signs, but the way the children reacted was sharply different between age groups.

The eldest children (7-9) got the idea that the spirit was doing those things to signal them and responded accordingly.  The middle group (5-6) thought that it was the spirit, but didn't or couldn't make anything of the intention behind the behavior, she was "like a mischievous poltergeist with attention deficit disorder: she did things because she wanted to, and that’s that."

But the youngest children (3-4) simply thought that the picture wasn't stuck to the wall very well or the light was broken.

So, it seems that believing in magical beings who can communicate with you through the real world is an acquired cognitive skill or requires some development that doesn't happen until you're a bit older.  

Skeptical Baby is Skeptical

skeptical baby is skeptical