TAM 5: Saturday a much better day!

The many technical glitches that marred even the best speakers’ presentations yesterday seemed to have been mostly smoothed over and dealt with. Today was, overall, a much more satisfying day. Even the lunch was better: hot food instead of cold cut sandwiches. Consistently funny, engaging, and sometimes contentious, each speaker had a lot to offer.

But I’m going to wait until I get home Sunday night to blog the day, mainly because I’m wiped out. I just feel like coming down and relaxing, and not thinking about recapping and analyzing all the speakers just right yet. So look for coverage and photos of Saturday shortly. For now, I can say that if you ever find it in your budget to go to TAM, go. It’s been a terrific experience and a great little vacation, and TAM 6 is scheduled for summer 2008, not January, giving you 18 months to plan.

Yawn. Me for bed.

TAM 5: Friday afternoon speakers

The general opinion so far of my friends Thad and Stacie Engeling (the latter of whom is Ms. November in the 2007 Skepchick Calendar, by the way) is that TAM 5 has so far not been as good as TAM 4. But a lot of this is probably due to the fact that Friday afternoon’s talks were frought with stupid technical glitches. It can’t be terribly difficult to output audio from a laptop to a public sound system, but it happened with almost every presentation. In addition, presenters with video on DVD-R’s often encountered the aggravating problem of their discs not playing properly. In all, the afternoon was a little bit of a mess, but there were still some fine presentations going on.

Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey from the libertarian Reason magazine were scheduled to follow Eugenie Scott, but as everything was running late they’ve been bumped, so we’ll see if they speak today.

The first post-lunch speaker was a fellow from MIT named Neil Gershenfeld, who talked about advances in nanotech and how they will make manufacturing a much more democratic process. His team has set up “fab labs” all around the world, with the result that even little kids are making some cool gadgets. He’s also pointed out that since he introduced a class at MIT all about this, which he initially expected to appeal only to a handful of engineering dweebs, he has in fact been flooded with hundreds of students who just wanted to make stuff. What he’s discovered is that the killer app for this kind of tech will be personal tech, and not necessarily mass-produced things for the marketplace. I wasn’t expecting to get into this talk that much, fearing it would slide headlong into tech-talk-land and lose me utterly, but Gershenfeld, in full hip-prof mode, made it utterly compelling. It was great to see how young kids living in the developing world, when exposed to this kind of knowledge, really had a hunger for it and absorbed what they were learning like little sponges. I can foresee a time when online communities of fab junkies are trading their manufacturing templates via p2p, and spitting out all kinds of nifty things on home replicators. Time will tell.

What followed was an interview with Randi by his friend Jamy Ian Swiss. We were shown quite a lot of amusing video from a Korean TV show that invited Randi over to debunk a whole host of their local paranormalists. Randi coached the show’s producer on what to look for when he and his crew went out to various psychic presentations, and, in contrast to the way an American TV show would insist on presenting woo with 100% credulity, this producer turned out to be a debunking champ, laying awesome traps for spoon-benders and psychic “healers” that Randi admitted he himself could not have improved upon. A simple hidden camera showed one spoon bender just bending the spoon the normal way when he thought no one was looking, and a Malaysian healer whose schtick is that electricity flows through his body (he did a trick that Randi had no trouble duplicating in the Korean studio) was shown to have tricked out his sandals with a battery pack. The dude also nailed Uri Geller, pissing off the Israeli fruad so much he threw them out of his house. Hilarious.

It was terrific watching these clips, but the whole presentation ended up getting a little overlong and repetitive because the DVD player they were using had the hardest time cueing up to the right spots in the DVD-R.

Technical glitches continued with Lori Lipman Brown, lobbyist for the new Secular Coalition of America, the first lobbying group for atheists. Brown was a decent speaker once she stopped just reading from her prepared remarks, and she presents a nice face for atheism in the public square. Still, she was fairly unprepared for the abject disrespect from Fox News interviewers, getting that deer-in-the-headlights look when confronted by O’Reilly; she showed three clips from Fox News interviews, two from the Factor. Still, she mentioned that she hasn’t received any disrespect on Capitol Hill simply because she’s representing atheists, and I hope once she develops a slightly thicker skin and cangive as well as she gets in front of TV cameras, she might be someone to exert some real influence. She ain’t there yet, though. Overall, her presentation was brief, a nice relief from the extreme length of the Randi interview and its glitchy videos.

A Q&A with the ever-popular Penn & Teller followed, who were both funny and warm as they fielded questions from the crowd, many of whom had clearly worked up the funniest questions they could think of well in advance. Some of the better questions involved the benefits/liabilities of working with Showtime versus using DIY broadcasting technology online like YouTube. They also related the hilarious story of the video game Desert Bus, in which nothing happens except that you drive a bus from Phoenix to Vegas for eight hours.

But as funny as Penn & Teller are, the real comic genius of the day was the energetic Richard Wiseman, who talked at a machine-gun pace, peppering his speech with off-the-cuff jokes that had everyone belly-laughing. Wiseman has a reputation doing lots of debunking over in his native England, most prominently the claims of the kookoo Rupert Sheldrake, who thinks dogs and parrots have ESP. Sheldrake believed he had proven a little terrier was psychic because she always ran to the window at the precise moment her owner was coming home, even if the time was entirely chosen randomly. Wiseman set up his own camera
s on Sheldrake’s invitation and learned that the dog was in fact going to the window all the time. (Again, Wiseman had several minutes worth of his own laptop issues before we were able to see the videos.)

Wiseman went on to talk about how he’s seeking to use the media, not just for debunking efforts, but in a way that presents science entertainingly. He gave us the whole story of a stunt in which an investor, a “financial astrologer,” and a five-year-old girl were invited to choose the best stocks, and after six months, the little girl was the only one who hadn’t lost money. Then there was the long saga of the humor research program to discover the funniest joke in the world (it’s not quite) by allowing thousands of people to submit jokes to a website, then screening them through public votes down to the most popular one.

Wiseman, the final speaker for the day, is a hilarious guy, and he’s the kind of bloke I’d love to see doing more work for skepticism in the public arena. After the room was shutting down I managed to locate him and we had a good talk walking back to the elevators. I was particularly interested in his talk, as I told him, because a few years back I got into a brief Wikipedia edit war with a Sheldrake fan and woo believer who was editing Wikipedia’s ESP entry, both to slant the article to a pro-paranormal bias, and also to add about a dozen links driving traffic to his blog. I hadn’t heard about the dog experiment before dealing with this clown (who believed Sheldrake’s results utterly), but it was evident right away to me that the way Sheldrake set up his own test proved the guy has no clue how to run a controlled experiment to save his life. Sheldrake’s response to Wiseman’s findings has, of course, been to lie and say Wiseman got the same results he did. Of course, Wiseman showed the dog did indeed go to the window at the precise moment her owner was coming home. But she also went to the window nearly every five minutes before and after that point as well. I’m a dog owner and know full well these are creatures of habit; my dogs know when it’s walk time, and if I’m slacking off online they’ll come to get me and bark indignantly that they’re ready to go. Are they psychic for knowing this? No, they just know how to learn routines. It’s what dogs do. Sheldrake’s work is just a prime example of confirmation bias in action.

Anyway, that was the end of Friday. I’ve decided to skip the continental breakfast this morning. Today has another solid roster of speakers — Phil Plait, Christopher Hitchens, and…wait for it…Trey Parker and Matt Stone! So I hope fewer techie troubles plague the day and everything goes a lot more smoothly.

TAM 5: Friday morning speakers Shermer & Scott

Well, remember what I said last night about being wiped out and going to bed? Wrong! I realized that if I go to Vegas for an awesome conference and crash early, then damn it all, I haven’t been to Vegas for an awesome conference. And so I mustered up my second wind, went downstairs, and saw an impressive performance by the mentalist Banachek. Maybe I’ll discuss that in more detail later, but for now…

This morning’s speaker session began with Hal Bidlack introducing Randi once again. This time Randi said some things that will be music to any skeptic’s ears: the JREF is going on the offensive against paranormalism and bullshit. Randi is revising the terms of the famous Million Dollar Challenge in the interests of rededicating himself to his debunking efforts following his physical recovery.

The problem over the years has been too many Mickey Mouse losers applying for the Challenge, few of whom can even state their claims coherently, and none of whom really has any kind of reputation in the media or elsewhere. Now, Randi’s detractors in the woo brigade often dismiss the Challenge as a publicity stunt, and in truth, publicity is part of the point. The JREF wants to educate and inform the public and promote critical thinking, and reaching the public through the media is the best way to do it. But why should the media care about some kooky dowser from Bumfuck, Iowa?

So the new terms of the Million Dollar Challenge, going into effect on April 1 (heh), will be that applicants must have some kind of media presence, like Sylvia and John Edwards, and that there must be someone in a position of authority and influence — academically or otherwise — who feels that the claimant is worth taking seriously. This will weed out the nonsense, and pique the kinds of media interest that will help bring the message of thinking critically about extraordinary claims to a public who are given far too many reasons to be credulous. I like it. I especially liked the idea that the JREF is considering a major New York Times ad on April 1 announcing the new terms of the Challenge and expressly inviting Sylvia, Edwards, Uri Geller, and James von Praagh to partake. Bring the fight right out in the open!

Finally, Randi announced intentions to forcefully pursue (sorry, split infinitive) legal actions for fraud and other crimes perpetrated by woos shown to be false and who yet continue to take money from the gullible. All good plans!

Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer then came up to give an interesting if not earth-shattering talk on the topic of his next book, the evolution of economic systems. He described both evolution and economics as complex adaptive systems; in small bands like hunter-gatherers, trading was adequate as there are no specific individuals accumulating mass wealth and hogging resources. In bigger civilizations, one gets more disparity, and you end up with the super-rich like Bill Gates, who cause as much discomfort as the super-poor panhandling on the streets (though in Gates’ case, I think envy is playing a role). So more complex economic systems evolve to meet the needs of a larger populace. And this can be tied into our biological evolutionary heritage, which likes the idea of “reciprocal altruism”, i.e., fairness. It isn’t really my field, so the topic didn’t grab me by the nads. But Shermer seems to have thought it out skillfully, so I’m thinking the book with be worth checking out.

Next, the NCSE’s awesome Eugenie Scott took the podium to give the first brilliant talk of the show, tracing the evolution of the creationist movement from “creation science” to ID. In addition to covering the basics, Scott made a number of astute points, some of which I hadn’t considered. One of these I had considered is that the IDers have been more skilled at using the media than pro-evolution scientists. Ironically, they have even been better about getting out the message that they are the ones interested in skepticism and critical thinking, with their “teach the controversy” mantra and their knack for portraying science as a dogmatic practice.

Scott pointed out how the media’s focus on the generally laudable practice of fairness taints the real issues. Proper balance is achieved by presenting both sides of an issue accurately. That is not the same thing as giving both sides equal credibility. IDers have done a remarkable job of working the media and covering up the fact that they don’t really do any science.

Scott suggested that scientists need to counter ID creationism in a positive way that promotes the practice of science and critical thinking and how to apply it well. She pointed to the Kitzmiller trial as a landmark effort in this, in that, for the first time, people who haven’t been at the forefront of fighting ID nonsense for years — like Judge Jones and the army of reporters covering the trial — finally really got it. Michael Behe made a fool of himself on the stand in Dover, and what’s important is that the press understood that, and coverage of Behe was commensurately humiliating. This isn’t and has never been about “dogmatic Darwinists” “censoring” ID’s “controversial” views in order to “protect evolutionary dogma,” to regurgitate a lot of ID buzzwords. It’s just about making it perfectly understood that ID just plain ain’t science. And in science class, it’s about teaching science. Evolution, like heliocentrism or any other settled scientific issue, is not a matter of opinion. Being “fair and balanced” is all well and good when you’re letting people air opinions. But science isn’t about opinions or belief. It’s about empirically demonstrable facts.

Scott accompanied her talk with a host of fantastic PowerPoint slides showing the depth of the swill one has to wade through when combating ID/creationist nonsense. It’s both funny and sad all at once.

Well, I’m taking time out of the lunch break to bring you this. So I’m going back downstairs. (For ten bucks a day, the wifi here sucks ass. What’s the deal with getting no signal at all in the convention center? I mean, duh! Hello?) I may not post the next update for a bit, as I need to renew the service for another day. So I may wait till late tonight in order to stretch my money out better. Of course, anyone who’d like to help defray these little costs can Paypal me at mw_director at yahoo dot com, but, like Banachek was saying all last night in his act, “Now, I’m manipulating you! Don’t let me do that!” Ha!

TAM 5: Shots from the reception

James Randi spoke briefly, thanked everyone for coming and remarked drolly on how amazing it was that he could pull together such a community just by being a guy with a reputation for saying things like “I doubt that.”

Randi gave us some good news about bad news for Uri Geller, who’s the target of condemnation by the Israeli parliament after a video hit YouTube of Geller thoroughly faking a stunt with a compass. He also mentioned he was going on The O’Reilly Factor to confront the notorious Sylvia Browne yet again; much as O’Reilly is an asshole, Randi says the guy hates Sylvia and is on the side of Good (for once) in this battle. We’l see. I’m — ahem — skeptical.

After he spoke, he was surrounded by a gaggle of fans, and I eventually managed to slip in there, introduce myself, and do the usual fanboy gush thing about how much I admired all his work over the years, and all that. He was a really cordial, approachable man, and that’s cool. I know he gets to hear this kind of fawning from his fans almost as much as he hears the slanders of the woo brigade, and he’s used to it. But at least I’ve had the experience of meeting him and shaking his hand. He appears hale and fully recovered from his recent heart troubles, so I predict more years of pissing off the paranormal charlatans are in the offing.

A little more mingling and I crossed paths with Reginald Finley, aka The Infidel Guy, who surprised me by recognizing me. I had no idea he had any idea who I was. I knew he was aware of the very active Austin crowd, but I guess he’s seen some episodes of the old AE show when I was hosting. We talked quite a bit, and he mentioned some of his expanding podcasting efforts with The Debate Hour, a less aggressive show designed to draw in a wider audience of believers and introduce them to critical thinking. Really nice guy, Reggie is.

I’m wiped out. My body clock tells me it’s just after 10 PM, while the clock radio by my bed here says it’s only just after eight. Stupid time zones. Some of the guys are planning a pub crawl starting at eleven, which sounds like a great way to hang with some new folks. But having been up now almost an entire day, I don’t think I’m quite up to it. So I’m gonna lame out and crawl into bed.

The speakers begin tomorrow, and I’ll be updating regularly. See you then.

TAM 5 liveblogging: Well, here I am!

Been here a few hours, in fact, but much of the afternoon was spent getting my bearings (including figuring out the wifi situation here — it isn’t free, and in fact the $10/day service is the least rapacious) and registering. But a quick recap of the afternoon so far.

Landing in Vegas to balmy 52 degree weather was like entering paradise after a solid weekend of ice and sleet in Austin. Checked into the Riviera, which I was pleased to find did not live down to the brutal reviews I was reading on various travel sites last night. My room was clean and nice, with a full battery of amenities like any decent hotel, and with no smoky smell, trash, or bedbugs to be found. Now, granted, the Riv isn’t exactly in the “nice” part of Vegas, the new spiffy trendy part where Britney likes to skank around. This is old-school, Rat Pack Vegas, and the Riv caters solidly to the penny-slot crowd. Damn near everyone in the casinos downstairs is retirement age, including the one security guard I saw, walking along with a visible effort. I imagine if Danny Ocean were to pull a heist here and take off at a practiced run, the poor fellow wouldn’t last thirty yards in a foot chase.

Anyway, got checked in, unpacked, and wandered the labyrinthine corridors looking for the TAM 5 registration booth. When I passed James Randi walking the opposite direction, I figured I was getting warm.

He’s a small guy. But a giant in his realm, of course.

So now I am, right this second, blogging to you from the Top of the Riv Ballroom on the 24th floor of Whatever-the-Hell-It’s-Called Tower, at the opening reception, typing away while enjoying horse doovers and a fizzy beer. I’ve been taking some pictures, too, but I went and left the goddamn USB cable to my camera back in the room. So I’ll update later and post those.

I am now going to quit geeking, get another beer, and mingle. Randi is getting ready to speak.

Until later…

TAM 5: On my way

I’m tired and groggy, but I’m on my way out the door to Vegas. Only trouble is, I made the mistake of getting online last night and looking up reviews of the Riviera. Apparently it’s a seriously run-down shithole staffed by Neanderthals. Great. Well, now that I have low expectations maybe things won’t be so bad. Yeah, optimism! That’s the ticket.

More later…

[Cartman voice] Kickass! [/Cartman voice]

Bright and early Thursday morning I am flying out of the ice-caked ruins of Austin for the not-all-that-less-cold-but-at-least-not-icy glitter of Lost Wages, Nevada. The occasion? James Randi’s The Amazing Meeting 5, damn it! The great skeptic’s conference hits its fifth year, with appearances by such luminaries as Michael Shermer, Penn & Teller, Richard Wiseman, Phil Plait, Eugenie Scott, and — wait for it — Trey Parker and Matt Stone!

Been waiting for this for a long time, and when it turned out to be in the budget I leapt on it. Now, I am hoping — I say hoping — to be able to liveblog all this for you. But that will be contingent upon finding someone in Austin within the next 24 hours with a laptop they’re willing to loan me. (Hint! Hint! Hint! Hint!) My plan to have a shiny new Macbook by now didn’t run on schedule; ironically, part of that budget went toward the trip. But if I don’t get to liveblog it, be prepared for a bombardment of posts upon my return Monday, accompanied by an outright visual assault of photos.

Now, just because I’m going to Vegas, all you jealous Austinites needn’t think I’m escaping to some tropical clime. The forecast out there is for highs in the low 50’s and lows around freezing at night. But at least I will be escaping this:

Them bastards are huge! Those of you reading this in northern and midwestern states probably think us Texans are a bunch of big babies. But really, this kind of display is rare down here. Sure, we get ice around January fairly regularly — but this is the severest ice storm we’ve had in some time. And as for the snow that fell this afternoon, well, shit. I’ve lived in Austin 20 years and I think it’s snowed twice in that time.

Still, it’s interesting to see icicles looking exactly like they do in comic strips, all pointy and dangerously vertical, as if they’re just waiting to snap off as you walk innocently past and impale your brain. And then there’s always one like that big sucker in the middle, looking like some alien triffid that’s about to hatch ghastly spores to turn us all into zombies.

Okay, so I have a rich inner life.

Update: Wed. 1/17, 6:12 PM: Laptop situation solved, so liveblogging will occur! Come back here all through the weekend for a major flurry of new posts from the Meeting! w00t!

DaveScot really is as foolish and dishonest as people say he is!

I’ve noticed Bill Dembski’s sycophant-in-chief DaveScot has dropped by the AE blog to troll in our comments, as he has done in several others run by pro-evolution scientists. He has a reputation for wild distortions and pure risibility in his arguments (Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars is a fine compendium of DaveScottish follies, for those of you who can’t bear to subject yourself to Uncommon Descent; just search for this name there and see what comes up), and I see he’s fully on form here.

An example of how DaveScot behaves/argues: On Larry Moran’s Sandwalk a few days ago, a commenter named Shalini opined that the new banner at Uncommon Descent was “ugly.” DaveScot retorted with this charming remark:

What kind of name is Shalini? I keep looking for a red dot on your forehead.

That’s a pretty clear bit of racist nastiness, if you ask me, and I called him on it. So how does DaveScot react to that? As follows:

A little checking up on Martin found him in my hometown and then the picture of the cable TV crew with all white people in it made his comment seem a tad hypocritical. I couldn’t resist making the dig.

Making a public fool of himself is indeed something DaveScot rarely resists. Really, it takes a specially cultivated kind of stupid to think this way! I begin to understand just why Dave is so widely and enthusiastically ridiculed by everyone who isn’t a pro-Dembski Uncommon Descent regular. Remember, people, if you’re white, and you are not in the company of at least one racial minority at all times and in all circumstances, you are just as racist as someone who openly mocks the appearance of a non-white person.

DaveScot’s further comments are a fusillade of disingenuousness and outright dishonesty. He claims to be agnostic, but then how to explain this post in which he exhorts his readers to pray for the people partaking in the Blasphemy Challenge, who are “giving up their immortal souls on a dare… I’m not rationally convinced we have immortal souls to give up but certainly the possibility exists… Please join me in a simple prayer for the young victims of this stunt.”

Um, pray to whom about what, exactly, Dave, if you’re an agnostic who isn’t “rationally” convinced there are even such things as souls? Either you think these people are placing themselves at risk of divine wrath or you don’t. As your post indicates you do, then your claims of nonbelief are as truth-challenged as most everything else you’ve said.

Dave then makes the usual persecution claims about ID.

If ID wasn’t made into a strawman by anti-religionists more people might realize it fits fine with an atheist view like mine and even yours… Acknowledging the possibility that life and the universe doesn’t just have the appearance of design but is actually designed is not anti-atheist.

The whine that ID is constantly misrepresented by the Evil Atheist Conspiracy has been dead and buried for so long it’s nearly a fossil itself. Exactly how is ID made a strawman? As DaveScot goes on to say, ID has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, nosiree bob, no way, not at all. This is all just lies, lies, lies. ID doesn’t specify a creator, you see. It merely points out that the universe and life on earth appear to be designed, and leaves the question of who/what the designing agent is open.

Never mind, of course, the very words of DaveScot’s good friend Dembski himself (via Wikiquote):

“If we take seriously the word-flesh Christology of Chalcedon (i.e. the doctrine that Christ is fully human and fully divine) and view Christ as the telos toward which God is drawing the whole of creation, then any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.”

“Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory, even if its practitioners do not have a clue about him.” —both taken from Dembski’s 1999 book Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology

Oh yes, let’s also overlook the fact that the Kitzmiller trial demonstrated conclusively that ID is nothing more than warmed-over traditional Christian creationism, by contrasting earlier editions of the creationist “textbook” Of Pandas and People with later editions, and showing that the word “creationism” and its variants had simply been replaced with “intelligent design”. (From The Panda’s Thumb)

Creation means that various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent Creator with their distinctive features already intact–fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc. (Pandas 1987, creationist version, FTE 4996-4997, pp. 2-14, 2-15)

Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intact – fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc. (Pandas 1993, 2nd edition, published, pp. 99-100)

Finally, let’s get back to that old fave rave, The Wedge Strategy, a document whose authenticity the Discovery Institute has fully fessed up to, and which lays the religious agenda of the intelligent design movement as bare as Jenna Jameson’s ass.

But still you have guys like DaveScot, out trying to sell the idea that ID has no relationship to religion at all, either unaware or indifferent to the fact that the jig has long been up, and no one’s buying what he’s selling. So we’re meant to swallow the idea that the intelligent designer of the universe isn’t really God, just — to paraphrase the hilarious snark from Jon Stewart — some being with the skillset to design and create a universe. And anyone who says different is just an anti-religionist making up strawmen. Got it.

But you might want to fill Bill in before he writes another book. Talk it over with him next time you get together at his Nebraska beach house.