Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Amazing Meeting 7: intro, Bidlack/Plait/Randi, Prady

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)'s eighth "The Amazing Meeting," TAM7, took place July 9-12, 2009 at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. (The eighth is number 7 because there was a smaller TAM5.5 event in Fort Lauderdale in January 2008 as the annual event transitioned from occurring in January to occurring in the summer.)

This post begins my summary of The Amazing Meeting 7, which I plan to complete and post in parts over the next week or so, similar to the summary I wrote up of last year's TAM6. Other summaries of TAM7 may be found here:
Photos of TAM7 may be found here:
This was the first TAM at this location south of the strip, and I was a bit worried about the convenience factor, since there wasn't the diversity of restaurants within walking distance that you get with a hotel on the strip. That concern proved unfounded, as there was a good variety of food available within the hotel, ranging from deli sandwiches to a steakhouse, and I never left the hotel during the conference. Those who did visit the strip were able to catch a bus across the street for a few dollars, if they didn't just bum a ride from somebody with a car. I did hear a few complaints about the food--that the buffet wasn't great, nor was one of the mid-range restaurants, neither of which I visited. There was also some displeasure on the part of vegetarians about the lack of meat-free options for the first day's lunch. I was somewhat disappointed that the morning's continental breakfasts were served in the main conference hall rather than in a separate dining room with round tables more conducive to conversation like last year, but the lunches were served in that manner and I did get to meet a few people that way each day. Overall, I thought the location was excellent and it has already been booked again for next year's TAM8, which will take place from July 8-11, 2010.

This year, rather than attend any of the pre-conference workshops, I attended the excellent Science-Based Medicine conference which was held in conjunction with TAM7. TAM has tended to avoid having a particular theme or focus, and it was nice to have a day that was concentrated in a particular field, and which drew an audience largely of people with expertise in that field. I think this has been one of the strengths of some of the Skeptics Society conferences that have focused on particular subjects, such as its 1996 conference on evolutionary psychology, its 2005 conference on "Mind, Brain, and Consciousness" (which was quite critical of evolutionary psychology), and its 2007 meeting on the "Environmental Wars." At the same time, the diversity of TAM and its audience is also valuable, so having a second conference as an optional complement to TAM strikes me as a good way of getting the best of both worlds.

This year was the first TAM with over 1,000 attendees, of whom 30% were women, the highest percentage of female attendees to date. When the question was asked, "how many are here for the first time?", it appeared to be about half the audience members who raised their hands. The first TAM had about 140 attendees, and last year's TAM6 had just over 900. There seemed to be a pretty good geographic diversity, with large contingents from Canada, the UK, and Australia like last year. It would be nice if attendees could voluntarily allow some information about themselves to be published in an attendee directory, such as name, JREF Forum handle, and home location.

There was a good-sized contingent from Arizona this year, including several participants from SkeptiCamp Phoenix, Phoenix Skeptics in the Pub, the Skeptics of Tucson, and Flagstaff's Northern Arizona Skeptics. The conference kicked off with its usual Thursday evening meet-and-greet with hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar, during which I managed to chat with people from all of those groups, some for the first time. We'll be holding another SkeptiCamp Phoenix next year, and I expect we'll be able to double our participation.

Friday, July 10
The conference formally began on Friday morning with opening remarks from emcee Hal Bidlack. Hal noted the growth in participation at TAM, talked about a ghost tour at the Stanley Hotel (where "The Shining" was NOT filmed), and noted that Uri Geller had appeared on NBC News as a commentator on Michael Jackson's death.

Hal kicked things off by quoting Plutarch ("The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled") and noted that skeptics are a family: "Welcome to the Randi family reunion." He remarked on the power of the individual to make change, and singled out for particular note Reed Esau for his part in the origination and expansion of SkeptiCamp, and Robert Lancaster for his stopsylviabrowne.com website.

He noted that there is an audience tradition of "pretending not to like my jokes" and that Randi once accused him of using "homeopathic humor."

And he offered a "cautionary note" that "we aren't cookie cutter, we do have areas of disagreement." By coming together in a group there are "dangers to individualism." This is an inclusive, "large-tent organization," and the topic of religion in particular has been "a source of tension" in previous conferences. Skepticism, he said, is about examining testable claims, and he noted that he, among others, is not an atheist. While I encountered many atheists at the conference, there was little, if anything, in the way of explicitly atheistic material presented (though I don't remember any last year, either, except for some Objectivist material that was handed out to attendees, which was disappointingly both overtly anti-religious and political, though it was not a subject of discussion in any presentation that I noticed).

Phil Plait then offered his first opening remarks as president of JREF, stating that the organization has "reached critical mass" and "become the mainstream skeptics movement of the people." He said that people come to TAM for three reasons--to hear speakers, to see Randi, and to participate in the skeptical community. We don't necessarily agree on all of our positions, but we agree on how we reach conclusions. Like Hal Bidlack, Plait also called out both Reed Esau and Robert Lancaster for their contributions.

Dr. Plait spoke a bit about the Randi $1 million challenge, saying that it had started to become an albatross because of the amount of effort required to deal with potential claimants. It was "hard to determine what the claim is" from many people, let alone how to properly test it and come to an agreement on protocol. So it had been announced that the challenge would be discontinued in order to put the funds to better use and save the effort. But it has also been a useful tool, and he was happy to announce that it will be continued after all, in some form, the details of which are still to be worked out.

James Randi then came up on stage in a red and white striped shirt that he identified as his "happy shirt." He was pleased at the steady growth of TAM. In a more somber note, he commented on "my subdued appearance" and explained why he was unable to shake hands with anyone at TAM this year. He was the recipient of an "unwelcome visitor" (cancer), for which he's had surgery and will be undergoing chemotherapy. He explained that this is why he hasn't made many videos of late.

Randi gave special thanks to Sean McCabe, his personal assistant for the last year, who is now going back home and back to school, and to Brandon K. Thorpe, who will be his new assistant. He went through a long list of people that he thanked, including the JREF staff and volunteers, and various speakers and entertainers whose participation makes TAM a success. He ended by noting that the first TAM to be held outside of the United States, TAM London, to be held on October 3 and 4, was oversubscribed in less than an hour.

Keynote: Bill Prady, creator and executive producer of "The Big Bang Theory"
Bill Prady started by saying that the "keynote sets the tone" for a conference, and that if so, this conference will be "disorganized and ill-prepared." He said he looked at the JREF website's description of his talk for clues as to what he should talk about, and saw that he stated that he "makes sure each episode is full of science" and that in a recent talk at Comic-Con, he had the audience laughing so hard they were rolling in the aisles. After reading that description, he said, "all I can do is disappoint you horribly." With that, he showed a few short clips from "The Big Bang Theory" which he thought would be "of interest to this group," which included a debunking of astrology based on Bertram Forer's work, a reference to intelligent design, some magic tricks, and more references to astrology. The clips were fairly amusing, but my wife and I made an attempt to watch this show after hearing recommendations from friends, but gave up without completing two shows due to the painful laugh track. (A recent Twitter remark from Australian skeptic Richard Saunders suggests a similar experience.)

After the clips, Prady described his own background--that he earned pocket money doing magic shows from about age 12 to 16, and had an International Brotherhood of Magicians pin that he wanted to bring but was unable to find. He said that he read both Linking Ring and Genii, and frequently saw Randi on the covers, and was honored to sit next to him at the conference. He said he was a college dropout, then worked as a computer programmer before getting into television.

He observed that the chicken or egg problem was resolved by evolution--the egg came first--but then posed his own chicken-egg problem: "Do people who think like us become computer programmers, or does computer programming make people think like us?" He stated that there are two qualities common to such people: 1. critical thinking, and 2. lack of judgment about each other. As an example, he gave a friend named Ken, who would not go anywhere he hadn't been before without being shown by someone else, even if it was yards away from somewhere else he had already been. He could do hex-decimal conversions in his head, but when told it's customary to tip between 15% and 20% based on quality of service, he couldn't calculate tips on his own because he didn't know how to measure that. When his friends suggested he just always tip 17.5%, he refused, because then he would be overtipping half the time and undertipping half the time. (And I can't resist noting that this response makes an unwarranted assumption about the distribution of service quality received by an individual diner.)

Prady offered a few remarks about the characters and his show. The character Leonard is based on him. There was a story line about Penny offering herself to him in a distraught moment, with Leonard blowing it because he insisted on making a true statement about an analysis of their situation, which Prady stated was based on a true story. He said he's proud of all the characters on the show, and wanted to depict "other views as complex, not stupid or paper tigers." E.g., Penny's belief in astrology and Sheldon's mother's religious faith. He said that "people's belief systems are the things that get them through the day. ... they're not saying 'oh, please help me abandon the thing that gets me through my illness, my unemployment, my kid who doesn't understand me.' This is the thing that gets them to the night so they can go to sleep so they can get up and do it again. People's beliefs are not a contest. You don't win. You don't win at the end of the day."

His original plan was to have the show about computer programmers, but apparently having the characters in front of computers raised too many difficulties for filming, due to reflections from monitors as well as the difficulty of depicting what they were doing.

He wanted to read some angry letters of complaint received by the show, but was unable to locate any. There was a folder marked "disturbing letters," but these were mostly letters from inmates in love with actress Kaley Cuoco. He called CBS, but they had not received a single angry letter. He took that as offering a bit of assurance for skeptics, that an audience of 12 million people per week could watch a show that begins with the history of the universe in 20 seconds to a Barenaked Ladies song and promotes science and critical thinking without being upset by it.

Prady concluded by saying that when Phil Plait and Adam Savage asked him to speak, he knew his title should be "We Can Continue Telling Women in Bars That Astrology Isn't Real, But We Won't Get To Have Sex." He suggested (presumably addressing only the straight men and lesbian and bisexual women in the audience) that while you're here in Las Vegas and you meet a woman who is very complimentary and interested in you, be skeptical. He also suggested (to the same audience) that if you're enjoying a conversation with a woman who says "I'm a Sagittarius," try performing a study with two different responses. 1. Give a detailed explanation of the time twins study from England as a refutation of astrology, or 2. Say "wow, you have the most incredible eyes," and see which response is more likely to lead to a positive outcome. (These remarks have led to some criticism of Prady for obvious reasons; Prady responds here. The topic is discussed further on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast #211, interview with Skepchick Carrie Iwan (starting at 43:30). Gender and skepticism was also the topic of discussion of the August 7th episode of Skeptically Speaking. The Podblack Cat blog discussed women, science, and skepticism earlier this year.)

In the subsequent Q&A session, Prady said that the science content of the show comes from technical advisors. He said "lots of people think the show mocks people like us--but if you were in the writer's room you'd say it's an idealized picture of who they'd like to be." He recounted how when the character Ross on the show "Friends" went to a paleontology convention (he was supposedly a paleontologist), there was nothing in the dialogue that went beyond 6th grade science. He didn't want his show to be like that. They use David Saltzburg, a UCLA astrophysicist, as a consultant. They asked him, "What's new in physics," to which his answer was "not much in the last 40 years," which they wrote into the script. Saltzburg said "oh, string theorists will get mad at me." He then said something disparaging about string theory (I missed it in my notes), and they put that into the script, too.

In response to a questioner who asked why women are depicted as stereotypically ditzy and scientists as maladjusted, Prady defended his portrayal. He said that Penny is not portrayed as ditzy but as a "pragmatic intelligence--the best character on the show at getting through life and getting things done." He said there will be more female scientists on the show in the future.

The final question was a comment from someone in the audience who has a son that is like the characters on the show. On the show, Sheldon uses a board to fold clothes. The questioner's son looked online to find such a board to use himself, and dubbed the board "Sheldon."

(There's a transcription of Prady's talk here. Randi's opening remarks are transcribed here. Part two of my summary of TAM7, on Dr. Fintan Steele, Phil Plait, and Robert Lancaster, is here.)


John S. Wilkins said...

The characters on TBBT are very Asperger's, especially Sheldon, who is almost non-functional. One problem Apsie's have is that they are very hard to teach, so these guys are either very lucky with their teachers or very unusual with their self-discipline.

Einzige said...

It's ironic that Objectivist material would be "overtly anti-religious" when Objectivism itself has so many religious qualities.

epe said...

'Skepticism, he said, is about examining testable claims, and he noted that he, among others, is not an atheist.'

Statements like this always give me cognitive dissonance. I don't like the idea of alienating people who are otherwise skeptical, but, well, there it is.

Jim Lippard said...

Skepticism isn't about the conclusions you reach, but how you get to them. It doesn't entail atheism.

Some agnostics (e.g., Paul Draper) argue that there are good arguments for theism and good arguments for atheism, but they don't know how to weigh them in order to find a winner.

For my part, I think the most plausible argument for the existence of God I've read is William P. Alston's _Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience_, which draws on his previous philosophical work on perception. If religious people have different evidence than non-religious people, that could explain differing beliefs. I reject this argument on the basis of religious confusion (there doesn't seem to be any good evidence of a veridical faculty of religious perception) and better alternative explanations of religious belief (e.g., in Pascal Boyer's _Religion Explained_ and Daniel Dennett's _Breaking the Spell_).

But for someone who fails to consider the problem of religious confusion or these alternative explanations, and has the appropriate sorts of experiences, it would seem to me to be rational to be religious, and *consistent with* skepticism.

There is also a method available to be a religious skeptic even if you're aware of these defeaters for the religious experience argument, which is to divide reality into the empirically testable and untestable, reserving skepticism for the former and using other methods for the latter. We do, after all, all believe things that we cannot demonstrate (perhaps on the basis of an inference to the best explanation or on pragmatic grounds), but which believers characterize as matters of faith. If this division is done in a consistent and logical manner, it need not provoke cognitive dissonance. Gould's non-overlapping magisteria is one way to do it, for the advocate of a liberal theology that withdraws completely from empirically testable claims.

I've met people who are religious but consider their religious beliefs almost like an aesthetic preference or a useful fiction, where it doesn't matter whether God literally exists or not.

epe said...

So you're saying they're not incompatible, as long as you don't actually apply skepticism to your religious belief? Sure, as long as you don't claim you're being skeptical about your religion. Same goes for the claims of the compatibility of science and religion. Nobody cares unless the two are come into conflict...and then which one do you think is going to win?

Jim Lippard said...

No. I'm saying that skepticism is a methodology and an attitude, not a doctrine.

There is no logical inconsistency between skepticism and *any* conclusion that is supported by evidence. If you're a skeptic, you require evidence somehow apportioned to the claim, and you're willing to give up beliefs that are successfully rebutted or undermined. (Insert generic plug for Jennifer Michael Hecht's _Doubt: A History_.)

A skeptic in the world of the "X-Files" wouldn't be like Scully, but would come to accept the observed phenomena and the explanations that were presented in the show. A skeptic in a world with a God wouldn't be an atheist (and theists think we're in such a world).

On your last point, I do think a religious skeptic would have to let science trump religion in every case of conflict--at least where the science is sound. But there are, of course, conflicts even within science.

I'll write more about this when I write up last year's Skeptics Society conference, where I had an interesting conversation with Kenneth Miller. (You can get a suggestion of what that conference was like from Michael Shermer's "Does science make belief in God obsolete?".)

epe said...

I understand what you're saying, but I think some people set the bar pretty low as far as what they'll consider 'evidence.' Personal revelation isn't it, as far as I'm concerned. As far as the X-Files goes, yeah, if there actually were evidence for the supernatural you'd not be a skeptic to ignore it...but in the real world, so far there hasn't been any such evidence, has there?

Jim Lippard said...

I think there's been better evidence than many skeptics are willing to admit, though I haven't come across anything yet that pushes me from "I have no idea what's going on there" to "that must involve paranormal forces."

There are definitely unexplained anomalies--of course, we should expect a residue of unexplained phenomena, since the real world isn't a controlled experiment. (See my presentation on "What Skeptics Can Learn from Forteans.")

I had a chat with Ray Hyman at TAM, and one of his complaints has been about dogmatic skeptics who charge in and make bad arguments against claims, as has often been done in response to parapsychology. Hyman, by contrast, has actually done a lot of work to engage with the parapsychologists and their claims, including participating in exchanges in parapsychology journals.

epe said...

eh. The unexplained is to be expected. I'd rather admit I don't understand something than to ascribe it to the supernatural.

Eamon Knight said...

It seems to me that ascribing something to the supernatural (whether ghosts, gods, newage-style "energies" or whatever) requires a coherent definition of your particular supernatural agent, preferably one with some predictive power (ie. it should attempt to bring your explanation under the rubric of science). Otherwise, all you've done is to label your ignorance -- essentially, made "supernatural" a non-informative synonym for "I don't know what the hell is going on".

Jim Lippard said...

Eamon: I don't like the term "supernatural" for that very reason--it seems to me that if, for example, we found reliably reproducible psi, we wouldn't call it supernatural, we'd call it an unexplained part of nature. Though if an entity really was "above" nature and say, had the ability to do things like temporarily change the laws of physics within regions of space-time, the term might fit.

But that in itself isn't an argument that dismisses the possibility of sound inferences to conclusions such as that God exists, that psi exists, that UFOs are piloted by (or are) intelligent agents, or that there are previously undiscovered primates wandering the woods. I think there's conceivable evidence that could lead to any of those conclusions, even assuming methodological naturalism, though the first would be the hardest to get to and the last the easiest.

Eamon Knight said...

I don't like the term "supernatural" for that very reason...

Exactly -- the word is ill-defined. In practice, it means roughly "the activity of incoporeal intelligent agents" (though I'm sure many additional claimed phenomen get tossed into the category) and as such seems to assume some kind of substance dualism (or at least, mental dualism). Fine: if we can study the entities of this supernatural substance scientifically, it becomes "natural".

....that God exists, that psi exists, that UFOs are piloted by (or are) intelligent agents, or that there are previously undiscovered primates wandering the woods.

I would argue that of that list, only the first has a good claim to be called supernatural. Psi is something the human brain either does or does not do -- if we could reliably confirm the reality of the phenomenom, we should be able to start tracking down the exact neurology responsible. Similarly, Bigfoot/Sasquatch (if it exists) is just another rare, elusive animal.

UFOs are an interesting case, however. To believers, aliens assume the same explanatory role that God does to creationists -- their powers while ill-defined, are large enough to "explain" pretty much any phenomenom required. ETs may or my not exist, and may or may not visit the earth. SETI, by making some prior educated guesses as to how ETs might behave, qualifies as *scientific* attempt to investigate the problem. But what I've seen of UFOlogy (which admittedly isn't a lot -- it's not my hobby) seems to consist of post-facto attribution odd phenomena to a cause constructed ad hoc to account for it. IOW: just another synonym for "I don't know".

Jim Lippard said...

I think UFOlogy used to be dominated by the "extraterrestrial visitors in spacecraft" hypothesis, but with the growth of the "alien abduction" phenomenon, it became more mystical/religious in nature, with MUFON and CUFOS on the former side and folks like Whitley Strieber, John Keel, Jacques Vallee, John Mack, and Budd Hopkins on the latter. That divide goes at least back to the 50s, with the "contactees" like George Adamski and Frank Stranges, and "abductees" starting with Antonio Villas Boas in 1957 and Betty and Barney Hill in 1961.

I tend to skip the UFO content of Fortean Times, but I read Saucer Smear for my continuing UFO education...