Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Amazing Meeting 7: ethics of deception panel, Bauer, skepticism and media panel, Plait

This is part five of my summary of TAM7, now up to Saturday, July 10. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here, and my coverage of the Science-based Medicine conference begins here.

Ethics of Deception Panel
D.J. Grothe moderated a panel discussion on the role of magic in skepticism and the ethics of deception, featuring Penn Jillette, Teller, Ray Hyman, and Jamy Ian Swiss. D.J. began by asking whether magic teaches critical thinking, to which Jamy Ian Swiss responded yes, and pointed to Danny Hillis hiring a magic tutor for his kids so that they could learn how methods of deception work. Everybody else on the panel disagreed, beginning with Ray Hyman, who observed that there are kooky magicians. Swiss agreed that there are magicians who are gullible and that learning magic doesn't make you a skeptic, but said that it was useful to him. This brief exchange then occurred:
D.J.: Teller, did you have a comment?
Teller: No.
D.J. Just as we rehearsed.
As it turned out, Teller did have a comment--he said that while some magicians think that doing the trick and saying "this is not real" is just as good as explaining it, it isn't--and "you should explain it." Ray Hyman seconded the point, saying, "exposing tricks that can be done in multiple ways gives people a false sense of ability to detect fakery." Faraday's explanation of spiritualist table-tipping caused Alfred Russell Wallace to become convinced of the existence of spirits when a medium used a different method on him. Hyman said this is what is known as being "half-smart," which is the card cheat's term for a guy who knows something about card cheating. The card cheat then asks him what he knows, and then adapts his methods to not use those and not get caught. (Penn Jillette's recent book, How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker, discusses this very subject.)

The topic then turned to mentalism, about which Ray Hyman said, you can teach the methods of cold reading in one day. Mentalists will complain about it, but not magicians. About the Psychic Entertainers Assocation, Jamy Ian Swiss said "they are neither psychic nor entertaining." Hyman said that psychic entertainers are now mostly people competing with psychotherapists. Penn said that cold reading should be exposed, as it's being used to deceive people.

D.J. asked about the "poor man's psychotherapist defense" of such "psychic entertainment"--isn't it similar to Rogerian psychotherapy (named after Carl Rogers)? Ray Hyman pointed out that they can cause harm in many circumstances, such as their inability to recognize suicidal symptoms. Penn went further and said, "lying always does harm and is mmoral, it has no justification"--but then offered "exceptions for loved ones and medical situations." Hyman pointed out the distinction between lying by commission and lying by omission, and both he and Penn agreed that "lying by omission is also a lie" (quoting Penn). D.J. observed that that's a very uncompromising position on lying. But Penn then said, "how can you love someone without lying to them," and suggested that kindness and politeness requires lying of the sort that he made exceptions for in his previous statement.

D.J. then brought up mentalists who are also skeptics and who don't make psychic claims, such as Derren Brown and Banachek (who was at the conference, but unfortunately not part of this panel--I think his viewpoint would have been a very worthwhile addition). D.J. pointed out that Brown claims a "deep understanding of human psychology," while Banachek will say that he is drawing inferences based on posture or facial expression. He asked the question, "Are they equally unethical?"

Teller said that he has argued with Brown, and Brown is moving to a more honest position--his latest book says that he's doing tricks, and says things like "I have special ways of dealing with information," which is true. He said that in Penn & Teller shows, they give no hint of the supernatural, so "we get the credit." Penn said that there are two places in their current show "where I say I'm doing one thing and am actually doing another. I wrestle with the ethical implications. If you admit you're lying, it's more like an actor playing a role. But there are two places in the show where I pretend to be speaking earnestly but am not."

Ray Hyman said that Jerry Andrus was the most honest guy in the world, but he said that a magician on the stage has a license to lie. It's theater. (In my notes, I wrote--"But does 'it's TV' suffice?"--a topic that came up shortly.)

Jamy Ian Swiss says that he is working to develop some mentalist techniques which present things that are convincing looking, but which obviously cannot be happening. He suggests that the effect will be more impressive if he can give the audience confidence that he cannot do what he then appears to do.

Ray Hyman said that a distinction between magic and mentalism is that mentalism is boring, and can only be dragged on (to show length) if people think that it's real. "If you believe the stuff is real, what's the appeal of mentalism?" Teller seconded that point--"if you pretend it's possible, it's just nature."

D.J. brought up the example of Mark Salem, who "claims a well-developed understanding of the human mind," and asked, "why do we give skeptical mentalists a pass?" Jamy Ian Swiss then criticized Salem. Ray Hyman said that when he performed, he would say that he has no special powers, and "whatever I can do, you can do. There's nothing abnormal or paranormal about it." Teller said, "The correct answer to how it's done is--it's a trick." Penn said that if people come up to him after a show and really want to know how it's done, he'll tell them. But he gave the example of a very famous magic trick (he didn't say which one) that fooled everyone who saw it, is protected by a patent, that you can look up. There's a multi-page description of how it's done, but few people bother to read past the first few pages. He said, "[Jim] Steinmeyer says magicians are guarding an empty safe. If we explained the bullet catch trick, it would not be interesting. The tricks we expose are the ones where the secret is interesting and clever. In the bullet catch we're hiding messy ugliness. ... Valentino, the masked magician, couldn't reveal the real good-looking tricks because they don't have the 'aha!' cleverness." Teller observed that people have accurately described how the bullet catch is done online, but it still looks amazing. Penn pointed out that there are also inaccurate descriptions of the bullet catch on the Internet, so he'd hate to see somebody else try to do it. Teller suggested that Adam Savage put them to the test on Mythbusters.

D.J. said that "believers will always be with us--are disclaimers necessary?" (He observed that he was reformulating a quote from Jesus that "the poor will always be with us.") Ray Hyman suggested that disclaimers create an "invited inference problem," taking away any reason to challenge or question, and thereby promoting belief. Penn commented that "There was no Jesus, so the quote is wrong."

Finally, D.J. turned to the question of using magicians in scientific investigations, as James Randi has long recommended, to which Penn said, "it depends upon the magician." Ray Hyman said that "scientists do not do tests," and that "magicians can hurt the process." He pointed out that Milbourne Christopher was fooled by Uri Geller, and made up a bogus explanation for metal bending in terms of chemicals on his hands that became a parody scientific explanation like "swamp gas" for UFOs. Randi then came up and said that "magicians for parapsychology tests need to have a deep and broad knowledge of magic, not just know how to do a few tricks. Half-smart is not smart at all. Be all-smart or forget it." He went on to make his common point that Ph.D.s can easily be fooled even though they're not dumb. Randi also said that there is a place for "white lies," giving an example that will appear in his biography, being written by Tim Steinberg. He sent a letter to his grandfather shortly before his death at the age of 94, in which he said "I believe you will be with your wife at death," in order to give comfort in a situation where the lie did no harm. He said that he's glad to see Derren Brown coming clean, and said that "Uri Geller is trying to come clean, but he's fucked--he lied to governments and research institutions. ... He now says he wants to be known as a 'mystifier.'" He suggested that the media should ask Geller, "yes or no, have you ever used psychic powers that do not involve trickery," but when they do, he'll hang up the phone and refuse to answer the question.

In the Q&A, the first question was about Criss Angel, David Blaine, and "street magic," and in particular the way that the TV audience doesn't see the same thing that someone there would see. Jamy Ian Swiss said that David Blaine made some early irresponsible claims. Teller said that when you watch TV, "it's the proscenium," which seems to me an erroneous comparison that could be used to justify all sorts of misrepresentation in the name of entertainment. Jamy Ian Swiss said that TV specials on magic have a credibility issue because of the possibility of editing and camera tricks, but that street magic was a good idea. Teller said it's an aesthetic issue rather than a moral issue, and that he sees editing to produce effects OK--that the rules aren't the same for TV. Penn said he didn't think David Blaine would entertain, and observed that "reality TV is fake. Lots of people know it, but some think everything on TV is real."

Another questioner said she appreciated Penn's comment on global warming as pseudoscience (which I didn't note in my notes and don't recall what he said), to which Penn responded, "Don't listen to me, I'm the least qualified to talk about" the subject, and said "we won't do a Bullshit! show on global warming." He said "If there is global warming, and there probably is, we don't know if we caused it. But if we caused it, and we probably did, we don't know if we can stop it. But if we can stop it, and we probably can, we don't know if socialism is required."

(Mark Edward, a skeptic who works as a mentalist who was also at TAM7, was disappointed with this panel and expresses his opinion in a comment at

At this point I stepped out for a moment, while Robert Lancaster was given the Skeptical Citizen Award, and returned as a documentary film on Jerry Andrus was being shown. It told a bit about Jerry's life and his house, the "Castle of Chaos," filled with his inventions, including puzzles, optical illusions, magical effects, and mechanical and electronic devices of his creation.

Stephen Bauer on Jerry Andrus
Stephen Bauer, an attorney and member of Oregonians for Rationality, has attended every TAM, but this was his first time as a presenter. He gave the story of how he found skepticism--his mother was a big fan of woo including a believer in the psychic powers of Uri Geller, and to combat his skepticism she gave him a copy of The Magic of Uri Geller without reading it. As this was the original title of James Randi's debunking of Geller (now known as The Truth About Uri Geller), he found it very persuasive, though said his mother didn't care much for it when she then looked at it a bit deeper when he told her he thought the book was completely correct.

Bauer wrote to James Randi asking for an explanation of how ouija boards work, and he suggested that Bauer talk to Ray Hyman at the University of Oregon about the ideomotor effect. He then joined Oregonians for Rationality and began attending the summer Skeptic's Toolbox workshops at the University of Oregon, where Jerry Andrus came up and introduced himself.

He then told some stories about Jerry Andrus. At Halloween, Andrus would never give candy, only a trick. Sometimes he would answer the door as a floating disembodied head. One year he would open the door, then lean over beyond the point at which he should have fallen, and then straighten back up, then shut the door.

Andrus was a magician, a skeptic, and an inventor. He had been visited by film crews from three continents. He never married, had no kids. He lived in the same house for 80 years. He performed every six months at the Magic Castle.

His house, an 1891 Victorian home, was known as the "Castle of Chaos" and was filled with things that he had collected, designed, and built, though not a single piece of traditional furniture. He was an artist, photographer, poet, musician, composer, and agnostic.

He called Bauer for an estate plan, which ended up being a simple will that left everything to his brother George, who is 93 years old.

The Castle of Chaos contained a full printing shop in the attic, which required metal bands to be put around the room to keep it from shaking apart from its operation. Andrus printed his own books. He also had his own photo studio, from which three pickup loads of photo chemicals had to be disposed.

After his death, a group of volunteers from Oregonians for Science and Reason worked regularly on his house to catalog its contents, dispose of unsalvageable items, and put items into storage. Bauer spent his sabbatical working 12 hours a day on Andrus's house.

Just the recycled items included 32,000 pounds of scrap metal, 2 cords of scrap wood, 1,000 cubic feet of plastic, and fans, hair dryers, and "air moving devices."

The house had a ground-level crawlspace with four entrances, three of which featured a set of amusement park railroad tracks leading under the house, on which Jerry could lie down on a device of his own construction and push himself under the house, where he stored various items. Among those items included gigantic magnets, which he could use to make the planchette on a ouija board in his house spell out things.

He had a Hammond organ, heavily customized with his own additions, connected by a spaghetti tangle of wires.

And the house contained much that they couldn't figure out, like the wiring. A black sock hanging in the bathroom was pulled down, setting off a security system--which they didn't know existed. An electronic rat trap in one room turned out to be a device for launching tennis balls and spoons during simulated seances. He had a slide projector that he made from a motorcycle engine.

They found that he had all of the letters he received when he was a soldier in WWII, which will now be donated to a military museum. They collected 120 boxes of materials now being kept in a storage unit, which include 3 dozen boxes of letters, notes, and writings, 20 boxes of mixed media, and 4 volumes (2000 pages) of his daily journal of "Scribulations."

Stephen Bauer finished up with some thanks to the late John Lar, who died in 2008, for getting the Castle Chaos project started, and noted that Lar's wife had cared for Jerry in his final days. He told a little bit about Jerry's 93-year-old brother George, a musician with a "house of wonders" of his own, who has been making videos of soap bubbles featuring his own music (the linked video also features Jerry). He ended with a quote from Tycho Brahe, who left all of his work to Kepler with the comment, "Let me not seem to have lived in vain, let me not seem to have lived in vain."

Hal Bidlack then said, "A man should live his life so that when it comes time for him to die, he has nothing left to do but die. It seems like Mr. Andrus did that."

(I remember Jerry Andrus as a quiet and soft-spoken guy who was a regular fixture at all of the Skeptics Society conferences at Caltech. He would usually be found next to his table of his optical illusions, some of which will now always be present at every TAM, which he would be happy to help demonstrate to anyone who stopped by.)

Skepticism and the Media Panel
This was an unmoderated Q&A panel featuring Penn and Teller, Adam Savage, Bill Prady, and Jennifer Ouellette. A few of the questions and answers I noted (I missed most of them as I was trying to ask a question myself, which I previously tried to ask of the ethics of deception panel).

Q. Why can't the Daily Show or Colbert take down Jenny McCarthy?

A. Penn: That's not the sort of thing they do.

Q. What was the biggest media failure of skepticism recently?

A. Adam Savage: The NPR ombudsman taking the position that calling waterboarding "torture" is taking sides, and defending it on the basis of having to be balanced.

A. Penn: The truth isn't in the middle.

Q. Dave from Phoenix: Any opinion on TBN or Benny Hinn?

A. Jennifer Ouellette: I grew up in a fundamentalist household, went to faith healing meetings, etc. It's fantasy. My parents still beleive they can speak in tongues.

Q. The subtext here is on getting facts right and of leaders being of exemplary character. How can we promote character, service to the public, telling the truth, and owning the consequences of your actions?

A. Adam Savage: It's unattainable. There's a percentage of assholes everywhere.

A. Penn: Most people are good; there are 6 billion good people. Disagreement doesn't make them assholes, but I still call them assholes on my show.

Q. What about historical accuracy? The History Channel creating bogus doubt?

A. (Savage? Prady?) So what have you done about it? .. Hal took your mike away...

A. Savage: We're one of the few shows that goes back and corrects our mistakes. Wouldn't it be great if the History Channel came out and said all of their Nostradamus documentaries of the last 20 years were wrong? (Laughter from the audience.) Only skeptics and history teachers laugh at that. Many film crews don't care about truth. Mythbusters visited hurricane researchers who said they're always misrepresented.

A. Prady: We said on an episode [of "The Big Bang Theory"] that a Van Dyke is a goatee without a mustache. It's wrong, we will correct it.

Q. The ridicule of pseudoscience--what is appropriate, heavy ridicule, no ridicule?

A. Penn: I'm not in favor of heavy ridicule. We do it towards ourselves and allies as well as believers.

A. Jennifer Ouellette: Humor can be a powerful convincing mechanism. If it's mean spirited, though, that's different.

A. Penn: The joke of our show is that we're calling bullshit. The message is pro-science and respect each other, and Pollyanna-ish hippie shit. I love crazy people. I'm in the category of the wack job. When I went on "Politically Incorrect," a show that always has one nut, I looked around and I didn't see the nut. I straddle both sides--if a gun were held to my head and asked what are you, a skeptic or a nut, I'm the nut. .

A. Prady: "Big Bang Theory" was originally about computer programmers, but it was too hard to photograph [due to reflections from screens]. The message of the show is that everybody thinks other people have life figured out--and nobody does.

A. Teller: On the Orgasm episode of Bullshit!, we talk about a guy who has a crazy orgasm machine for a hot tub, and it turns out it's Penn. (Voiceover for Teller: "And then there's this asshole...") (The "Jill-Jet," U.S. patent #5,920,923.)

Q. Richard Saunders: Does anyone on "The Big Bang Theory" do origami?

A. Prady: Sheldon knows origami but just doesn't do it on the show. You only see days something interesting happens. ("Oooh!" from audience.) Sorry, that was cheap.


A. Penn: Bullshit! in Sweden is called skitsnack--"shitcock."


A. Savage: There are partnerships involved here. There is huge strength in push-pull. We drive each other nuts, but the product is better.

A. Penn: We hope to get famous enough that only one of us has to show up.

Q. (To P&T:) Did you know George Carlin, and why don't we address comedy more often?

A. Penn: Carlin was a hero of mine. I spoke to him on the phone quite a bit. I don't think comedians, magicians, or skeptics matter--it's individuals. There are wackjobs in comedy. We shouldn't celebrate a form, just individuals.

A. Savage: I find it interesting that all practitioners say that their field is the only pure one. I knew a package design professor who said that package design is the only pure art form. Hal Bidlack: That was not thinking outside the box. (Big cheer from audience.)

Q. Can you offer words to young skeptics held down by the beliefs of their parents?

A. Ouellette: Voracious reading. I couldn't watch "Welcome Back, Kotter." My parents would burn non-Christian books. I left home at 17 for college.

A. Penn: You shouldn't manipulate, just say what is true. Don't talk to adolescents differently, just talk to a general audience. Don't try to "reach" adolescents.

Q. What do you think of fake skeptics on shows like "Ghost Hunters"?

A. Penn: House, Bones, Num3ers (pronounced "numb-three-ers"), etc. All have atheists. Atheists and skeptics have it good on major shows right now. We're not martyrs. Hitchens said we have no saints or martyrs. There are minorities being fucked over in this country, and we're not it. (Though atheists are more mistrusted than other groups.)

Q. What's the role of skepticism in broadcasting?

A. Prady: Make them central as characters, and stay on the air, and don't have a social message, just have fun.

A. Savage: We didn't set out to inspire scientists--if we set out to do that, we'd be pompous, pretentious, and fail. We've done our show for 7 years and want to do 5 more.

Q. (For Teller, about why he has a bottle of water in front of him despite the Bullshit! show on bottled water.)

A. Teller: I filled the bottle using the tap in the men's room.


A. Ouellette: To reach minds, reach for hearts, from your heart.

My question was something like, "The movie 'Expelled' received a lot of criticism for the deceptive way in which it obtained interviews from its subjects. Theology professor Paul Maier has made similar charges about his appearance in the Bullshit! episode on The Bible. I was glad to hear on the ethics in deception panel that you agree that lying by omission is wrong. Can you comment?" It turns out I misremembered Maier's criticism, which was about his views being completely mangled by the editing, not being deceived about what show he was on, though his comments make it seem like he was surprised about the nature of the show. I would have thought the title would be a hint.

Penn responded that he didn't know who Maier was, and didn't quite get the point of my question. I met up with him in the hallway between sessions, and pointed out that Maier was an actual guest on the show, not just some blogger writing about it, and he laughed at the misunderstanding. He said that the contracts for everyone who appears on the show state that the show is Penn & Teller's Bullshit!, but that just because he was given that information in the contract and signed it doesn't mean that he read it and knew it. (Bullshit! writer Michael Goudeau, standing next to Penn, concurred that the contracts name the show.) I offered to point him to Maier's critique, but he said that he had no interest in reading it and Maier can say whatever he likes. I don't find that entirely satisfactory given the strong stance against lying that Penn took during the ethics of deception panel.

I also discussed this on Friday evening with Michael Shermer, who was previously criticized by a commenter at this blog for his role in that same episode of Bullshit! on the Bible. Shermer pointed out that he had no idea of what Maier said and wasn't responding specifically to his remarks, but just answering questions asked by the interviewer. He also observed that Penn & Teller don't write the show, or do much more for any given show than show up to record their scenes and voice overs, though of course they bear some responsibility given that it has their names on it.

Phil Plait on Doomsday 2012
The final talk of the day was Phil Plait on "Doomsday 2012," the idea that the world will be coming to an end on December 12, 2012 based on the end of the Mayan calendar and an alleged Mayan prophecy of the end of the world, a popular topic for questions to NASA.

He began by saying that the Mayans were good astronomers and had a good calendar system, and had the largest centralized civilization of their time, but they didn't predict their own civilization being absorbed into others. The claim of an alleged prophecy of destruction is false--it doesn't exist--it's just that their calendar system ends and rolls over.

Back in 2003 at TAM1, Plait spoke about Planet X and Nibiru, and warned that this idea would come back, and he was correct.

He spent the rest of the talk looking at what could possibly cause the destruction of the earth in 2012, and what's the evidence. First, perhaps a "Sun of Doom"? Looking at solar flares and sunspots--would that activity peak in 2012? Sunspots will probably peak in 2013, solar flare activity in 2013 or 2014.

An asteroid or comet impact? None known to be on a collision path.

Next, perhaps a "Galaxy of Doom" or "Milky Way of Doom"? The Milky Way galaxy is 100 billion to 200 billion stars in a flattened disc, which appears to us as a strip, since we're in it. He talked about the Galactic equator, and that the sun is close to it. As an aside, he remarked that 75% of the American public doesn't know both that the earth rotates once per day and revolves around the sun once per year, let alone that the earth is at a tilt with the northern axis pointed at Polaris, which is the reason for the seasons. (Note: This stat seems somewhat dubious, since a 1999 Gallup poll found that 79% of Americans correctly answered that the earth revolves around the sun. Would that really drop all the way to 25% just by asking for frequency of revolution and rotation? And if so, how much of that is merely confusion between the terms "revolution" and "rotation"?)

He talked about the precession of the equinoxes, caused by the gravity of the sun and moon, which goes through one circle every 24,000 years, and the map position of the sun at the winter solstice crosses the Galactic equator. But that happened in 1998. So some have said that we are "in that era" of the crossing, which takes about 18 years; we're near the end of that era.

What about the idea that there's a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy that will do something? Plait said that, oddly, he hasn't seen this claim made--oddly because it's wrong. The sun is closest to the galactic center on December 19, 2010, too late by a week. And a black hole 260 quadrillion km away would have a gravitational force 1.5 trillionth of the sun. The gravity from Mars and the moon is significantly greater.

In short, Plait concluded, these claims are all "cosmic colons, full of astronomical crap."

JREF Update/Wrapup
The day ended with a JREF update, first from Jeff Wagg, noting that this was the first TAM being broadcast via streaming video, with a total of over 18,500 visitors, 850 at a time the last he looked.

JREF has done cruises to Alaska, Mexico, the Galapagos, and the Bermuda Triangle, and he took a poll of interest for another cruise next March, for which there was "mild interest."

He talked of SkeptiCamp, and the possibility of one occurring at the same time as TAM London, somewhere in the northeastern United States, possibly Boston, and asked those interested to contact him via email.

The JREF's Swift newsletter subscription readership is growing--there are twice as many today as there were in January of this year. There's a possibility of doing some kind of live video broadcast on a weekly basis.

He gave thanks to the JREF forum volunteers, and made another advertisement for the JREF scholarships, "if you're going to school, we will give you money."

Phil Plait said he was blown away by Dr. Joe Albietz's presentation on vaccination at SkeptiCamp Colorado, and gave an update on the vaccination drive--up to $8,500.

A. Kovacs, JREF director of operations, gave thanks to various people including one of the poker game participants who donated all of his winnings to the vaccination drive, and another donor who gave $1,000 but wanted to remain anonymous.

Matt Fiore was recognized as the most generous skeptic to the drive, and was given tickets to Lance Burton courtesy of Michael Goudeau.

And that wrapped up the regular conference programming for Saturday, July 11. Next up, a summary of the skeptical paper sessions for Sunday, and the Million Dollar Challenge that finished up TAM7.

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