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My Skeptical Weekend

Last weekend I attended “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM), organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Nowhere else will you meet people from so many different professions and occupations, who all share a common goal: To promote critical thinking in response to claims of the paranormal, of so-called miracle cures, of pseudoscience and of fear-mongering.

This year’s theme was Fighting the Fakers, with almost non-stop presentations and panel discussions by experts in the fields of psychology, medicine, philosophy, journalism, science, martial arts, literature, visual arts, politics and stage magic.

In between sessions I chatted with other attendees (including a couple of psychologists), visited the exhibits, and scowled at my husband Tom for losing money at the black jack table.

Had I been not so jet-lagged (and a few years younger) I would have had the stamina for the evening events at TAM. But alas, I conked out around 9 pm and missed comedy shows, illusionists’ performances, a poker tournament and Penn Jillette’s annual rock & roll bacon & doughnut party.

This was the fourth TAM for Tom and me, and it was especially fun because our adult daughter came along. It was a new experience for her to be in the company of such a diverse group of curiousity-driven people of all ages, ranging from young teens to 80s.

Some of my favorite presentations at TAM:

Dr. Dan Ariely (Author of Predictably Irrational and other books) – “How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves.” In his usual engaging way, Dr. Ariely presented some interesting research (without Powerpoint!) that delineates circumstances in which people will cheat or lie.

Dr. Susan Blackmore – “Fighting the Fakers and Failing.” Dr. Blackmore described her double-blind scientific test of the “Bioelectric Shield,” which supposedly increases your focus and balances your energy fields. The manufacturer was gung-ho about the research project, until the results showed no difference between the actual shield and a look-alike placebo. Having invested many years and a lot of money, he reduced his cognitive dissonance by dismissing the results, and he continues to sell the product.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz of the McGill University Office for Science & Society (OSS), which has as its motto: “Separating sense from nonsense.”  In his presentation, “The Worms in My Blood Vessels,” he addressed the problem of misinformed assumptions about science that cause people unnecessary worry. Who knew that a chemist could be so entertaining!

Dr. Marty Klein – Marital & family therapist, sex therapist and author. His talk, “Junk Science, Moral Panics and Sex,” challenged claims that sexuality and pornography are threatening the fabric of our culture. Dr. Klein tweeted a link to his slides.

Dr. Harriet Hall, physician and author who blogs for Science-Based Medicine and writes the Skepdoc column for Skeptic Magazine. She talked about medical screening tests, pointing out potential harm from false positive and false negatives, as well as the disappointing statistics on the number of lives actually saved as a result of mass screenings.

Shane Greenup demonstrated his website rebutr.com, which links web pages that contain rebuttals of content on other pages. Thus, from a single interface you can read different points of view on a given topic. There’s also a Chrome browser plugin that alerts you when you’re reading a web page that has a rebuttal on another page. Not quite enough for me to switch from Firefox, but we may see a Firefox plugin soon.

Skepticism can have dire consequences…

A couple of the speakers talked about political pressures as a result of speaking out. Penn State climatologist Dr. Michael Mann described the threats and harassment he received after publishing his “hockey stick” graph of climate change.

Sanal Edamaruku, formerly of India, had to leave his homeland after being accused of blasphemy and receiving death threats. His “crime”? He proved that the liquid dripping from the feet of a statue of Jesus (which people drank as holy water) was ecoli-contaminated seepage from a nearby sewer.

Videos of the conference will eventually be posted on the JREF Youtube channel. Meanwhile you can view presentations from previous years.

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