I recently returned from The Amazing Meeting (TAM 2012) in Las Vegas. TAM is a gathering of skeptics who come from several countries to address critical thinking in social and physical sciences, medicine, public policy and more.

Social Psychologist Carol Tavris, Ph.D. gave the keynote speech on the topic of “pseudoneuroscience” which drew a standing ovation from the audience. Carol is an outstanding speaker. She acknowledged that while neuroscience and brain imaging are valuable tools, the general public (thanks in large part to the media) is lulled into believing that fMRi and other imaging has greater validity than human experience.

dead salmon

But fMRI data can be massaged to the point of absurdity.  As an example Dr. Tavris cited a study in which a dead salmon was “shown” photos while its brain was being scanned by fMRI. Later, when analyzing the image pixels the researchers found what appeared to be activity in the dead salmon’s brain.

Just how independent can our thinking be?

Especially effective was a demonstration by science writer Brian Dunning, of a variation on Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment.

As Dunning escorted five volunteers to the stage he whispered something in each person’s ear.  The audience later learned that he had instructed all volunteers except one to give wrong answers to his questions. (He told the fifth volunteer to remain on stage after the demonstration.)

Then came the questions, including:

“Which has more moving parts – a Rubik’s cube or Lego set?”

“Which is heavier – a school bus or a locomotive?”

The five people gave their answer in turn – four of them having been previously instructed to answer wrong. The fifth volunteer looked confused much of the time. In response to some of the questions he went along with the other people’s wrong answer.

It’s one thing to read about this in a textbook. But the message really sinks in when you see it happen before your eyes with subjects at a skeptics conference who are self-selected as independent critical thinkers. How vulnerable we all are to peer conformance!

Not all fun and games

 While many of the presentations had humorous and entertaining moments, the take-away message was serious. There’s a lot of misinformation and products out there based on pseudoscience and on snake oil. And people can be harmed by these things, as shown on Tim Farley’s “What’s the Harm” website.

Million Dollar Challenge

For several years the James Randi Educational Foundation has held over $1 million in an escrow account, to be awarded to anyone who can demonstrate, via scientific method, the existence of a paranormal phenomenon.  There have been many contenders, but no one has been able to claim the prize.

Last week's contender at TAM, who claims that a special chip in bracelets and necklaces that he sells can make you stronger, more focused and enhance your performance, failed miserably in his demonstration.

Unfortunately, there's no video available from last week's event, but here's a clip from a 2011 show on ABC featuring a few psychics who try for the million dollar prize.