The Amaz!ng Meeting 5.5 (25-27 January 2008) – Report (Part 2 of 3)

Saturday 26 January (morning)

Master of Ceremonies – Phil Plait


JREF regulars will know that Dr Hal Bidlack is the perennial MC for TAMs. However, Hal is running for US Congress, which could lead to him become the first publicly declare skeptic in office. In his place, the MC duties were skilfully undertaken by Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame. Phil was great, not only as a humorous host, but as the affable butt of jokes from many of the seasoned speakers. He briefly referred to his recent effort to debunk the prediction that Asteroid 2007 TU24 was going to destroy the Earth.


Avoiding Psychic Predators – Kelly Jolkowski


Kelly Jolkowski is the mother of a 19-year-old son who disappeared from their family home in Omaha, NE, six years ago. Kelly now runs Project Jason, an organization that lends support and resources to the families of missing children. She told us her heart-rending tale of loss and subsequent revictimization by psychics. In one anecdote, she was told that Jason had been run over by a stripper and that she could find the culprit in a local strip club – the psychic was not sure which one – on a Friday or Saturday night but only when it is windy. As unthinkably cruel and silly as that imagined quest is, Kelly pointed out that the real problem with psychics is the unrelenting emotional rollercoaster that they cause. Each one sends their victim “down a fruitless road that leads to disappointment.” The constant cycle of hope and dismay results in daily trauma.


Kelly knows one family who has used psychics for seven years. She tried to explain to us the reasons why psychics can prey so easily on these families:

  • families want to believe that psychics can do what they claim
  • families will try anything that might work
  • families will attempt to rejuvenate inactive cases in order to re-engage the police and media
  • families will agree to use psychics in order to prevent family in-fighting
  • friends will refer psychics to the families in a misguided attempt to help
  • psychics, in general, target the emotionally vulnerable
  • psychics prey on families who feel guilty because refusing to use them implies they don’t care enough to take the chance
  • the gullible and unchallenging media normalizes the public view and acceptance of psychics

Kelly is now unequivocal that no psychic has ever solved a missing person’s case using paranormal means, and so it is not surprising that the Project Jason posts a strong statement against using psychics. It also features an eight-part, professionally produced audio series called Psychics and Missing People. Some families have thanked her for speaking out and now refuse to use psychics, but the majority feel the need to try everything.


Joining the JREF two years ago, Kelly lurked on the forum uneasily for a while but eventually felt at home. She credits the JREF with helping her understand the technical side of psychics and cold reading. She asked the audience to continue to help fight psychic predators through activism by challenging the media to report accurately on psychic stories, highlighting psychic failures through follow up and criticizing psychic friendly TV shows and their advertizers.


The Skeptologists – Brian Dunning


Brian made a short announcement concerning a TV pilot that he is helping to produce. The Skeptologists will resemble the recent spate of paranormal investigation shows that feature gullible investigators, but they will use real scientists, doctors and engineers doing proper scientific analysis of the evidence. Brian says that he has lots of volunteers for post production and is looking for on-screen talent in the Los Angeles area. Apparently, Fox is interested in picking it up.


9/11 Fact and Fantasy – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts, aka Gravy on the JREF forum, gave a riveting overview of the 9/11 “truth movement”. A New York City tour guide during the attack (and to this day), he was taken off-guard when he initially heard about the conspiracy theories and felt compelled to dig into the existing evidence on the attack. He was surprised to find that the truthers’ claims could be easily disproved with even a cursory amount of research. “Just reading a few reports puts you way ahead of truthers since they have not read any of them.”


Mark covered many of the more notorious truthers and their arguments, including the Loose Change 2nd Edition movie and his contribution to its debunking cousin Screw Loose Change – Not Freakin’ Again. He also discussed some of the hilarious claims, such as the Single Plane Theory, which started as a joke in The Onion and then became endorsed by a truther. Periodically during the presentation, audience plants stood up and yelled out actual accusations from the JREF forum, calling on people to not listen to Mark and declaring him a shill of the government and CIA operative.


Showing some dramatic web hit stats, Mark surmised that much of the frenzy behind the “truth movement” peaked in September 2006 and is now on the wane. He pointed out that people are defecting from the cause and that truthers rate the JREF forum as the most effective debunking site. However, despite these successes, a residue of public belief in the government’s involvement in 9/11 will persist.


Mark’s advice on skeptical activism is to “find the thing that pisses you off the most.”


New NPR Show: Curiosity Aroused – Rebecca Watson


Rebecca told a great story about competing in NPR’s Talent Quest. The Quest started with 1,500 contestants and ended with three of them making pilots, including Rebecca’s Curiosity Aroused. Through the many stages of the contest, she was never selected to continue on by the judges but always won the one slot for the popular vote. Rebecca claimed that the skeptic community helped on that account, but she also owned up to some shameless self-promotion.


The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) has not decided yet to fund any of the shows, but a number NPR stations have picked up Curiosity Aroused, partly due to a letter-writing campaign. The show has received many good reviews, including from the Boston Globe.


Rebecca observed the differences in producing a radio show compared to doing the SGU podcast:

  • stringent time format
  • an actual production team of about 12 people
  • $20,000, instead of $20, per episode
  • scripting
  • verbal self-control

Skeptical Ghost Hunting – Alison Smith


Alison gave a quick account of the development of her Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society (SAPS) website. Upset by the lameness of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) TV show and the recent fad of ghost hunting and paranormal investigation shows in general, she started the site as a lark but found traction in it after it got started. She says that she gets lots of e-mail, especially hate mail.


Stopping Sylvia Browne – Robert Lancaster


Robert told the story of a woman named Dr. Kaz deMille-Jacobsen, who spoke at his mother’s church in 2004, claiming to have survived the North Tower collapse of the World Trade Center. The woman was on a speaking tour of churches and collecting “love donations” for her Christian witness and uplifting spiritual message. Robert was amazed at how outrageous her claims were and how easily the audience accepted them. He determined that, with no counter information on the web, the church members decided to take her at her word. This prompted him to create a Stop Kaz website, with the simple style of posting (1) here is what she says; (2) here is what I found; (3) you decide. The website was effective because, for the past two years, her talks have ceased, both in North America and back home in Australia/New Zealand.


Robert decided in 2006 to direct his attention to Sylvia Browne, with the same methodology of just pointing out the facts and inviting critical analysis. Browne has been on Montel Williams for over 17 years, has founded a church called Novus Spiritus in California and has raked in a fortune on phone readings alone (upwards of $750 per call). Of course, Browne’s popularity in the media is her undoing because it has been easy for Robert to record her predictions and later to point out their failings. The website provides a litany of failed predictions, including the famous ones for the Sago Mine disaster, the 9/11 fireman and the Shawn Hornbeck case. Of the 15 readings of missing children that Browne has given and that have been resolved, Browne has been wrong for all of them. In fact, Robert has asked her to provide him with one example of this type of prediction that proved right and has not received a response.


Robert discussed the many problems with her church, including a humorous analysis of her supposedly Aramaic prayer from an expert in ancient Middle Eastern languages. He also covered the supposed fansite that was created by one of Browne’s relatives and Browne’s legal attempt to silence his site, complete with misspellings of Browne’s name. Robert mentioned that he had many volunteers begging to answer Browne’s letter, and the resulting response is a must-read.


Robert figures that Browne is on her farewell tour in 2008. The Montel Williams show is on its last year, and defectors from her church state that her 500 e-mails per month have dwindled to only a handful.


Robert’s advice to skeptical activists is the use of a fair, factual, judicious and approachable tone. Not only does it help when faced with legal challenges, but it stands the best success at winning over fence-sitters. He related the story of one woman who sent him an angry e-mail about his site and his doubting of Browne’s abilities. Over a two-year period, Robert exchanged e-mails with her that challenged her views but respected her feelings. Eventually, the correspondent became skeptical of Brown as well.


So what’s next? Robert has other target personalities in mind but admits that the work is very time consuming. His plan is to create a collective site for late 2008 and to develop a web of contributing writers that he will edit. His briefing slides showed – each to a round of applause – Stop Kevin Trudeau, Stop Benny Hinn, Stop John Edwards, Stop Peter Popoff, Stop James Van Praagh and, jokingly, Stop Phil Plait.

Author’s note: I have attempted to represent accurately what the TAM speakers discussed, but I don’t claim to speak on their behalf and will be the first to admit that I have mistaken arts of what they said.


Go to Report: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

10. February 2008 by barry
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