TAM 6 Highlights

George Hrab on stage in front of 900+ members of the TAM 6 audience
One percent of all skeptics are members of Ottawa Skeptics … or at least, that’s my extrapolation from TAM 6 attendance.  It might be a bit of a generalization.

Held at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, TAM 6 was bulging at the seams with over 900 attendees, the highest attended TAM so far, and remarkably, when one speaker asked who was attending for the first time, most of the room seemed to raise their hands.  It was a great indication of JREF’s vitality and growing popularity.

Ottawa Skeptics were a visible force at TAM.  By my count, we had at least eight there (Jon, Dana, Nick, Barry, David, Mike B, Mike L, and Lee – beat me up if I missed someone) and happily were joined by Richard as a new member by the end of the conference.  Glaringly noticeable in our logo’ed red T-shirts, mentioned by our questioners, acknowledged by a panelist, and generously represented on stage by a red-shirted Lee for his presentation, our attendance was “impactful,” if I can borrow a recent Bushism.  We even got a shout-out by Steve (a.k.a. Eamon Knight) on the Pharyngula blog.


Thursday, 19 June 2008


Workshop:  The Real X-Files: Scientific Paranormal Investigations – Ben Radford

Ben is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a columnist for the LiveScience website and field investigator for Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI).  He ran a workshop on how to conduct a scientific paranormal investigation – whether historical, field, forensic or experimental – emphasizing the do’s and don’ts of dealing with true believers.  He used his successful investigations of the Lake Champlain monster and the Santa Fe courthouse ghost as his case studies.

Workshop:  Master Mnemonic Memory – Banachek

Banachek performs as a mentalist and consults for such magicians as Criss Angel, David Blaine and Penn & Teller.  He gave a workshop on mnemonic systems for memorizing lists and numbers, explaining loci, link and peg techniques and especially the Major System.  We worked through a couple of examples.  I had heard about most of these techniques before, and so the workshop confirmed for me that there is not more to it.  To make it really pay off, you have to commit to doing the up-front work and to practising, but the results can be impressive.  Later that evening during his Mathemagic show, Dr. Arthur Benjamin demonstrated how he has memorized dozens of digits of Pi using the Major System.

Friday, 20 June 2008

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) Q&A Sessions

The Skeptical Rogues answered questions as a panel during both Friday and Saturday breakfasts.  I suspect that some of that content will show up on their podcast.  The highlight of the sessions was when our Nick used his time at the mic to propose to Rebecca.  Despite the halo effect of his Ottawa Skeptic T-shirt, she turned him down heartlessly.  Apparently, she is a Skepchick with impossibly high standards.

Squabbles about Homeopathy – Dr. Ben Goldacre

Ben is an MD who hosts the Bad Science blog and writes the Bad Science column in The Guardian.  He discussed the problems of homeopathy, a particularly bad problem in the UK, and its relationship with the placebo effect.  He pointed out that at least 200 trials of homeopathy have been conducted but that many of the trials suffer from drop-outs, poor control and bad randomization.  Nevertheless, the more rigorous the trial, the more the homeopathic results resembled those of a placebo.

Keynote:  Adventures in Science Illiteracy – Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium, frequent host on such PBS series as Nova Science Now and Origins and voted sexiest astrophysicist alive by People Magazine.  Though Neil suggested that he had little competition for that honour, he taunted poor Phil Plait with it nonetheless.

One of the gifts for attending TAM was a laser pointer, which, as you might guess, inspired overhead duels of little red dots between speakers.  Neil established his geek credentials by challenging the audience to a laser point-off and then blew everyone away with a glaringly bright green mega-dot.

Neil sub-titled his presentation “Brain Droppings of a Skeptic.”  I had expected a homey talk on science in keeping with his persona on his PBS shows, but what followed was an energetic, humorous rant against fuzzy, pseudoscientific thinking.  His take on UFOs, alien visitation, conspiracy theories, astrology, moon myths, levitation, the “Mars virus,” institutionalized triskaidekaphobia and math illiteracy kept everyone chuckling and occasionally cheering.  He also weighed in against the anti-scientism of religion from the censorship of Islamic science by Hamid al-Ghazali to the irrelevance of Intelligent Design to the inappropriateness of biblical topics in science classrooms.  He quoted from his 19 December 2006 letter to the New York Times:

“People cited violation of the First Amendment when a New Jersey schoolteacher asserted that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific and that Noah’s ark carried dinosaurs. 

This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it’s about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers.”

He also referred to the recently discovered 1954 Einstein letter to Eric Gutkind that revealed Einstein’s lack of religious belief.

Exposing Peter Popoff – Alec Jason

Alec is a certified crime s
cene analyst who briefed on how he helped expose Popoff’s use of wireless communications to feign psychic power and defraud his followers.  The story appeared as “God’s Frequency is 39.17 Mhz:  The Investigation Of Peter Popoff” in Science and The Paranormal magazine in 1987.  Alec could not help mentioning that he cannot bear to watch the TV show CSI because of the show’s inaccurate, glamorized portrayal of his profession.

Penn & Teller Q&A

The magician odd couple, Penn & Teller, stars of their own show at the Rio Casino and of the TV series Bullshit!, answered audience questions.

Developmental Biology – Dr. P.Z. Myers

P.Z. is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) and host of the Pharyngula blog.  He spoke about developmental biology and how similarity in embryonic development provides evidence of common descent.  He also explained how combining evolutionary and developmental biology into the discipline of evo-devo is providing insight into evolution’s regulatory control of development by ecology.  (see for example “From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes.” New York Times.  26 June 2007.)  As a case study, he used the development of bat and mouse forelimbs and discussed experiments in which gene enhancers were spliced from bats to mice.

Teaching Critical Thinking to Children – Richard Saunders

Richard is a past president of Australian Skeptics, consultant for the Australian Skeptic Journal and host of The TANK vodcast and The Mystery Investigators TV show.  He discussed skeptic activities in Australia, especially in teaching critical thinking to children.  He then performed a dowsing test with audience volunteers, showing how it can be used to teach the principles of conducting a double-blind trial.  In a discussion on debunking psychics, he recommended the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Why People Believe Unseen Things – Dr. Michael Shermer

Michael is founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, skeptic columnist for Scientific American magazine and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Claremont Graduate University (CGU).  He gave a presentation on a book he is writing called Why People Believe Unseen Things.  Aspects he discussed included the belief engine of pattern-seeking primates, anecdotal thinking, inference of agency and intentional stance, folk intuitions, and emergent self-organizing systems.  He recently participated in an fMRI test and surprised himself by suffering a panic attack in the machine, which occurs to 20 percent of participants, making him skeptical of fMRI-based test results.  However, the trial indicated that mentally the belief response is shorter than disbelief or uncertainty, which implies that comprehension of a statement entails tacit acceptance of it being true until questioned.

Creationism and Other Weird Beliefs:  The Role of the Press – Sharon Begley

Sharon is a senior editor and science columnist for Newsweek magazine.  As an example of public credulity and motivated reasoning, she presented the historical case of Sir Roger Tichborne, an Australian pretender of a British inheritance gullibly accepted by the mother despite his obvious physical differences from the actual heir who was lost.  She then discussed the responsibility and effectiveness of the press in educating the public against pseudoscience.  Her message was that, if you expect the press to confront pseudoscience and educate the public on real science, then don’t get you hopes.  The media’s success in doing this for AIDS in the 1980s is likely an anomaly.  For evolution, the public feel they have the capacity to judge evolutionary biology despite the prevalence of science illiteracy.  Another problem is that journalists now feel obligated to provide politically and culturally “balanced” coverage.  The good news, though, is that she has received letters from home-schooled kids who have cut out and saved good articles on evolution in order to counterbalance the creationist dreck that comprise their curriculum.

Skepticality Q&A – Derek and Swoopy

Swoopy answered questions from the audience on the Skepticality podcast.  They are averaging 35,000 downloads per episode.  She announced that the highlight of Dragon*Con 2008 in Atlanta on 29 August-1 September will be Skeptrack, an excellent line-up of skeptic guest speakers and topics that will provide a fantastic introduction to skepticism for those new to it.

Dualism and Creationism – Dr. Steven Novella

Steven is the Director of General Neurology at Yale University School of Medicine, President of the New England Skeptical Society, host of SGU, contributing editor for Quackwatch, and host of the Neurologica and Science-based Medicine blogs.  He discussed the emergent nature of consciousness and presented on how believers of naturalistic dualism, such as proposed by David Chalmers and Deepak Chopra, exhibit many of the same ideological behaviours as supporters of creationism, such as denialism, inference of agency and intention, assertion of false controversy and claim of impending acceptance.

The Universe Is Cool Enough – Dr. Phil Plait

Phil is an astronomer and host of the Bad Astronomy blog.  He took the audience on a verbal tour of the solar system, pointing out for each planet a significant anomaly that science cannot currently explain and marvelling at the wonders of nature yet to be explored.  Alluding to the moon landing hoax, the face on Mars and other pseudoscientific silliness, he concluded with the observation, “The universe is cool enough without making crap up about it.”

Replicating the Maltese Falcon – Adam Savage

Adam is a special effects expert and co-host of the Mythbusters TV series.  He typically answers audience questions at TAMs but decided this year to revealing, in unexpected detail, his obsession with making exact replicas.  After confi
ding that he is a member of the Replica Props Forum, he talked about his experiences making replicas of a Dodo skeleton, the Maltese Falcon statue and the space shuttle for the movie Space Cowboys.

Science Debate 2008 – Matthew Chapman

Matthew is an author of several evolution-creationism controversy books and the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin.  He described his experiences of being a British ex-pat in America, discussed the Scopes and Kitzmiller books he has written and spent some time talking about the Science Debate 2008 campaign he started with Chris Mooney to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on science issues.

Slap, Hold, Wiggle and Drop – Dr. Richard Wiseman

Richard is a researcher of “quirkology” and professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire.  He talked about producing the famous video he made about change blindness called the Colour Changing Card Trick and showed some outtakes from the 62 takes it required to make the video.

After Teller presented an anecdote on spoon-bending as a lead-in, Richard informed the audience that they were going to participate in a mass spoon-bending video.  He then distributed 800 pre-stressed spoons amongst the crowd, walked us all through a single rehearsal and then filmed a single take.  Reading off the screens, we said our lines in unison and followed the instructions to slap, hold, wiggle and drop the spoons together.  The video will eventually be posted at http://www.spoonscience.com/ and hopefully become as big a viral success as his previous one.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Solution to the Marfa Lights – John Jakes

The Marfa Lights are spherical light phenomena that appear at night just above desert-like Mitchell Flats along US Routes 67 near the town of Marfa, Texas.  John is a remote sensing specialist from Houston, Texas, who participated in a field investigation that included an airborne 215-channel hyperspectral sensor and ground observers.  The results were published in Earth Observation Magazine (Vol.11, No.10, pp.31-32) in November 2001 and summarized in Wikipedia.  The airborne sensor detected no spectral anomalies above background noise when people on the ground observed the lights but did detect areas of highly reflective white soil in the area.  The findings suggested that the phenomena were distorted reflections of car headlights.  This hypothesis was supported by a subsequent field study in 2004 using chase cars, which correlated the lights to car traffic.

Responsibility of Science Teachers – Don Nyberg

Don is a professor of Analytical Chemistry at SUNY-Corning Community College.  He highlighted the need for science teachers to improve the problem of science illiteracy in the US.  He pointed out the problems of science teachers who minimize coverage of religiously sensitive topics like evolution and those who are creationists themselves.  He suggested that science educators who teach in accordance with a strong evidence-resistant faith are guilty of malpractice and wondered how they achieve their qualifications in the first place since scientists do not become religiously zealous after they get their PhDs.

Evidence-based Marketing – Steve Cuno

Steve is the Chairman of Response Prospecting and Loyalty Strategies Inc. and host of Prove It Before You Promote It blog.  He covered a number of marketing-related myths, such as advertising controls your mind, creativity is magic, no one reads long ads, just get your message out there, focus groups are good predictors, and positive sales results are solely attributable to advertising success.  He advocated for an evidence-based approach to assessing and developing a marketing campaign and provided a few examples.

Viral Videos – Tracy King

Tracy runs a marketing company in the UK, is an executive partner of UK Skeptics and blogs as tkingdoll on Skepchick.  She worked with Dr. Richard Wiseman to produce the Colour Changing Card Trick video, originally created for the National Geographic special My Brilliant Brain.  She discussed the elements of a successful viral video, including other examples such as the Diet Coke and Mentos video and the Cardo Bluetooth Headset and Popcorn video.  The latter trick was revealed as a viral marketing video, but as Tracy indicated, debunkings are never as famous as the original stunt.  She suggested that viral videos are typically passed on by viewers in order to assume reflected glory, be seen as first to know, be part of the crowd and share in a cultural experience.  She noted that successful viral videos are often based on humour, surprise, scare-mongering, emotion, skill and/or embarrassment, and are not preachy.  Viral videos can be professionally seeded, but in the UK now, they can be found illegal under the Consumer Protection against Unfair Trading Regulations if they are disseminated in a way that misrepresents their marketing intent.

3DVCE – Lee Graham

Local hero Lee is a PhD Candidate at the School of Computer Science at Carleton University and fellow Ottawa Skeptic.  Resplendent in his red Ottawa Skeptics T-shirt, Lee briefed on three-dimensional virtual creature evolution (3DVCE), which uses evolutionary computing to replicate biological evolutionary processes in a 3D graphical environment.  He showed a video of some creatures from his zoo that had evolved through about 500-1,000 generations.  Some of his work has been facilitated through donated CPU time.  3DVCE is a great illustration of how complexity and information can emerge from primitive components simply through evolutionary processes.

The Psychology of Anomalous Experience – Dr. Christopher French

Chris is a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London.  He discussed his work on anomalistic psychology, especially his work on memory conformity, which shows how eyewitness memories c
an be influenced by discussion of the event and by interviewer suggestions.  One example discussed was that 36 percent of test subjects asked about non-existing news videos remembered details of the events and their activities at the time of their imagined viewings.  He also talked about constructing a “haunted room” for the Haunt Project, in which he tested various stimuli, such as infrasound and electromagnetic frequencies, to provoke a haunting experience.  The best correlation turned out to be belief in the paranormal.

Building Internet Tools for Skeptics – Tim Farley

Tim is host of What’s the Harm? website and Tools for Skeptics blog.  He talked about how to apply the tools of Web 2.0 to improve skeptical activism.  He is proposing to hold a workshop on this at a future TAM.

The Skeptologists Pilot – Brian Dunning and Ryan Johnson

Brian is host of the Skeptoid podcast, and Ryan is director of the reality TV series American Dragster.  They showed the pilot of The Skeptologists and answered audience questions on it.  Ryan got the idea for the show after listening to podcasts like SGU and Skeptoid in his car.  One of his objectives is to elevate the status of scientists, educators and critical thinkers.  The producers are in the process of pitching the series to the networks.  Pilots are not usually made at this stage, but they wanted to show their vision and possibilities.

They had trouble culling the applicants for the cast – Yau-Man Chan, Mark Edward, Dr. Steven Novella, Dr. Phil Plait, Dr. Kirsten Sanford, Dr. Michael Shermer and Brian Dunning as host.  Because of his popularity on Survivor, Yau-Man has been courted by CBS to do a series, but he has not been interested.  However, when he heard about the casting call for The Skeptologists on the Skeptoid podcast, he sent his application in.  Brian Dunning, a huge Survivor fan, was surprised and thrilled to see his application in the pile.

Next TAM

TAM 7 is being planned for 9-12 July 2009 at the South Point Casino.  Since Randi has recently been negotiating TV shows in the UK and Netherlands, a suggestion was made to hold a mini-TAM in the UK, but doing so will require assistance from UK volunteers.


28. June 2008 by barry
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