We’re back from Las Vegas and The Amaz!ng Meeting 5 (aka TAM 5), and I must say that if there’s any town in the US that could benefit from having a couple hundred more skeptics descend upon it, it would be this one. Talk about your magical thinking – we were able see many examples of gamblers who had their pet superstitious behaviors on display – from the craps players who would arrange the dice just so before throwing them, to the blackjack players who would always increase their bet after losing because they knew they were “due” a winning hand.
TAM is an annual conference sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation and the Skeptics Society. It brings together scientists and skeptics to discuss issues such as critical thinking, skepticism, science, and logic. The topic of this year’s TAM was Skepticism and the Media, and I found several of the presentations to be very entertaining (though not all appeared directly related to the conference topic). Even so, here are some notes and thoughts on some of the happenings.
On the first day, during the welcome buffet, James Randi made a few announcements, including two that were of particular interest. First, it seems that Uri Geller, who claims to possess real superpowers that allow him to bend cutlery with his mind, has been accused of fakery again, this time by an Israeli magicians association. Apparently, Geller has a new TV show in Israel in which he’s looking for his own successor, and he’s been filmed performing some bad sleight of hand. That Geller still claims to possess psychic powers boggles the mind, as the only thing about him that appears to be supernatural is the degree of his own chutzpah.
In addition to the Geller announcement, it was also announced that psychic superhero Sylvia Browne has again demonstrated that video technology is her own personal kryptonite:
Browne, a regular guest on the “Montel” show, apologized for her misfire, exposed first by StopSylviaBrowne.com, a blog dedicated to tracking the psychic’s every blunder.
“I’m terribly sorry that this happened,” she told the Daily News. “But I think my body of work stands by itself. I’ve broken case after case.”
Oh really? Even a casual look at Sylvia’s success rate shows she is operating at chance levels.
On the topic of Skepticism in the media, the most interesting, in my opinion, was presented was Peter Sagal, the host of the NPR radio show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Sagal said a couple things which may or may not seem as thought provoking to you as they did to me.
One of Sagal’s points was that media outlets deliver information only when it’s in their interest to do so. I’m not sure why this struck me as it did, since I have some experience with corporate thinking, and I’m aware that profitable corporations need to maximize shareholder value – which usually translates into doing what is in their interest. Still, it seems that the media – and the news media in particular – should somehow be different. I suppose that I’ve naively assumed that they ought to deliver information that serves the public interest.
Sagal also related a story that illustrates an important point concerning skepticism and the media. He told of a conversation that he had with a reporter, a friend of his, during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. As the conversation progressed, he made the statement that Roberts didn’t seem to be as crazy as some of the other potential options for the position. He said that his friend then said something very interesting. He didn’t agree or disagree, but rather asked, “What information do you have that makes you believe this is true?”
Huh. I think that bears repeating.
What information do you have that makes you believe this is true?
In nearly all cases involving the consumption of media, the vast majority of us have absolutely NO corroborating information concerning any given story or report. Indeed, we often will simply seek out news media that we find either entertaining, or that confirms our existing biases. We should remember, however, that we rarely get the raw information, and we may actually suspend disbelief to some extent when we consume what we think is credible news media coverage. I found this a bit frightening. Nobody gives us information that is in our interest to have, and even when we get information – we can’t necessarily trust it. This may be especially true in those circumstances in which the media we consume tends to confirm our biases, or worse – when we find it entertaining.
I think the bottom line is: Assume that you’re being lied to, until you can come up with independent confirmation from other sources that you trust. Also – don’t give anyone a free pass from critical examination of their claims – and be especially wary of those claims that make you feel good.
There were many many other good presentations at TAM – Scott Dikkers, the editor of The Onion was hilarious, and NASA’s Phil Plait (aka the “Bad Astronomer”) gave a great presentation about how moon landing deniers are idiots – this means YOU Fox. Of course, other great speakers made the show very much worthwhile. James Randi, looking much shorter than I expected, was very energetic and provided a good deal of color commentary throughout the meeting. Penn and Teller showed up, made us laugh, and answered a lot of questions. And yes, Teller admitted that Penn is his hero. Matt Stone and Trey Parker from South Park were also pretty funny, and they admitted that they really started South Park so that they might be able to attend a skeptics conference years later.
One of the other speakers that spent altogether too little time at the podium was journalist and all round well-spoken Brit, Christopher Hitchens. One of the things he said that seemed to ring true was:
It’s very hard not to offend people who are very determined to be offended.
That he aid this in context of discussing radical Islam, and how many western media outlets completely capitulated to threats of violence as a result of that whole Danish Mohammad cartoon incident last year. He claims, and rightly so I believe, that the we have lost all sense of proportion when Muslim children are being killed in the streets and in mosques by other Muslims in Iraq, and the West is concerned about printing cartoons in a newspaper out of fear of being seen as offense.
My claim to Muslims: Killing is more offensive than smiley faces of your prophet.
And finally, yes, we won a little at the Blackjack table. Not a lot, but enough to keep from having to go to the ATM for four days in Vegas and still come home with some cash.