by Claus Larsen
Jan 15-18, 2004, Las Vegas
What has swift(!)ly become the major world-wide event for the skeptical movement was kicked off on a sunny day in January, 2004. Las Vegas was the place, The Amazing Meeting 2 the event. Again, James Randi, internationally famous for his investigations of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims, hosted the gathering of almost 400 skeptics from around the globe. It turned out to be truly amazing indeed.
Before the official meeting started, we were a handful of volunteers who helped out with the logistics of setting up such a huge event. Under the kind – but necessarily firm – guidance of Karl Schallenberger, JREF aide, and Hal Bidlack, Lt. Col. in the United States Airforce, as well as the world’s foremost Alexander Hamilton impersonator, the meeting was able to start on the right foot. “Controlled chaos” is a very appropriate term. But we made it.
The Solved Mysteries Workshop
Before the meeting began in earnest, Randi, together with assistant Andrew Harter, also a magician in his own right, held the Solved Mysteries Workshop, where we learned how the claims for the million dollar challenge is handled. A lot of focus was on something as simple – one would think – as blindfolds. It is actually pretty hard to completely prevent visual leakage – only a small pinhole is needed, and the problems of securing a blindfold to the facial curvatures are – if you’ll pardon the pun – mind-blowing. Tape is not an option, because even the most adhesive types will eventually loosen from the skin, due to sweat and grease. Some people also have almost no nose-bridge, enabling them to see “sideways” with great efficiency, which makes them able to claim paranormal sight. The solution is swimming goggles, with soft foam inside, preventing the eyes from opening. Simple, cheap and devastatingly effective.
The audience was frequently invited to suggest solutions to problems. We formed small ad-hoc groups, where we discussed, among other things, how to design a test for remote viewing. We were each invited to remote view an object concealed in a box, and to draw what we “saw”. I made 4-5 different drawings, each very different, one of which was meant to be a magnifying glass. The object in the box turned out to be a light bulb, but the shape fitted! I, of course, claimed the million bucks, but Randi wouldn’t let me have it. Bummer.
We also saw a video of Tony Youens, the founding member of the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE), where he described to a woman how she had just been cold read. Despite this, she still claimed that there was spiritual connection of some kind!
You can look at Tony’s website here..
After a very pleasant welcome reception, where many people made connections to people they had only met online on JREF’s forum, Randi and toastmaster Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack (right) – who is also very well “versed” in those “great (insert random nationality here) poets “Anonymous” – finally kicked off the meeting. We started with a bang: Jamy Ian Swiss, magician and fierce critic of phonies within the paranormal world, did a number of magic tricks, effectively fooling 400 skeptics, thereby proving that eyes and mind can deceive even those who should know better.
Next was Ian Rowland, who closed Day 1 by lecturing on cold reading, and giving an example of how psychic mediums work. He also bent a spoon (after being whacked on the forehead with it!), and performed a truly amazing trick:
Creating two paper “circles” from one newspaper page, interlinked.
He also showed how our minds play tricks on us: If you think this is a photo of Marilyn Monroe, look at the photo upside down!
Read all about Ian’s book Full Facts Book Of Cold Reading
Day 2 started with author and editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer. He argues that morality is evolutionary, and he makes a compelling case. A frequent claim from especially religious groups that people without a religious belief have no morals is easily countered: If atheists have no moral, why aren’t they all in jail? Shermer argues that morality is more evolutionary than religious in nature, and his point is underlined by the fact that religious people are no more “moral” than non-religious ones. Keep an eye on Shermer.
The scourges of the creationists
Dr. Eugenie Scott, anthropologist and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, and Hervey Peoples, author of “The Human Question”, were next. They flayed, in a remarkably low-keyed but devastatingly effective way, the creationist efforts of setting back education a couple of hundred years. We should not think that creationists have given up the fight, quite contrary, but they have no chance against these two speakers. Highly informed, highly educated and very eloquent, they were a delightful reminder of how effective knowledge is.
Next, Peter Bowditch, the Thunder from Down under. Sometimes, it scares the shit out of me, when I listen to what goes on in the world. Peter gave numerous examples of how people with paranormal beliefs are actively trying to force us back to the Middle Ages. One example was that, in Australia, there are actually people trying to prevent women from having caesarians! He focused mainly on the health scams, and made it very clear that people are being hurt from false claims. Peter was not a harbinger of good news.
Magician Banachek graced us with an uplifting performance of magical tricks (freaking actress Julia Sweeney out), as well as giving us the inside view of the “Alpha Kids” saga: He, together with fellow magician Mike Edwards, fooled scientists into believing they had real paranormal powers. We saw some very interesting footage from the experiments, but despite the fact that many hints were dropped in their laps, the scientists behind the experiments never caught on.
“”We had established well in advance of the beginning of Project Alpha that at a suitable date we would reveal the deception. Also, the subjects agreed that, if they were ever asked directly by an experimenter if they were using tricks, they would immediately answer, “Yes, and we were sent here by James Randi.” They would then answer any and all questions concerning their involvement.”” Source
The whole “Alpha Kid” affair will forever serve as a lesson to us all that even though you have a Ph.D., you can still be a moron.
Penn & Teller
Short version: Wow.
Longer version: Penn & Teller reminded me of Oliver Hardy & Stan Laurel. Penn is the brash, loud, archetypical American, while Teller is the articulate (well, when he does speak!) one. Perhaps the most flamboyant and sometimes downright rude magicians in the world, the pair not only showed some simple, but effective magical tricks, but also made a point of conveying their message: You need to think critically. I was personally more pleased with their Q&A session, where they explained what they were doing, and – not unimportantly – why. Beside their enormous showmanship, it is very pleasing to learn that there are some hefty brains behind it all. They had very strong opinions on fakes and frauds, as well as on religion. They were extremely generous, donating the seats to their show of any attendee of the TAM2, as well as allowing some of their props to be auctioned off. You may not like their style, but you got to admire them for having it. They kick derrieres aplenty, and – dare I say it? – thank Heavens for that.
The remainder of the day was set aside for a panel discussion about how to bring skepticism to the masses. It is great to be able to ask the “stars” questions, and even greater to hear their answers. No snooty, condescending answers, but straight-forward explanations, that are always up for scrutiny. Anyone can – and will – be challenged. A true testament to skepticism.
Day 3 kicked off with Bob Park from the American Physical Society. “Feisty Bob” gave a riveting lecture on the methods of pseudoscience, pointing out just how these people argue. They invent natural laws, and bend and pervert the existing ones, just so their beliefs are not debunked.
Bob is a voice of reason in a world of howling wolves.
Steve Barrett, of Quackwatch.com fame, revealed in a very low-key fashion, the dangers of believing false health-related claims. His site is by far the most educational and informative site on medical quackery in the world, and should be perused by anyone who are even the least interested in their own health and of others.
I have no idea how Steve can keep his calm.
Get your “Phil”…
Phil Plait, the Bad As(s)tronomer, is always a sheer joy to listen to. He gave us the lowdown on the current astronomical tomfoolery, e.g. the current images from Mars. It does not matter just how many setbacks people like Richard “Hoaxland” – of “Face on Mars” fame’n’shame – experience, they will not admit defeat, but will continue to make their ever-increasing false claims of extra-terrestrial influence on our Earthling Ways. Huge constructions on the Red Planet are not de rigeur anymore, now we have to settle for scattered machinery from ancient civilizations. And it is all being covered up by da gubmint, NASA, and Phil Plait in particular.
Phil leads an interesting life. When he doesn’t gaze at galaxies or play around with expensive equipment, he discovers faces on his shower curtain, which he claims to be Lenin…
During the meeting, I had a similar discovery in my shower….
Break to actress Julia Sweeney, who told us of her spiritual journeys, starting with Jesus inadvertently teaching her the joys of bodily pleasures, to various endeavours into WooWoo Land, to her final destination: Skepticism. She completely charmed everyone, and managed to get every male skeptic to want to bear her children. We will be seeing more of Julia next year. There is a God after all.
Dean (Dino) Cameron and Victor.
Two persona non grata in some parts of Nigeria. Most people have by now had the dubious experience of having offers of millions of dollars, frozen in Nigerian bank accounts, offered to them, if only they would deposit a “few” thousand dollars in other bank accounts, for various reasons. Dean Cameron and Victor did a strikingly funny performance art, where they revealed their own very unique way of dealing with these pathetic scammers: Humour.
Las Vegas-based magician Lance Burton showed us how to get out of a straight-jacket – something I am sure a lot of people will appreciate in due course.
The day was rounded off with yet another panel discussion, this time dealing with skepticism and the entertainment industry. There were many questions and answers, and it resulted in a lively debate.
Last day was brief, but intense. Three people gave their presentation of papers, the first being Lt. Col. Matt Morgan, who explained why the Second Law of Thermodynamics was not up for negotiation or interpretation. Dr. Ray Hall, who also presented a paper last year, explained blindingly clear how science works. Readers of SkepticReport will appreciate his upcoming article soon. Dr. Dave Ewalt, of droppingscience.com, explained how skeptics could make their voices be heard in the media, with a lot of sound advice and examples. Jeff Corey, professor of psychology and President of New York Area Skeptics, finally revealed the results of the Charpentier’s Illusion, which aptly proved that even skeptics can fool themselves. His report on that will also be available on SkepticReport.
Out-of-this-world geologist Ray Beiersdorfer gave a “crystal”-clear lecture on the silly belief that crystals have paranormal powers. Ray is one of those educators, driven by sheer dedication for true knowledge, that makes you appreciate that you did not have Vincent Norman Peale as a substitute teacher. A shining light in a world of darkness. He dresses snappy, too.
He showed some of the more ridiculous claims from various books on crystals, e.g.:
- Crystals “are thought to be the crystallized tears or semen of sky spirits.”
- “The information contained in this book is to be used only in accordance with divine law and as a means to transform the human predicament and usher in the Golden Age of Aquarius.”
- “The closer a person is to the culture from which the crystal came, the more likely it is that they will be exposed to the curse of the stone.”
- “As a crystal healer you need to protect yourself from your client’s negative energy. You need to be grounded. You can get grounded by eating chocolate.”
- “Although magic may seem supernatural, it is actually a natural force. The internal lattice structure of crystals makes them particularly appropriate for amplifying energy and creating the future.”
- “Love, be it romantic or powerfully erotic, radiates from many stones.”
- Experience crystal love by taking “a bath with your favorite stone.”
Thank you very much – you may stop laughing now. And if you want to observe some truly out-of-this-world crystals, go check the biggest ones.
Crystals are often endowed with characteristica derived from their names, so Ray suggested some crystals that might have interesting uses:
It should be left to the reader to decide just what those uses could be.
Ray also presented the biggest salt crystal I have ever seen. It was completely awesome to hold in your hand!
All in all, it was an overwhelming event. Not a single dull moment, not a boring speaker, not anyone not interesting to talk to. The Amazing Meeting is growing, both in size and in quality. Something has begun, the global networking of skeptics is in full bloom. People got to know each other, people got to talk to people.
We do live in interesting times.