by Alison Smith
The Amazing Meeting, an annual conference hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), is more than just a get-together for skeptics. It’s the basis for a community of like-minded people from all over the world who are often excluded, and sometimes shunned, for their convictions.
The first Amazing Meeting was held in 2003. Initially, the Amazing Meeting was meant as a one-time only event, hoping to gather around 80 skeptics. When it turned out that over one hundred and fifty people attended, it was decided to make it an annual event. The success has been, well, amazing: This January marked the fifth (re)incarnation of the meeting, and boasted over 800 attendees from all over the world.
The conference ran from Thursday to Sunday, offering a constant barrage of activities, lectures, and programs, and, when it got late, parties. The social aspect of the meeting was just as important as the education, and there was always something to do.
Thursday, January 18th
Thursday, the first day of the conference, was a time for introduction and interactive training programs. The theme of this year’s Amazing Meeting was, “Skepticism and the Media,” and the training programs reflected the need for well-spoken skeptics in different areas.
Margaret Downey, President of Atheists Alliance International, took the stage for a grassroots media training workshop aimed at keeping skeptics on their toes during television interviews.
After instructing participants in how best to respond to tough questions asked on the spot, Downey split the room into four groups. Each was asked to discuss a different paranormal claim. The groups nominated one lucky individual to participate in a mock-interview in front of the cameras.
Downey, as the interviewer, showed no mercy. Her suggestions to keep to the topic, circle a main point, and never get too technical became much harder in practice. Afterward, all the paricipants viewed the mock-interviews to make points about one another. The participants were fairly ruthless in their commentary as well, reminding everyone involved how important it is to practice these skills.
Robert Todd Carroll, Ray Hall, and Diane Swanson approached from a different, equally important angle, discussing Critical Thinking in the Classroom and how to make the topic interesting to youngsters. Using interactive teaching methods and calling on students to confront one another about issues was extremely important.
Later in the evening, the Reception kicked off with a speech from Randi himself. This year’s media-centered theme was especially relevant because of recent changes to the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge.
According to Randi, the JREF will no longer take a passive approach to investigating paranormal claims. Instead, they will actively pursue those who claim paranormal abilities in full view of the media. The JREF will apply more pressure to claimants, using press releases and attorneys to force acceptance of the challenge.
Because of this heightened media interest, it has become even more important for skeptics to present themselves in an easy to swallow sound bite form to the media.
The evening closed with a show by Banachek, the renowned mentalist, who claims to use a psychological approach to magic. From reading information out of closed envelopes to seeing while blindfolded, Banachek covered a wide range of magic in a short amount of time.
Afterward, fans flocked to the stage to ask questions. Banachek had time to speak to them all, and even offered to meet at the bar later to discuss things in even more depth.
His sincere kindness is even more astounding because of his difficult past. At the age of nine, Banachek was abandoned in South Africa, before moving to the United States in 1976. In 1979, at the age of 19, he saw a note in the paper asking for people with true psychic abilities to reply. Banachek, at the time an amateur magician, contacted Randi, and responded to the ad, leading to his participation in Project Alpha, a university-funded research project into psychic abilities.
Banachek, before he revealed that Randi was behind his participation, was counted as one of the successes of the project, and he was believed for three years. The hoax was a tremendous blow to the world of parapsychology: Because of the gullibility of the scientists, who believed they couldn’t be fooled, and therefore had virtually no controls in the experiments, a couple of amateurs did in fact fool them, using simple tricks.
His shows are masterful and astounding, and Banachek was one of the most popular presenters at TAM.
Friday, January 19th
Friday began with Dr. Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of “Skeptic” magazine and Executive Director of the Skeptic’s Society. Shermer deserted the Skepticism and the Media theme in favor of promoting his new book, which covers the evolution of economic systems. The lecture, though interesting, seemed somewhat out of place, though he did describe (repeatedly) why, exactly, the rich get richer.
Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, however, took the group back into the heart of media interest with a lecture on the media controversy between creationism and evolution.
Scott followed the path of the debate through different media outlets, noting along the way that both sides of the argument are given equal credibility despite evidence. She suggested that in the future scientists should not be as concerned with changing minds as portraying science and critical thinking in a positive light.
This positive critical thinking perspective is especially apparent on the National Center for Science Education’s Official Web Site, which cites one of its main goals as the fight to keep evolution in schools, rather than a fight to keep creationism out.
Straying again from the media, Neil Gershenfeld from MIT gave a talk on “Fab Labs,” a program that is part of the Center for Bits and Atoms, which he runs.
Gershenfeld teaches a class at MIT called, “How to Make (almost) Anything,” that gives students access to high-level tools to create… well, almost anything. Gershenfeld noticed, however, that students were not creating things they needed – but things they wanted, to change the world around them.
One student created a machine that records screams – so any time she felt like venting frustration, the scream machine would silence the sound to everyone around her, but play it back later.
Because of his successes in the class, Gershenfeld started Fab Labs, for personal fabrication, intentionally placing them in more rural areas. The Fab Labs allow even small children the pleasure of creating working machines, from smart toy cars to circuit boards.
Jamy Ian Swiss then interviewed Randi about a Korean television show, wherein Randi was invited to debunk individuals claiming paranormal abilities.
Some of the unfortunate participants on the show simply did not know enough science to realize they were duping anyone. A father and son, for example, who claimed “magnetic powers” that allowed objects to stick to their bodies didn’t realize the power of static and friction.
Other individuals intentionally hoaxed – one going so far as putting battery packs in his shoes to
illuminate fluorescent lights – and make it appear as though his body was itself electric.
Lori Lipman Brown, Ex-Nevada State Senator, political commentator, and lecturer for the Secular Coalition for America focused on the politics of atheism and her contact with the media in that respect.
Brown is searching for a high-level politician who will admit to being an atheist in an effort to prove that coming out about atheism is the equivalent of political suicide.
Along with her lecture, Brown presented video clips of interviews with Fox News, where they slammed her for atheism in a way that would’ve been unacceptable had they done the same with any theist. “We report. You decide”.
Penn & Teller, magicians and stars of the television show, “Bullshit!”, held a question and answer session, and talked about their video game – Desert Bus. It is, in a sense, very innovative: Absolutely nothing happens in the game. You just drive a bus across the desert. When you finish it, you get to the bonus: You have to drive the bus back.
Teller even spoke, which was probably the most astounding part of their presentation.
The stage was then absolutely taken by Professor Richard Wiseman, quite possibly the best presenter, who led the audience through his search for the funniest joke in the world.
The Laugh Lab, a year-long project, hoped to answer questions about gender and humor as well as whether humor varies from region to region, and what, ultimately, is the funniest joke in the world. (The punchline of the funniest joke in the world is, “OK, now what?”)
The ratings of the jokes were not only based on how hard the person laughed, but where they were from, their gender, and whether it was universally appealling.
Wiseman was intelligent, funny, and the audience was enthralled by his enthusiasm for his work, which is summarized in his book, “Laugh Lab”.
Saturday, January 20th
The host of NPR’s “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”, Peter Sagal, brought back the media theme again with a discussion on finding a happy medium between what the public wants to hear, and what they need to hear.
The media’s job is, after all, to sell information, so the information has to be packaged in such a way that the public will still want it, and it’s hard to deflect cries of “bias!”
Scott Dikkers, editor of “The Onion” believed that he’d passed the Million Dollar Challenge, and showed slides proving that he had, in fact, predicted the future.
“The Onion” ran articles on Gillette’s new five-blade razor, Bush winning the 2000 election, and Chris Farley’s death… all before they actually happened.
The media (and the public) can be a funny thing, as pointed out by Phil Plait, of “Bad Astronomy” fame. Plait took the audience step by step through the moon-landing hoax, even using his belt in the demonstration. (He waved it around a bit.)
Plait’s point was that it isn’t so much what the media says that influences as what they leave out. Most of the public won’t go out and do their own research – and since a lot of science was left out, the opinion was swayed. Plait finds science and reason is much more interesting than a fabricated story, and the universe holds innumerable mysteries that are far more worthy of discussion than a silly hoax story.
Media presentation can, in all serious, be a difficult balance. Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey of “Reason” Magazine discussed how the media is drawn to certain stories – especially ones about the kids these days.
Every year, more stories pour from the media about the bad behavior of kids, even though statistics actually show a decrease in violent juvenile crime as well as the number of high schoolers having sex.
But the public isn’t interested in reading about that. They’d much rather hear what’s wrong with society than what’s right, so media representation is often one-sided and incorrect, or skews issues.
Author Christopher Hitchens elaborated on the idea with a lecture on the Mohammad comics that sparked worldwide controversy. Hitchens is of the opinion that newspapers refused to re-print the comics not out of respect for Muslim tradition, but out of fear.
Mythbusters Adam Savage and Tory Belleci are, quite possibly, two of the most famous and popular skeptics in the world. They did a Question and Answer session about the show, punctuated with clips of their adventures.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame were next, with another Question and Answer session. In this one, the audience finally discovered one thing the creators felt badly for saying – “AIDS is finally funny.”
The last presentation involving the guest speakers was a Panel Discussion at the end of the day. It marked the first time the speakers had conflicting opinions, which came to a head when Christopher Hitchens, John Rennie, and Scott Dikkers got into an argument about Islam.
It started innocently enough, with Dikkers expressing his opinion that the Koran is not all bad, and that bad parts are often pointed out to use in the media and slant public opinion.
Hitchens, true to form, had to step in with his opinion that Islam will never be a good thing, and should be stopped because it’s a religion founded on fanaticism.
Rennie then stepped in to agree with Dikkers, saying that there are a vast number of Muslims that don’t subscribe to the more fanatical beliefs in the Koran, and who can practice peacefully. But Hitchens would have none of it, and went on for several minutes about the detriment of Islam.
In the end, there wasn’t much time left for anything else but the panelists saying their favorite books.
Sunday, January 21th
On Sunday, attendees were invited to give their own presentations – approved by the JREF in advance. There was a broad range of topics, ranging from how patents are still sought for perpetual machines by exploiting weaknesses in the system, to various attempts to bring skepticism and critical thinking to a wider public through various means of communication.
The Amazing Meeting
Photos by Dean Baird Used with permission.
Photos by Dean Baird Used with permission.