Sunday, June 22, 2008

The More You Stroke It, The Softer It Gets

With a name like The Amaz!ng Meeting, one expects a certain amount of hyperbole. However, in the words of Dizzy Dean, "It ain't bragging if you done it."

There have already been some truly amazing presentations, as I've described in my other posts on TAM6. One keeps wondering how any day can possibly top the last. I'm happy to report that Saturday provided a very satisfactory Big Finish™ to TAM6.

(Okay, okay, there were some fine papers on the schedule for Sunday morning, but I wasn't able to attend them.)

Saturday highlights follow:

Dr. Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society, kicked things off with a fine talk on Why People Do Weird Things. He cited recent fMRI research suggesting that skeptical thought may actually require more effort and time than uncritical thought.

Sharon Begley, senior editor at Newsweek, is widely known for her ability to break down complex scientific theories and write about them in simple prose. She spoke on "Creationism and Other Weird Beliefs: The Role of the Press". If we were expecting the press to bail us out in the struggle against irrationality and scientific illiteracy, her suggestion is: "Don't get your hopes up."

Derek Colanduno and Swoopy gave a short presentation on the state of Skepticality, the official podcast of the Skeptics Society.

Dr. Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society host of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe and Yale neurology prof gave a thoughtful talk about "Dualism and Creationism". Dualism is the idea that the brain and the mind are irreducibly distinct. I especially like Dr. Novella's capsule summary:

Creationism = Evolution denial
Dualism = Neuroscience denial

Jeff Wagg, general manager for the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation), gave some late-breaking news about TAM7. The contract has been signed, and TAM7 will take place in Las Vegas at the brand new South Point Casino from July 9 - 12. He also raised the possibility of a future edition of TAM in the UK (woot woot).

Brian Dunning of gave a sneak preview during lunch of the TV pilot he has produced for The Skeptologists, featuring six prominent skeptics. Stout work, Brian! I hope one of the networks picks it up.

Dr. Phil Plait, astronomer, writer, skeptic and author of the Bad Astronomy Blog, was the first afternoon speaker. He was introduced by PZ Myers, who continued their daily game of conference badinage. Phil's rejoinder:
In a way that only a roomful of atheists can appreciate, PZ's writing is god-like.
Phil then treated us to a quick and breezy tour of our solar system. His skeptical conclusion:
The Universe is Cool Enough Without Making Up Crap About It!!
Adam Savage, movie special effects artist and co-host of Mythbusters, quickly proceeded to make everyone's list of speakers they never, ever want to follow on stage. He started by regaling us with his ongoing quest to build the perfect replica of the Maltese Falcon. I'll just say that compared to Adam, I'm a lot less anal than I thought I was.

He wrapped up his presentation with a short video clip of "explosion porn" from the show. At the next break he gave away 1000 ping pong balls (and autographed many of them) that were used in one Mythbusters episode to raise a boat off the bottom of Monterrey Bay.

Concepts that the Discovery Channel has not yet allowed them to develop for Mythbusters:
  • Adam lighting his own farts
  • vinyl vs. CD
  • coathanger wire vs. expensive speaker cables
  • 21 grams (the alleged weight of the human soul)
Matthew Chapman, author, journalist, director and great-great grandson of Charles Darwin told us what he loves about America. He has written widely on the creation-evolution controversy in the U.S. Among other things, he visited Dayton, TN, home of the original Scopes Monkey Trial, to see if the town had evolved appreciably since the 1925 trial. Alas, it hadn't.

Mr. Chapman is founder and president of Science Debate 2008, which calls for a public debate of science issues by the two U.S. presidential candidates. To date, 28 Nobel laureates, 102 university presidents and quite a few other large names in science have signed this initiative.

Dr. Richard Wiseman, magician, psychologist and author of Quirkology, gave the final talk of the session. It was immediately apparent why he drew this slot, because it would be hard for even the other stellar speakers at TAM6 to top him.

Dr. Wiseman is not your usual psychologist, as can be seen from a glance at some of his prior research topics:
  • why do incompetent politicians get elected?
  • does déjà vu actually exist?
  • what is the perfect pick-up line?
  • does déjà vu actually exist?
Do you consider yourself an observant person? Find out in the following Wiseman video:

Richard Wiseman definitely knows how to put the "grand" in grand finale -- in this case, by setting a new world record for simultaneous spoon-bending. His minions proceeded to pass out 800 metal spoons to this hall full of skeptics. But wait, there's more!

The next step: teaching 800 skeptics how to pull off (so to speak) this simple illusion. The key concept: "the more you stroke it, the softer it gets." Wiseman was quick to point out that this is one of the few contexts in which that happens to be good news.

Instead of teaching us spoon-bending himself, he delegated the task to someone else. In this case, that someone else happened to be one of the world's great magicians: Teller. After a quick post-graduate course in the theory, art and perils of spoon-bending by Teller, we were ready.

As the video camera rolled, we focused our skeptic energy fields on the spoons, and as one, bent and broke them all. Once the Quirkology SWAT team finishes editing all of their footage, keep an eye out for their final cut, coming soon to a YouTube theater near you.

Q & A Panel

At this point, there was no easy way to top Wiseman short of tactical nukes. Despite this, a blue-ribbon panel of skeptics stormed the stage for a brief Q & A session. My choice for most memorable quote is Adam Savage's:
Before you become a skeptic you might think the world is in color. But once you become a skeptic, it goes to HD!"

Dinner with Randi

About 60 of us then headed over to the Rio for dinner with Randi and other TAM6 faculty. After a fine evening of food and conversation, this group mitosed and half of the new organism headed for the Penn & Teller show at the Rio. In a word, awesome, in the original sense of awe. And, as an airport billboard promised, "Fewer audience injuries than last year!". (Extra tip: don't miss the 30 minute pre-show, and pay particular attention to the bassist...)


Skepticality said...

TAM was fun this year! We had almost zero time to attend any of the 'fun' stuff it seemed. Most of me and Swoopy's time was spent in the press/interview room, or talking to people who had questions for us, or such. But, still a lot of fun!

Sad that we didn't make it to the P&T show, but we didn't know when people were going, etc... and with all the stuff we were doing, it just didn't happen for us! :(

A fun time for all!

The Samurai Radiologist said...

@ skepticality:

I enjoyed your and Swoopy's talk. I'm looking forward to hearing some of your TAM6 interviews on upcoming Skepticality podcasts!