The Amazing Meeting 8: Skepticism 2.1 (reboot)


I am still recovering, catching up, and formulating thoughts on The Amazing Meeting 8. In the meantime, I thought I would give you a summation and a few personal highlights.

Before I do that, here is a link to the materials promised in the Skepticism in the Classroom workshop Thursday. Apparently, there has been some trouble getting to this page, but the link should do it for you.



“Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar.” - Edward R. Murrow

Someone hit the “reset” button on the community’s culture.

There were a few – very few – dark spots in it for me, but these were grossly overshadowed by positives. I will discuss the details in posts to follow. It is actually difficult to pull out “highlights” from the program, because it was so packed with good work, so I will probably take some time and break it up into several posts.

In the meantime, I do not want much more time to go by without making a strong statement about a few highly influential (to me) talks which the speakers must have known would hit a nerve with some.

Obviously, none of these people wrote their talks for my benefit, but it seems appropriate to thank them. I did so from the stage, but given that I was terribly nervous and trying to focus on the talk I was about to give, I do not know if my gratitude came across. So, here it is again.

Thank you Phil Plait, for your much-needed, humble, all-encompassing call for thinking about our goal and the impact of our words before we say/write them. Although other talks explained the sources and influences of hubris, Phil’s was a heartfelt call for reflection which brought tears (good ones) to many eyes in the audience. I spoke to several people who admitted to fleeting thoughts that they had prompted this speech somehow and I could not help feeling this way myself. That is testimony to the timeliness of it. This talk set the entire tone for the conference and I know it was not an easy one to give (it was not an easy one to hear, either), so if you appreciated it as much as I did, send him a note of thanks. Bravo.

Thank you to Massimo Pigliucci, for defining “Skeptic” and discussing the need to think about what, exactly, we are each qualified to say publicly and whether we frame opinions as opinions, not facts. He often steps out on a limb, apparently without looking down, but this was so timely and appropriate that it stood out. There were a few wet eyes during his talk as well.

Thank you to The Amazing Randi for acknowledging the vision and contributions of Paul Kurtz. In doing so, Randi endorsed a tempered approach to dealing with our challenges.

Thank you to D.J. Grothe. Over the course of the weekend, he managed to negotiate from nearly every founder or highly-influential speaker a definition of “Skepticism” and/or a clear goal for the interviewee’s organization. I cannot help but be reminded of his talk at NECSS, which should serve as a primer for anyone interested in this movement. Randi, for example, limited the mission of the JREF to issues surrounding testable claims, something I strongly believe should be adhered to by skeptic organizations. I believe that organizations should remain focused and that critical thinking is the key to change (not promoting conclusions).

The Best Part of TAM8…

…was sharing the experience with my son. Connor is 12 years old, the minimum age for The Amazing Meeting, and has become more interested in this work over the past year. It was my hope that TAM8 would give him something to look forward to; it was. I hoped it would inspire him; it did (a little too much, actually). I hoped it would give him a passion and a mission; it did.

At one point I found him with The Amazing Randi, who gave him a demonstration in conjuring. If anyone has video of this, please contact me. I did not even get a good picture myself, unfortunately.

James Randi with Connor Drescher

photo by D.J. Grothe

It seems this started when Connor walked right up to him and said, “Mr. Randi, I would like to give a talk at TAM next year.”

Of course, Connor received a lesson from me later on the importance of not getting ahead of himself. I also discussed the faux pas of going over D.J. Grothe’s head and the fact that being a kid may get him more attention than the average TAM-goer, but it does not give him special license to grab the megaphone.

However, I must note that I am secretly thrilled that he is so committed.

Other Personal Highlights

  • …knowing that Richard Dawkins attended the “Skepticism in the Classroom” workshop that I did with Daniel Loxton and Matt Lowry (moderated by Michael Blanford) mid-day Thursday AND the “Skepticism and Sexuality” workshop that Heidi Anderson and others gave on Sunday afternoon. I find speakers so much more sincere when I know that they are interested in what others in their field are doing and saying.
  • …hearing Connor, completely on his own, finagle the last question to Dawkins and Randi during the reception Thursday night. He asked a great one for those new to this movement, too. [Just a note: I think it was a mistake to plan a “show” during a social hour. We were asked to shut up so that the show could be heard. That said, it wasn’t a bad show, just not a great way to do it (live and learn, JREF/CSI/Skeptics Society).]
  • Matt and Dylan in the registration line

  • …watching Woo Fighter, Dylan Keenberg, take pages and pages of notes, soaking in the culture and inspiration of the meeting. Matthew Newton, who found funding at the last minute, was also able to attend and despite missing a little bit of the World Cup, thoroughly enjoyed the talks. I think they both understand now why I set TAM attendance as a goal for new members.
  • …getting a new Skeptics Society shirt – one that will not be relegated to the “nightshirt” stack. Very cool design and cut!
  • …watching friends eat their first musk sticks. This Australian “treat” found its way around the meeting, mostly by being carried by the charming Richard Saunders. I will note that these were the less popular of the treats Kylie Sturgess sent for the crowd at the Skepticality Speaking Beyond BS podcast recording. I often wonder if the market for these things is entirely as traveling Australians’ hospitality gifts. To me, they are shocking examples of Australians’ need to rebel food-wise. Most people say they taste like shaving cream, but I’d say perfume. Yuk.
  • …the satisfying and fun conversation Thursday night, both during and after the podcast recording, which itself was a thrill. So much awesomeness in one room should have caused world peace to break out.
  • SSBBS Setup
  • …watching, and taking part in, that moment of recognition when one realizes that they are face to face with a friend they have only talked to online thus far. This was especially entertaining in the bar on Wednesday night, before anyone had name tags.
  • …good times sharing frustrations, victories, and strategies with good people. You all know who you are…
  • …seeing my friend Ani Aharonian’s face when she realized that Genie Scott was there.
  • …hearing two people who might otherwise be called “crackpots” treated with respect and open minds by real, rational, reasonable Skeptics.
  • …introducing my son to people I call friends and watching him collect signatures in books he has read or hopes to read soon.
  • …being mistaken for Naomi Baker after the Grassroots Workshop. What a compliment! Next year, we will have to start a doppelganger gallery: Cheryl Hebert/Desiree Schell, Dylan Keenberg/Penn Jillette, me/Naomi Baker – who else?
  • …looking into the audience when the mostly-filled room was so quiet during my Sunday talk that I had no idea if they were listening intently or bored silly and seeing Donald Prothero‘s big smile.
  • …seeing Daniel Loxton, who has taken some heat in the community lately for saying how great it would be if we at least tried to be nice to each other, smile like he just opened the BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENTS EVAH!
  • …coming down off the stage on Sunday and being immediately flanked by K.O. Myers, who could not wait to tell me his brilliant idea. It reminded me that I have the most amazing friends on the planet.
  • …getting say, “I told you so” to a number of people for different reasons. Because I am always right. This is a supernatural gift. I shall apply for the challenge next year.

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