I had the good fortune, OK, the good foresight to send myself to The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas this year. For the uninitiated TAM is the largest gathering of skeptics anywhere, put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). What’s a skeptic? Who is James Randi? Some context may be necessary. That’s why this is Part 1.
A skeptic in this context is someone who tries to make decisions about reality based on evidence and reason. So, for example, if someone makes a claim about the efficacy of an herb for curing colds, a skeptic would look for scientific evidence to support this claim and not accept it on “faith”. Typically, skeptics cast a cold eye on what they call “woo”: Ghosts, cold readings, tarot, telekinesis, etc. This is not to say they wouldn’t “believe” in these things. A skeptic would gladly accept these as real if some hard scientific facts were to be presented. A skeptic keeps an open mind and is willing to change that mind given convincing new evidence. For a more comprehensive description in this context see the Media Guide to Skepticism.
James “the Amazing” Randi, as he was known in his performing days, is a magician and skeptical investigator who has spent decades promoting the cause of critical thinking and, as this year’s TAM slogan says: “Fighting the Fakers”. He has famously shed light on the “faith healer” Peter Popoff and the spoon bending of Uri Geller among many other adventures.
I got introduced to the concept of skepticism as a movement as so many others have, by listening to the podcast The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I’ve been listening to this podcast for several years, usually while I worked out at the gym on Sunday mornings, but how I came across it originally is lost in the foggy mists of my memory.
So with all that out of the way, how was TAM? Well, for one, I did not leave the hotel once I checked in until I checked out 5 days later. It was too hot outside (I checked the weather on my phone) and there was way too much to do indoors from 8 AM to 11 PM or later each day.
You can get an idea of the scope of the program by perusing the schedule. I attended half of the workshops on Thursday and would have attended them all, but there were always 2 running simultaneously (unfortunately I did not have a spirit-self that would allow me to be in two places at once). And I managed to attend almost every session over the following 3 days, which meant sitting in a large conference hall for sometimes 4 hours at a time. I also, had tickets to nearly every extra event held in the evening, one of which had bacon, donuts, loud music and strippers! No need to see the rest of Las Vegas after all.
Clearly I had a great time. I felt immersed in a really long, stimulating intellectual conversation with a large list of very impressive people with diverse disciplines from magicians to philosophers and journalists. And that was just the official program. Meeting others from all over the world over lunch, dinner, extra events and in the hallway was as much fun as listening to speakers. I came away truly inspired, energized and full of ideas of ways to improve my own critical thinking skills and ways to help promote the concepts and programs of the skeptical community. I am still assimilating all I experienced, and will be for quite a long while. But the best way to do that, I think will be to take action where I can.