The Amazing Meeting 2013 (Part 2): What I Learned
Last week I posted my initial impressions and an overall context for The Amazing Meeting that took place in July in Las Vegas.
It’s important for me to try and record some of the most important lessons from the 4 days of workshops, presentations and hallway conversation so that those ideas do not slip away completely. As a “First TAMer” (I have the button to prove it), I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information, dazzled by seeing people whose words I’d read and podcasts I’d listened to for so many years, and the simple pleasure of being enveloped in a “family” of over 1,000 like-minded individuals from around the world.
While all the speakers had unique perspectives on the concepts of skepticism and critical thinking, a few overriding themes seem to appear throughout the conference and I will start there:
Belief is Powerful
Most advocates of belief systems that have little or no objective evidence to support them are sincere. They are convinced the “woo works.” The self-deception of believers was demonstrated multiple times at TAM where people who professed to having some unique power failed a carefully crafted test of that power and yet, remained convinced they still had the power. They always came up with rationalizations as to why they failed this time, as if the test was an easily ignorable anomaly.
We saw this demonstrated live on the last night of the conference during the “1 Million Dollar Challenge.” The James Randi Educational Foundation offers to pay anyone 1 million dollars if they can pass a mutually agreed upon test. Each year the Foundation goes through a rigorous screening process to find a worthy candidate and then work out with that candidate a test of his or her power. They make every effort to be sure the candidate understands the nature of the test, agrees to the criteria, and is convinced they can pass.
This year was unusual in that the candidate, who professed to have the power of remote vision (being able to see objects in another space at any distance) was in Algeria. The challenge was demonstrated live, over the phone, the candidate speaking through a chosen helper on stage, acting as his interpreter. He was supposed to be able to see which three objects out of 20 or so that everyone had agreed upon earlier, were placed in a room 3 days earlier and the room sealed. Needless to say, when the room was opened and the objects revealed he had gotten zero correct. But when asked if he still believed he had the power of remote vision, he said yes. He had proven it many times to himself and to his friends, family and others in his community and that this one test was flawed, in spite of having many times agreed to everything and assuring everyone he would not fail.
Do Not Blame the Victim
Skeptics tend to judge, even sometimes laugh at people they see as being fooled by false or unproven ideas. However, everyone is susceptible to being fooled, especially people who think they are invulnerable (scientists, magicians, journalists, for example). The desire to believe is powerful and innate. Charismatic and forceful leaders are able to convince people to become adherents to their systems no matter how absurd those systems may seem to outsiders and critical thinkers. And self-deception can prove the most pernicious mind trick. Just read the sad story of Linus Pauling and the vitamin phenomenon, or Steve Jobs delaying medical treatment for pancreatic cancer in favor of CAM.
So to the fakers, those who consciously and cynically try to defraud people, show no mercy in exposing and ridiculing their practices. But tread more lightly on the true believers as they are us.
There is Plenty of Harm
Skeptics of skepticism may feel that things like Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM), religious beliefs, and other areas of thought are harmless, sometimes helpful and people should be left alone to believe what they want. That’s fine until belief in concepts start inflicting harm, even death on the believers and others. Examples of the cost in both dollars and human suffering may be found atsWhat’s the Harm. Or listen to this bit of commentary from On the Media about Jenny McCarthy’s new gig on The View.
The harm to humanity in lost billions and lost or damaged lives means that learning to help fight against dubious claims and fraud is a worthwhile pursuit. Of the many things I learned at TAM, resources and tactics I was unaware of should prove valuable as I try to become more active in the skeptical community.
Stay tuned for Part 3.