Liveblogging The Amazing Meeting 9: Sunday Morning Sessions July 17, 2011

Liveblogging The Amazing Meeting 9: Sunday Morning Sessions

***If you want instant updates, I suggest reading the #TAM9 Twitter feed***

Thanks to @UAJamie for the great pictures!

We’ll be providing updates on the conference all day while getting interviews with many of the speakers. Stick around and refresh the page for more info!

You can read about the Friday Morning Session here, the Friday Afternoon Session here, the Saturday Morning Session here, the Saturday Afternoon Session here, the Sunday Morning Session here, and the Sunday Afternoon Session here.

Good morning! It’s Sunday morning and the place is… um… packed…? Well, the first few rows are, anyway.

We begin with the paper presentations! (You all owe me BIG for this, waking up early on a Sunday morning…)

First up is David Richards of the Independent Investigations Group, talking about Skepticism 101.

There’s some helpful, snarky advice. Like if you’re investigating a haunted house, turn on the lights! 🙂

Phil Ferguson is up now to discuss skepticism and investing your money. (And I play a bit role!)

What might you hear in a mutual funds sales pitch?

Hi, this is Jen! I’m taking over momentarily because Hemant just got called to the stage for his dashing good looks, apparently. And to hold props. Basically Guaranteed Mutual Funds are a scam that can get away with their scammy-ness because you sign a 72 page document that no one reads. There are a bunch of hidden fees like annual expense ratio, insurance, tax… And all of those little things add up so you basically lose all of your money.

Hemant back. I ended up with only $88 from my initial $140 investment. So sad 🙁

Phil’s advice is pretty straight forward. Invest in what you understand. Use your critical thinking skills when investing. Use “ultra low cost index funds.”

Want to learn more? Phil suggests the book Common Sense on Mutual Funds by John C. Bogle.

Next: William London of California State University to talk about the promotion of non-science-based healthcare by chiropractors in Los Angeles.

At one point, he visited 23 chiropractors to get a diagnosis. Three of them told him he had “vertical subluxations” but even they couldn’t agree what exactly that meant. Three told him his left leg was shorter than his right leg. Two told him his right leg was shorter than his left. One treated him before examining him. He presented that to a group of chiropractics but there wasn’t much of a change afterwards (surprise!)…

London did the experiment again. He found the chiropractors more methodically, online. He found 52 websites promoting a non-science-based treatment method.

He found anti-public-health recommendations (e.g. several were anti-vaccine).

There were 131 non-scientific methods being promoting (homeopathy among them).

214 of the 298 chiropractors he looked at promoted at least one dubious treatment.

The conclusion? Promotion of non-science-based healthcare is widespread among LA chiropractors.

The moral of the story: Simon Singh was right all along.

Next up: Michael Hartwell, former president of the Southern Maine Skeptical Society, on “The media isn’t calling your skeptics groups and it’s your fault!”

Hartwell is a reporter and he’s telling us how people in his field have limited resources and they’re very busy.

He tells us we have a thriving Internet presence, but the media doesn’t know we exist! When he tried reaching certain well-known skeptics, it took days before he heard back — and there goes their chance to appear in a news story.

What do some skeptics do? They write letters-to-the-editor. But that’s the letters page. You should want to be the story itself!

What should we do?

  • Tell the media that your group is an resource.
  • If you know there’s a story in which your voice needs to be heard, offer your members up to be interviewed.
  • Tell the media you can give them a new angle on the story. They’re going to cover a story if it’s popular, so what can your group add to the conversation?

Hartwell says too many skeptics are wearing their prom dress and sitting by the phone instead of taking initiative and actively trying to get into the story. Fix that!

Next up: Susan Gerbic of the Independent Investigations Group to talk about “Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia.”

She’s not condoning Wiki-vandalism. Rather, she’s suggesting that we insert links to skeptical papers/resources on articles about dubious claims.

If people search online for “psychic” Sylvia Browne, for example, they may read her Wikipedia page. We owe it to those readers to make sure there is something in that article showing that many people believe she’s a fraud and that her “gifts” have never been proven. Use reputable sources to highlight these things, of course, but how awful would it be if Browne’s claims went unchallenged on Wikipedia?

You can’t input your own opinions on the Wiki article, but you can quote someone credible who has one, like Joe Nickell in Skeptical Inquirer.

What about articles on our own spokespeople? Many lack pictures, information about what they do, etc. Gerbic says we need to have their backs.

Next up: Dylan Keenberg from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology to talk about “Using Rogerian Argumentation to discuss Supernatural and Paranormal claims.”

The question is: What kind of tone should we use when communicating skepticism? To be or not to be a dick?

Keenberg mentions the importance of speaking up only after you have first restated the “ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately” and to that person’s satisfaction. Not a bad suggestion, though it’s easier to do in person, and a lot of disagreements we’ve seen in our own community lately has happened online. Some of the responsibility is on the first speaker to convey his/her position as clearly as possible to begin with so that misstating that position becomes extremely difficult to do.

Finally, we have Ashley F. Miller telling us why “emotions aren’t the enemy.”

Miller talks about how it’s irrational to ignore emotion. We have to understand where other people are coming from, and it’s tough to change the mind of someone who feels like you’re attacking them. So don’t be a dick:

(Miller adds that sometimes, it actually works to be a dick. But it depends on the context and the situation.)

Our opponents, on the other hand, know how to use peoples’ emotions.

Example: Prop 8, the constitutional gay marriage ban in California. Our side had more money and more support, but we still lost. Why? Miller says it’s because we didn’t have emotional capital in the game and they did.

Vote No on Prop 8! It’s unfair and wrong! (But what’s it about?)

Vote Yes on Prop 8! Do it for the children! (I love children! I’m invested now.)

At one point this slide goes up. I’ll leave it to you to figure out why 🙂

Here’s an example of getting people emotionally invested. Which of the following ads works better?

The top one is true, but the bottom one is far more effective.

Papers are over and we’re back to the main program.

First up on the docket: Susana Martinez-Conde, talking about what the “neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions.”

She is the co-author (along with Stephen Macknik) of a book of the same name.

In short, lots of optical illusions here. Why do we fall for them? Lots of misdirection and inattentional blindness. Like this:

Macknik continues the talk with a few more illusions:

Essentially, he says, attention enhances one small part of the world while suppressing everything else.

Sara Mayhew is next to talk about Secular Storytelling. Mayhew is the author of the Legend of the Ztarr series and you can read Chapter 1 here.

Why teach critical thinking via Manga?

Well, it has a huge share of the graphic novel market. 70% of the readers are female. And there’s unconstrained storytelling.

There are things about the art in traditional comic books that aren’t as clear cut and emotionally compelling as it would be in Manga (e.g. a metaphorical person “on fire” in Manga vs. a character literally on fire in a traditional comic book).

Mayhew says good storytelling has emotional connection… unlike, you know, Twilight — calling those characters cardboard is “an insult to sturdy packing material.”

This is Jen. You’re stuck with me for the next couple of hours while Hemant interviews people. I missed almost all of Mayhew’s talk, but she just used Harry Potter as an example of a book with great humanist and critical thinking messages, so she gets my approval.

Hemant here again. My interview schedule changed, so Jen went to talk to her “friends.”

Mayhew says there’s no reason science and critical thinking can’t be taught through epic stories with compelling characters. That’s what her series is trying to do and hopefully more of them will eventually come through the pipeline.

After a short break, there’s a panel on “Communicating Skepticism” with PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott, Carol Tavris, Phil Plait, and Jamy Ian Swiss, moderated by Sadie Crabtree.

I’m fully expecting a Myers/Scott fistbrawl.

It’s Jen again! Now I’ll be filling in for Hemant for real. I’m excited that I get all the potentially controversial panels today.

Friend: They should have put Carol between PZ and Eugenie.

Eugenie starts with noting that meetings like TAM aren’t exactly communicating skepticism – they’re preaching to the choir. But that’s a good thing, because the choir needs ammo. It’s what anthropologists would refer to as an “intensification ritual.” These cons tell us how we can go out and approach people in an effective way.

Phil mentions that we have to think about what the person you’re talking to actually hears (and alludes to elevatorgate, to giggles). Phrasing counts so people receive your message – though sometimes how you phrase things doesn’t matter. Consider your audience and message.

Carol adds that when interacting with friends specifically, if we phrase things like “Here’s how you can check if this is correct” instead of “YOU’RE WRONG BECAUSE OF THESE REASONS,” people will be more open to change.

Jamy notes that we shouldn’t discuss the right way to communicate skepticism, but the many ways.

PZ agrees with all of them, to shocked looks on the panel, haha. What troubles PZ is that the diplomats often tell the firebrands to stop it because they’re hurting the better approach. The approach of the religious is to say “I’m right” and it’s really effective (which Eugenie blanches at). And that we shouldn’t necessarily adopt authoritarian modes of speech. But books like the God Delusion aren’t necessarily super sensitive, but it has clarity in strength, and it’s forcefulness shows that we “stand for something without ambiguity.”

And sometimes when we’re trying to be accommodating, we forget what we’re fighting for – the truth. That we can sometimes soften our tactics, but to not lose sight of our goal.

Carol agrees, adding that being accommodating on a individual basis with friends is effective, but that “the other part is a political strategy. You betcha I don’t want to be wussy and sweet when the religious right is saying what I consider reprehensible.”

Uh oh, Eugenie comments that we shouldn’t label skepticism as the search for the capital T Truth, because it makes skepticism seem too much like religion. PZ’s eyes almost pop out of his head. Then Eugenie says you need to set aside peripheral issues to focus on your goal…but then uses diversity as an example? Hrm…

PZ: Being passionate about something is not turning it into a religion.
Audience: *clap clap clap*

Sadie reigns the discussion back in and asks what people can do to communicate skepticism. Phil says that one person can do stuff even if they’re in a small town where there’s no local group – write newspapers about issues you care about, organize your own group, etc.

Carol tl;dr: Tell a story when you communicate
Jamy tl;dr: I agree

Jamy: One of the mission statements of his group was to provide evidence that skeptics were cool. I can get behind that. And that social things are important, because that’s how friends of friends of friends get into skepticism.

PZ: A an easy shortcut to a story for the media is conflict. “And I’m an expert at this one.” The media loves a story of two sides – you may not necessarily always want to do it, but it’s effective. Newspapers love calling him because they know he’ll give them a juicy quote.

Eugenie adds that soundbites are important. That you need to quickly and efficiently what you get across, instead of rambling on.

Jamy: Skeptics talk a lot about getting the media to be accurate and conform to your methods. But instead we should understand how the media works, and take advantage of that.

Carol: One dissenting person is a crazy person. Two is a conspiracy. And three is a movement.

And now time for questions from the audience.

Question: Do you think we can get science education to be a part of science education, like in graduate school?

Phil wins over the grad students in the audience by commenting how hard graduate school is. But notes that new scientists need to have media training and know how to present their research. But how do you do it when grad school is already so crazy? Where’s the time or funding?

Carol adds that now we have more excellent scientists who are also great science writers, though that wasn’t always the case. There wasn’t always the support for doing both.

PZ: There are a lot of scientists who should not be let out to the public – but he agrees with Phil. And notes that he’s being far too agreeable today, and Eugenie asks him if he’s had enough sleep.

Question: I read your blog and you’re very abrasive, but in public you’re very calm and kind. So who’s the real PZ Myers?

The audience eats it up.

PZ notes that he’s really not angry – if you could see him writing posts, he’s having a grand time. But in this group, we all get along and he has nothing to really argue with. But if this was a meeting of the religious right, the fangs (and probably tentacles) would come out. “You are my people!”

But we’re all individuals, so we do have disagreements, and he won’t hide them. But he recognizes that Eugenie and him share 99% of their views, but the 1% is the most interesting to talk about.

Question from Greta Christina: Some people say your style is ineffective? How many emails do you get a month from people whose minds you’ve changed?

PZ: Hundreds

Greta lobs the ball, PZ spikes.

Phil notes that it’s annoying that there’s no good metric for what works – we just have anecdotes. How do we know what blogs are effective? Carol adds something I always say – sometimes something can give you first doubts, but the whole process is longer.

PZ adds that metrics can be annoying because people send him studies saying how he should act. But he doesn’t care if he’s less effective than others – he wants to do what he’s good at and enjoys. And if he’s less effective than Eugenie or Phil, that’s still okay – he’s effective for some people.

Question: What’s the most important message to get across in skepticism?

Eugenie: Critical thinking.
PZ: When I write about science, I don’t try to add why it’s applicable to human, like it may lead to a cure for cancer. I want to show how beautiful and exciting the science alone is.

Question: If you had a blank check, how would you improve science education?

Phil: Starting my own television network. What’s the natural predator of foxes?
Jamy: Critical thinking education for all young people. I shouldn’t be giving talks to honors students of college classes, I should be talking to first graders.
Eugenie: Popular media has huge effect upon young people. Maybe a science version of the old anti smoking campaign. (Speaking of which, why do young skeptics smoke?) We need to show that scientists are cool and make us part of American culture.
Carol: I would disagree on one thing. An ad campaign would go nowhere without having money to also increase science education. So I’d use the money to fight every goddamn religious right person running for office.

Thunderous applause, end of panel.

Desiree Schell is up next with the talk “Out of the Blog and Onto the Streets: What Skepticism Can Learn from Social Movements.”

Wait, we can do stuff other than blogging? What is this I don’t even…

Desiree starts with some examples of diplomats and firebrands from the black rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements. She’s not comparing racial segregation to teaching creationism, but we can learn from the tactics of social movements.

Different audiences require different tactics. Feminists would write messages to mothers, while at the same time chaining themselves to buildings. But most of all, it’s important to be inclusive to as many people as possible, because that’s more people who can help you in the future.

(It’s Hemant now! Just had a long conversation with James Randi. AHHH!)

Schell announces that she’s about to say something controversial:

Militancy can help the skeptical movement.

(Cue smattering of applause)

The militants make the moderates look more mainstream.

(She adds: Don’t call me a dick just yet; I’m not done.)

But the moderates will stick around when the militants eventually become obsolete. (Bye, PZ! It was nice knowing you.)

Moral of the story: Different tactics work for different objectives.

(Side note: I’ve never listened to Schell or her podcast before, but she is totes amazing.)

Last talk of the break: Steven Novella talking about “Mental Illness Denial.”

Scientologists are the Creationists of mental health, Novella says. He quotes L. Ron Hubbard:

“We want at least one bad mark on every psychiatrist in England, a murder, an assault, or a rape or more than one… This is Project Psychiatry. We will remove them.”

– L. Ron Hubbard, Sec ED, Office of LRH, Confidential, 22 February 1966, “Project Psychiatry”

On the continuum of Denier to True Believer, you tend to see yourself in the middle. True Believers are anyone to the right of you while Deniers are anyone to the left of you 🙂

Deniers tend to move the goalposts, dismiss evidence, use evidence selectively, and have motivated reasoning (they use their pre-judged conclusion to build their argument).

Don’t confuse disease with disorder: A disease is a pathophysiological process. A disorder is a deficiency/dysfunction of a biological process which results in demonstrable harm.

Interesting point: When physically examining the brain, you can’t tell the difference between someone with a 60 IQ and someone with a 120 IQ.

Another tactic used to argue against the notion of mental illness: they blame chemical imbalances which can be fixed with specific drugs. But Novella says it doesn’t reflect the current thinking about mental illness. The research points to specific brain regions being the culprit, not simply neurotransmitters. Depression is not just a deficiency of Prozac, he adds.

Last session starts up in an hour!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thanks for the liveblogging from TAM9!  Hecht’s talk sounds really fascinating, as does Tyson’s.  I really have to find out more about him and read his books.  (I like your dig at Dawkins for plugging his book.)

  • Rb6k

    Great updates so far, thanks for doing this!!

  • Michael Caton

    Great.  We need more information about how to do things outside of print (actual activism) and ways to get the message out.  In particular, framing in terms of topics that everyone finds useful (like money) and not just things that science geeks will like is helpful.

  • Laura Dupont

    Thanks so much for this.  It’s a real bright spot on a dreary day of work! Love the pictures and the pithy commentary.

  • Great updates!  Have a question though:  What does totes mean?

  • I’m glad you like Desiree’s talk.  I had a preview of it, and felt it would make a good impression.  I hope the ideas get traction in the sketpcial community.  Thanks for the live blog!!!

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    I see white people, 75% male

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