TAM2013: How-to Effectively Implement Skepticism

Author Emily Dietle

My focus is on state-church separation & social issues. I'm an avid reader, and feel that one of our most valuable tools is the free movement of information and ideas. | @emilyhasbooks

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Last year was the first time that I attended The Amazing Meeting (TAM), a convention and more presented by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). While it was a marvelous event, the entire experience was overwhelming and it has taken me some time to fully grasp what was presented. I have a thorough understanding of church-state separation issues, how violations thereof affect our lives, and have attempted with this blog to educate others about related matters.

Though in my personal life I have seen pseudoscience and scammers harm people that I care about, this view has been limited, and I hadn’t grasped how it damages society as a whole or what all the issues are. This year, I headed to TAM with goals in mind, to expand upon my knowledge of the issues at hand, gaining an enhanced understanding of why it is important to address these issues, and to begin sharing that information with my audience. While there have already been several reviews of the convention, covering the overall experience, the talks, and the people, with you I’d like to share what lessons traveled home with me, and why they hold importance for us all.

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Welcome to Las Vegas! The glimmer and the gaudiness confronts you as soon as you step into McCarran International Airport. Entering the South Point hotel is like stepping into a magic show, it’s all slight of hand and misdirection; the smokey haze and sparkling lights grab your attention away from the reality of an aging hotel. It is delightful, in its own unique way.

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Before delving into the educational aspect of TAM, I first want to give gratitude to the individuals that made this trip possible. To the dear friends that brought me there, quartered and fed me, I’m ever grateful to you. To the talented and effervescent Sara Mayhew, who through her artwork and Rising Star Grant program provided me admittance to the convention instead of lingering outside in the halls my sincerest appreciation. The six days that I was fortunate to spend at TAM have made a significant impact on several aspects of my life, emotionally and intellectually. Thank you.

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When it comes to skeptical inquiry, there are real world issues at stake that make an impact on society as a whole, others effect us on a more personal level. From climate change denialism, to mental health, sex, sexuality, and disease treatment, these issues are riddled with pseudoscience and superstition. Lives are ruined, damaged, and ended as a consequence.

In order to change the negative impact of irrational beliefs and cons, as Sanal Edamaruku iterated in his talk, the approach must be hands on. We can confront quackery at clinics, address woo in martial arts, broach the subject of the paranormal with friends and family. Whatever your focus and your means of interaction, it is important to inject yourself into the constructs in a confident and non-threatening manner, using effective methods of influential communication.

Though promoting skepticism is critical, how you present it is equally important. As Jamy Ian Swiss emphasized, we must first acknowledge that anyone can be conned. When you think you are impervious to this, you are setting yourself up to become a victim. Limit your judgement of the deceived. Recognize that it is difficult for people who are deeply resolved to their irrational beliefs to apply any amount of criticism to their beliefs. Have compassion for the conned, and always make a distinction between victimizers and victims. If you want to break through, don’t shame an individual for their view, however irrational or absurd you consider it to be.

Boarding the plane to Vegas, the flight attendants went through the motions of respiratory preparedness in the event of a disaster. The persistent rule to ensure your oxygen mask is in place before helping others applies in skepticism, too. In order to “Fight the Fakers,” we each must fight the fakery within ourselves first. What does this mean? Peter Boghossian, in his impactful talk, dissected this clearly in the terms of personal authenticity. If you don’t know, say “I don’t know.” Don’t apologize or mumble in defense of reason, even if your statements of truth make others uncomfortable; only make apologies if you are genuinely sorry. Don’t be fake. Coupled with Sharon Hill‘s message about keeping a civil and even tone, it’s clear that direct communication can create leaps of change. Always keep in mind the goal of your message, and use your values to highlight and enhance it.

Above all, when engaging in skeptical education or inquiry, always remember that the ultimate goal is to apply critical examination, not to “debunk” the claim. As James Randi repeated this year, we are investigators, not debunkers, and the approach taken must reflect that with honest resolve.

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Sprinkled throughout the bulk of information that is hurled at the audience during the presentations, powerpoints, and panels, was a heavy dose of entertainment. Satiristas engaged us with a biting examination of consumerism and facets of our existence that are uncomfortable to acknowledge. At the Bacon and Donuts party, unabashed dancers assisted in revealing the message behind the No God Band‘s clever lyrics. On Saturday, I was invited to view the Magic, Mayhem, and Mentalism show. Seated by D.J. Grothe with Max Maven and Banachek, it was an absolute pleasure to witness the delight of a magic show, and hear D.J.’s boisterous and genuine laughter. Jamy Ian Swiss was right, real wonder is an adult emotion.

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In closing, there is one individual that stands out above all others in his perseverance to both entertain and educate. James Randi. Documenting his legacy, filmmakers Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, are working on producing An Honest Liar, a film highlighting Randi’s unrelenting efforts to expose all variety of cons. During the interview about the documentary, it was revealed that in the week before TAM, Randi and his partner of twenty-six years were finally granted their right to marry. This announcement was greeted with emphatic applause.

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I’m looking forward to attending The Amazing Meeting again, and anticipate that I will return with an even greater understanding of applying skepticism and educating others. I hope that you will come, too! One warning, the room hallways are endless and full of crickets.

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Many thanks to Spoony Quine of Mad Science Writer, Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford, Ardent Atheist Emery EmeryMikkopoika, and BJ Kramer for the use of their photography in this piece. Check out their pages, or there will be no cake for you!