A skeptical look at TAM:London

I'm pretty certain The Amazing Meeting (TAM) is an awesome event.

I say pretty certain because I've never been able to afford it. It's in the USA and is part of that Las Vegas Big Conference wizz-bang that puts it out of my price league. Surprisingly becoming a Doctor of Astrophysics didn't create the defacto independently wealthy lifestyle one might expect; Doctor Who lied to me.

But now that it has come to London.... and, well, I still can't afford it.

I state this not to moan about the price (although I will discuss it) but because I write from a position of ignorance and want that to be understood from the start.

First, I think it is important that I take a few paragraphs to emphasise how important the James Randi Educational Foundation is to me (but feel free to skip to the nitty gritty).

After reading swift for what seemed an age I joined the forum back in January 2002 (eons ago in internet-time). It was the foundry that pushed me into becoming a blogger.

As a child I was obsessed with the Paranormal/UFOs and the like. I had so many books on the subject that they filled a giant 6ft chest. My first W√ľnderkammer. This was pre-internet so I would rummage around boot sales and 2nd hand shops picking up exciting looking tomes of forbidden knowledge; everything from Ancient Civilizations to Zombies via Ball Lightning, Cryptozoology, Kirlian Photography, Psychic Plants and so on.

Then later, starting 'big school' a series of excellent teachers awoke within me a love of science.

Now science is not a series of facts but a process. Once it gets under your skin your can't help to apply that logic to every aspect of your life and interests.

And so my obsession with the paranormal met the scientific method and piece by piece it crumbled. I took my beloved interest and tore it down piece by piece day by day.

But it wasn't tragic or sad. It was enlightening. I was working out how wonderful the real world was - not this make believe one I inhabited previously. My only frustrations were aimed at the authors who I could see intentionally recycling claims long ago disproven.

I felt alone and voiceless; there was this community of paranormal researchers and I had no voice to hold them to account with.

And the JREF changed all that.

It wasn't until university that I personally acquired a consistent internet connection (a statement that on reflection seems preposterous) and would waste so long in the library hoovering up not just information but the realisation I was not alone.

James Randi - my god damning hero.

Now there is such a huge skeptic and new-atheist movement that it seems crazy for someone of that inclination to be so isolated. But I was.

The JREF's outreach activities directly lead to this blog and to who I am today. I briefly met Randi at 'An Evening with James Randi and Friends' and it was a huge moment in my life.

So lets make this clear — the JREF and James Randi are massively important. Not just to me personally but for our society.

But one of skepticism's strengths is self criticism.

So lets be critical.

Lets start with the price. The ticket for TAMLondon, is £220. Some people have argued that this is extortionate.

An Evening with Randi and friends, had 11 speakers and cost £11 for about 300 people. A five fold increase in seats and the cost rising by a factor of twenty is quite shocking at first glance.

But it is preposterous to argue that JREF are ripping people off because: a) they are holding the meeting in a central London Hilton Hotel which doesn't come cheap, b) there is an International line up of speakers to fly in and c) it's raising money for the charity that is the JREF. d) the first TAM:London cost £150 (ish) and sold out not in days, but in hours.

The demand, even at those prices is there.

So the price is well justified, despite how counter intuitive it first appears that as attendance numbers rise so do the costs.

That said I do think there are a number of valid concerns to be raised about the price. It can be argued that the JREF is a primarily American charity and that the money it generates could be better used by the British skeptic movement.

The counter argument to this however is three fold. Firstly the JREF output is not solely contained within the US and with so much output being online it helps the entire globe (I can't forget how it helped me here in the UK for example).

Secondly I think many of us here in the UK and Europe see America as the primary battleground. That is where the nonsense is strongest and needs the most attention. I think we want to help in that battle and so the donations are willing. The issues the JREF highlights are global and not limited to just one country.

Thirdly it assumes that without TAM:London some magical British based TAM would appear.

Nevertheless, I've done voluntary work the British Humanist Association (ooh get me!) for example. And so I can state first hand how much support they need and what such good work they do. I feel that many of us in the UK are often distracted looking at the crazy nonsense that occurs outside the UK to properly pay attention to that which occurs within it.

It is important to note that that is not a criticism of TAM but of ourselves.

The second main issue with TAM:London is it's purpose.

It is not an outreach event. It is not intended to win over or convince people of the need for Rational Thought. The FAQ makes that no clearer than when it details how any video content posted to the net taken at the event will be removed.

As such it is neither a medium for the publishing of new findings. An academic conference would jump at any such publicity. At least in my own experience.

And so that leaves the fact that it is a show. A piece of entertainment.

Again, for the record, that isn't criticism of TAM:London — thats a completely fair position to take. One I would pretty much take if I was running TAM (see my 'solution' later).

So what are we left with? A 1,500 seater venue of skeptic celebrities preaching to the converted whilst raising money for their organisation of choice.

Which is a church.

And not a british church, but an american one, with american sensibilities (or that crazy one in south london). A Megachurch.

That sentence sounds bigoted and horrible. It isn't meant to be.

I'm a regular at Skeptics in the Pub in both Holborn and now Westminster (say hi next time!) and have spent the last few debating with friends whether this low key event that takes place in a pub basement is becoming churchlike. Whether it preaches to the converted and does nothing but support previously held beliefs. Occasionally it can remind you of that - but it is a truly wonderful and important event that I recommend to every one of you. It is open, extremely cheap and works hard to make the world a better place. Ten23 and the Libel Reform issues wouldn't be nearly as successful without it.

So why does TAM:London leave a number of us feeling slightly uneasy?

I think because it represents such big business. Many skeptics are critical of things like big church congregations, Woo conferences and exhibitions. And as nonsensical as it is to compare them it's hard not to feel like a certain amount of moral high ground is lost when we have what amounts to our own.

A critic can point to it and say: "look, you just like to go and hear people tell you that you are right!" and one can't reply: "it's not like that, come and see!" Because they can rightly point out the barrier of entry being £220 high.

Skepticism is about self criticism and not becoming complacent in ones views. But if we become people self supporting our beliefs who go to events to enjoy being enraged by woo, then we are using anger, frustration and being eghast as an entertainment.

It would be disastrous if people accused TAM of selling that in the way that Mr Alton Towers sells his rollercoasters.

So what do we need to do? We need to do the boring thing and reach out to the believers and the unaware.

When we are ridiculing woo and faith and bad science it needs to be in a manner that allows people to hear. To jump aboard and see. To be inspired and realise that there is a different way.

If they see it as a different kind of church where believers pays hundreds of pounds to be told their right then we will push the next generation of skeptics away.

Which would be a terrible shame.

We do not want to appear to be sitting in our ivory towers laughing at the idiots below.

We want people to know that our ivory tower has a lift and you can come and join us (I refuse to accept any negative connotations to ivory towers as they sound far too awesome).

To end I want to reiterate, I'm not saying TAM is bad. I love the JREF and would go if I could afford it. But I do think that we need to think carefully about what impression it gives.

TED — a role model, and solution.

To be critical without any suggestions for improvement would be too much even for me. So here's my simple solution.

It needs an openness it doesn't currently have and taking a leaf out of TEDs book I think there is a way around that.

TED is another preposterously expensive conference (It's almost a $1000 to get just a live web feed!) that could do huge damage to people's view of science except for one brilliant move. Rather than appearing exclusional, it has become a huge tool for good with it's free broadcast of talks given. Once a week for the year between TEDs these talks keep interest high, illuminate and inform the masses and makes the conference transparent.

With the support of the speakers at TAM:London this approach would prevent the criticisms I've detailed here.

Currently TAM:London just has a single video from last year.

So I call on TAM:London and its speakers to follow TED and turn a meeting that currently appears insular and segregating into a huge outreach and educational resource. Make the talks free. Slowly. Drip by drip. Over the year.

I don't believe it will cost you money. If anything I think it will increase DVD sales and grow the meeting. I suspect it will increase demand for next years tickets.

But more importantly it will raise awareness and place skepticism above reproach.

Are my feelings justified? I don't believe they necessarily are. But not being able to afford to go, I can't say further.

In the interest of full disclosure - I've applied for a bloggers press pass to visit TAM:London.


A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill: A deal with the devil worth making

I doubt many of the readers of this site will be that happy with Cameron in power. I know I'm not.

But, I contend that 5 years of Cameron is worth it. Even if he looks like his greasy carapace might crack open at any moment to release a David Icke Lizard Man.

Because the protection of civil liberties that this new parliament will provide is more important in the long term than the damage he may do to our public services.

I was too young during Thatchers years to really appreciate what she did to the country. It was only during Major that I started to (crudely) understand the pain and inequality they brought to my (strangely tory voting) parents.

Blair's new labour were the only labour party in power I had experienced, so their new nomenclature was more or less irrelevant. And whilst many people had hope for this new way, by the time I could vote the reality of Blair's government had made itself apparent to me.

As such for many of us this election has been extremely difficult. The continual, systematic, piece by piece dismantling of civil liberties by Labour since the Twin Towers attacks has been such a tremendous long term threat to our freedoms that the idea of allowing them to continue unabated with another term was unthinkable.

As unthinkable as allowing the Tories back in.

And with the corrupt First Past the Post system preventing the Lib Dems from holding a number of seats in anyway representing the 7 million votes they would eventually receive it seemed we were doomed.

But the hung parliament and the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition has produced a unique chance to undo so much of this mess.

The overlap in the venn diagram of Lib Dem/Con policies is such that any areas on which they do they agree are areas they need to push with all their strength in order to convince the public (and themselves) that they are a strong and stable government.

This is the best situation we could have possibly hoped for — as if their is one area where these parties do agree it is Civil Liberties.

I now quote from the full text of the coalition agreement document produced by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. §10 is a doozy.

10. Civil liberties

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

  • A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
  • The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.
  • Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
  • The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
  • Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
  • The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
  • The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
  • The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
  • Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
  • Further regulation of CCTV.
  • Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
  • A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.
  • I began to bold the most important parts of that list. But I stopped, because each and every part is so very, very important.

    The end of the system to systematically record every email sent and every url visited. The end of ID Cards. A commitment to libel reform. It's pretty much everything I've talked about on this blog.

    As such I wait with bated breath over the future of the Digital Economy Bill (and, of course, voting reform).

    With Clegg we have a liberal deputy prime minister who stated that he would break the law and lead a campaign of civil disobedience over ID cards.

    It is also reassuring that he will admit to being an atheist.

    We've been at a truly fundamental turning point in our history. One which is typically misunderstood or ridiculed but that makes it no less important.

    When it comes to our civil liberties and the disruptive distributed and equalised printing press we call the internet we are lumbered with MPs full of the fear of terrorism whilst being the last generation that can not understand the internet in either purpose or form.

    And for all it's cat pictures that there internet represents our cultural future and public mouthpiece. So, for all the damage to our public services in the next 5 years - if the Tories push the internet off the knife edge and back towards the openess and liberty we need, then in fifty years we'll still have the internet we need in a world we can not yet begin to understand.

    And that, I believe would be worth it.