As some of you know, know, I attended the 11th annual Amazing Meeting (TAM) put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation. And my friend Celeste joined me there — I gotta give her props for taking the lead, actually — she signed up immediately upon discovering such an event took place, while I hemmed and hawed and tried to justify the expense. So glad I succumbed to reason and finally bought my ticket!
This year’s theme was “Fighting the Fakers” and emphasis was on psychics, woo alternative med practices, and other ways human beings have found to trick dollars out of pockets without providing any real service. James “The Amazing” Randi, who calls himself an investigator rather than a “debunker,” has been a skeptical hero of mine for years and has inspired, trained, and influenced just about every professional skeptic and legitimate paranormal investigator working today (and no, the ghost hunter guys aren’t legitimate). Even at his advanced age, he attends these annual meetings, takes a genuine interest in meeting all those attending and making them feel welcome, and clearly has a large hand in the operations of his foundation.
Musician and podcaster George Hrab was the emcee, and he opened with a clever bit inspired by (and featuring “slightly altered” footage from) Willy Wonka. Instead of a hunched-over Gene Wilder, at just the right time out came a hunched figure with the caped coat, the hat, the white beard, the cane–all the markers of James Randi, and this impish figure of course straightened up and did a cartwheel, revealing himself to be Mr. Hrab (who then introduced the Amazing one himself).
Randi has been the subject of a documentary (now in the final stages of editing) called “The Honest Liar,” and we were treated to a chat with the film makers and some looks at Randi’s home life–which has undergone a legal, if not substantive, change as of late. Randi and his partner of twenty-plus years travelled up to Washington DC (the closest place gay marriage is legal) and exchanged vows and rings. This will hopefully help resolve his husband’s residence issue . . . That is another right that has been denied over the years to same-sex couples; rather than getting married and acquiring citizenship or legal residency, often a foreign-born partner must simply stay illegally if they want to remain with the love of their life (which is what, I gathered, had happened with Randi’s longtime partner).
Many of the panels and sessions were informative and engaging and yes, even funny. This year seemed a turnabout from TAM 9, the last one I attended, which focused on astronomy and space. This one had an emphasis on turning INWARD and looking at human psychology, philosophy, the notion of truth and belief, and how we cognitively fool ourselves every day. There were also a significant number of women giving presentations, which stood out to me in light of some flack TAM has taken for not being as open to the double-X-chromosomed as they should have been. This year, all volunteers went through harassment prevention/response training, and notable speakers included Susan Blackmore, Susan Jacoby, Dr. Harriet Hall, Susan Haack, and science journalists Faye Flam and Cara Santa Maria. Rebecca Watson was unfortunately still absent, and I would have been happy to hear Eugenie Scott speak again, but she was not in attendance either.
A panel on woo in martial arts, with MMA fighter Brent Weedman and several other experts, was very entertaining. The hierarchical environment of a dojo is a hotbed for creating ritual-as-superstition, and we were treated to video snippets of several deluded fighters who honestly believed they had attained some mastery of a mystical chi that made them invulnerable. It was a little uncomfortable watching the trained fighter pummel an old man who had issued a high-stakes challenge to any fighter, believing himself invulnerable. Or the chi master who knocks out all his students with a “touchless punch” but cannot inflict any damage to the nonbelieving skeptic. Or the surprised look on the monk’s face as the machete he thwacked into his arm actually sliced into skin and muscle rather than bouncing harmlessly off–after all, he had performed his skin invulnerability ritual! While elixirs and meditation are still a major part of many American fighters’ regimen, Mr. Weedman noted “Yeah many fighters I know focus on their chi, but I notice they also do sit-ups and weights too.” The really sad thing about some of these extreme examples is that they follow a similar pattern to the doomsday believers. Upon failing some test, they do not chuck their beliefs and say “well I guess chi doesn’t exist after all!” Rather, they double down and rationalize. The chi master unable to knock down the skeptic claimed that the skeptic had either his toes or his tongue in a special defense position. The guy with the self-inflicted machete wound claimed he had not performed the invulnerability ritual correctly enough. This is a form of self-blame to preserve the belief at all costs, and it’s sort of tragic.
Sparks flew at the Magicians versus Psychics panel, as Jamy Iam Swiss ripped into “reformed” psychic and current mentalist Mark Edward. I use quote marks because Mr. Swiss took issue with whether Mark Edward was indeed reformed, claiming he still did the same misleading act and, even worse, he now tried to mix it with real science to lend the bullshit an air of respectability. “YOU, sir, are no part of MY skeptic movement!” DJ Grothe did his best to moderate, but Edwards and Swiss were trading zingers for quite a while (they were on opposite sides of the panel for good reason, I guess!). One person in the audience later tweeted “Magic fights look way cooler on Harry Potter.” I had bought Mark Edward’s book earlier and am anxious to read it just so I could see what had provoked Jamy Ian Swiss so much!
Friday night was the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe dinner, and I got to chat about bad movies with Jay Novella and rub elbows with other diehard fans of the podcast. Our table made it to the final round of science/skeptic trivia! And my neighbor and new pal Angie won the grand prize of a VIP TAM experience next year ($1,000 value, woo-hooo!!). Both Thursday and Saturday nights I had dinner with new friends (it’s not hard to meet like-minded folks at gatherings like this and instantly feel like you’ve known them forever). And my dear longtime pal Margaret Downey had given introductions; she is such a talented people-connector! Just listening to the dinner conversation was like a panel in itself, and I tried to keep up with these intelligent, funny folks–an ER doc, a cognitive psychologist, a lawyer, and a cartoonist make for a lively roundtable. And they were so kind!–by the end of our meal someone had procured a free ticket to the magic show for me and someone else was offering up a spare room if I wanted to spend the night.
Sunday morning I’m afraid sweet sleep beckoned, and I missed the morning papers–talks which are given by non-professional grassroots skeptics, juried and chosen by the JREF. I intend to catch these online once they are available. Connections were definitely made. Later that day at the podium, George Hrab asked for one of these presenters to visit the information desk, stating that a publisher in the audience was eager to meet with him.
Dr. Harriet Hall gave a compelling talk on preventive screenings and why many aren’t the beneficial things they seem to be. When the data is parsed, taking into account false positives and false negatives and how much (or little) a correct reading will be for treatment, even regular procedures I just assumed were a good idea suddenly looked like foolish choices for my health care dollars. Mammograms? Cholesterol readings? Prostate cancer screenings? Not as wise as they once were thought. I’ve paid my $35 at health fairs before to get my numbers done on this panel or that–and suddenly it seems like I was a bit of a sucker for doing so. Hmmm! Well now I’m slightly better informed. And For a rundown on what screenings are a good idea versus what you’d more wisely skip (depending on your age, gender, and family history, of course), see www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org.
As the conference neared its end, and I browsed the books for sale, I was approached by a friendly and very earnest fellow who commented on my T-shirt slogan (“I am silently correcting your grammar”). “What a coincidence,” said he, “I silently correct people too! But I correct their internal health problems.” Oh, a doctor? I asked, he nodded. Then he went on in a very odd direction–turns out he has the ability to cure numbness left from abdominal surgeries and reopen circulatory pathways, and he said he has no idea how he does it but he’s healed THOUSANDS of people without even touching them. It kind of scares him, he admits. I asked what kind of doctor he was, what his specialty was–and he handed me a card that said he was a pharmacist and “life enhancer.” So. Not a doctor. Then I noticed a little fluorescent tag on his TAM lanyard that said “JREF paranormal challenge claimant” and asked if he was going to be the one tested later that night for the million dollar prize Randi offers for any reproducible, testable proof of paranormal abilities. Not yet, he said, but he assured me he was on a “fast track.” I smiled and said I hope all goes well and that he found the skeptic community friendly–he assured me he encountered nothing but nice people at these sorts of things, and then began chatting up Michael Shermer, who was nearby. I wasn’t able to overhear much, but Shermer was saying “Thousands?! Well, I am very surprised you haven’t been tested yet!”
The million-dollar challenge, it turned out, was going to feature a “remote viewer” who was in Algeria but claimed he could remotely intuit scenes thousands of miles away. The first hour was just scenes from previous years and TV coverage on Randi’s famed paranormal challenge. Many have tried to claim it–and all of them work with the testers to formulate a test protocol that the claimant agrees is a good, fair way to test the ability–and the claimant is sure there aren’t any confounding factors and states with confidence that they will pass the test under the given conditions. They sign paperwork indicating all this.
And then they all fail. And, without fail, AFTER they fail the claimants all fabricate reasons why their ability let them down. Watching the replay, it was so interesting seeing the rationalizing mind at work… Suddenly the claimant states that OF COURSE they couldn’t do it right now, in that setting, such-and-such was throwing them off, and they had been concerned about that from the start!
Well, do I need to tell you how the remote viewer in Algeria fared? His representative was here in person, and they conducted the test over the phone after Skype failed. He was unable to guess/intuit any of the three objects sealed in a room and placed next to a t-shirt of his (he needed something personal of his near the target objects, he’d stated, and prior to guessing he assured the testers he was 100% sure he could state all three objects). Afterwards, as his rep told him he missed all three, out came excuses. During the middle of this, the small, hobbling frame of the Amazing Randi himself walked from the front row and beckoned to Banachek, who was one of the testers. After a short bit of instruction from the Amazing one, Banachek announced that the JREF would waive the standard 1-year waiting period for a retest, in light of the fact that it was Ramadan and if the remote viewer wasn’t up to his usual skills due to fasting, they wanted to accommodate him. So, a retest will happen at the claimants earliest convenience. The representative then took the mic and complimented the JREF on being so professional and courteous to work with. He sang the praises of all the skeptics he’d met and pointed to his TAM 2013 “Fighting the Fakers” t-shirt in a completely un-ironic gesture of solidarity. Good way to end the amazing weekend.