Skepticism

Evelyn’s TAM 5 Adventures, Part II

Before going on to the second installment of my TAM 5 adventures, I’d first like to make a couple of announcements.

First, tomorrow the first-ever call from the deep-sea submersible Alvin to the International Space Station will take place. You should all tune in, if you can. Scientifically and practically, this phone call is useless. What are the scientists going to say to each other?

Oceanographer to Astronaut: “Hey, how are the stars?”
Astronaut to Oceanographer: “They’re great. Tell us about the fish.”
Oceanographer to Astronaut: “Oh, the fish are great. How’s space?”
Astronaut to Oceanographer: “Space is black. Earth looks pretty. How’s the ocean?”
Oceanographer to Astronaut: “The ocean is blue.”
And so on…

Technologically and inspirationally, though, this call is extremely important. I think this phone call highlights how interconnected our modern world is becoming. The distances between people are becoming more and more trivial because of modern technology. More and more, people are becoming friends online, even meeting their future spouse online. Recent technologies such as Skype make it even easier to interact with people from afar. Soon, cell phones will work everyone and we’ll be able to check email from even the most remote of towns. What a world…

A second quick announcement is that Flora, the virgin Komodo Dragon, now has several little hatchlings from her self-fertilized eggs. The dragon babies are adorable, and we should all congratulate the proud mom and dad. Mom and dad happen to be the same animal in this case, so your congratulations just became easier.

Okay, now back to the TAM 5 blog.

Friday, January 19th: Speakers, Illusions, and Dinner with Randi

Friday was the first of two full days of speakers at TAM. I was a little tired from falling asleep at 3 in the morning after my late-night bar hopping and dancing (note: see YouTube video below) adventures, but I woke up around seven regardless. I took a quick shower, dried my hair, and went downstairs to partake in the free continental breakfast. As a poor student, I am very skilled at taking advantage of free food tables, so I piled up several croissants with butter and fresh fruit. I took one bottle of juice to drink and stowed two more in my bag for later consumption.

I munched on croissants as I listened to the first speaker, Michael Shermer. I am a big fan of Shermer’s, but I was not very fond of his lecture this year. Partly, it was the presentation. I have watched Shermer give far better, more engaging speeches in the past. The talk he gave this year at TAM was full of tedious, word-filled slides, which he would actually read aloud at times. In past years I have watched Shermer expertly sprinkle his talks with interesting videos (such as the gorilla video from TAM 3 or 4), pictures, and anecdotes. His talk this year was somewhat academic and boring.

In addition, I am not a big fan of Shemer’s subject matter for this year. He talked about libertarian economics, essentially. I have mixed feelings about libertarians. I am sympathetic towards their views and agree that more freedom and less government can be good, at times. However, I don’t think that libertarians are very practical. I firmly believe that we need certain laws, as inefficiently as they may be enforced at times. For instance, I believe that many Environmental Protection Agency regulations and laws are critical for the health of our planet. My personal views on libertarianism aside, however, I also didn’t find Shermer’s subject matter particularly relevant for the theme of the conference, which was “Skepticism and the Media.” I think he could have found a better topic and come up with a better presentation, overall.

The next speaker was Eugenie Scott of the The National Center for Science Education. She gave a well-organized, eloquent speech about the importance of teaching evolution in American schools. She discussed the recent Grand Canyon controversy, which she pointed out has been misconstrued by the media. There is nothing in the official park policy saying that the scientific age of the Grand Canyon cannot be presented by park officials because creationists might be offended. On the contrary, there are dozens of signs with geological ages around the park. Scott pointed out that the real controversy, the selling of a creationist book about the canyon in the official park book shop, is being forgotten. As good skeptics, you should all write to the park service and demand that the book The Grand Canyon: A Different View be pulled from the gift shop shelves. This book may look like a pretty picture book at first glance, but it’s full of ridiculous claims about the canyon, including “scientific” explanations that “proove” the Grand Canyon is only 6,000 years old.

Neil Gershenfeld from the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms was the next speaker. He gave a wonderful talk about the fabrication or “fab” labs he’s setting up all over the world. Other speakers that afternoon included Lori Lipman Brown, Penn & Teller (Teller informed us that Penn is his hero!), and Richard Wiseman. Honestly, I didn’t pay too much attention to some of these talks because I was busy being distracted by Jerry Andrus’s wonderful illusions. Jerry must be close to ninety now, yet he still carts his illusions to TAM every year and spends three days sharing them with everyone who stops by to look at them. You don’t just look at Jerry’s illusions, though… you interact with them.

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Me and two of Jerry’s illusions.

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Jerry demonstrating his “Spooky Blocks” illusion.

I did pay attention to Dr. Wiseman’s talk, though. Wiseman is an accomplished British psychologist and magician who has done some very interesting research on topics such as luck, lying, and parapsychology. He is an excellent performer and speaker. He has given three talks at TAM now, I believe, and his talks are always very well-presented and popular. This year, he talked Laugh Lab, a recent project of his to “scientifically” (well, at least sort of scientifically) figure out what is the world’s funniest joke. Also, the project aimed to learn something about humor and what different people consider funny. Wiseman mentioned how the American writer Dave Berry attempted to foil his experiment by encouraging his readers to submit jokes with the punchline, “There’s a weasel chomping on my privates.” The Laugh Lab website then received a flurry of hundreds of jokes with this punchline.

The talented Dr. Richard Wiseman and some cards.

After the speakers finished talking, I went out for three dinners. Yes, three. I guess I was compensating for my graduate student life in which I often find myself skipping lunch or else foraging around the various events in the department for leftovers. My first dinner was with Hal Bidlack, one of the organizers of TAM 5, his beautiful girlfriend, and my parents. The second dinner was with my adopted family: Randi and Jonathan, another former JREF intern who now works as a magician. Randi has sort of become like my grandfather and Jonathan is really like my brother. Jonathan and I beat up on each other like siblings a fair amount. I feel lucky to have this adopted family. My third and final dinner (at which I ate nothing, so I guess it doesn’t count) was with my mother, sister, a pair of sisters (and their beaus) from England, and Richard Wiseman himself. I never had the opportunity to speak with Wiseman much before, and I found him very amiable. He even asked me some questions about my volcano research, which honored me. He was probably just pretending to be interested, but I was flattered that he took an apparent interest all the same.

After my three dinners, I went to bed early. I anticipated a very late night on Saturday, and I wanted at least six or seven hours of sleep.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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4 Comments

  1. Shermer's antedotes? Either this is a word I'm not familiar with, or you meant to write "anecdotes"?

    I must say though, I don't understand why there are so few female skeptics. Being a female skeptic is totally awesome. They get invited for private dinners by all the celebrity TAM speakers and such.

    Hardly anyone invites the dudes. Of course, there are so many of them, we have to fight for attention and contend with celebrity speakers :P

    Communication from low earth orbit to the sea floor. Wow, impressive.

    Say, Evelyn, isn't astronaut a carreer option for you?

    How cool would that be?

  2. I don’t know, I think the space station will be asking for their ASHDTV

    The thing I didn't like about Shermer's speech was that at least half of the slides he used were pulled with no changes from his presentation at TAM1. Coming just after he said something to the effect of "this talk will be something completely different than my previous talks"

  3. Hell, yes, astronaut is a career option for me. I think my chances are slim, though I am in the right field for it. I'd volunteer to go to Mars as a geologist in a heartbeat. And I wouldn't even expect NASA to bring me back– I'd volunteer to go one-way.

    Anecdote? Who came up with these silly English spelling rules? That c came out of nowhere.

  4. I'm sure you're physically capable of making it, and your education leaves that as an option too.

    I'd jump at the opportunity to go to Mars, or the moon, or even just to an orbital space station. I just wish I had any talents that would make that possible though …

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