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Rebecca's TAM5 Report, Part III

Friday, January 19

Finally, the conference began! Sam and I were proud that we got in early (that is, before 2am) last night, so we actually made it to the breakfast before the talks began. For breakfast, one could choose from a variety of different types of sugar: sliced fruit, cheese danishes, apple danishes, croissants, orange juice, or apple juice. It was incredibly bad and unhealthy, but it made me laugh a lot, which is tough to do at 8am. I thought of last year at the Stardust — the number one complaint I heard was, “Please, give us healthier options for breakfast next year!” Back then I just laughed at the silly people who didn’t realize that breakfast is just an excuse to eat dessert for a meal, so I was secretly delighted that it was even worse this year.

It was time for the speakers! First up was perennial favorite Michael Shermer, who spoke about bottom up economic evolution and organization, the topic of his next book. His talk was interesting, but it was very early in the morning to be reading long text on PowerPoint slides. That’s a pet peeve of mine when it comes to presentations, and as another skepchick put it: “I can read faster than you can talk. Stop it.” Also, following his talk I turned to Sam and said, “I am so effing sick of Libertarians.” Not that there aren’t plenty of good points to be made in favor of more political freedom, it’s just that I’m getting mighty tired of not-at-all-skeptical political ideology slowly and quietly infecting the skeptical community. Michael’s talk didn’t focus on Libertarianism per se, but it was there, lurking under the surface. Like herpes.

Eugenie ScottNext up was Eugenie Scott, who absolutely killed. I mean, I can’t say enough good things about her. Riffing on the general sickness of wordy slides, she actually stopped at one point to specifically instruct the audience to stop trying to read the articles she was showing as examples. Genie is exactly what I strive to be — smart, funny, motivated, passionate, kind, and gorgeous. She spoke about how her team used the media to win the Dover intelligent design court case, a fascinating look at what was going on behind the transcripts. She had another conference to go to immediately after her talk, but we managed to get her to sit down for a little while to do the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. I won’t give away what we discussed, but she’s looking forward to some exciting ventures coming up. (Post-publishing edit: download Genie Scott’s interview with SGU here!)
Phil PlaitLunch was fantastic. Not because of the food (sammiches), but the company. I sat with my fellow podcasters so we could eat and then record. It was so fantastic recording all together — normally we are each in a separate city conferencing online, but for once we could actually see each other and our guests, allowing for much easier communication. During lunch, we recorded my friends Phil Plait, Michael Shermer, and Richard Wiseman, all of whom were incredibly entertaining. I have to say that despite my slight criticism of his presentation, Michael is really enjoyable in a discussion or interview. Phil and Richard, as usual, made me laugh a lot and may have had something to say while they were at it.

The really great thing that set this year apart was the theme: Skepticism and the Media. Not only was it a great theme, but people stuck to it. Again and again in our interviews, the speakers kept coming back to that theme, giving their expert opinions on how the media perceive us as skeptics, how we can better take advantage of the media, and what the shortcomings are of our biggest media outlets. As a writer in marketing, I am very interested in all this and I think it does some real good to examine these topics in order to refine our message and our goals.

Randi and Todd RobbinsAfter lunch, Nick Gellespie from MIT spoke. I missed it. I believe that’s about when I ran into the always amusing Todd Robbins. Todd was at TAM4 and I may have met him, but I know I didn’t get enough time in his presence. I love the carnival, and few people know more about that culture than Todd, who is now the executive director of Coney Island, USA. He’s full of stories, talents, and weird weird tricks. I mean, the dude will unscrew a lightbulb to have a quick snack in the middle of a conversation.

So I grabbed Todd and took him back to where we were recording. Steve (Novella) was out, so we started recording anyway because I just really wanted to chat with him. After we had talked for a little while, Steve came back to the table with Randi, star of the show. Randi and Steve sat down and we all had a really great talk about the conference, the sideshow, the media, the Million Dollar Challenge, and anything else that happened to come up. It’s all on tape, and I can’t wait to hear it. (Edit: listen to the edited version of that interview here!)

Back up on stage, Randi was interviewed by the fantastic close-up magician Jamy Ian Swiss, who I kept trying to get on the podcast but our timing was just way off. Jamy and Randi showed clips from a Korean TV show, on which Randi appeared and helped crews investigate certain wacky claims. It was amusing and informative, though sadly the presentation suffered from poor (no) editing of the clips.

Julia SweeneyLori Lipman Browne, lobbyist for atheists, was up next. I missed her talk due to the podcast again — I think this time we were talking with the always lovely Julia Sweeney. She’s very sweet, very funny, and she had just come back from appearing on Penn Jillette’s radio show with Christopher Hitchens, who she busted for his recent Vanity Fair article about “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” We talked for quite a while, and I always appreciate her refreshingly open and upbeat attitude. She gave TAM attendees a preview of her upcoming show, in which she delivers comic monologues interspersed with live music from Jill Sobule.

At the end of our interview, Jeff Wagg came to get us so that a reporter from the Las Vegas Review-Journal could speak with me and Julia about women in skepticism. That was a fun interview, and I really liked the journalist. I hope she’s kind to me in her article. (Edit: read that article here. Thanks, charwood!)
TellerThat interview took place during the on-stage Q & A with Penn & Teller (I think), so I missed that, too. Luckily, we got to chat with Teller on the podcast for a little while later on. He is very thoughtful and well-spoken, so it’s a real shame that we don’t often get to hear him over the bigger, louder half. Listen to Teller’s interview on this episode of SGU!

Next up on stage was Richard Wiseman. I can’t say anything really nice about him or else he’ll never let me hear the end of it, so I’ll just state the following facts (not opinions, nothing to do with me): he is always one of the top-rated speakers at TAM, the audience laughed all the way through his presentation (which included info on his World’s Funniest Joke contest and his scientific investigation of a supposedly psychic dog), he kept the audience entertained even through technical glitches beyond his control, and he has little to no hair.

That was it for the speakers. At a little before 6pm, we were released to go get important work done, like perhaps a presentation we may need to give in less than two days. Or party! Whichever.

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TAM5 Report Navigation:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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9 Comments

  1. Part III and it's only Friday? It looks like TAM is so full of chocolately goodness that squeezing it into 2 days seems difficult. Looking forward to all the interviews.

  2. Quoth Rebecca:

    Also, following his talk I turned to Sam and said, “I am so effing sick of Libertarians.” Not that there aren’t plenty of good points to be made in favor of more political freedom, it’s just that I’m getting mighty tired of not-at-all-skeptical political ideology slowly and quietly infecting the skeptical community. Michael’s talk didn’t focus on Libertarianism per se, but it was there, lurking under the surface. Like herpes.

    I believe the first definition I ever heard of Libertarianism was in Isaac Asimov's memoir. The exact words haven't stuck in my head, but more or less, he said, "Libertarianism is the belief that I have the liberty to get rich while you have the liberty to starve." I have not had cause to modify this statement in any essential way during the years since then.

    I have the feeling that I've ranted about this before. . . hold on while I Google myself. . . Aha:

    Speaking of lumping people into groups (and of classifying political views in general), I found a fascinating website by a fellow named Aleks Jakulin, entitled "Data Mining in Politics". He uses the THOMAS database maintained by the Library of Congress and looks at the roll call votes, where every senator's vote is recorded. Not all bills receive roll call votes, but for those which do, we have a definite "Yea", "Nay" or "Abstain" from each senator. Standard statistical techniques can then find patterns in this data, grouping senators into clusters without knowing anything else about politics.

    Latent variable analysis applied to the 2003 Senate session finds five distinct blocks:

    A: the majority Republican bloc, ~35 votes
    B: the minority Republican bloc, ~14 votes
    C: the non-aligned Republican bloc, ~3 votes
    D: the minority Democrat bloc, ~5 votes
    E: the majority Democrat bloc, ~42 votes

    Each bloc can be interpreted as a single vote which is replicated several times, through its bloc members. Thereby, we can interpret a bloc as a single voting "super-senator", but with a weight proportional to the size of the bloc. It turns out that A and B are most influential, D does make an impact sometimes, and E quite rarely. Republican blocs, especially bloc B, were more cohesive than Democrat ones.

    This is exactly the sort of analysis which should be done, on wider datasets gathered in different circumstances, to test the validity of the one-dimensional political axis — along with those 2D social/economic plots which libertarians love!

    I am personally suspicious of the social/economic 2D plot. First, it doesn't do any good if you plot people on it and discover they all fall on a diagonal straight line! We can't accept the assertion that "at least two variables are required to describe human political orientations" without data, and who is actually going out and collecting data to hold all these models' feet to the fire? Second, who says my opinions on all "social issues" have to march in lockstep? Can't I have one stance on the income tax — an economic issue — and another on estate taxes or insurance of savings-and-loan deposits? Furthermore, many if not most "social" issues have an economic aspect. School vouchers are proposed to solve an economic problem, namely that schools do not have enough money, but I may object to them on social grounds, since they give an avenue for taxpayer funds to flow into religious organizations. Universal health care springs to mind as a complementary example: we may raise the idea for social reasons and find that others deem it impractical on economic grounds (or at least claim to do so, while nursing in their hearts objections based on social beliefs).

    You may deem my political stance horribly devoid of self-consistency. In fact, since I claim that no solution to a Hydra-headed political problem is manifestly obvious, I must embrace a certain amount of "inconsistency" to be true to my essential pragmatist beliefs. Nevertheless, speaking as a pragmatist, I think we cannot solve our problems without understanding human behavior, and in this context, that means we must develop and test models of how the political process actually functions. Even views we think conflict with themselves must have a place in the classification scheme.

    Perhaps the idea of ideological continua is fatally flawed, whether those continua have one dimension or more. On the other hand, perhaps if we study the way citizens and senators get out and vote, we will find that they separate into groups which can be characterized by a few, smoothly varying parameters. We cannot tell in advance which model will describe the process best.

    Because this is a fundamentally scientific way of viewing the human enterprise — guess hypotheses, devise ways to test them against observations, grant the winners provisional acceptance, repeat — certain sections of the population we study will inevitably reject the entire concept. Postmodern literati, devout Randians and war-mongering neocons will all deem it anathema, if they pay any attention at all, because in their hearts they each reject the lessons of science.

    Listen to Stephen Colbert's speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and ask yourself how many of his statements would translate easily to, say, Alan Sokal roasting a banquet of postmodern journal editors? Books are all fact, no heart. Look it up in your gut, not in a book. Platonism in high places!

    Whew. To this, David Brin (on whose blog I was writing), replied as follows:

    Blake, I share your disdain for most “2D political spectrums.” Almost all that I have seen — including those promulgated by doctrinaire libertarians — are outrageously tendentious, designed from the start to force most acculturated Americans (raised on myths of suspicion of authority) toward the desired corner. They are recruitment or feel-good polemics.

    Especially, they fail the test of orthogonality. A useful 2D spectrum should have axes that do NOT automatically affect each other!

    He's written about this stuff here and here, among probably other places.

  3. P.S. I'm all for personal liberty, but Libertarians lose me as soon as they jump off the deep end and start talking about corporations as if they were really people and when they start ragging on public schools and other useful and incredibly necessary social systems.

  4. Perspective:

    Consider a normal, decent Republican and a normal, decent Democrat. Both simmer in resentment against groups they consider oppressive authority figures! The Democrat worries about undue accumulations of influence and power by religious fanatics, plutocrats and faceless corporations. The Republican stews over undue accumulations of influence and power by snooty academics, technocrats and faceless government officials. And oh, yes. Libertarians like to pick one authority figure from column A — religious fanatics — and bureaucrats from column B.

    When you put it this way — the answer is "Duh!" All of those elites merit watching! Put in this context, it seems there is a dram of wisdom in all three parties. We've been guarding each others' backs for generations, while never lifting our heads enough to recognize how similar the basic attitude is, motivating even some of those whom we oppose.

    Our main difference lies in which elites we choose to worry about — a matter of individual fixation and inclination. And that, too, is a clue, ladies and gentlemen.

    I don't mind very much when someone chooses to pick bureaucrats and theocrats as their Evil Elite. (It troubles me just a little when I look at the historical record and find that, for the vast majority of human civilization, only one of these was a real problem.) It's the arrogance which gets me: that whole "we are essentially different" and "we see what you do not" business. How can you say with a straight face that free markets work — i.e., that people can be trusted with anything sharper than a butter knife — and in the very next breath call the rest of us "sheep"?

    It doesn't make any sense, but then again a "philosophy" doesn't have to have logical coherence when it has memetic infectiousness.

  5. Despite the fact that I sometimes think of myself as a libertarian, I'm going to agree with all of the statements here about the trouble in not being flexible or pragmatic. I don't think there is now or ever will be a party, ideology, school of thought, or institution with which I fully agree or to which I would be willing to submit much of my will. For that reason, I can't actually call myself a libertarian: I'm registered as an independent, and I always will be.

    There are plenty of issues in the libertarian circle about which I simply do not know enough. I have a hard enough time knowing as much about my particular areas of interest as I can, I can't keep up with all of the statistics about things like the effectiveness of gun control or school vouchers, etc. There are always points worth considering on all sides and I've always thought that listening to them all is far better than deciding in advance and finding voices that agree with your own (unlike the current administration, which glories in doing precisely the opposite). Unfortunately, many Libertarians ARE doctrinaire, and listening to them is sometimes EERILY similar to listening to conspiracy theorists on Coast to Coast AM.

    But I suppose that the reason I identify in PART with Libertarianism is the idea that I'd like, as much as possible, to be left alone and not forced to do very much. I think the analysis Blake posted is interesting, but I disagree that Libertarians only pick one from column A and one from column B. I've always been under the impression that the whole point was simply to give the federal government as little power as possible, and that is something I can't help but agree with. I'd like to answer to as small an 'authority' as possible, so I'm all for states' rights and even, to an extent, municipalities. I like the whole idea of government by consent and having a say in the legal process.

    I'm also quite a big fan of personal accountability, and think that the general lack of that in society goes hand in hand with the lack of critical thinking skills. Libertarianism, in THEORY, aims to increase people's responsibility for their own actions and hopes that people can be trusted, to a great extent, with their own lives. Whether that trust is, in fact, naive, is hard to say. And what that means for the poor is also QUITE hard to say and is a rather complicated issue.

    I'm also quite hesitant to trust corporations, although I like the ideals of the free-market system. I'm just not sure how things would work without protectionism, subsidies, tarriffs, and the like, largely because that data doesn't exist outside of theory. Even here, I begin to worry when companies or groups gain too much power or influence…I think that the nearer we all are to that influence, and the more accountable it is to us, the better off we'll all be.

    Regardless, I don't often talk about politics mainly because I almost never agree with anyone, ever. I don't expect that to change any time soon, but I hope that you all won't think I'm some unthinking conformist worthy of hate or derision because I might, from time to time, espouse positions consistent with those of Libertarians. I'm a nice guy, honest! :-P

  6. "I turned to Sam and said, “I am so effing sick of Libertarians.”"

    I'm glad I don't have to be the first person to say it. It's also a relief to find out I'm not alone. I like talking to skeptics, I like being around skeptics, but then suddenly one of them says "Oh by the way, did you know that the government is the cause of all your problems?", everyone else agrees, and I feel like the only liberal in the room.

    It sounds like you have a great lineup of interviews. I can't wait to hear them on the podcast.

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