While I certainly enjoyed myself at TAM London this year, not everyone seems to be a fan.
The most prominent and contentious criticism – not of the particular way things went down at the conference itself, but of the very concept of even holding such an event – seems to be the Champagne Skeptics post from Gimpy. Holding a massive event such as TAM is, to his mind, “too expensive, insular and divisive”, and detrimental to the skeptical movement.
The main worry, which he’s repeatedly expressed on Twitter, seems to be of having one single organisation take over and monopolise the very notion of skepticism, at the expense of more widely accessible grass-roots movements. He’s worried about it turning into an elitist, selective business only available to those with enough money to make it to the occasional back-slapping gathering in a posh hotel.
It all seems very odd to me. Until barely a year ago, The Amaz!ng Meetings were something that had never happened outside Las Vegas, Nevada (except the original gathering of 150 JREF forum members in Florida in 2003), and were attended by a few hundred people exactly once a year. If this lone annual event was capable of somehow dominating the skeptical movement, the movement itself could never have taken off in any way.
It’s true the meetings were exclusive, and attracted big names like smaller local events couldn’t, and had a very high ticket price (it’s a charity fundraiser, after all) – but who has ever had their entire notion of what the skeptical movement is about defined solely by these meetings?
I’d considered myself a part of the skeptical movement for a long time before first attending TAM in London last year, because of my participation in blogs and on Twitter. I met two people at this year’s TAM who I knew, and who knew me, as a result of this online participation. (It could’ve been more if I wasn’t so shy about introducing myself to people strolling by.)
And I hadn’t even gone to a single one of the numerous local meet-ups available, whose total attendance far surpasses TAM collectively. These events are a regular fixture in the calendars of many people I know, TAM attendees included, and a source of just as much fun and inspiration as the occasional massive conference. People are regularly motivated and inspired by the chance to spend some time with like-minded people, on a smaller scale as well.
There have been two new Skeptics in the Pub groups inspired directly by this year’s TAM London (Ealing and Cheltenham & Gloucester, I believe). There were a number of more accessible fringe events associated with the conference, taking place the week of the event, such as a pub quiz costing £2 on the door to get in. It’s rejuvenated people’s excitement about the skeptical movement’s potential, as well as getting some media attention and alerting a greater number of the general public to the fact that gossiping about sciencey stuff in a pub is a thing that other people do.
My point is: how is grassroots skepticism being hurt by one costly event, once a year, happening amidst a flurry of other activity driven solely by personal passion and commitment?
The skeptical movement is all about the grassroots work done by people who feel strongly about something and want to do some good in their own time. James Randi and his organisation have been huge supporters of some of the major skeptical victories of recent times, such as Simon Singh’s libel case, or the ongoing battle to stop the NHS funding homeopathy. These things don’t need TAM or the JREF, but they’re all part of the same picture.
Rhys Morgan has become a skeptical superstar just in the last few months, entirely because of work he’s done off his own back to counter quack medical claims, and his online involvement with the community. At this year’s TAM London, he was given the award for Grassroots Skepticism, and was given the fastest standing ovation I’ve ever seen, but that was barely even relevant to what he’d achieved with the support of the rest of the skeptical movement. TAM recognised and promoted the value of this, and proudly, but the JREF had no direct influence in anything important.
Alom Shaha was somewhat less infuriating on this point, but still doesn’t seem capable of making any important points or offering good advice – like about skeptics engaging directly with schools – without expending far more effort demeaning some of the activities that so many are already finding purpose in.
The problem with this is highlighted acutely in a comment by shockingblu, a newcomer to the skeptical movement, excited to meet people from whom he could learn and with whom he could share ideas, but who’s trying not to be discouraged by all the skeptic-bashing coming from other skeptics, and the “barrage of accusations” about what he’s supposedly doing wrong.
So, I don’t have much time for this rather tedious bashing of what seems to be a positive effort to do something good. And Martin Robbins has rebutted much of it far more eloquently than I have, anyway, in a comment on Gimpy’s posterous; I can’t link to the comment directly, but search the page for ‘Martin Robbins’ and you’ll find it about halfway down.
A rather more interesting critical take was provided by Crispian Jago, who enjoyed much of the event but with some reservations, and some good points are being made in the ensuing comments.
And further worthwhile thoughts arise courtesy of David Allen Green – who was also on great form at the event itself, which I shamefully neglected to mention in my own write-up.
Perhaps the strongest criticism he makes is of the “essentially negative” nature of skepticism itself. It’s worth noting that, if it’s the process which possesses this feature, then this is not a problem with the way the skeptical movement is currently presenting itself. Rather, it’s a factor which the movement should be aware of and account for when deciding how and where to direct its energies.
And in some sense, he’s obviously right. Skepticism tends to be largely about the denial of improbable claims, which is necessarily a negative action, about breaking things down.
But just about everyone I’ve encountered in the skeptical community understands that there can be more to it than this, and there should be if it’s going to be worth participating in things. They don’t gather in pubs or conference centres to talk for hours about how everything’s shit. They’re building friendships, and professional connections, and having fun, and enjoying each other’s company, and launching libel reform campaigns. And often joking (and occasionally ranting) about things that are shit.
Well then. There we are.
Not my most insightful or well constructed piece, if you ask me. The really smart people are probably the ones staying out of all this nonsense and just concentrating on getting shit done.