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If the skeptics community is going to thrive and grow, it’s essential that no one feel unwelcome or excluded due to race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

This line caused a bit of a stir lately after it appeared in an article written by Brian Thompson on the James Randi Educational Foundation website, a major interweb hub (interwub?) of skeptical activity. Ophelia Benson was one of several to find the inclusion of “religion” on a list of valued points of diversity among skeptics to be a tad incongruous.

It’s not like any skeptics are proposing that all religious people be banned from skeptical events like The Amaz!ng Meeting, and the JREF has made a point of not being an explicitly atheist organisation. But religious claims often come within its purview of critical thinking and science education, and you can understand why a skeptical crowd might see more relevance to a personal faith position than, say, a personal gender identity.

Personally, I think Brian may or may not be making a good and important point, depending on quite what’s meant by somebody feeling “unwelcome or excluded”, and quite how we should react against such a thing.

Will people inevitably feel unwelcome as a result of being a minority, amongst a crowd full of people who they know disagree with them? Active skepticism does tend to lead people to reject religious claims, and so any gathering of skeptics is likely to contain a large proportion of non-believers. Many empirical claims are regularly made by religious people with real influence in the world, and it’s important that these are on the table as topics for discussion in skeptical events.

In short, skeptics are going to bash religion a lot, for the same reasons they’re going to bash homeopathy and psychic powers. If any of these are beliefs close to your heart which it would hurt you to hear criticised, then a skeptical gathering might just not be the place for you.

But if the kind of unwelcomeness and exclusion that Brian’s talking about is to do with unfriendliness, unkindness, incivility, hostility, cruelty, and deliberate castigation by a crowd motivated to malice by their objection to your differing beliefs – then I wouldn’t want anyone to feel unwelcome at TAM, or at Skeptics in the Pub, or anywhere that the people I consider “my crowd” congregate. By this metric, I would want the most ardent Muslim chiropractor or astrally projecting UFO abductee to feel welcome anywhere they care to go, for at least as long as they’re not initiating any kind of incivility themselves.

Diversity among people is great, but holding diversity among ideas as a virtue in itself leads to the familiar problem of false balance. I’d want all people to feel comfortable at a skeptical event, but I wouldn’t hold back from criticism of unsound ideas to achieve it.

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  1. One of the regular criticisms made by the anti-skeptical subset of skeptics is that we don’t do enough outreach to schools in between all our constant back-slapping and self-congratulatory champagne-slurping. I’ve moaned about this cynicism before, and Steven Novella has expressed things far more clearly than I managed to. Kash Farooq also wrote about what he sees as the point of these skeptical get-togethers, and defends the idea that we can’t all be working on exciting new projects to reach new audiences all the time and constantly be out making a difference in the world. There’s room for both approaches.

    And the JREF will hopefully soon be doing even more to undermine the irritating notion of skeptics as an isolated, exclusive in-group unconcerned with getting things done in the real world, with their new Education Advisory Panel. It’ll be a while before we can see how it’s going to work in practice, but the names of the panel members that I recognise are good people, and its stated aims are exactly what skepticism could do with more of. I’ll be following this one with interest.

  2. Jen McCreight announces the winners of her Atheist Christmas Carol competition. There’s some fantastic creativity in there, well worth a read. I might have to try something like that for this year’s festive season, what with the poetical mood I’ve been in lately.
  3. The latest Carnival of Evolution is up, with more excellent biological science-writing than you’ll know what to do with. (By which I mean, more than I had time to read while I was at work today.) The three carnivals I used to regularly submit to (and hosted) all seem to have dissolved into the void now, but it’s good to see some science round-ups still continuing.
  4. The latest episode of DJ Grothe’s excellent For Good Reason podcast finally turned up this week. For what it’s worth: I, too, do not accept the existence of contra-causal free will. I’m not going to reason all the way through meanings and implications of this right here. Maybe later. But listen to the show.

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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.

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I was at TAM London 2010 last weekend.

Then I visited family for a bit, then I came home and continued being lazy. And now I’m finally getting back to writing things again.

So. How was it?

Brief summary: pretty fucking great.

More detail? Well, Martin Robbins’s live blogging is still up on the Guardian site, which describes many more wonderful moments than I’ll be able to cover in my own highlights, which read as follows:

  1. The Amateur Transplants were brilliant, doing the occasional ten- or fifteen-minute set mostly while other people were warming up. If you’re unfamiliar with their work, they do stuff like this.
  2. Richard Wiseman did another excellent job as compère, keeping things flowing in between the speakers and sporadic technical mis-haps, and providing a series of magic tricks and odd illusions that tend to be just slightly more clever than you think they’re going to be.
  3. I’d not seen Sue Blackmore in person before, or read much of her work, but I might have to now. She talked about her experience of taking drugs as a hippy student and spending much of the next decade looking for evidence of the paranormal phenomena she was convinced that she’d witnessed. She did experiment after experiment for years, trying to find proof of psychics, or life after death, or something. And even when being rigorously honest with herself, it took a long time before she could accept it as mere empty wishful thinking, and the frustration still stings today.
  4. To be honest, I didn’t think Dawkins was quite at his most lively. I don’t think I disagreed with a thing he said – the theme of his speech being that the study of evolution has all the horizon-broadening educational benefits often attributed to a study of the classics – and perhaps it would be asking a bit much that someone a few months shy of turning 70 should be anything like as energetic as, say, Cory Doctorow (who spoke immediately after Dawkins and was exactly as engaging and persuasive as he always has been in his online columns).
  5. James Randi was there in person this time, having been held up by his ongoing chemotherapy last year. I actually shook his hand, too. With this very hand here, that I’m using to type this sentence. Can you feel the awesome vibrational energy transferring across to you as you read it? No, of course you can’t, because that’s all bollocks. Randi could’ve told you that.
  6. I described Tim Minchin as my personal highlight of last year’s event, and I wasn’t alone in that at the time. His evening show was pretty spectacular this time around, too. He performed several new songs, though nothing quite as heartbreaking as his last set, but the star of the show was the Storm movie, the animated video to accompany his nine-minute beat poem and skeptical anthem. It still needs some final tweaks, apparently, but it’ll be up on YouTube sometime in the new year. My only teaser: Epic.
  7. That said, the video interview with Stephen Fry was one of a very short list of things which would actually have benefited from a little less Tim Minchin. I know you want to have a chat with the guy, but when it comes to Stephen Fry, any action you take that isn’t “let him talk for as long he wants to talk, about whatever he wants to talk about” is probably a bad move.
  8. I set off from home a little late on Sunday morning, and so wasn’t there right from the start. In fact, at the exact moment I entered the lecture hall, Marcus Chown was just saying “…so, you see, it’s really easy to build a time machine”. So now I’m the one skeptic who’s falling behind the rest of the class on time travel. Dammit.
  9. PZ Myers was great value, and mercilessly ripped into his nemesis, Phil Plait, by… generally agreeing with him and expressing respect and admiration for the guy while differing in opinion on certain points. It was brutal. I didn’t know quite how seriously to take his claim that he’d heard Tim Minchin perform the Pope Song the night before, realised that this was basically a more succinct and catchy version of the speech he was planning to give, and had to put together a whole new presentation overnight – but, if true, I’m willing to forgive him the Powerpoint walls of text.

  10. I’m slowly becoming more competent at the whole social aspect of meetings like this, which for many people is a crucial part of the whole thing. My “hands shaken with people I recognised off of the internet” count for the weekend stands at 3: the aforementioned Randi; Carmen, who I recognised when she was sorting out my pass; and Hywel, who has the dubious honour of being the first person ever to approach me and ask if I was “the Cubik’s Rube guy”. (I was!)
  11. Having said that, the tally of “people I realised I’d just walked past but didn’t quite had the nerve to interrupt whatever they were doing just to say hello” grew even more this year. They included Rebecca Watson, Simon Singh, Jane Goldman, Mil Millington and Margret, and Rhys Morgan, who’d just been given the Grassroots Skepticism award for his work fighting the spread of dangerous fake medicine in the bleachgate kerfuffle.
  12. Alan Moore. Yeah. Alan Moore. If you’ve seen him, you’ll know what I mean.

Not everyone was thrilled with how it went down, though. But now that I think of it, I’ll save that for another post, as this one’s getting pretty lengthy.

In short: I enjoyed myself at TAM London 2010 last weekend, I think the skeptical movement is going places, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

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…but never TAM to-day. Or something.

Tomorrow is the first day of TAM London.

TAM stands for The Amaz!ng Meeting. It’s a massive annual skeptical gathering, which started in Las Vegas and now has branches cropping up around the world.

The first ever international Meeting happened in London around this time last year, and I was there. It was great. And now I’m going to the next one.

If you’re reading my blog, you probably know about all this already. If you need more background explanation, visit the website, look at the list of speakers, and know that I’m the kind of person who gets hugely excited by the prospect of seeing biology professors, psychologists, and lawyers giving hour-long talks and panel discussions.

Also, if you’re reading my blog, there’s a chance you’re going to be there too.

I went and pre-registered today, which basically meant turning up at the hotel where it’s going to happen, collecting my ID badge ahead of time, and avoiding some of the queueing tomorrow morning. While there, I managed to boost my “hands shaken with people I’d never met before but who I recognised off of the internet” count by two. Namely: Carmen, who’s helping orchestrate the thing and gave me my badge, and James Randi, who was being photographed just outside the hotel entrance by a man who may have wanted me to get the fuck out of his shot.

This is what we call an awesome start.

But this leads me onto my point; it’s actually a pretty big deal for me to approach people who don’t know me and just introduce myself as if they had any reason to be interested. I’m really not an assertive or socially confident person, and tend to start feeling awkward and self-critical at a much greater rate than is normal or desirable when interacting with other people.

It might not sound like a massive conference with huge crowds of people is the ideal place for me to hang out. And you’d kinda have a point.

But I love this stuff. And I love the people who love this stuff.

So, if you’re going to be at TAM London this weekend and want to say hi to me, please do. If you know of me in any way, or if I might know of you, and you have anything at all you’d like to say, even if it’s just a quick hello in passing, then I heartily endorse this event or product endeavour.

But, you will need to bear in mind that there are times when I really suck at conversation even at the most basic levels. I may not have the nerve at any particular moment to take much initiative, in starting a conversation or contributing much to a particular topic. I may seem uncomfortable or frazzled, or like I’m not fitting in there or I want to be left alone.

None of this should put you off an attempt to be friendly, should you feel so inclined. I’m just making excuses ahead of time for if I seem closed-off, unresponsive, or uninterested. I’m not. Well, I might be kinda the first two. But I’m just hugely shy. Give me a chance.

I don’t have an iPhone or anything similar, and I’m not staying in the hotel with a laptop on hand, so I’m mostly going to be falling off the grid for the next couple of days as far as things like blogging and Twitter are concerned. I’ll catch up eventually.

Oh, and I’ll be the one looking more or less like this:

Goofiness of face is only an estimate.

Have a good weekend.

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I don’t know why I’m doing that. But I found that balloon earlier, which was in the goody bag fun pack thing from last year’s meeting, and thought it’d make a good picture. For some reason.

Anyway. I’m going along to TAM London again this year, and tickets are still available if you want to come too and see that hugely impressive list of speakers.

I don’t have much to add, except to chip in with my thoughts on the somewhat controversial subject of the price of the tickets. It’s up over £200 a head this time, which is a heckuva price tag, and not everyone’s thrilled about this.

I’m fine with it, though. For a start, they’re bringing in a lot of seriously impressive names to talk and mingle, as well as hiring out the Hilton Metropole Hotel for the whole event. Putting up 1,000 people for a weekend’s activities is going to require some funding.

Also, it’s a fundraiser. The reason this particular series of gatherings exists at all is to raise money for a charity organisation, namely the James Randi Educational Foundation. It would make sense to charge the highest possible price per ticket that they’ll be able to find a thousand people willing to pay. The idea that it “costs too much” becomes sort of meaningless, in that context. I might think that $140 million is orders of magnitude too much to pay for a Jackson Pollock painting, but it was allegedly worth it to some guy, so it really doesn’t matter what I think.

The other complaint that comes up from time to time is that setting the price so high excludes many ordinary people who can’t afford to splash out on such a high-budget luxury, and serves to make the skeptical community elitist and inaccessible to exactly the kind of everyday folk it should be trying to court.

And this might be a concern if the skeptical community didn’t thrive in so many other places. The most obvious example would be the Skeptics in the Pub meet-ups, which have dozens of locations all over the world now. My own local branch has two meetings coming up in June, each with a notable guest speaker, a chance to mingle with 250 fellow skeptics, and an entrance fee of £2. These are the occasions driven by activists and volunteers, to encourage involvement by anyone dipping their toe in on the fringes of the skeptical world, who don’t have the resources to commit to any more grand endeavours, or for whom it’s not yet worth it to go to such lengths.

TAM can exist in conjunction with these smaller, less pricey meetings. There’s no contradiction. It’s just a different flavour of occasion.

And of course there are numerous places online to join in with and become part of this community, without attending this one particular annual event. For examples, check out around 80% of my “Roll out the blogs!” list on the right.

One interested suggestion I’ve heard – annoyingly, I can’t remember where – is that all the big TAM speeches should be made available to watch for free online, in the spirit of TED. On giving not even a moment’s thought to the practicalities of this, I think it’d be a great idea. It would go a long way to making the event more accessible, and provide some excellent publicly available material with which to reach out to people not wholly on board with the skeptical movement at present. And I don’t for a moment imagine that any significant number of attendees would be put off from coming if they realised they’d be able to see most, or even all, of the talks online later, and save themselves the money. People still go to the cinema; they don’t just wait for the DVD.

(Speaking of which, as it happens I am still waiting for the DVD of last year’s TAM London, and I’m going to include a gripe about this here. They’ve had legitimate problems in getting it arranged – first with clearing some copyright issues, then with the production of the discs themselves – but the communication hasn’t been great, emails with status updates haven’t always gone out when they were promised, and it’s sometimes felt like we’ve paid our money and been left hanging. The organisation really could have been better on that one. Still, when I sent Sid a message on Facebook the other day, I got a direct personal reply with an update of the situation eleven minutes later, so they’ve not totally dropped the ball.)

As I was saying, I don’t know if a completely online, TED-like system would be at all practical, but I think it’d be wonderful if it could, and would strongly encourage anyone who knows anything to give some thought as to how it might be made to happen.

Whatever happens, this October should provide quite a show.

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…and being skeptical just got a little more fabulous!

Sorry. I’m not at all happy with myself for that line. The point is that James Randi, legend and grand high archbigwig of the skeptical world, is gay. So yeah. He talks about it with D.J. Grothe on the latest For Good Reason podcast.

It’s not earth-shattering news. But at the same time, it’s not no news, either. Maybe something like this ought to be a complete non-event, in an ideal world – but for those of us who live in this world, coming out is rarely an entirely trivial thing. It may not be a moment fraught with drama, as Randi’s certainly wasn’t. But we still live in a profoundly heteronormative society. (There have probably been like five or six occasions when I’ve written that word in the years since I picked it up from my uni housemates, but it feels like I use it all the time these days.) The notion of being straight as the default setting is not one that’s been completely given up anywhere, so professing to be of some other configuration is unavoidably a noticeable action.

A few people are insisting that nobody ought to be displaying any interest or expressing any emotional response to Randi’s announcement at all, because someone being gay ought to be such a non-issue as described above. And I’m sure they think that their position is the most tolerant and accepting of all, but I rather think it misses the point. Simply claiming that someone’s sexuality makes no difference to you – even if it’s entirely true and your judgments of people are genuinely made without any prejudice – isn’t enough. While the prejudice and oppression still exist, it’s up to the rest of us to overcompensate.

Not everyone is as comfortable in themselves and as assured of a largely benign response as Randi is. For some people, being open about their sexuality is a big event, and one that may be followed by serious negative consequences. One very easy (and not totally insignificant) way we can help those people out is by adding a cheer to the chorus at times like this. It’s important for them to see that other people who come out publicly are being supported, not chastised for daring to bring it up.

The people not willing to do that because “it makes no difference” sometimes sound quite aggressive in making this point (plenty of examples in the comments thread below Randi’s announcement). But their aggression is for some reason directed at the gay guy who’s just come out, as if it’s offensive of him to expect anyone to be interested in this. Guys. Not helpful. The people you should be angry at are the homophobes and bigots whose hostility and prejudice make this an issue in the first place. In some parts of the world, people are still being murdered over this kind of thing, so don’t get grouchy that some people haven’t simply got over it yet and could still use a little positive feedback on occasion.

So, rock on, Randi. You’ve deserved a big parade of your own for a long time, anyway.

Also, Baba Brinkman is awesome, and excels more than any other in the field of “music that on paper I really shouldn’t like but which actually totally does it for me”. Go watch the video for his rationalist anthem, Off That.

Also also, Rebecca Watson is doing some APPLE SCIENCE, bitches. (I would add a “WITH HER FALLOPIAN TUBES, BITCHES” but I don’t want to cross the memes.) Watch her experiment, and learn how you can set up your own! All you need is an apple, a knife, some cheap containers, and a callous disregard for the fragile emotions of the helpless fruit in your care. Go team science!

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