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Amaz!ng: My Adventures at TAM 9

22 Jul

I recently returned from The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This aptly named event is an annual gathering of the greatest minds and personalities in the skeptical and atheist movements. I felt privileged to be among the 1650 people in attendance and one of many there as the result of a grant. As a matter of fact, I attended the largest TAM ever, with more women in attendance than ever, with approximately (if my memory is correct) over forty of us with the assistance of various grants.

In reflecting on my adventures and trying to decide how to communicate them to friends and readers, I decided that the way to do it would to be to provide a “best of.” So, here it is.

Best Picture

The Amazing James Randi, Founder of the JREF and Host of TAM

James Randi is an incredible presence.  He was kind and accessible.  Shortly after stopping for this photo, he looked me in the eye (yes, at eye level) and said  “Now go learn something.”  So I did.

Most Inspirational

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Keynote Speaker

When I saw that deGrasse Tyson was going to be the keynote speaker at TAM this year, I knew I wouldn’t want to miss it.  He is such an amazing spokesperson and advocate for science.  His keynote speech was about the consequences of living in a society where science literacy is not given priority and let me tell you… it fired me up.  He spoke eloquently about how the United States is falling behind.  He gave examples from his own personal experiences as well as from recent events where people were harmed or progress unachieved due to a lack of science and critical thinking.  The wonderful thing is that he did it all hilariously.  He was so knowledgeable, funny, and down to earth.  In my opinion, deGrasse Tyson is exactly the kind of spokesperson science and skepticism needs and it was an honor to hear him speak.

Best Surprise

Richard Wiseman, Social Psychologist and author of Paranormality

I wasn’t going to hear Wiseman’s 30 minute talk.  I didn’t even put it on the TAM9 app I used as my schedule.  His talk was sandwiched between a talk by Elizabeth Loftus on the fallibility of memory (which I really wanted to attend) and the buffet lunch (which I also really wanted to attend).  I figured half an hour was too little time to do much else, so I decided to sit through his talk. I am so glad I didn’t miss it.  He talked about perception errors, deception, and of course his book.  He played video of people who believed they could walk over hot coals simply by meditating.  He played songs while priming our brains to hear silly lyrics. I was laughing so hard the entire time that I frankly don’t remember much else.  No exaggeration. For half an hour, Richard Wiseman owned that room. So smitten was I that when his presentation concluded, I rushed out of the conference center to get his book in hopes of having it signed.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one impressed because his book sold out in minutes and all I was left with was the stupid buffet lunch.  Not to worry.  There is his blog, his YouTube channel, and future TAMs (click the link above).  I know who you are now, Professor Wiseman.  Having learned my lesson, you will be on my schedule for next year.

Best Fan Girl Moments

It took me all of Thursday and Friday to get up my confidence to actually start approaching some of the people I had come there to hear.

Bob Novella and the rest of the team from The Skeptics Guide to the Universe opened up the conference on Friday morning with a live recording of the SGU.  There, Bob recounted his trip to see the final launch of the space shuttle.  This episode of SGU hasn’t yet aired, so I won’t go into any more detail.  Later on, I spotted him at the SGU table and asked for a picture. He graciously obliged.  And as an added bonus, check out the background over my left shoulder.  TA DA!  There is Dr. Steve Novella!  Two Novellas for the price of one.  And then Jay Novella tried to sell me a t-shirt.  Count the Novellas.  That makes three. It was pretty awesome.

BONUS: Richard Dawkins.  After enjoying his appearance as “special guest” at TAM, I queued for the book signing.  No surprise, Richard Dawkins and his staff comprise a book-signing machine.  With my personal copy of The Greatest Show on Earth in hand, I quickly made my way through the queue and stood there just long enough to get this picture.  Yeah!

Next Year: Dreams for TAM X

My dream for next year is to return and to bring my husband and my little skepling.  During Richard Dawkins’ talk, he said that his foundation would be assisting with childcare during future conferences.  In addition to cost, childcare was a major factor in my initial decision to not attend.  I just didn’t think I could manage it.  If my husband would have come along, then we would have had to take turns watching our son, never getting to attend any of the events together. Let’s make it as easy as possible for skeptical moms and dads to attend.

Overall, it was a fantastic four days.  I can’t wait to attend future TAMs.  Thanks again to the incredible ladies at Surly Ramics and Women Thinking Free for helping me get there.

I’ll leave you all, dear readers, with words of advice from the Amazing Randi.

Now.  Go learn something.

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Fancy a Yarn?

9 Jun

Boo! And when you wake up, can you ask the nurse for extra jello?

 

Being a vocal skeptic can be challenging, but it can also be a lot of fun.  Believers will sometimes present me with stories of the strange and the supernatural either to gauge my reaction or to try and get me to concede that their story is evidence for whatever belief they are trying to sell. Truly, I don’t mind.  I like these stories.  They are sometimes spooky or thought provoking.  More importantly, they help me to flex my critical thinking muscles. I like to crank up my bullshit detector and ask plenty of questions.  I am confounded by the complete lack of skepticism with which these stories are accepted as true or as evidence in the supernatural.  In every experience I’ve had, the believer telling the story has overlooked or rejected natural explanations of the occurrence in favor of a supernatural explanation.  One, by the way, which always confirms the storyteller’s already deeply-rooted belief system.

Take for example a story that was told to me a few weeks ago by a believer.  The person relating the story to me is a professed christian and someone who believes in a life after death.  The concept of life after death is something most skeptics and atheists reject based on (among other things) lack of sufficient evidence and lack of a plausible mechanism (how can your consciousness carry on after your physical brain is no longer functioning?).

A girl who lost her father at a young age has grown into a young woman.  One day she accidentally falls, suffering a traumatic brain injury.  She is unconscious for a time and wakes up in the hospital surrounded by family members.  She claims that her father was there and that he was speaking to her.  He was saying that he would not leave her side and that he would take care of her.  Her astonished family then reveals to her that she has been staying in the exact hospital room where her father died many years before.

Now, please keep in mind that this story was told to me in the context of “Ah HA! Silly atheist! There is life after death!  How can you deny it now when clearly there is such compelling evidence!” Also keep in mind that responding critically to such a story put me in an unfortunate position.  If I ask questions and point out that the story probably does not mean that there is life or consciousness after death, I risk coming off as quite insensitive.  After all, this poor girl has not had an easy time of it.  She is dealing with some sort of brain trauma as well as feelings about losing her father.

So, in keeping with cupcakiness I asked some questions. When did her father die?  What sort of brain injury did she suffer? What parts of the brain were affected? How long was she unconscious? Then I began to think things through.

Early Childhood Loss: I’m not sure what losing a parent will do to someone.  I’ve never experienced it myself, but it seems reasonable that such an experience at a young age would have life-long impact.

Brain Injury: She suffered a head injury, which means that her brain function was likely impaired.  This means that she might have experienced or imagined things while unconscious that didn’t really occur. Neuroscience has repeatedly shown that our perceptions of what we experience can be dramatically altered by things like magnetic pulses, pharmaceuticals, sleep deprivation, and of course brain injury.  It is far more likely that her experiencing the presence of her father is the result of brain function and not that she was actually hearing the voice of a dead person.

Social Conditioning: I’m not sure what religion the young girl was brought up with, but what is clear is that she was raised in a culture where the duality of the body and the soul is widely accepted.  She was raised around people who believe that a soul succeeds you after your body dies and goes… well… somewhere.

Verdict: Her experience was most likely the combined result of her early childhood loss, her brain injury, and her social conditioning.  One thing that does seem odd is that she was in the same hospital room as her father.  I’m doubtful of this because it seems far too coincidental and plays too nicely into the punchline (Ah HA!  Silly Atheist!) of the story.  However, let’s concede that it was the exact same hospital room that her father was in.  What would that mean?  Surely the hospital has undergone some changes in the past 15 or 20 years?  The room isn’t in the exact condition as when her father stayed there.  Is the implication then that her father’s spirit or soul resides there permanently?  Have any of the other patients in the hospital experienced contact from her father?  I think the option that requires the least number of crazy assumptions is that hospitals have a limited number of beds.  Either that part of the story is a fabrication or simply coincidental.

I would categorize this story with many of the other “near death” experience stories I’ve read or heard.  The operative term here is “near.”  The brain is still functioning, but in an impaired state.   I don’t feel like the story goes very far in arguing a case for life after death or the existence of the soul. Like most ghost stories, if you are looking for a supernatural explanation you are absolutely going to find one.

However, if you turn on your bullshit detector and you try to rule out all possibility of a natural explanation usually you find that a supernatural explanation is unnecessary, implausible, and requires far too many assumptions to be reasonable.

Do you have any great stories of the paranormal or supernatural that you’d like to share? Comment here or you can always email me at cupcakeatheist@yahoo.com

 

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