Skeptics in Vegas: The Amazing Meeting 2014 brought cheers, smiles and a call for education

The premier gathering for advocates of evidence-based skepticism and critical thinking, THE AMAZING MEETING (TAM), the annual conference run by the James Randi Education Foundation, took place from July 10-13 in Las Vegas. James (The Amazing) Randi, aged 85, one of the world’s greatest living magicians and conjurers, was very accessible throughout the several days, taking photos and chatting with friends and fans.

The event had 1110 registered attendees from dozens of countries around the world. Top level speakers at the conference included philosopher and author Dan Dennett, international memory expert and psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, and vaccination researcher, author and children’s physician, Dr. Paul Offit. The animated keynote was given by Bill Nye, The Science Guy, who told of his experience debating Creationist Ken Ham. Australia’s version of Bill Nye, the indefatigable Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, was a charming and energetic speaker and panelist at his first TAM.

Dr. Karl signing a copy of his book for Randi at TAM 2014

Dr. Karl signing a copy of his book for Randi at TAM 2014

Magician Jamy Ian Swiss and psychologist Carol Tavris at TAM 2014

Magician Jamy Ian Swiss and psychologist Carol Tavris at TAM 2014

Carol Tavris, renowned social psychologist, author, and advocate for evidence-based skepticism, gave a talk called “Who’s Lying, Who’s Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations” which was one of the most powerful and controversial talks during the event. Backed with a various array of peer-reviewed scientific research, she discussed sexual assault reports, rape allegations, evidence, memory, bias, justification, poor communication and feminism. Skeptics require evidence to make a conclusion, even in cases of rape allegations. This is intuitive to many of us but is strangely brushed aside by a few self-titled “feminists” whom (at least previously) identified themselves with the skeptical community. Some of these outspoken bloggers are quick to demonize men who have been accused of sexual harassment. No evidence beside what “she said” is needed in their book. That is demonstrably NOT APPLYING SKEPTICISM. The Twitterverse tweeted about Tavris’ talk with several gripes coming from those who were not even in attendance to hear the talk.

Several important events and announcements occur yearly at TAM. This year was exceptionally full of news and special events.

Thursday night, the venue, the South Point Casino, hosted three screens showing the newly released film An Honest Liar, the biographical documentary of Randi. The directors/producers, Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom, had a promotional table at the event. The film has garnered great acclaim from the summer movie festival run and will appear in theatres this fall. It features Mr. Randi travelling around the world, his career, his highs and a surprising drama that erupted DURING the filming. All is laid bare through the words of Randi and his closest friends and foes including the inimitable Uri Geller. A Q&A session with the film stars and producers followed each of the three sold out showings.
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An Honest Liar OFFICIAL TRAILER from Justin Weinstein on Vimeo.

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Massimo Polidoro

On the heels of the successful biography film came the announcement at TAM that Randi’s official biography will finally come to fruition via the extremely competent pen of Massimo Polidoro, a psychologist and professional writer, magician, and skeptical advocate in Italy as well as a very close friend of Mr. Randi. Work on the biography has been well underway for several years as the incredible volume of material from Randi’s illustrious career has been collected. With assistance by Las Vegas showman and JREF supporter Penn Jillette (who throws a yearly Bacon and Donuts fundraiser party at TAM), and author Kim Scheinberg, who appeared on stage with Polidoro, volumes of material have already been collected for the project.

Scheinberg, who worked on the information collection for over 5 years, gave the crowd a sneak peek into the book with the working title “I, James Randi, will die today”. The enthusiastic crowd was invited to share their stories of Randi from his appearances on Happy Days to the various personal interactions they fondly recall (with mine being Mr. Randi singing “Lovely Hula Hands” to us at dinner).

Polidoro hopes that a crowd-sourced project (to be announced in the fall) will help to raise money to allow him to fast track the work, find a publisher by the end of the year and finish the book within a year.

Randi gave the closing remarks to a packed main Ballroom Sunday afternoon. He announced that the JREF will be taking on a new, more education-oriented direction, focusing on younger audiences. The biggest announcement of all was the inclusion of a new board member to the JREF, Mythbuster Adam Savage. Savage has previously presented at TAM events but was not present at this year’s event.

This year’s brain-themed TAM also served as the launch for Australian TV personality and president of the Australian Skeptics, Richard Saunders’ new short film “The Vaccination Chronicles” featuring true stories of the time before vaccination. The documentary is a message to young parents that vaccinations save lives. Saunders and other pro-vaccinations advocates have been successful in booting dangerous anti-vax voices off the media stage in their country.

The Vaccination Chronicles

Saunders is a regular TAM attendee and presided over the Live Million Dollar Challenge event that took place in the evening. The claimant, Fei Wang [corrected spelling], asserted he had healing power in his hand, that the energy (heating and healing) could be transmitted to the subject even through cardboard. After agreeing to the protocol, the claimant underwent the test in front of a live TAM audience that characteristically remains completely silent during the test. Wong failed the first two trials, thus ending the test. However, he feels he still has this power and nothing will convince him otherwise.

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Richard Saunders and Kristen Lambert representing the JREF during the Million Dollar Challenge test at TAM 2014. Photo Justin Vacula

TAM 2014 was a resounding success.

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  11 comments for “Skeptics in Vegas: The Amazing Meeting 2014 brought cheers, smiles and a call for education

  1. Massachusetts
    July 14, 2014 at 7:37 AM

    Wait–they call James Randi a “conjurer”? I thought that was a paranormal term. I would have expected a word like “Illusionist” as a complement to “magician”.

  2. Bill T.
    July 14, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    I really need to make one of these. That that I’m retiring it should be easier.

  3. July 14, 2014 at 1:06 PM

    I wish I had been there! I have been to some in the past, this sounds like a really special one!!!

  4. Erik
    July 14, 2014 at 1:21 PM

    (sigh) I’m pretty sure I know these “outspoken bloggers”, as I was a follower of their site for a long time -until recently… as it seemed to me that they were becoming more interested in picking fights, engaging in drama for a story, and allowing their readers to attack others in an immature manner, rather than curating and fostering intellectual discussion on the topics of gender, social issues, and skepticism. I’m grateful that Doubtful News moderates comments and is a friendly, entertaining, and positive place to visit.

    • Bill T.
      July 14, 2014 at 2:20 PM

      Analogous to the cases of alleged child molestation a few years back. I heard ludicrous claims such as “children don’t lie”, and after people’s lives were ruined, it was shown that many of the children had been led to make statements desired by the “investigators”.

      Justice is never served when _proper_ skepticism is not exercised. I define “proper skepticism” as look at the evidence and go where it takes you, if anywhere. It requires that we be open minded to changing our minds if evidence shows we are wrong.

      Preaching to the choir, I know, but it’s pleasant to vent.

  5. A Hermit
    July 14, 2014 at 4:08 PM

    “Skeptics require evidence to make a conclusion, even in cases of rape allegations. This is intuitive to many of us but is strangely brushed aside by a few self-titled “feminists” whom (at least previously) identified themselves with the skeptical community. Some of these outspoken bloggers are quick to demonize men who have been accused of sexual harassment. No evidence beside what “she said” is needed in their book.”

    Skeptics shouldn’t rely on lazy strawman arguments either. This is a gross misrepresentation of the argument.

    • July 15, 2014 at 3:45 AM

      Nope. It is not.

    • July 15, 2014 at 2:40 PM

      The quoted statement seems fair if it is considered that there could be a subset of feminists (self-styled or otherwise) who are “quick to demonize” and for whom “she said” is sufficient evidence. I believe it is this subset being referred to. It is only a straw man argument if the person making the statement suggests that this is the default feminist position or that it is held by [i]all[/i] feminists or even a majority.

  6. July 15, 2014 at 10:43 PM

    As a first time TAM attendee I found it to be a splendid conference. As I listened to Tavris’s thoughtful, civil, yet passionate talk I suspected the knee jerk reaction by many would be to attack it and others to support it blindly. People ought to wait to judge her talk until it is released on video. I suspect many will vehemently disagree, but overall her talk was rather ‘conservative’ in approach other in the topic it is applied.

  7. Paul Turnbull
    July 16, 2014 at 5:39 PM

    This was my first TAM as well and I found Tavris’s talk in particular to be of value, particularly when combined with Elizabeth Loftus’s talk on the memory the following day. I would hope, particularly among skeptics, in these “he said/she said” situations reason would be applied to how we react.

    Outside of those issues I personally enjoyed Dan Dannett’s talk on whether churches can survive the new media environment and had a Kindle copy of “Caught in the Pulpit” to read on the plane home almost immediately. My partner, a psychology professor, had a laundry list of speakers she was there to see. The only major disappointment was Patricia Churchland being unable to attend.

    In all likelihood we’ll be back next year.

  8. RandyRandy
    July 17, 2014 at 9:34 PM

    YAYY!!
    What happens in Vegas…
    helps promote critical thinking in the scientific community, in the media, and among the general public.
    Congratulations, and keep up the good work!

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