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.
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.
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.
TAM 2014 was a resounding success.