First i must make a correction – my previous post, ‘TAM Australia – Impressions from Day 1’ as it turns out is incorrectly named, as the organisers took pains to point out to us that the first day was actually a bonus day, which we might call ‘Day 0’.
This then becomes my impressions of Day 2 in my nomenclature, day 1.0 in the JREF’s, and ‘Saturday’ in everyone else’s.
The day opened with a presentation from Brian Dunning during which he covered spooky sounds, audio pareidolia, number stations and some other items from previous Skeptoid podcasts. There weren’t many new items here, but seeing him deliver live was particularly entertaining and enjoyable. One amusing moment occurred when Brian and the TAM tech guy struggled to get Brian’s video displaying on the big screens, and a voice called out from the back of the room “You have to unmirror your display!”. The voice belonged to non-other than Dr. Pamela Gay of AstronomyCast, who then proceeded to take the stage and promptly sort out the issue to the applause of the audience.
It’s probably overkill getting an Astro-physicist to fix your Mac problems, but hey, whatever works.
Following Brian’s talk, the crowd awarded the first standing ovation of the event for Loretta Marron, who presented on the ‘Dodgy & Devious Devices – All with Government Approval’, during which she threw a spotlight on the crackpot rubbish tech our government allows to be sold and utilised in health-care in this country. Loretta has dedicated massive amounts of time and energy in lobbying the TGA and various state consumer protection agencies in an attempt to force change in government policy, and in no small part due to her efforts the TGA have acknowledged that they have a responsibility to consumers as well as industry.
Loretta was followed by Dr Krissy Wilson, who delivered a high-energy presentation on the Psychology of Belief, Doubt and Rock-n-roll. Krissy’s presentation was so fast-paced it seemed to be over very quickly, but the two highlights for me were her introduction of ‘Elbology’, the reading of personality traits and future through studying elbows, a made up, but no-less ridiculous pseudo-science than any of the others out there, and her mention of still wearing her “lucky red knickers”, despite her extensive training and skepticism.
Following morning tea, a truly epic session took place, as two of the founders of Australian Skeptics took to the stage – James “the Amazing” Randi and Australian businessman Dick Smith.
James and Dick recounted stories from the “Carlos Caper”, during which James and his friend Jose Alvarez pulled the wool over the eyes of the Australian Media, who swallowed the completely fabricated biography of “Carlos”, a fictitious psychic with fortune-telling abilities. Their telling of this story, which I’ve heard Randi discuss before, was very entertaining and the audience shared lots of laughter and incredulity at the Media’s failure to check even the most easily-confirmed ‘facts’.
James and Dick then recounted their memories of the famous moment on the Don Lane show, when James showed he was just as capable of bending spoons as Uri Geller, although he made no claim to being ‘magical’, which led to the host yelling “Piss off!” to James, after which he stormed off his own show, leaving Randi sitting there quite stunned.
After lunch we were treated to a live recording of the ‘Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe’ podcast, which kicked off with a protracted display of brotherly-love from Jay towards Bob Novella, as ‘punishment’ for Jay’s recently lost ‘Science or Fiction’ challenge.
The team then discussed what they’d learned about Australia, during which Jay’s fears about all the deadly animals were laid bare, and we all laughed as almost every photo they displayed on screen from their adventures in Australia featured an over-sized arachnid photo-bomb, my favourite of which had to be the enormous Sydney Funnel-web perched atop the Three Sisters, an impressive geological feature in the Blue Mountains.
Perhaps the highlight of the show for many was the guest-rogue featuring of Alex, and 11-year-old attendee who won the spot on the panel for their ‘Science or Fiction’ segment. Alex displayed sound reasoning skills, actually steering Jay to “GWA” – Go With Alex, and vote with him his choices. At one point Jay remarked to Alex “So I just bought a house…”, as though he was going to ask him financial advice, so impressed was he at Alex’s knowledge and intelligence.
Following the SGU Live recording, we were then treated to an energetic presentation on “what excites astronomers”, called ‘Surprises from Saturn’, by Dr Fred Watson. Although many of the audience were starting to wane by this point, as due to time constraints there wasn’t a break between sessions, his energy and enthusiasm kept them interested, and I personally really enjoyed the fantastic photos from the Cassini mission of Saturn and it’s impressive ring and moon system.
In what became a marathon, buttock hurting afternoon, we then booed and blew rasberries as the two runners up and winner of the annual ‘Bent Spoon’ award for “the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle.”
I won’t reveal the winner or runners up here just yet, as no doubt Australian Skeptics will want to reveal this themselves, but in my view all three were very deserving, particularly the winner for their stance on science education in Australia.
The Audience then split up, choosing between two panels; One on Science-based-medicine, which I attended, and the other on Skepticism and Law, which I wanted to attend more, but like many others was too slow off the mark and missed out on a seat. I’ve followed Simon Singh’s libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association in the UK with great interest, as it brought to international attention the ridiculous state of libel law in that country, with its far-reaching impacts upon all science reporters, bloggers and communicators who operate under the constant fear of being sued for criticising bad science.
I didn’t think I’d be as interested in the Science-based-medicine panel as it turned out I was, and some of the points made by the panel who included Dr Steven Novella, Prof Ian Harris and Nurse Joanne Benhamu, were quite eye-opening to me. Of particular interest to me were Ian Harris’ comments on the lack of blinded, placebo-controlled trials on the efficacy of surgery, as he said in many cases surgery performed only marginally better then placebo, but more trials were necessary. Dr Novella also pointed out that it is almost impossible to stay current with best-practices, the further in time a practitioner gets from their training.
We were then treated to a wonderful presentation by Dr Paul Willis from ABC’s Catalyst program, during which he dissected a roast duck to show us how they’ve evolved from Dinosaurs. Paul was a late stand-in for Tracey King, who was meant to present on the Making of ‘Storm’, the movie version of Tim Minchin’s beat-poem of the same name. Tracey was unable to attend for some reason, but Paul’s presentation was very entertaining and for me, drove home just how interesting the story behind how scientists came to know what they know is fascinating and in my mind a great way of engaging kids (and Joe Public), in discussing science.
The final presentation of the day was delivered by Simon Singh, during which he gave a brief outline of his BCA libel case, and other cases currently underway which are victims of this stupid law. As a blogger who frequently comments on pseudo-science, this issue is of particular interest to me. If you want to know more, please see http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk.