The Amazing Meeting Australia 2010, hosted in Sydney, has officially wrapped up, ending with a standing ovation for James “The Amazing” Randi as he announced the Australian Skeptics Inc. and JREF’s eager intention to hold the next TAM Australia meeting in 2011 in non-other than my own home-town, Melbourne Australia.
I write this as I await my flight home, still buzzing from the incredible experience that was TAMOz. This convention exceeded even my most optimistic expectations, from the quality of presenters, the organisers, the presentations themselves, the opportunities to meet and chat with skeptical luminaries, and of course the TAMFringe social events which were in themselves worth the trip to Sydney.
It can be a lonely existence as a supporter of scientific skepticism, especially as a blogger and local advocate for critical, science-based-thinking and evidence-based health. Writing and commenting on complimentary and alternative medicines (CAM), quack treatments, and the illogical things people believe in can have a marginalising effect, and it’s easy to feel like the only, unheard voice of reason in an otherwise irrational world.
TAM Australia has dramatically reinvigorated my passion however, as having met so many wonderful, incredible people from all over Australia, New Zealand, the United States and United Kingdom – people who are passionate, thoughtful, and active in pursuing change, people who dedicate their time to lobbying governments to change health and consumer protection policies, people who don’t accept that ‘buyer beware’ is good enough when it comes to health advice – it’s just humbling to hear their stories and see the results from their efforts – results that benefit every citizen, and yet they are mostly unknown outside of our little community.
I have met so many extraordinary people over this weekend that I couldn’t possibly name them all. An idea was presented to me however that “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a directory of skeptics who are active on social networks?” (thank you Edward Brown – @reallyedbrown), and I thought “Yes, I can do that.” So I will create such a list, which I will provide via this site and allow members to add and remove themselves as they see fit, after I contact all those I know of to ask them if they’d like to be listed by me. Stay tuned!
Now on to the last, ‘amazing’ day at TAMOz (I hope you don’t mind me borrowing your adjective @DrRachie).
I’m not sure if it was the late night before, the drinkies and subsequent headache *ahem*, or the fact that I was blogging on Day 2 at the time, but I honestly can’t recall a single thing about this panel! I’m sure it was good – maybe someone can fill in the blanks for me via a comment?
The next talk was sensational. It was Dr Pamela Gay‘s (AstronomyCast, Slacker Astronomy & SIU faculty), talk on Citizen Science, during which she presented on the wonderful contributions made by amateurs in the field of astronomy. Individuals such as Dutch school-teacher Hanny van Arkel who, whilst participating in the Galaxy Zoo project, discovered an object nobody had ever noticed before. Even though this particular picture had been eyeballed by several people already, nobody had thought to comment on the object because they all assumed someone had already done so. Hanny’s story inspired the production of the ‘Hanny’s Voorwerp’ comic, which tells the story of her discovery, which was actually fairly scientifically significant, as the object is like a time-capsule, reflecting light echos from a now reletively inactive quasar which long ago sent out light in various spectra, although is now itself not easily detectable.
I found Dr Gay’s talk as enthusiastic and inspiring as ever, as she is truly a gifted and entertaining presenter. Even though Pamela was a late ring-in due to JREF President DJ Grothe‘s late withdrawal from the conference due to an unforeseen scheduling clash, her presentation was one of the highlights for me, and was loudly applauded by an appreciative audience, which seemed to surprise her somewhat.
Following Dr Gay there was an unprogrammed TAM Quiz, put together apparently in 20 minutes by Rebecca Watson of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skepchick.org and so-on. The quiz pitted the SGU rogues and George Hrab against the audience, who answered questions via a live twitter-fall on the big screens. This impromptu performance may have given me life-long injuries, as I laughed so hard I think something broke. The guy in front of me moved to get away from me, as I gasped for breath and he thought I was about to keel over on top of him. Having met Rebecca in person now, I can see why so many rave about her – she’s fantastic, and I can’t wait to see her again in Melbourne on Wednesday at the dinner with Brian Dunning and the Vic Skeptics.
In the lead-up to lunch, Australian Skeptics Inc. President Eran Segev said some words, and then Richard Saunders taught the audience the applied kinesiology tricks behind selling various ‘Power’ bands, claimed to give the wearer enhanced balance and strength. You can see the tricks for yourself here.
Following lunch there was a presentation by Dr Eugenie Scott which was very eagerly anticipated by many in the audience who have admired her tireless efforts countering the absurd claims of the Creationist / Intelligent Design movements over many years. I too was looking forward to this one, but I was volunteering on door duty at the time and didn’t get to pay full attention. The comments I overheard from the audience afterward were very positive and I can’t wait to catch it again on the DVD.
Following Dr Scott was another panel, with James Randi, George Hrab, Julian Morrow from ABC’s ‘The Chasers’, and Illusionist Simon Taylor. Whilst entertaining, this panel had a serious side, and a point Simon made very well before he stormed off stage to highlight the effect of “always leave them wanting more” – Celebrities are taken at their word for so many absurd claims and endorsements partly because of the power we defer to them as the audience. He mentioned that earlier we, as the audience, all clapped and cheered when Randi responded to a question about celebrities with “they’re stupid” – but we all clapped because Randi was our celebrity, thus illustrating the power of this relationship between performer and audience. Randi has spoken about this himself before, and it’s something illusionists particularly rely upon, as it’s all about trust.
I don’t entirely agree with this specific example however, as the audience’s reaction to the celebrity question needs to be viewed in context: The questioner asked why people put so much faith in celebrities such as Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, who have been outspoken critics of vaccinations and their (completely wrong), link to childhood autism. In Australia, the skeptical ‘community’ has been very active in their opposition to Meryl Dorey’s ‘Australian Vaccination Network’, an organisation which seems committed to fostering fear amongst self-informing parents about the ‘evils’ of vaccinations. McCarthy and Carry, therefore, are seen as highly dangerous personalities by just about everyone who was in the room, so it wasn’t support or adoration for Randi which led to that applause, but rather our unified dislike for the particular celebrities mentioned.
After the Entertainment panel, there was a presentation by John Smyrk from the ANU College of Business and Economics where he discussed, among other things, the unscientific and tenuous assumptions underlining the Myers Briggs Type Indicator tests and assessments. His talk was interesting, but probably a little heavy for the end of the event.
Next was a live recording of ‘The Skeptic Zone’ podcast, with special guest Dr Pamela Gay, which was a historic event as the entire podcast team had never actually been together on their podcast before. I won’t spoil this for the listeners – you can download the podcast from http://www.skepticzone.tv or via iTunes.
The day was brought to a close with a presentation by ‘The Curiosity Show’s’ Dr Rob Morrison on illusions – or more specifically optical illusions. Dr Morrison’s presentations brought many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the audience, and at one point he had the entire auditorium rocking backwards and forwards in their seats to feel the effect of one of his illusions. It was an entertaining talk, but as I was still on my feet doing door duty I was thoroughly tired by the end.
After Rob, Randi gave his closing speech which I mentioned earlier, and we all head out to grab final moments with the speakers and the inevitable drinks at the nearby Malloney’s pub.
Make no mistake – if you didn’t purchase tickets to TAM due to concerns that it wasn’t worth the price… You made a mistake because you missed out on something truly wonderful. It wasn’t just the speakers, or the presentations, but the opportunity to mix with so many wonderful people from here and abroad which made this an unforgettable experience I will treasure forever.
I’d like to thank the organisers, particularly Richard, Rachel, Eran, Joanne, Tim and the army of volunteers and others who made it all possible. I cannot wait for TAMOz 2011 in Melbourne (the pressure’s on now guys and girls!).
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