From July 15-19 I attended TAM13 in Las Vegas. It was my first TAM experience, but it wasn’t completely different from some other conferences I have attended. It reminded me of ICSA‘s 2014 annual conference in Washington, DC., although TAM is decidedly more alcoholic.
I dipped into a bunch of sessions, but for the most part I tried to match the content of discussions with my research interests. Highlights for me included the practical skepticism workshop, the Merchants of Doubt screening, almost everything involving Jamy Ian Swiss, Brian Deer’s talk on vaccines, and Michael Shermer’s presentation.
Workshops and general sessions aside, the most engaging parts of TAM came from conversations with other attendees as well as some of the presenters and organizers. I noticed two recurring conversation topics as both an observer and participant: (1) the status of skepticism as a pro-science social movement; and (2) the differences between the atheist movement and the skeptical movement. Regarding this latter topic, one gentleman observed that in Europe, people make much less of the differences between the two movements than they do in the United States.
Jamy Ian Swiss’s talk on skepticism was enlightening. He was critical of some recent sting operations, such as Operation Bumblebee. Swiss asked the following rhetorical questions: What did we learn? What cost? Was the time and effort worth it? What does success look like? Not just any magician/mentalist is qualified to analyze psychic methods, and it’s pretty easy to go astray, e.g., when skeptics look for “hot readings,” or make unfounded claims about other strategies employed by psychics.
This isn’t the first time Swiss has commented on these sorts of issues related to skeptic activism and the use of magicians. During TAM 2013, things got a little heated between him and Mark Edward. Skip ahead to 49:10 in the following video.
The relevance of this video to Swiss’s TAM13 talk is that Edward has made some fairly questionable claims about psychics, such as that they use your credit card information to gather data for a hot reading. This type of behavior is rare enough for it to be considered bullshit, but skeptics might buy it because he’s a magician.