Jun 23 2008

The Skeptical Movement – Thoughts from TAM6

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I spent the last week at The Amazing Meeting 6 (TAM6) – a skeptical conference hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). TAM consists of a series of lectures, workshops, and presentations by prominent skeptics and scientists, but is has also evolved into something much more. It is, in every practical way, the annual meeting of the skeptical movement. So it is not surprising that I return with some thoughts about how the skeptical movement is doing. I don’t really have a coherent thesis to present – just some random thoughts and observations.

Skeptical Meetings

First, TAM  was awesome. These  meetings alway recharge my intellectual and skeptical batteries. Their obvious utility is in providing educational lectures – to learn from experts in other fields. But the benefits of such meetings go way beyond that. It is also an opportunity for cross-fertilization, to exchange ideas with others in the movement in a concentrated forum. Everyone comes away with new ideas, deeper understandings, and plans for future collaboration. We need more meetings like TAM. Hopefully, as the skeptical movement grows, more meetings will emerge also.

The social aspect of these meetings also should not be underestimated, or dismissed as “mere” socializing. Skepticism is not just a good idea, it is an organized movement. These meetings allow people who share an intellectual outlook to be connected, and not just for networking, but to make a real social connection. Everyone was completely approachable and eager to answer questions or just chat. This grows and spread the movement. At least a dozen times I was approached by someone who was inspired by TAM to form their own local skeptical group, or to offer their specialized services to the movement.


Humans are social animals. No one wants to feel like they are socially isolated, and being a skeptic in some communities can have this effect. Meetings like TAM help forge the skeptical movement into a skeptical community – further increasing the motivation and possibilities for collaboration and mutual support. In short –  we can get a lot more done as a community than as individuals.

How are we doing?

I have been to many skeptical meeting and events before and I have to say that for the first time I have come away from a meeting with the sense that the skeptical movement is on the brink of a significant cultural transformation – from the fringe to the mainstream. Here are some examples:

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and one of the current superstars of popular science, is also a no-nonsense skeptic. During his lecture he was generally well informed about skeptical issues and was unapologetic in his skepticism. The skeptical movement, to some degree, has changed the public perception of skepticism, and part of this change is that mainstream scientists feel as if they have permission to be openly skeptical.

At the meeting were George Hrab, a musician and writer, and Greydon Square, a hip-hop rap artist.  Both of these artists have chosen to emphasize skepticism and reason in their music. Can you imagine a hip-hop rapper rapping about hardcore science and skeptical philosophy? Greydon and George are two of the coolest people I have ever met, about as far away from the nerdy scientist stereotype as you can imagine. Skepticism is now cool (at least it can be), and part of mainstream culture.

Adam Savage from the Mythbusters was definitely the most popular celebrity at the meeting (Penn & Teller, and of course James Randi, are also superstars, but it is my sense that the Mythbusters are better known outside the skeptical movement).  He is a regular guy who loves to build stuff and sometimes then blow it up. He is also a skilled craftsman and artist who has built models for many movies. And he is also a total geek (in the positive connotation that the word may now have). And yet he is famous for debunking myths in a fun and entertaining way.

The size of the conference – about 900 attendees – also reveals the overall growth of the movement. People attended from Australia, Japan, Canada, and the UK, in addition to all over the US. It was a truly international meeting. For every skeptic there, there were many more who could not attend because of expense or time constraints.  Also present were representatives (that I know of) from four podcasts, two published magazines, and numerous blogs all with readers/listeners in the tens of thousands or more. Richard Wiseman presented some of his psychology videos that he posted on youtube that are getting millions of views.

And, of course, we got to preview for the first time the finished pilot of The Skeptologists – an investigative reality tv show where skeptics tackle false claims and myths. (Full disclosure – I am involved with this project as one of the “skeptical talent.”) While this is just a pilot and the chances of any pilot actually making it on the air is slim, the show is pretty good, if I must say so myself, and stands as good a chance as any of getting picked up.

Conclusion

What I saw this past week was a vibrant and growing community of truly great people – open, friendly, excited, and unashamedly skeptical.  The movement is enjoying increasing success and has its eyes hopefully on the future.

Tomorrow I will muse further about skepticism as an intellectual discipline and the challenges and successes of skepticism in the Web 2.0 world.

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