Some more highlights from TAM 8:
Jennifer Michael Hecht. I was looking forward to this speach and I wasn’t disappointed. Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of several books, the notable ones being Doubt: A History, The Happiness Myth, and her latest book of poetry titled Funny. Her background in humanities was a breath of fresh air in the room and her passion and interest in the subject of the history of science and faith was infectious. Just a wonderful speaker and obviously bursting with interest in the world. One notable turn of phrase: “A wave isn’t a wave, it’s the ocean waving. An apple is the universe appling. You are the universe youing”. I have read Doubt but will be re-reading it soon, and I bought Funny and I look forward to reading it too. Here’s a link to Jennifer’s site: http://www.jennifermichaelhecht.com/
David Javerbaum. This was one of the funniest and most entertaining talks which I guess would be expected considering that Javerbaum has been head writer and producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He had a dry, sarcastic wit (big surprise) and spent most of the time deftly answering questions from the audience. While he said the agenda of the Daily Show is only to be funny, he pulled no punches when he was talking about the general news media which he said, “sucks ass”, and it was clear that there was some pride in the way the show puts the spotlight on hypocrisy in the media and politics while still being funny. He has resigned from the show, regretfully it seemed, and he is going on to other things (scripting a musical, I think he said).
Paul Provenza. This comedian and director has written a book, Satiristas (http://www.satiristas.com/), in which he has conversations with famous comics and satirisists. I’ve heard interviews with him and I am really interested in reading the book – the comics are presented as brave spokesmen and women of the human condition with all its failings and controversies. He read from his book and was refreshingly irreverant. He does have interest in the skeptic movement and contends that most of the comics are skeptics – just funny ones. This was apparent when he opened saying, “I don’t care, but I’m going to say that I opened for Richard Fucking Dawkins.” This was a bit of a departure from the rest of the talks, but very welcome and very, very entertaining.
Richard Dawkins. I would like to say that this was the highlight of TAM, but it certainly wasn’t for me. I think one issue was the interview format (by DJ Grothe, president of JREF). The questions harped on the influence of fantasy fiction on critical thinking later in life and Grothe couldn’t seem to let this go (mentioning his comic book habit several times too many). I would venture to say that if you have the pre-eminent evolutionary biologist on stage, the audience wants to hear about evolution and his work in the field. Dawkins was also asked about atheism and skepticism but as eloquent as his answers were, they were not greatly edifying. The interview was okay, but I thought most of the time was wasted on trivial issues.
Jen McCreight. Jennifer was the instigator of Boobquake which was a lighthearted response to the ridiculous charges of an Iranian cleric who blamed earthquakes on women who were immodest in their clothing choice. Jen was startled by the response to her amusing experiment – over 100000 fans on facebook and interviews by all the major news organizations. She even got mentioned on the Colbert Report. Her presentation was well done and it was refreshing to see a young, smart person doing something fun while still making a point. Here is a link to her blog: http://www.blaghag.com/
Global Climate Panel. This panel discussion was important for one thing: it showed that skeptics do, indeed, have topics for which they aren’t skeptical. The one dissenter (McGaha) on the panel was tossing out logical falacies and demonstrated remarkably fuzzy thinking about the subject and about the process of science itself. His opinions were handily countered by Dr. Donald Prothero who appears both knowledgeable and articulate. I have heard good things about his book, Evolution, What the Fossils Say, and intend to put that on my pile of books to read (I bought it at TAM). Michael Shermer was also pretty good up there considering that he used to be an AGW skeptic. Daniel Loxton perhaps put it best at the end – if you have another theory, write it up and enter the scientific arena.
I’ve just given you some hightlights of the meeting (IMHO, of course), but the rest of the presentations were quite good, if a little uneven, and it was nice to see quite a bit of diversity in the subjects. I do think, and it seems like a lot of twitterers agreed, that the paper presentations shouldn’t be relegated to Sunday morning but rather interspersed throughout the meeting. Attendence tends to be less on Sunday due mostly to late Saturday night socializing. Or at least that is my hypothesis.
I didn’t take very much opportunity to socialize, except with a classmate of mine who we ran into on the first day. It was great to catch up with him and his lovely new bride, and to realize we have skepticism in common. BTW, here’s a link to his iPhone app: http://sexytimeapp.com/ I wonder if he caught the sexuality workshop Sunday afternoon?
The one thing that I thought was lacking at TAM was the report of progress of the movement from the previous year and stated goals for the next year. I don’t mean the attendence figures from TAM, but rather some metrics from skeptic activisim from the past year and specific actions on which we should be focussing in the coming year. The closest came from Dr. Novella’s panel discussion where he proposed a concentrated effort against homeopathy this year. Though it is a bit outside my expertise, I intend to help in that as much as I can. It is something I think we can beat if we focus on it.
All in all, a great time was had by us, and if you haven’t been before, I suggest you try next year (or TAM London or Australia this year). As always, comments are welcome.