Report from TAM 8 (part 2)

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:

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 (, 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:

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: 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.


Don’t be such an Engineer?

I just finished reading Dr. Randy Olson’s Don’t be Such a Scientist.  It is a good read and I think one that most scientists and engineers need to read, but I am not sure how to use it.

Olson’s underlying premise is that communicating science needs more than accurate facts dispensed in a confused flurry of powerpoint slides or in a formulaic technical paper.  Rather that scientists need to take a page from Hollywood’s book and appeal more to the heart or gut of their audience.  He advocates a mantra of arouse and fulfill, meaning that you need to first interest your audience and then fulfill that interest with your information.

The issue is the way scientists and engineers think makes it difficult for them to do the arousal bit.  This leads to his main topics: Don’t be so cerebral; Don’t be so liberal minded, Don’t be such a poor storyteller; Don’t be so unlikable; and Be the voice of Science.  These chapters are filled with good observations from his life that is half in the academic world and half in the world of film making in Hollywood.  His anecdotes are illustrative and interesting, and many of the examples he gives from science gatherings are easily seen also at many engineering conferences I have attended: presentations that are unfocused, boring, and confusing.  Yet they possess good, accurate, and important information.  But what use is that if nobody is listening or remembering what was said?

As a film maker, Olson has come to conclusions about presenting science to the populace and he supports them by looking at films like An Inconvenient Truth and To Hot Not to Handle, another global warming film by the same producer, but one that was made with more substance than style, rather than Truth which was more style than substance.  Guess which made more money, affected the public more, and got Gore a Nobel?

I haven’t seen Olson’s movies, Flock of Dodos and Sizzle, but it is interesting to read about him making them and finally understanding that he needed to drop the scientist’s voice inside him (to some extent) and instead go for the heart and gut.  Naturally the scientists hated his Sizzle, but by all accounts most other people liked it.

I think the issue here is balance, and Olson talks about it when he advocates scientists being bilingual; one voice for the science audience, one for the public.  The trouble I see here is that he assumes that scientists and engineers are capable of learning that second language.  I don’t think most of us are.  I think that is why there aren’t many Carl Sagans or Neil Degrasse Tysons.  It is rare to be a good scientist or engineer AND a great communicator to the public.  The book is good at pointing out why scientists aren’t all that successful in communicating and stirring up interest in the public, but I don’t think it is very realistic in the idea that those scientists can change.

Case in point, in a recent interview by Skepticality, Olson himself seemed to slip into the scientist-speak and went on and on until my interest waned.  I think most of us in the technical world are a bit dyed in the wool and it is hard for us to learn to speak to people’s hearts or guts.  It is certainly hard for us to learn to do it well.  It wasn’t answered in the interview, but I think Swoopy’s comment about finding good communicators and teaching them science has merit.  At least to help out in the communication of science.

As for us engineers, I think it would be good to take some of Olson’s suggestions on the road and stir things up.  We should be telling good stories about our fields to help support the technical information.  We should think about other media and how to use it to get our message across.  And we should realize that we are humans and we need to lighten up a little bit.

But, of course, we still need to be technically right, complete, and valid.  Tough balance?

What do you think?