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The Amaz!ng Meeting

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

July 23, 2010

Those who self-identify as skeptics know that TAM is an acronym for The Amaz!ng Meeting, which is hosted by James "The Amaz!ng" Randi and his organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

"What's a TAM?" we're asked by the uninitiated.

We reply, incredulously, "You haven't heard of TAM?"

Those who self-identify as skeptics know that TAM is an acronym for The Amaz!ng Meeting, which is hosted by James "The Amaz!ng" Randi and his organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

The world's largest conference on critical thinking, TAM is like a Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference, a G-8 Summit, or a World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting for skeptics.

Now in its eighth year, TAM has come a long way from its humble origins of merely 150 skeptics assembled in Ft Lauderdale, Florida, back in 2003. My first meeting, TAM 3, attracted some 500 guests, and this was where I met conference birth-giver Girl 6, as she knitted quietly in the front row of the conference hall. TAM has grown exponentially since then to welcome some 1,300 attendees, with additional events including cruises and meetings in England and Australia.

Held at the Southpoint Hotel in Las Vegas, the central themes of TAM 8 were unification, education, and outreach.

Come Together

With D.J. Grothe at the helm as president, the JREF has focused on the unification of the skeptical movement. Local organizations and grassroots groups are always encouraged; there is strength in numbers, though, and we're all unified by our ideology and common goals. At Grothe's insistence, TAM 8 was a coming together of the world's major skeptical organizations, and the event was co-sponsored by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and the Skeptic's Society. These organizations were represented by skeptics who appeared on various panels and workshops, including CSI's Barry Karr, Ken Frazier, and Joe Nickell and Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer, Pat Linse, and Daniel Loxton.

The meeting featured its usual "celebrity skeptics," including Mythbuster's Adam Savage (see the Point of Inquiry interview), mentalist Banachek, and notable academics Richard Dawkins and Carol Tavris. TAM 8 also concentrated on the history and roots of skepticism. This year's meeting paid homage to seminal skeptics Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Ken Frazier, and James Randi and paid last respects to Martin Gardner, arguably the founder of the modern skepticism movement.

Some skeptics deny there is a "skepticism movement"-due to the phrase's religious and bureaucratic connotations-and prefer "critical thinkers" or "community." During an interview with comedy writer David Javerbaum, Javerbaum argued against the idea that there is a "movement," remarking that "trying to organize skeptics is like herding cats."

Skeptics certainly aren't cats or sheep to be herded, but there were 1,300 of us there…

Preaching to the Unconverted (and the Converted)

Years ago, TAM moved from a winter date to a summer schedule to enable educators to attend during their school holidays. Randi's organization is busy putting the "education" into the JREF.

In their commitment to pedagogy, the JREF secured Michael Blanford as director of education and established a number of educational initiatives, including workshops to provide resources for teachers and other educators and grants to encourage the creation of critical thinking courses at secondary and tertiary levels.

TAM 8 offered more workshops than ever before, focusing on grassroots skepticism and education. These included "Skepticism in the Classroom" with Daniel Loxton, Matt Lowry, and Michael Blanford. They presented materials and practical tips to increase science literacy, science appreciation, critical thinking, and skepticism-not only in schools but in society. We don't need to be teachers to teach, and of course skepticism begins at home.

In my "Skepticism 101" workshop with Jeff Wagg, we highlighted the importance of not only teaching critical thinking but also continuing to learn ourselves. Skepticism is an ongoing education. We need to "preach" not only to the unconverted but also to the choir; even the choir can forget the songs.

Do Unto Others

TAM 8 acknowledged the importance of outreach and grassroots activism, but it also recognized the need to improve the public image of skepticism. The message was that we can increase our effectiveness and increase our numbers by simply being … nicer.

We all know the stereotypes of skeptics. There is the boring, bearded, bespectacled old man. There is the cynical and cantankerous curmudgeon. There is the self-righteous, smug, superior know-it-all. Rather than worrying about gender or age, we should worry about approaches and attitudes.

In the "Skepticism 101" workshop we spoke about skeptics' duty of care toward believers, and we encouraged skeptics to be diplomatic when representing skepticism. Becoming a skeptic means becoming an activist-a face and voice for skepticism.

Phil Plait also tackled these themes. In what has become known as the "Don't be a Dick" speech, Plait voiced his concerns at the public perception of skeptics as antisocial, egotistical, and abrasive. He reports that the growing popularity of Skepticism 2.0 has also seen a rise in rudeness online. Plait's plea was that we should avoid undue attacks and insults because we're most persuasive when we are respectful and rational. The overall sentiment was that "we can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Let's hope no one looks at the believers as flies!

Of course, there's a time to be confrontational, but there's also a time to be considerate.

This animosity is often directed toward believers, but the conflict also occurs among skeptics in feuds and factions that appear online. Now is an exciting and necessary time to be a skeptic, and we should ignore internal bickering and schoolyard squabbles so we can just get on with the job.

What Happens in Vegas…

TAM 8 was a long weekend of rousing talks, workshops, panels, stimulating speakers, socializing, and networking. Hopefully, what happened in Vegas won't stay in Vegas.

Skeptics are still "coming down" after what is known as the "TAM high" and eagerly awaiting next year's event. Let's maintain the motivation and stay inspired. Barring unwanted acquisitions, such as gambling debts or surprise spouses, don't let what happened in Vegas stay there. Take home the new friendships you forged, the knowledge you gained, the ideas, and the inspiration. But don't keep these to yourself; share them with your family, friends, and community.

This is what skepticism is all about.

(All photos provided by Susan Gerbic)

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.