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The Amazing Meeting Australia—The Token Skeptic Interviews

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

December 14, 2010

During my time at the conference, I took the opportunity to get as much feedback from the participants and the audience about their experiences during the event

Late last year the Australian Skeptics, in conjunction with the James Randi Educational Foundation, announced that The Amazing Meeting Australia (TAM Australia or TAMOz) would take place from November 26–28, 2010, at the Sydney Masonic Centre. With an expected attendance of 600 people and a generously mixed lineup of local and international skeptics, journalists, entertainers, and scientists (including self-described “sleek geek” Karl Kruszelnicki, philanthropist Dick Smith, Eugenie C. Scott, and U.K. author Simon Singh), online tickets were sold out within days of becoming available. Coinciding with the event were a number of “fringe” events, including the Bloggers Breakfast, the Skepticator Open-Mic night, and a number of pub gatherings and meet-ups.

During my time at the conference, I took the opportunity to get as much feedback from the participants and the audience about their experiences during the event, the messages that the presenters hoped that the audience came away with, and the outlook for the future of skepticism for both Australia and the rest of the world. The next Australian Skeptics convention is scheduled for the Gold Coast, Queensland, in 2011.

Kylie Sturgess: What has been a particular standout event for you at TAM Australia?

Alex Southhall: Being on the panel for the “Science or Fiction” [segment] during the SGU [Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast] live recording. I didn’t get it right, but it went well—I tried to apply the scientific method and it worked!

Madge Carew-Hopkins (winner of the TAM Australia student scholarship): Everything everyone says about this place is true and then more so. I can’t think of any other [event] where after the first night of a conference you can go out to a pub and teach drinking games to George Hrab. I’ve been going to the talks, and they’re all really interesting and you don’t tune out—the content is that good. The speakers are all so entertaining and knowledgeable [and there is] a great selection [of speakers]. Even the things that were put together at the last minute, like the Paul Willis talk on dinosaurs, [were] really great.

It’s just been so energizing. What I was saying to someone else is that the main thing that I’m getting out of this conference is all the victories. We’re a bit sad over what’s still happening, but it’s mostly about how we can try to write our governments about the sale of banned items or about dangerous goods [that] shouldn’t be approved, and that we can all do that. Activism and empowerment: this conference inspires you to make the next move for science, skepticism, and the community at large.

Science communication was a particularly hot topic for many of the presenters, with a particular focus on giving advice to activists.

Sturgess: You’re involved [with] science communicat[ion] and skepticism. Is there much of a difference?

Simon Singh (U.K. author): Gosh, I think there is a difference, [and] we heard a little bit about it. I love science and I love astronomy and I love maths and physics. I’ve written about all these subjects. I guess that science communication is about in one way focusing on what science is and what science achieves and the wonder of science and the universe and so on. Skepticism, I think, is about fighting the pseudoscience—exploring and investigating the pseudoscience. In a way, it’s easy to perceive skepticism as more negative. But unless someone does take on the pseudoscience, then it just has an open territory and that’s what’s happened over the last ten years, certainly in Britain.

Nobody really challenged the homeopaths; nobody really challenged the chiropractors. So they just put out their messages. They put out their adverts, and they broadcast on the Internet. And the public only ever got one side of the story. So, the learned bodies, the medical associations and pharmacological societies, never really fought back. I think it’s been left to the skeptics. We had a very good example of this last year and it happened overseas as well: the mass overdose of homeopathy [in] the 10:23 Campaign. Lots of people thought that homeopathy was some kind of herbal medicine, and what the campaign showed is that there’s nothing in it. That kind of education is what skeptics are doing very, very well.

Loretta Marron (www.healthinformation.com.au): England is putting up the Nightingale Collaboration [a group that looks critically at complementary and alternative medicine claims]. I think that … a lot more people [should] put their names down to help [the Nightingale Collaboration]—maybe even a body within the skeptics—to organize us more. Because it’s people like me [who] are paddling our own canoes. We know where we’re going, but when there’s people on the side that are passing you things to keep you roaring along, it makes a real difference. We need more people helping. They don’t have to do a huge amount of the job, as there’s people like me who are happy to take on a lot! The whole thing [is] about looking at the politics of it. The Stop the AVN [a group of campaigners against the Australian Vaccination Network] group is fantastic, and they [have] found ways to get the[ir] message out. …It shows that [there are] opportunities that are being missed by people, like connecting with bureaucrats who are great at knowing the ins and outs of government, who could make [the organization] a lot more powerful.

One thing I’ve noticed on [anti-]cancer websites—and these are Cancer Council websites in Australia—there is a huge push for reiki and reflexology. Professor Chris O’Brien, who died of brain cancer, was … into alternative medicine before he died. The celebrity Olivia Newton-John is [also] into these practices. I think we need to take this on board, and I contacted RPA [Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in New South Wales, Australia] about this and I approached them with a whole lot of research from Edzard Ernst. We really have to put out spot-fires for small things and for big things, get a focus as a team, and say “this is not acceptable.”

Rob Morrison (science communicator): If you say to someone, “I’m a member of the skeptics”—and I’ve got a friend who goes in for power bracelets and heavens knows what; they’re a good friend but they’re lost to the cause—you can see the kind of hostility and alienation that might [result from that]. But if you say to somebody, “I’ve got a good bullshit detector…” then they’ll naturally say, “I have too!”

So, I think a lot of it has to do with the labeling. To say you’re a skeptic and a thinker and a scientific-enthusiast and so on is to lumber us with a “geeky nerd” label that is making it hard to take it up. But talking about a “bullshit detector,” well, everyone wants one of those. Everyone thinks they’re canny and [have] common sense. So, if we can somehow cast it into the mold of good old Thomas Huxley’s common sense, then I think we’d be doing ourselves a better service.

The Australian Skeptic of the Year Award and the Bent Spoon Award are annual features at Australian Skeptics conferences. They made an appearance at TAM Australia.

Sturgess: As one of [its] activists, how did you feel about the Stop the AVN group winning the Australian Skeptic of the Year award?

Tom Sidwell (Stop the AVN): It was a really invigorating moment. A lot of people have, and continue to, put in many hard hours to combat from every angle the misinformation put out by the AVN. The awarding of Skeptic of the Year [Award] to Stop the AVN was both recognition of that work and a heartening vote of confidence by the broader skeptical community.

Sturgess: This is a slightly controversial question, but what are your views on the Bent Spoon [Award] being awarded to the still-in-draft curriculum by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA)?

Peter Ellerton (philosophy teacher): [I disagree with it] only to the degree that I think it’s a bit of a slothful induction. I think it was a little hasty [because] there are reviews being done of it. I do know some of the people [behind the curriculum] and I think they are reasonably cognizant of what … the concerns we have are. I [haven’t seen the] written [curriculum] yet, and I think it’s a bit early to say—it’s not a final product. And so, while I understand the concerns and I think they have been articulated well, I think we probably need to see the final product before we [get] too involved. I think it was a little topical too, considering things like [the fact that] nearly a quarter of a billion dollars [have been] spent furnishing schools with chaplains, and so it might have been a topical, sensitive issue. That might explain it in part. There are many worthy recipients, after all.

TAM Australia lectures and discussions on outreach, entertainment, and the media were well received.

Paul Willis (reporter on ABC TV’s Catalyst and MC of TAM Australia): This is a different world with respect to the media in terms of what it was like ten years ago or more, when I first got into it. People can get into [media production] at their own pace and [under their] own steam—you don’t need the tons of equipment that you used to use. Anyone can set up a blog or Twitter [account]. Even things like cheap video cameras and editing equipment [are available] so you can make your own podcasts and vodcasts. It’s actually just flabbergasting to see it being taken up with such gusto.

What’s important is to get out there and do something—anything. It doesn’t matter how you do it, because you don’t know where it’ll lead. If you don’t get out there and do something, then nothing happens.

Simon Taylor (illusionist): We can draw on skepticism from being human, from whatever our fields are, and not just look at other people and say “Oh, they just follow celebrities blindly.” Well, why don’t we break that [attitude] apart a bit more and question it? And that was something on my mind, [which is] why I made the statement I did at the conference:

Julian Morrow (member of comedian group The Chaser): It was a lot of fun at TAMOz. I’m always slightly intimidated by these kinds of audiences because I don’t know much about science, but there’s certainly resonance [among] satire, comedy, and skepticism. I think that it’s a constant danger that when you believe that you are right … [you might] come across as superior or mocking people who hold different beliefs. Let’s be honest: sometimes that is the case. But the reality is, as a mode of communication, it’s not very effective.

We were talking with James Randi, and he is one of the world’s best examples of someone who can make his point and make it entertaining to a more general audience. I think that taking a bit of the snark out of advocating in skepticism is probably a good way to go. We’ve built half a career at least in making fun of people and their beliefs, so it does have a place! But it’s all about tone, and if you can make your point in such a way that you can make people laugh and therefore make them feel happy without them thinking that you’re mean or an arsehole, then you’ve done better.

As to what the future is, I don’t know. I hope that one day a bunch of young people [will] come along … and absolutely show us all what can be done.

The full interviews from TAM Australia are featured at www.tokenskeptic.org.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.