The Amazing Meeting Australia—The Token Skeptic Interviews
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.
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.
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.
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
was a particularly hot topic for many
of the presenters, with a particular focus on giving advice to activists.
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.
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)
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!”
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
- Towards the end of the
session Randi was talking about communication techniques used in entertainment.
I took this as my chance to make my argument and appeal to both the
emotions and reasoning of the audience using my skill set as an orator.
The points I wanted to make were that we all have celebrities; we shouldn’t
look down at others based on their approach to
thinking; and information is not enough—we need to factor in emotion
when we communicate.—Simon Taylor (“Taking
A Stand at TAM”)
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.
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.
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
interviews from TAM Australia are featured at www.tokenskeptic.org.