Taking a stand at T.A.M. (26-28/11/10)

This is a picture of me standing on top of a Masonic alter at a skeptics convention, mid-way through an impassionate speech that challenged the audience and other panellists, before dropping the microphone and storming out of the room.

Here’s the back-story.

On the weekend I and about six hundred others attended The Amazing Meeting, a globally held conference on skepticism, at the Sydney Masonic Centre.  These meetings were founded by magician and prolific investigator of paranormal claims and pseudoscience, James Randi.  After three days of lectures, panels, performances and social gatherings I am now back in Melbourne trying to let my brain cells recover from the massive binge on skeptical information.

A few months back I had been invited to perform my stage show, Pieces of Mind, on the Friday night of the conference and be part of a panel talk on the role of entertainment in skepticism on the final day.  I was told I’d be on the panel with James Randi himself and Julian Morrow from The Chaser.  It was very exciting to be put on the same bill as such accomplished individuals and I hoped I would have something meaningful to contribute…

The conference was brilliant in organisation and abundant in important information.  Truly.  Hosted by Dr Paul Willis from ABC’s Catalyst, there were nearly fifty speakers and performers from all over the world.  This makes it pretty hard to give you cliff notes on the broad array of presenters, so I’ll describe some of my personal highlights.

Dr Carl Kruszelnicki – was a vibrant bundle of scientific knowledge and kick-ass story telling.  His talk was unrelenting in pace, hilarious in its tone and informative in its content.  Although he didn’t script a take-home message, he did point us to the thirty books he has written to grab one from those.

Dr Steven Novella – from podcast The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe spoke well on science based medicine.  He helped me realise just how rigorous the scientific method should be when it comes to testing medicine and that we should all complain when it isn’t.  I wish, however that he had explored some of the more effective ways to do that complaining.

Dick Smith – dropped in, probably straight out of his helicopter, to say a quick hello to the community he helped to found.  Throughout his talk I learned that he is a major contributor to skeptical causes, not just because he can afford it, but because he really cares.  This was a valuable insight for me because it showed the more human side of a business man.  I’ll keep buying his peanut butter.

The Australian Skeptic Award – was given to Stop Anti-Vaccination Network who have worked hard to combat the attempts by anti-vaccination propaganda to spread false claims about giving vaccines to children.  Vaccines have saved millions of lives from diseases such as small pox and polio.  Now due to the unqualified paranoia about negative effects of vaccines, these diseases are starting to re-emerge.  For their efforts in discrediting the Anti-Vaccination Network (AVN), I gave the Stop AVN organisers the very first standing ovation I have ever given.

Dr Simon Singh – is a British science communicator and source of continual inspiration.  His steadfast commitment to free speech and the voice of skepticism is heroic.  I hope some of his valour rubbed off on me in our handshake.

From what you have read so far it appears that I was utterly enthralled by the conference.  Utterly: yes.   Completely: no.  As I watched the talks and conversed with the other attendees a strong concern began to form in my mind (and that of many others, I found).  Skepticism is a verb.  It’s an approach, moreover a method, to processing and understanding information in our world.  Yet when it becomes the noun of skeptic it adopts some shortcomings along with the benefits.  Some of the benefits of taking on the identity of a skeptic are: being part of a community focused on spreading investigative and critical thinking, and utilising it as a branding technique for effectively communicating these messages.

I think one of the down sides is this: whenever you take on an identity or a label, you create the potential for separating yourself too rigidly from others.  People who do this negatively to other cultures are racist, to genders are sexist and to other intellects are elitists.  I saw the latter of those examples starting to emerge in a slight way in the tone of the some parts of the conference.

One particular instance was when an attendee asked James Randi why so many people listen to and follow ‘know-nothing’ celebrities like Jim Carey or Charley Sheen about matters they are completely wrong about.  Randi’s reply, that received an overwhelming applause from the crowd of six hundred, was “because they’re idiots”.  Fuck that annoyed me.  I understood it was a joke but I couldn’t suppress my frustration at the audience for abandoning their objective reasoning faculties, to demonstrate the same piety that they criticise so harshly.  This contradiction compelled me to think about how I could express, what I felt was, the need to remind ourselves to have empathy.  Yet as to not be hypocritical I had to do it with… well, empathy.

So as my panel talk drew nearer I felt the need to make a statement about using subjective means to communicate objective thinking. It shows empathy towards others because I think it demonstrates how to talk to people as embodied human beings, not just information processors.  It also allows reminds us that we use the same brain as the people we criticise.

The time came and the panel talk proceeded with myself, Morrow and Randi, moderated by George Hrab.  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.

So I leaped onto the Masonic alter, raised my voice, gestured as I spoke, ended with “if you want to make a statement, know how to make a statement”,  dropped the microphone and thundered out of the grand hall.

This was not a planned or contrived series of behaviours, but a candid manifestation of the thoughts I had been considering throughout the conference.  But yes, I was aware of what I was doing and what effect it would have.  I wanted how I made my point to illustrate the point.  I have enough experience and knowledge to embody what I want to communicate, so I did.

The reactions I received from it all suggested that my message got through.  I was pleased to have so many people approach me afterwards and express that they too felt the same on the issue.  The tweets made were overwhelmingly supportive as well.  Here are a few:

@rejjAU :  Simon Taylor just gave the most important speech of the weekend. Hope people actually got the message over the theatre. #tamoz

@burkealot Best exit of #TAMOz goes to @MrSimonTaylor, who lived up to the entertainment truism “Always leave them wanting more” 🙂

@Divisible_By_Pi Oh my!!! @MrSimonTaylor is fucking amazing. I mean…he’s what we need. #TAMOz

@ashdonaldson Perfect eg of communication/making a point: @MrSimonTaylor jumps on a table, screams, drops his mic & storms out at #TAMOz #StandingOvation

@kowari1 @MrSimonTaylor impressed me this weekend. 1st a magician show for skeptics takes guts. 2nd he really knows his psych and uses it #tamoz

This feedback shows me that many other attendees also consider the issue to be of high importance.  The core message that many wanted to express was that if you want to challenge beliefs, you have to challenge yourself.  I’m glad I could be a catalyst for that message.  Later on James Randi shook my hand, acknowledged my passion and said “you’re a real ball of fire!”  I guess that’s just how I roll.

To the organisers of T.A.M., thanks for having me and giving me a voice at the conference.  I love you all dearly and that’s why I spoke up.

Anyway, too much reflective thinking might be considered a form of vanity.  So I’m shifting back into future mode and looking to move forward in thinking, communication and my journey in creating engaging entertainment.  Empathy for the win.


21 thoughts on “Taking a stand at T.A.M. (26-28/11/10)

  1. Simon I spoke to many delegates about that panel, your message and your exit, and I believe many, many people totally understood and agreed with what you were communicating.

    It is important to consider the background however, as in Jim Carey’s case specifically, the current hot topic of these anti-vaccination groups has cast him in a highly dubious light amongst Australian skeptics.

    Was Randi’s comment received with rapturous applause? Yes. Was it simply because most people in that room respect him? Not entirely, but I’m sure that played a part.

    I enjoyed the part you played in the event (and thanks for tweeting a link to my blog BTW), and I feel your messag was well received.


  2. Simon, until this point I didn’t regret not attending TAM. I’ve been to several of the Las Vegas ones, even meeting my wife at one, but grew somewhat disillusioned with skeptics over time, much for the very reason you’ve outlined here. There are so many passionate, intelligent people, yet there is a tendency to congregate under the conclusions and forgo a deeper understanding of the processes, especially amongst many of those who are celebrated skeptics.

    In any case, reading this has given me a little more hope. 🙂 Thanks.

    Mike McRae

  3. I know I said this to you on the day but I was seriously impressed with how you handled it. So glad to have had you on the PS and to know you.

  4. Hi Simon, when the DVD comes out you can check out my talk on the Friday afternoon workshop about the TGA complaints process, which might provide some of the info you were after. Happy to be in touch about effective health complaints…or quackbaiting as I call it !

  5. Hi Simon,
    Both your stage show and panel performance were highlights in a weekend without equal for thought provoking entertainment and fun. It was a pleasure meeting you and the “Skeptical Community” is grateful for what you said and did, particularly how you said and did it!

    Well done and I’ll catch you when your in QLD next if not before.

    Jayson D Cooke

  6. “One particular instance was when an attendee asked James Randi why so many people listen to and follow ‘know-nothing’ celebrities like Jim Carey or Charley Sheen about matters they are completely wrong about. Randi’s reply, that received an overwhelming applause from the crowd of six hundred, was “because they’re idiots”. Fuck that annoyed me.”

    In regards to how the above annoyed you, it is important to remember context. Imagine a story like this.

    How did your baby.
    He died of pertussis.
    Why didn’t you vaccinate against that?
    Jim Carey recommends against vaccination.
    Isn’t Jim Carey an actor?

    Now after a conversation like that, what would go through your head?

    I do find that a lot of rational people won’t tell you what they really think because they don’t want to offend. I agree that there is a line between tact and the truth but surely at a critical thinking conference, full of like minded people, you can lean more towards the truth than tact.

    Remember, it is okay to be an idiot as we have all been idiots or done something idiotic in our lifetime. The important thing is for people to tell us when we are doing something stupid, otherwise we may never realise and thus learn. Life is about learning and the sooner that someone helps you to learn the better.

  7. Thanks Peter.

    I do understand the context, but I wasn’t sure that others did. I get that there may be some truth to the ‘idiot’ thing, but it is a simplistic and unhelpful way to address the issue.

    It’s like when people say “pedophiles are evil”, but don’t actually attempt to really get to the root of the problem. This lack of empathy leads to a misunderstanding of the issue and makes us less likely to improve the situation.

    That’s the point I was trying to make. But I do get your point of view.

  8. I guess one other thing that I thought about today was that there is a difference between talking to an individual and talking about a group of people, ie anti-vaxxers. I might refer to anti-vax groups as idiotic but if I was to talk to an individual from the group I wouldn’t call them an idiot. Indeed I’ve had conversations with people that have some extremely dangerous ideas about eugenics, race or vaccination but I never call them a moron as it doesn’t add value.

    However, if I’m talking to other rationalists about religion, homeopathy or any other crazy idea my language about that group will be stronger.

  9. Great blog Simon and although I did appreciate your impassioned message at TAM, some of your suppositions towards those of us that to hold what is a slightly elitist view over those we are sceptical towards seemed to in-turn be somewhat elitist on your part.

    Having met and talked with you at TAM it is easy to see you are a highly empathetic person and to this end you will reject the side of the sceptical movement which seeks to belittle the ‘believers’ in the community.

    Now I appreciate your views too, but the sceptical community is, just like any a very wide range of individuals who can’t all think and act in exactly the same way – lest we become like those groups we hold in contempt.

    To this end i will not change the way I identify and treat the ‘idiots’ as Randi called them, but I will also appreciate the views of others such as yourself.

    Once again I really enjoyed your participation in TAM, we do need a wide variety of sceptics to have a vibrant movement.

  10. Pingback: Taking a stand at T.A.M. Australia | Young Australian Skeptics

  11. Cheers Daniel. From what I understand, your main points are these:
    1) You acknowledge that empathy has value.
    Cool. Thanks.

    2) My accusations of elitism and promotion of more empathy is in itself, elitist.
    Sure, I guess so if you really want to play that card. I’m just arguing that, as human beings, we all fundamentally have these biases (of being elitists and sexist ect.) and should be conscious of them as we communicate.

    3) That I reject those that don’t use empathy.
    Not true. I just felt there was a misrepresentation of those who do not wish to take the belittling approach under the term ‘skeptic’. We don’t all feel that way.

    4) You are happy to be a bit elitist and call people idiots because everyone shouldn’t be as empathetic as each other.
    Okay, I understand that it’s valid to all have our own approaches and yes, diversity of mentalities is important. My argument is just that separating ourselves from others in intellectual terms when communicating may not be the most effective way to solve the issues that we are most concerned about.

    Thanks for challenging me on those points. You cheeky skeptic, you.

  12. To what end does calling someone an idiot lead you other than a confirmation of straw men and a more deeply entrenched bias. Its the adults equivalent to calling another child a poo poo face in front of his friends.

    Its almost like people think that these woo merchants are deliberately seeking the worst answers to their own questions. There is so much at play in how we form beliefs and to simply out someone as an idiot full stop is no different to a chaplain telling you God will cure your depression as opposed to a psychiatrist applying experience and time to actually make a change.

  13. Generally I if I argue or disagree with a ‘believer’ I don’t simply take the “you’re and idiot stance” – I use logic and reason (even if it is lost on some idiots).

    My reference was more to the crowd at TAM, I was simply stating that to many of us we do consider those who believe in WooWoo, religion, pseudoscience or other twaddle to be idiots in this respect, yes they may be highly educated or they may be a redneck but if they are unable to see logic and reason then to me and to many of my friends in this area they are idiots.

    Yes I do get a feeling of intellectual superiority over them in having this view (sorry if this offends anyone) I don’t think that this makes the feeling wrong, it is just one of the ways that some sceptics view the more gullible fraction of society.

    We are a wide and diverse range of people in the sceptical community – and i like that we are, I appreciate and listen to all of the attitudes within our group and think that it is with a wide range of vies and not a narrow focus that we are strong.

    Once again, I think there i no benefit in the sceptical movement in coming out and jut tagging people as idiots, we will continue to use the tools at our disposal to justify our view and point out the flaws in theirs – but when we get together as a group, in a fun atmosphere, is it really so wrong to have a few jokes at their expense?

  14. My answer to your question there, I think, is yes. As we have already established, my argument has been made on why. I’m keen to move forward now, we clearly have a difference of opinion and both accept that this in itself is important.

  15. Cheers Chrys. I must say that the line “about the need to respect those who don’t share our views” is a bit of a misrepresentation of my point. I never mentioned anything out ‘respect’ by point was to promote understanding. Thanks for the mention all the same.

  16. Sorry Simon, I took ‘respect’ to mean that we respect the people (i.e. not call them stupid) but not necessarily respect their views. I was taking notes throughout but frankly, you were so riveting I stopped writing until you disappeared off stage!

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