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:
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.