Thursday, 8 October 2009

TAM London

As you all know, it's conference season, and firmly wedged between the Labour Party conference last week and this weeks Conservative party conference is The Amaz!ng Meeting, or TAM London as its affectionately known amongst us skeptics. TAM is organised by the James Randi Educational Foundation (or JREF), and promotes critical thinking, rationalism and the scientific method. So my wife and I spent a very enjoyable weekend rubbing shoulders with some eminent celebrity skeptics and scientists. Jonathon Ross was there too, but we didn’t rub shoulders with him. We had a number of distinguished speakers address us over the two rational packed days and I thought I’d try and briefly whizz through each of the major speakers of the weekend and indeed our superb master of ceremonies Professor Richard Wiseman.

Richard Wiseman
Richard kicked the event off his humorous introductions and punctuated each of the speakers with his unique blend of magic, psychology and comedy.

Brian Cox
So, the first speaker to take the stage was particle physicist and ex rock star, Professor Brain Cox. “What’s the point of building a large Hadron Collider” mused Brian. He gave us one answer supplied by a science funding corporation, a single slide of meaningless, uninspiring management bollocks. As a comparison to this, he then went on to show a few simple images; a simple snap from an Apollo mission showing for the first time, the earth beyond the moons horizon; and an image from Voyager, when it turned around to look at us and captured a pale blue dot in a ray of sunlight. Brian accompanied the image with Carl Sagan’s timeless quote which raises more hairs on the back of the neck than any sermon ever could.

Having reminded us of the accomplishments of the Apollo and Voyager mission, Brian whetted our appetite on what we might expect from the LHC. Despite rather clumsily buggering up the machine last year, Brian assured us that they’ve now sussed out that they have to be very careful when sending a shit load of volts through a fairly thin wire. He promised us it won’t happen again, and they’ll be stoking her up again in a few weeks in the hope of cranking up a few particles to within a fraction of the speed of light and twatting them into each other.

It then got a bit technical perfectly comprehensible and enlightening just not dumbed down to the perceived levels TV producers frequently think necessary. By outlining our current understanding of particle physics it became clear how our current unifying theory (Excluding gravity) relies on the existence of the so far undiscovered Higgs Boson particle. It seemed clear from the talk that the LHC will either find the bloody thing, or give us the confidence to admit it doesn’t exit and force us to think up a new theory.

Brian closed off with a few quotes from some esteemed scientist on the LHC, including this quote from himself that he was rather surprised the BBC used verbatim:

“Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a twat”

Jon Ronson
Next up was Jon Ronson with some slightly lighter material. Jon stooped over the corner of the lectern and proceeded to tell us the story of the “Men Who Stare at Goats”. Jon’s best selling book of the same name, and soon to be movie of the same name starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor. The book came about as a true life investigation into the CIA’s secret paranormal research for military purposes. Jon treated us to a brief trailer of the upcoming movie that featured George Clooney as Lyn Cassidy who reasons thus:

“I am made entirely of atoms, and atoms are predominately made of nothing, the wall is also made of atoms and therefore overwhelmingly consists of nothing”

This simple logic did however lead to his perpetual confusion when every time he slammed himself into the wall, he completely failed to pass through it.

Jon talked us through the how his project started as a series of documentary films for Chanel 4 exploring some of the crazy shit going on within US military intelligence. Jon uncovered bizarre psychological experimental warfare techniques from starring at goats in an attempt to make their hearts stop right up to blasting Iraqi prisoners of war with the theme tune to Barney the Dinosaur, surely water boarding pails in comparison to this heinous violation of human liberty.

Simon Singh
As I’m sure you all know that Simon is currently in the process of being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for writing an article in the Guardian some 18 months ago regarding the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain childhood diseases. The well now well known and oft repeated paragraph around which the libel case hangs once again is:

"The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments"

For his TAM talk Simon walked us through the genesis of his article, and in fact his book “Trick or Treatment” co authored by Professor Edzard Ernst. It seems as though the starting point was a BBC 2 documentary showing a woman, I believe in China, undergoing surgery without general anaesthetic, but using acupuncture for pain relief.

After further investigation Simon discovered that although she was receiving acupuncture she had also received a couple of drugs stronger in fact than morphine as well as a local anaesthetic. Of course this was never revealed on the documentary film leaving viewers with the impression that complete pain relief for surgery can be easily accomplished by jabbing a few needles around in your appropriate meridians. Hence the motivation to author a book that critically examines the most popular alternative medicines in an unbiased and scientific quest for the truth behind their efficacy.

The second part of Simon's talk focused around the pretty shitty English Libel laws that the ill conceived case has highlighted. Much has been written already about this important case by much wiser men and women than I, so rather than repeat the details now I would rather point you at a few other blogs that can explain it far more eloquently than I can:

Jack of Kent, The Quackometer, Stuff and Nonsense, The Lay Scientist Zenos Blog, Neurlogica, DC's Improabble Science

In fact Simon kindly paid tribute to this fine list of bloggers and thanked them for their kind support and awareness raising, unfortunately I can remember exactly which bloggers he listed as I was blinded by own name nicely highlighted in the middle. In fact, I’m filling up now just thinking about it, I’m going to have to move on...

Ariane Sherine
Ariane Sherine recanted the fascinating story of the Atheist Bus Campaign. Ariane’s beguiling dulcet tones made her an absolute dream to listen to, and she enthralled a packed room of 600 skeptics with tales of how the campaign nearly fell at the first hurdle. But eventually ended up by raising, I believe in excess of £150,000.

Ariane loitered around with the great unwashed skeptics for much of the event and whenever she stood still for a few moments a massive queue of skeptics and Atheists invariable formed behind her, clutching their Godless Crimbo guides in the hope of getting Ariane to scrawl something in the book. She diligently obliged by taking the time to write a lengthy personal message in many books.

I feel a little guilty whenever meeting Ariane, as when I wrote her Simpsons Skeptic Top Trump Card, instead of concentrating on her sterling campaign work or captivating journalism, I opted instead for a few cheap sexist nob gags. The situation is only compounded every time I met her, as on this occasion when I some how ended up talking to her about my cock. My wife tells me that I’m lucky that she’s far too polite to just say "Fuck off you creepy man".

Ben Goldacre
Ben Goldacre’s unique mixture of science, stand-up and rabble rousing has made him a firm favourite amongst the skeptical community. The self confessed potty mouthed nerd cheerleader and architect of the Bad Science column in the Guardian, and the Bad Science Book and T-Shirt and tank top, and hopefully soon skeptical action figure, is never short of things to say.

On this occasion, Ben used his platform to remind us to be vigilant of dodgy mainstream science reporting focused on selling papers through inaccurate health scares such as the MMR media reporting debacle, or meaningless equations to tell you about, for example the most depressing day of the year, or attention grabbing headlines like “all men will have big willies” derived by perverting genuine scientific research.

I was also delighted that he took some time to poke a pointy metaphorical stick at Dr Gillian McKeith, or to use her full medical title as Ben always reminds us, Gillian McKeith. For any non UK based readers unfamiliar with the middle class nutritional nut eating advice of Gillian McKeith, I’m always tickled by the fact that both Gillian McKeith and Ben Goldacre’s dead cat Henrietta are both members of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants.

Robin Ince & Friends
After a few swift pints next door at the Black Friars pub, we were back to the conference centre for our bangers and mash and an evening of comedy and music with Robin Ince and friends.

I shan’t go through all of Robin’s comedy and musical guest performers of the evening, but I will call out Chris Cox, who pulled my wife up on stage to assist with his great comedy mind reading trick. Despite my wife’s best efforts to derail him, he correctly honed in her selected playing card.

Robin’s in-between sets featured a sterling analysis of the author and columnist Ann Coulter. Now Ad hominem attacks may well be a cheap unscientific attack on an individual rather than an idea, but taking the piss out of Ann Coulter is just so much fun. Actually, Come to think about it, she was taking the piss out of herself, as all Robin did was read Ann’s own words verbatim from her book. They’re just hilarious to the rational and intelligent ear straight as they come out of the book. To bring back a bit of sanity and calm things down a bit Robin closed day 1 as it began by reading from the Gospel of Carl.

George Hrab
Geo enthralled us with a set of music and comedy to start of the second day of TAM. I especially enjoyed his story of how whilst driving through his hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he was cut up by a car emblazoned with a God Fearing Jesus bumper sticker only to pull up next to said vehicle at the next set of traffic lights and spot crazy creationist Michael Behe in the passenger seat.

What to do? You can’t run him off the road, or give him the finger; after all we have our fine atheist reputation to uphold. Quick thinking George however solved the dilemma by rolling down the window and shouting “Boo”. Works for me.

George also gave us a number of songs interspersed with his jolly banter, my favourite of which is the anthem for the 365 days of Astronomy, “Far”.

Glen Hill
Next up was Glen Hill, son of Elsie Wright, nee Hill whose famous fairy photographs of 1916 were believed by many to be genuine.

Glen explained how the fairies were drawn, cut out and mounted to indulge the fantasies of her little cousin. Glen then explained how Sir Arthur Conon-Doyle went on to promote the photographs as genuine in an attempt to vindicate his own alcoholic father who experienced hallucinations of little men or faries.

Inspired by the Cottingly fairy pictures I took some similar pictures of my own kids with the aid of Photoshop and a few Google image searches. However, no one considered my photo’s to be genuine.

Glen then moved onto the second half of his talk which was based on his book “ Religion Explained in an Hour”, where he postulated on how he believed the Abrahamic religions were founded on psychotic delusions. Now I enjoy a good bit of God bashing as much as the next rationalist, but I do feel he veered from impartial talk to anti religious rant. Still, it’s all jolly good fun.

Adam Savage
Mythbuster Adam Savage told us a few tales behind the making of a couple of the scenes from the Mythbusters TV show.

The main one talked about was his experiment to see how fast you could swim through syrup, deftly accomplished by digging two long troughs and filling them with a suitably viscose liquid. Adam was a great story teller but the anticipated funny punch line at the end of the story failed to materialise.

I had a quick chat with Adam after his talk along with a few other people who lynched him when he came off stage. When I arrived on scene he was being quizzed by a chap doing a piss take of the star trek / comic book guy nerd, with the weird voice sounding not unlike Peter Cook on a park bench enlightening those near by on the length of their intestines. I was about to congratulate him on his amusing nerd pastiche when I realised he wasn’t actually putting it on for comic effect.

Tim Minchin
Do I really need to tell you how awesome Tim Minchin is live? As with his appearance at Robin Ince’s 9 lessons and carols for Godless people, Tim totally stole the show.

Anyway, he’s touring at the moment so I don’t want to give away too many spoilers as he did perform a number of amusing ditties from his live set. So I’ll skip the details of his TAM performance. I do however want to briefly mention the animated film to accompany his skeptic anthem, “Storm” that is currently in production.

We were lucky enough to get a quick sneak preview of "Storm". I expected the film to be pretty bloody good, but it’s going to be even better than that, so keep an eye out for Tim Minchin animated film of “Storm” next year when it is due for release.

Phil Plait
Bringing up the rear of the conference was the President of the JREF, the incredulous Phil Plait.

As the first TAM to be held outside North America, it was great to teach our American Skeptic friends how to swear properly. After abandoning a few attempts to point out the hilarious differences between American English and English English, Phil went on to win the crowd by liberating his tongue around some good old fashioned British swearing. Phil successfully supplanted a "baloney" for a "bollocks" but failed to score higher in the TAM profanity bingo competition.

Incidentally despite first rate professional swearing from the likes of Goldacre and Minchin, I would have to award the curse of the conference trophy to Ariane’s hate mail author.

Anyway, I seem to have gone off topic in a hopeless attempt to be rude to Phil Plait. Oh, by the way, I had a chat with Phil and he promised to be very rude back to me on his Bad Astronomy blog so I’m really looking forward to fielding some first rate piss taking from the main man.

Where was I, Oh yes, Phil Plait's closing talk. Phil actually gave a superb talk based on his best selling book “Death from the Skies”, after explaining the difference between asteroids and comets Phil explained the reality behind the likelihood of a strike, the consequences of such a strike and some realistic mitigation methods. Phil contrasted these ideas with Hollywood’s perception of such events with a few clips from the very silly Armageddon and the slightly better Deep Impact.

Or if you couldn't be bothered to read all that, you could hear it on episode 4 of the Pod Delusion, availble from iTunes, or the embeded player below.

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