Day Two of TAM2010 started like the plot of an episode of One Foot in the Grave. Everything went horribly wrong and, if I were so inclined, I'd have screamed 'I don't fecking believe it!' at the sky. First of all there was the interminable rail replacement bus service that took over 45 minutes to deliver me from High Wycombe station to Denham station, some 14 miles away. Then came the Sunday service train schedule which, due to a singular lack of synchronisation meant that an almost empty train had left Denham about 2 minutes before our bus arrived. Then, when I finally got on the train, I discovered that (a) I'd forgotten to charge my camera battery overnight and would maybe get one or two shots today if I was lucky, and (b) I'd split my jeans under the crotch. Thankfully, unless I sat down with my legs wide open, people would be unlikely to notice. I might have wished for a warmer day however. The draught was quite disconcerting.
So, an excellent start to the day. More importantly, it meant that I arrived much later than I'd hoped and I missed Marcus Chown's talk on the 'Top 10 Bonkers Things about the Universe'. Shame I missed that. I like Marcus. I met him after a recording of The Museum of Curiosity recently and he was charming, funny and inspiring. He deserves more airtime. I certainly find him more palatable than Brian Cox. And I like Brian Cox a lot. Anyway, here's a pic I've outrageously lifted from t'interweb (here) to make up for my lack of attendance. And the Top 10 can actually be seen here (my thanks to Jim Christian for that link).
Next up was D J Grothe whose talk I joined about 10 minutes in. Grothe is the current president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and received whoops of delight from the audience by announcing that the profits from TAM2010 will stay in this country to promote UK skepticism. And that's despite half the audience being from elsewhere in Europe. This really was good news and will hopefully allow grass roots groups like the Skeptics in the Pub (Tagline 'Drinking and critical thinking') movement to grow. I'm hoping too that a fat wodge of cash will go to The Nightingale Collaboration and towards TAM2011 and maybe subsidising the ticket price? Nice to see some recognition too for regional conferences like QED that are starting to grow.
A panel discussion then took place about technology and new media involving Rebecca Watson, Kate Russell, Gia Milinovich, Martin Robbins and Neil Denny. There was some irony in this as the wi-fi in the very swish Hilton Metropole Hotel was bloody awful and the only place I could get a Vodafone signal on my phone was the only part of the 5th floor where I couldn't hear the speakers. New technology? Pft. The talk was interesting if curiously out of step with the feel of the conference. I popped out to make some calls, tweet a couple of times and rid my body of some of the hotel's appalling coffee. I was back in time for an on-stage interview with Melinda Gebbie by Skepchick's Rebecca Watson. Gebbie, as you may know, is Alan Moore's partner and the co-author with him of Lost Girls. An interesting discussion about pornography and women that spawned several great soundbites. I particularly liked this from Gebbie: 'If we loved ourselves more as women, we wouldn't have to be so bitchy.'
It's a shame that the busiest man in showbiz, Mr Stephen Fry, wasn't able to attend the event this year as we hoped he would. However he couldn't let the side down and so we were treated to a pre-recorded interview with the National Treasure by the splendid Tim Minchin. Fry was his usual affable self; definitions and long, wordy sentences rolling off his tongue with gay abandon. One of the main themes discussed was the importance of proper empirical research within skepticism and critical thinking. 'The real beauty', said Fry, 'Is when you get down and dirty and say 'let’s see'.' Also discussed was pseudo-science and how it propogates itself to become so popular. Fry commented that the New Agers and Snake oil Merchants have appropriated the language of science to make their claims seem more solid. Tim Minchin picked up on this, commenting on the use of terms like 'energy' and 'boosting'.
A little later, in a curious and unintentionally ironic twist (two in one day!), I was chatting to a friend not at the event who was watching via the dysfunctional live video feed. Apparently, if you watched it on The Guardian website, you had to endure an advert first for some beauty product that began 'Inspired by the science of genes ...' Ha!
Fry was interesting as always and Tim Minchin is always great value. But the next live panel (following another not terribly memorable lunch) was superb, boasting two heavyweights of comedy and journalism. It was a complete surprise to see that the person interviewing Father Ted and IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan was none other than Jon Ronson.
I've met both men before. Jon is great to chat to. Graham is a lovely chap too. But he's shy and modest and he's not a natural raconteur, which is maybe why you don't see him featured in many interviews or on panel shows. So I was wondering what to expect from him on stage during an interview. I was pleasantly surprised. While he isn't as verbose as Fry or as comfortable with a crowd as Chown or Ince, he was very funny and had some good things to say. A lot of his and Ronson's discussion centred on new media, in particular Twitter. 'For me it's like a multimedia radio station that's broadcasting whatever I can be arsed', explained Linehan. 'I don't have as many followers as some but I've got a good reach with this stuff and when I find something inspiring or beautiful I just really feel like I'm adding to the sum total of nice things in the world by sharing it.' When discussing the internet and sharing sites such as YouTube, Linehan expressed his amazement that some people aren't excited by it, especially the media. 'The way the internet is spoken about by the worst examples - like the Daily Mail for example - is like they're saying 'I don't know why but it's just wrong!'. There was a guy in the Irish parliament stood up recently and declared 'The internet has got to be stopped!' The wider world seems to distrust this stuff and I don't understand why.' Ronson reminded us of one of Linehan's best tweets 'My wife said to me at breakfast 'I have something to tell you ... I'm Banksy' but then pointed out that the people he finds the funniest on Twitter aren't famous people. 'They're people like Saliwho and The Fag Casanova. The old ideas - like commissioning editors that filter the great people out of the crap masses - are completely bullshit. The general standard of creativity of everybody is incredibly high and that's quite frightening for the people who make money out of being funny'. Linehan stated that one of the joys of a free, uncontrolled medium like Twitter is that you can do extraordinary things. 'I introduced 50Cent to Lord Sugar,' he said, 'I read their tweets and thought that they had a lot in common. It feels to me like democracy, and when people start to fight back against it it's because what we had before this wasn't quite democracy, and now these people are scared. I'm sure that Murdoch hates the internet. We all need to be very very careful of our internet rights. '
P Z Myers is maybe a name you don't know. For me, he was the star of the conference. Myers runs the world's most often read science site Pharyngula. His talk was about tone; the way we as skeptics should take our views out into the world. He's a strong advocate of reasoned argument and powerful but non-violent lobbying. He admitted that we are up against it. The battle will be long and hard because the opposition is so clever and organised. For example, he demonstrated the layers of misinformation and downright lies used to emotionally blackmail people into supporting the anti-abortion lobby. Here's one of his Powerpoint slides of a genuine billboard campaign in the USA:
As he pointed out, the image here of the happy, smiling baby is a complete lie. Here's the truth:
We're all unique for goodness' sake. And this is what we look like at conception:
'At conception it's just a slimy ball with wiggly sperm all around it', he said, 'And it's not even as nice as it sounds.'
The whole issue of how to put across a skeptical viewpoint without causing offence is a massive minefield. It's one I've personally experienced. In a previous career, I was part of a small team who were forced to give up valuable office space for a prayer room that hadn't been asked for and no one ever used. When I challenged the logic of this, I was accused of being insensitive at best and insulting at worst. At no time had I ever said anything derogatory about anyone's beliefs or their right to believe in whatsoever they chose to. I quickly discovered that it was my management merely 'ticking a box' to score points on their diversity and equality scorecard and, I'm afraid, my frustration got the better of me. I put in a request for a special room where I could talk to my imaginary friend. I can't tell you how much ire I stirred up. The prayer room was put in place, I was told off and the room remained resolutely empty for more than a year after which it gradually mutated back into an office again. I wish I'd heard the phrase 'We shouldn't be gratuitously obnoxious, we should be purposefully obnoxious' back then. It was a phrase that Myers taught me today.
Myers also discussed the ridiculous claims of Ray 'banana' Comfort (What? You've never seen his video?! Watch it here) and the more vitriolic defenders against atheism such as Daniel Spratlin. The internet is full of misleading and cleverly edited anti-atheist propaganda, such as this video that supports Ray Comfort's claims while demonising Richard Dawkins.
By taking part of a conversation out of context, the video appears to show Dawkins proposing the idea of panspermia - that we evolved from biological material that arrived here from outer space - as his preferred theory. It's amazing stuff. Enjoy the sheer one-sided nonsense of it. If nothing else, you'll learn that cats were created specifically for women's laps.
The finale of Day 2 and, indeed, the whole conference was the juggernaut that is Alan Moore. Famously prickly and often controversial, the hirsute author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta didn't disappoint as a speaker. He's always claimed not to be a comedian but he was brilliantly funny today with gags about the Big Bang originating in 1927 in Northampton among many others ... okay, so you probably had to be there. But I enjoyed his talk, even the bleak poetry reading. He's an amazing guy to listen to and the range and depths of his interests is extraordinary. If I have a quibble it's that I couldn't find much in his talk to fit the overall theme of TAM2010 - healthy skepticism and critical thinking. But I'm the last to be ungrateful and watching Mr Moore is always an utter joy and an honour.
So, overall impressions of TAM2010? The worst I can say is that, at times, it came across as a little amateurish for such an important event. Failing AV (10/10 to Richard Wiseman for patience), not so good food and coffee, and terrible Wi-Fi reception are not what you expect at an event that's cost each delegate over £200 a head. And on that subject ... a price tag like that makes the event pretty exclusive. Many of the bravest and most challenging skeptics I've met are students or people in fairly low-paid professions such as workers in the NHS. It seems a little disingenuous to put on a conference celebrating skepticism but which excludes, I'd wager, the majority of active skeptics. I'd hate to see the evolution of a kind of 'champagne skeptic' class. As I suggested earlier, maybe some of the profit could subsidise tickets next year?
As I was leaving I bumped into Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. Damn, I wish I'd remembered to charge my camera battery. Hope my undies weren't showing.
So, that's my take on the two days but, despite furious scribbling in notebooks and a handy voice recorder, I've undoubtedly missed a lot. Therefore, please also see Jim Christian's blog of the event here and here, and also Martin Robbins' live blogging from the event here. Crispian Jago has also written an informative and entertaining review here.