The Most Amazing Meeting

July 27, 2009

Photo by Fred Bremmer

Magic and Skepticism panel featuring James Randi, Penn & Teller, Ray Hyman and Jamy Ian Swiss

A couple weekends ago I had the pleasure of attending THE AMAZ!NG MEETING in Las Vegas, the annual critical thinking convention put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation. As I've told many of my colleagues at CFI and many of my skeptic friends since, TAM is easily the best convention of its kind anywhere. Why? Well, among other things, TAM excels at coalition-building, fostering community, and putting on a great program.

Skeptical Coalitions

TAM has become a convention for skeptics of all stripes: skeptics of religion and skeptics of the paranormal. Skeptics of alt med and skeptics of conspiracy theories. There were even a few skeptics of skepticism (of the knee-jerk variety).

With over one thousand attendees this year, I think TAM has become the annual mecca for science boosters and science teachers, secular humanists and religious humanists, atheists, agnostics, and ignostics, deists, rationalists freethinkers and nullifidians, and on and on. It's the place where all the local and national skeptical organizations come together and build coalitions around the common goal of advancing a critical, skeptical and scientific approach in society. Dozens of local skeptical groups were represented (including many of the Centers for Inquiry from around North America, and especially the Skeptics in the Pub crowd, as the all-nighters in the Del Mar bar in the hotel evinced). And of course the national skeptical organizations such as CFI, Michael Shermer's Skeptical Society, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry were also officially represented on the program. Additionally, nearly all of the skeptical and many of the humanist and atheist podcasts were present, with many recording episodes right during the convention.

Most exciting to me was to see how the many citizen-skeptic projects were recognized and given a platform. These include things like the SkeptiCamps started by Reed Esau and the web-based projects What's The Harm? started by Tim Farley and Robert Lancaster's site devoted to exposing psychic medium Sylvia Brown. (Lancaster, who is suffering from health problems, was honored with an award during the convention.)

Community

TAM is not just a critical thinking convention. It is a community of skeptical people who like liking each other.

I've been to innumerable skeptical and humanist meetings and conferences all over the world. And at TAM more than any other -- honestly -- you could really feel the skeptical love. This community is warm and inclusive, and celebrates its existence. TAM is a gigantic party for people who love being skeptics. It's not just for the crotchety sourpusses who feel weary of how gullible the world is. The folks who attend TAM don't only come to hear lectures by well-known skeptics decrying superstition and religion. They come to enjoy time with one another.

Fun Programming

While the schedule was light on public policy discussion and activist training, it was heavy on entertainment value and celebrations of skepticism as a way of life. We were treated to a retrospective of James Randi's life in magic (did you know he once toured with Alice Cooper?), panel discussions featuring TV writers and producers talking about skepticism in the media, and a beautiful memorial of sorts for magician and skeptic Jerry Andrus, among other sessions. I enjoyed moderating a panel discussion on the intersection of magic and skepticism that featured Penn and Teller, James Randi, Jamy Ian Swiss, and Ray Hyman.

Sid and Rebecca getting married

Sid and Rebecca's marriage at TAM7.

And there was even a surprise wedding on stage: the fabulous Rebecca Watson and Sid Rodrigues tied the knot, with over a thousand skeptics in the audience forever holding their peace.

There were also a number of skepticism workshops before the official convention began (to list just a couple: leading paranormal investigator Joe Nickel led a workshop on how to conduct skeptical investigations, and magician Jamy Ian Swiss and I did a workshop on the role of magicians in the history of the scientific research of the paranormal.)

Plan on TAM Next Year!

When I was a teenager and involved in a glorious cult called the Worldwide Church of God, in addition to tithing ten percent of my income to help bankroll church operations, I was taught to save another ten percent of my income to pay for my attendance of the church's annual fall conference. I'd suggest to all my skeptic friends to start saving now to attend next year's TAM, and I promise you'll get more out of this nonreligious conclave than I ever got out of my church conventions as a teen.