First up this morning was a marginal breakfast. I don’t understand this — why do people put cooked fruit into things that don’t need cooked fruit. Cooked fruit is not chocolate. It does not make things better. It makes them measurably much worse. Croissants don’t need jelly on the inside. It’s gross.
George Hrab opened the conference with a brilliant song, the best part of which was the direction to make sure that any questions you direct at a speaker are actually questions, not opinions, speeches, or comments on the speaker. It was pretty funny.
Michael Shermer was first up and I literally don’t remember what he talked about. I was not awake and not that interested, so I guess it just didn’t stick.
Then there was a panel, Skepticism and TV. I got over the fact that *I* wasn’t on the panel, but I have to say it is really hard to look at these panels of old white guys and think that they’ve made the effort to get more than one point of view. When they found out Adam Savage wasn’t coming, they had the opportunity to try to get a minority or a woman on the panel, and they didn’t. Which was a shame because everyone on the panel agreed with one another and didn’t have a lot of useful advice on how to get more skepticism on TV.
Here’s the thing, when you don’t have young people talking about what’s going on, you miss stuff. If you don’t have women, or mothers, or people of color, or people from different socio-economic levels, you don’t hear about whether people are actually being exposed to skepticism on TV.
Did the old white men mention any of the children’s programming out there? No, not at all. And that’s probably the place where you see the most skepticism incorporated into fiction storylines. Look at Dora the Explorer, or any of the other investigative type shows that are aimed at kids. Those teach critical thinking and why don’t they think that that qualifies as skepticism on TV. Yes, you watch Bones or whatever and it’s absurd and not related to real critical thinking, but prime time adult television is not the only thing on TV. There’s more than the Discovery Channel.
They also talked a lot about editing and how to get around being edited in ways they don’t want to be. I’ll just say that it’s almost impossible to get by a determined editor. They’re tricksy people.
Yes, so I took some issues with that panel.
Next up was Lawrence Krauss. A few months ago, Krauss made some statements in support of his friend who was an admitted rapist of underage girls. There was a fair amount of backlash, and threats to walk out on him at TAM. If that happened, I couldn’t tell. There’s so many people in and out of the room anyway, it wouldn’t have been noticed, but also I think that elevatorgate has so overshadowed this that no one quite cared as much.
He gave a history lesson on Richard Feynman, which was OK, but I wasn’t that interested in a biography.
Then Jamy Ian Swiss led James Randi and two others in a recap of Project Alpha, which was when two magicians pretend to have Uri Gelleresque powers for several years and the lab believed them despite the fact that it was very obvious what they were doing. Embarrassing for science, but kind of hilarious for magicians. It shows how lame psychics are.
Eugenie Scott was up next, but I didn’t listen to that talk, I looked at books and walked around. I wasn’t very interested in Climate Change Denial and I was tired and wanted to move around. I’m trying to get over feeling guilty for not going to every talk, but it’s uncomfortable to sit all day.
And then it was lunch — I sat with the amazing Greta Christina and several other really cool people. Elevatorgate was the primary topic, but what I liked that we talked about was how the movement needs to be getting people in disadvantaged circumstances involved. So many people who are in the movement are there because they are the ones who can afford it. If you look at where the large populations of black people are, they are also poor places with strong religious communities. South Carolina and Mississippi have huge percentage of black people in their population, and those are places where being an atheist is not necessarily safe but more importantly, these are places where there are problems facing the community that are so much more pressing than religion. Teen Pregnancy, education, jail time. These are problems that the skeptic community should be working on, because we can’t get people to participate if they’re struggling to live. Let’s get people in better life circumstances so that they can spend time on education and learning to be scientifically literate. And it’s not just the South, of course, it’s inner city, it’s Detroit, it’s Compton.
Ok, sorry, off the soapbox.
After lunch, it was just pure uninterrupted awesomeness.
Jennifer Michael Hecht spoke first, and she decided she was going to try to talk about everything that ever happened ever and that she would accomplish this by talking super fast. She talked a lot about the history of skepticism, which is the focus of her very excellent book Doubt, A History. She was fantastic. She talked about the movie The Road to Wellville, and said that a lot of people who go to quacks do it because, essentially, they want the attention. Though she also implied that women could get a happy ending from a chiropractor.
They had to cut her off before she was finished, and then it was time for PZ, who was hilarious. Every slide had a picture of either squid or octopi, which I feel is necessary. He was talking about the biology of aliens. I think his most interesting point was that there are several highly intelligent animals on earth that are self-aware that we still don’t know how to communicate with, yet we’re seeking out aliens.
He was awesome, and was followed by Pamela Gay, who I didn’t particularly like. Not that she wasn’t good, she was calling for more funding and emphasis on science. What I didn’t like was her criticism of the skeptic movement as scattered, as though the emphasis of everyone on the movement should be on science. The fact of the matter is that not everyone can care a lot about every cause — outrage fatigue. Science education is important, and I’m for it and happy to support it, but it’s not what I’m particularly interested in. It’s not the cause that I’m going to spend time on. That’s not because I’m scattered, it’s because my time is spent elsewhere. I appreciate her enthusiasm for the cause, but it’s not a very useful criticism.
And then it was time for the best thing I’ve ever seen ever. I can’t wait for it to be on YouTube, because I want to watch it again. It was a panel on the future of humans in space. It was moderated by Phil Plait, and had Bill Nye the Science Guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss. NdGT started off real quiet and then he jumped in like a ninja and started kicking ass. He thinks that we don’t spend enough money on science and we should double NASA’s budget and do everything. The bank bailout was more money than everything we spent on NASA in its fifty year existence. Lawrence Krauss sort of poo-pooed the idea of humans in space, and Neil deGrasse Tyson bitch slapped him, with major assistance from Bill Nye.
NdGT totally dominated, and I didn’t want it to ever end. I would say it was impossible to follow, except it was Tyson himself who was following it up, so he was fine. He is a great speaker — he’s funny, he’s passionate, and he knows what he’s talking about. Once again, it was simply so amazing that it’s difficult to sum up. His focus was on stupid things that people believe that aren’t true. I told Jarrett that Bill Nye and NdGT should be in a buddy cop movie together, he tweeted it, and the Jen McCreight saw that NdGT in his talk was going to go on his Twitter feed and she quickly posted it AND he read it outloud. Hysterically funny. I want it to happen.
And when NdGT was finished, that was it for the day. I went back to my room for a while, came back up while Jennifer Michael Hecht was doing autographs. I sat in a throne-like chair beside her while she fielded people who wanted her signature on her books. It was entertaining sitting on that side of the table. After that, I went down to eat. Saw Heidi Anderson briefly and then got ready for Penn’s Party. I hung out with Jen McCreight and some people before the party and then it was time for Donuts and Bacon.
Penn has a band called the No God Band — they’re decent, and the party was essentially a concert for them. They did a lot of covers and some original songs as well. I ended up hanging with Jen some more, as well as Hemant and a few others. I saw Christina Rad briefly, and that was fun. It was really loud and I was really tired, so I ended up bailing after about an hour and a half. Then I collapsed in exhaustion because my legs could no longer hold me up.
AND THAT WAS FRIDAY!
I want to say, before I get into some of the less flattering stuff, that I had an excellent time at TAM8 and I met a lot of really interesting, cool people, both men and women. And many of the women there were strong, outspoken and hilarious, so even if the women are under-represented, they’re well-represented. I say under-represented because there was a 20 guy long line to the men’s bathroom and no wait to the women’s bathroom. If that doesn’t speak to gender ratio, what does?
Of course, there were the constant murmurs of how every guy wants to “bag a skepchick” and the winners of the skepchick party costume contest were the girls willing to make out with each other, but I generally accept that with just some eye-rolling. There were comments I heard about the looks of the female speakers, but then people were making fun of James Randi and Michael Shermer’s height, so maybe that plays out.
I hang out with geeks, I like geeks, I like geek humor, and a lot of that is offensive if you’re easily offended. And there can certainly be an air of sketchiness around some of those guys with less familiarity with social interaction, and I will say that TAM was a lot less creepy than Comic Con or Dragon*Con when it came to my average interaction with a strange dude. People there seemed to be genuinely interested in what I had to say, and the environment seemed to be as deliberately nonsexual as possible most of the time. Though I was occasionally asked if I was in high school, but ageism is a whole nother thing.
I was, however, really bothered by how the female psychic, Anita Ikonen, was treated and talked about.
I understand that the “other” in a skeptic convention is not going to be gender, race, or sexuality but opinion and point of view. Someone who thinks that they have magical powers is automatically going to be the center of a fair amount of eye-rolling, derision and name-calling. It’s natural for groups to behave that way, unfortunately, and I’m not here to say that I support the things Anita believes or even her behavior, I don’t know her that well. But I will say that most of the insults and jeers thrown her way were all based around the fact that she was a young and attractive woman.
Someone called her, on her facebook page, a “psychic slut”. Many people at TAM accused her of using her sexuality to her advantage, of sleeping around, of sexually getting off on attention.
I will break this down in a second, but let me make one thing very clear: No one, male or female, should ever call a woman a slut. The intent of that word is to make a woman feel ashamed of her sexuality, to humiliate her, to make her feel degraded. Not only does it shame the woman in question, it also makes every other woman scared of admitting to being a sexual creature.
It is the fear of being thought a slut that keeps women from accepting their own sexuality and it keeps victims of rape and molestation from feeling safe revealing that they’ve been hurt. There is, in my opinion, no more hurtful word you can use towards a woman, it is as vile and low as the N-word. And society uses it to keep women in their place, especially uppity women with opinions and beliefs you disagree with.
So, if you want to say this psychic woman revels in attention, fine, but you don’t get to start calling her names because you don’t like attractive women who are at home with their own sexuality. You do that and you start driving away the skeptical women in the group. I don’t want to be part of a group that slut-shames any woman who doesn’t agree with them, though I don’t think the majority of the skeptical group is guilty of that behavior.
I talked to Anita yesterday, I let her know I was writing this and she told me some other things that had happened to her. She got turned away from taking pictures with a skeptic celebrity with a brusque, “I’m married,” as though she was trying to sleep with them rather than get a photo, and she was asked to send topless photos to a skeptic when they learned she was a psychic. I know I just went off the other day on how skeptics don’t need to show a consistent face, but this behavior is completely unacceptable in any human.
The girl may be nuts, she may have HPD, she may be incredibly attention hungry for whatever reason, but that doesn’t make her a slut. I know some people may have personal reasons to dislike her or the discord she apparently causes, but that doesn’t make her a slut. And if you hate her, fine, and if you hate that the JREF brings her more publicity, fine, but you don’t get to go around complaining that she’s too flirtatious or that she gets all this attention just for being young and cute. If people react to that in a way you don’t like, it’s their own fault.
This reminds me of the TDS kerfluffle. Everyone is pissed at TDS for not hiring enough women or having enough visible women. So, when does everyone get really vocal about it? When TDS hires an attractive, sexualized woman. Guess what? Women have sex! Women can have sex and be funny! Olivia Munn is being punished and slut-shamed for pursuing a career in comedy because she’s not the right kind of woman. You think that when you complain about it the only person you’re hurting is The Daily Show? How would you feel if someone hiring you turned into an internet shit storm about how you posed in Playboy and just aren’t that funny on G4?
The feminist movement can really hurt women who aren’t the “right kind of woman”. Women who are naturally thin (real women have curves), like to have sex (sex is men taking advantage of women), or really like clothes or barbies or the color pink. It’s hard enough to be a woman, it’s hard enough to be different, can’t we let women be human? Can’t we let them be sexual beings without trying to make them feel horrible about themselves? Can’t we focus on the intellectual shit instead of petty bitchery?
I’ll give you all the links up front, and all the pictures at the end.
All the pictures are here.
9:20 Phil Zuckerman
10:00 Edward Tabash
10:40 Brian Dunning
11:20 William Lobdell
Lunch 12-1 with ‘Tabletalk’ table discussions
1:00 Michael Shermer
1:45 PZ Myers
2:30 Dan Barker
3:15 Stephanie Campbell
4:00 John Shook
4:45 Joe Nickell
The conference was in Costa Mesa, and I’m in Glendale, feel free to map it, suffice to say it takes about an hour fifteen to do that drive. I decided I wasn’t going to kill myself and try to get there at 9 since I didn’t really know any of the morning speakers and I didn’t want to get up at 6AM on a Saturday. So I got there around 10:45 and got through the whole check in thing to catch the second half of Brian Dunning’s talk. He was talking about the Virgin of Guadalupe and I confess my interest was not sparked by the topic. Which is just as well as it gave me time to get my bearings.
The conference was held in a community center adjacent to a local public library. It was a smallish venue, and everything was contained within one large room. This was a little awkward because the vendors and speakers were in the same room, so if you wanted to go look at stuff you had to do it either as quietly and unobtrusively as possible or in short bursts between speakers.
After Dunning was finished, I met up with a guy I met on Meetup.com who had said he was also going and sat up front with him. So the first talk I sat through entirely was William Lobdell. Lobdell is a very dynamic speaker, and I really preferred the speakers who focused on sort of broader strokes and the whys and what we can do about it, not just simple facts. And I am always drawn to stories of how people lost their faith.
Then, it was lunch time, and I walked across the street to Quizno’s because I’m a picky eater and I doubted they were serving a sandwich I would eat. There was a very strange homeless guy who sort of followed me and I bought him a sandwich. Don’t tell my mother, she gets freaked out by those things. Ran into an interesting guy, I want to say from Riverside, who was also at the conference and eating at Quizno’s. Apparently Riverside has the biggest Atheist community like ever.
I took my sandwich back across the street and there was a seat open next to meetup guy who was sitting with PZ, but first I wanted to say hello to my twin. There was a guy there wearing the same shirt as me, and interestingly enough he and the guy he was sitting with, lime green Alaskan, would end up being the people I sat with at dinner. Anyway I said hello and they graciously offered me a seat but I wanted to go sit with PZ.
So I sat with PZ during lunch, which was really half over by the time I got back with my sandwich. But it was an interesting group. Talked about why we call evolution a theory and why changing the name to something like “law” is letting the terrorists win. Here’s where my former math major instincts made me probably a bit too ferocious about the fact laws involve math equations and there’s no mathematical way of predicting evolution.
Post lunch and it’s Michael Shermer, the aforementioned Jonathan Pryce doppelganger with the arrogant swagger, and I can’t for the life of me remember what he talked about except that it pissed some people off. If anyone was there and remembers, tell me?
Then it was PZ and he went out of his normal field and talked about astronomy and William Herschel. And posed the simple answer to the days topic “Can science and religion coexist? Yes.” And made many many jokes about stepping all over Dan Barker’s time. And then he talked about neanderthals and people having sex. What I like about PZ when he speaks is that he seems like he’s going to be a stuffy non-offensive professor, but he’s someone who’s genuinely at ease with both himself and the realities of human nature. In other words, he likes to talk about sex with neanderthals.
Dan Barker spoke and, again, his was a story of de-conversion so I found it pretty interesting. His book has been recommended to my by Amazon but it didn’t strike me as interesting til I saw he talk. He spoke mostly towards lawsuits, particularly the one against the National Day of Prayer. As someone who finds the intricacies of constitutional law interesting (nerd!) I thought this was interesting.
I did not find Stephanie Campbell that interesting, not because she’s a bad speaker, but because her talk was so focused on the facts of the case of Texas Education and not about anything broader reaching. The entire thing ended with a Vote for your School Board plea that I guess was somewhat universal, but it felt very much like a lecture. And this is a topic, education and the south, that I find generally interesting, but I guess it was just that it was all about Texas and not about why it was happening, or the players involved, or how it impacted people. Just the facts, ma’am. I was also sad that there was only one woman speaker. Where are all the ladies at? Clearly I need a book deal so I can be invited to conferences to be snarky about religion.
John Shook surprised me and was, I thought, the most interesting and compelling speaker of the entire event. He was so interesting that I briefly entertained the idea of sitting with him at the speakers dinner instead of PZ. He’s a philosopher and is of the opinion that philosophy, not science, is the natural opposition to religion. And he used a term “a-theology” as that which is most directly opposed to theology. He recognized that the more insidious religious ideas are those that are constantly moving the goal posts, because they accept science and then turn it into religion. Anyway, if they end up selling DVDs of this or it ends up on youtube, I’ll link to it.
The day ended with Joe Nickell who talked about the Shroud of Turin. PZ had just talked about it, so I was up to date on the facts. He’s an interesting guy. After he spoke, I talked to him when we walked over to dinner and he’s one of those guys who is determinedly open minded. In a way where you worry that they’re too open minded, but he’s dedicated enough to the scientific method that he seems all right. But he doesn’t judge things as a whole, only specific incidents. Like if a woman is possessed, he would go and look at her specifically rather than looking at possessions as a whole. He doesn’t consider himself a debunker, but rather an investigator of supernatural claims. It’s a fine distinction, and I’m guessing it wins him points with the people he’s investigating, but I found it interesting that he is so committed to not being dismissive of people’s bizarre claims.
And then was dinner, which I’ve already talked about, and after dinner I went home because it was a long drive and I didn’t want to spend another 50 bucks to stay for the rest of the program and not get home til one in the morning.
I have no camera, but I do have an iMac. Apologies for any legibility issues, it says, “Notice: No Squid! This is Bullshit! PZ Myers.”
That’s the Gideon Bible what I stole and kept because it was green. I stole it because that’s generally my MO in hotels, but I didn’t throw it away because it was green and I didn’t have a Bible to
desecrate reference. I got it signed because I had the brilliant idea at midnight when talking to a friend who was super jealous he couldn’t go.
I’ll probably do a separate post about the whole conference thing, but the dinner was really neat. Firstly, there was someone else wearing the Squid vs. Noah shirt, and there was a very cool and interesting guy from Anchorage/Irvine/England who was wearing lime green. I have forgotten his name. There was also Phil Zuckerman and a cute blonde guy in glasses, who were sitting a bit down the table but occasionally joined in.
But dinner was really cool because it was basically just hanging out with some really interesting smart people who enjoyed snark. And I learned new things about PZ. We hit a broad range of topics but I’ll give the highlights.
We talked about his experiments with zebrafish. Apparently fish in captivity are really dumb, and fish in the wild are really clever. I’m not sure how much to talk about because apparently some jerkface stole something about the zebrafish experiments from PZ’s blog and published it so I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice to say we spent a long time talking about zebrafish and it was pretty interesting.
We talked about Neanderthals. I asked how do we decide that Neanderthals are a different species from us since we could interbreed, to which PZ gave the witty reply that they are all dead, that’s how. I’m fond of Neanderthals because they had red hair.
We talked about the Uncanny Valley and the creepy proportions of the Shroud of Turin. And how the fingers look like they’re made of rubber. Funny Alaskan said they were tentacles, and I made a jab about Onanism with tentacles for fingers and PZ drifted into a reverie for a moment or two.
I got to be directly catty about the comments in favor of the genital nicking on the part of pediatrics. I feel often that my comments are fairly ignored over there, which isn’t that big of a deal, comments seem mostly about hearing yourself talk anyway, but it was nice to feel heard on the issue.
I found out PZ’s opinion on Andrew Sullivan (nuanced), Episcopalians (relatively OK with), men hijacking any thread about women to make it all about them and their issues (aware of), Dr. Who (for), Macs (for), Linux (against!), PZed (against!), Australians (arrogant bastards insist on saying PZed), and steak (medium).
I also got to see the cover of his upcoming book which apparently needs to be written. I give the cover a B+. It has tentacles, an elephant and a great deal of purple, but it doesn’t have PZ and there’s something weird about the color scheme in general. I suggested he get a quote from Trophy Wife TM and if that happens I’m just going to go ahead and claim credit right now.
I never quite figured out what he was vaguely irritated with Michael Shermer for. Michael Shermer, by the way, looks eerily like Jonathan Pryce and has a weird arrogant swagger to him that is both compelling and a bit unsettling. He was super nice when I talked to him and I got his newest book, so nothing personal there, just an observation.
I also saw PZ at lunch where he said he knew what his grandmother’s face looked like when she orgasmed, made fun of Utah and Mormons, and laughed heartily at my True Stories About Atheism. I made my mother’s friend cry when I told her I was an atheist. Hysterically she asked, “Don’t you want to get married and have a family?!” I told my ex-Catholic mother when she was taking me to college that I was atheist and she said, “I’m so disappointed you don’t believe you’re going to Hell. Wait, that came out wrong.”
There was lots more and I don’t remember it right now, but if I think of it, I promise I’ll add it. It was totally worth the money. And not just for PZ but for the other interesting people who also wanted to have dinner with PZ. It was all very snarky and civilized.
I forgot to ask him if he’ll do a bit appearance in Bible Con, my script making fun of Christians and atheists, if it actually gets made.
EDIT: The rest of the story: https://ashleyfmiller.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/ocfa-conference-2010-where-i-met-pz/