Liveblogging The Amazing Meeting 8: Saturday Afternoon Sessions

***If you want instant updates, I suggest reading the #TAM8 Twitter feed***

Thanks to @UAJamie for the great pictures!

You can read previous sessions here, here, here, and here.

First up: David Javerbaum, the (now-departed-to-pursue-wonderful-other-career-options) Executive Producer and head writer of The Daily Show.

Between him and emcee Hal Bidlack, they have an average of 5.5 Emmys. Hal has zero. You do the math.

I’m so excited for this :)

David begins with a silent prayer. We laugh. He moves on.

“You know, as I was being rational at 3:30 last night at the blackjack table… drinking logic juice…”

He says (and I paraphrase):

Holding TAM in Las Vegas makes more sense than the Vatican because the architecture is less gaudy and the illegal sex is consensual.

There are about a million soundbytes I wish I could share with you and I just can’t type them fast enough.

When one female asked about the Jezebel debacle, David responded (I paraphrase):

The issue of whether we are anti-feminist often is asked, especially by chicks like you. (Laughter) Uppity chicks like yourself.

Hilarious :)

He spends some time debunking the entire Jezebel article, explaining where their sources came from — that is to say they weren’t credible at all. (The female staffers of TDS responded in their own way.)

A question is asked about what “mainstream” news shows could learn from TDS. Without giving a specific answer, David says they’ve had years to do it, and they haven’t changed, so why think they’d do it now?

FOX News Channel and MSNBC are all pretty bad about straight, impartial news. And CNN?

“CNN has no fucking idea what they want.”

Question: Should we watch TDS or The Colbert Report? Why choose?!:

“Jon voices the irony and Stephen is the irony.”

Question: You have had many conservatives on your show.. Do all the ones you ask come on?

We’ve asked Bush. We’ve asked Cheney. They said no. As well they should…

Question: Is it harder to get people to do taped interviews for the segment on TDS?

“People. Love. To be. On television. At the expense of their dignity, shame, intelligence. People in the modern world… feel they do not exist until they see their [image] on TV… We’re happy to perform that service.”

What a perfect person to have speak at TAM. The Daily Show goes after hypocrites and liars. They don’t care which party does it. Just like skeptics, they go after all sacred cows. (David acknowledged Republicans have been the butt of their jokes more often, but he added they were also in power most of the past decade.)

Incidentally, I did an interview with David before he went up on stage and I’ll be posting excerpts from it when I get back home.

Next up: James McGaha, a UFO investigator.

He says that more people in America believe in UFOs than accept evolution. Frightening.

He’s talking about how UFO conspiracies began and why people still believe in them.

Some interesting ideas, though I wonder whether it matters how/why the myth formed that aliens exist even though there’s no evidence in favor of that — who cares unless it’s going to help us debunk those ideas. I’m not hearing anything about how we solve this problem.

Meanwhile, the Twitter stream has slowed down considerably. Seems like people are either uninterested or just not paying attention. (For what it’s worth, David Javerbaum was a near impossible act to follow. I wouldn’t want to be in McGaha’s shoes right now.)

Jen here again. Hemant has escaped McGaha’s thrilling presentation to seek out caffeine. I have no idea what this guy is talking about since I skipped out about two minutes in like most people. I came back in thinking he was done, but he’s gone 15 minutes over. Weeeee.

The panel on Paranormal Investigations is here to save the day! It includes Julia Galef (moderator and sister of Friendly Atheist contributor Jesse Galef), James Randi, Joe Nickell, Karen Stollznow, and Ben Radford.

Randi notes that he goes in to investigate, not to debunk. Nickell explains that it would be like assuming all deaths are by suicide instead of other causes. You shouldn’t start with an agenda. Radford agrees, adding debunking should be the end result, not the process.

Galef asks why people with supernatural claims go through with tests or investigations like the Million Dollar Challenge. “Don’t they know they’re going to fail?” But plenty of these people are innocent and really believe they have special powers, even though Randi can almost instantly recognize what the special trick is since he’s seen it so many times before.

People have to come up with a rationalization with why their powers don’t work because they don’t want to admit they were wrong. They didn’t sleep well, it was a Tuesday, Jupiter was in Sagittarius, etc. When someone competes in the Million Dollar Challenge, they can reapply after a year to try again under different circumstances – but no one ever has.

Karen Stollznow: “They think using scientific tools is the scientific method. They’re not the same thing.” So true. Just because you wave a geiger counter around doesn’t mean you’re using it properly or testing anything.

Ooo, someone who is asking a question says they’re applying for the challenge. He’s a pharmacist and thinks past challenges have been ridiculous. He looks at numbness in breast cancer survivors – he claims in thirty seconds or a minute he can restore sensation without touching them at all, even over the phone. Will be interesting if he gets selected…though I kind of hope not since he’s rambling on forever. Seriously, people who use mic time and don’t ask a question should have a trap door open up underneath them.

At least he was polite and not like the rambling aggressive moon-hoax dude. (PS, I keep typing moan hoax. That sounds way more interesting)

Side note: Awesome that Karen Stollznow is included on the panel. Not so awesome that she can’t get a word in edgewise.

D’awww James Randi needs a giant stool to be tall enough to use the podium. Jeff Wagg just got a special award for all his hard work organizing TAM.

Hemant back. We’re getting to the end here… and Jennifer Michael Hecht is onstage. She’s the author of Doubt and The Happiness Myth.

It’s nice to hear a talk that focuses on religion after so much on homeopathy, UFOs, and the like. Let’s go after the head of the monster :)

Hecht gives a summary of her book:

The history of doubt is older than every faith.

There are some questions that are bound to come up within any faith tradition. What does God look like? Does he have a butt? What does he use it for? Those doubters are going to crop up quickly within any system of belief.

Hecht says she tried to keep her own beliefs out of the question when she wrote her book. In fact, she says she gained respect for religion at the end of it, partly because so many brilliant minds had believed.

But is doubt enough? Not at all.

It’s not enough to come out of the closet. You have to eventually leave the house.

Love that quotation. Be active. Be vocal. Get others to see the truth.

The first atheists, by the way? They can be documented back to India. (You’re welcome, world. I take full credit for that.)

Hecht mentions: English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley got kicked out of Oxford for writing “The Necessity of Atheism” and spreading it around.

I didn’t hear the full context for this, but it sounds quite poetic:

“A wave is the universe waving, an apple is the universe appling, and you are the universe youing.”

Beautiful. Feel free to analyze and write essays on that.

A questioner just corrected a myth that we’re the end product of evolution by correctly saying we’re the current product of evolution. I think Hecht just said we’re not evolving because there’s no mechanism for it. Say what? Weird… and inaccurate. I’ll try to get clarification.

Actor and filmmaker Paul Provenza is next. He’s the man behind The Aristocrats and his new show The Green Room with Paul Provenza.

The show is described like this:

THE GREEN ROOM WITH PAUL PROVENZA offers comedy fans the chance to see the world’s greatest comedians in a roundtable setting, speaking off-the-cuff and uncensored in front of a studio audience. No rules, no agenda, no censors… just some of the funniest people around, riffing on and ripping each other apart.

It’s been about a minute and already there are some choice quotations:

“TAM is like a dog park and I just want to sniff everybody’s ass.”

“I can now say I’ve opened for Richard Fucking Dawkins.”

Provenza is amazed that there’s a difference between skeptics and atheists. He asks: If you’re a skeptic, how can you not be an atheist? Frankly, I agree with him. God may be one of the toughest sacred cows to take down, but not believing in the supernatural means not believing in god, too.

Provenza also says being a “devout atheist” is as silly as being a “devout Christian” — He doesn’t define what a “devout atheist” means. I assume he’s referring to a person who says God absolutely does not exist as if they know that for a fact.

He’s reading passages from his book ¡Satiristas!: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians — it has a number of passages about atheism.

He quotes comedian Dana Gould who doesn’t embrace the term “atheist” but certainly accepts our ideas:

Provenza cites a number of comedians who are bent against religion (or used religion in their act) and have gotten shit over their religion jokes. Lewis Black, Robin Williams, Margaret Cho, Stephen Colbert, the Smothers Brothers, etc.

Every passage he reads is getting huge laughter from the crowd. It’s very intriguing to hear comedians analyzing and explaining how religion plays a role in their acts and where the laughter has come from.

One lesson to come from all this: Comedians are perfect people to shatter the glass house religious people like to isolate themselves within. They can poke fun at the major faiths, raise your awareness about the irrational things you believe in, and make you feel guilty for agreeing with religious leaders. And somehow, you’ll still pay to see them.

One great anecdote — there was an MTV show that wanted to make fun of religion. The censors at the network told them the following:

“You can make fun of God because he doesn’t exist, but you can’t make fun of Jesus because he’s God’s son.”

Wow. This book sounds awesome.

Finally tonight, we have JREF President D.J. Grothe interviewing Richard Dawkins.

I’ll try to quickly recap the Q&A:

Question: Is it more important to be a Skeptic or an Atheist?

Answer: It’s hard to be a skeptic without investigating testable claims of theism — performs miracles, answers prayers, speaks from burning bushes. Those should be fair game for skeptics. The only reason not to investigate religious claims? Fundraising :)

(Hemant says: How many theistic skeptics are in the audience? I’d love to know how they justify that. I’ve heard some arguments but I still don’t get it.)

Question: What about atheists who are not skeptics in any other way? The ones who talk about UFOs or Chakras or anti-vaccination types like Bill Maher or Joe Rogan?

Answer: Maher is a eloquent spokesperson for atheism, regardless of his other views. But that’s a separate issue. It’s a fact about humans that we can hold incompatible (or “curiously compatible”) beliefs.

Question: Is there a hierarchy of woo?

Answer: God is the “big one,” isn’t it? Compared to something like Bigfoot… If someone discovered a “Bigfoot” somewhere, that would be fascinating and it wouldn’t shake my worldview. “It’s not a big deal. It’s not like God.” But there are also “intermediates” like psychic powers.

Question: What about alien life in the cosmos?

Answer: Statistically, it’s plausible there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. To say otherwise is to say that this planet, of the billions and billions of planets out there, is so improbable that it only happened once. That’s suggesting that any chemist who bothers to speculate about the origin of life is wasting her time. I don’t believe that.

Question: In the light of evolution, wouldn’t possible alien life forms appear like “God” to us?

Answer: When you look at the age of the universe compared to the age of the earth, there are two more life cycles of our developmental age that could have occurred. They would not “be gods” though, because they would have developed via evolution (or something like it).

Question: Are fairy tales, science fictions, or fantasy books like a “gateway drug” into religion?

Answer: Well, if you believe a frog can turn into a prince, it’s not a stretch to say water could turn into wine. But I don’t want to go so far as to say fiction is harmful. I read and enjoyed those stories as a child. We want the imaginations of children to float free. I’m more ok with science fiction than fantasy fiction.

(Hemant: Dawkins says he’s never read the Harry Potter books. I’m shocked by this… you know… all things considered.)

Question: How did you end up becoming “Richard Dawkins” with that “liability” of believing in magic or fairy tales as a child?

Answer: “I just grew up.”

Question: In one case I know of, a younger family with kids came to a meeting of an older atheist group. The boy in the family was scolded by an atheist because he was holding a Harry Potter book — as if reading that would make the kid not a good skeptic.

Answer: That’s ridiculous.

(Hemant says: Atheists shouldn’t read fiction? Who thinks that? I’ve never heard that argument before… and I’ve never known it to be true.)

Question: You new book (to be published in 2011) is called The Magic of Reality.

Answer: It’s my first children’s book and it’s rather difficult to write. I hope my language is accessible… I’m assuming my reader is not allergic to dictionaries. If there’s a word I think my readers ought to know, I’m not afraid of using it. Each chapter is stand-alone: Who was the first man? What is day and night? What’s an earthquake? The chapters open with the myths and then comes the science — what’s actually happening. My hope is that the science will be even more colorful and appealing and magical than the myths are.

And with that, the day is over. *Phew*

Thanks again to Jamie and Jen for helping out! And special thanks to Bryan for getting me a cord that I needed!

See you all tomorrow morning for the paper presentations — Jen will be speaking about Boobquake early in the day!

  • Shannon

    As much as I enjoy TDS, the response so far strikes me along the lines of “Nuh uh, some of my best friends are women so I can’t be sexist!”. Funny how you can’t talk about sexism without people (jokingly or otherwise) talking about what uppity chicks you are (you know – like the comment shit storm on skeptic blogs last year when some people questioned why there were so few women presenting at TAM 7).

    Things that make you go hmmmmm.

  • sadpanda

    One reasonable complaint about The Daily Show is about the guests they have on, I think so far this year it’s been 80% men vs 20% women. The majority male guests tend to be book writers followed by politicians while with the female guests the majority tend to be just actresses.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Daily_Show_guests_%282010%29

    A rough count for 2010 so far is 69 men to 17 women.

  • mcalliater

    I thought that DJ and Dawkins talked about the influence of fantasy books for too long. It would have been interesting to leave more time for questions as that might spark up some new points of conversation.

  • Brian

    Could atheists and skeptics be like squares and rectangles?
    Theistic athesist might sound absurd, but how about a nontheistic “nonskeptic”? An atheist who believes in UFOs and/or psychic powers and/or astrology or something?
    So, minor difference, but it’s there?

  • http://kestalusrealm.wordpress.com/ Troythulu

    Someday I simply MUST make to one of these events! Very cool.

  • http://www.andrewraygorman.info Andrew Ray Gorman

    aye, but the daily show gets some might vocal women on, such as Gloria Steinem. Too bad the interviews on there are so short, but I guess that is the reality of television interviews.

  • Tory

    I found the discussion of fiction to be interesting. I read more fantasy and sci-fi than anything else, and I more or less equate them because the sci-fi tends, more often than not, to go the Star Trek route where spaceships fly and problems are solved via “magic science”. The Harry Potter books are some of my favorites; I grew up reading them. And none of this has negatively impacted my ability to look at things skeptically.
    I have had a fairly clear idea of the difference between fact and fiction since I was a child. I’m sure at one point my mother had a talk with me explaining that the stories I see on TV aren’t necessarily true, but I don’t remember it. And it was later easily applied to books – some are true, some are not. Heck, some not-true books have true things in them, and others just make stuff up, I’d better go to the library and look it up in an encyclopedia.

  • Korou

    As a teacher, I’m excited to hear about Richard Dawkin’s new book! I have GOT to get one of those and read it to my class!

  • Greg

    Question: Are fairy tales, science fictions, or fantasy books like a “gateway drug” into religion?

    Actually, I think it’s the other way. Am I alone in thinking this?

    If you look at the different genres, is there any other (fictional) genre where it isn’t taboo to talk about gods (unless you are praising them)? There are many fantasy genre books out there which look at gods as being far from perfect beings, and in doing so they actually encourage a bit of thought about gods. Often, also, philosophical questions can come up in them. As far as I can tell, any encouragement to question theistic beliefs is good for the sceptic/atheist side of things, because theism thrives on blind acceptance.

    I can remember reading the Duncton Wood series by William Horwood as a kid, and although it isn’t easy to say for sure, I am willing to put a lot of the blame of my questioning theism onto them(!) :)

  • http://paulforpm.blogspot.com/ keddaw

    I think Hecht just said we’re not evolving because there’s no mechanism for it. Say what? Weird… and inaccurate.

    I think the point he may have been making is that evolution only really functions when allied to natural selection. Humans are just so damn good (or adequate) at surviving and reproducing that there is no selective pressure on any particular gene. Heck, even the genes that should be fatal cause diseases that are being cured and so survive in the gene pool.

  • Jessi

    The thing about whether fiction is worthwhile has come up before in some of my conversations with other atheists, their point most often being that fiction is inefficient and unnecessary. What value could made-up stories possibly have, they ask, that could compete with reality, with science, history, or journalistic writing? I disagree, but I was an English major, so I’m totally biased. Which isn’t stopping me from being right.

    I’ve also noticed that a good many fundamentalist Christians take a similar position. The scriptures are inerrant, and the Bible is the only book they need, and fiction is nothing but lies inspired by the devil, therefore the kids aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter or even The Wind in the Willows. Of course, they keep a short leash on the non-fiction as well. I personally think those people just don’t like to read.

  • muggle

    In one case I know of, a younger family with kids came to a meeting of an older atheist group. The boy in the family was scolded by an atheist because he was holding a Harry Potter book — as if reading that would make the kid not a good skeptic.

    You know I vehemently disagree with that, right? Someone nonmagical may just own the entire set. As Mr. Dawkins said, ridiculous!

  • Dack Brenton

    “A wave is the universe waving, an apple is the universe appling, and you are the universe youing.”

    I believe this is a paraphrase of Alan Watts. I went through a Zen period when I listened to a bunch of his lectures on tape from the library. I remember a quote something like “In the same way a tree apples, the earth peoples. It’s people-ing all the time.” You can probably find it on YouTube.

  • Kaylya

    Are fairy tales, science fictions, or fantasy books like a “gateway drug” into religion?

    I think they’re quite the opposite.

    There’s not a whole lot in science fiction that encourages current mainstream religions as a good thing. Much of science fiction does not deal with religion (although a lot of the good stuff does!), and what does can be atheistic (at least from the perspective of some characters), or exposing the reader to a variety of beliefs that do not mesh with mainstream religions (e.g. – “God as superior alien beings who influenced our evolution”, which comes up a few times in different Arthur C. Clarke novels). What I love about science fiction is that it gives the author freedom to think about different social structures, belief structures, etc. without being tied to what we do today. I can think of many sci fi authors who are known to be atheists or agnostics, but not any who are known to be devoutly religious (not saying the latter doesn’t exist, I’m sure others can come up with plenty of examples). In addition, I think science fiction tends to make it’s young fans more interested in science, which also tends to separate one from religion.

    Fantasy novels do often have supernatural forces and sometimes gods; but it’s clear that it’s just a story; and like learning about the myths of ancient cultures can expose the reader to the idea that Gods can be made up. I’ll admit that learning about stuff that at one time people believed (e.g. Greek Myths) is a much more powerful effect there, but Fantasy can contribute.

    I grew up reading fantasy and sci fi, and watching stuff like Star Trek; I’m pretty sure that helped influence me towards atheism.

  • http://whatshallwechoose.blogspot.com marisateika

    The flippant attitude the TDS people have taken towards the Jezebel article has succeeded in pissing me off to the point of refusing to watch the show. You don’t get to dismiss the “bitter ex-employees” and not answer for not hiring a female correspondent for SEVEN YEARS. Granted, losing one viewer is hardly meaningful to them, but I’m starting to wonder if they’ve accidentally taken Glenn Beck to heart in all of their mocking…?

    Regardless, I’m pleased to have discovered your site and to see the blogging updates. I admit I’m terribly jealous. Next year it should be held in Cali. Just sayin’….

  • LeAnne

    Aside from being a guest on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”, this is one more reason to add to the list of “Why Paul Provenza is a bad ass”.

  • http://ashleyfmiller.wordpress.com Ashley F. Miller

    As the uppity chick in question, I will confess to having asked that question because I don’t think TDS is sexist and is doing what it can in an industry that turns women away long before they get anywhere near TDS.

    They have a lot of women staffers behind the scenes, if not in front of the camera, and having visited their set and knowing some of the people there, it’s really a very female friendly environment. I tend to trust the statement of the women who work there and don’t have a bone to pick because they were fired, and Samantha Bee in particular has been really positive about her experience there.

    The problem is industry wide and TDS does make an effort. Whether they’re doing enough is definitely debatable, particularly in the guest department, but I very much agree with their position that for people to be pissed off that they’re not hiring the right kind of women, because Olivia Munn is too attractive or sexual to count as a feminist hire, is some extreme bullshit and some of the most anti-female hate speech I’ve seen from self-proclaimed feminists.

  • TychaBrahe

    Over 50% of reported alien encounters describe the alien type known as the “greys,” grey-skinned humanoids with oversized heads, large eyes, and small chins standing about 3/5 the size of humans.

    Colin Wilson pointed out that the depiction of greys is very similar to historical depictions of elves, the “Fair Folk,” and/or Pixies.

    Humans have an innate attraction to small creatures with bulbous heads and disproportionately large eyes. Consider modern vs. “Steamboat Willie” Mickey Mouse. In cartoons, the character you are supposed to sympathize with is small with a large head and eyes: Mickey Mouse, Jerry Mouse, Tweety Bird….

    I think there is something in us somewhere that creates these images. In pre-scientific times, we saw fairies. In modern times we see aliens. Ezekiel saw “a wheel in the sky;” Kenneth Arnold saw UFO’s. We see something–or think we do–and interpret it through our cultural concepts.

  • http://whatshallwechoose.blogspot.com marisateika

    I very much agree with their position that for people to be pissed off that they’re not hiring the right kind of women, because Olivia Munn is too attractive or sexual to count as a feminist hire, is some extreme bullshit and some of the most anti-female hate speech I’ve seen from self-proclaimed feminists.

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. First female hire in SEVEN YEARS and she’s not a comedian–she’s a “model” and “actress” and has spent most of the time doing both with very few clothes on.

    No one is trying to crucify Munn for her choices. In fact, as a feminist, I say, woo-hoo, body positive, you go girl, blah blah blah. That doesn’t change the fact that she’s the first female hire in SEVEN YEARS. If they’d flat-out hired a former Playboy Playmate NO ONE would be trying to crucify the Jezzy team as faux-feminists, and yet because Munn whines her way around town talking about how she’s discriminated against because she’s pretty everyone is flipping their shit over Jezebel.

    TDS isn’t the damn sacred cow. Yes, I appreciate their heavily liberal bent and beyond that, they’re flat-out funny but because they are who they are they should be held to an even higher standard.

  • bigjohn756

    Did anyone else notice Banachek practically run over to the guy that wanted to apply for the Million Dollar Challenge as he headed back to his seat? I thought that was pretty cool. It looked as if he didn’t want to let the guy get away with voicing his claim without actually taking the challenge. Way to go Banachek.

  • http://ashleyfmiller.wordpress.com ashleyfmiller

    Look, I think it’s pretty shitty that TDS doesn’t have more women involved, particularly onscreen, I just have a problem with how much of this discussion has revolved around Munn’s looks. She’s funny, she’s had a successful TV show with a similar audience, it makes sense, she’s a good fit, so people need to stop dismissing her as just a playboy bunny with no comedic chops. It’s wrong, it’s bullshit, and it’s fucked up that Jezebel decided to get pissed because they hired the “wrong kind” of girl. Be pissed that they only hired one of her.

    I think people should be pushing to get more visible female comedy, it’s something that’s incredibly important to me on a personal and professional level, but I find it really really upsetting that people are dismissing Munn as a legitimate hire because of her sexuality. To be clear here, I’m not defending TDS, I’m defending a woman who has chosen to pursue comedy as a career and who is being treated like shit for it.