Liveblogging The Amazing Meeting 9: Saturday Morning Sessions

***If you want instant updates, I suggest reading the #TAM9 Twitter feed***

Thanks to @UAJamie for the great pictures!

We’ll be providing updates on the conference all day while getting interviews with many of the speakers. Stick around and refresh the page for more info!

You can read about the Friday Morning Session here, the Friday Afternoon Session here, the Saturday Morning Session here, the Saturday Afternoon Session here, the Sunday Morning Session here, and the Sunday Afternoon Session here.

First up this morning is a panel discussion on the “Ethics of Paranormal Investigation.” Panelists include James Randi, Karen Stollznow, Ben Radford, Joe Nickell, and Banachek. It’s moderated by Julia Galef.

Who knew paranormal investigations had ethics? Didn’t we just hear a talk yesterday about how two magicians infiltrated a research study in order to debunk psychic claims…? Silly me, asking questions. (There was a critique of Project Alpha in the New York Times back in 1983)

As it turns out, it’s not a paradoxical title. There are ethics involved. There are ground rules when it comes to going undercover to debunk con artists. There are serious questions regarding being able to distinguish between genuine con artists and those who are mistakenly sincere about their “powers.”

Nickell: “We don’t need lie detectors, we need a sincere-o-meter.”

What happens if you know someone who thinks they have psychic powers?

Banachek: We have a responsibility to get them help.

Should magicians have a responsibility to explain they don’t actually have psychic powers and it’s all just a trick?

The panel agrees they don’t have to — the ethical lines are different for magicians and psychics.

They’re all for debunking psychics… but what about pastors who lie about god? That’s not as crystal clear to the panel… (demonstrating again why skeptics and atheists are not synonymous).

Question from the audience: How often have you said to yourself: “If I didn’t have ethics, I could be so rich…”?

Randi: I couldn’t do it.

Nickell: Houdini used to trick people with mentalism. He said it was just entertainment, but he soon felt ashamed because people sincerely bought into it. Later on in his life, he was a crusader against such nonsense.

Sadie Crabtree, the communications director for JREF, is up to discuss “Winning Hearts and Minds for Skepticism.”

It’s tough to do that. Why? Because people don’t listen to reason.

So how do we win? We have to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What’s the goal?
  • Who do we need to talk to?
  • What do we want them to do?
  • Which values can we tap?
  • What beliefs will be obstacles?
  • What’s the message and who delivers [it]?

If we do these things, “It’s only a matter of time before we control the whole world.” :)

There are three types of people we debate/discuss things with — those who support us, those who oppose us, and those who don’t feel so strongly. We would be strategic to spend the bulk of our time with those in the middle.

If we want to change hearts and minds, we have to approach people in a way that affects them. Don’t tell people you want to raise their taxes; tell them you want to fix their potholes.

There’s also value in starting small. We may not change them all at once, but chipping away slowly may change their beliefs in the long run.

What are our obstacles?

People “need to make sense of an irrational world.” They want to feel right, smart, and respected. They have negative views of skeptics — that we’re elitist, narrow-minded, against everything. We have to keep all those things in mind when we approach them.

We should also realize we all judge based on our personal framework and experience.

Example: Is this letter urgent?

Of course not. We know that, because we have experience dealing with letters like that. We don’t even need to open that letter. It goes in the “mental spam folder.”

So when we deal with irrational people, it’s important to realize they already have a perspective from which to see you and they’re not looking at your objectively. We have to find a way to overcome that.

Another example: When did Crabtree stop supporting John Kerry? The moment she saw his signature. It was too perfect, reeking of someone so rich, he could practice it. She didn’t see someone she could trust.

Was any of that true? It didn’t matter. The damage was done and it would take a lot to turn that perspective around.

Don’t use the word “vaccination.” Use “immunity.” The framing there matters.

“It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what people think they hear.”

We may say: “We’re here to educate the public about pseudoscientific nonsense.”

We should say: “We’re here to help people defend themselves from pseudoscientific scams.”

We may say: “We want people to think more critically.”

We should say: “We want to inspire the same investigative truth-skeeping spirit that led to the eradication of polio and put human beings on the moon.”

Next up: A panel on “Getting Things Done” featuring Richard Saunders, A Kovacs, Justin Trottier, Elyse Anders, and Jen McCreight. It’s moderated by Amy Davis Roth.


Saunders gives a demonstration of the tricks used to sell Power Bands — he later exposed the tricks on national television:

It’s been about 15 minutes into the panel and all I’ve heard is Saunders talking… I want to hear the other panelists! Finally, we get to Justin, who talks about a conspiracy TV show he appeared on.

Halfway into the panel and I don’t think I’ve heard a female panelist speak (outside the moderator)…

Hi everyone! Smashley here from Mad Art Lab, taking over for Hemant for a while.

It’s Jen McCreight’s turn, talking about secular campus groups she’s been involved in.

She says younger generations are becoming more secular, and social media is especially helping that grow. She just plugged the website for the Secular Student Alliance, secularstudents.org.

Amy just posed a question to A Kovacs.

A puts on the San Diego Science Festivals to educate children about science in a way they’re interested in — a child who likes to skateboard can learn physics in that context, a kid who likes strawberries can learn about isolating strawberry DNA. She says kids will learn about science if it’s something they want to learn, not something they’re forced to learn. They’ve worked with 500,000 participants since the program began.

She just used George Hrab as an example of teaching skepticism to people who don’t know what skepticism is by making it entertaining. George just went out onstage and handed her a dollar.

Amy just asked Elyse Anders about blocking the anti-vaccination ads that were set to run at AMC theaters.

She found out about these ads and wrote a blog post about what people could do to get the ads pulled. The response was overwhelming. She wrote the post at noon on a Sunday, and by 6 pm AMC had agreed never to run an anti-vaccine ad in their theaters.

Elyse is announcing the free vaccine clinic she organized that’s happening here at the conference. They’re giving out TdaP vaccines outside the ballroom. She says that if you’re an adult and you haven’t been vaccinated with this, you need to — most babies who get pertussis get it from adults who haven’t been vaccinated. The vaccines are free, and you can get it no matter your citizenship. The clinic is open until 3:30 today.

Amy just opened it up for questions. Someone just asked how important it is to quantify the success of these campaigns.

The general consensus seems to be “pretty important.”

The next question is about how to get a successful blog.

Jen McCreight explains that she tries not to force herself to write and only posts when she has something important to say. Elyse mentioned that Skepchick uses Skepchick Quickies, a regular short post highlighting interesting links of late.

Now a question about how the panelists feel about very personal feedback.

Elyse mentioned how the facebook page of Age of Autism posted a picture of her and her six-month-old baby after the AMC ad debacle and paired it with a caption that was essentially a call to arms against her. She called the cops.

Justin Trottier says sometimes you just need to let things go, unless the feedback is very public and you have a chance to educate people who are seeing it.

One questioner just suggested that Elyse change her slogan from “Hug Me I’m Vaccinated” to “Hug Me I’m Immunized.” Hmm.

Someone just asked Amy Kovacs about skeptical fiction. A just said that it’s important, so stand up for it, rate it well on Amazon, etc.

Someone else just asked about medical conditions and vaccination. They’re discussing the people with medical conditions that shouldn’t get vaccinated — all of the information is at the clinic.

Panel’s over. Time for a coffee break.

Aaaand we’re back. The next panel is on placebo medicine.

By the way, guys, the line for vaccines is monstrous.

Steve Novella is moderating a panel made up of Mark Crislip, Harriet Hall, Ginger Campbell, David Gorski, Kimball Atwood, and Rachel Dunlop (Dr. Rachie).

“I want to start this panel discussion by declaring absolute victory.” Ten years ago, alt-medders were given money and told that if they just did the research and showed that their treatments worked, they’d be accepted. Ten years later, “the jury is in.” They don’t work.

But they’ve just moved the finish line and pointed out that, okay, our treatments aren’t better than placebo, but maybe placebo is a worthwhile endeavor. Novella says that now what we need to address is this notion of the placebo effect.

The panelists are giving their definitions of the placebo effect. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of disagreement — Dr. Rachie: “It’s a psychological response to an intervention that doesn’t involve a chemical that works.”

Dr. Novella is pointing out the difference between a psychological placebo effect (what most people think of when they hear “placebo effect”) and a statistical placebo effect, or regression to the mean. He compares it to the confusion between saying “UFO” and “flying saucer.”

Kimball Atwood discusses the history of using a placebo group in a study.

In the early 1990s, researchers looked for studies that involved placebo groups and “no treatment” groups to see the difference between the “true” placebo effect and the “perceived” placebo effect. They couldn’t find any. Later on, a group of Norwegians were able to find these studies and found that there was no difference except subjective things like pain and nausea, and even those can be accounted for with bias — you can’t double-blind between placebo and no treatment because patients know if they’re getting something or not.

Mark Crislip: “If CAM is equal to placebo and placebo is equal to nothing, then CAM is equal to nothing.”

Ginger Campbell disagrees: there are some studies that show there’s a real difference in the firing of neurons in Parkinsons patients undergoing treatment. Crislip says sure, but even if placebo is so effective, we can’t apply it. “I’d like to see someone try it for birth control.” Ha. Gorski adds that cancer is the same way — you’ll never see a placebo treatment that works on cancer.

Novella points out the power of the brain in pain experience. You can get patients to feel more or less pain by thinking a certain way, looking at the limb that hurts, etc. He moves the discussion to the problem of patient self-reporting of pain as associated with placebo.

Rachel Dunlop participated in a review of studies on placebo with acupuncture. They found that while real physiological problems like digestive problems don’t see improvement, there is a small effect on one’s feeling of pain.

Mark Crislip: “When monkeys pick nits off of each other, they relax and feel better. This is nothing more than advanced nitpicking.” “This is just beer goggles in medicine. Everything looks better after a few beers.” Crislip seems to be winning the one-liner war.

Gorski summarizes a recent study on asthma, which tested Albuterol (a real treatment) with placebo, sham acupuncture, and no treatment. The hard objective data shows that Albuterol showed improvement while the last three showed none — but if you look at self-reports, it was the opposite. Even though Albuterol was the only one helping them, everyone thought placebo and sham acupuncture helped just as well. Amazingly, the New England Journal of Medicine spun this by saying that placebo works as well than treatment in self-reported outcomes. Ridiculous.

And it’s Hemant again. I have to say: It’s such a relief having awesome people able to take over the liveblogging. Thanks, Ashley!

The Q&A is ending and next up is: Elizabeth Loftus talking about “Manufacturing Memories”!

Jk, it’s Jen, not Hemant. Apparently now that I’m done with my panel, he’s putting me back to work.

Loftus usually studies false memory in legal cases. For example, all of the people who have been convicted because of crimes they didn’t commit — which we know thanks to new DNA evidence. Woooo, DNA! 75-80% of wrongful convictions are due to faulty memory — not outright lying.

There is no credible scientific support that repressed memory exists. Instead, what happens is the therapist can plant false memories. Loftus jokes that we should change the oath you swear before appearing in court to “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, or whatever you think you remember?”

Loftus’ research includes how asking leading questions can change memories, which is known as the Misinformation Effect. But you can also plant entirely false memories into people.

…I N C E P T I O N

She can’t ethically insert memories about being raped or abused, so the traumatic memory they use is being lost in a shopping mall. They do this by talking to the person’s mother, and getting a bunch of events of what happened to that person as a child. They then talk about these experiences, but also talk about the false memory. And after this session, 25% of people were convinced this event had really happened.

The main criticism was this event is too common. So other groups started to use more odd suggestions, like spilling a punch bowl all over the bride’s parents at a wedding, or being attacked by an animal – and they get the same results on the amount of false memories formed.

Elizabeth Loftus has ruined cinnamon rolls for everyone here forever. I won’t ruin it for you too.

Next she talks about how you can doctor famous photos to change how significant public events look — and people will remember these famous events totally differently. And it’s not just vague memories — some people have very specific details on when they “saw” these photos.

Sorry, I stopped paying attention because I was too excited to upload my photo with Bill Nye to Facebook.

This is Hemant again. (WOO!)

Richard Wiseman is up! If you don’t read his blog, you must! I’ve used his illusions in my classroom and he never ceases to stretch my mind.

Wiseman is performing a few (un-)magic tricks and showing us psychological tricks to mess with our heads — all entertaining and mindblowing if you haven’t seen them before.

Like this one:

No! It’s not that! It’s a small pig between two larger pigs. You and you dirty mind…

And then he plays a clip of the song “All My Myself” while the words on the screen say “Obama’s Elf“… and now I can never hear that song the same way again.

I’ll say this — people are laughing more at this talk than any other one at TAM9. Definitely enjoyable to show skeptics that even they can be fooled.

Here’s a perfect example: This image isn’t photoshopped. But you can definitely see the face:

By the way, if everybody bought a copy of Wiseman’s new book Paranormality, he would have enough money… to buy Internet time at the South Point hotel. (Cue rim shot)

Alright! We’re off to lunch! After the break: Bill Nye and Richard Dawkins!

You can read about the Saturday Afternoon Session here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ Benjamin Baxter

    Pastors who lie about God have always been a problem. Going back the Didache, we have clear instructions for the early Christians on how to determine who is a snake oil salesman and profiteer, and who is genuinely preaching the Gospel.

    Later, of course, this ferreting out of what Augustine called Manichees is more institutionalized by the Church.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    So Adam Savage cancelled from yesterdays panel… is he gunna be there at all?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      He couldn’t make it all weekend

      • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

        damn that’s a shame. I was really looking forward to hearing from him.

  • The Captain

    First let me say to all… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But I’m still a little drunk from last night and just can’t resist, so.

    Question, has anyone offended or creeped out RW yet? And if so, what type of people must we all publicly shun and drive out of the movement this time to make her feel comfortable?

    • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

      men?

    • Pigslap

      People like you?

      • The Captain

        Well obviously!

    • Pigslap

      People like you?

  • The Captain

    First let me say to all… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But I’m still a little drunk from last night and just can’t resist, so.

    Question, has anyone offended or creeped out RW yet? And if so, what type of people must we all publicly shun and drive out of the movement this time to make her feel comfortable?

  • Sailor

    Anyone thought of sticking up a web cam at TAM so we can all enjoy it in real time.

  • Saior

    Hermant, on your old site thy used to post up comments immediately (for the most part) Are they being held up for review on this site?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Nope! They should be going up automatically!

  • unclemike

    Sorry, but this stuck out for me: Crabtree didn’t like John Kerry because she didn’t like his signature?? And this is somebody who works for JREF?? Talk about your woo-woo.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      It was more a gut feeling she got when she saw it. I think she understood it
      was irrational, but the point was that a first impression or something so
      seemingly insignificant might still make a big difference to some people.


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