Friday, July 13 — TAM 2012 in Las Vegas

This day was probably the most interesting of the conference, especially the afternoon. During breakfast, we listened to a live podcast recording of “Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” which is one of the podcasts that are hugely popular among this audience, so that the host, Steve Novella, and his team are some of the celebrities here. I had never heard of them, of course, but the podcast was entertaining and addressed the most recent important developments in science and skepticism. Then we had the opening remarks, with James Randi being the top celebrity, the president of his foundation giving the obligatory thank-you speech, and a podcaster / singer-songwriter named George Hrab (another insider celebrity, who is incredibly funny) starting in his role as overall MC.

The first talk, by Michael Shermer, was so-so; well-presented but so overoptimistic about where humanity is headed that it reminded me of the old positivists; he had some big holes in his argument, but people didn’t seem to care, which surprised me. An education activist talked engagingly about the problems with keeping creationism and creationist teachers from teaching their stuff instead of evolution, and then there was an interesting panel on “Techno-Optimism” and what the experts thought about various big trends about extending human life, nanotechnology and the idea of being able to construct computers that worked like or were even capable of “downloading” human brains. Everyone was pretty cautious about what was possible.

The early afternoon talks were not very exciting, and after lunch, we took a little rest and until another panel discussion at 2:45; it was so-so but the half-hour talks that followed it, and then the keynote, were really really good–partly, I think, because they were given by some really credibly academics. Stuart Firestein talked about the role of ignorance and of recognizing what you don’t know in the sciences. Bruce Hood talked about neurological evidence that we create our selves — old ideas, new evidence that I found very gratifying. And Carol Tavris, who is a psychologist with some interesting popular books (“Mistakes Were Made”) talked very insightfully about “pseudoneuroscience,” which most people cannot distinguish from actual meaningful studies and results. That was probably the best talk of the day. We went to find dinner outside of the hotel (wow) and just had Mexican fast food from the strip mall across the street (that’s pretty much all that’s out here except for this giant hotel for 2,500 people). We came back for a so-so comedy show, at times very funny and at times not only beyond good taste (being beyond good taste was the hallmark of the story) but downright stupid. Especially reference to a very important recent conflict that has flared up about gender and harassment / the treatment of women at the TAM last year was treated in a completely inappropriate way. We then checked in on the conference’s party, which is actually Penn Gillette’s private party for all participants, memorable for serving everyone bacon and donuts and featuring a loud and rather terrible band in which Penn plays bass and sings (badly), sustained by some good backup singers and musicians and the eye candy provided by (male and female) strippers–it is Las Vegas after all. Mark had wisely brought ear plugs for us, so it was manageable, but we only lasted about an hour and were back in our room at about midnight.