Report from TAM 7 (Part 3)

Ask Jenny McCarthy if vaccines are right for you.

(You can see the other reports here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5)

So finally, I have time to give you a summary of Friday, July 10, the first of the two main days at The Amazing Meeting 7.

Skeptics' Guide to the Universe

They had it set up so that during breakfast we could grab our food at the back of the room and then come back to our seats and watch them recording an episode of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

Things began in earnest with the keynote speaker, Bill Prady (who?). Bill is the executive producer of The Big Bang Theory. I remember watching the first episode of this show when it premiered a couple of years ago. It was rather uneven, so I never bothered to watch a second episode. Based on the clips he showed, it looks like it got a bit better. Phil Plait is a huge fan of this show, so getting Prady for the keynote was clearly his doing.

Prady told us a bit about what it’s like to make a show with skeptical characters. Although this talk was somewhat interesting, there is no way to justify Prady for the keynote. He doesn’t have the skeptical credentials, and the content of his talk wasn’t weighty enough for this slot. This is someone you stick in the afternoon of the second day.

Last year, we had Neil deGrasse Tyson for the keynote. Neil freakin’ deGrasse frakkin’ Tyson! Tyson talked about the wonders of the universe. Tyson talked about the immensity of time and space. But this year’s keynote speaker talked about how to pick up women in bars for sex.

Sorry, Phil, you blew it this year. Get us somebody real for next year.

Scam School

The next thing on the agenda was a short break. I mention this only because during this break, I ran into Brian Brushwood! For those of you in the dark, Brian is a magician and host of the internet TV show, Scam School. I’m a bit of a magic whore, so I hung out with Brian for the remaining minutes of the break.

Next up was Fintan Steele. He talked about the new trend toward personalized medicine, which is based on your own DNA. He said don’t buy into the hype. In most cases, your genes are only one factor in your likelihood of developing certain diseases. If you have the gene for disease X, it usually only increases your odds of actually getting the disease by a tiny amount—too low to justify the cost of a whole-genome scan.

I liked this talk a lot, because I used to work in genetics. I used to work for one of the companies he mentioned. After they laid me off, I almost got a job for one of those companies he warned you about (that will sequence your genome for a mere $5000, so you can have an unreasonable fear that you will actually develop the disease you have the gene for.).

Next up was a special treat. They brought out Robert Lancaster. Robert runs the Stop Sylvia website, dedicated to educating people about Sylvia Browne. I sat next to Robert last year at TAM 6, and we talked about his site. He told me at the time that he knows his site is effective, because he frequently gets emails from people thanking him for exposing her. These people would see Sylvia on crappy TV shows and wonder if she actually had any psychic ability (I know! It’s hard to believe anybody could fall for her sub-amateur skills. She has got to be the worst “psychic” I’ve ever seen.). Anyway, these people would Google her name, and Robert’s site was always the second one listed, right after Sylvia’s own. These folks would then read what Robert had to say, and that would cure them of any misconceptions about her “abilities”.

Sadly, just a few weeks after last year’s TAM, Robert suffered a massive stroke. He has spent the last year trying to recover. He has made remarkable progress, considering the severity of the stroke. Robert spent a few minutes telling us about the event and the slow road to rehabilitation. He’s confined to a wheelchair, and he said his left side doesn’t move anymore.

Next on the agenda was lunch. We all shuffled across the hall to grab our food and find a table to sit at. And whose table did I end up at? By some strange coincidence, it’s Brian Brushwood’s! The reason I mention this is because this is one of the great things about TAM. You get to mingle with the most interesting people. At TAM 4, I had lunch with Adam Savage. At TAM 6, I almost had lunch with Penn Jillette. (Fortunately, he made a last-second change of course and sat at a different table.)

Anyway, one of the things Brian and I talked about was my little adventure on Wednesday night on The Strip. (“What adventure, Ron? What happened? Please tell us!” Well if you insist, I’ll cover that in a separate article.) Brian wants me to send him my pictures, which I still need to do. Most of the photos are kind of blurry, because (a) it was night, and (b) I was trying to avoid getting beaten up.

The first presentation after lunch was a conversation between Jamy Ian Swiss and James Randi. In prior years, they’ve used this interview format to get Randi to tell us about some adventure in skepticism he’s had recently. This year, it was an overview of some of the highlights of Randi’s career. He told us about the time when he toured with Alice Cooper. He told us about hanging upside down in a strait jacket over Niagara Falls. He did a similar stunt over Tokyo one year. He also set a world record being submerged in a box underwater, David Blaine style (but real).

The next presentation was by Jennifer Ouellete. This was an encouraging talk. She works as a liaison trying to match Hollywood filmmakers with real scientists to act as advisors. She’s able to find them specialists that they might not be able to find on their own. As a result of this work, more films are getting better science advice (that doesn’t mean they’re actually going to use it, though).

Jenny McCarthy's body count

The Anti-Anti-Vax panel was next. Steven Novella and a bunch of others talked about the anti-vaccination movement and all of the damage that ignorant slimeballs such as Jenny McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey are doing to public health. For more information, see the Jenny McCarthy Body Count site.

The last presentation was by Joe Nickell, who told us about UFOs and Bigfoot.

That was Friday. A fun and informative day well spent. Next up: Saturday.

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