By Graham Nicholls, October 16-17, 2010, London, UK
“The Amazing Meeting” in London 2010 was the second London counterpart to the well established “Amazing Meetings” held in the U.S. by the James Randi Educational Foundation, an organisation figureheaded by James Randi, a magician focused on debunking paranormal claims.
Billed by their website as “a world-class fundraising conference” TAM London now attracts an audience of over a thousand supporters to the Hilton London Metropole and boasts speakers such as Richard Dawkins and Alan Moore.
As I took my seat at TAM London I couldn’t help but wonder if amongst the many attendees waiting excitedly to see their idols there were others like myself who have followed the skeptical community for many years, but who remain unconvinced by their devotion to what appears to be a rather limited understanding of science. I sympathise with much of what they stand for and agree that we should champion critical thinking, yet somehow the attitudes and ideas expressed at TAM do not look or feel like critical thinking as I’ve come to understand it. While I enjoy the work of many of the most respected skeptics such as in the clarity of the work of the late Carl Sagan or the poetry that Richard Dawkins can sometimes evoke, I become hesitant when their tone turns to one of certainty and conviction. The first person to speak at TAM was James Randi, he took the podium to welcome everyone and say how happy he was that he could make it to this year’s event, as last year his poor health had prevented him from attending. The crowd seemed overjoyed by his presence and gave him a standing ovation almost as soon as he appeared. It is clear that Randi is seen as a true hero within this community, with several speakers describing themselves as “unworthy” in his presence (including Stephen Fry). Something that, as I will explain, I find more than a little misguided.
Next it was Sue Blackmore’s turn to give the first lecture of the conference. I remember many years ago seeing Blackmore featured in countless documentaries looking at the question of life after physical death, the possibility of ESP and other areas of the so called paranormal. Blackmore would offer possible physiological explanations for near death experiences or attempt to refute the findings of scientists researching psi. My reaction to her was not to dismiss her views, in fact it was Blackmore’s appearances that introduced me to the world of organised skepticism and encouraged me to question my own assumptions. Yet she also led me to question many of the skeptical assumptions that she was drawing from.
When Blackmore took the stage at TAM within the first few moments I knew the lecture she was going to give, it was much the same as the one she gave a couple of years before at the James Randi and friends meeting, which I also attended, but this time she expressed what appeared to be a quite genuine anger. She despairingly exclaimed that people will ‘hate you’ for saying that life after death does not exist or that psychic powers are not real. I could really sympathise with her feelings of frustration and hurt and why she would now want to distance herself from the world of parapsychology. I also don’t doubt her integrity, I simply doubt her conclusions and the ideology that now informs them. But it also occurred to me that while she showed her despair at the attitudes of who she refers to as ‘true believers’, I couldn’t help but feel that this same anger and vitriol was expressed throughout TAM towards those who do believe in the existence of psi or other phenomena. It seems to me that we need greater respect from both sides when dealing with these issues, I believe the skeptical position when fair and reasoned is valid and healthy, but I also believe that the pro-psi position is an important area of scientific inquiry when empirically driven and controlled, and that anything that hinders that inquiry is damaging not just to parapsychology but to the progress of science.
Even if I did find Sue Blackmore’s claims compelling it would naturally be unscientific of me to accept the views of one person on these important issues. Science works by replication and consensus and it seems to me that active researchers doing experiments in the field of parapsychology are getting overwhelmingly consistent results. Dean Radin’s overview of the field of parapsychology entitled ‘Entangled Minds’ offers an array of evidence from many different sources for that. Even many skeptics will admit when forced to engage with an informed proponent that psi is well established by the standards of any area of science. Richard Wiseman, the host of TAM, for example has stated this on more than one occasion. Yet many skeptics continue to say more research is needed, which seems little more than a way to avoid having to support psi, despite huge odds in favour of its existence. Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson has stated that in his opinion the ‘evidence for psi is overwhelming’.
So why the hostility? It seems to me that the answer to this question is partly that people want to be right, they don’t want to look foolish or be categorised as one of those ‘new age believers’, especially when they are scientists. There is also the history of science to contend with, since the enlightenment psychic abilities have been considered in the same category as religion and superstition leading many scientists to overlook the subject. Then there are the areas of the paranormal that are easily dismissed under scientific scrutiny, which leads some to conclude that the entire area is little more than the imaginings of credulous people. The result of these factors is a blanket and often intolerant dismissal of anything even remotely related to psi. This is a very sad situation and leads me to believe that the scientific method is the most important tool we have, without it we are lost in a battle of egos and opinion, what is really the key to getting to the truth of this issue is the data.
Blackmore was also first to make reference to Carl Sagan’s ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’, a quote constantly repeated by skeptics but few engage with the history of this quote. It seems that Sagan actually reworked the quote from Marcello Truzzi’s ‘When such claims are extraordinary, that is, revolutionary in their implications for established scientific generalizations already accumulated and verified, we must demand extraordinary proof.’
Truzzi was a founding member of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, yet despite his being immersed in the skeptical community he later became critical of their methods. He went on to coin the term ‘psuedoskeptic’ to refer to the largely unscientific tactics of those around him. He went on to say in relation to parapsychology that when a skeptic claims that ‘a seeming psi result was actually due to an artifact, he is making a claim and therefore also has to bear a burden of proof.’ This is something that the modern skeptical movement would do well to remember.
Scientists who dare to explore theories of the extended mind or other aspects of consciousness possibly being non-local in nature are attacked and dismissed. A recent article by Blackmore on Rupert Sheldrake is an example and Sheldrake’s experience with Richard Dawkins underlines this still further. Dawkins declined to discuss evidence and blindly refused to engage with the research Sheldrake has done over many years during the filming of ‘The Enemies of Reason’ documentary. When faced with these kinds of situations it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are actually dealing with Truzzi’s pseudoskeptics, motivated not by science but by ideology.
As Blackmore continued through the story of her investigations into psi abilities, such as telepathy, and described the experiments she has done over the years she asked the audience if they had had any involvement with parapsychological experiments. To my surprise only three people put up their hands, one of whom as far as I could see was me. To put this in perspective I was sitting in a room of approximately one thousand people virtually all of whom proclaim disbelief in all psi phenomena, and some actively attack anything purporting to the paranormal in any form, yet only two of them had actually been involved in doing scientific experiments on the subject in any form. This again made me wonder what skepticism in this form is really championing? If you take the numbers having ever researched parapsychological phenomena seriously then it is clearly championing personal opinion over empirical research.
In conclusion, Blackmore underlined her disillusionment with parapsychology and how for 15 years she has had very little to do with it.
The atmosphere changed as Richard Dawkins, biologist and author of The God Delusion, took the stage. A hush of anticipation seemed to fall over the hall. I would guess that many in the audience had come to see the hero of the new atheist movement in the flesh. As everyone focused on the stage I watched intently as Dawkins attempted to evoke in the audience an almost spiritual reverence for evolution and the genius of Charles Darwin. I could clearly see his frustration at the gulf between the layman and his own passion for science and I considered the impact that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species must have had on his life. In that moment I contemplated the impact that science has had on my own life, and a realisation came to me. It is not that science does not factor in the lives of average persons, or that they cannot see great beauty in much of what science has to offer. I believe it is the lack of a relevant usable approach and an engagement with the public’s fears and concerns in the way science is often communicated that leaves many unengaged or suspicious. Some writers and educators are realising this, but unfortunately divisive and arrogant proclamations from anti-theists such as Dawkins just alienate and inspire retaliation from the very people he claims he is trying to reach.
At TAM Dawkins made repeated attacks on Islam calling it the most ’evil’ of religions and the greatest threat. The crowd seemed to relish his statements, but I wonder would we overlook this kind of attitude if it were coming from a person on the street without the eloquent language and pretence that these views have something to do with science? I can imagine the impact this statement would have had on the Muslim community I grew up alongside in central London. They would have been outraged, angered and would have no doubt felt targeted as scapegoats. Dawkins speaks very effectively to a certain cultural class, but he seems ill equipped to understand the subtleties of human experience beyond this clique.
Dawkins’ talk at TAM entitled ‘Evolution: The New Classics’ seemed awkward, almost out of touch with contemporary society. He argued for the study of evolution to take the place once occupied by the classics in educational systems such as the one he attended. I can only be glad that the focus during my schooling was on understanding the religious and cultural heritage of the many diverse pupils around me through subjects such as humanities and STAS (Science, Technology and Society). An approach that I believe has been of great value in my life and helped to foster a deeper appreciation for other world views. Dawkins seems angrily opposed to this kind of approach, instead advocating a vision of science and society that imposes a limited ideology on its young people. His claim that he simply wants to instill critical thinking and a greater understanding of evolution is clearly not true when we hear his attacks on relativism and championing of utilitarianism. Evolution while of key importance to the understanding of our origins as a species cannot be the educational focus in places where the diverse cultures, among which Islam is one, dominate. Fostering understanding and awareness of each other is the first and most urgent step. In many schools overcoming language barriers, economic issues and alienation are real factors that define the landscape of the young people Dawkins wishes to convince of the importance of evolution.
It seems that the skeptical community represented at TAM creates a division between the public and science. They champion a form of science that bares little resemblance to the free inquiry that I have been so inspired by. In fact actual science was hardly mentioned during the conference, it was clear that what was being championed here was activism aimed at fighting the religious, alternative or credulous. A group of once professional magicians whose views have now been coloured by their understanding of deception. Indeed magic played a role throughout the proceedings with magician and psychologist Richard Wiseman doing a great job of entertaining the audience as the hours rolled on. But the issue of magic is an important one when considering the skeptical movement, it defines the thinking of many of the prominent names, especially those featured regularly on television such as James Randi, Derren Brown, Penn & Teller and skeptics such as Richard Wiseman, who offer their views on documentaries.
Shortly before James Randi, the most well known of the skeptical magicians took the stage I got the chance to exchange a few words with him. He was light hearted and avoided any questions of a deeper nature before disappearing into a press conference. I must say that I do genuinely sympathise with his goal on some levels; I was moved as his voice broke on stage during an interview as he described a boy whose medical condition had been exploited by the fake evangelical faith healer Peter Popoff. Individuals such as Popoff operate by exploiting the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us for pure profit and Randi is of course right to use his knowledge of stage magic to expose them. Yet I also look at Randi with an equally genuine sense of mistrust. I am well aware of him misleading the public with regard to the work of Rupert Sheldrake. He claimed that he had repeated Sheldrake’s experiments and found no evidence of telepathy in animals. Yet when Sheldrake became suspicious of this claim and challenged him to prove it he made excuses and failed to show the experiments he claimed he had done making it seem highly likely that they never existed. This is far from the behaviour we might expect from a real supporter of science, at the very least we expect fairness and honesty.
The more I’ve heard Randi speak at events and on television the more it seems as if his emotional passion, his sheer desire to expose charlatans makes him willing to blur the facts in favour of his agenda. This certainly seems to be the case with his claims about Sheldrake’s experiments, and it makes me wonder how many other situations there are like this one where the actual evidence is conveniently absent. Even his famous million dollar challenge has many critics and it is obvious to me that any genuine scientist or informed individual with psi abilities could never work with someone like Randi. Those I know who have tried have never managed to even have a fair and balanced discussion with him.
One of the few moments of actual scientific interest at TAM was Marcus Chown’s entertaining talk about his view of the strangest facts about the universe. It was a welcome highlight to the weekend, after so many offhanded remarks about religion and little of any substance, his lecture although humorous was full of interesting and intriguing pieces of information. Another talk of interest was by Karen James, Director of Science at the HMS Beagle Trust, an organisation seeking to build a replica of the original ship in which the young Charles Darwin traveled to the Galapagos Islands. She gave an impassioned speech about the importance of this project and how it will allow children and adults to walk in the foot steps of Darwin, yet with the advantages of the latest scientific understandings and equipment. These talks were highlights, moments when rather than focusing on mocking or attacking those outside of this community, the attention was on the joy of scientific discovery and learning.
Before I arrived at TAM I had imagined that the headliner of the event would be someone who has furthered scientific understanding or done something to champion critical thinking, so I was very surprised to hear that Alan Moore was the final speaker. It seemed he felt the same sense of confusion about why he was there, in fact the last time I saw Alan Moore speak live more than a decade ago he was championing magic (in the sense of witchcraft and the occult) and ideas that I can’t imagine would have gone down very well at TAM. He is a strange mix of poet, anarchist and philosopher. He obviously has a genuine interest in the margins of the mind and consciousness, but where he fits into the world of skepticism is a mystery. I felt that during his talk with Moore, the interviewer kept away from really asking him about his views on magic or the fact he says he worships an ancient snake deity.
So in conclusion it seems that TAM is in dubious territory, as one skeptical blogger at Skeptobot.com pointed out, it is not an outreach event or an academic conference, ’so that leaves the fact that it is a show. A piece of entertainment’. He goes on to say ‘A 1,500 seater venue of skeptic celebrities preaching to the converted whilst raising money for their organisation of choice is a church. And not a British church, but an American one, with American sensibilities. A Megachurch.’
Caspian Jago made the same criticism using the term ’The TAM Mega Church’, although he did actually attend and found many points about the line up either misplaced or simply unconnected to science or critical thinking. His conclusion was ’much as I am delighted that a skeptical conference can now herd a thousand skeptical minds into one hotel, I just felt there was something missing.’I felt the same way, there was indeed a lack of the real substance and engagement with what makes science and genuine critical thinking such a powerful part of life.
TAM was an event of bravado, childish prejudice and hollow generalisation, with a few moments of genuine sincerity, but with tickets costing from £208 a time, there was a sense that the real grassroots supporters of Randi’s vision were simply priced out of the event. But with over 1,000 attendees, it must have succeeded in its money-raising goal: £208 x 1,000 = £208,000! Even after deducting costs like the hire of the hall and speakers’ expenses, and allowing for complimentary tickets and concessions, James Randi must have gone home with well over £170,000 for his foundation. It is little wonder that much of the most cutting criticism of this event has come from within the skeptical movement itself. I can only hope that skepticism as a movement takes a deeper look at what it stands for and in the future seeks to champion inquiry and science instead of this circus-like celebration of disbelief.