This is my second TAM, and it has served as a vacation away from the approaching Minnesota Fringe tsunami that, even as I write this, is getting ready to crest and come crashing onto the shore to sweep us all away. TAM is a time I’m not worrying about theatre or the podcast, and have the chance to immerse myself in something completely different. It leaves me very much refreshed, and contemplative of the future.
My thoughts lately have focused to why I’m interested in skepticism and what I get out of it. Years ago, I became a fan of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, which was my introduction to skepticism and how I first learned about TAM. I’ve dipped into other skeptical podcasts, but I always return to SGU–they are in a very real sense a family (the three Novellas on the program are indeed brothers), and I always feel a little saddened when one of the skeptical rogues misses an episode, as Rebbecca Watson did at the TAM 2012 live recording. I’ve grown into skepticism along with them–through the death of fellow rogue Perry DeAngelis, marriages, and careers. The only podcast that has a semblance of this is Monster Talk–Blake Smith, Ben Radford, and Dr. Karen Stollznow I always enjoy listening to, because I feel their shared history. SGU has that same feeling turned up to 11.
Thinking about this now makes me wish I made the effort to be a little more outgoing. This TAM, I felt much more introspective than during TAM 2011. The theme was skepticism and the future, and many of the speakers and panels spoke to growing skepticism. Attendance though was down in comparison to 2011 by about 25%, due in part to a few factors. There were less big names this year (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins spoke in 2011), but also because there is a larger discussion going on in the community surrounding inclusion and creating a safe atmosphere for all people who love science, reason, and skepticism. This is an issue I wish I had a bigger handle on, but every time I wrestle with the ongoing conversation, there’s x that I didn’t realize was happening, and another person saying y over here, and another saying z over there, and before long they’ve all gone at each other and left me by the wayside. I wouldn’t be surprised if that conversation, which is complicated, overwhelming, and often disheartening, turned some off on attending this year.
I wanted a dialogue addressing the latter, some statement was needed to penetrate the noise and take the conversation further. I did receive it–Jamy Ian Swiss and Pamela Gay delivered speeches that spoke to me, that inspired me to to carry skepticism forward. But at a conference all on the future of skepticism, I felt the programming was, on the whole, light on talking about the subject of inclusion.
But there was fire, a lot of it. Some came from Leo Igwe discussing atrocities in Africa from belief in superstition and witchcraft. After listening to him, I wanted to weep for those prisoners of magical thinking. Jamy Ian Swiss-I felt he was right next to me as he rallied us around what it means to be a skeptic. And Pamela Gay, so earnest and thoughtful I felt my heart crumbling.
To me, skepticism is knowing how the brain can go wrong and working around those perceptual shortcuts that can make us so successful and yet profoundly stupid (Steve Novella, Brian Dunning, and Carol Tavris gave talks surrounding this). I am in a sense a gullible person–I suspend disbelief easily and can be sucked into a world without too much coaxing. Skepticism gives me the tools to fight those impulses and unthinking attitudes. I am by no means a strident skeptic–I seek clarity, and lean toward reserving judgement. TAM, and those within the skeptical movement, give me the tools I need to be a better thinker, to save my heart, my wallet, and myself from the mistakes of an irrational mind. That is why I love TAM and being in a space full of freethinkers.
You would love it too.