Sunday, 17 October 2010

TAM London 2010

In the end the Storm movie didn’t portray the psychic with Devil’s horns which I thought they were going to do, see: . But they portrayed him as a dark-eyed blackguard with sinister, angular features. I know because yesterday I saw the film. It was a stylish and creative illustration to the poem and I admire its wit... if not all its sentiments.

I went to TAM London yesterday (See: ).I know what you’re going to ask: “Ben, what are you doing going to a Skeptic conference!?” This is a question I’m not sure I can completely answer yet, except with a contrived platitude like “Well, it’s always wise to hear both sides of the story.” This is actually true, and I wasn’t lying when I met Trystan of Righteous Indignation there (See: ) and answered him that way. He recognized me from the Weird Conference (See: ) and said: “Hi, Ben. I didn’t expect to see you here.” I think my curiosity with Skeptics might mostly come from my dealings with "Droike" on the HPANWO Forum, see Links column. Trystan’s surprise is fair enough because very few “Woo’s” have anything to do with the Skeptic Movement and only ever regard it with repulsion and hostility. They’ll accuse significant figures within it of being “shills” and “government agents”; in some cases they’re absolutely correct, but not always. It’s far too simplistic to denounce all prominent Skeptics as disinformers and government moles. It’s also a mistake to label them all as “closed-minded”. Some definitely are of course, but by no means every one. So what exactly is a Skeptic? What motivates them? What makes them tick? To answer the first question in their own words: “A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.” (Source: But many non-Skeptics say the same thing about themselves. Plenty of established scientists are opponents of the prevailing views of the Skeptic mainstream; people I’ve written about before like Peter Fenwick, John Mack and many others. So really the above quote is more of a slogan than a description. It’s an ideal that many people aspire to both within and without the Skeptic Movement. A more accurate description of the World of Skep, one which they will probably dislike, could be: A mode of thought, cognitive suite or cultural meme that has an affinity with normality or the prevailing paradigm on all subjects… But then again even this definition doesn’t sound right to me. It’s frustrating! I need to actually get inside their heads to find out. I wish I could become a Skeptic for a day!

The TAM London conference was very sophisticated and up-market; imagine a Skeptic AV! (See: It was located at the London Hilton Metropole Hotel, by far the grandest hotel I’ve ever been in. Even under Paris’ management the Hiltons are still the poshest places anyone can stay in London. Security there is very tight and when I tried to take a photo of the gargantuan lobby I was told not to by a security guard; I’d like to be able to tell you that I came out with an assertive and penetrating David Icke rejoinder, but unfortunately I was caught on the back foot and just said: “OK”. Londoners are still traumatized by the 7/7 bombing and are in a frame of mind where safety comes before liberty. Even one of the Skeptical speakers at the conference, as much as he and I both sympathize, warned of the dangers of this attitude. “As if you need to take photos of a public place before you walk in there with bombs strapped to your belt.”

The first session of the conference began at 9AM. The seats were very small and I felt a bit boxed in; or if I’m honest I’ll have to dabble with the possibility that my arse was simply just too big for them! I had to hold my arms and legs in to avoid impinging on the space-ration of the people on either side of me. Luckily the luxurious air-conditioning took the edge of the heat, but it was still arduous. Also the first four speakers, taking up the entire morning, delivered their lectures without a break. James Randi, founder of TAM, came up onto stage to a standing ovation; although I sufficed with a more moderate round of applause for basic courtesy’s sake. He is now in his late 80’s and looking a bit frail. He’s also in remission from cancer. However he’s still as talkative and ever and has lost none of his showmanship. I managed to get closer to him later and was surprised at how short he is. I always assumed he was quite tall, but that’s what comes from only seeing somebody on TV. He was followed onto stage by Susan Blackmore (MBA Gold). See: . Blackmore used to be, by her own definition, a “rent-a-Sketpic” who was always invited onto TV shows whenever the Paranormal was discussed to present the materialistic side of the argument. She basically did the job that Chris French (MBA Gold) does now. It was a remarkable lecture, the first one of hers I’ve seen live. I’ve seen her other works of course; one could hardly call oneself a Skepticologist otherwise! She opened her address by showing a photo of a smiling young woman standing outside St Hilda’s College in Oxford wearing a colourful silk cardigan. Then we noticed that she was wearing that same cardigan on stage. The girl in the photo was indeed Susan herself in 1970 when she began her studies into the paranormal. "A completely different person" Susan said. (However the cardigan was unchanged after 40 years. She definitely takes better care of her clothes than I do! Most of mine end up in the duster-bag after less than 10 years!) She had an OBE, Out-of-Body Experience, soon after beginning her Oxford scholarship. It was so powerful that she was convinced that it was real. She claims that it contained all the elements that other OBE-ers report in their own experiences: the tunnel with a light at the end, astral travelling, a feeling of communion with God, ineffable and indescribable emotions and perceptions etc etc. Seeing as she was being trained as a scientist, this set her on a path to scientifically proving that the Paranormal is real and she concentrated on what she believed was the most promising domain of research, ESP and telepathy. The title of her thesis was Extrasensory Perception as a Cognitive Process. Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, she got nowhere. Again and again her experiments drew a blank and she was unable to conclude that real ESP had been present. However her memories of that amazing OBE and the desire to prove it scientifically drove her on. As the years went by and the pile of negative results built up she became more and more frustrated. Then, one day, she got word from a Dr Carl Sargent in Cambridge about some very promising results with his Ganzfeld Psi-tests. Susan was elated; “This is it! At last!” she thought and hot-tailed it up to “The Other Place” to join him in his work. At first the results looked positive and Susan for a while believed that her persistence had been rewarded and she had reached the Promised Land, but then she discovered some suspicious practices going on in Sargent’s laboratory and suspected him of cheating. When she came out and said this openly she was pulled up by the Psychical research group she worked for and got a bollocking. But all she did was try and expose what she thought was a cheat. Today Carl Sargent has left science altogether and is a designer of role-playing novel-games. This is where she made me see her in a new light. She told us that we must understand how devastating this experience was for her. She was very emotionally attached to this area of research; she was a “true beliver” who was into Witchcraft, Tarot, Astrology etc “You name it, I believed in it”. One day she was lying in the bath and the thought ran through her head: “What if all this is all just bunkum?... What if none of it is true and I’ve been chasing a scientific mirage?” These kinds of sudden new perspectives often arrive at us just like that; they’ve happened to me too. Don Cupitt, a famous TV religious broadcaster has himself described how one day he just woke up and said: “That God is dead”. It’s as if a certain uncomfortable viewpoint has been simmering away in the subconscious being suppressed by the ego until it reaches a critical mass and then breaks out into the conscious mind with a revelatory force and we go: “Ah, that’s it!” So Susan became a Skepper. “And I found out that it’s fun being a Skeptic” she says. Then she became very emotional, on the verge of weeping when she said (jokingly to her current audience): “Please don’t bring me your tails of ghosts and spirits because I just can’t take it anymore! I was rolling on the floor screaming about this whole issue just the other day!” It’s obvious that she is actually rather traumatized by, what she sees, as her futile attempts to scientifically prove the Supernatural. This is a very very interesting factor when you analyze her subsequent public activities.

Richard Dawkins was on next. I’ve reviewed Dawkins’ book The God Delusion here: . As you can see none other than David Colquhoun has commented on it (See: ) If Colquhoun has read my review then probably the author himself has, but Dawkins didn’t recognize me. Dawkins made a very good speech about how Evolution should be compared to the Classics. And now the Classics is no longer taught in most schools could Evolution replace it? It could because Evolution acts as a link-paradigm to so many other sciences, humanities, arts and other fields of study, in the same way that the Classics does. Dawkins has taken a new tack in the last couple of years. In a way he’s gone back to his noble roots: as a communicator of science to the general non-scientific public. This is what he excels at: explaining the wonders of Biology to laymen like me. I recently watched a lecture by him where he describes how humans evolved nose-hair and it fascinated me! I’m glad he’s cooled off with the inverted Bible-bashing; he was wasted on it.

I got to talk to the other delegates, and even a couple of the speakers, in the bar and rest-rooms and had some good conversations, but I was constantly holding back my true feelings and this was difficult; it’s contrary to my nature. I didn’t spout any outright hypocrisy. If they’d asked me what I thought of ghosts, UFO’s, Conspiracy Theories etc I’d have told them honestly, but nobody did. They all assumed I was a fellow-Skeptic. I spoke very animatedly about the subjects on which I am agreed with the Skeptic Movement like the evils of organized religion, Simon Singh, the legal rights of Skeptics to free speech and the wonders of science. It’s a total myth that Woo-Woo’s are all “science-haters” as much as it’s a myth that Skeppies are all government agents or closed-minded; I ain't gonna be nobody's Storm! Another thing which made it difficult was my health. I’ve been feeling a bit under-the-weather for the last few days; nothing major, just lots of minor niggles like a runny nose and aching joints. The stress and discomfort of the conference made me feel distantly flu-ey. I don’t know if I have flu or not, I suspect it's just a 24-hour virus; however, being male, I became fairly incapacitated. I’m at home now; the conference is a weekend-long affair, but I’ve had to miss the second day.

After my visit to TAM London I’m not really any the wiser as to what a Skeptic is, but I have a few theories on what motivates some of them. I’ve wondered about this for a while, but now I’m convinced. A clue is in the definition I found above with the words: "...comforting or convenient”. What could be comforting and convenient about being a non-Skeptic? Well the most obvious is the idea that when we die there is an Afterlife. Several of the speakers and delegates have said this in as many words, especially Susan Blackmore; the Afterlife, they claim, is simply wishful-thinking. People who believe in it do so as a psychological safety-net to protect them from the unwelcome truth that when they die they’ll cease to exist. But let’s read between the lines here for a minute!: “Once you die you die. You’re dead forever and no longer exist. The reason people believe in Life-After-Death is simply because the prospect of ceasing to exist is unbearable and so humanity has concocted a mental safety-net to survive psychologically … BUT… I can face it! I know I’m going to cease to exist when I die and I can face up to it! You quivering, pathetic, inferior jellies need this comfort-blanket myth of an Afterlife, but I have the strength, the courage, the manliness and general superiority to get through my day without that crutch!” So one could argue, and I do, that not to believe in Life-After-Death is a form of wishful thinking, for the prestige you get from it. I call this MBA, Materialist Bravery Award and here I lampoon Professor Chris French (MBA Gold) for it: (Luckily he sees the funny side of it!). What’s more when Skeptics get together there’s a lot of celebration of the exclusivity that MBA brings them, either openly or unspoken. There’s a culture of back-slapping and self-congratulation at every Skepper event I’ve attended so far, and TAM was no exception. However this can’t account for every individual within the Skeptical community and my studies will have to continue.

(Addendum 22/10/10) An interesting thing about James Randi that was not discussed at the conference was a riposte to his "Million Dollar Challenge" by a good friend of mine, and fellow researcher, Ross Hemsworth. He has posted a comment, but unfortunately he got the wrong article: . He offered Randi a challenge of his own. In his own words:
I once challenged James Randi to come to the UK and spend 6 weeks with my research team. At the time (when I had money lol!) I said if I convinced him that some paranormal events could not be rationally and logically explained, he should donate his $1 Million "prize" to a charity of my choice. If however he COULD provide a rational and logical explanation for everything that happens, then I would donate £100,000 to a charity of his choice (Presumably the JREF- Ben). He refused to take up the challenge.

Ross Hemsworth
The Phantom or Fraud Team

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Ben Emlyn-Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

I've posted an addendum to this article because Ross Hemsworth has commented:

(Addendum 22/10/10) An interesting thing about James Randi that was not discussed at the conference was a riposte to his "Million Dollar Challenge" by a good friend of mine, and fellow researcher, Ross Hemsworth. He has posted a comment, but unfortunately he got the wrong article: . He offered Randi a challenge of his own. In his own words:

"I once challenged James Randi to come to the UK and spend 6 weeks with my research team. At the time (when I had money lol!) I said if I convinced him that some paranormal events could not be rationally and logically explained, he should donate his $1 Million "prize" to a charity of my choice. If however he COULD provide a rational and logical explanation for everything that happens, then I would donate £100,000 to a charity of his choice (Presumably the JREF- Ben). He refused to take up the challenge.

Ross Hemsworth
The Phantom or Fraud Team"

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks for the comment, Ross. I wonder why Randi didn't acdept the challenge. From what he preaches you'd think he'd leap at the chance to make some easy money for the JREF.

Mister Jack said...

Another awesome piece of writing Ben!

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Thanks, Jack. Glad you likied it.

Trystan Swale said...

Hi Ben - good to meet you again at TAM! Unfortunately I was none too well on Saturday night and had to go home on Sunday morning...I never did get to finish my views on Rich Hall and his libellous accusations towards certain people.

Two points:

1. With regard to Randi rejecting Ross's challenge, regardless as to the rights and wrongs of it, the JREF $1m challenge is quite explicit in its format. The whole idea is that it takes place in controlled conditions to see whether an individual can achieve a task by currently unexplainable means. I would also imagine the six week time span may have had something to do with the rejection as well!

2. I also feel very uncomfortable with the level of 'backslapping' that goes on at these events. I enjoyed what I saw of TAM but I think that credit for some things didn't necessarily go to the right places (and that's deliberately cryptic!). It's another reason why I also enjoy 'woo' conferences; the chance to have a bit of good natured and well intentioned debate.

All the best

Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Hi, Trystan. Sorry you missed the Sunday as well. I hope you didn't catch your illness off me! I listened to your interview with Andy Roberts and I know Richard Hall has upset him too; has he or Lundberg tried to sue him? Based what Andy said it sounds like they have a case! I'm glad you enjoy both Skeptic and Woo conferences. Weird and "UFO Matrix" are good in that respect because they present both sides of the dabate in a balanced way.

I honestly don't know why nobody has ever won Randi's $Million Challenge. Some people openly accuse Randi of fraud; I'm not one of those, but I do wonder why nobody has snapped up his prize. I don't think that it's simply because the paranormal itself is not real. When I consider that I've had a few "medium"-type experinces myself and I've also been on ghost hunts etc. I've witnessed sound, visual and other phenomena with independent witnesses, things as clear as the wall on front of me right now; it baffles and tantalizes me! I suspect that Lyall Watson's "Cosmic Nanny" might be true. In his books Watson relates his frustration that many times a decisive piece of evidence goes missing or instruments fail at crucial moments. He always recomends posting such data in Special Delivery mail so that at least when it gets lost you can make a bit of cash in compensation! :-) It's as if the phenomena themselves don't want to be proved! I hope we'll overcome this one day because I could do with the money!

All the best, mate


Ben Emlyn-Jones said...

Trystan, you also said: "I would also imagine the six week time span may have had something to do with the rejection as well!" But this is six weeks in which James Randi could earn a HUNDRED THOUSAND POUNDS for the JREF! Which I'm sure he would have been able to do easily... would he not?

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