TAM out: Now let’s get stuff done

The Amazing Meeting 2012 is history. I’d call it an overwhelming success at bringing people of like minds together to meet, share and discuss. We also laughed, hugged, congratulated and complained.

It was a very introspective event. Sure, the majority of the topics were about what’s going on “out there”, but I’m doubtful there was ever a TAM that involved more talk about each other and what is going on within the skeptical network.

What were the hot topics of TAM2012? If I went through all I learned, heard, saw and experienced, this post would be a book.

There was much private chattering and rumors but I’ll not go there since it’s unofficial and, frankly, lacks any evidence other than (unreliable personal) testimony. I’m keeping this strictly professional as I would hope others would. (Be the change…) So, I’m picking out the few themes that emerged: skepticism vs atheism, communicating with each other and supporting each other to get things done.

Skepticism vs atheism

The weekend started out with Dave Silverman of American Atheists tweeting:

“You can be a skeptic & a theist. If you’re both, you’re not good at one of them.”

I get that some have this sentiment and I may sort of agree in concept but that’s neither a sentiment I promote, nor one that I find useful. Your mileage varies depending on your goal. Black or white thinking appeals to those who are not on the fence (therefore, many at TAM). But I’m trying to effect change, to get people to start or stop *something*. I want to be able to reach people still on the fence about a wide variety of topics that need a little more critical thinking applied. People are complicated. I need a more nuanced approach.

It was evident that religion is a completely different skeptical topic than everything else. In a workshop that I facilitated on Coalition Building, I asked the audience which topics they advocated against. There was a clear distinction – those that discussed religion tend to stick to that almost entirely. They are, generally, not the ones that are active in discussing non-religious topics such as anti-vax, alt med or the paranormal. I should not be surprised.

A key speech by Jamy Ian Swiss was a loud proclamation of an obvious observation:

The world is full of atheists who are not skeptics.

Jamy was fired up. I admit he took me right along with him. I am also angry that certain factions have dominated the discussion and told me what to think, who to follow and what I should be doing. I’ve been around a long time (not as long as Jamy) but by observing the public, listening to their preconceptions and concerns, I know what’s important to audiences and what needs attention.

I’m not an atheist advocate, I’m a critical thinking advocate. So, I would hate to see TAM turn into an solely “atheist” conference instead of a skeptical one. I’m glad it hasn’t. There already are conferences for that. I’m all for TAM staying neutral and encouraging sound activism for changing people’s minds about ALL nonsense ideas.


Outside of a few minor exceptions, I will make a sweeping generalization about how skeptics/atheists communicate with each other AND to the public. WE SUCK at it. We fail miserably. Every day on twitter are examples of communication epic fails. But it goes beyond that.

In the preceding few months, I was personally involved in two incidents (online) that involved misinterpretation and incomplete understanding from both sides. Attempts to clarify and smooth things over didn’t work out.

Assuming the worst from a comment has become a trend. It’s easy to do when you have to read all sorts of context, tone and intent into written words. Since we aren’t face to face, we lack the social cues that would allow us to refine our communication and understanding. But it’s EVEN worse when the words are limited by space or character counts.

Twitter makes it really easy to mess up.

I’ve suggested in another post that we should adopt a habit of asking for clarification. In fact, that WAS done in a few exchanges on Twitter this past weekend. In an exchange between me and others about a claim that some women having trouble at the event , clarifications were requested and appreciated. And, guess what? I think it worked. Just asking for that clarification instead of assuming the worst stopped things from snowballing into a retweet shitstorm that creates hard feelings. But I also had others ask if so-and-so meant a tweet as a joke or an insult. Were they agreeing or disagreeing? It’s nearly impossible to assess tone in a tweet! I love twitter and have made lots of friends with it, but maybe we’re doing it wrong when hot topics come up.

Many of us in the community are friends or at least acquaintances. We do not do skeptical activism professionally but it’s our interest, our community service, our passion. I wonder if this is why we end up acting less than professional in many instances. Most of the professionals have not engaged directly in the debate. They certainly aren’t calling each other names and taking sides. I was wondering if they ever would step up and speak out about shaming and name calling. Evidence matters. Fair critique should be welcomed. We ought to be having civil discussion about serious issues, not Twitter battles. I was waiting…

Finally, several experienced and respected speakers clearly stated they were appalled by the infighting and were at a loss to understand why anyone would think this was productive to act this way. There were reasons to be encouraged. Carol Tavris and Jamy Ian Swiss publically include it in their talks. (I may have missed others who also noted it.) Several guests noted it off stage.

All those whom I talked to about it DIDN’T like the nastiness and preferred it DIDN’T play out in public forums as was happening. How to fix this? I don’t know.

Let’s get r done – Action and Support

The final and most important thread that extended throughout TAM was

“There is much work to be done. Let’s go do it.”

It is pointless to waste time fighting with each other when we should be painfully aware of how much crap is out there on which to focus our limited resources. Tim Farley pointed this out in his talk. (And in my opinion, Tim equipped the TAM crowd with a whole toolbelt of utilities and great advice on how to make a difference. (Wait… Tim…Tam… I found no Tim Tams this year!) And, Pamela Gay ended with the plea to go do something.

As I mentioned, I did a workshop on coalition building. I had a diverse panel of co-leaders. We differed greatly in our expertise, our goals and our approaches. But when it came to uniting under a common goal, it could be done. We see that this works with examples such as the Reason Rally, calling out quackery to the public, and slowing or halting anti-vaccination propaganda campaigns. You may go away thinking so-and-so is a real jerk but the goal is not to have the most blog hits or twitter followers, it’s to Get r’ done. That means stop getting personal and start being respectable.

Much good news came out of TAM. The feel good successes included news of the fraud charges for Jim McCormick, the protest of Sylvia Brown’s local show, Steve Novella’s winning debate against an anti-vaxxer. Then we had “things are getting better” talk from Michael Shermer, the realization that skeptics are gaining ground over the anti-vax contingent and the recognition of Reed Esau’s idea of Skepticamp as an international force for gathering and educating skeptics.

I can’t recognize it as I write it but this post is open to interpretation of perhaps a dozen different ways. I’m sure I’ll hear about it after it’s posted. But I’m tired of the rhetoric.

We all have to admit when we are wrong and have some empathy. Otherwise, we just keep creating out groups of people that don’t like us and tune out.

TAM is people

TAM is not an event about dogs, games, comics, movies, whatever. It’s about people’s thinking, health, belief and well-being.

It’s about understanding other people in order to bring them around to a rational way of looking at the world. It’s about meeting people who share your views, people you can add to your circles, those you can go to and rely on.

People are complicated. We all come to this place as a result of very different journeys in life. We bring different experiences, values and certain relationships to bear on how we interpret everything.

I was overwhelmed by the great people I met this year (actually, that happens every year). The love, admiration and loyalty some of us have for each other is evident. But our personal experiences and loyalties sometimes cloud our judgment. We’re human.

I asked a lot of people “What can we do?” Can we get beyond the factions? Can we come together for a common cause? Can we be friends with this person even though they have had a very public falling out with this other person who is also our friend? It’s SO messy. I admit that certain reactions are being suppressed in this post… for the greater good.

We thrive as individuals in the world thanks to our IRL networking and support systems – other people. It’s draining for me to be in confrontation mode all the time. It’s disheartening to feel you must constantly be on guard and defensive. It’s foolish to alienate allies when you need as many voices for your cause as you can get (because the other side quacks louder).

TAM showed us that there exist the tools and the people power to make a wave. It also made it clear that serious issues can be treated with due seriousness and respectfulness only if they are NOT lobbed at each other like flaming bags full of crap. Support is free-flowing if it is graciously accepted.

TAM really helped me grow my support system. Also, I see some things rather clearly now. Time to focus on what I CAN change, not waste time on things I can’t.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.

P.S. Don’t ask about the events mentioned above. I’m not going to discuss. I’m not after blog hits.

When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and true maxim that ‘a drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing him of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause is really a good one. – A. Lincoln (tattoo on Chris Stedman)

Addition: I liked Steve Novella’s post on TAM also.


3 thoughts on “TAM out: Now let’s get stuff done

  1. Hi Sharon,

    I have nothing to disagree with what you post, but I will add that Elizabeth Cornwell’s presentation rang especially true for me. It would be easy to listen to her speech and imagine that she was talking about recent events, but with more reflection, I saw that the kind of problems she talked about I’ve seen first hand since I first started participating in Internet discussions way back in the mid 90’s. Flame wars are not new, and we can learn a lot about going forward by looking at past flame wars.

    I was heartened by a few new people I met at TAM2012 that thought it was the greatest thing they’ve ever done, and are already planning on coming back next year. They were totally unaware of the recent conflicts, despite listening to many skeptical podcasts and reading a few blogs. Perhaps, some of these conflicts were just “inside baseball” and the larger skeptic community wasn’t as emotionally invested in it like close followers.

    The overall vibe was pretty positive I thought, and you could walk through the Del Mar in the evening and catch snippets of discussions of serious issues, and even some disagreements, but in person, in real life, they didn’t devolve into shouting matches. As an eternal optimist, I feel there was great progress with people who like to advocate skepticism itself, and I’m not worried about any schisms, since I don’t feel they’re schisms within skepticism, but instead schisms over what conferences should be about. I think the JREF has done a nice job of tightening up TAM in the proper way.

  2. Thank you Sharon. I attended no lectures except the paper presentation on Sunday for Ivan Alvarado. But was part of the team that went to the Sylvia party on Friday. What a blast! The video is here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3YC0U2ZRWQ for those who missed it. We proved that doing something is easy if you just do it. If you heard all the excuses people gave us for why they couldn’t attend you would be dismayed.

    The other main topic that happened at TAM was the overwhelming discussions of Wikipedia. Tim Farley hammered it home over and over again. Discussions were everywhere about the subject and once I got home I launched Wikipedia World project. I now have 30+ editors that have joined me to take back Wikipedia’s reputation concerning skepticism world wide. I’m currently in need of people willing to caption YouTube videos in English (or other languages). This would be a major help in our fight against pseudoscience but it also helps out the deaf community as well.

    Please help get the word out that we really need people to become active in big and small ways. I’m living the extreme of guerrilla skepticism. Confrontational like at a Sylvia Browne event, or at home in my P.J.’s leaving skepticism all over Wikipedia. Life is good. If people are interested in helping out, I will keep them more than busy. Write to me at susangerbic@yahoo.com.

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