Article via Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist
But during a four-day stretch in mid-July, these stereotypical Vegas denizens shared the hotel with a very different, very un-Vegas crowd. On the far end of the casino and up an escalator, in a windowless conference center, there was an annual convention taking place called The Amazing Meeting—a gathering known to attendees simply as TAM.
TAM is organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), a group devoted to a philosophy called skepticism: the debunking of psychics, mediums, pseudoscientists, faith-healers, homeopaths, and anyone else who makes claims that defy the known laws of science. Skepticism has a wide following—the Internet is littered with self-proclaimed skeptic blogs, podcasts, and forums—and JREF is widely acknowledged to be the movement’s hub. Over 1,000 people attended this year’s conference, which featured an array of panelists and speakers, from magician Penn Jillette to comedian Father Guido Sarducci to Steven Novella, a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. (And yes, it was ironic that this militantly rational group decided to hold its annual meeting in a casino.)
James Randi speaks at The Amazing Meeting in 2013.
The activists of TAM see themselves as waging a broad, multifront battle to drag American culture, inch by inch, away from the nonscientific and the nonlogical. This turns out to be a surprisingly uphill struggle. Probably the majority of Americans believe in some degree of what JREF’s founder, James Randi, calls “woo-woo.” (“Please use woo-woo,” he instructs me. “I’m trying to get it into extensive use.”) In 2005, for instance, Gallup found that 73 percent of Americans subscribed to at least one paranormal belief. Television personalities like John Edward earn huge audiences by purporting to commune with the dead. Numerous Americans swear by homeopathy, ingest supplements with no proven medical benefit, or believe, against all available evidence, that genetically modified organisms might transform humans into tumor-covered golems.
Indeed, whether it’s feng shui consultants rearranging your apartment’s “energies” or alternative medicine advocates pushing dubious internal “cleanses,” woo-woo is very big business in the United States. “People like the flavor of bullshit, the aroma,” Randi says. “It’s very rare that people will stand for a complete lack of bullshit in anything.”
During a 2010 address to TAM, Slate science writer Phil Plait conceded that he “sometimes wonders” if the goals of skepticism are “reasonable.” Not because the arguments themselves are deficient, but because most people aren’t predisposed to question extraordinary claims. “Our brains don’t work that way,” Plait argued, because they “aren’t wired for skeptical thinking. They’re wired for faith.” And therein lies the central challenge for the skeptic movement: if we’re genetically predisposed to magical thinking, if we desire a certain amount of bullshit in our everyday lives, can a group of people ardently opposed to superstition ever really win?
Randi made numerous appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”