THE AMAZING MEETING, produced by James Randi and friends in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, was an amazing success. It was held January 31st to February 2nd, 2003, and was the first conference presented under the auspices of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). There were 256 people in attendance from all over the United States, and as far away as the United Kingdom, Brazil, Belgium, Canada, The Netherlands, and Australia.
The meeting began Friday evening with a giant screen projection of a video tape featuring James Randi performing dice magic and a straightjacket escape over Niagara Falls. Other highlights of the tape included shots of fraudulent faith healing by Peter Popoff Randi then officially welcomed everyone.
Acclaimed professional magician Jamy Ian Swiss, as performer and master of ceremonies for the Friday evening show, opening the proceedings with some devastatingly clever mentalism with playing cards. He spread a deck of cards before three audience members and asked each person to think of one. He was able to name all three cards! Jamy has entertained throughout the world, lectured to magicians in 13 countries, and made numerous television appearances in America, Europe, and Japan. He is a prolific writer and critic for the magic community. In keeping with the theme of the conference, Jamy said, "If you thought what I did was real, you wouldn't be an audience - you'd be a congregation.!"
Optical Illusionist and magician Jerry Andrus enthralled the audience with his ingenious conjuring inventions, "Zone Zero" and "The Miracle of the Yellow Ball". Jerry then recited a few of his short poems on the wonder of the universe. An original inventor of optical illusions, a brilliant skeptic, and a sleight of hand artist admired by magicians throughout the world, Jerry is 85 years young and still brimming over with enthusiasm for life. He kept the registrants enthralled throughout the three day event by showing more optical illusions and card tricks at all hours each day. In the late evenings, Jerry joined the nighthawks, engaging them in friendly debates and providing more demonstrations of his delightful illusions.
Jack Horkheimer, creator, writer, and host of the acclaimed PBS series "Star Hustler/Star Gazer", closed the program with an educational presentation called "The Star of Cleopatra". His lecture highlighted the dramatic influence comets have had upon the history of humankind, with emphasis on the ancient Greeks and the reign of Cleopatra. The word "comet", Jack told us, comes from the Greek lanuage and means "hairy star". We were also informed that the approach of Mars in the coming months will make it "closer and brighter than it has been for the last 60,000 years".
James Randi then announced that there would be a departure for the Buehler Planetarium, for those interested in attending a tour there.
The people who didn't elect to go to the planetarium Friday night were treated to a set of video programs slated for cable television. Tape one was an episode of a new TV series by Penn & Teller , exposing fraudulent medium John Edward and other psychic mediums who claim to be able to communicate with the dead. A quotation from Michael Shermer comes to mind on this subject : "Death is a part of life, and pretending that the dead are gathering in a television studio in New York to talk twaddle with a former ballroom dance instructor is an insult to the intelligence and humanity of the living." Penn & Teller attacked these television mediums with a language so raw, it burned everyone's ears. Correction, it was the language that Penn Jillette employed -- Teller doesn't speak! Saturday night we were treated to a second episode, a devastating condemnation of some of the insane practices of the chiropractic industry. For some very serious and thought provoking skeptical commentary by Penn Jillette, including his philosophy on science and truth, click on the picture you see to the left of this text. Doing so, will also take you to links to sites that skeptically critique the work of John Edward and James Van Praagh (by Michael Shermer, and other skeptics). Hey, this isn't just a report on The Amazing Meeting -- it's also an education!
Tape two was a half-hour episode of the popular TV series, "South Park", in which cartoon characters very comically -- but rather viciously -- satirized medium John Edward.
Keynote speaker Michael Shermer delivered his lecture, titled, "Why We Are Moral: The Origins of Morality and the Science of Provisional Ethics." Consulting Randi's very helpful biographical notes, we see that Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic Magazine, the director of the Skeptics Society, the host of the Skeptics Lecture Series at Caltech, a prolific author, and contributing editor and monthly columnist for Scientific American. From Michael's lecture: Miracles are not science. In his earlier years he was a champion bicycle racer. There is no supernatural, only the natural. There is no paranormal, only the normal. (Old Testament morality is referred to at Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Where did morality come from? From God or from man? Pure good and pure evil do not exist as metaphysical entities. The Christian religion alone has 33,820 different denominations. Religion first became a powerful influence about 3,500 years ago. Michael had a much more to say, complete with a series of excellent projected illustrations - as did most of the lecturers. Some of the titles of Michael's Shermer's illustrations, twenty of which I captured with my digital camera (the 'lazy man's' way of making notes!), will give you just a hint of of the depth of Michael's superb address: The Golden Rule as [a] Universal... The Psychology of Morality... Deception, and Deception Detection... Gossip and the Magic Number 150... The Prisoner's Dilemma Morality... An Evolved Moral Social Structure... The Origins of Morality... The Problem of Divine Command Theory... Provisional Justice... Ethics Transcends Culture... and finally -- a brilliant dissertation on being a 'Free Rider' (i.e. free of the constraints of a God-produced morality) , finishing off with... The Best We Can Do.
Books by Michael Shermer: The Borderlands of science ... In Darwin's Shadow ... How We Believe ... and Why People Believe Weird Things . He is also co-editor of The Skeptic's Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience .
Dan Garvin's presentation, called "Adventures in Scientology", was a bit of a shocker. He began (say Randi's biographical notes) as a Christian Scientist, and grew up believing the physical world was illusory. Searching for answers which he felt his Christian Science was not addressing to his satisfaction, Dan discovered the highly seductive philosophy of Scientology. He eventually joined the Sea Org. Here he spent the next 25 years in almost total isolation from the outside world. Then Dan Garvin began listening clandestinely to radio talk shows in his truck (as a traveling electrician within the cult). He told us, "I began to think -- and got carried away!" He eventually managed to break away from Scientology, and he is now a free man. I have to say, that after hearing Dan Garvin's incredible story, the word “free” is the most beautiful four-letter word in the English language. Dan is now a full time college student, pursuing a degree in physics.
Phil Plait debunked the claim that there is a large, earth sized planet ("Planet X") heading towards Earth, and about to destroy our entire world. Phil is an astronomer and a staff member of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Sonoma State University in Sonoma, County, California. He is the author of Bad Astronomy. His web site was created to reveal misconceptions, false claims, and the misuse of science as it relates to astronomy and space. In Phil’s lecture on Planet X, he said, "There is no idea so stupid that you can't find someone to believe in it." Is Pluto a planet or an asteroid? "Neither", said Phil Plait, "It's a Disney character!" He then added more seriously, "The problem is that you have to define what a planet is, and there is no universally agreed definition of what a planet should be." As for human definitions, Phil said, "The universe is under no obligation to be stuck in our little boxes.
Although Phil's skeptical work is serious and forthright, humor is the rapier he employs to drive home his points. On Sunday, he amused everyone with a hilarious parody. The Amazing Meeting had all been a hoax, in the manner of the spurious claims that the shadows of the moon landing episode were inconsistent: We saw slides showing that the shadows of the hotel trees were not running in parallel; and lines down the hallways converged 'mysteriously' at a distant point instead of running in parallel. Phil then ended his parody with a final slide that said, "Where's my million bucks?" James Randi's famous million dollar offer to anyone able to prove a paranormal skill, was constantly being kidded at this conference.
A buffet lunch break came at this point. Although I don't remember just when James Randi gave his short talk on the present and future plans of the James Randi Educational Foundation, this seems like a good time to mention it. He gave us a run-down of the present and future aims and aspirations of the JREF:• The creation of a critical thinking theater and lab
• Teacher fellowships
• Management of the million dollar prize
• Media outreach programs
• Update of the library
• A fully funded guest lecture series open to the public
• Awards to exceptional teachers
• The development of skeptical curriculums for higher education
• Further work on the exposure of fraudulent celebrity psychics
All of this takes a great deal of money, we were informed, and so all (tax deductible) donations to this non-profit organization are greatly appreciated. Back to the program.....
Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack is a 22 year veteran officer in the United States Air Force. He is an associate professor of political science at the Air Force Academy. He has a doctorate in political science, where his dissertation focused on the role of the military in environmental operations. Hal Bidlack also does an excellent job of acting with his electrifying portrayal of General Alexander Hamilton. He believes Hamilton was one of the two most important Founding Fathers (second only to George Washington). Hal's lecture was on "Lessons from Washington: The Need for Standards in the War on Terrorism". He talked about the various fraudulent products sold to the government, and the proper construction and employment of chemical and biological protection gear.
Jack Latona was next, with a lecture called "Creating the Future of Skepticism". Jack received several degrees from Yale, a BA in history and psychology, an MA in political science, and a degree in Law. Among his many accomplishments, he formed the Center for Creating the Future, a think tank and consulting firm, in 2001. Jack currently shares office space at the James Randi Educational Foundation. Technology has triumphed over ideology. Science has convinced those who want to make a (fundamental) change, that science is the way. The world is full of the forces of unreason, including among even the academic elite. Here my notes end, so if you want to know more about the work and goals of Jack Latona, consult his web site.
Daniel “Chip” Denman's lecture was titled, "The Latest in Homeopathy." Chip is in the University of Maryland Office of Information Technology where he directs user support services and research support groups. He has taught "Science and Pseudoscience" for the University Honors Program. Prior to joining the university, he spent 10 years as a mathematical statistician at the National Institutes of Health. Denman has done a lot of work in education on the topics of critical thinking and skepticism. He is also the founder of a skeptics group, the National Capital Area Skeptics. Chip's lecture was on the efficacy of what was termed "water with a memory", which is also referred to by claimant Jacques Benveniste as “Informed Water.” "Water with a memory" was the common phrase at the time of Beneviste's earlier paper in Nature in 1988. Essentially, his lecture boiled down to a study of the claim that plain water has been exposed to a digital signal in order to make it biologically active. Benveniste also claimed that certain individuals interacted with the digital signal to either enhance or depress a “digital biological effect”. One researcher named Jamal Aissa, by being present, was said to be an enhancer; this was called the “Jamal Effect.” Conclusion: After a thorough study, Chip Denman and his team were able to find no evidence for Benveniste’s hypothesis. I found this lecture to be the most technically complex of all the presentations.
A panel discussion was next, with all of the day's speakers. The subject of human cloning came up. Michael Shermer told us his next Scientific American magazine column will be on "I, Clone", wherein he creates the laws of cloning. Jack Latona made the startling pronouncements that (1) the cloning of human beings will be perfected, (2) human cloning will become accepted and a non issue, (3) invitro fertilization once created a furor but now is routinely accepted and (4) alarmist Jeremy Rifkin will go down as "wrong again".
James Randi was asked how he got into skepticism. He told the audience he was raised in an Anglican family, and he considered Anglicans 'watered down Catholics'. Someone got a big laugh by calling him a Homeopathic Catholic. Randi said that as a child, when he asked any questions in church, he was told not to ask questions! Another panel member then chipped in with a bumper sticker aphorism: "I'm a militant agnostic. I don't know, and you don't know either!"
A panel member told us the web address to CSICOP’s Young Skeptics Program, saying that it had excellent resource materials for critical thinking. Michael Shermer added that his website contained good resources , including complete course materials for teaching critical thinking.
Randi told the crowd, "Very few magicians are qualified to combat fraud. It isn't in the magic books, and you don't have to know tricks to be a good skeptic."
Bob Carroll is Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Sacramento City College. He received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California in San Diego, and has taught philosophy for nearly thirty years. He is the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary (coming in the summber of 2003John Wiley & Sons) and has a web site under the same name. His lecture was titled, “Onward Christian Soldiers: The Holy War on Science.” Bob Carroll maintained that Intelligent Design (ID) is really a philosophical argument, and so any attempt to get it taught in science classrooms, is an attempt to infiltrate philosophy into science classes. He felt this was a mistake. Bob told me in an email after the conference, "I am not opposed to debating ID theorists in general. Much good can come from such debates, but such debates should be framed so as not to pose a false dilemma [it's either natural selection or ID] to the listeners." Bob Carroll is of the opinion that it is important that the teaching of science include a thorough grounding in science history and critical thinking. Bob's complete lecture (longer, Bob tells us, than his address at the conference) can be found at his web site. It is well worth reading. He disagrees with some of the expressed views of one of the other speakers at this conference (see footnote #3 in Bob's lecture on his site).
The Amazing James Randi gave us a short lecture and magic show that he called "A General Tirade…". Strange, but I have no notes. I guess it is a testament to the charisma of our esteemed Grand Patriarch. A short explanation: Definitions 8, 9, and 10 in my American Heritage dictionary define the kind of "patriarch" I refer to: (8) One who is regarded as the founder or original head of an enterprise, an organization, or a tradition. (9) A very old, venerable man; an elder. (10) The oldest member of a group. Hey, strike off definitions 9 and 10 -- I was only kidding!
Highlights: James Randi told us the amusing story of a British bureaucrat who telephoned from England, saying his people were unable to figure out a particular stunt that some "psychic" had pulled. Recognizing the stunt as an old chestnut in magic (a rising pack of matches on the back of the hand) Randi kept the guy on the phone while he looked up the trick in a magic book, and then he asked for the fellow's fax number. He then faxed the explanation of the trick through to the bureaucrat, whereupon Randi simply heard a resounding " click! " on the line! Apparently, after seeing the fax, the caller was too embarrassed to say anything further. Randi then demonstrated the "rising match box." This is one very weird effect that looks like a small paranormal miracle in the hands of an expert magician like James Randi.
James also amused the crowd with his jail breaking exploits. Then he proceeded to baffle us all with a very clean demonstration of an ESP effect, using large playing cards that had the familiar Zenor symbols on them: each of five cards had a cross, three wavy lines, a square, a circle, or a star printed on their faces. A member of the audience mixed the five cards face down and selected two of them, without being allowed to look at the symbols. The selected cars were then sealed into an envelope and placed out of sight in a leatherette folder. Randi was able to dramatically divine the names of the two cards. In his capacity as a mentalist, one of James Randi's favorite sayings was, "I have used my five senses to create the illusion of a sixth." He then demonstrated a couple of classic comedy rope escapes, with members of the audience assisting.
This ended the formal events of the Saturday session. Video tapes were again shown. Penn & Teller exposed chiropractics in the second installment of their new series, and there was a repeat of the South Park cartoon video, a satarical 'cremation' of medium John Edward. About two dozen insomniacs elected to head for the hotel bar and talk late into the night.
Time for a break! Standup, stretch your legs, and take a look at a few fun photos....
Andrew Mayne Harter is a magician and filmmaker. He has written six books on magic and a forthcoming guide on critical thinking. In addition to writing, Andrew has directed two independent features, several instructional videos and the underground magic video Shock FX. Andrew is the author of the book, How to Make an Action Movie for $99 . The book is said to be ideal for filmmakers who are just starting out. Andrew Harter's lecture was on "Teaching Critical Thinking". He told us that as a magician, he goes into classrooms and teaches critical thinking by employing magic effects. Some of his magic includes the Finger Chopper (a trade name), a finger lock trick (my notes here are a bit sparse) and a spike illusion. His lesson to us all was to "Be real. If you tell real stories with full honesty, kids will be able to relate."
The second panel discussion of the weekend Amazing Meeting was called, "Starting a Skeptics Group". It was moderated by Lisa Goodlin. Here I scribbled copious notes, so let's go: One panel member said there was a problem getting people to join a group with the word “skeptic” in its name. They solved the problem by changing the group's name from Central Iowa Skeptics, to, if memory serves me, The Iowa Science Initiative. Acceptance rose because of the name change. Someone suggested that another good way to avoid the use of the word “skeptic”, would be to substitute “association for critical thinking." It is important that a group have diversity. A panel member said his group was worried about offending religious people, but added that a skeptics group shouldn't fear discussing and exploring religious issues. (As one skeptics club said on their web site, "We respect a person's right to be religious, but if claims are made that are scientifically testable, they become fair game."
The panel members suggested several ways to solicit skeptics group membership. Contact SKEPTIC magazine and CSICOP for a mailing list in your area. Contact the local science fiction clubs, who invariably have members sympathetic to science and logical thinking. If MENSA is in your area, offer to give them a talk. (You'd better be smart!) When you have a project to work on that might make a good news story, invite your local newspaper journalists to your meeting. Journalists are always looking for a good story. Spectacular claims will most likely generate press coverage: an attention getting provocative subject on, say, "contacting the dead" will encourage journalists to show up. Groups were also advised to contact other groups to strengthen the influence of critical thinking. Have frequent guest speakers at your meetings. Both pro and antiskeptical speakers will add interest to meetings (an astrologer was mentioned as a possible guest). Testing extraordinary claims by psychics would be another good way to generate publicity, especially if you offered, say, $500 to anyone who could prove their claim genuine. One panel member suggested having magicians create a mock séance with trick effects. I understand this idea was planned by The Central Iowa Skeptics, but the magician had to cancel at the last moment. Another panelist said anytime you can garner network time, you'll get an audience larger than you can get “live” in a lifetime. Still more constructive advice: Every week, send an e-mail to several of the local radio DJ's. They're always looking for interesting stuff, so one day, they just might use you. Get your group listed in the back of Skeptical Inquirer; local readers of this publication might discover your group that way. Finally, magician Andrew Harter suggested a clever line that attracts people: "Everyone is a skeptic. Let's see what you're skeptical about!"
Why should there be a skeptics club? Panel members told us it provides a source of information that helps counteract media misinformation and nonsense. It builds a sense of community among critical thinkers: people like to get together with like-minded friends. It provides members with a soapbox for participation in grass-roots skepticism.
Following a 15 minute break after the panel discussion, the surprise Mystery Guest made his dramatic entrance (no, he did not come out of a flying saucer!). We were treated to the appearance of a mystical "eastern guru" who proceeded to pontificate a kind of New Age, lotus blossom palaver (palaver, def: "Talk intended to charm or beguile.").
It seems, if I'm getting the story right, that Australia's "Sixty Minutes" commissioned Randi to look into the epidemic of “gurus” appearing in Australia. James Randi arranged to have a guru of his own travel to Australia; the role of the fake guru was taken by his friend and JREF cohort, Jose Alvarez . Jose masqueraded as "Carlos the Channeler": He convinced many Australians that he was a channeler for a 3500 year old man named Carlos. Randi and Alvarez managed, within only a few days, to fill the Opera House in Sydney with believers. We were treated to a video that documented the exercise, entitled, "An Expose of Divine Prophets." Sixty Minutes then did an exposure story. Randi disclosed that he had orchestrated the performance as a scam designed encourage skepticism in Australia. According to a report in an Australian magazine, "Most Australians were amused, but channeling devotees petulantly insisted that the episode proved nothing." Randi assured us that "No money was charged. Everything was free. If we had charged for anything whatever, it would have been a fraud. " Jose Alvarez came out of character and took questions. He said the purpose of the exercise was to liberate people from darkness, and he called his masquerade a 'performance art piece'. Another conference attendee informed me that Alvarez’s work was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.
After the Sunday lunch, came the "Presentation of Papers", hosted by Hal Bidlack. Hal was a riot of laughs in his capacity as master of ceremonies throughout the three-day conference. In fact, Hal is such a vibrant personality, that late one night I told him I thought his high school yearbook photo must have had under it, the caption, "Voted most likely to wear a lampshade at a party!" I'll bet every time he opens his refrigerator at home and its light comes on, he gets the urge to dance. All kidding aside, his contribution to the success of The Amazing Meeting was invaluable
Each presenter had an official time limit of 15 minutes, though some of them were given more time. Many of the presentations involved subjects that could easily have been expanded into an hour lecture.
Professor Ray Hall, assistant professor of physics at California State University, Fresno, gave a talk on "The Age of the Earth". Armed with a dense catalog of geological, physics, and mathematical details, Ray Hall effectively demolished the "young earth" dogma of the creationists. He gave detailed corroborative scientific evidence for a world that is 3.5 to 4 billion years old. "Time," said Ray, "is nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once." Most of biology, geology, and astrophysics depends heavily on an understanding of time scales far beyond direct human experience. We now know that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. The idea of an earth less than ten thousand years old not only contradicts the evidence from geology and evolution, but would also conflict at the most fundamental level with physics, astronomy, chemistry, anthropology, linguistics and basically the whole of science. A belief in a young earth would essentially constitute a denial of all of science.
Chemistry Professor Charles Wynn has taught a science verses pseudoscience course at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction : Where Real Science Ends… and Pseudoscience Begins." In the teaching of students, Charles stated that there is a phenomenon he calls "belief perseverance": beliefs are made quickly and easily, but once established, they are very hard to refute. Believers constantly search for confirmation that their beliefs are correct. He said we should teach people how to recognize "disconfirmation". The conversion from erroneous kinds of belief is a long-term process. "The problem," Professor Wynn said, "is that we don't spend enough time talking about the 'gold standard' before we tell students about 'fool's gold'. Begin by taking a good look at what real science is. They get to understand that science is open-ended, empirical, and real. It is then a matter of determining what is real science (gold), verses pseudo claims (fool's gold)." His students are then required to submit a position paper. The paper can be for or against pseudoscience, as long as supporting evidence is provided. Professor Charles Wynn also supplements his courses with guest speakers -- astronomers, biologists, psychologists, and so on.
Greg Winslow's talk was called "An Empirical Investigation of the Effects of Penta Water." His work is in specialty sensor technologies. Penta water is supposed to be pure water, but by a nebulous process, it stays in stable clumps of five molecules; its manufacturer and distributor claim that the drinking of Penta water on a regular basis has various health benefits. No hard data is provided to substantiate such claims, and we are left, in the main, with anecdotal testimonials. Greg Winslow bought bottles of Penta water, which he subjected to a thorough double blind test by growing beans. His results showed conclusively that the water did not meet the claims made for it.
Professor John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, gave a presentation called "Astronomy -The Ultimate Magic Show." He employed standard magic tricks to illustrate the wonders of astronomy. He stated that magic can be an excellent supplementary training tool for science. It aids in the mastering of critical thinking skills. Here is a brief description of the magic tricks used: The Magic Coloring Book: pictures of stars, spaceships, telescopes, etc. appeared and disappeared, sometimes colored and sometimes not, as the professor repeatedly flipped through the pages. The Black Hole Trick: a coin mysteriously penetrated a small, thin sheet of rubber without creating a hole; this illustrates how matter goes down a block hole, decoupling from space/time. A small, metal ball bearing was dropped through a vertically held, 16 inch length of half inch copper tubing. It 'free fell' at the normal rate of speed, dropping out of the bottom end of the tube. A second ball was then used to illustrate the warp in space near a large astronomical body. It fell through the copper tube at a slower rate than the first ball. "The second ball is a supermagnet ," explained professor Brown, "which induces an electromagnetic field in the tube as it falls, and this causes enough resistance to slow down the ball." Most amusing to me (I'm a magician, remember!), was Brown's ingenious illustration of "frame dragging" around a Black Hole: A spinning piece of three-inch curved plastic slowed almost to a halt, but then reversed its spin slightly before stopping. Professor Brown stood next to the spinning plastic and turned around several times, saying he represented a giant black hole. ...Okay, you had to be there! His lecture was a graphic reminder that "Good teaching is one-forth preparation and three-fourths theater."- a quotation by novelist Gail Godwin.
Ms. Maira Benjamin gave us an interesting short history of "The JREF Forum". The forum was started in July of 2001. Maira said it soon had an amazing 1400 registered users. In April of 2002, a forum gallery was created, and it now has over 200 "images, recipes, passions and pets". In September 2002, the forum was reorganized and Maira Benjamin became moderator. There are now, Maira told us, about 3,300 members, with over 5,100 threads to date. And most amazing of all, Randi has contributed a whopping ten posts! The purposes and goals of this chat forum include: connecting people with special interests; holding face-to-face meetings; aiding the JREF Mission; evangelizing skepticism; supporting skeptic organizations; fundraising; publishing articles; archiving discussions; and fostering open-minded debates. On behalf of the forum members, Maira presented James Randi with a present. The photos below -- though not of very high quality -- speak for themselves!
Jim Underdown, Director, Center for Inquiry West and a renowned figure in the skeptical movement, gave a talk entitled, "They See Dead People - Or Do They?" He and a secret cadre of skeptics attended a television taping by a renowned psychic medium. He said the readings at this affair were so bad during the taping of the show, that he suspected 'hot readings' were not being employed. It takes several hours to tape a show. Jim said the biggest “cheat” was in the deliberate omission of “misses” in the editing. One session by John Edward was said to be so long, it was cut up into up to five shows.
All audience members come prepared with the expectation that they may be “read” by the psychic. Before the taping begins, Edward gives an opening address calculated to lower expectations. Then audience members are required to sign a four page release contract, which illustrates how paranoid the show's producers are about keeping what goes on in the studio under wraps. John Edward is very chatty with the audience before taping, and engages in a lot of lame cold reading, using generic names like Mary, Maria, John or James. Most questions are misses, and when the psychic misses, he blames the audience. James Van Praagh for example, states, "Well that's what I'm being told, I don't know why I'm not getting it, but that's what they're telling me…". The psychics depend upon a gullible, uninformed audience, in conjunction with excellent editing to make their readings look genuine. Jim Underdown concluded: "Most people who are hearing voices in their heads are doing time in mental institutions, or ought to be in mental institutions, and James Van Praagh and John Edward are no exceptions."
Professor Jeff Corey presented a lecture called, "The Wason Card Problem". He has a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology and has been teaching this subject at C. W. Post College for quite a while. Jeff has published papers in areas ranging from animal learning, behavior modification and the teaching of psychology, to constructing visual illusions. The Wason Card Problem is given to his students to sharpen their critical thinking skills. Here is a 'simplified version' of the problem: "You have 2 cards in front of you. Each has a letter on one side and a number on the other. The cards show 1 and 2 uppermost. Which one would you turn over to test the statement : 'All cards with a vowel on one side have an even number on the other.' " I went to the Internet and searched under Google, and found an excellent detailed analysis of the (more standard) four-card version of the Wason Card Problem . If you check Google, you'll find several more sites dealing with this topic.
Professor Taner Edis, physicist and skeptic at Truman State University, gave a lecture entitled, "Exorcising All The Ghosts?". His presentation was subtitled "Paranormal Skepticism and Religion". Taner Edis is willing to tackle head-on, the thorny and often delicate issue of religion. He sees this subject ripe for discussion and confrontation by skeptics. Taner doesn't just focus “safely” on the many extremist (and sometimes dangerous!) religious cults, but he addressed mainstream religion and belief in God in general. from which his lecture is derived. Taner told us that skeptics routinely question and debunk weird and extraordinary claims that are not supported by substantial evidence, but rather than state a particular view of the world, they simply assert that the claims are unproved. He maintained that most weirdness is not supernatural, but involves paranormal and/or extraordinary claims of a secular nature. Taner addressed the controversial question: Should skeptics include religion? Why is God out of bounds for many skeptics? He admitted there were practical reasons for skeptics' groups to avoid taking on religion. Perhaps, he suggested, many skeptics tend to want to leave religion alone because they feel it is not testable, that it is “beyond science.” Taner felt there was no clear demarcation between the secular and the religious, since many so-called secular claims, like alien abduction, contain religious overtones.
Though a belief in God cannot be directly debunked, skepticism involves more than just a lack of sufficient empirical evidence. Supernatural forces are often evoked as the agents responsible for spoon bending, ESP, and so on. Further, some liberal theologians are sympathetic to psi, because it seems to involve more than mere materialism, and so strengthens their own religious world view. Professor Tanner Edis said his website has various articles, the slides to his talk, and the introductory chapter to his book, The Ghost in the Universe .
Final Wrap-up, Announcements, and Adjournment
The conference members assembled for a group photo. They also included a couple gag poses, and you can see that I had a ball turning them into "trick photos". James Randi announced that another Amazing Meeting would be held next year -- and he hoped to see us all there! He closed the meeting with a video of a Barbara Walters program that was taped in 1989. The tape featured Randi bamboozling Walters with duplicated Uri Geller stunts: the divination of a secret sketch Ms. Walters had drawn earlier and sealed in an opaque envelope; and the inexplicable bending of a key that was held firmly by the host, in her own hands.
Professional magicians Mark Wilson and Doug Henning could be seen seated in the background.
We all left the Renaissance Fort Lauderdale Plantation Hotel in high spirits, and I can safely predict that next year's "The Amazing Meeting" will be packed to the rafters with enthusiastic people.
Report and photos by Larry Thornton (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
Editing and corrections by Lisa Goodlin (Syracuse, NY)
BONUS STUFF too cool for words.....