“Hush Money” or “Blackmail” or Both?

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been in the news of late, being indicted for federal charges related to structuring financial transactions in order to avoid IRS reporting requirements, and then lying to the FBI about.  (Pro Tip: don’t lie to the FBI.  Either tell them the truth or tell them nothing).  The latest media reports say that he had committed the alleged structuring in order to withdraw money from a bank account so that he could pay “hush money” to a victim of what the media has euphemistically called “sexual misconduct” occuring when Hastert was a high school teacher and coach.

I find the use of the term “hush money” by the media to be extremely interesting.  I have read five or six stories about the case this morning from various media sources, and all of them use the same term, “hush money.”  I say I find it interesting because, depending on what actually happened, the more apt terms could be “blackmail” or “extortion.”  People who engage in criminal activity (especially serious criminal activity like the type that Hastert allegedly engaged in) can sometimes find themselves approached by the victim of the crime, or someone else with knowledge, and given two choices: (1) pay money or (2) information about the crime will be released to the police, the press, your wife, or someone else you don’t want knowing about it.  Most people call this “blackmail” or “extortion” or something of the like.

To me, “hush money” would imply that the original criminal actor (allegedly Hastert) goes to the victim and says “I will pay you money if you keep it silent.”  This could even be the result of a subtle indication from the victim of the original criminal act that they know about the crime, which could lead the original criminal actor to approach with an offer of “hush money,” without the type of explicit threat required to constitute blackmail or extortion.

Since the alleged events occurred in Illinois, Illinois law controls.  Extortion/blackmail in Illinois is called “intimidation” in the relevant statute.   I have bolded the relevant bits:

720 ILS Sec. 12-6. Intimidation.
(a) A person commits intimidation when, with intent to cause another to perform or to omit the performance of any act, he or she communicates to another, directly or indirectly by any means, a threat to perform without lawful authority any of the following acts:
(1) Inflict physical harm on the person threatened or any other person or on property; or
(2) Subject any person to physical confinement or restraint; or
(3) Commit a felony or Class A misdemeanor; or
(4) Accuse any person of an offense; or
(5) Expose any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule; or
(6) Take action as a public official against anyone or anything, or withhold official action, or cause such action or withholding; or
(7) Bring about or continue a strike, boycott or other collective action.

So, if the victim of the alleged original criminal act went to Hastert and demanded money for silence, this would likely be blackmail/extortion in the colloquial sense or “intimidation” under the Illinois Statutes.

So, which is more correct, “hush money” or “blackmail/extortion/intimidation”?  Beats me.  The language of the indictment itself is vague on this point:

Individual A has been a resident of Yorkville, Illinois and has known defendant JOHN DENNIS HASTERT most of Individual A’s life.

In or about 2010, Individual A met with defendant JOHN DENNIS HASTERT multiple times. During at least one of the meetings Individual A and defendant discussed past misconduct by defendant againstIndividual A that had occurred years earlier.

During the 2010 meetings and subsequent discussions, defendant JOHN DENNIS HASTERT agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.

The way I read this, it could be “hush money,” it could be “blackmail/extortion/intimidation,” or a combination of the two.   The media, though, is fixated on “hush money” for some reason.  “Blackmail” to me seems a better story and more evocative.  But what the hell do I know.

Brian Dunning Sentenced (And Three Questions Answered)

I am really not as anonymous as you think.

–Skeptical Abyss


September 2, 2014 will not be a good day for Brian Dunning, of the Skeptoid podcast.  At 2:00 p.m., he will have to surrender himself to the federal Bureau of Prisons to begin his sentence for mail fraud.   Without a doubt, that will be a horrible day for Dunning and his family.

I previously wrote about the case at some length.  The sentence was imposed yesterday by judge Edward J. Davilla of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.  15 months followed by three years of supervised release.


Judge Edward  J. Davila (Official Photo)

Some have already commented on the excellent sentencing memorandum filed by AUSA David Calloway.    It makes some very interesting reading.

First, there is this

It is undeniable that those who commit serious criminal offenses often bring pain to their innocent families; this happens to ordinary “blue-collar” defendants – bank robbers, drug dealers, and the like – and there is no reason in fairness why a sophisticated white-collar criminal and his family should be spared those same consequences. Finally, there are the letters. The government shares the discomfort U.S. Probation Officer Flores expressed at the recurring theme in so many of hem, that the FBI “raid” allegedly “traumatized” the defendant’s family, as if somehow the Dunning family deserved to be insulated from the adverse consequences caused by law enforcement agents simply doing their jobs, executing a search warrant to investigate the crimes that he, Brian Dunning, knowingly, willfully, and fraudulently committed.

Boy, would I love to see those “letters.”  I wonder if any prominent (or not so prominent) members of the skeptics movement wrote to the court complaining about the government’s treatment of Mr. Dunning.  Unfortunately, at this moment Dunning’s sentencing submission is not available for download on pacer.gov.

Remember (for the sake of context) that Dunning stole from Ebay through something called “cookie stuffing.”  The government’s sentencing memorandum has some interesting things to say about that:

Mr. Dunning did quite well. As the PSR notes (¶ 40), he was able to pay off his mortgage in  2007 using the proceeds of commissions paid to him by eBay.5 It is therefore ironic that one of the arguments Mr. Dunning may be expected to make in an effort to avoid prison is that, if he is sent to prison, he and his family might be forced to sell the house (see PSR ¶ 42) – although, since there are no bank liens, it is unclear exactly who the Dunnings are expecting to force a sale: Mr. Dunning’s attorneys? His step-father? Regardless, like the “trauma” theme discussed earlier, the government would submit that any risk that Mr. Dunning might have to sell or refinance his home to pay legal fees falls into the category of a self-inflicted wound.

“Self-inflicted wound.”  Now that’s writing.


Here is my favorite bit, though.


As mentioned in the introduction, the government expects Mr. Dunning to argue that his sentence should be no greater than that imposed upon the defendant in a related case. It is true that the sentence the government seeks here is greater than it sought for that defendant, and greater still than the sentence the Court ultimately decided to impose. The government would respectfully submit, however, that the other sentence is beside the point: Section 3553(a) directs the sentencing court to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities. Any discrepancy here is justified by the fact that, unlike Mr. Dunning, the other defendant benefitted from a government motion for a substantial and well-earned departure. It is not an apples to apples (or “cookies to cookies”) comparison between him and Mr. Dunning.

“Cookies to cookies.”  How can you not love a lawyer that writes like that?

As a public service to the skeptical community, I will attempt to answer three questions that I think are likely to be asked.

Sure, he got 15 months, but how much time will he really serve?

Most people know that prisoners in the USA get lots of time off for good behavior, but that is only true for sentences out of state court.  Federal inmates get very little.  By my calculations, if Dunning behaves himself while in prison, he will get exactly two months off for good behavior.  (This website allows you to do your own calculation).   That means he should serve 13 months of real time in federal prison.  I therefore estimate his release date to be approximately October 2, 2015 (a Friday, which I would imagine is a good day to get out, after all you have the whole weekend to look forward to).

What kind of prison will he be living in?  Will he be in the Supermax in Florence, Colorado, bunking with the Unabomber?

Nope.  It is not the Supermax – it is far from a Supermax.  He will serve his sentence at the Taft Correctional Institution (near Bakersfield, CA). It’s a privately-run minimum security federal prison with 1,700 inmates.   According to a post on boing boing that purportedly describes an inmate’s sentence,  here is what he can expect when he gets there:


Sports complex “The first morning, when I woke up it was a kind of university-campus like setting. I walked out and in the middle of the courtyard was a huge sign that said ‘Sports Complex.’ Basketball, football, baseball, soccer, bocce ball, volleyball, handball. And I looked around and there were about 500 guys there. And they all had on equipment; there was a soccer game and a baseball game going on.”

Rec center “I looked over I saw the rec center. And I walked over to that and looked in and there were six pool tables, six foosball tables, six ping-pong tables.”

Music department “Then I went through this door and there was this huge music department. Three different musical groups were practicing. I said, ‘Do they have concerts here?’

‘Oh yeah! We have a routine on Friday nights and the bands play concerts outside.'”

Drugs This is my first 10 minutes — I was on the compound I started walking with some guys around the walking track and I went [sniff] — ‘Are they smoking weed around here?’ And they said, ‘Yeah! You want some weed?’

I said, ‘Listen, I don’t want anything to do that with this kind of stuff. I don’t want to get in any more trouble that I’m already in.’ But yeah, anything that you wanted — alcohol — any and every type was $25 for 8 ounces. They had meth, they had steroids, they had cocaine.”

No fences “There’s no fences around the the place, about every 200 feet they have a sign on a stake that says ‘Out of Bounds.’ I got there on December 1 of 2005. That Christmas, about 25 guys just walked out on the freeway and they had their families pick them up and they left. So it’s kind of an honor system.”

Female prison guards as hookers “It didn’t take me long to figure out, they had several really nice-looking female correctional officers there. You know, hair done up, big chest. It was kind of stunning to me. And they said ‘Listen, you want some action?’ I’m telling you the straight scoop. My understanding is on average they were making about $30,000 a month.”

Some prisoners don’t want to leave “This young kid came in that same first day I was there and my cubie was a guy named Evil. And he said ‘Evil, I’m going to have to do something bad because I’m supposed to go home tomorrow.’ And I said ‘You’re supposed to go home and you want to stay here?’ He said, ‘Yeah if I go home I’ve got to start paying rent!'”

I don’t know how credible this report is, but if even half of this is true (heck, even if one eighth of it is true), it sounds like a pretty sweet place to do your time.   Hookers, booze, blow, weed, and music.  That sounds like  a pretty good weekend in Vegas for a lot of people. Alright, I admit that the story sounds a little too good to be true, especially the female guards making $30k a month hooking.  I mean, how could they find the time?  Wouldn’t someone notice?  Color me skeptical.    This website gives some less salacious information, but invites reviews of the prison.  Perhaps Brian can write one in his spare time.   CNBC says that it is one of the best places to serve a prison sentence in the USA, and says that there are plenty of activities for kids when they visit (seriously–I am not making this up).  Here is an inmate that wrote a blog from the prison, although he makes it seem like less fun than the guy who wrote about hookers and blow.   The lack of fences does seem to make escapes an occasional problem.

Does he have to pay restitution as part of the sentence?

Nope.  According to the government’s sentencing memorandum, he reached a settlement with ebay, so there is no restitution order. This may not have been the best tactical move legally, as you can see below:


Mr. Dunning has reached a separate settlement with eBay for an undisclosed figure (the government does not know the amount) that dispenses with any requirement that this Court address restitution.. As a result, however, the argument that many white-collar defendants raise (“I need to be out and working so I can pay restitution”) does not apply here.

So there you are.  I will now crawl back into the hole I have been living in for a good long while.


Yet Another Daydream

In this daydream, I am back being a simple country lawyer . . .

A man walks into the office; actually, it would be more accurate to say that he storms in.  He is middle aged, maybe a little paunchy, a beard, and glasses.  He looks around intently, clearly a man with important affairs on his mind.

“Are you Howe?” he asks brusquely.

I nod.  “In the flesh.  How can I be of service?”

He sits down a the chair on the opposite side of the desk.  “You come highly recommended.  I have an employment law matter I would like to discuss with you.”

I hold up my hand and point to the door to the right.  “I think you want to talk to Mr. Dewey, one of my law partners.  That’s really more of his bailiwick.  For all I know, the EEOC is some European bureaucracy. . . ”

He cuts me off, apparently unimpressed by the start of my quite excellent EEOC joke.  Perhaps he has no sense of humor.  “It has to be you, Mr. Howe.  As I say, you come highly recommended by a client who had a little trouble with a certain blogger a ways back.  He sends you his regards, by the way.”

I nod.  “By all means, then.  Please go on.”

He starts talking very quickly.  “Well, we had this person who worked for us.  And she complained about this guy who works for us about sexual harassment.  She said that this guy kept sexually harassing her.  Sending her indecent letters.  Even sexually assaulting her a couple of times.  So we looked into it.  And it was, well, how should I put this . . .”

I try to help.  “Unfounded?”

He shakes his head.  “No.  The other thing.  Kind of the opposite.  The word slips my mind for the moment.  Wait, I think . . .  no.  On the tip of my tongue, you know what I mean?   But no matter.  We investigated, and as I said . . . or maybe I didn’t say . . . well, we took stern corrective action!”

“You fired the cad, of course,” I nod sagely.

He nods his head.  “Yes . . . wait.  No.  We gave him a couple of weeks off without pay, or something, I am not all that clear on the details.  And get this, you will appreciate this as a lawyer: she wasn’t satisfied!  Can you believe that?  Wasn’t satisfied.”

I finally understood.  “Well, it sounds like you may have some major liability potential on your hands, but again, that’s not really my line.  I would have just told you to get rid of this guy and make the lady happy.  But that’s just me.  I’m kind of a stickler in that way.  But then again, I don’t know employment law from . . .”  I could see from his stern demeanor that the joke I was about to make about my ignorance of employment law (a really funny joke, I might add) would have gone over like a lead balloon.  “Like I said,” I continued in my best somber tone, “my law partner Mr. Dewey is in the next room.  He’s the one that handles employment discrimination lawsuits.”  I pick up the phone to call Dewey’s extension, but the bearded interloper interrupts.

“Not Dewey!  You, Mr. Howe.  This is not an employment lawsuit!  Far from it.  In fact, much, much worse.  She . . . ”  He pauses, as if to regain control over his emotions.  “She . . .”  he pauses again.  Clearly he is having a difficult time.  His voice drops to a whisper.  “She went public.”  He hands me a crumpled up print-out of what appears to be a blog entry.  I read it through.  I read it through again.

“I don’t understand why you are here.  This does not mention the name of your company.  It doesn’t mention you.  It doesn’t even mention the name of the cad.  I don’t understand what you want.  By the way, did you know that I charge $350 per hour?  The clock is running.”

He grabs the paper out of my hand and points to it.  “Don’t you see?  Even a blind man could see it!  Actually, I retract that.  I did not mean to say ‘blind man.’  I meant to say ‘highly valued visually impaired individual.’  Anyone reading this would know that it was us!  And other people, on other blogs, said it was us!”

“Other people?”


“On other blogs?”

“And Facebook, too!”

I pull out my pipe and tamp down some tobacco, and then light it.  “I still don’t get it.  Big deal.  Let it go.  It will all blow over in a couple of days.  So you  didn’t make the right decision in the end.  And this woman took offense at your lenient treatment of this guy.  And maybe what you are really feeling is remorse, or regret that you did not handle it differently, but you are committed to a course of action, and can’t change it, or you look like a fool.  Even if the whole world seems to be screaming at you to change what you did, and maybe in the back of your mind you think they are right, but you can’t be seen to give in, and can’t be seen to be wrong.  I understand.  It happens all the time, but you know what, its not the end of the world.  Anyway, it certainly isn’t worth litigation.”

He jumps up and points at me.  “Wrong decision?  Not worth litigation?  You say it is not worth litigation?  I found three factual errors!  Three!  Here.”  He pulls out an even more crumpled piece of paper from a pocket in his tweed jacket and throws it at me.

I uncrumple it as best I can and read it.  To call these points nitpicking would be to denigrate the importance of all the nits and picks in the world.  “Okay, these seem pretty minor.   Even if they are wrong–and frankly they seem more like you disagree with the implications of what she says rather than the facts–they don’t seem like anything worth mentioning.  Certainly this nothing to get in a fuss about.  I say just let it go.  It will blow over.   And, if she sues you in the end, you know where to find Mr. Dewey.”

He is now almost screaming.  “Let it go?  Let it go?  Have you lost your mind, sir?  This must be stopped!  This blog post is the most outrageous miscarriage of justice since  . . . since . . . well in a very long time!   I want you to help me draft a letter to the place that published this screed and get it taken care of!”

Not wanting to talk about it with this buffoon any longer, I pull out my iPad and open Wikipedia.  I find the entry I want and hand it to him.  It reads:

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.

It is named after American entertainer Barbra Streisand, whose attempt in 2003 to suppress photographs of her residence in Malibu, California, inadvertently generated further publicity. Similar attempts have been made, for example, in cease-and-desist letters, to suppress numbers, files and websites. Instead of being suppressed, the information receives extensive publicity and media extensions such as videos and spoof songs, often being widely mirrored across the Internet or distributed on file-sharing networks.[1][2]

Mike Masnick of Techdirt coined the term after Streisand unsuccessfully sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and Pictopia.com for violation of privacy. The US$50 million lawsuit endeavored to remove an aerial photograph of Streisand’s mansion from the publicly available collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs.[1][3][4] Adelman photographed the beachfront property to document coastal erosion as part of the government-sanctioned and government-commissioned California Coastal Records Project.[5][6] Before Streisand filed her lawsuit, “Image 3850” had been downloaded from Adelman’s website only six times; two of those downloads were by Streisand’s attorneys.[7] As a result of the case, public knowledge of the picture increased substantially; more than 420,000 people visited the site over the following month.[8]

The man reads it and then throws it onto my desk.  It makes a loud crunching sound.  “Hey!” I scream.  “That cost me $500!”  I pick up my beloved iPad to make sure it still works, and the man storms out of my office.  “Good riddance,” I mutter under my breath.


Of course, this is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance to actual persons, whether living or dead, is purely coincidental.



A daydream

“About half the practice of a decent lawyer is telling his clients  that they are damned fools and should stop.”
—Elihu Root, Lawyer, Statesman, Nobel Laureate

I sometimes like to imagine that I am a simple country lawyer.  With an office.  Maybe a couple of law partners to spread out the workload.  A nice general practice.  Imagine if you will . . .

A man walks into the office.  He is medium height, athletic build.  A receding hairline.  “Mr. Cheethum?” he asks.

“No,” I reply.  “I’m Howe.  Cheethum and Dewey are my law partners.  They are out of town for the Zen of Litigation seminar in Sedona.  How can I help you?”

The man pauses at the doorway.  “I was really hoping to speak to Mr. Cheethum.  He comes highly recommended.”

I pick up my pipe and fill it with tobacco, then eye my visitor.  “Like I said,” I smile, “Cheethum and Dewey are my law partners.  We all chip in together around here.  Why don’t you sit down and tell me why you wanted to see Mr. Cheethum?”

The man sits down and pulls out a file.  “I am desirous of suing a blogger who has defamed me.  I believe he teaches at a University not 20 miles distant.”  I light my pipe and nod sagely.  “Well,” I croon, “we can certainly help you with that.  Pray tell, what did this blogger say that you believe constituted defamation?”

The man seems to have trouble saying it.  He tries to speak, but it is as if a great force is making him bite his tongue.  I stare at him for well over a minute while he goes through the mental gymnastics of getting himself to speak.  Finally, he softly mutters “rape.”

I take a drag on my pipe and give him my best flinty stare.  I say nothing.  Finally, he speaks again.  “Rape.  Rape, I say!  He has accused me of rape!”

I start taking notes.  “Did you, in fact, rape this blogger?”  I ask.

The man gives me a confused stare.  “What?” he asks.

“Did you rape this blogger?  Is what this blogger says true?  If it is true, we don’t have a case.  If it is even close to true, we don’t have a case.  So, I ask you once again, did you rape this blogger?”

The man shakes his head.  “You don’t understand.  He is not claiming that I raped him.  He says I raped some woman.  An unnamed woman.  At a conference.  Years ago.  And this woman purportedly contacted him and said that I raped her, and he published her story, as if it were the truth.  And, before you ask, no, I did not rape her.  Assuming there even is a ‘her.’ Assuming he did not just make this whole story up.”  He hands me the file, which has the offending blog post printed out.  I review it, and hand it back to him.

“Okay,” I reply.  “Let’s start at the beginning.  If we are going to sue someone, it has to be worth it.  Does this blogger have any money?  Without money at the end of the rainbow, there is no reason to sue.”

My putative client ponders the question.  “Yes.  He has some money.  He is an assistant professor, and I think he makes about $65k per year.  He has a book coming out.  He has a house.  He owns, or part owns, this website with a number of bloggers.  Can we sue him?

“Let’s think this through.  Based on this, I think that you very well may qualify as a public figure.  That means  he will argue that the 1964 United States Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan provides him a First Amendment defense.  In other words, he will say that we cannot prevail in our lawsuit unless we prove that he had actual malice, i.e. that he either knew what he said was false or exercised reckless disregard to whether it was true or not.  So, let’s assume the worst case scenario, and that case applies.  That’s a tough nut to crack.  But we can still sue him, and take his deposition, and maybe he was reckless.  At the very least, we can force him to tell us who this anonymous woman is.”

The man looks dubious.  “Really?  We can force him to do that?”

I smile and nod.  “Absolutely.  We will send him interrogatories asking for the name.  We will demand he turn over his emails, and get her emails.  We can subpoena his email provider and web host to get their records, and the same with his phone company.  If none of that works, we will take his deposition and I, or Cheethum, will sweat it out of him.  We will find out.”

He still looks dubious.  “Isn’t there a shield law in this state?”

I laugh out loud and pull out a volume from the Minnesota Statutes.  “Sure we have a shield law.  But we also have an exception.  And here it is:

‘595.025 DEFAMATION.
Subdivision 1. Disclosure prohibition; applicability. The prohibition of disclosure
provided in section 595.023 shall not apply in any defamation action where the person seeking disclosure can demonstrate that the identity of the source will lead to relevant evidence on the issue of actual malice.

Subd. 2. Disclosure conditions. Notwithstanding the provisions of subdivision 1, the identity of the source of information shall not be ordered disclosed unless the following conditions are met:
(a) that there is probable cause to believe that the source has information clearly relevant to the issue of defamation;
(b) that the information cannot be obtained by any alternative means or remedy less destructive of first amendment rights.’

So, if he claims that Sullivan applies, he has therefore injected the issue of actual malice into the equation, and we get the name.  If he doesn’t, then the only thing we have to prove is that the statement was false, and guess what, you get to testify that it was the biggest damned lie in US history, and he has no way of proving that it wasn’t false, because he can’t use this person’s hearsay statements at trial, especially if this person is anonymous.  So the only thing that the jury hears is you saying that you were defamed.  And he is there holding only his proverbial in his hands.  So, we either get the name or we win at trial, a slam dunk win.”

I can see that he is warming to me.  “What was your name again?” he asks.

“Howe,” I reply.

“Well, Mr. Howe,” he asks, “what about Barrett v. Rosenthal?  Someone told me that the blogger will rely upon that case as a defense.  And that it is an iron clad defense to defamation.”

I shake my head in a most dismissive fashion.  “That is a California case, and is not binding here.  Second, it does not apply to this blogger.  You see, Barrett dealt with the distributor doctrine.  Let’s say that you run an internet forum, and Johnnie Trollmunster posts a defamatory post on your forum.  You are a distributor, and under Barrett, you have protection.  It is like being a newsstand.  If you sell an issue of the New York Times that happens to contain a defamatory article, you can’t be sued.  But, the New York times can be sued, even under Barrett.  This blogger is the actual publisher of the information, not a ‘distributor’ as that term is used in Barrett.  He wrote the article.  He quoted the anonymous source.  He’s like the New York Times and the reporter all rolled into one.  If he defamed you under the law of this state, he can be sued, period.”

My new client nods his head.  “Let’s sue him!” he cries.

I pull out some pre-printed fee agreement forms and a pen.  “First,” I say, “there is the small matter of my fee . . . ”

This, of course, is a total work of fiction.  Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Live Blogging From The Million Dollar Challenge At Tam 2013

Here we are for the 2013 MDC.



The MDC starts with a TV show about the MDC. You can find it on YouTube.


Gonna try some video directly into WordPress, which is an experiment.

Claim this year is Mr. Brahim Addoun of Algeria. Claim is remote viewing. There will be 20 objects that need to be identified. These are everyday objects. He will attempt to identify them from Algeria. He must id three of them, apparently.

And . . . he got zero out of three right.

He guessed a paper towel, a coat hanger, and chips.

The objects were a necktie, a toy stuffed elephant, and a saucer.

Live Blogging From TAM 2013 Day Four (Sunday)

Sunday morning is paper time.

First talk is “a purpose driven life” by Dr Ralph Lewis.

Interesting to hear about the similarity of supernatural beliefs and psychological disorders, as explained by a psychiatrist. How have we evolved to want our lives to be purpose driven? A vehicle for self-perpetuation of genes? We are wired to be goal directed. Motivation is the normal, natural, state of animals.

Great quote: “My goal in life is to be the person my dog thinks I am.” What a great philosophy of life that would be!

Paper Two-Jeffrey Weston, accessible skepticism through comics.

The main characters from Jeffrey’s comics:






A comic discussing a popular purveyor of woo:


The name of his comic strip is Ape, Not Monkey. Check it out. I know I will.

Next paper is Andrew Hansford, The Marblehead UFO, What you can learn from your armchair.

This talk apparently started out as a Skepticamp talk.


Wow. Just a good, old-fashioned debunking of a questionable claim. A deep, detailed, excellent analysis. This presentation should be used as the ideal by which to measure all other TAM papers should be judged. Huge round of applause.

Next Talk, Dr. Eve Siebert, And That’s Why They’re
Going To Hell, Teaching Literature In The Creationist Classroom.


Interesting criticism of Mark Twain in the Creationist literature textbook Eve is discussing. With Twain and other authors, she can add in “and that’s why he’s going to hell” to the author biographies in the book.

Waiting to ask a question at the end of the paper presentation:



Next up is Shane Greenup, The Great Global Debate.


Shane is the creator of Rebutter (rbutr) He saw the problem that a google search will not easily show rebuttals for things like articles and press releases. This is a web app that will list rebuttals to specific articles on subjects of interest to skeptics.



Next up is Joanne Benhamu, Friends of Science In Medicine, Standing up for science in Australia.


All in all, I would say the papers were really good this year.

On to the first “real” presentation of the day, Joe Schwacz, The Worms In My Blood Vessels.


Talk is about “chemophbia”, or irrational fear of chemicals, and about examining claims if energy healing, and similar nonsense.

He also investigated a woman who said she could scan a human body to detect illness. First thing she said: “You’re full of carbon.”! She went on and said that he had “worms in your blood vessels, and your red blood cells are too big, and your prostrate galls is growing mushrooms.”

A very entertaining and well-done talk. I really have to go get a book it two he wrote.

SA Rating 18/18.

Bigfoot Panel: Sharon Hill, Daniel Loxton, Donald Prothero. Moderated by Blake Smith.


Interesting, all the people searching for supposed living dinosaurs like Nessie are creationists, who apparently think discovering a living dinosaur will undermine evolution.

Question: why should skeptics care about Bigfoot or
Cryptozoology skepticism, when there are so many worse pseudoscience ideas. One answer is the facts that creationists have glommed on to cryptozoology. Sharon: people are very serious about cryptozoology. Kids are interested in monsters, and it is a good way to get kids involved on critical thinking. Also, the “hunt for Bigfoot” TV shows purport to show how science works. Also, the way the media is fractures, and this stiff capture media attention, and it is important to get the token skeptic, to at lest rebut the misrepresentation of how science works.

Blake: “The world of cryptozoology and the paranormal is the world if belief writ small.”




Michael Schermer attentively watches the panel:


In the end, a very Interesting panel. SA Rating 16/18.

And then we come to the moment I have been dreading, the 11:45 a.m. Sara Mayhew talk on Skepticism For Everyone, Popularizing Skepticism With Entertainment. Regular readers of this blog will know that I was extremely critical of last year’s talk by Sara, and have predicted that this year’s talk will be an epic train wreck. But I have pledged to myself to keep an open mind, and if Sara is great, that is how I will report it here. Perhaps the criticism from this blog may have even encouraged her to step up her game. I certainly hope so. This will be a fair critique. Let it come.


To start off, the dress and the bling are a little ridiculous. This is TAM, not a nightclub on the strip at 1:30 a.m.


She is actually doing a little better than last year, but her talk is starting out inane.

Ugh. She just cackled at her own bad joke. And nobody in the audience joined her.

Ten minutes in, I will say this. The talk is actually coherent, unlike last year. Not good, but at least coherent.

Sara’s drawings of the film Inception. She is discussing the film for a reason I have yet to figure out.


So far, at the half-way point, I would give this talk a rating of 2/18, which is much better than I anticipated.

This is a horrible talk, but really much better than last year. Perhaps worthy of a Skepticamp talk, where it would be of an acceptable level of quality.

She has now moved on to talking about her graphic novel, and an upcoming guide to skepticism in manga form.

I still wonder what the JREF was thinking making her main-stage speaker, but she is actually doing well enough not to be a total embarrassment and an insult to the audience. I would say (and I can’t believe I am writing this), this is not the worst talk at TAM, as that honor (so far) goes to Cara Santa Maria. In fact I would put this as the third worst talk, also ahead of Susan Jacoby.

Ultimate SA rating 5.8/18, which is much, much better than I expected. .

Next talk is Edwina Rogers, The Truth Behind Washington.


To start, her PowerPoint slides are very slow and poorly designed. I expected something more polished and professional.

She is reading from paper notes. Gonna leave early for lunch, so no rating for this talk.


Panel: Magicians vs. Psychics, with Banacheck, Mark Edward, Max Maven, James Randi, and Jamy Ian Swiss, moderated by D.J. Grothe.





Ray Hyman says that Randi is a renaissance man, but that other magicians can be fooled like anyone else. Randi disagrees, and says that he is not a debunker, but an investigator. Randi says it needs to be an experienced investigator. Banacheck says it depends on the kind of claim involved, says experienced investigators can help pay attention to deception.

Randi acknowledged some magicians can have a “big blind spots in their heads” on particular issues or particular people.

Apparently after a performance at magic convention, Uri Geller approached Ray Hyman and asked him what he thought, and Ray said: “well, you accomplished your goals, they just aren’t the goals of civilized society.”

Randi: “I think that truth is a good motive. That’s it.”

Interesting, Mark Edward will do shows where he appears as a psychic, and lets the audience “decide for themselves.” This brings great disapprobation on the part of Jamy Ian Swiss and Banacheck. Swiss: “it is impossible for me to see you as an ally in this movement.” Go Jamy! Jamy: “the litmus test for being a skeptic, you need to be explicit, you need to label the product.”

This is the most contentious TAM panel I have seen in the history of TAM. Love it!

SA Rating 18/18.

Harriet Hall: A skeptical look at screening tests.


Fascinating: prostate cancer screening does not reduce overall mortality. Expert advice says don’t do it. Kind of getting squeamish in this talk.

SA Rating 9/18

Faye Flam–Crisis In The Media, Can We Fight Fakers In An Accelerating Information Universe.


This was just listed as “talk” in the pre-conference schedule, and it kind of shows. Seven minutes in, she is talking about her career in journalism and anecdotes. Not quite as self-centered as Cara Santa Maria, but boring and self-referential.

And it keeps going, talking about stories she has written. Nothing really to do with the topic in the program, as far as I can see. She is using printed pages from which to read her talk, which to me is inexplicable in the age of PowerPoint.

20130714-161928.jpg. The printed pages of notes (about herself!) is visible in this photograph. By the end of the talk, I was bored out of my mind.

SA Rating 7/18.

Russell Blackford: We Have The Extraordinary Evidence! Science, Skepticism, and Denialism.


Russell says he is a philosopher. Ugh. But everything sounds better in an Australian accent.

Asks us to think of the world on 1513. Before Galileo, Copernicus, Luther’s 95
Theses. Russell is reading from printed pages too. I just don’t get why anyone does this when they also use PowerPoint.

In 1513, it was essentially unthinkable not to believe in God. Back then, the existence of God was obvious to people. And there was no well developed alternative to religion and superstition. In 1513, science as we know it was in the future.

Per Russell, the modern naturalistic view of the world does not come naturally. Things we now understand now would be extraordinary claims in the past, but science developed extraordinary evidence. Reality was not constructed to be immediately intuitive to the human mind.

This talk has some great insights. Our scientifically based view of the world was hard won.

SA Rating 16.5/18

Peter Boghossian–Authenticity.


Went for a walk. Didn’t stay for talk. No rating.

Final Talk Of Tam
Massimo Polidoro. Gotcha! Or how I learned from the Amazing Randi To Fight The Fakers And Live My Dreams.


Talking about leaning how to investigate be paranormal under the supervision of James Randi. Wonderful.

SA Rating 17/18

On to the closing remarks. George says goodbye.


DJ gives the 2013 James Randi Award For Skepticism in the public interest to Susan Gerbic, in absentia.


Randi comes out and delivers closing comments:


Randi: “This is the best TAM we have ever done.”

George Hrab dressed as Randi, and Randi:


Live Blogging Tam 2013 Day 3 (Saturday)

This morning I thought I would try to get the wifi fired up on the old iPad, and try that as my blogging platform today. It turns out that tie conference center wifi is $20 for an hour, and $60 for four hours! What a rip-off, $120 for the whole day! Then a friendly soul allowed me to glom on to their wifi hotspot! Hooray!

Ok, rant over. Here’s the live blogging for the day.

Richard Saunders, Looking into the minds of the true believers

The idea is Richard will convey the essence of what it is like to be a true believer. As always, Richard is a great speaker and is entertaining. 8:00 a.m. following Penn’s Bacon and Donut Party can be a tough room. Quotes James Randi that the majority of the woo-meisters out there are innocently and honestly deluding themselves. Classic would be water dousers, most people who claim to have psychic powers.

Interesting. Water Diviners are utterly convinced, the will always have a excuse for failure. Dowsing gives the a meaning in life. Most creative excuse may be that sunspots interfere with dowsing.

A true believer is willing to be tested. A willingness to be tested is a “real marker of sincerity.” True believers have a deep want or need to convince others that they are right, to win over the skeptic.


Real believers are always confused at failing, and then always conclude that the test was unfair.

New Term: “Red Straw Herring Man.” i.e. “You skeptics thought the world was flat, therefore you are wrong about my paranormal claim.” or “You cannot prove love, therefore . . .” or “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore the paranormal is real.”

Failure actually reinforces a true believer’s belief in the paranormal. It is aways the spirt or God playing a trick on the believer, etc.

Psychic surgery purveyors and spoon benders are never the true believers. They are always fraudsters.

This is an ideal talk to start the day. Funny, interesting, with a great presenter.

SA Rating 16.7/18

Barbara Drescher. Why Mensa Wont End World Hunger


Theme starts out with how smart people can act stupidly. Barbara states that she joined MENSA when she was young and naive. The only criteria for MENSA membership is being in the top 2 percent of the population in terms of intelligence. She thought that there could be smart people that she could talk to. When she saw internal MENSA groups in ESP, astrology, and angels, so she drifted away from MENSA, but when she had kids she tried to re-discover MENSA. She discovered that the same internal groups were still there: parapsychology, conspiracy, preppers. She started reading the MENSA internal bulletin, which indicated that antrhropogenic global warming was not true.

The group MENSA, according to Barbara, has done nothing. Intelligence does not work by getting a bunch of smart people together in a room. Intelligence is not the same as rationality. We expect that intelligence and knowledge will predict rational behavior, but it does not work that way. Even skeptics fall into thinking that if they just tell people the truth, the facts, they will just change their minds, but it does not work that way.

Interesting: “I’m not knocking MENSA.” I think she actually is.

The whole point seems to be that intelligence is not rationality, and that smart people can be irrational.

Per Barbara, people are irrational because they are stupid, ignorant, lazy, arrogant, or a combination of all of these. I think that is is overly simplistic, and ignores many aspects of human nature, and historic evolutionary pressures leading to the way we act and think.

SA Rating This talk was better than I thought, but not fantastic. 11/18

Sandal Edamaruku, Indian Gurus: From Flying Fakirs to Starving Saints


He has replicated the effect of transcendental medication mantra repetition by changing the mantra to the word “garbage” and repeating the word “garbage” over and over again.

There are many type of “holy men” in India that are purported to have different types of powers. Often this is supposedly done through meditation.

Samal has challenged some of these men, included one that said that he had held his breath under water for five days. The man, in front of a crowd of 5,000 people, screamed “there’s a rationalist, kick him.” Samal fled.

Guru Satya Saibaba says he created the universe. Samal shows photographs of Indian prime ministers and Saibaba. Samal says that when India launches a satellite, an astrologer sets the time!

Another guru: Hugging Saint Amma. She has hugged almost 8 million people. India, per Semal, has a very repressed society, even with sex-segregated busses. She has a television channel, a university, and even medical colleges.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar sells a method of breathing. You have to get a license to breathe using his special technique. Says if there is misery around, just look away, dance, and be merry.

Prahlad Jani, claims to go 70 years without food and water. This is apparently taken seriously in India. He claims that NASA is studying him, but of course NASA knows nothing on him. Apparently the Indian army has studied the meditation to see if they could put soldiers on the frontier who did not have to eat and drink. I guess it did work out, although the research cost over one million US dollars. Apparently the Gods put a special nectar in his mouth.

Some gurus will stand on babies, say a mantra, and parents think the kids are immunized for life, no vaccinations needed. Semal tried to get the local member of parliament, and local health minister to interfere. Ultimately, though, he got the guru doing this arrested and stopped it.

In 1995 he did a road show to 1,000 villages in India he calls “Guru Busters” on his slides. After 10 days newspapers reported, and after 30 days Channel 4 from the UK produced the Guru Busters TV show after following him around for 18 days. They did a technique called “Rationalist Reality Theater.” They would have a guy pretend to be a guru and go to the village and do the same type of magic tricks, and then ask for money. Then they have a 14-15 year old boy or girl say the guru is fake, and say that they can replicate the trick. Then the “guru” takes off his wig, and the people in the village laugh and it breaks the cognitive dissonance in the village. They have done this in thousands of places.

Now they have moved from TV show to TV show. Semal goes on and confronts and argues with “holy men.” A guru on TV said he could kill a person with with magic, and Semal went on TV and dared him to kill him on TV. “I provoked it. I am very good at provoking people.” It went on for one hour. At end, guru said “I am sure he is protected by some other gods.” He then invited Semal to a ritual where he could kill him in 9 minutes with a mantra. Semal said “no problem.” Semal was afraid of chemicals or poisons. Guru did a ritual on a sample of Semal’s hair. It went on and went on, Semal just laughed. This was the highest rated program in Indian television history.

Last year he investigated a crucifix in a church that had water beading at feet. Semal determined sewage water was being pulled into statue by capillary action. The church filed “17 cases” against him based on an old law calling for arrest with no bail for blasphamy. People on Internet forums threatened to kill him. He had to go underground, and moved to Finland, not because of the police , but because of the “mafia” of the bishop’s followers.

Church said they would withdraw the case, if he apology. Semal refused to apologize. He received a justly deserved standing ovation for that. Talk then ended with another well-deserved standing ovation.

SA Rating 18/18. Fantastic. Inspiring. Wonderful.

Next is the Philosophy And Skepticism Panel.


Discussion is more interesting than I thought it would be. DJ asked about different types of skepticism, and are we really scientific skepticism. The philosophers don’t like the term scientific skepticism. A suggestion is made to use the term “empirical skepticism”. Interesting.

Per one of the speakers, Skeptics’ skepticism of the field of philosophy is a form of anti-intellectualism. Yet another speaker says that part of philosophy has become unhinged from reality. Another speaker says that one needs to distinguish between philosophy and academic philosophy.

Another term suggested, “evidence-sensitive skepticism.” Ugh. Horrible.

DJ is being masterful as the moderator, moving the subject on when it starts to get bogged down. Really, DJ is the best panel moderator that they have here at TAM. My thought is that this comes from his days as the host of Point Of Inquiry, and that made his bones in interviewing and moderating in the hard-scrabble world of early-era podcasting.

This panel turned out to be very meaningful and helpful.

SA Rating 15.5/18.

Jamy Ian Swiss. Credit The Con Man.


Jamy starts up with a description of three card Monty.


“Anyone can be fooled, even an expert in deception.” Jamy says he will share the reasons that anyone can be conned. The game is not really a game of deception, but of ego, and the con man knowing how to use the ego of the individual to fool him.

Among card cheats, boldness is often the best assets, not skill in sleight of hand. Psychology is a key to deception. The con man must establish emotional confidence in the mark. When dealing with professionals, it is a mistake to blame the victim. Blaming the victim gives no meaningful insight.

Lesson: Anyone can be fooled. The moment you think you can’t be fooled, is when you are lining up to be the next victim.

Once people make a commitment of belief and money, their belief becomes stronger, leading to cognitive dissonance. People pursue self-destructive courses of actions to protect the wisdom of initial decisions.

Magical thinking reduces anxiety in uncertain environments. Deceivers prey on this fact of human nature.

“We need warriors as well as diplomats. And if you don’t think that Randi has ben a warrior for the past 40 years, you have not been paying attention.” Nice.

“Victims of psychic frauds deserve our empathy.” How true. For us skeptics, the simple fact that we are right is not enough to change anyone’s mind. There is no magic set of wire-cutters that is going to let us fix the messed up wiring in our heads. “No real lived villain in the mirror and says ‘mirror mirror on the wall, who is the worst villain of them all.'” The terrifying reality lies in the banality of evil. “Pick your battles and differentiate between victimizers and victims.” Do not cross the line from worthwhile self-assurance to arrogance. A useful warning.

SA Rating 18/18. Absolutely fantastic

Michael Mann, Climate Scientist, on the Hockey Stick Graph.



Dr. Mann started out with a detailed explanation of the science of climate change, and future trends based on burning fossil fuels. Interesting, a fossil fuel industry lobbyist in 2002 suggested that the fossil fuel industry essentially adopt the anti-science tactics that the tobacco industry used in the past. Interesting.

Discussing now the “hockey stick” graph. Says now that there are so many graphs confirming the original 2001 hockey stick graph, it is now a “hockey league.”

There are organized efforts to attack the scientists and the science. There is the politicization of science, but also the scientiziation of politics, where science becomes a political football.

I think Mann is great and has a lot to say, but I disagree with him calling FIRE a conservative interest group. It is a free speech group devoted to protecting free speech in educational institutions, and since most attempts to stifle free speech on campus are the efforts of “progressive” and left-wing groups, most of the people that FIRE comes and protects tend to have conservative messages.

Interesting. Climate science is not really about science or politics, but inter-generational ethics. Absolutely.

SA Rating 13/18

Skeptics Guide To Universe Panel.

The panel opens up to very big round of applause. John Rennie joined them as a guest. No mention of the absence of Becky Watson. I wonder if that elephant in the room will rear its head. I think not.
Side Note: I had to get up to use the facilities, and I saw Mr. Brian Dunning in the hallway. Interestingly, he walked into the “speaker’s lounge” apparently without hesitation. Since he is not a speaker at TAM 2013, I am not sure if this means that Brian feels a sense of entitlement based on being a speaker in the past, or because he is a skeptical celebrity, or because the “speaker’s lounge” is actually being used as an informal place for the celebrities in the skeptical community can take refuge from the attentions of the unwashed masses. The main thought I had on seeing Mr. Dunning was whether he is going to have money to pay the restitution to the victims of the wire fraud of which he recently pled guilty. Unless he has money to make the victims of the crime (of which he pled guilty, remember), I think it shows a lot of gaul to come to and event like TAM. One wonders whether the judge will consider this fact at sentencing. [End of Side Note]

I used to be a faithful listener of the SGU. I have not listened to the SGU for a year and a half or so (finding Becky’s presence too annoying), and now seeing them live, I realize that I have not missed the show at all.

Evan Bernstein discussed the moving stones of Death Valley, and a recent story on the Weather Channel about how they move. Brian Dunning, in the early years of Skeptoid, figured it out years ago.

Afternoon Session

David Gorski–Why We Fight.

Talking about the Burzynski cancer clinic.


Burzynski has apparently tweeted that critics such as David Gorski are white supremacists and eat puppies (literally).

Burzynski made a “discovery” of antineoplastons, which are allegedly a substance in blood, and a shortage of these substances causes cancer. In 1976 he thought he was ready to test these compounds in humans. He was apparently rejected due to lack of credentials, lack of preclinical evidence, and uncertaintiy as the substances, which were essentially fractions derived from urine.

He left Baylor University and built an impressive clinic. Got publicity from Penthouse Magazine, called “the suppression of cancer cures.” He apparently became known as the urine doctor because the substances were derived from urine. Allegedly he sought raw materials in prisons, public parks, and a well known country-western music bar. Apparently he has been investigated by the FDA on numerous occasions. He apparently has powerful allies in Texas politics. At one point a local representative held hearings in Washington and called patients to testify. He even met Pope John Paul II in 1997. According to FDA, he did 61 clinical trials. He had a consent agreement with the Texas Attorney General in 1998 that he could not distribute the substances in Texas. So, apparently he calls what he does “clinical trials.” In a book, his lawyer said the clinical trials are an “artifice” to allow him to treat patients. Per the book, all the patients are now part of “clinical trials” and are charged lots of money to do it.

Zero “clinical trials” have been published. But he does have a lot of testimonials. But dead patients do not give testimonials. There are always outliers who do better. Some people may not have had cancer in the first place, and in some it may not have gone away. Also, unclear whether there were also conventional therapies used.

The treatments are very sodium rich, and patients may get elevated sodium levels that can be a major complication. Currently the clinic cannot enroll new patients on the therapy. Antineoplasyons are a form of chemotherapy, either chemotherapy that works, or chemotherapy that has no basis.

Moving on to Part Two of Why We Fight. Bob Blaskiewicz.


Bob has looked into the patients, including those that have died. Parents of children with cancer are (obviously) desperate for a treatment that works. Bob suspects that the testimonials were (until recently) unrebutted because those who would do so are dead, having died from their illnesses. Bob and others created “The Other Burzynski Patient Group” which posts information about patients from the clinic.

Interesting, at the end Bob quoted from a comment from a patient who was rejected from the antineoplasyons treatment because she did not have brain cancer, and the clinic would only give the treatment to people who had brain tumors, and who had already had chemotherapy and radiation therapy. So, that would make it seem like this clinic will only use this treatment if they had already had traditional therapies, so it does not seem like the clinic is diverting patients from normal medical therapies.

SA Rating on the combined Why We Fight 13/18. Very interesting.

Panel–Medial Cranks and Quacks. Moderated by Dr. Steve Novella. Panel Harriet Hall, Mark Crislip,Bob Blaskiewicz, and David Gorski.





Really not much to write about for this panel. Mostly talking about problematic doctors, clinics, and treatments. Most interesting thing is how state medical boards these days are largely powerless against quacks can cranks. Panel just does not flow that well, and is kind of boring and focuses too much on stories that are not really fully developed.

Gorski and Novella make an interesting point. A physician needs to have a board certification in order to get hospital privileges or to be able to charge to insurance, so you have people with no board certifications operating their own clinics and accepting payments in cash. That factoid raised the value of this presentation two points.

For the first time at TAM, I have seen a line form of people wanting to ask questions:


SA Rating 9/18

Jerry Coyne–Faith Is Not A Virtue.

George Hrab introduces Jerry:




Jerry starts with saying that religion is more harmful than bigfoot, to a smattering of applause.

Jerry’s talk seems to be directed at “accommodationists”, who are apparently skeptics and atheists who are friendly towards religion, and religious people who are friendly to science. Science, and atheism, he says, are incompatible. He says religious scientists suffer from “unrealized cognitive dissonance.” Current science only relies upon natural explanations for natural phenomena, not an a priori assumption, but is based on experience.

Jerry says when you point out to religious people that their scriptures are wrong on science, they say the Bible is not a science textbook, which he says is the same as them saying ‘The Bible Is Wrong.” When a scientific theory is falsified, “it goes into the garbage can of bad ideas.” When a claim in scripture does not stand up to science, it becomes a metaphor. True ‘dat.

“Theological ‘knowledge’ does not expand; it either diminishes (courtesy of science) or shifts around.”

“Religious claims are not refutable”, which means that the claims are not worth taking seriously. “Evolution is the greatest God killer in the history of science.” Religious people who accept evolution say “this is what God intended all along.” When theologians get put in a corner, they just make stuff up. “The invisible and the nonexistence look very much alike.”

Can there be a “constructive dialog between science and faith? Certainly not. There can be a discussion, but it will be more like a monolog.”

“Can religion contribute to science: no way.”

When you have a combination of absolute certainty, and a certainty of what God wants you do to, then you almost have to want to impose this on everyone else.

In the end, I think he went a little to far by saying things like oppression against women and abuse of children would not exist without religion. Surely they would.

SA Rating 14/18

Susan Haack: Credulity and its consequences.


Susan is a philosopher, apparently even a philosopher of note. And a law professor in Miami.

“Some people are credulous about political discourse. Some about religious claims. Some about gossip. Some people are credulous about medical treatment, dietary advice, investments, lottery odds, university and other institutions’ publicity and stuff. And some people are credulous about scientific claims, that are at a certain point in time pure speculation. And some people are credulous of claims by well-known scientists about things outside their expertise.”

“Credulity about some kinds of scientific claims is form of scientiism, which is undesirable about undue cynicism of science.” “Within science there is a continuum, from the well-established to the speculative.”

Big flaw in my opinion: she criticized the Daubert standard for determining the reliability of scientific evidence at great length, without saying how the test should be different.

SA Rating 8/18.

Dan Ariely–The Honest Truth About Dishonesty


Honestly, I am too fascinated to write much about this talk.

All about why people lie.

SA Rating 17/18

Now for the final speaker of the day, keynote by James Randi.




“I don’t twitter, flutter, or dither.”

Randi announces he will have surgery a few days after TAM.





The keynote is like sitting down worn Randi had just listening, to his thoughts and anecdotes, which is wonderful.

SA Rating 18/18.

That’s it from me. Back tomorrow morning.


Live Blogging Tam Day Two (Friday)


I am back at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) and loving it. There will be no blog for day one (the Thursday workshops) because I was delayed by transportation issues), but I am here at the Southpoint now and going strong.

In a change from the last three years,
breakfast was served in one of the banquet rooms instead of the main conference hall. This is a welcome addition, as eating at a table is much more comfortable than eating in an auditorium chair. Bravo, I say!

The food offerings are pretty much the same as the past few years.

# The Intro

George Hrab did a powerhouse intro. It was utterly fantastic, in my opinion the best TAM intro in the six times I have been to TAM. He came out dressed as Randi.


After George got done, DJ Grothe came out and announced some interesting facts: Just over 1,100 people are here, and just over 50 pct are first timers. What does this tell me? First , it tells me that the Rebecca Watson campaign against Randi, the Jref, and TAM has been a total failure, and second it tells me that her attempt to scare women away has not been well received.

James Randi then welcomed everyone.

# Michael Schermer

Michael Schermer was the first speaker, talking about science and morality.

Schermer is a great speaker: “can we say female genital mutilation is absolutely, objectively wrong ? Yes! ”

In the past , Schermer has gotten grief for being –gasp–a bit of a libertarian, and for pushing that philosophy in his TAM talks. This time he focused on how science and democracy make life better for everyone, and the wold is becoming a better place because of the influence of both.
**Final SA Rating 17.5/18**

# Sharon Hill

The talk is “The Honest Broker Of Doubtful News”.

“This is a talk about positive skepticism”

So far, she is talking about her Doubtful News site. So far, this exactly the talk I was expecting, unfortunately. She followed Schermer, which is obviously an issue. At least she is an effective speaker who knows what she is talking about, and is excited to be taking about it. Another thing is that she is not overdoing the PowerPoint slides, which would be easy to do on a subject like this, which gives her some extra points.

Good point: “you have to see all sides, but there are often more than two.”

On objectivity: the problem with asking the audience to decide is only fair is all sides are represented fairly and completely, which doesn’t happen. Also the media uses “false balance.” Saying “you decide” can often be a false choice. I think that this part of the talk is excellent. Fresh and unexpected. “you cannot be positive or negative if you are neutral.” “People need to know what you are saying, and **why they should care**.” Anti-science lobby uses emotion, playing on fear and sensationalism.”

She says objectivity should not look like apathy. I could not agree more. Don’t do hype and mystery mongering, do doubt. Doubt is the key, done civilly and engage the paranormal believers. I really like that philosophy: raise doubt in the minds of the believers

She says that skepticism has a bad name in the paranormal crowd, which makes it hard. “Many people do not want the truth, they want validation of their ideas. They revel in their ignorance.”

Told by believers: “Why don’t you skeptics go cure cancer or something. Leave us alone.”

Drama made her question the effort to reach out to both sides.

Sharon: you have to consider the world view of the people you are talking to. If a strange story fits into a worldview, rational thought can go out the window and people can come to strange conclusions.

**SA Rating. I was very pleasantly surprised. I found this to be and interesting and engaging talk. 15/18 **

# Karen Stollznow

A talk about exorcisms.

Before the talk could start, we had an inevitable technical glitch.

After a few minutes, Matt Baxter (from last night’s entertainment) stepped in an saved the day.

Karen mentions that exorcism is across many religions, many cultures all around the world. In some religions, such as Sanataria, possession is considered a good thing.

Interesting point, in Old Testament, daemons possessing people often came from God, not Satan.

Karen’s talk is deep with facts and background. Absolutely riveting.

Catholic exorcism thorns out to be mundane. Protestant “deliverance ministries” are different. Called “spiritual warfare.” Demon can be manifested by any negative things going on in person’s life. Focus on the “legal right” of the demon to live in the body. Deliverances ministries exorcisms are often theatrical, and can be done over Skype’. Skype!

Interesting, there are new age exorcisms, often called cleanings or similar things. Often they often try to “help” the spirit try to “move on.” Video shows excorcism of “shape-shifting giant demon.”

**SA Rating: 17/18.**

# Marty Klein

Topic is moral panic and sex, but while there is the inevitable technical ,
George Hrab entertains the audience with his repartee of witty patter.

The repeated technical glitches are, if possible, worse this year than in the past. After about five minute, George: “Let’s see where we are on the moon launch, here.”

Finally the glitch is over. Marty is on stage, and mentions “condom efficacy deniers,” but moves on. If such people agree, would be a fascinating topic.

Per Marty, there is a “sex panic” in the USA, but blamed it only on “the right wing.” Does not apparently think that the feminists and their clams of “rape culture” and feminist attacks on pornography.” Says the “sexual disaster industry” and “victimization industry” is totally right-wing based. I think the fact he gives a pass to the feminists. In my opinion the religious right and feminist are perverse fellow-travelers on this issue.

Talking about the conflating of sex trafficking and prostitution. True, this is an issue, but “progressives” are leading that charge, but this guy seems to only blame the religious right.

This guy has lot of interesting things to say, but his willful blindness to the feminist/progressive stance on these issues, and only blames the religious right. This makes it very hard for me to take him seriously.

**SA Rating 10/18. Entertaining, with facts, but his obvious bias really made it hard to take him seriously.**

# Woo In the Martial Arts Panel

A good start, in that John Rennie doing a great job as moderator.

The panel starts out with a discussion of Chi, and how it is a pre-scientific idea. Claim is that there is some benefit, and “don’t through Buddha out with the bath water.”

Video shown of man who thought that he could make himself machete-proof through a ritual. He was not machete-proof. Gross!

Videos show the power of belief and suggestion. Some of these martial arts schools essentially become cults, with people believing that they can know people over with no contact. Can drive some people out of the martial arts.

MMA Fighter Brent Weedman is stealing the show. He really knows what he is talking about.

**SA Rating 15.2/18. Would be 12/18 without Brent Weedman **

# Max Maven–The Truth Lies Here

He is wearing very distracting puffy trousers, but I will do my best to ignore it. He is very well-spoken and eloquent.

“What makes a painting if a tree ‘art’ is that it isn’t a tree in the first place.” Deception can be beautiful. Don’t throw out the baby with the homeopathic bath water.

Argues that some deception can be morally good.

This is an old-fashioned talk. No PowerPoint, and none needed. I can’t imagine a PowerPoint helping with this topic, and I am a big believer in using PowerPoint. This talk is riveting.

**SA Rating 17/18. Really fantastic talk. **

# Cara Santa Maria

“I’m going to talk about myself .” Ugh. I really can t understand why she thinks that people are so interested in her professional career, which she talks about at (extreme) great length . She apparently mostly does atheist conventions. She essentially says now: “I have spoken enough about me, so let’s change subjects. Let’s talk about me.”

Talking about how the LDS church is attractive to people, from a personal perspective.

She is engaging, and obviously a polished public speaker, but so far doesn’t have much to say about anything other than her personal history, and I don’t care about that. She equated her relationship with her father after she told him she no longer believed in the LDS religion to “Sophie’s Choice.” Give me a break, where a woman had to decide which of her children would the Nazi’s kill. Talk about using a self-important metaphor.

This talk is really horrible. Who cares about your personal history, lady! A meandering journey through the land of boredom. At some point I thought she might start talking about something other than herself, but really doesn’t happen, except for platitudes that non-believers need to be more visible in the community. Like who hasn’t heard this stuff a thousand stuff before.

SA Rating 3/18.

After Lunch, we appear to be operating about 15 minutes late. At 2:15 the next event stated, The Making Of An Honest Liar, a film about James Randi.


Jamy Swiss is doing a good job interviewer.

Just showed a bunch of old clips from Randi’s magic career, including TV show called “The Magic Clown.”

There could be a number of movies, or a mini-series about Randi’s life.

Now showing portion of the film, as yet unfinished. Looks “amazing.’ Looks like they are putting together a really great film.

Randi answers a question about Peter Popoff:


Per the producer, Randi is obsessed with the accuracy of clocks.

Discussing Randi’s personal life. I had noticed a wedding ring on his hand. He announces he got married in Washington, D.C to his longtime partner Deyvi Pena, and received a standing ovation and thunderous applause. The session ends with a poignant look at their home life. A lovely couple.

SA Rating: 18/18.

Panel–Going Forward, the Prospective Future Of Skepticism, moderated by Sharon Hill, with Steve Novella, Daniel Loxton, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss.



Sharon Hill listening to Jamy Ian Swiss.


Even though it has an all-star cast, this panel is not nearly as good as the martial arts panel from this morning. I feel my eyes glazing over.

Susan Blackmore–Fighting The Fakers, and Failing.


She starts with an excellent explanation of a test of a “bio electric shield” that was prominently worn by Hillary Clinton and Cheri Blair. A nice explanation of double blinding in such a test. Susan is an excellent storyteller, keeping the audience interested. Explanation of post-hoc explanations of shield-makers is fascinating. This is the epitome of a what a TAM talk should be.

Line of the day so far: “When I was a believer, I never got hate mail from skeptics. When I became a skeptic, I sure got hate mail from believers.”

SA Rating 16.9/18

Massimo Pigliucci, the demarcation between science and pseudoscience

Says pseudoscience is like pornography, you know it when you see it. There are all kinds of pseudoscience .


At this point he has been discussing philosophy. The talk started out with so much promise. About 20 minutes in, a lot if eyes glazed over.

At the end of the talk, I know nothing more about the demarcation than I did 30 minutes ago. SA Rating 7/18.

And then at 5:05 the Friday Keynote, Susan Jacoby.


Talk starts with a argument with brief spat with an audience member who took a flash photograph after Susan requested no flash photographs.

She calls the distinction between skeptics and humanists is stupid and meaningless. I think I disagree with her, although she defines humanism as realizing that Homo sapiens is the only thing we have to help is solve our problems. I think many humanists do not fit the bill, nor some “skeptics.”

She is now saying that the USA is in trouble because current intellectual failings of our society. The old canard about how things were so much better in the past. Maybe next she will be talking about “these kids today.”

Saying general public knows less than people 3 or 4 generations ago knew after 8th grade. To that I say hogwash. Again, there was no golden age in 1900-1920.

Apparently she thinks that smearing text on the pulp of dead trees is superior to digital media. Ugh. Just untrue.

Oy Vey. This has become a talk about how horrible things are in the world today, versus how things were so much better in the past. In my opinion this is the best time in the history of the USA and the western world to be alive.

She says there is to much “junk thought.” Junk science, she says is a subset of junk science. Apparently the recent opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts on the Voting Rights Act is an example, and a dissent by Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be storied in history as one of the best dissents ever. To that, I say bollicks. I get the opinion that junk thought is any thought she disagrees with. And apparently we are in “cultural decline.” Again, a reference to a golden age in the past.

I would bet $25 there will be a standing ovation for this drivel. She doesn’t deserve it. All it deserves is polite applause/.

Happily only about 30 percent stood. Yea, TAMites!

SA Rating 8/18

And that’s it for the day for SA. See you all tomorrow.

Tagged ,

The Pro’s Guide To TAM 2013 Day Four (Sunday)

Sunday, July 13, is the last day of The Amazing Meeting 2013.  More than any previous TAM, this is a jam-packed full day.  Sunday used to have a tacked-on feel, with a few paper presentations in the morning and then everyone bugging out to McCarran for the flight home.  Now, for two years in a row (and sort-of for the third year in a row), the Sunday at TAM is a full-fledged conference day.  Now, if you do not stay until Monday, you are missing out on a lot.

So here is SA’s Sunday preview:

8:00-10:00.  Papers. In many ways, this is my favorite part of TAM.  The papers are an opportunity for people from the skeptical community to speak in front of a large audience, and an opportunity for TAM attendees to get exposed to subjects that are outside the mainstream of what you might hear at the main talks.  So, let’s take a look at this year’s paper presentations.

  • Purpose Driven Life: A Psychiatrist’s Evolutionary Perspective on Human Motivation
    Dr. Ralph Lewis
  • Accessible Skepticism through Comics
    Jeffrey Weston
  • The Marblehead UFO:  What You Can Find from Your Armchair
    Andrew Hansford
  • And That’s Why They’re Going to Hell: Teaching Literature in the Creationist Classroom
    Eve Siebert, Ph.D.
  • The Great Global Debate
    Shane Greenup
  • Friends of Science in Medicine: Standing up for Science in Australia
    Joanne Benhamu BN, RN

The penultimate one, “The Great Global Debate” seems a little nebulous to me, but I have high hopes that the particular debate that Mr. Greenup intends to talk about will be very interesting.  This may be the best group of paper presentations that I have seen on the agenda in many years.  SA’s Rating: 16/18.

10:00-10:30. JOE SCHWARCZ: THE WORMS IN MY BLOOD VESSELS.  I have become a big fan of Dr. Schwarcz of late, after never having heard of him before he was added to the agenda.  His books and articles are well written and illuminating.  He will be, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best Canadian speaker at TAM 2013 (although, to be fair, considering that the only other Canadian speaker that I know of is bound to be awful beyond description, that’s not saying a lot, so let’s just say that Dr. Joe is bound to be one of the best TAM 2013 speakers, period).  I don’t really know what this topic will be, but it doesn’t sound like bland philosophical navel gazing.  SA Rating 17.5/18.

10:30-10:45 Break.

10:45-11:45.  PANEL • BIGFOOT SKEPTICS: ABOMINABLE SCIENCE!  PANELISTS INCLUDE SHARON HILL, DANIEL LOXTON, DONALD PROTHERO, AND KAREN STOLLZNOW. MODERATED BY BLAKE SMITH.  This sounds like a great panel, with a group of great skeptics (I know that Sharon Hill is mad at me for my preview of her plenary talk, but I will not let that impact my judgment in this preview; in my opinion this is the perfect opportunity for her to shine).  This is my favorite type of subject, a brass tacks talk about a particular subject.  SA Rating 16.8/18.

11:45-12:15 TALK • SARA MAYHEW  SKEPTICISM FOR EVERYONE: POPULARIZING SKEPTICISM WITH ENTERTAINMENT.  Yeah, this is the other Canadian I was referring to when I was discussing Joe Schwarcz.  I have seen her at, I think, two TAMS.  She is a horrible TAM speaker.  Horrible.  The worst ever (at least in the six TAMS I have been to).  As far as I have been able to discern, she has done nothing for skepticism except for putting out some manga comic books that may have skeptical themes, and producing what is perhaps the worst web series in the history of  Youtube.  In the TAM talks I have seen, she has nothing to say and does a bad job saying it.  I cannot fathom why the event organizers keep inviting her back year after year.  She is really that bad.  SA Rating negative several million/18.

12:15-12:45 EDWINA ROGERS.  THE TRUTH BEHIND WASHINGTON.  I have enormous respect for Ms. Rogers, and the fact that the has been subjected to smear campaigns because she has unorthodox views within the secular community.  I have high hopes for her talk, but then again, since she follows what is perhaps the worst speaker in the history of TAM, an afternoon of sitting in the DMV waiting to get your tags renewed would seem like a welcome reprieve. SA Rating 17/18.

12:45-2:00  LUNCH.

2:00-3:00  PANEL • MAGICIANS VS. PSYCHICS.  PANELISTS INCLUDE BANACHEK, MARK EDWARD, MAX MAVEN, JAMES RANDI, AND JAMY IAN SWISS. MODERATED BY D.J. GROTHE.  There you go.  Skepticism in a nutshell, as far as I am concerned, going back all the way to Harry Houdini.  SA Rating.  17.9/18.

3:00-3:30.  HARRIET HALL: A SKEPTICAL LOOK AT SCREENING TESTS.  A physician giving a brass tacks talk about a medical issue from a skeptical perspective.  What could be better?  Not much.  SA Rating 16.9/18.

3:45-4:15.  Faye Flam: “Talk.”  Another “talk.”  Once again, if you can’t figure out what you are going to say, I can’t figure out a reason to go.

4:45-5:15 PETER BOGHOSSIAN: AUTHENTICITY.  Peter Boghossian is a professor of philosophy at Portland State University.  Philosophy.  I hate philosophy.  SA Rating 5/18.

5:15-5:45.  MASSIMO POLIDORO  GOTCHA! OR: HOW I LEARNED FROM THE AMAZING RANDI TO FIGHT THE FAKERS AND LIVE MY DREAMS.  Sounds interesting, maybe even inspiring.  SA Rating 14.5/18.

5:45-6:00 Closing Remarks by James Randi and D.J. Grothe.  Not much more to say, and no SA rating for closing remarks.

6:00-7:30.  Dinner on your own.

7:30-9:00 SPECIAL EVENT • LIVE MILLION DOLLAR PARANORMAL CHALLENGE.  Always a highlight, although it depends on the particular challenge.  Last year’s, for instance, was very interesting, but seemed to drag on forever.  SA Rating:  Who knows.

And that’s it.  A LONG day, at the end of a bunch of long days.  It looks to be a great conference overall.  You may see me there, but not if I see you first.



The Pro’s Guide To TAM 2013 Day Three

If you are not totally exhausted from Friday at The Amazing Meeting 2013, and even if you are, Saturday at TAM may be even better.  Here is SA’s preview of day three of TAM 2013.

8:00-8:30, Richard Saunders: Looking into the mind of true believers.  Richard has appeared at TAM many times and is a good speaker, and this topic has a lot of potential. At the same time, there will be a lot of tired people in the audience.  SA Rating 14.5/18.

8:30-9:00, Barbara Drescher: Why MENSA will never eliminate world hunger.  I am not really sure what this will be about.  Does it refer to MENSA as a group or the individual members?  The group certainly won’t solve any problems and, looking at a list of famous members, I don’t think any of them will solve world hunger either.   Will there be a dig at MENSA for being a bunch of reprobate navel-gazers?  If so, then it would be a combination of attacking an easy target and picking low-hanging fruit, so  . . . meh.  Will the point be that problems are not solved by thinkers, but doers?  Maybe that would be interesting.   Maybe.  Hopefully the point of this talk will be something else entirely.

9:00-9:30.  Sandal Edamaruku:  Indian gurus, from flying fakirs and starving saints.  Sandal should be a hero to all skeptics.  He has faced more in the face of the type of idiocy that skeptics tackle than almost anyone I can think of (and because of this, he will no doubt face a future boycott by Ms. Rebecca Watson and her merry band of sycophantic acolytes because that is the only badge of honor that he has not yet attained, as far as I can see).  I am going to go out a limb here and say this will be the best talk of TAM.  SA Rating 100/18.

9:30-10:30 PANEL • SKEPTICISM AND PHILOSOPHY–PANELISTS INCLUDE RUSSELL BLACKFORD, PETER BOGHOSSIAN, MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI, AND SUSAN HAACK. MODERATED BY D.J. GROTHE.  Ugh.  As far as I can see, “philosophy,” especially since it was supplanted by science, has become the academic  discipline of using complicated language to talk about absolutely nothing.  In SA’s opinion, “philosophy” has nothing to contribute to a conference on critical thinking (and I realize that this is totally a personal bias of mine, but, well, it’s my freaking blog so I will let my personal bias control).  I cannot think of a more boring opportunity to watch self-styled “philosophers” pontificate about nothing than this panel.  The worst thing about this panel is that is too early to use as a convenient nap break.  SA Rating 0/18.

10:30-10-45.  Break.

10:45-11:15.  Jamy Ian Swiss: Credit the con man.  Jamy is one amazing speaker.  His talk last year was probably one of the top three memorable talks in all the TAMs that I have been to.  He could make a talk about the history of cardboard boxes interesting, and this topic in particular seems right up his alley.  Do not miss this talk.  Just don’t.  SA Rating 18/18.

11:15-11:45 Michael Mann: The hockey stick and the climate wars.  When I first saw this on the agenda, I thought that DJ had brought in some Hollywood star power and booked the man responsible for such 1980s TV series as Miami Vice and Crime Story, not to mention movies like The Aviator, The Insider, and Manhunter.  It turns out that this is a different guy named Michael Mann, this one being the guy associated with the climate email controversy.  This Michael Mann was the victim of one of the most vicious smear campaigns against a scientist that I can remember, and he should have a lot to contribute to a conversation about critical thinking.  Still, I have no idea how good a speaker he will be.  SA Rating 16/18.

11:45-12:45.  Skeptics Guide To The Universe Panel, with the Novella Brothers, Evan Bernstein, and  a giant elephant representing the absence of Ms. Rebecca Watson.   Remember, Gentle Reader, Ms. Watson is a central member of the SGU cabal, for that is exactly what the SGU became the moment Becky started launching boycotts and smear campaigns against other skeptics with increasing regularity.  Becky, one of the “Skeptical Rogues” (and hasn’t that term become unintentionally ironic in light of Becky’s antics), is publicly boycotting this event, the JREF, and the leadership of the JREF.  Frankly, I can’t see how the rest of the Rogues have the gall to show their faces at TAM as long as they have their close association with Becky.  There would be only one thing that they could say or do that would make this a worthwhile panel–and that would be publicly announcing the removal of Becky from the SGU podcast, but Steve Novella doesn’t have anything close to the guts needed to make that happen.   SA Rating:  None, out of protest. 

12:45-2:00 pm.  Lunch.

2:00-2:20 David Gorski:  Why we fight (Part I): Stanislaw Burzynski versus science-based medicine.  The issue of the Burzunski clinic is one of intense interest to the skeptic community.  This is the best kind of topic for a TAM talk.  SA Rating: 14.5/18.

2:20-2:40.  Robert Blaskiewicz:  Why we fight (Part II) It’s all about the patients.  I would rather they extend the first part about the Burzynski clinic, but I can see the need to tie their efforts to the actual people effected.  SA Rating 13/18.

2:40-3:30.  Panel-MEDICAL CRANKS AND QUACKS.  PANELISTS INCLUDE ROBERT BLASKIEWICZ, MARK CRISLIP, DAVID GORSKI, AND HARRIET HALL. MODERATED BY STEVEN NOVELLA.  That’s right – moderated by  Steve Novella, a Rebecca Watson sycophant and enabler.  Because of the association with Ms. Watson, nothing further to be said of this panel.    Out of protest, no SA rating.

3:30-3:45 Break.

3:45-4:15.  Jerry Coyne: Faith is not a virtue, the incompatibility of science and religion.  Talk about a topic that has been done to death.  They might as well name this talk “Beating a dead horse.”  SA Rating 5/18.

4:15-4:45 Susan Haack:  Credulity and its consequences.  I hate to sound like a broken record, but this really sounds like a re-tred of a hundred other talks at a hundred sundry conferences.  Meh.    SA Rating 5/18.

4:45-5:15.  Talk–Dan Ariely.  Yup, just “talk.”  No topic listed.  If Dan can’t figure out a topic, I can’t figure out a reason to go.  SA Rating 0/18.

5:15-6:15.  Saturday Keynote–James Randi, Fighting The Fakers.  I, for one, can’t get enough James Randi.  His talks are always a highlight of TAM (except for that incident a few years ago where he and Jamy Ian Swiss spent half the time fast-forwarding through a South Korean TV show recording).  SA Rating 18/18.

9:30-11:00.  Magic, Mayhem, and Mentalism!  The evening magic shows at TAM are always excellent.  This has a wide variety of performers and looks possibly to be the best TAM evening magic show ever.  SA Rating 17/18.