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.

  • Astro

    Yes, Saunders was good, but he went 10 minutes over. That’s arrogant, obnoxious, and rude to everyone else, not only because you’re saying that you are too important to follow the rules and everyone is more interested in your stuff, but also that because you’re so important, it’s also okay for you to cut into someone else’s time and throw off the schedule for the entire rest of the day.

    • nospampls

      He has no qualifications in psychology and it shows. Next time they should get someone who does.

      From Ben Geiger on G+
      “My first day at TAM was interesting, met some new people, and listened to some good talks on skepticism and science in general. I listened to a couple talks that I didn’t really enjoy that much or at least part of the talk. The night ended with an enjoyable presentation on debunking some of the more famous claims that are out there.

      The first time I went to was about blogging skepticism, I was only able to catch the tail end of it due to the whole flight fiasco. What I was able to catch (and if anyone wants to correct me on this, I would be glad to get more information on the blogging talk if I could) was that you should include your sources when you blog and try to be a skeptic, and you can blog about whatever you want to. There was talk of skepticism and faith and where that boat is (but I believe Friday is supposed to have a more in depth talk on that). The result is, I feel like I missed a good workshop here.

      The next workshop introduced some tools for spreading critical thinking on the web such as RbutR. The concept sounds very good, and I will be trying it out. The idea behind RbutR is that you should be able to quickly find rebuttal articles, blog posts, or documents to an article you read if you wish to see how credible the article is. The tool is designed to let people link rebuttals to an article though a database maintained by the rebutr people (they want everyone to link rebuttals to articles and blog posts if you can). There are other tools like it that can be found on and so I feel this will end up requiring an additional post on this at a later time. This workshop ended with a lady basically yelling at the room full of people which I found to be very off putting. The information she was trying to get out was about Web of Trust (WOT) and about how the skeptics need to start staying focused on bringing people who are plagues to society down. Debunking their claims, or calling them out on it. She had one point that sometimes the skeptical community doesn’t stay focused on an issue (I feel the skeptical community is an issue of note so I didn’t agree with her). Basically what started out okay ended with a very off putting person.

      The next workshop wasn’t much better as the basics were skepticism around the world and what is going on. All I got from the workshop is that Africa needs science and critical thinking in order to stop burning witches and rejecting AIDs. That Australia has had some success with their skeptical movement. And India’s blasphemy laws are just horribly stupid.

      The last workshop I went to was the science based medicine with people from the SBM blog. They tried to go over the basics of what is science based medicine and how does it differ from evidence based medicine. How clinical trials need to be looked at for biases and poorly done studies. Logical fallacies and how people naturally don’t think very well. And lastly the placebo effect was discussed.

      The idea of SBM vs EBM is pretty simple, SBM looks at is the medicine founded in a scientific basis, is it likely to effect a chemical pathway or has does the effect being studied have some form of prior plausibility. If there is very little chance that something works (like homeopathy) then a positive clinical trial would impact the prior plausibility that there is in fact an effect by bumping it up a little bit, so a 1% chance that there is something there might become a 5% chance, and so more studies would need to be done in order to continue to grow that number, where something with a 50% chance might grow to 85% chance that you are measuring something real. This hinges a bit on the clinical trials being done well with no perceivable bias (hard to do but that’s why you need to start at large population double blind placebo controlled studies). Bias could be something as simple as your placebo not being a good duplicate of the actual medication you are testing in terms of shape, color, taste or any other things that might tip the patients off. You should look at the number of people that dropped out of the studies, or how many effects the researcher was taking and if they applied the proper statistics for the multiple outcomes. The logical fallacies portion is always my favorite, especially when they mention post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this therefore because of this). A few others mentioned were clustering, cognitive dissidence, confirmation bias, and false dichotomy. I recommend people looking some of those up and more because it’s always amazing how just knowing what they are you can catch yourself thinking in that manner. Placebo is a huge topic that covers non-specific effects, such as subjective outcomes, and just time. Going into that is difficult so I would say check out some of the articles on

      At this point I met a few people, and feel like I made a couple friends here that I am happy to have listened to their stories and shared some of what I knew, and of the people around me. I think this might be the best part of the conference.

      The night ended with a good presentation (no longer workshops) where they talked about debunking claims made and showed videos and how bad these claims really are… but yet some people still believe them. The ghost shows where the “investigators” basically use shoddy camera angles to allow them to do things out of the scene to act like things are moving. One with an alien in the window with a guy freaking out because he saw this. Exorcisms… these were just sad to watch (really, it made me wish the guy doing the exorcism was in jail). But overall this was an enjoyable presentation and I wish more people saw it.”

  • Heintje_K

    I find it perplexing and amusing that, despite your professed admiration for Sanal, you have spelt his name several different ways (Sandal, Samal, Semal) and all wrong. lol
    I hope that doesn’t rub you the wrong way. I have been enjoying your preview and your live-blogging of TAM this year and also last year. Thanks for the vicarious experience.
    Did you miss the first day? That’s too bad 🙁

    • Astro

      Keep in mind pretty much all of us are typing quickly on Apple devices with auto-correct. 🙂