Monday, October 18, 2010

TAM London part 1

OK, it’s going to take me a while to get through all this because there’s a lot to say and I’m busy.  So I’ll do it in sections.

Overall impressions

I thought both days were great.  I couldn’t fault it.  The talks were interesting, thoughtful or – usually – both.  The organisation on the day was great, but I still have some quibbles about lack of publicity and keeping people informed.  More on that later.

The vibe was as friendly as it was last year, but seemed a bit more subdued and… I’m not sure “serious” is the right word, but serious it is until I can think of something better.  It’s the wrong word because it makes it sound like a bad thing.  I don’t think it is: skepticism has changed even over the last year and I think this more serious tone reflected that.  As did the scope.  A few people complained that some of the talks weren’t really about skepticism.  I understand what they were saying.  These topics probably wouldn’t be appropriate for TAM even last year.  But things are different now.  With the rise of more vocal atheism and manufactured controversies over things like global warming and stem cell research, skepticism has become more political.  We’re still concerned about psychics preying on the vulnerable, but we also care about religions that tell everyone what to do and governments who don’t listen to evidence and discrimination across the board.

This was very much evident at this year’s TAM London.  There was a lot more talk of religion, for starters.  Going back a few years, this was almost a no-go topic for the JREF, not because it was in any sense taboo, but because it was outside their remit.  This year, hardly any speaker failed to mention it and there was much and joyful enthusiasm for humorous attacks on religion.  There was also a bit of accomodationism, but I’ll leave that until later as well.

There was also a lot of science.  Well, that’s been true in past years too and for obvious reasons: the links between science and skepticism are clear.  But there was also some politics: Evan Harris spoke a bit about this in a panel session and Melinda Gebbie spoke about sexual politics in an interview about her work.

Melinda’s talk was one of those I heard several people complain about.  They felt it wasn’t in keeping with TAM’s theme and one woman said she was annoyed by it.  Personally, I feel that if sexual politics and particularly feminism are not issues of skepticism then I don’t know what is.  Women have been abused and discriminated against throughout history. It’s still going on today, most notably – but by no means exclusively – in the Islamic world.  This is happening for no good reason.  It’s up to skeptics to raise people’s consciousness on these issues. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue that issues of abuse or discrimination against homosexuals or the disabled is not a skeptical issue.

If anything was perhaps a bit off-topic, it was the panel discussion on technology and new media.  I’d expected that this would be about how to best use new media to get the messages of skepticism out there, but it was a bit light on this.  But I’ve been on panels before and it’s hard to stay exactly on topic.  Plus, it became more oriented to skeptical matters when questions were taken from the floor.

So it was a great meeting, perhaps a little less lively than last year, but it seemed to have more in the way of both breadth and depth.  I was perfectly happy with this difference and I think it reflects the way the skeptical landscape is changing.

I’ll get on to some of the talks in due course.


  1. Probably everyone's idea of "how TAM should be" is different. I think that's partly why they cram so much into the schedule. There'll be some items that not everyone thinks are relevant.

    Personally I think they overdid the conversational discussion format — I prefer something a bit more structured, such as the panel moderated by Tracey Brown on day 1, but I appreciate not everyone will share my view.

    The Melinda Gebbie discussion suffered (through no fault of hers or Rebecca's) from the knee-jerk reaction: "Comic-books? What's that got to do with skepticism?" The deeper issues about free speech tend to get obscured by discussions concerning the art of the erotic.

  2. Yeah, I agree on all points. The discussion format can work well (Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris/Dennet) but the TAM ones were a sort of hybrid interview/chat and I'd have preferred one or the other. They were fun though.

    Having said that I agree with you, the skeptic->geek->comic connection is pretty strong. I wonder if people felt the same about Alan Moore?

    I wonder if the same people thought the same thing about Dawkins' talk? Sure, there's a close connection between science and skepticism, but Richard's talk was *all* science. I think that would be my answer to people who felt one segment or another was out of place at TAM.