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The Amazing Meeting, Jan, 31 - Feb. 2, 2003

[Note: I wrote most of this on the plane home from Florida, the day the meeting ended. I have added more to it since then, but the tone remains that of how I was feeling as I left that day.]

[And another note: I took lots of pictures from the meeting, and put them online. Several of the events mentioned here are recorded there.]

The past four days have been interesting, to say the least.

I am returning home after attending "The Amazing Meeting", a three-day conference devoted to skepticism, rationality and critical thinking. The meeting was organized by James "The Amazing" Randi, a man who has been around for decades, a crusader against irrationality, pseudoscience and just plain dumb stuff. He may be best known for repeatedly showing that "psychic" Uri Geller is nothing but a fraud. Randi has made several appearances on "The Tonight Show" (Johnny Carson is a friend of Randi's), as well as so many documentaries about paranormal nonsense that I fear to count them all.

I met Randi virtually, years ago, shortly before my first book came out. I emailed him, asking if he would write a short comment on the book (called a blurb) for the back cover. He agreed, and we stayed in contact. When the idea of a conference came up, Randi asked me if I would come and give a talk about some aspect of Bad Astronomy. Not being a total idiot, I immediately agreed. What an honor!

I developed a talk about Planet X, a spectacularly ridiculous idea that a hitherto-unknown giant planet was going to pass close by the Earth in May 2003. Since the Amazing Meeting, as it was called, was scheduled for February 2003, the timing was good. I worked on the talk pretty hard, since I really wanted it to be informative and fun. I mean, Randi would be there! To put this in perspective, I felt like someone who had been learning violin for a while being asked to give a performance to Itzhak Perlman. I wanted the talk to be good.

As the months rolled by, the guest list firmed up. Michael Shermer, head of the Skeptic Society, would be there. Also attending were other luminaries in the skeptic field, including several scientists and magicians (who are commonly very skeptical, as you might imagine).

When the day came, I flew to Fort Lauderdale. I was immediately made very welcome. Randi has a website, and a forum much like my own bulletin board. I have been a member of that forum for nearly a year, and other forum people were there as well. Even though I had never met them personally (except for one, who goes by the name of Girl 6 on the forum), many of these people I considered friends already. We had been swapping stories virtually for months!

Friday night, January 31, the conference officially started. Meeting Randi was a thrill. He is, well, he's hard to describe without sounding a bit mean. But the best way to describe him is somewhere between an elf and a gnome. He's 74, with a bald pate, but with a ring of shockingly-white hair around his head. He also sports a thick but well-trimmed white beard. He looks like a mystic or old-time magician, an appearance he cultivates. When he scowls, he looks like he's ready to cast some very bad voodoo. All this is wonderfully ironic, as he's actually a charming person who is clearly having the time of his life.

Friday night was a major treat. Several magicians wandered among the crowd, doing incredible sleight-of-hand tricks. We all stayed up pretty late, talking, laughing and simply enjoying being in each others' company.

Saturday started too early, me being in a three-hour jetlag. My alarm rang at 4 a.m. in my own local body time. I managed to get myself cleaned up and downstairs in time for the festivities to begin. I have given talks to crowds many times, so I wasn't too worried about giving my Planet X talk in a couple of hours; I was a little nervous, but I actually enjoy that feeling a bit. It keeps me on my toes when in front of an audience.

Michael Shermer was the keynote speaker, giving a fascinating talk outlining the third book in his "Belief" series. These books deal with why we believe what we do, discussing first weird things we believe, then the desire to believe in the supernatural, and finally, in his third book, why we have morality. Shermer's stance is that morality does not stem from religion, but from r own evolutionary background. Religion developed because of our evolution, and morality went hand-in-hand with it. He made a very compelling case. Michael is an extraordinarily intelligent and well-spoken man, and I am eager to read his third book on this subject when it's done.

The schedule after his talk was to have a short break, followed by a 15 minute presentation by a man who literally escaped the Church of Scientology, and then my talk.

However, it didn't work that way.

After Michael's talk, Randi came up and said, briefly, "Hal Bidlack will now come up to announce a change in schedule." The crowd was obviously curious about that; it seemed too early to have any scheduling screw-ups. Hal Bidlack came up and took the microphone. Hal does a lot of work with Randi, helping him on the website and various other administrative duties. Hal is a well-spoken man, a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force and devoted to clear thinking. He's obviously a man of deep convictions. We found out how much immediately. The following is a transcription of what Hal told us, taken from a tape made of the conference:

I have been looking forward to meeting Dr. Shermer for a long time and unfortunately, that's spoiled. I want you to listen carefully to what I'm going to tell you. The space shuttle Columbia was lost a few minutes ago. At 200,000 feet over Texas, NASA lost contact and images from the ground show the shuttle breaking up and impact is reported north of Dallas.

Now listen to me. I'm a career military officer. This is a tragedy. But these people were doing exactly what they wanted to do, in exactly the place they wanted to be. When Dave Scott set foot on the moon on Apollo XV he said, "Man's fundamental nature is to explore, and this is exploration at its greatest." Gus Grissom gave an interview a week before the fire on Apollo I and he said, "if there's an accident, for God's sake, don't let it stop the program." This is a tragedy, but they understood, and that's what we do in the military.

We're going to take an hour break. We've got TVs in the lobby. We're going to try to put a TV into this signal and of course you can go up to your rooms if you wish. And in an hour; let's call it 11:30, that's an hour and 15, we're going to continue the conference because I believe that it would be an insult to their memory to deny this audience the information that we want to give it. We can mourn, and we shall, but with dignity and grace, and remember that the space program is an amazing thing. I know astronauts. They were where they wanted to be.

The change in the crowd was palpable. As was everyone in the country when they heard, we were in shock.

Hal's words were simply put, and very powerful. Still, we were stunned. We broke up, heading out of the auditorium to get the news on the TVs. We watched the early videos, showing first the Shuttle vapor trail looking normal enough, but then breaking up into many pieces; the footage everyone has seen so many times now. It was difficult to watch, hearkening back to when Challenger blew up, 17 years before.

But we pressed on. We had to. Being realistic about this event was what we were all about; the very meaning of the conference was to face reality. We are not automatons, but neither are we mere animals. We balanced our terrible emotions we were feeling with the knowledge that the essence of the space program is to venture on, to not let failure stop us from seeking the ultimate goal: knowledge.

So we started the schedule back up. Dan Garvin (a mirror site with the same speech but also with a picture of Dan and a vocabulary list can be found here) stood up and gave a powerful and moving speech about his rise to power in the Church of Scientology, and his eventual fall. The Church is not a good place, not at all. In fact, it is a cult, and many of its practices qualify it to be as close to evil as people can get.

Once Dan finished, it was my turn. Both our talks had been cut a bit short so that we could squeeze everything in that day, given the time off we took. I realized I was very nervous. During Dan's speech, I got momentarily lost in my thoughts. Talking about Planet X seemed so trivial, so mundane. But just as quickly I realized that it wasn't trivial at all: people, real people, are getting scared and perhaps making life-altering decision based on the grossly incorrect and patently ridiculous proclamations of a handful of pseudoscientists. Somehow, the loss of Columbia made me feel that dealing with garbage like Planet X was even more important.

I took the podium, and started my talk. It was difficult, at first. I didn't want to ignore the Shuttle situation (it had been destroyed just two hours earlier), but I also didn't want to involve it too much. The emotional level of the talk was extremely hard to decide; I developed it to be a very light-hearted, funny, but informative talk, putting the Planet X charlatans in their place while still presenting the science (and lack thereof) of their claims. I wound up going with the humor. It just seemed right.

I suppose I guessed correctly. The crowd responded to the humor in the talk well. After a few minutes I started feeling better, and it seemed like everyone else was too. Even in the wake of what had happened, it was okay to laugh, especially since by doing so we were demonstrating our love of science, of exploring the unknown and, I think most importantly, of making sure we maintained our sense of what's real and what isn't. That's what this meeting was all about.

The rest of the day and even the next seem a bit unreal now. I hung out with Randi and several other fascinating people, including Jerry Andrus, Jack Horkheimer, and too many others to name. I visited the James Randi Education Forum headquarters, an un-presupposing house filled to the roof, literally, with critical thinking. Randi was selling pigs with wings that flap and fly in circles suspended from a string (because a lot of the garbage Randi fights will be true when pigs fly) and I bought one for my daughter. I also got to meet a lot of people I knew from Randi's bulletin board, which was also wonderful.

I take away so much from that meeting. I am once again ready to fight the good fight, knowing that not only am I not alone trying to squash quackery, pseudoscience and downright Bad Science, but that there are folks out there more than ready to cheer me on. I met so many wonderful people, so many supportive people. I gained a lot of insight on how other people debunk foolishness too; more weapons in my arsenal.

Randi swore there would be another meeting next year. I'll be there, and you can be sure I'll make sure that as many people can attend as possible. We all need a little bit of Randi in our lives.

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