Back to reality after The Amazing Meeting: Now what?

Rerun time is over.

Very early Monday morning, a plane touched down, a car drove along a dark and deserted freeway, and my wife and I found ourselves finally back at home. True, we did have a late night diversion to Denny’s because we were starving, but by 2 AM or so we were back home. Time to go to bed. Time to go back to work. No more Las Vegas. No more The Amaz!ng Meeting.

Now what?

I probably should have written this yesterday, or on the plane. It’s really amazing how fast impressions become memory and memory morphs and fades. But I was simply too tired. I used to be able to adjust to a trip to the Pacific time zone in a day or two at the most, longer going east, but I never quite adjusted to Vegas time, and by the time I had started to it was time to go home. Suffice it to say, I’m guessing it will be a couple of days before I start to feel back to normal. More difficult to deal with, however, is the profound sense of discombobulation I feel as I write this. TAM is not the real world, and my wife and I are now back in the real world.

Now what?

I must confess, upon attending TAM7 this year I was a TAM virgin, a TAM newbie. I really didn’t have a good idea what to expect. I had signed on to participate in the Science-Based Medicine Conference that was held the day before the main meeting started. I also was honored to participate in the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel Discussion on Friday afternoon. I had always considered myself at best a passable public speaker, but there was something about the energy of being among a couple of hundred skeptics who wanted to hear what I said about alternative medicine and quackery that inspired me. I had feared that I’d be the weak link in the conference, and I ended up doing far better than I would have guessed I could. (If you were there, feel free to disabuse me of my delusion; better the cold, hard truth than a pleasant delusion, at least now that the meeting’s over and I’m back home.) The response to the SBM conference was overall quite good, as Steve Novella has reported, and I certainly hope we manage to do it again. Indeed, I’m looking for an opportunity to give the talk I gave there to a local group. It’ll actually be a better talk, because I know what parts caused me to stumble and I’ll know how to make it better the next time I give it. (There’s a hint to skeptical groups in my area: You know who you are.)

Then, participating in the Anti-Anti-Vax panel with Joe Albietz, Steve Novella, Mike Goudeau (who, in case you don’t know, is a skeptic, juggler, entertainer, producer, and writer who works with Penn & Teller who also has an autistic child), Harriet Hall, and Derek Bartholomaus, all in front of a thousand or more skeptics, couldn’t help but get me pumped up. How could it not? Joe Albietz had arranged a vaccination drive that garnered over $8,000 in donations that will go towards decreasing the horribly low vaccination rate in the Las Vegas area. This is exactly the sort of thing we skeptics should be doing: Positive action combined with the refutation of pseudoscience, and I was proud to be even a small part of it.

More importantly, the Anti-Anti-Vax panel was powerful evidence that the skeptical movement as a whole has finally awakened to the threat that the anti-vaccine movement poses to public health. Back when I first started blogging about the dangerous nuttiness of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in 2005, I often felt lonely. Not alone, because there were others hammering the same topic, but we seemed few and far between and the skeptical movement as a whole didn’t seem (at least not to me) to view the issue as very important. It is to the new JREF president Phil Plait’s credit that he’s not only realized that that the antivaccine movement is every bit as big of a threat to science as, for example, creationism, but he’s done something concrete about it. The antivaccine movement is a pseudoscientific cultish belief system that, unlike creationism, is not a threat that will undermine science in a decade or two, when children with deficient science educations start hitting colleges and the workforce. Don’t get me wrong. Creationism is an insidious threat to science education and needs to be countered at every turn, but its effects are not immediate and not as direct. The anti-vaccine movement represents a threat to public health now. It’s also a special, particularly vile form of pseudoscience that results in autistic children being viewed as “toxic,” “poisoned,” even somehow less than human, resulting in their being subjected to particularly nasty forms of quackery to “cure” them, including chelation therapy (which can kill), chemical castration, and even quack “stem cell therapies.”

I even “came out,” so to speak, during the panel, revealing my identity to about a thousand seemingly close friends. Not that it’s been that much of a secret for a long time. Not that I’m going to start blogging here under my own name, at least not now. (My favorite quip to people who ask me about that is that knowledge of my identity is like gnostic knowledge revealed to but a few who are worthy.) I will admit to being a bit disconcerted by how many people approached me, wanted to meet me, and even wanted to be photographed with me. It wasn’t P.Z. or Phil Plait numbers, but it was more than enough. No, my mentioning this is not false modesty. I know I’m a really good writer. Rather, it’s a simple, shy streak that I’ve had all my life. (Maybe I really am like my namesake.) Trust me, I’m a lot better than I was several years ago, but if I came off as aloof to anyone who approached me I apologize. I was really trying not to be, and I realize that I probably didn’t always succeed. In the beginning, I started this blog just to amuse myself, but with its growth my readers developed into a community that I

So what about the rest of the meeting? There were some great talks, such as Bill Prady’s talk about one of my favorite shows The Big Bang Theory. One thing he revealed that did surprise me is when he told the crowd that he wanted letters of complaint about the show from which he would find quotes to read as part of his speech. There were none, even after he checked with the network. So maybe there’s hope. A funny skeptical show that openly states that evolution happened and makes fun of beliefs not grounded in evidence has not only drawn little criticism but it’s actually a very popular show. Humor can go a long way towards diffusing such criticism. Even better, Prady mentioned that he had shot a scene involving various dubious cold remedies in a drug store and that he was looking for a chance to take on some alternative medicine woo. I can’t wait.

Another good talk was by Fintan Steele. In essence, Dr. Steele argued that “personalized medicine” is not going to be the end-all and be-all of medicine, as is sometimes claim. He likened the faith in genomics and proteomics as the harbingers of predictive and therapeutic medicine based on an individual’s unique genetic makeup. While I agreed that genomics and “personalized medicine” are overhyped and oversold, I didn’t agree with Dr. Steele’s dismissal of the use of genomics to guide therapy as, in essence, useless. He seemed to me to be very sloppily conflating “overhyped” with “useless,” and I couldn’t figure out if he thought that there would ever be any clinically useful tests that would develop out of genomics. As a cancer researcher, I know that at least one or two already have. In any case, I couldn’t resist challenging Dr. Steele a bit at a reception afterward, and we had an enjoyable exchange of differences.

I could go on with a blow-by-blow of various talks, but I’m more interested in the overall gestalt of the meeting, which was energizing. How could it not be? I got to meet and speak with James Randi himself. His body may be old and frail (indeed, someone commented that every year he looks more gnome-like, and it’s true), but his mind is as sharp as ever, as is his wit. Meeting Adam Savage was also an honor. He is every bit as friendly and jovial in person as he is on Mythbusters. Mike Goudeau was funny and clearly dedicated to his autistic child, a skeptic and a potential force against the antivaccine mvoement, while Joe Albietz is young and dynamic. Then, of course, it was a lot of fun to meet the whole Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe team. Although I had met Steve Novella once before, I hadn’t seen him since collaborating with him, and I had never met the SGU team in person before. Unfortunately, I totally missed Rebecca Watson’s surprise wedding on Saturday morning. My wife and I had been out late and didn’t get up in time. Damn.

Overall, if there was one theme running through the meeting, it was skeptical activism (well, that, and skepticism in the media). Robert Lancaster, creator of Stop Sylvia Browne was big, and Derek Bartholomaus of Jenny McCarthy Body Count got a bigger round of applause than pretty much anyone else on the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel. If there was one question we got at the SBM conference and after the Anti-Anti-Vax Panel more than any other, it was this: What can we do? What do we do now? Once the meeting is over, everyone has dispersed to their homes, and the energy and enthusiasm of being among a thousand people who (more or less) think the way you do has dissipated and you have to go back to the real world, where your way of thinking is definitely in a minority, what can you do to combat what has been called the “age of unreason.”

Now what?

Steve Novella has listed a number of possibilities, and I can’t argue with any of them. The point is to do something. Take what you are good at and apply it to promoting skepticism. I’m good at writing; so I have a blog. Lately, I’ve been branching out to giving talks and networking with others who think as I do. I’ve written letters to local journalists. I’ve done some podcast and radio interviews. Remember how I said I was a bit shy? Well, that realization has led me to understand that writing a blog is well and good but that, if I’m going to take my activism to the next level, I’m going to have to push myself out of my comfort zone. (Who knows? One day a podcast may be in my future someday if I can ever find the time to play with podcasting software enough to figure out how to do it.) If you’re not good at writing or public speaking, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. Echoing Steve, I say that there are always new frontiers in skeptical activism to be explored, and there are old, seemingly mundane but nonetheless critical, activities that need to be done, such as joining school boards and attending school board meetings to speak out against creationism. If you belong to a hospital board, resist the infiltration of quackademic medicine. If you belong to a parents’ group, try to counter the antivaccine nonsense that infiltrates so many of them.

So let me take this opportunity to challenge those of you who were at TAM, some of whom I had the honor of meeting and conversing with, and even those who weren’t at TAM: What will you do now? What skeptical topic are you passionate about? If you were at TAM, how will you try to keep a spark of that enthusiasm that was ignited at TAM alive as it is buffeted about by the winds of your normal, everyday life that threaten to extinguish it? If you weren’t at TAM, what will you do to try to promote reason and critical thinking, while providing a counter to the rampant pseudoscience and credulity.

What now?