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John, Jenn, Fifi and Bob Cat, off on another adventure!

Monday, July 21, 2008

TAM 6: Jenn's Journal Part 4

Friday June 20th 2008
Sometime around 8:00AM.
The SGU are on stage doing a live podcast. Breakfast with the SGU and the SGU dinner will be our highlights. This is so much fun, although I am exhausted. My arse woke up at 6:30AM. I am still on East Coast time. Ugh. But it's really fun being here. The people are nice and the food is good and Vegas is so much fun.

Sometime around 9:30AM.
Hal has asked us to turn off our damn laser pointers (registration freebie) and gave a really nice intro. My favorite quote from him was "Lives well lived are to be honored." Then he introduced Mr. Randi, who always does the opening and closing comments. He talked about TAM attracting female skeptics as well as the tribute table to Jerry Andrus, who passed away this year. From this point on, Jerry will be, in some form or another, at every TAM. This TAM he was represented with a very nice lighted photo on a back table with some of his props. Mr. Randi asked us all to stop by the table at some point, feel free to look at his props and, if you felt like it, to lightly touch the picture.

Dr. Ben Goldacre
Dr. Goldacre writes the Bad Science column for the U.K.'s Guardian and has a website www.badscience.net. He is an award winning writer, broadcaster and M.D. Also very cute in a smartie Colin Ferrell kinda way. His talk at TAM was entitled Squabbles Against Homeopathy. Why give a hoot about the homeocrapiola? Because, as Dr. Goldacre points out, we're science geeks, and pullling stuff apart and investigating is interesting and fun. Dr. Goldacre argues that homeopathics undermine the public's understanding of the evidence based practice and hard work of doctors.
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine based on the use of very tiny quantities of remedies that, in larger quantities produce effects similar to the disease being treated. The word homeopathic, translated from the Greek, means "similar suffering." It is inspired by the philosophy that "like cures like." For example, let's you and I make up a disease. This disease causes you to have millions of disease causing agents in your blood- let's call these agents the toxic red-suited tellers. You go to a homeopath (someone who specializes in homeopathy) and the homeopath examines you. He uses his homeotool, scans it over your body and reports that your blood is now about 70 percent infected with the toxic red-suited tellers. And boy do you feel like crap. Not to worry, the homeopath says- you simply take a red-suited teller vitamin. This vitamin has a much smaller amount of, but, according to the homeopath, very effective dose of red-suited tellers as well. But these are good, sweet and nice red-suited tellers. These red-suited tellers are friendly, compassionate and wanna help you get better. The homeopath explains that when you take this pill, the good red-suited tellers in the pill will be released. These saintly red-suited tellers will remember and recognize their wayward cousins the bad red suited tellers and make them stop making you sick. And in a few days these good red-suited tellers will make all your problems go away. You go home, you call in sick. You drink plenty of fluids. If you have children, you foist them off on some simp relative whose willing to put up with them. You give your spouse a twenty and tell them to go buy something pretty or if you are female, tell him to go to a strip club. You lay down on your sofa with your favorite blankey, your dog and your cat and watch DVDs of Maude. Viola, in a few days you start feeling better. You chalk it up to those smart good red-suited tellers for your good health. That is the kit and kaboodle of homeopathy.
Yeah. Okay. Now here's the real deal. The dilutions of the substances are too small to have any effect. And the good red-suited tellers don't remember or feel compassion for you. They really don't give a shite. They're molecules. They don't have memory or feelings or capabilities of social ethics. You coulda saved about 2 hours of your life by not going to this dude or dudette who gave you a vitamin of good vibes and spent more time on the couch laughing at Bea Arthur and most likely you woulda gotten better. Or you could have gone to your primary care doctor who actually uses his medical degree appropriately. He would use medical practices and testing that has been proven via good research methods to be accurate in most cases. If the red-suited tellers are within reasonable limits according to his exam, he most likely he would tell you to go home, rest, drink plenty of fluids, and watch Maude (okay, maybe not that last part, but hey, Bea Arthur will cheer you up when you're feeling blue). Or, if, upon exam with blood tests he finds that you are one sick puppy, he'll admit you to the hospital because you need a bit more help in dealing with your red-suited teller problem- maybe an antired-suitedteller medication that needs to be adminstered and monitored a special way by medical staff. I think this makes a bit more sense.
Dr. Goldacre states that most of the results that people claim are due to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when you think you've been given a substance and you actually show signs of improvement, except that the pill or substance you've been given has no medication in it whatsoever. For example, for some reason I find that when I drink O'Douls, it gives me the giddies and the buzzies almost as if I was drinking some nice merlot. Except that O'Douls has very very little alcohol in it. I belive it has less than one percent. Certainly not enough to get one shnockered so badly one-oh, I don't know- does Rockette-style high kicks whilst balancing on a table. Well, as Dr. Goldacre explains, and this Rockette agrees, the placebo effect is probably one of the most interesting phenomenons in medicine. Understanding it is the key to understanding homeopathy.
Dr. Goldacre also mentions that the research available by proponents of homeopathy is quite flawed- the studies are often bogged down with insignificant details. The lab data that is used often contains small numbers that are measured with overly sensitive equipment (remember when the homeopath told you that you were over 70 percent infected with the red-suited tellers? You may or may not have had 70 percent of red-suited tellers. You may have had only about 30 percent. But his homeotool was tweaked to superscan. A doctor would have most likely taken a second blood sample to rule out a false reading. This is science. Did you notice that the homeopath didn't do that? He didn't go and get another homeotool. Nor did he reexamine you. Wouldn't you want to know if you had 30 percent or 70 percent? I would, but maybe I'm just a nosy bastard that way.) Also, a lot of data is presented online via journal clubs, websites and U-Tube videos, not in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Over 200 trials have been done in about 150 years. When one looks at these studies, often the evidence is presented in such a way to make it look bigger and better than it is (also known as cherry-picking, in which the positive evidence is reported and the negative evidence is ignored). To do a fair trial, Dr. Goldacre suggests it needs to be randomized and double-blind so as not to prevent bias. Sadly, not a lot of this type of research has been done in the last 150 years by the proponents of homeopathy, and most of the scientific evidence based medicine has discounted homeopathy as effective in treating disease. So, I am gonna have to side with Goldacre on this and NOT recommend homeopathy to anyone at this time. But I'm always willing to keep my eyes and ears open for new evidence.
Sometime around 10:30 AM
Dr. Neil De Grasse Tyson presents: Adventures in Scientific Illiteracy...
Brain Droppings of A Skeptic.
Fasten your seatbelts. This one is a fun ride!!! Dr Tyson is onstage in a kickin' vest and a stylish suit. He takes the mic off the stand and walks around during his lecture. Well, if one can call it that. This is so much more fun. Learning is fun. I am so happy right now. I'm gonna refrain from any enhancement here. This is pure Dr. Tyson and his "brain droppings":

On UFO Sightings
"Remind people what they 'U' in UFO stands for- it stands for UNIDENTIFIED. We don't know what it is. Yet these people will most likely tell you they saw an alien ship. But you remind them that the U stands for UNIDENTIFIED. Until they can clearly identify it, we can't say aliens exist!"

On Alien Abductions
"Alien abductions are often based on eyewitness evidence. Eyewitness evidence is the lowest form of evidence in science. Ask them for real proof- the next time they are abducted, ask them to grab something off the ship. Think about it, they're on a table, surrounded by tons of sophisticated medical equipment within grabbing distance. Why don't they just reach out and take something? But they never do!"

On Conspiracy Theories
"This is easy. A conspiracy theorist basically admits to you that (s)he has insufficient data. Otherwise it would be a real theory. Just tell these people to come back when they have all the data."

On Debating Someone Not Skeptical
"If an argument lasts more than 5 minutes, both sides are wrong."

On Astrology
"Get a room of people together. Read out an anonymous horoscope. Chances are the people in the room will each tell you that they identify with it in some way. And not all these people will be Libras."

Birth rates on nights with a full moon
"You give birth under a full moon because you most likely got knocked up under a full moon."

Surviving Terminal Cancer
"Why believe it was God who cured you? Wouldn't it be easier to believe that it was your doctor who knew what he was doing? Or, to go to the other extreme, maybe God didn't cure you because you weren't really sick. You were misdiagnosed."

On Swami Levitation (This is Jenn's Personal Favorite)
"There are no laws of physics that make this impossible. Just consume 1000 cans of beans and hold in the methane. Find a place to sit, let go and fly!"

The Moon Hoax
"I actually like the fact that there are people who don't believe we landed on the moon. In fact I'm proud. We walked on the moon. This is such an accomplishment that some people can't fathom it. This is a statement of pride! Of course you can just learn the rocket equation and do the math."

The Mars Virus (this Dr Tyson's term for the public spazzout every couple of years when Mars gets really close to Earth)
"The last Mars virus occurred in 2003. But still the same stupid chain email gets sent out every August- MARS IS COMING!!!! AAAAAAHHHH!!!! You can only see it with a telescope. And also, we were closer to Mars about 60,000 years ago. Mars and Earth are in an elitpical orbit around the sun. Sometimes we get closer together, sometimes we get a little further away. It's going to be okay."

Fear Of Numbers
"This hotel has no 13th floor. They skipped it. Hey- people on the fourteenth floor? Guess what floor you're really on!"

Honoring Scientists
"How do we honor our scientists? We put them on our money."

The Periodic Table of The Elements (this is why I was front and center! I actually did learn something, too!)
"If the scientists in your country discover an element, your country gets naming rights. We discovered Plutonium. In the same year, we discovered Pluto. Is anyone concerned about the creative knowledge of our scientists? What is the cost of society if we do not invest in knowledge? How many secrets of the universe lay undiscovered?"

Wow. Awesome.

Somewhere around noon
Alec Jason is onstage now. At first I feel sympathy for him for having to follow Dr. Tyson. But Alec Jason is a fascinating guy. He is a Certified Crime Scene Analyst. A forensics guy. And a good one. He's an expert witness in crime scene analysis, officer involved shootings, blood spatter interpretation, shooting incident reconstruction, and forensic ballistics. He showed us how he solved a case with a husband whose wife was shot and killed as she drove them down a secluded road. The forensic world welcomes skeptics, as it is a daily exercise of critical thinking skills. Also, Mr. Jason assisted Mr. Randi in recording televangelist Peter Popoff's secret transmissions from his wife. Popoff had his wife feed him information about people in the crowds of the prayer meetings, to make it look like he was obtaining the information supernaturally. People thought he was actually somewhat divine, and Mr. Popoff got very very rich. Jason told of his dressing up in custodial uniforms in order to set up equipment in the arenas where Popoff traveled as to decrease suspicion from his minions. Just like Hannibal from The A-Team. We then saw the clips of Mr. Randi exposing Popoff on the Johnny Carson show. Anyone who figuratively bodyslams Peter Popoff is a-okay in my book.

Sometime around 2
Penn and Teller's Q and A was great. TAMmers may recognize me- I was the girl in the Ramones tee who asked the first question. I figured I would ask them what they felt their greatest skeptical achievement was. Teller answered that it was the ability to market both skepticism and naked breasts via Bullshit. We found out that they are going to do an episode on NASA, as they were criticized for not going after subjects that they respect and like.

PZ Myers
For some reason I am very excited that PZ Myers is onstage right now. I am not disappointed. PZ's lecture is about his specialty, developmental bio. Evolution. The control of the development of life by ecology. This is the subject of his latest column in Seed Magazine. Dr. Myers has been studying bats. Did you know that bats have the same extremity (arm/leg/paw) bones as mice? The bat bones differ because they are stretched and expanded (in order to create wingspan). So, Dr. Myers asks, what process modified to change mice into bats? Scientists hypothesize that all mammal arms/legs/paws start as short paddles. Natural selection takes care of the rest.Hamsters use their paws slightly differently than cats. And cats use their paws slightly differently from chimps. Chimps and dolphins use their extremities in differing ways. And then there are humans, who use their paws slightly different from other mammals. The key, according to Dr. Myers, lies in the genetic makeup of the DNA coding regions. Did you know that mice and bats have 2 amino acid differences between them? And in the amino acids of the bats there is a sort of bat paw enhancer, that, as bats develop, makes their paws stretch and expand? (Betcha you didn't know that!) Dr. Myers says that "biology is beautifully complicated and all about change." I was really enthralled. Not only did Dr. Myers have tons of slides of cute furrie mousies and cool bad arse looking bats, but his passion for biology is contageous and he really makes the very beautifully complicated subject matter very layperson friendly. I mean, if I could follow along, anyone can.

Sometime around 4.
Richard Saunders.
By this time, the Flamingo has provided us with mass quantities of cookies coffee and soft drinks, so I am buzzing on caffeine as Richard Saunders takes the stage. The really neat thing he does first is point to the I, Skeptic banner hanging across the top of the stage and say, "My name is Richard Saunders, and I am a skeptic!" very proudly. We all cheer. Saunders is an absolute doll of a man who has helped enhance the skeptical movement in Australia. He's gonna play the Criss Angel-type skeptical judge in an Australian version of the Uri Geller show Phenomenon.
Mr. Saunders also talked about his program of bring skepticism and critical thinking to school children in his native Australia. He demonstrated his dowsing lesson. He pretended we were schoolkids. He pulled about six folks onstage and gave them makeshift dowsing rods (dowsing: the action of a person using a rod, stick, or another device to locate such things as underground water, hidden metal, lost people, treasure, oil, golf balls, The Others by occult means- i.e. psychic powers.) and a bottle of Flamingo Spring Water. He then produced about 5 opaque baskets and put the water under basket number 4. Then he had the dowsers walk past the buckets with their rods to see how accurate they were with their dowsing powers. Would you believe it? They all correctly dowsed and found that the water was under basket number 4!!! We were wowed. Dr Saunders picked the best dowser, who we will call Fred, of the group and had the rest of them sit down. He then explained that he was now going to show us how to test dowsing a bit better. He had Fred close his eyes. While Fred closed his eyes, Dr. Saunders put the water bottle under basket #2. He had Fred, who this time had not seen where the water was put, dowse again. Unfortunately, this time Fred was wrong. He picked number 3. He also picked up a bottle of water someone had left next to the lecturn. Fred is the class clown.
Dr. Saunders explained to us that sometimes, when kids see their friend up onstage, they will often send out unintentional cues to him/her. For example, they might gasp excitedly as the kid gets closer to the correct basket and therefore, the data analysis could be biased, as the kid could use that to his advantage and guess the right one. Dr. Saunders explained also that some kids may look at the experimenters for cues as well. So, Dr. Saunders explained, we were next going to test Fred using a double blind method. Dr. Saunders had Fred close his eyes again. He also told us to close and cover our eyes as well- he also explained there were always one or two jokesters who peeked, but still a small percentage and margin of error. He then battered around the baskets and hid the bottle under one of the baskets. Then he said that we all could open our eyes. Then he said in order not to unintentionally cause Fred to find cues, Dr. Saunders turned away as Fred once again attempted to correctly dowse where the bottle was. Fred let Dr. Saunders know when it was okay to look, and said that the bottle was under basket number 5. Dr. Saunders uncovered the baskets and we saw that the bottle was under number 2. Fred has no career in dowsing in his future- at least we think he'll sorta suck at it. And we had a very fun refresher on teaching kids about double-blinded studies.

Sometime around 2AM???
Tonight, fueled by mucho booze and the secular blessing of the SGU, we formed RAFTS (Richmond Area Free Thinkers and Skeptics)!!!
And, it was not, by ANY stretch of the imagination, intelligently designed!
It was TOTAAL BIG BANG all the way!!!
Hey! How'd we get back to the room?

The story begins on June 20th (tonight), approximately 1750, 2008 AD (or C.E. for those who completely insist) when Patrick, Jenn and John happen to meet on the road (or rug rather, as Cesear's Palace is carpeted) to the SGU Dinner at TAM 6, which was being held at Trevi in Cesear's Palace. We three, through our "brilliant" investigation skills found out we had a common bond- we lived about 5 miles away from each other in Richmond!!! We had to go to frackin' Vegas to meet!!!
We sat down at a table and met Peter and Crystal, who were SGU fans from Northern VA (our cup runneth ovah!), and we all started talking. One SGU fan announced that she would be buying wine for all the tables.
The details are sketchy at this point on. As I imbibed yummy delicious, and once again free wine, Patrick texted back and forth with his friend John- also a skeptic but unable to make it. Coincidentally friend John, like husband John, is a graphic designer, and smack my ass, by glass o'wine number three these two geniuses had a website, a group name and we are now planning Skeptics in The Pub events!!! Then our food came. John had angel hair pasta. I had something with creamy sauce and penne pasta and chicken. From what I can remember it was delicious!!! Then we had another bottle of wine. I do remember Crystal and I picking out the wine, as she is more of a zin kinda gal we stuck to the sweet n' fruity types. At one point I think I tried to tell Steve Novella that we had formed a skeptical group and that it was all because of the SGU. I think I rather slurred it to him. Steve joked that they would totally take the credit. I think we had dessert too!!! I remember floating around the Flamingo lobby shortly after that. It seems to be about this time that Jay Novella and Evan and John had become chums! There were hundreds of skeptics crowded into the Flamingo Bar shooting the shit and drinking skeptically. I remember standing around watching the rogues play blackjack. Bob Novella asked me, "Do you know who you look like?"
"I've been told Kelly Bundy and Helen Hunt." Smooth, Jenn. Really cool. Way to impress!!!
"No!!! You know that girl, um- Ashley Tisdale?"
"Um, yeah- I hearda her. (Sort of- I think she's Hannah Montana or High School Musical chickie or something teenyboppery that the kids like. I guess she's blonde) Wow. Thanks Bob!"
(Later I looked her up online. She sorta looks a little like me. She definately wears more makeup and hairspray and is tanned. But, she's totally cute! Thanks Bob!)

I still can't remember how the hell we got back to the room.

Next up---- Michael Shermer, Sharon Begley, Dr Phil Plait and we get invited to Rebecca Watson's Infamous Skeptical Partaay!!!


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