The Amaz!ng Meeting 10: July 12-15, 2012

By Phil Plait | March 25, 2012 2:42 pm

The tenth* annual Woodstock of skepticism, The Amaz!ng Meeting, was just announced for 2012! It’ll be July 12-15 at the Southpoint Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The guest list, as always, is impressive, featuring a lot of familiar faces and a few I don’t know that well. But that’s the point; have some people who are old hands at this, and then bring in new blood to mix it up as well. I’m really glad to see the list changing up every year, so that new voices are heard.

Speaking of which, you may notice I’m not on the speaker list. JREF President D.J. Grothe graciously asked me to come, but after some pacing and some thought, I’ve decided to go on sabbatical this year. I’ve got several other irons in the fire right now (like Science Getaways) and they’re occupying a lot of my attention. Since I’ve been to every American TAM as well as the first one in London — not to mention quite a few other skeptical meetings throughout the year — I’ve decided to scale back a bit this year and recharge my batteries.

But don’t let that stop you from going! TAM is, well, an amazing event, with lots of fun and learning to be had. But it is a skeptical conference, so don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself!

Which reminds me: are you an educator interested in getting more critical thinking into the classroom? Then you should definitely check out these free educational packets the JREF has put together! There are currently three — ESP, the Cottingley Fairies hoax, and dowsing — but more are planned. These will give students a good introduction into investigation and critical thought, which hopefully can become a lifetime basis of how to think, not just what to think.

* Well, sorta. There was a TAM 5.5 during a long gap between meetings, and now there have been two TAM Londons and one in Australia, so the numbering system is becoming increasingly inaccurate, even when restricted to the US!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Skepticism

Holiday fundraisers

By Phil Plait | December 12, 2011 7:00 am

Winter is always a big season for charities. Christmastime is traditionally a time to give, but that means competition among charities increases, and it’s hard to separate out which ones you want to give to. And some "traditional" charities seem like they do good work, but have some pretty intolerant and bigoted beliefs they keep relatively quiet. So deciding to whom to give can be difficult.

So if you have a few bucks, here are a handful of charities I like.

Recipe4Hope is campaign to raise money for the Autism Science Foundation. I am very wary of groups claiming to research autism, since so many of them are fronts for anti-vaccination promoters. ASF, though, understands that vaccines do not cause autism, and is looking into actual scientific research. Here’s their video for this year:

100% of the donations will fund ASF’s pre- and post-doctoral autism research fellowships, helping young scientists start their career researching autism. They have a donation page set up, and the campaign runs through the end of 2011.

The James Randi Educational Foundation has an annual Season of Reason campaign which raises funds to keep JREF operating. Donate $100 (or sign up for $25/month or more) and they’ll send you a SurlyRamic ornament! The JREF has really ramped up their educational efforts over the past couple of years, and your donation will go toward teaching people the critical thinking that is so, well, critical to making important decisions.

I already wrote about Astronomers Without Borders recently, and while the Sky Safari campaign is over, they’re still accepting donations! AWB does great work, reaching out across the world to educate people about the night sky, trying to unite everyone through a love of astronomy.

Foundation Beyond Belief is a secular group that picks 10 needy causes every quarter and gathers funds for them. They don’t necessarily exclude religious charities, but they do choose them based on compatibility with humanist goals, and they have a specific program called Challenge the Gap, which promotes finding common ground between theists and atheists, something I obviously think is a noble and worthwhile goal.

Got some charities you like? List them in the comments!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellaneous, Religion, Skepticism

Psychics leave me in shambles

By Phil Plait | October 27, 2011 12:00 pm

You know what really eats me up? People who claim they can talk to the dead, when it is far, far more likely they are simply using psychological tricks (like cold reading) and random guesses, making it seem like they have some supernatural power.

A while back, the James Randi Educational Foundation publicly challenged so-called "psychic" James van Praagh to take their Million Dollar Challenge and prove he can do what he claims. It’s been weeks, and he hasn’t replied. I can’t imagine why, can you? It’s almost as if he’s afraid of being tested in a controlled environment.

The JREF decided to follow up on their challenge to van Praagh, to see if they could make sure he got the message. And this time, they brought some friends…

Man, I would’ve given an arm and a leg to be there for that. But c’mon, do you really think van Praagh will ever respond?


Related posts:

Cold guessing
D.J. Grothe: skepticism and humanism
A: Ghouls. Q: What do you call psychic mediums?
Blastr: I was a zombie for science

Buonanotte, Italia

By Phil Plait | July 7, 2011 11:21 am

I love pictures of Earth from space, but there’s something especially thrilling when it’s some place you can easily recognize instantly. Like, say, the boot heel of Italy at night:

Sigh. Così bella! [Click to empeninsulate.]

This picture was taken by an astronaut on board the International Space Station. There’s not a lot of science to be done necessarily with pictures like this, but sometimes it’s OK just to gawk at pretty pictures from space.

And come to think of it… not that I recognized it, but just to the left of the top of the heel is Bari, a town I spent a day in while cruising with the Center for Inquiry. CfI sponsors many cruises to help raise funds, so keep an ear open for them. The JREF does things like this sometimes, too.

Italy is lovely from the ground, but, like the rest of the planet, literally takes on a new dimension from space.

Image credit: NASA

Related posts:

The storm below
A puzzling planet picture from the ISS
Followup: city lights from space
Goodnight, Earth

CATEGORIZED UNDER: JREF, NASA, Pretty pictures, Skepticism

2011 JREF Pigasus awards

By Phil Plait | April 1, 2011 11:20 am

Every year, the James Randi Educational Foundation picks the people or organizations who have done the most to promote antireality nonsense and get the public to believe in provably untrue silliness. This dubious honor is called the Pigasus Award after Randi’s official mascot, the flying pig, as in "XXX will be true when pigs fly" — values of XXX include homeopathy, faith healing, dowsing, etc. The awards are appropriately given out every April 1.

This year’s crop has just been announced. I was not surprised to see Richard Hoover listed there for his extremely shaky announcement of life in a meteorite. Hoover published his claims in the Journal of Cosmology, and while I was pretty clear in my posts about the extremely shaky nature of this journal, the JREF simply calls them "crackpot". Heh.

I do have a quibble with the awards this year though. Our old friend Andrew Wakefield — the defrocked, debunked, and discredited founder of the modern antivax movement — was given the "Refusal to Face Reality Award" for his ongoing (and wrong) claims that vaccines cause all sorts of health problems from gastric distress to autism. But it’s not clear he’s refusing to face reality at all. In fact, the point could be made that he may be simply cashing in on parents’ fears, in which case he is facing reality quite squarely.

But that’s merely a quibble. The important thing is that Wakefield’s ignominy is highlighted. And he’s just one of the five, so head over to the JREF site and read about the others who topped this year’s list of this year’s bottom of the barrel.

Image of flying pig is actually of a necklace pendant created by Skepchick Surly Amy, who has tons of great sciencey and skeptical accessories for sale.

Related posts:

Has life been found in a meteorite?
Followup thoughts on the meteorite fossils claim
BREAKING: BMJ calls Andrew Wakefield a fraud
A comic takedown of antivax icon Andrew Wakefield

TAM 9 From Outer Space!

By Phil Plait | March 14, 2011 12:00 pm

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has just opened registration for its annual skeptical extravaganza, The Amaz!ng Meeting!

TAM is arguably the world’s premier critical thinking conference, and certainly one of the most fun. I’m always torn between listening to the speakers and gathering with the friends I’ve made over the years — and meeting new ones. It’s fair to say the audience is a major reason to attend TAM.

The theme this year is "TAM 9 from Outer Space", and it’s obvious why with speakers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay (one of my favorite people on this planet), Bill Nye (The Science Guy), and hey, me. And the list keeps going: Carol Tavris (who gave a very popular talk last year at TAM), Jennifer Michael Hecht, Penn & Teller, Jennifer Ouellette, PZ Myers, Genie Scott, anime artist (and totally cool chick) Sara Mayhew, and, of course, the Amazing One himself, James Randi. The list goes on and on, so go check it out!

Did I mention the MC this year is the one and only George Hrab? Yeah. Awesome.

Also, as usual, there will be a ton of workshops, panels, and other extracurricular activities. I can’t stress enough how much of a blast this meeting is. It’ll be July 14 – 17, 2011 at the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Registration is now open. I hope to see you there!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, JREF, Skepticism

Season of Reason 2010

By Phil Plait | December 10, 2010 6:49 am

Although I’m no longer President of the James Randi Educational Foundation, I’m still a strong supporter! They are continuing the fight against unreason, and have been venturing quite strongly in the field of education, something I endorse whole-heartedly. So I’m very pleased to let y’all know about the 2010 Season of Reason donation drive. This annual drive means a lot to the JREF, which is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization (tax-deductible, folks!).

Even better, an anonymous and very generous donor has offered to match all donations up to $100,000! So every buck you give does double duty.

And even better even better, when you donate $100 or more (or pledge to give an ongoing $25/month or more) you’ll get a cool tree ornament designed by Surly Amy — which is hanging from my tree in Chez BA in a place of honor:


[Yeah, I have Enterprise-D and Klingon Bird of Prey ornaments — they light up, too, and it’s perfectly OK for you to seethe in jealousy of my awesomeness.]

So if you’re looking for a year-end deduction, or just want to do a good deed, then please donate what you can. Make this a true Season of Reason.


Vote of no confidence

By Phil Plait | November 1, 2010 11:00 am

denver_ufoColorado has some weird stuff in the elections tomorrow.

For one thing, Denver resident Jeff Peckman — the same guy who thought a really badly done video of a Peeping Tom alien was real — went around to other Denverites and got enough signatures to get an initiative on the ballot to create an alien affairs bureau.

I wish I were kidding. I wrote about this last year, hoping it wouldn’t come to pass, but he got enough signatures (though many were apparently faked) to get it on the Denver ballot.

Yay. Or, I guess, "yay?" Over at the JREF’s Swift blog, Karen Stollznow has the takedown of this ridiculous situation. It’s tempting to laugh it off, except that 1) it’s already cost real money to even get this on the ballot, and b) this election cycle is so crazy that something like this might have a real chance. We’ll see.

It’s too bad I’m not eligible to vote on that. But there are lots of other issues in this election I’m watching, some of which are very serious (like Colorado Proposition 62, which would give a fertilized human egg the status of a person under the law. Yes, seriously. What’s next: giving zygotes the vote? Sponsoring the Blastula Non-Discrimination Act, and Take Your Morula To Work Day?).

I voted early because I’ll be out of town on November 2. But I looked over the list of initiatives very carefully, and I’ll be checking my news feeds come Tuesday. I know people of all stripes, beliefs, and ideas read this blog. I urge people to think carefully and logically about the issues in this election, and then to go out and vote. There’s a whole lot of nonsense out there this election cycle, far more even than usual. It is quite literally up to us to make sure that reality sees the light of day.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Politics
MORE ABOUT: aliens, Denver, JREF, UFOs, zygotes

Randi's big shoes to Phil

By Phil Plait | August 4, 2008 8:00 am

Edited to add: The comments to this post have been amazing incredible. My sincerest thanks to all of you; knowing that everyone has my back makes this a lot easier.

I have a big announcement to make:

James Randi has offered me the position of President of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I am extraordinarily honored, and I have accepted this duty.

Wow. Just writing that seems incredible to me.

If you want the official news, you can read our press release. That tells you the facts. It gives you a taste of all this, but I want you to get the flavor.

You see, James "The Amazing" Randi has always been a hero of mine.

I’m not alone there, of course. At every one of Randi’s conferences, I see people approach him rather sheepishly, or in awe, or just, well, amazed. And they say these great things: Randi changed their lives. Randi taught them how to think. Randi showed them what the world is really like.

Randi and me, at the first Amaz!ng meeting, right after we first met.I feel the same way. I’ve told this story a million times: when I was in high school, I had a little portable black and white TV that sat on the corner of my desk. I’d stay up late watching Carson (Johnny, not Daly). One night, Carson had this guy on, a little dude with a fantastic white beard, and he got a volunteer from the audience to lie down on a table. Then, explaining the whole time that it’s a fake, he starts pulling tissue out of this guy "psychically" just using sleight of hand (you can watch a piece of the clip on YouTube).

I was in hysterics, laughing my butt off. But at that time in my life, I was prey to a lot of pseudoscience: UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, all sorts of garbage. Watching Randi on The Tonight Show showed me that this stuff can be easily faked, or people easily misled (willfully or not). I started being more skeptical, and became more of a critical thinker as time went on. It was already inside me to be this way, but it was Randi who showed it to me.

In 1996, Randi started the JREF, a foundation to help him help others like the teenaged me. He has been working tirelessly for years to promote critical thinking and skepticism, and to de-fraud the fraudulent. He’s been an inspiration.

In 2002 I sent him a copy of my first book, asking him to write a "blurb" for the back cover. He did (it was great!), and shortly thereafter asked me if I would come talk at the first skeptical conference the JREF was holding in Florida. I agreed, and gave my Planet X talk — just a few hours after Columbia disintegrated over Texas.

That was a hard talk to give, to be cheerful and support NASA against slander from conspiracy theorists just a short time after losing those astronauts. But I muddled through, and Randi was very supportive, saying I would be a regular at those meetings.

He was right. I was very proud to give him an award of sorts at the most recent meeting in June, a cup filled with hundreds of notes from audience members, each saying how Randi has changed their lives for the better.

Randi and me at TAM

So we go back a bit, he and I. But it was still a shock when he pulled me aside not too long ago and asked if I would like to carry on with his work. What can you say to that? He’s Randi. There’s only one answer.

I accepted. There is no way I can replace Randi, or fill his shoes, or even be moderately Amazing. I won’t even try. Happily, I don’t need to: he will continue to work with the JREF, guiding the Foundation as the Chairman of the Board of Directors. There is a lot of Randi in the JREF, and of the JREF in Randi, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So what I will do is try to continue on with the JREF’s mission: educate the public. Take on the psychics, the antiscientists, those who would do harm to our collective intellect. Promote real science. That I can do, that I will do, and that is a promise. I also promise to continue this blog. As much as Randi and the JREF are intertwined, so am I with speaking my mind here on the blog. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m not about to stop now.

I want to thank everyone who supported me in this journey, and warn them that we’ve only just started. There is a very long road ahead, and I’m grateful that Randi was and still is there to break the trail.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar