As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I took off on a lark to the Bay Area to see a conference with a friend from the UCI rationalists club. I sat in on a few of their meetings several years ago, and reconnected with the group recently when I was asked to give a talk on religion in the Israel/Palestine conflict. The drive up was delightful, as the conversation was lively and traffic was minimal in both directions. I was also able to crash at a friend’s joint in San Jose, which made it an affordable indulgence.
The conference itself was more entertaining than I had expected. (I am not good at sitting still for multiple speakers, to be honest; nothing personal, it’s just hard on me physically.) The stand-out might have been Anthony Pratkanis, a professor at UC Santa Cruz, where he lectures on social influence. His talk was about the techniques used to perpetrate fraud, done with the intention of making us more aware of the tools used to manipulate us all, but presented in a humourous and bombastic manner that drew images to mind ranging from slick politicians to health-supplement salesmen to Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia. The audience was in stitches for much of the lecture, but it also passed on some really nice points.
After the break we saw a professional mentalist and magician named Mark Edward, who often works without informing his audiences that he is playing them — a practice for which he made no apology (several times *lol*). For us, he was presenting a practice he calls “guerrilla scepticism”, whereby one is supposed to confront the more egregious con artists out there like James Van Praagh (a supposed “medium” who sells people false hope through really shoddy cold-reading). Edward was clear that we should not be messing with the small fries, i.e., psychics on Venice Beach, as he seems to think they have a right to make a living. His agenda seemed as much motivated by professional arrogance at the poor showmanship of the big-name mediums as by any legitimate ethical concerns, but his demonstrations of skill were entertaining.
Eugenie Scott and a couple of others from the National Center for Science Education was also fun, but the discussions of evolution and creationism really had nothing new for me (too many books on the subjects). The presentation was clear and effective, though, and I’m sure it was useful to many people. Following the NCSE was the nerd-comedian Norm Goldblatt, who was freakin’ hysterical. If you think that physics can’t be funny you need to see his act. *grin*
But the low point was the first speaker we got in to see: Wendy Northcutt, the editor of the Darwin Awards book series and Web site. I had always taken the project to be humourous itself, and very tongue-in-cheek. Apparently, she takes the potential contribution to intelligence seriously, and takes a dim view of where we are going as a species. She also made plugs for a range of new age practices, which I found profoundly irritating, and not exactly à propos given the audience. I’m sure that I’m being more harsh than I ought, but I was really unimpressed with her performance or demeanor from start to finish. Ah, well.
To-day I was set to go hiking with my brother, but he pulled out to be with his girlfriend and then go house-hunting, so we’ll probably get dinner later. In the meanwhile, I am debating between taking a long walk by myself to build my back-packing tolerance, or working on some papers for class. I would prefer the former, but I have a few things undone yet for to-morrow’s meeting so that seems more responsible. *grumble* However, if I get to it now I should have time for a decent-sized walk before hooking up with J. later on…