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The Amazing Moment: JREF, Skeptics Society and CSI Co-Sponsor TAM8

by Daniel Loxton, May 11 2010

TAM8 bannerI wrote last time about an “Ode to Joy” moment I experienced 17 years ago, when I first walked into my university library and discovered the full depth of the skeptical literature. Since then, I’ve had many other wonderful moments in my life as a skeptic: the day I discovered Skeptic magazine (in a café in Sherbrooke, Quebec in 1995); the first time I saw hundreds of skeptics in one room (at “The Amazing Meeting 2″ conference in 2004); or, the day last year when the Skeptics Society announced the release of a free full-color Junior Skeptic-based evolution book to thousands of Portuguese school children.

Today I’m writing about another Ode to Joy moment — one of the greatest of my career. It’s a moment I’ve long hoped for, and never expected to see: last week’s announcement that The Amazing Meeting 8 conference (July 8 – 11, 2010, in Las Vegas) will be co-sponsored by all three U.S. national skeptics organizations:

In keeping with recent trends for national US skeptical organizations to work more closely together to advance shared aims, the James Randi Educational Foundation is very pleased to announce that…both the Skeptics Society, as well as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP), will officially be co-sponsors of the event, providing both financial and promotional support to the JREF for the meeting.

Long-time skeptics are aware that skepticism, like other intellectual movements, has seen its share of schisms and factions. This isn’t remotely unusual. Think of the many finely graded camps within, for example, atheism, feminism or animal welfare activism. Nor is it unusual for like-minded organizations to compete for resources or duplicate efforts.

Factionalism isn’t unique to skepticism, but it can be a bummer. When natural allies miss opportunities for mutual support, it reminds me of something a member of a colony-based anabaptist denomination once told me. I asked him to describe the key differences between his group and closely-related group they held very much at arm’s length. He told me, “Mostly the hats.”

Now, this is not to downplay the truth that skeptical groups do differ in emphasis and approach. Each of the big U.S. groups has its own strengths and specializations, as do national groups overseas and regional groups worldwide. It’s been argued that this vigorous variety is itself a strength, and I think this is often the case. A variety of groups and mandates covers more ground in more ways.

Still, skepticism and science advocacy are projects built on optimism — a “yes we can” sort of feeling. In skepticism as in other activist traditions, grassroots support lives and breathes on the hope that together we can make the world a bit better than it would have been. Optimism is a precious thing, and delicate. It flourishes best in an atmosphere of civility and cooperation.

A Long Hope

In the Spring of 2001, the Center For Inquiry’s then-Director of Education, Austin Dacey, asked me to write a proposal for a hypothetical print magazine to promote skepticism and humanism on college campuses. (That print project never went past the proposal stage, but the Center for Inquiry On Campus brought it to life as the online Campus Inquirer newsletter). Much of that proposal concerned production matters, but I also included some more general thoughts about promoting skepticism. In particular, I emphasized the practical and symbolic value (and public service benefit) of “close cooperative ties” between skeptical organizations.

I even went so far as to suggest a then-utopian example: why not “skeptical summits,” or skeptical conferences co-sponsored by like-minded national skeptics groups “under a joint banner”?

In the years since, I’ve often thought what a wonderful symbol that would be. And, in the skepticism 2.0 context, it began to seem possible. Buoyed by the enthusiasm of the new grassroots skepticism, fueled by the success of podcasting and online outreach, cooperation and collaboration between skeptical organizations has risen dramatically in recent years. I’ve been pleased to be a small part of that process, working with colleagues at many other groups, and helping to promote not only JREF projects (like TAM, which we have long supported through eSkeptic, Skeptic magazine, and Skepticality) but projects from CSI and other organizations as well. Cross-promotion and mutual assistance are emerging as the new normal for skeptical organizations. Early last year, D.J. Grothe and I even discussed the possibility of a hypothetical three-way conference — and reflected again how powerfully that would symbolize skepticism’s renaissance.

Ode to Joy All Over Again

I hasten to add that I had no part in arranging the three-way co-sponsorship of The Amazing Meeting 8. When the JREF’s announcement popped up on Twitter last week, I was as astonished as anyone else. But, I think you’d have to go a long way to find someone more pleased to hear the news than I.

Not that I needed any more reason to be excited. TAM is widely acknowledged as skepticism’s premier multi-day event — truly the summit meeting for North American skepticism. Every year, the contacts made there spin off into unexpected ideas and important new grassroots outreach projects. (For example, Canada’s influential Skeptic North blog site is a TAM7 spin-off. What a difference a year makes!)

Even before the co-sponsorship announcement, it was clear that TAM8 would be more representative of the wider skeptical landscape than any previous year. Never before have so many of skepticism’s pioneers been scheduled to participate in a single event: not only giants like James Randi, Michael Shermer, and Steven Novella, but also CSI legends Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell, Kendrick Frazier, and Barry Karr. Even Martin Gardner is due to appear by video. Martin Gardner! (And that’s to say nothing of folks like Richard Dawkins and Adam Savage. Honestly, I’ve never seen a speaker list quite like this one.)

The Amazing Meeting 8 was already going to be something special. And then came the announcement of the co-sponsorship. The Skeptics Society, The James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry — all working together.

I had nothing to do with it, and yet I feel personally involved. I don’t quite know how to describe my feelings about this watershed moment.

Skepticism is my life’s work. It matters to me. And this announcement changes skepticism. Changes it for the better.

Like Daniel Loxton’s work? Read more in the pages of Skeptic magazine. Subscribe today in print or digitally!

11 Responses to “The Amazing Moment: JREF, Skeptics Society and CSI Co-Sponsor TAM8”

  1. jwthomas says:

    Very good news indeed. I’ve long been hoping for something like this to happen. But one small cavil with your post: please add Paul Kurtz, the father of CSI, Prometheus Books and Skeptical Inquirer, to your list of “giants of skepticism.” If anyone deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award for skepticism it’s Kurtz. Everyone else is an also ran.

    • I certainly agree that Paul Kurtz is among modern skepticism’s (and secular humanism’s) most important figures. He’s described as a “pioneer” and a “legend” in the post. (His pivotal contributions are well worth singling out, but that wasn’t my purpose here.)

  2. Fred says:

    TAM8 will include a revisiting of the roots of the modern skeptical movement, but for me it will also be a chance to reconnect with the people who got me involved in skepticism about four years ago.

    My introduction to the major skeptical organizations was when I listened to my first podcast episode, the February 10, 2006 Point of Inquiry podcast featuring D.J. Grothe interviewing first Richard Dawkins, then Derek and Swoopy. I immediately subscribed to both Point of Inquiry and Skepticality, where I heard Derek and Swoopy talk about all the fun I’d just missed at TAM4. Soon I also found The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, heard more stories from TAM4, and became even more excited about going to my first Amazing Meeting the following January in 2007.

    At TAM5 I met so many celebrity skeptics like James Randi, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Sweeney, Penn & Teller, Eugenie Scott, and more. I got to talk with Derek & Swoopy, Daniel Loxton, the SGU gang, Phil Plait, and many more people from across North America and around the world whom I now know are leaders in their own local skeptic communities and/or online. I’ve been to every Las Vegas TAM since then, and I plan to keep going to as many as I can.

    I can’t tell you how excited I am to go to TAM8 and see so many of those people in person again, from keynote speaker Richard Dawkins, to new JREF president D.J. Grothe, to the founders of CSICOP/CSI and the Skeptics Society, some great authors whose books I’ve enjoyed, professional magicians, all my favourite podcasters, bloggers, and quite a few of my fellow SkeptiCamp and Skeptics in the Pub organizers. I hope I can encourage more people who are new to skepticism to come out to their first TAM and build on that experience to become more active and involved in the skeptical movement.

  3. badrescher says:

    Your post again echoes my thoughts.

    As much as I like the diversity that the different groups provide, I have confidence that this co-sponsorship will lead to great things. It is about more than just money and labor, too, but about bringing the interests of each group into the agenda and tying them together to work toward that broader common goal.

    I have often thought that the way that TAM has become “the” annual gathering is a good thing. I have always felt recharged afterward, but more importantly I have met people who have encouraged me to leave my bubble and work with others – to become an activist rather than simply a teacher. Most of what I do now is a direct result of connections made at TAMs.

    But if it gets much larger, things must change. If the attendance were capped, it would be just another meeting. A larger conference requires more resources, more planning, more of everything. Three different organizations with different perspectives, different resources, and a common goal or vision can handle it.

  4. Joshua Hunt says:

    This is a very exciting time for skepticism! TAM 8 will be my very first TAM and I am very excited! I look forward to seeing you there Daniel! The Cleveland Skeptics will be represented by me and Ginger Pomiecko who is the founder of the Cleveland Skeptics. See you all there!

  5. JerryM says:

    That mainly the hats anecdote sounds suspiciously familiar…

  6. David Glück says:

    I was lucky enough to attend the CFI’s IIG award ceremony at the CFI West which took place the night after TAM6 closed. For me it was a continuation of an amazing week, having just arrived home from TAM6. James Randi was inducted into the IIG Houdini Hall of Honor, his name joining Harry Houdini and Carl Sagan for that unique honor. But more than that I knew something special was happening. The thaw was palpable. After years of pretty much going their own way, here was a coming together of two great organizations, even even if it was, at the time, mostly symbolic. It was not lost on me (and likely anyone in attendance) what this ceremony represented in the larger picture.

    Our hopeful speculations turned into reality. TAM8 is proof that whatever the differences there had been between the two organizations, the thawing out is complete.

    And while the Skeptic Society has always had a presence at TAM events, the CFI, not so much. Last year CFI investigator Joe Nickell spoke. This year, as Danial mentioned, several of the important CFI skeptics will be at TAM8 and what’s more, the CFI, along with the Skeptic Society will be co-sponsors of the event. How cool is that?

    For me it goes back to that IIG ceremony and what it represented. This will be the greatest TAM ever! And that’s saying something.

  7. TurboFool says:

    I clearly couldn’t have picked a better year to join the IIG, be spending as much time as I am at the CFI, and be attending my first TAM. I’m proud to be involved with such amazing people doing such great work, and I’m lucky that it comes at a time when some politics I wasn’t initially aware of are finally being worked through. Onward, upward, and forward. Here’s to a bright future!

  8. Donna Gore says:

    I was seriously considering going to this year’s TAM until I went to the registration page and saw the cost. I wish I could go, but it’s cost prohibitive. I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through Derek and Swoopy’s podcasts.

  9. Gravy says:

    Yes, it is quite expensive to be a skeptic.
    It almost feels like i`m being conned.