#TAM2014 recap


Photo with James Randi

#TAM2014 was a great experience.

The long experience that was The Amazing Meeting (#TAM2014) has concluded. Thanks to fundraiser supporters and promoters — some of whom I was able to meet at the event — I was able to afford the conference excursion and archive the conference via Twitter – mostly in the form of live-tweeting – and provide updates and photos through Facebook.

As The Amazing Meeting program and website promised, the conference was packed with panel discussions; presentations; talks; workshops; movie screenings; comedy acts; and Penn Jilette’s Rock & Roll, Donut, and Bacon Party which included filming for an upcoming movie dubbed Director’s Cut in which the audience was included.

The schedule was so packed I was quite tired throughout the event – even after naps and about five to six hours of sleep each night. Travelling, too, and waking early for a 6AM flight (which was later delayed) likely contributed to my exhaustion, but I was able to live-tweet throughout the event and not skip sessions for need of sleep.

Conference hall of ~1200 attendees

Conference hall of ~1200 attendees

TAM2014 staff recommended, during the opening remarks and throughout the conference, to engage in conversation with conference goers and JREF staff. Throughout the experience, since most of my time was spent live-tweeting, I did not have too much time for social interaction outside of scheduled meals, but the social interaction – when it happened – was worthwhile.

People were friendly, talkative, open to discussion, and positive. I met many people with whom I have interacted with in online forums and social networks. Some approached me thanking me for my activism and shining a skeptical light on goings-on in online spaces. Those who did not know who I was, though, were still happy to chat and – like the others I was familiar with – were very pleasant.

I arrived in time for the Thursday welcome reception which was a great time to socialize. I particularly enjoy when conferences build in time to interact with staff and attendees )not all conferences do this and instead cram the schedule with talks and panels). Friday started with a breakfast buffet which, like the other conference meals, had great variety including vegetarian options. There was more than enough food allowing for multiple trips to the buffet line in the large conference room for anyone who was very hungry.



Carol Tavris’ speech ‘Who’s lying, Who’s Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations,’ (see a Storify here) well-received by the crowd, was a personal favorite of mine. Tavris said that as skeptics we should question everything, including sexual assault allegations, and should not be considered ‘rape cultured’ for doing so.

She also highlighted the fact that people are quick to believe testimony [of women] about sexual allegations – so much so that faculty members of Duke University, in a famous case of a false allegation, before a collection of evidence [outside of mere testimony] or a trial, collectively signed a letter siding with the false accuser.

Tavris cautioned people about jumping to conclusions and encouraged a skeptical mindset when evaluating allegations. She also noted that people can be mistaken and not necessarily lying when making accusations because memory is faulty, miscommunication happens, and people are often not direct about their wants.

Tavris’ talk was a much-needed strong rebuke of modern feminism and its common memes — ‘a woman would never lie about a sexual allegations,’ ‘our society glorifies, excuses, and contributes to common sexual violence against women,’ ‘a drunk woman in all cases (even when she and her partner are intoxicated) is considered to have been raped if she has sex,’ — as advanced by popular and influential commentators.

Of course not all feminists are like that, but many are — including those from well-funded advocacy groups, government organizations, and popular commentators – so much so, I would suppose, that Tavris felt the need to address these issues and note, “this is not the feminism I signed up for” within her speech.

Tavris noted ‘sexual stupidity’ which results in criminal charges including a case at Occidental College in which a woman was asking – through text messaging — a man about a condom because she wanted to have sex. Following the sex, coupled with alcohol, the man was charged with rape and expelled from his university. Tavris also explained that alcohol leads to people making poor decisions and that consent is a blurry, confusing, and complicated topic which does not always include verbal, direct, and clear affirmation.

Photo with Zoe of the Antisocial Justice Podcast

Photo with Zoe of the Antisocial Justice Podcast

Elizabeth Loftus’ talk ‘The Memory Factory,’ Bill Nye’s keynote address, Daniel Loxton’s talk ‘A Rare and Beautiful Thing,’ Steven Novella’s talk ‘How to Think Like a Skeptical Neurologist,’ and Richard Saunders’ talk ‘Looking into the Psychic Mirror’ were five other speeches which I found compelling. I will not go into great detail about these talks in this piece (I don’t want a super-long blog post).

This conference – outside of the entertainment, social networking, and archiving through live-tweeting — was quite valuable for me because I will be able to use the information in my professional role of working with students who have disabilities — better relating with them and adding skeptical thinking into the classroom setting – and in my study of Mental Health Counseling in addition to my internship and practicum hours which are approaching.

I would like to attend this and similar conferences in the future if I am not working and/or have vacation days in addition to having the required funds (conferences often are not inexpensive for me), but do not have any specific plans in mind for 2014 at the moment apart from the 2014 Pennsylvania Counseling Association Conference which I hope to attend this Fall with my peers and instructors from Marywood University because the trip is affordable – mostly paid for by the university I attend. It’s additionally difficult to plan at the moment because my schedule for the Fall semester, because of approaching practicum hours, is uncertain.

Thanks again to the JREF staff; supporters who made this conference experience possible through donating to and promoting my fundraiser; those who thanked me for my live-tweeting, activism, and online contributions; and everyone who was so welcoming and friendly at #TAM2014. I would rather not name names because I would surely forget someone. You know who you are!

As always, feel free to comment below. Consider surveying my live-tweets from #TAM2014 and watching videos of TAM presentations when they become available. JREF staff promised videos will be uploaded following the conference.

Nothing Prevails Like Prayer banner update

'Nothing Prevails Like Prayer' banner

‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner

Last week, I lamented the fact that a banner reading ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ was unprominently displayed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre.

While I don’t believe prayer prevails, I do believe that citizens who submit banners should have their messages prominently placed and equally so in relation to other banners.

To date, this is the second unprominently placed banner I have observed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre. The first unprominently displayed banner was a banner I hung in response to a National Day of Prayer event.

When banners are unprominently placed — displayed on the reverse side of the Public Square scaffolding structure while others are placed on the front side which is far more visible — it appears to be the case that city officials are showing preference toward some views because banners are not equally prominent. I would like to see a separation of church and state in which government officials are neutral on matters of religion, displaying messages at equal prominence regardless of their content.

Last Thursday, I spoke in-person with Community Relations Coordinator Liza Prokop requesting that the ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner be moved to the front of the scaffolding structure and for future banners to be placed on the front side – at equal prominence.

Prokop explained that the city has discretion over where the banners are placed and noted that since the Farmer’s Market season — June through November — has started, banners other than those from Market sponsors, those who pay $3000 for banner placement and other perks (mention in promotional materials, vendor space, logo/banner creation), will be placed on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure.

I asked where such a policy was, noting that my right-to-know request explained that there is no policy/document about banner placement and Prokop told me that there is no written policy. I explained to Prokop that absent a banner policy people would get the impression, like I did, that the city is not treating citizens equally in regards to banner displays.

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

I can understand that Market sponsors, since they are paying for a message to be placed specifically for the Farmer’s Market, would have their banners displayed on the front side of the scaffolding structure but, as I explained to Prokop, there is a good deal of room for other banners to also be placed on the front side of the scaffolding structure [there is currently only one displayed Market sponsor].

Additionally, although city officials indeed have discretion over where banners are placed on Public Square, officials should be obligated to treat messages equally [absent a legitimate policy about where banners are placed]. If city officials want to charge a premium for front display and charge a lesser fee for rear display, for instance, this should be stated in a policy.

Going forward, I would like to see the city of Wilkes-Barre to create policies in regards to banner placement to allow for more transparency so that citizens may know what they are paying for and where there banners may be displayed.

While Prokop’s explanation allows for more clarity, I am still not satisfied given that when my banner was placed, the ‘May is Mental Health Month’ banner was displayed more prominently even though — as I noted in previous posts — the organization which displayed that banner did not have an event on Public Square. If it is the case that hosting an event on Public Square allows for more prominent banner placement, the mental health banner should not have been displayed more prominently in comparison with my banner.

Nothing Prevails Like Prayer banner hung

'Nothing Prevails Like Prayer' banner

‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner

A banner reading ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ is now displayed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre.

6/30/14 update: I contacted a treasurer involved with the group responsible for the banner. We had a phone conversation in which she told me a person from her group contacted the city. The city said there was a mistake and would place the banner on the front side of the scaffolding structure. I informed the treasurer, as I did in my blog post, after I identified myself, that I think all banners should be placed on the front side of the scaffolding structure and that I would contact City Hall if no changes are made. 

Last month, as a response to the National Day of Prayer and a corresponding Circle the Square With Prayer event, I displayed a banner reading ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer’ on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre thanks to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The banner, placed days late, was unprominently displayed on the reverse side of a scaffolding structure – out of sight of Circle the Square With Prayer event attendees.

Following the unprominent display, I questioned city officials about the banner’s placement (see video of an exchange here) — noting I never have seen a banner displayed on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure — and was informed that my banner was unprominently displayed because Public Square was rented for that day. This explanation is flawed because there is no evidence of rental agreements dictating this and a banner reading ‘May is Mental Health Month’—displayed by NAMI as a right-to-know request unveiled — was prominently displayed alongside a National Day of Prayer banner.

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

Now, a group, The Lay Servants of the Immaculate Heart Of Mary, presumably responding to the Nothing Fails Like Prayer banner, is advertising on Public Square and, oddly enough, the banner is being displayed on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure. Last month, I asked city officials to display all banners at equal prominence and now – for some reason – a religious banner, the second banner I ever saw erected on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure, is being unprominently displayed. City officials have ignored my request for equal promotion of viewpoints submitted by members of the public.

Will city officials now, displaying this new banner unprominently, use this as reason to openly discriminate – as they already have seem to have done – on the basis of viewpoint by placing certain banners, whether they be mine or others, at their discretion with little to no accountability or oversight, out of prominence?

rear side of scaffolding structure, out of sight of event attendees and unprominently placed in comparison with NDOP banner

rear side of scaffolding structure, out of sight of event attendees and unprominently placed in comparison with NDOP banner

Sadly, I have not been contacted by the organization responsible for the ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner. Since they are hanging this banner, what seems to be a response to the banner I hung, I would think they would be interested in dialogue. I would be happy to discuss the efficacy of prayer, arguments for/against the existence of God, and related topics – preferably in a public format similar to discussions and debates I had with Pastor Dan Nichols and Pastor Michael Brewster.

I contend there is no good reason to suggest prayer – communication with a supernatural being – prevails. There are no good reasons to suggest that supernatural interventions are part of day-to-day life. Instead, prayers go unanswered. Natural disasters, deadly birth defects, and an insurmountable amount of unneeded suffering plagues our existence despite centuries of requests for a reprieve. Nothing fails like prayer.