The Amazing Meeting Sunday paper presentations led directly to my involvement in skepticism. They could get you involved too - but only if you submit a proposal.
When I am interviewed about my work as a skeptic, the question sometimes comes up: how did you get started? My personal story revolves around The Amazing Meeting and it's a story that any skeptic could emulate.
Like many Americans growing up in the sixties and seventies, I was exposed to a great deal of pseudoscience, such as stories of UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle. But at the same time I was very interested in real science, particularly astronomy. I started to be skeptical, but never took it further.
Looking back now, there were clues that deffinitely could have led me to skepticism. As a child I had a subscription to Astronomy magazine. One of the very first issues I got contained a debunking of the infamous Betty Hill UFO star map written by none other than Carl Sagan. At college I shared a house with a friend who was a key member of the Georgia Skeptics. (I would later learn he ran Mr. Randi's FTP archive as well). I met other Georgia skeptics when we all attended a Penn & Teller show at a local theater, but I never got involved with the group. I remained unaware of the wider world of organized skepticism.
But my interest in Penn & Teller would later lead me to attend The Amazing Meeting 5 in 2007. I had heard Penn relentlessly promote it on his radio show, and it seemed like something I would enjoy. I didn't know anyone else who was attending, but took a leap and registered to attend.
Needless to say, it was a fabulous experience. I felt instantly at home among a hotel full of skeptics, and the attending members of the JREF Forum made me feel incredibly welcome. I enjoyed every bit of the show, but in particular I was struck by the paper presentations.
The paper presentations are a tradition from the very first TAM. Held first thing Sunday morning, they are an opportunity for rank-and-file skeptics to present work or research they've done. They're admittedly not as flashy or polished as the plenary presentations given by the big name speakers. But they represent very important work that is happening "on the ground" in our movement.
Most importantly for me at TAM5, most of the people I saw up on stage weren't famous authors like Christopher Hitchens or national radio hosts like Peter Sagal (both of whom also spoke that year). The paper presenters were doctors and writers and computer technologists who were interested in skepticism and decided to take on a project of their own. Then they presented their work as a paper to share it with the rest of skepticism.
I felt like I could identify with the people I saw on stage, and I could see myself taking on a similar project myself. Soon after that, I came up with the idea for What's the Harm, and launched it about a year after TAM5. And I've been working on skeptical projects of various types ever since.
As it happens, several of the people who presented papers at TAM5 are now well-known names of skepticism - such as Harriett Hall, Steve Novella and Kylie Sturgess. And that's another reason the paper presentations are a fascinating part of TAM. The people you see here may well become the keynote speakers a few years later.
And you could be a part of this. Have you worked on a skeptical project in the last year? Maybe your local skeptic group sponsored a new type of event. Or maybe you've researched a particular topic in skepticism that you feel hasn't gotten adequate attention. If you're willing to get up on stage in the Grand Ballroom at TAM and talk about it, you can submit a proposal.
If you need some ideas, you can study the list of past paper topics. I've entered all of them into the online conference database Lanyrd. Start with this Lanyrd search - which shows all 73 papers presented so far. Click the buttons and links on the right hand side of the page to filter the list by topic, by the name of the presenter, or by the year. You can also use the same site to view videos of 8 of the presentations.
The deadline for submitting a paper proposal for TAM 2013 in July is coming up in just two weeks, on May 15. Could you be a future skeptic star? Give it a shot.
You can find further details and the proposal forms here.
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow. He is the creator of the website What's the Harm, blogs at Skeptical Software Tools and contributes to the Skepticality podcast and the Virtual Skeptics webcast. He researched the content in JREF's Today in Skeptic History iPhone app and has presented at five Amazing Meetings. You can follow him on Twitter here.