Skeptics to meet on the Strip? Yeah, right

Special to The Times

JAMES RANDI, a retired magician, is surprised at how well his 5-year-old skeptics conference has been received here in semi-delusionary Las Vegas.

"It seemed strange [the first years], because I don't much care for Vegas," said Randi. "It is populated by the mathematically inept -- people who just don't understand how the laws of chance work and hope they can get lucky, whatever that means. Vegas is saying, 'For every dollar, I'll give you back 92 cents.' The Strip is built entirely by losers."

Every January, "The Amazing Meeting" comes here offering a convention that is more of a brain show than a trade show. "The Amazing" Randi annually leads this convention of doubters for a conference that serves to benefit the James Randi Educational Foundation, best known for offering $1 million to anyone who can produce evidence of the supernatural or occult.

Unlike the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show that brought 150,000 to Vegas last week, TAM 5 will break a record if registered attendance tops 1,000. But among those coming to the Riviera Thursday through next Sunday to participate in TAM 5 will be magazine editors (Onion, Scientific American and Reason), creators of television shows ("South Park," "MythBuster"), professors presenting papers, and Christopher Hitchens, the journalist, who in previous years became a TAM favorite by spending a great deal of time just hanging around and talking with participants (drink and cigarette in hand).

"Just sitting across the table from Christopher Hitchens is a full education," says Rio headliner Raymond Teller of Penn & Teller. In fact, TAM 5 has found a niche with its panels and events that mix entertainers such as P&T; among the more standard happenings at traditional academic conferences. According to Teller, "What excites me is the collection of interesting and startling people that you get who think there is a real world out there and it is possible to find out something about it." Of course, Las Vegas probably held more appeal than an Ivy League campus to participants such as former "Saturday Night Live" regular Julia Sweeney and "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

Still, there is a certain oddity of a Vegas Saturday night followed by hearing a researcher deliver a Sunday morning paper titled: "Digital Darwinian Evolution Produces Irreducible Complexity." But if previous TAMs are any indication, the attendees will show up to hear about such complexities. In past years members of the skeptics Internet discussion forum, for example, have gone directly from an all-night hot-tub party to panels engaging heady topics.

Yet even in a world of skeptics Vegas has a certain irresistible appeal, especially, Randi concedes, for fundraising. "People enjoy coming to Vegas."

Others who are participating this year see Las Vegas in a less grudging and more flattering light. Teller offers the most pragmatic view of Las Vegas as the host for TAM: "It is an ideal convention town. It is made for conferences. Vegas I believe has proved that it is no longer the mindless land of people who do bad George Burns impersonations."

Nick Gillespie, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, offers, "Las Vegas is a celebration of the ability of humans to create illusions that we want to inhabit." To Gillespie, who will be delivering a paper Friday on "The Kids These Days and Other Misleading Media Narratives," there is also an affinity between Vegas and the skeptics movement. "It took a technological marvel to transform the environment of Las Vegas into the Strip, and the only way you do that is by actually knowing a very real-world understanding of physics and biology."

The most important bond between "The Amazing Meeting" and Las Vegas comes from Penn & Teller, who annually attend TAM, participate in panels and entertain the attendees. The duo and Randi go back decades and Teller says of Randi: "He became the guiding moral and intellectual inspiration for all of our shows. We are supporters in every possible way. There is certainly no show that more thoroughly acts out on stage the philosophy the James Randi Educational Foundation promotes."

In a sense, Randi, the retired magician turned debunker, Penn & Teller's show and "The Amazing Meeting" all offer a careful and different commingling of entertainment and education. So, during a previous TAM in Vegas each night a seance was offered after which the medium revealed to the audience all of his tricks.

"You would be hard pressed to find any group of people more happy about life than skeptics," sums up Teller. "Skeptics believe in the real world, and the real world happens to be awfully good. When you are in a room with skeptics, you are in a room of people who are really present and sucking all the juice and joy in life."

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For more on what's happening on and off the Strip, see latimes.com/movablebuffet.

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