Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Skepticism at the 2012 Mensa Annual Gathering, and The Amazing Meeting (TAM)

This year the Annual Gathering of U.S. Mensa, the high-IQ society, was held in Reno, Nevada the first weekend in July. It was followed by James Randi's Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas the next weekend. To my thinking, this required a "Grand Tour" of Nevada. Driving up to Reno from San Diego took "only" ten hours, not counting the time spent at rest stops, restaurants, etc. The scenery is glorious along U.S. 395, but the road is slow and I'd recommend taking two days or more for the trip. This was followed by one of the most "desolate" road trips I've ever taken, from Reno to Vegas, about eight hours driving of two-lane highways in the desert, in 110-degree heat (in July), with my car's air conditioner not working. Compared to that, the 5+ hour drive back to the San Diego area was a breeze.

Brad Lutts, Mark Edward, Susan Gerbic,
and Ben Radford at the Mensa Annual Gathering
There was only one skeptic-related presentation at this year's Mensa Annual Gathering. It was titled "Waging War on Pseudoscience - Skepticism in Action," and it featured Brad Lutts of the Reno Skeptics (moderator), Mark Edward (magician and mentalist), Susan Gerbic (skeptical activist), and Ben Redford, deputy editor of The Skeptical Inquirer.  Each described their own skeptical investigations and activities, inviting the audience to get involved. There was an overflow crowd, which was as welcome as it was nerve-wracking; I was sitting right up front to help the panel get set up, and I kept getting squeezed by people trying to crowd in. The audience was quite supportive and interested.

Susan Gerbic tells the Reno Skeptics about
her excellent  "Guerrilla Skepticism" on Wikipedia
The evening following that presentation, the Reno Skeptics met in a pub near Mensa's Casino hotels, where we got to meet local skeptics. It looks like a very fine and active group.

"The Amazing Meeting" - TAM - was, of course, "amazing" as always. I won't try to summarize who spoke at the conference, and what the subjects of discussion were, because plenty of information is available on-line about that. A good starting point is here.

I cleared a seat for Randi in the front row as McGaha packs up

As for UFO-related content at TAM, there wasn't a lot. On Thursday before the sessions started, James McGaha presented a workshop titled Astronomy for Skeptics: Investigating "lights" in the Sky. He brought a suitcase full of stuff like powerful green lasers, compasses, a video camera, maps, etc. to illustrate his presentation (that TSA found so suspicious that they broke into his suitcase, took everything out, and examined it. And they did the same thing on the flight back home!) . James spent a lot of time explaining about the different types of compasses and how each one is used, how to determine your magnetic declination from a topographic map, etc. In my opinion, this is going about things the hard way. I asked him, since lots of people today carry smart phones, why not use a program like Google Sky to determine what astronomical object is being seen? (There are plenty of even more sophisticated astronomy Apps for smart phones, but the free Google Sky App is simple and sufficient.) "Those programs are not accurate," he replied. (James doesn't have any kind of cell phone). I replied that Google Sky has always been accurate each time I have used it. I have seen people occasionally get a wrong result when something isn't set up correctly, but once you have installed the program and verified that it is giving correct results, you can rely on what it tells you afterward. Just take out your phone, point it at some bright object in the sky, and you'll know instantly whether it is Venus, Jupiter, Vega, or whatever.

John Alexander (left) and James McGaha
In my earlier conversations with John Alexander, author of UFOs Myths Conspiracies and Realities (one of the better pro-UFO books), he had expressed interest in meeting and chatting with some of the skeptics. Knowing that he lives in Las Vegas, I invited him to come out and meet us for one of our nightly "sessions" in the hotel bar. Dialogue is good! John is properly skeptical of most UFO conspiracy claims, but he is in my view too trusting of "eyewitness reports" by "credible observers." One also needs to pay attention to whether an observer's story has changed over the years (if so, it always gets more dramatic, not less). In the case of the supposed "UFO landing" at Rendlesham Forest, UK, a major case in Alexander's book, the observers' stories have grown over the years from 'lights in the sky' to 'structured craft that landed.'

The only other UFO-related event at TAM was the paper by Ivan Alverado on the analysis of the Billy Meier UFO metal sample. Billy Meier is a man in Switzerland who gets photos of impossible things, like dinosaurs and "spaceships from the Pleiades." His photos are colorful and entertaining, but utterly bogus (see http://www.iigwest.com/investigations/meier/ ). Meier is also a "prophet" who has produced something called the Talmud Jmmanuel that supposedly proves the extraterrestrial origin of the Bible.

Billy Meier and the extraterrestrial hottie, Semjase
In 1985 Dr. Marcel Vogel (1917-1991), a chemist who worked as a Senior Scientist for IBM for 25 years, analyzed a supposed sample of UFO metal provided by Billy Meier. Vogel  dabbled in all manner of New Age woo, like healing with "crystal energy." I saw Vogel give a lecture in 1982 in which he used "applied kinesiology" to prove that holding a crystal against your body makes you stronger (see p. 105 of my book Psychic Vibrations). But Vogel was a paradoxical figure, because his inventions of surfaces for use in hard drives was of enormous value to IBM.

Vogel's analysis, using highly-sophisticated X-ray spectrum devices, supposedly showed that the makeup of the metal sample could not have been created by any known earthly technology. He suggests it may have been created using Cold Fusion. Alvarado's analysis is highly technical - you can read it here - but in a nutshell, Vogel did not properly interpret the X-ray spectrum data, and the sample is made of ordinary substances like aluminum.

TAM 2012 was great fun, and I'm definitely planning to head back there next year!


  1. Did you stop at the Little Ale Inn (or whatever it's called) enroute from Reno to Las Vegas? Aren't there supposed to be 'strange happenings' along that route, or am I confusing it with somewhere else?

  2. cda,

    No. The shortest path from Reno to Vegas involves driving east on I-80 for about 30 miles, then taking some local roads east about another 30 miles, over to Rt. 95, which then takes you directly to Vegas, about 400 miles away. Tonopah is on Rt. 95, however the Little A'Le' Inn is in Rachel, 97 miles east of Tonopah along the "Extraterrestrial Highway." So the trip would be substantially longer to go that way.

    However, I did stop off at the Little A'Le Inn back when this "ET Highway" stuff began, in 1992. (See p. 83 of my book Psychic Vibrations.)It was a cute place, but hardly worth the diversion. And there have not been any 'strange happenings' along the route that I am aware of, other than people seeing Lights in the Sky and calling them UFOs.

  3. Thanks Robert. Ivan's speech was very interesting. Once he explained what he did and how he did it, I was surprised that no one else had challenged the sample before. I guess because it takes a very specialized person to care about this topic with specialized equipment, and that isn't likely.

    The MENSA Reno event was a blast.

    Super glad we were able to hang out!

    1. Hi, Susan.

      Yes, it certainly takes specialized knowledge and experience to investigate a claim like this. Ivan is one of the few people who could do so. Also Vogel's analysis of the metal is not that well-known, it's not something you read about in every UFO book (like Roswell or Rendlesham). Plus most serious students of UFOlogy of whatever persuasion realize that Billy Meier's stories are total B.S. from top to bottom. The drawing above illustrates exactly what Meier claims happened to him, repeatedly. How believable is that?

      Yes, it was great hanging out at both conferences. See you at TAM again next year, if not sooner.

  4. That's not Billy Meier with Semjase in the drawing. It's James Randi.

  5. Check out the Cleveland artist being hailed as the daVinci of this, the digital age, Marc Breed. Creator of the psychedelic peace symbol, male exotic dance pioneer, filmmaker to two of the highest grossing adult films of all-time, civil and first amendment rights advocate, and if that weren't enough, he readily admits to having escaped from one of America's most secure prisons (his golem remains in the prisons archive).And to boot, he has a testedI.Q. Of 152.


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