An unsupportable claim

I just got an e-mail from the James Randi Educational Foundation, promoting this year’s Amaz!ng Meeting. There was a time when I might have wanted to go to TAM, but that time is long past, especially since this year’s speaker lineup is a veritable who’s who of people I have no desire to hear from or be around.

The reason I wouldn’t have gone to TAM in the past is mostly because of the cost. I go to comic and geek conventions pretty frequently, and I realize that TAM is a different sort of beast–more like a professional conference–but the difference in cost has always been kind of staggering to me. Just to attend TAM for the four-day event is $475 this year, without any of the workshops, dinners, or extra bells and whistles. If I wanted to spend the same amount of time at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the “TAM” of the comic/geek culture world, I’d be spending $150. For a convention that’s closer to home (and likely closer to the attendance size of something like TAM) like the Chicago Comic-Con, I’d pay $90.

Comic conventions finance their tickets by having vendors pay to set up booths, and the goal is to have people come, see panels and presentations, and spend their money on the convention floor, and hopefully everyone makes a profit except the attendees, who leave with various goods that they didn’t have before. TAM, apparently, doesn’t work quite the same way. Certainly there’s a greater focus on panels and speeches, but one would think they could defray some of that $475 by having a few more vendor tables set up. Doesn’t everyone have a book to sell?

Again, I digress. It seems my perception of TAM’s cost as being excessive isn’t an uncommon one, hence at least one of the points in this e-mail, “Six Reasons Not to Miss TAM 2013.” To whit:

and…
6. TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in. Hotel rates for similar conferences range from $150-200 per night, while our TAM group rates go as low as $45 a night! But the group rates end tomorrow, so book your hotel room right now with JREF’s group code AMA0707!

The thing that stuck out to me there is this claim: “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in.” I hope the JREF won’t mind when I say that I’m a bit skeptical about that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that such a claim is absolute, transparent, unsupportable bunk.

I immediately thought of Skepticon, a skeptic/atheist conference I actually do want to attend. Skepticon not only typically has speakers I want to hear and is within driving distance, but it’s also free to attend. The other costs to go would have to be pretty exorbitant to end up more than TAM’s $475+.

So I decided to do the skeptical thing: I crunched the numbers. All the information here is from quick searches of available websites, TAM’s information, and my situation. It’s going to be different for everyone, but they sent the claim to me, so it should be as true for me as for anyone else, right?

For TAM, I searched Hotwire.com for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Las Vegas. I figured I’d give TAM the benefit of not including the cost for me to drive into O’Hare (I’d prefer Midway, but the prices were considerably higher). The cheapest ticket I could find for the duration of TAM was $372. Changing the dates around a little–leaving a day later, arriving a day earlier, etc.–didn’t produce much difference. No telling if that’s before tax or after, or whatever.

I’ll take JREF’s word on hotels, that I could find one for $45 per night. Assuming I stay three nights (11th, 12th, 13th) and leave from the convention on the 14th, that’s $135.

We’ll ignore food and other incidentals. I’m sure both Vegas and Springfield have their share of cheap eateries. The price to beat is…$982.

For Skepticon, it’s within driving distance for me, though it’s a long drive. Going by a very low estimate of my admittedly fairly efficient car’s gas mileage (35 mpg–it’s usually more like 37), and assuming a fairly high average fuel price of $4.00 per gallon, it’d cost me $54.29 to make the trip there, so about $108.57 round trip.

There are lots of lodging options in Springfield. The hotel associated with Skepticon’s convention center would be $139/night, and I’m still assuming 3 nights. That would put me at $417 for lodging, but I could probably do better. If I didn’t mind going someplace a little less fancy, and I don’t, I could get a room within five miles of the Expo Center for $53/night at the Days Inn, according to Expedia. That would translate to $159 total. Let’s split the difference, and say I wanted to get a room at the DoubleTree right near the convention center. $109/night translates to $327 total.

TAM Total: $982
Skepticon Total: $436 (rounded up)

Unless food and transportation around Vegas is dirt cheap compared to Springfield, MO, the claim is refuted, and exposed for the ridiculous bit of hyperbole it is.

Of course, I know what the JREF supporters will say. “Skepticon isn’t a skeptical conference, it’s an atheist conference! There’s no comparison!” It’s a dumb distinction, and one not entirely based in fact, but one we’ve run into before. So I checked out the upcoming CSI conference, The Skeptical Toolbox, explicitly and obviously a skeptical conference put on by the organization that used to be CSICOP. Even the most wallbuildery of skeptical wall-builders can’t claim that’s some atheist-in-skeptical-clothing conference.

CSI Total: $492 round trip airplane ticket + $245 room and board + $199 registration = $936

Almost $50 less than TAM, and that includes meals! Look, I know it’s a small thing, but I kind of think that making unsupportable claims in the service of advertising for a skeptics’ conference is counterproductive. We wouldn’t accept this kind of blatant dishonesty from other services or organizations, we sure as hell shouldn’t accept it from the JREF. For shame.

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29 Responses to An unsupportable claim

  1. Jim Lippard says:

    FYI, TAM does include three breakfasts and two lunches with the registration. Your Skepticon comparison is rather location-dependent–for me, I’d have to fly to Skepticon, while I could drive or fly to Vegas for less than the cost to get to Springfield. A round-trip ticket for TAM today would cost me $197, vs. $504 for Springfield with the same dates (according to Google’s ITA Software). The overall costs would be comparable if I wanted to stay at the conference hotel in both cases (the South Point Casino JREF rate was $45/night for Thu, $85/night for Fri, Sat)–TAM $475+$197+$215 = $887, Skepticon free+$504+$417 = $921, without comparing meals (are they included at Skepticon?).

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    I mentioned in the post that it would be different for everyone, but that since the e-mail makes the claim, it should be true for the people who are receiving the e-mail. Since you could drive to Vegas, I’d be curious what your cost would be for CSI’s Skeptical Toolbox conference in Eugene, OR, which includes meals. Or, as Kate Donovan mentioned in Pharyngula’s comments, the SSACon in Vegas, which has comparably priced lodging and tickets under $100.

    I had no illusions that everyone would be in the same boat, though I suspect that I’m not alone in being able to find a conference cheaper than TAM within driving distance. But that variation is part of why the claim is so ridiculous. It’s not “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in for people who live west of the Mississippi” or “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other Las Vegas skeptic conference sponsored by JREF when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in,” or even “For some people, TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than most other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in,” any of which would have been more reasonable claims. As stated in the e-mail, in the mass e-mail that they sent to tons of people, the claim is unsupportable. It may apply to some small subset of the recipients, but it’s far too specific to apply generally.

    It’s just sloppy, and sloppy in a way that makes it look, at least, like they’re willing to compromise accuracy for marketing. Which seems to be antithetical to the JREF’s skeptical mission.

  3. Lorien says:

    You can’t compare TAM to Skepticon, The quality of the speakers at TAM is way better and as a bonus this year, almost no A+ers are going according to many reports from them. Plus, they don’t have bacon.

  4. pzmyers says:

    Jim Lippard: That’s the point. Travel, lodging, meals are going to vary from individual to individual, so you can’t make the comparison except by assuming that all those other factors even out. And TAM has an extraordinarily high registration fee which is awfully hard to compensate for.

    Also, you’re getting gouged badly if your airfare to Springfield is that high.

  5. Doubting Tom says:

    Lorien: I disagree, but that’s beyond the point. JREF’s claim didn’t include any mention of speaker quality, A+ affiliation, or bacon. Inserting these extra qualifications after the fact is what we in skeptical circles call “moving the goalposts.” I’m sure someone at TAM will be happy to explain this to you in more detail. For the price, I would certainly hope so.

  6. Lorien says:

    Skepticon has bacon? Only if you order it at a restaurant.

    TAM will be a great conference this year. It doesn’t have the likes of PZ, Benson, RW, etc…. there crying how they are harassed. It is now safe to ride the elevators again.

  7. Doubting Tom says:

    Yes, you’re very special. I’m sure TAM is thrilled to have attendees with your strong grasp of basic logic, your grammatical acumen, and your keen reading comprehension skills. Just as I’m sure that eating bacon with semi-celebrity libertarians and getting patted on the back for those tired jokes is worth $475.

  8. ubi dubium says:

    For those on limited budgets hotel rooms can be shared, so the registration fee is a bigger factor in costs. I made it to TAM9 only with a Surly grant, roommates, and careful budgeting for food and not going to any of the workshops. Having some meals included with the registration fee helps, which TAM does, but it’s still too big a stretch for a lot of the secular community to afford.

    WIS2 had some low-cost student registrations available, and I think that was a great idea.

  9. Jim Lippard says:

    Doubting Tom: I could get round trip to Eugene for $292 (using the same dates as TAM for comparison purposes). So that would come out cheaper than TAM, using the other numbers you’ve supplied. There are further ways to cut costs for these (e.g., a roommate cuts the hotel bill in half for TAM, or by $30 for the Skeptical Toolbox, and TAM is $100 cheaper for students).

    I agree with your main point that the original claim was overstated. I would have said something like “may be cheaper than other skeptical conferences … when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in,” with an asterisk for “your mileage may vary.”

    P.Z.: That is the best rate today according to ITA, which doesn’t include Southwest fares. I just checked Southwest, it’s a bit cheaper at $365.60, which would bring the Skepticon total down to $782.60, or $104.40 lower than TAM (not counting meals).

  10. Lorien says:

    Tom, “There” should be “Their”….. Big deal. Hope you enjoy yourself not going to TAM. It will be a nicer environment with the likes of you not there. We feel safe at TAM!

  11. Doubting Tom says:

    Swing and a miss there, Lorien.

  12. Lorien says:

    MEH

  13. monado says:

    Are these fleas everywhere? If that’s who’s going to TAM, I’m glad I’m not.

    A conference expense claim should really only include the hotel and conference fee plus a count of included meals.

  14. Lorien says:

    Yup, we are everywhere. It should be noted that the early registration fee was $425 for the 3 full days and another $100 for the day of workshops. So with $45 for the Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday nights and $85 for the Friday and Saturday nights, that makes TAM cheaper than some other conferences.but not all. Obviously, having a free conference would be nice but then you can’t pay as much for speakers. I thought about going to Skepticon last year but I didn’t feel safe going there.

  15. Julien Rousseau says:

    Lorien:
    “that makes TAM cheaper than some other conferences.but not all.”

    So you admit that the claim that “TAM 2013 is actually cheaper than any other skeptic conference when hotel, travel, and meals are factored in” is wrong given that the claim is _any_, not _some_, which is disproved if a single conference is cheaper than TAM.

    The question is, why did the JREF make such a strong claim when they could just have easily said that TAM might be cheaper than you might think and then explain why.

  16. that makes TAM cheaper than some other conferences.but not all.

    Yup, we’ve already established that their ad is misleading.

    It’s true TAM gets “big names”–at least they have in the past, their lineup this year seems a little etiolated–but bigger names doesn’t automatically mean better speakers. Especially when it’s always the same ones, saying the same things, over and over. Then there’s the spectacle of assholes fawning over the big-name speakers….

    But to each their own. Have fun eating overpriced bacon! I’ll be at the beach.

  17. Lorien says:

    I can’t answer why? I never said I agreed 100% with their statement. Was it someone’s poor attempt at marketing skills/slogans? Could it have come from everyone saying WIS2 was way too expensive because it was in DC and the hotels were really expensive???? I have been to about 8 atheist and skeptic conferences and yes, there were some that are more expensive than TAM and some that are cheaper. Flights to and hotels in Vegas are typically cheaper than other destinations of equal distance and times of the year. Given that starting point, the so called premium cost is balanced out. I went to AAI2009 in Burbank and that was more expensive than TAM but there were many big time stars there. All this infighting in the atheist movement has to stop. It is really hurting all of us. Many are just leaving because they just can’t be bothered with the debate of you’re either with us or you’re against us and A- (A less). Just call yourselves atheist humanists because that is what A+ is. I don’t have a problem with their goals and ideas but I do have a problem of the divisiveness and the “against us” label given to us.

    Conferences are as safe as anything else in our society and I would say they are/were much safer. I had no problem leaving my cameras and stuff at my seat at any of the atheist conferences. I felt completely safe at the Reason Rally in that crowd of more than 25,000 strangers and they were all friendly and happy for being there. It felt like a big family.

    Vegas is a great attraction and I am going there for more than just TAM and staying 10 days even in the heat of mid July. What is there really in Springfield Missouri in the middle of November that can compare to Vegas?

  18. Lorien says:

    The bacon is free at Penn’s Nogod Band party. It is suggested a donation is made to his charity as admission to the free event but you don’t have to.

    Yes, it is all the same stuff over and over again from the same speakers. At atheist conferences, how many ways can you say there are no gods???

  19. Doubting Tom says:

    Monado: Yes, they’re everywhere, they’re obnoxious, and they only know one tired, dumb tune. They’re the Ted Nugents of skepticism.

    Lorien:

    All this infighting in the atheist movement has to stop. It is really hurting all of us.

    A) We aren’t a religion with creeds and credos. The only thing that unites us is a shared lack of belief in gods. Of course there are going to be disagreements.
    B) Skeptics and atheists are not above the same cognitive biases and errors of thought that skepticism tries to expose and ameliorate. Just as there are skeptics who profess belief in gods (e.g., Pamela Gay), or atheists who reject medicine (e.g., Bill Maher) or accept intelligent design (e.g., Raelians). As a result, there should always be some infighting. A lack of infighting indicates a lack of rigor in testing and examining beliefs.
    C) “Infighting” suggests that there’s some parity in the violence. There isn’t. The “infighting” that you’re referring to is largely one-sided, and would stop if that one side would stop. If the entitled asshole wing of the atheist/skeptic movement could stop with the ongoing harassment and sniping and petty “satires” and “parodies” and abuse and threats, then you’d find a lot less “infighting.”
    D) Is it really hurting you? Oh, poor you. Have you been the target of two years of ongoing abuse and harassment online and off? If I go to Twitter, will I find a half-dozen Lorien “parody” accounts tweeting things you’d never say? Given your flip “I didn’t feel safe going [to Skepticon],” I’m betting not. I’m betting that the worst you’ve gotten is being blocked or banned from a blog or Twitter account. Maybe you’ve been called an asshole for belittling people and, well, other asshole moves. But I’m willing to bet that you’ve never been threatened with rape, that you’ve never been threatened (let alone threatened twice) with acid being thrown in your face and then been called hysterical for not laughing at the funny ha ha totes funny joke. So when you talk about the “all of us” who are “really hurting,” I really can’t muster up any sympathy. You’re still here, beating the same dead horse that your pals at the Slyme Pit have been beating for the last two years. When you get bullied off the Internet, then maybe I’ll shed a single tear and whip out the world’s smallest violin for you.

    Many are just leaving because they just can’t be bothered with the debate of you’re either with us or you’re against us and A- (A less).

    There’s no debate, dipshit. Atheism Plus was an attempt for some people to divorce themselves from the toxic segments of the movement. Instead, the toxic elements just got more and more toxic in response, simultaneously calling them divisive (well, yes, that’s the point), saying “get out of our movement” (again, that’s the point), and accusing them of forcing their “dogma” down everyone’s throats (which, again, is exactly the opposite of the point, which was to leave).

    I’d also like to see the citation for your “many are just leaving” claim. See, I’ve seen people leave the movement, but not because of “debate” or Atheism Plus. I’ve seen people leaving because they’ve seen the response that women get in this movement for saying “guys, don’t do that.” For treating threats like they might be threatening. For talking about sexism or privilege or heteronormativity or issues faced by people who aren’t in the majority on every social axis. They’ve seen slurs and threats thrown around like spitballs in a middle school lunchroom, for no provocation, and they’ve seen so-called skeptical leaders respond to mild criticism by whipping out the Nazi and Stasi and Commie and Inquisition accusations. There’s a reason you don’t see Jen McCreight around much anymore; there’s a reason Surly Amy dropped off the face of the Internet for awhile. There’s a reason Laci Green doesn’t do atheism videos anymore. It’s not because of “debate.”

    Just call yourselves atheist humanists because that is what A+ is.

    A) No, it isn’t.

    B) Why do you care what they call themselves? If you’re not part of that group, then what does it matter to you, and what gives you any say in what label they choose?

    I don’t have a problem with their goals and ideas but I do have a problem of the divisiveness and the “against us” label given to us.

    And exactly who has given you that label? Exactly why do you care? Why pick that fight, and not, say, any of the other “against us” labels given to you by other groups (anti-vaxxers, Christians, Muslims, etc.)?

    But you know, if you have been labeled “against us” by someone, it’s not for no reason. You come into comment threads that aren’t about Atheism Plus in any way, and you make snide remarks about how you don’t like Atheism Plus and how much better TAM is now that Miranda Hale and Russell Blackford (for instance) are speaking instead of Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers. You think it’s a funny joke to belittle people’s responses to threats of violence and uncomfortable situations. You think it’s reasonable to make your jabs and insults and lame-ass jokes, and then call for peace and a stop to the infighting because it’s really hurting us. Give me a break. If you want the “infighting” to stop, if you don’t like being labeled “against us,” then maybe try reaching out the olive branch instead of making a cheap shot, not after.

    Conferences are as safe as anything else in our society and I would say they are/were much safer. I had no problem leaving my cameras and stuff at my seat at any of the atheist conferences. I felt completely safe at the Reason Rally in that crowd of more than 25,000 strangers and they were all friendly and happy for being there. It felt like a big family.

    Some people aren’t safe around their “big families.” Just because you’ve always felt safe and have never had any problems doesn’t mean that’s the same for everyone, and we have evidence to back that up. I’ve never been in a building that was on fire, and yet, somehow I’m not out suggesting that organizations and buildings shouldn’t have fire escape plans in case a fire breaks out. I learned a lot as a kid about how to report molestation, but it never happened to me. Should I oppose such educational efforts because it didn’t affect me personally?

    You’re falling for the availability heuristic, assuming your experience is necessarily representative of all experiences. It isn’t, and there should be a plan in place–to protect the victims and the organization in case something goes wrong. It’s not like anti-harassment plans are some newfangled PC nonsense; they’re standard for pretty much every workplace, and have been for decades.

    What is there really in Springfield Missouri in the middle of November that can compare to Vegas?

    I get it, you like Vegas. Again, your experience is not the only one. Some people don’t like the glitz and gambling and whatnot. Some people don’t have any desire to see libertarianism on parade and Powerpoint. Do you understand that your opinions and experiences are not the same as everyone else’s?

    Tl;dr: You have some real problems recognizing your cognitive biases and applying critical thought consistently. It’s a shame that none of those eight skeptical conferences helped you to correct that.

  20. David Diskin says:

    Don’t forget Sacramento Freethought Day. It’s a completely free event, and flights to Sacramento are usually pretty cheap (and only a two-hour drive for anyone in the Bay Area). Hotels in Sac range from $39 – whatever a night.

    Freethought Day is on October 12 this year, and we’ll have our website updated soon with our speakers. :)

  21. PatrickG says:

    @ David Diskin: Just returned to the Bay Area and I’ll make sure to check out your website when updated. Though I do hope it’s an event Lorien wouldn’t be interested in, and that opinion has nothing to do with bacon!

  22. Bronze Dog says:

    The thing that sickens me is that people like Lorien speak as if they are entitled to association with us, whether we want to be associated with them or not. We choose not to associate ourselves with them, so we made our own community that encourages higher standards of adulthood. If the slymepitters had their way with the skeptical/atheist community, I wouldn’t be identifying myself as an atheist or skeptic because I wouldn’t want the shame of being associated with them.

  23. Lorien says:

    And that is the reason we don’t want to be associated with you A+ people. Discussion is futile.

  24. Doubting Tom says:

    Mostly because our opponents can’t fucking read.

  25. Pingback: A fishy claim by the JREF.

  26. ubi dubium says:

    “And that is the reason we don’t want to be associated with you A+ people. Discussion is futile.”

    It IS futile when you throw around stereotypes like “you A+ people”. You’ve already made up your mind before starting a conversation. From there, of course it will be futile, because there won’t actually be any real “discussion” happening.

  27. Doubting Tom says:

    Well, right. And then there’s the fact that I kind of was discussing things, but they don’t actually have any support for their position, since it rests entirely on belittling others and ignoring/excusing mountains of evidence of bad behavior. As others have said, the only tools in their argumentative arsenal are false equivalence and tu quoque, along with some tired, lame jokes/insults they call “satire,” as though Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift spent their time thinking up ways to put the word “c*nt” into someone’s name and photoshopping their heads onto animals.

    The other problem is what they seem to think is up for discussion. Lorien is right: I have no interest in “discussing” whether or not women and minorities deserve equal treatment in the movement, nor have I any interest in “discussing” whether or not it’s okay to call someone slurs or participate in an ongoing multi-year harassment campaign. These aren’t questions that I’m somehow confused about. They’re obvious and settled matters of morality.

  28. Bronze Dog says:

    Lorien, June 12:

    All this infighting in the atheist movement has to stop. It is really hurting all of us.

    Lorien, June 14:

    And that is the reason we don’t want to be associated with you A+ people

    So, wait, you want us to be one big happy movement that gets along for our alleged collective benefit… but you don’t want to be associated with us.

  29. Pingback: Unskeptical Complaints | Dubito Ergo Sum

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