THE 1999 Skeptics Conference in Auckland was a conference looking for a theme, and in the end none presented itself. We ended up with an eclectic mix of papers, ranging from “Reading Cats’ Paws” (Ken Ring) to the paper on philosophical skepticism based on the work of David Hume (James Allan).

We’d rather hoped a theme would arrive by default, and for a while during the planning sessions when the four of us (Heather Mackay, Robert Woolf, John Welch and myself) under John’s leadership, got around the kitchen table on a weekly basis there seemed to be a bit of a trend towards “risk” and “safety” as the papers firmed up. That proved unable to be sustained, and in the end the variety was what made the weekend enjoyable.

The title for the conference, “You Are Not Alone”, also arrived slightly limply by elimination, having put aside “Bollocks To Nostradamus” as too blunt, and “The Effect of the Resource Management Act on Crop Circles” as too long, but it kind of grew on us and it had an ironic but reassuring tone.

Apart from a rather optimistic attempt to get Peter Williams to speak to us for no fee on the legal aspects of recovered memory, everyone responded very generously, and we quickly had a full programme of speakers prepared to give us their time and opinions. Hugh Young’s theatrical and witty approach to ritual eased us through those times when things needed to be loosened up and kicked off. We are grateful that his religious period can still be called up, recovered and reconstructed.

Friday night’s Rife Generator promotional talk was a bit weird. I can’t help thinking the two presenters came along assuming the “Skeptics” must be sceptical of orthodox medicine. They were upbeat and the language was slick, the machine glowed and gave out a cocktail of waves, bringing on quite a thirst, and the video contained excellent images of coagulated blood stickily impairing the progress of the good and decent cells. At some stage of the treatment 12 metres of bituminous flotsam was removed from the bowel, at which point I decided to postpone my dinner.

It was the only time I can recall when the conference has had real live pseudo-scientific, alternative practitioners actually front up. From that point of view it was extremely interesting, a bit depressing, and also frustrating, as good manners outweighed the desire to dismantle their third-form biology and smash their machine against the wall.

The Saturday evening dinner was also in the spectacular but acoustically disastrous Railway Station. The food was a notch up on the old NZR menu (but only a notch), and we seemed to be heading for a real problem as David Lange’s booming voice bounced all round the tiled walls and arches. Some sensible person then decided to move closer and a minute later we were all gathered around like a Primer One class at the feet of the Fun Doctor. Still a bit hard to catch every word, but we all heard enough to realise that we are not the only interest group confronting the irrationals and eccentrics of the world — politicians face adversaries with equally strange world views. A successful and enjoyable evening after a difficult start.

The “Think Tank” (Skeptic Tank?) at the end of the weekend was added to the programme as a wrapping-up device, and it was a pity that there was no time for it to happen. Perhaps at future conferences there could be an hour or more put aside for debate from the floor focused on the group of speakers from the previous 1 1/2 days. We did try to leave enough time after each paper to give the audience a chance to respond and that seemed to work well.

The organising quartet put in regular lumps of time over a few weeks getting the event under way, but the success of the weekend was really the result of the generous and good-humoured input of the various speakers and presenters. All done for free. In fact they actually paid to be there.

See you in Dunedin 2000.

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