Skeptrack at Dragon*Con 2011
Tuesday I returned home from my third Dragon*Con, “the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe!” I’m not a big fan of crowds, so I probably would not choose to attend such an event without getting something significant out of it. In this case, I certainly do.
For those new to the community (and this blog), Skepticism is well-represented at Dragon*Con thanks to Derek Colanduno and Robynn (Swoopy) McCarthy of Skepticality. Derek is the director for Skeptrack, the skeptic fan track at Dragon*Con, with the help of Swoopy (who directs the podcasting track) and a number of awesome staff. The track began as a few talks/panels on the Science Track and grew quickly, claiming a large room of its own. Equipment on loan from AburptMedia, along with some handy technicians (who, along with Derek, Swoopy, and the rest of the staff, donate their time) make it possible to stream the Skeptrack content in one’s home on another continent.
This year I participated in five events, including one on the Science Track. This was half as many as last year, so I was able to attend many more of the other talks and panels. But don’t get me wrong – I am quite satisfied that my work was productive and was very glad to be a spectator as others, particularly Phil Plait and Pamela Gay, appeared to run from room to room and talk themselves hoarse as I did at D*C 2010.
I particularly enjoyed a “quiz show” hosted by Brian Thompson called Wait! Wait! Don’t Fool Me! with contestants Phil Plait, Rebecca Watson, George Hrab, and Blake Smith. Tears were streaming down my face, I laughed so hard. Another great show was a series of cool science demos which reminded me of my childhood visits to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and the Museum of Science in Boston. Matt Lowry walked on glass! Here’s a short video of some of what I saw:
I also thoroughly enjoyed These are the Ways the World Will End, which discussed some plausible killers from space (comets and asteroids), the Earth (supervolcanoes), and organisms that live on the Earth (viruses and even zombies). There were also panels about skepticism and the humanities as well as skepticism and the arts. Manga artist Sara Mayhew talked about telling stories which incorporate critical thinking and Massimo Pigliucci’s talk about science and philosophy on the Science Track was a real treat.
A panel about activism was mostly excellent, with D.J. Grothe echoing some of the concerns about which I have written recently, but a few statements rubbed me the wrong way. In particular, Brian Brushwood appeared to advocate for “trying anything” without thought to whether it would accomplish any goals or finding out whether it’s been done before by someone who can offer advice. We need innovation, but careless abandon is dangerous and wasteful. Resources are limited and risks are always involved. Another point that was raised was that many people new to skepticism are concerned primarily with issues of religion. I fail to see the relevance of this point. All of the major organizations defend science and science education (e.g., evolution). All of the major organizations debunk testable claims with religious content (e.g., faith healing). Most importantly, however, there are many atheist organizations for those who would like to attack religion or make religion a focus. The idea that defending the focus and scope of skepticism somehow ties the hands of individuals is a bit silly. All of the major skeptic organizations limit their missions to testable claims for reasons which have nothing to do with the threat level or pervasiveness of the claim. The focus on evidence, not conclusions, is a matter of scientific integrity. But of course I have said all of this before.
Two other talks that did not disappoint were given by Genie Scott and Jonathan Strickland of How Stuff Works. Scott gave a fascinating history of creationism and Strickland covered consumer skepticism of tech products. Both were excellent.
A quick summary of the events in which I participated:
The Surprising Science of Self-Esteem – I admit that I was a bit nervous about the attendance for this talk, even though it was a terrific time slot (Friday night at 7pm) on the Science Track. It isn’t the kind of title that would attract me, but my hope was that some of the audience would be deterred from some of the self-esteem boosting BS that I’ve seen, which was more likely if they were there expecting to hear about it. I also pimped the talk to all of the friends I could find beforehand. It’s a topic I have spent a great deal of time with recently and I put quite a bit of work into the material for this talk. Of course the track itself is a draw and the room was packed as always.
I opened by warning the audience that I had misled them a bit. I was planning to talk about self-esteem, but more of the hour would be devoted to something related, but different: narcissism. I do not know if anyone was disappointed; unfortunately, an hour is just not enough time to cover the topic the way I’d wanted to cover it and there was no time for Q & A. Judging by the response (and the sharp victory cry of “YES!” from one audience member when I said, “If you were hoping for a motivational speech, you’ll be disappointed”), most in the audience were glad they stayed.
I will be writing about the topic and my talk in a series of blog posts. In the meantime, a few signs that you might be a narcissist:
- Your name is part of the title and/or URL of your blog (unless you are a best-selling author).
- Your resume is padded with exaggerated or imaginary accomplishments.
- You are as concerned with what your date is wearing as you are your own appearance.
- You believe that you can help others improve their appearance (makeover!) and you are not a hairdresser.
- You celebrate a win by yelling “In your face!” at your opponent rather than “Good game”.
- Your Facebook photo albums (other than your profile pics) include more pictures with you than without you, especially if the pictures are of you alone.
- You brag, especially when you’ve receive a compliment or two from people who are either biased (family and friends) or otherwise not in a position to judge.
- You equate criticism with disrespect or insults. Narcissists do not handle rejection or criticism well and many become angry and aggressive in response.
- You often park in handicapped spaces or red zones, cut in line, cram into elevators before letting people out, block isles and walkways, etc. Entitlement is very, very highly correlated with narcissism.
- You wear clothing with your own likeness on them.
- You have any bumper stickers or social media graphics like those below.
Education/Debunking: What’s the Difference? – JREF president D.J. Grothe moderated and the panelists were myself, JREF education director Michael Blanford, Skeptical Teacher Matt Lowry, Podblack Cat Kylie Sturgess, and IIG-West’s Brian Hart. I think that we agreed that ‘debunking’ was helpful in education and that teachers do not need to choose between facts and methods. Usually, teaching facts and debunking claims is best accomplished by discussing how we know what we know (empirical testing) and demonstrating that particular feats (e.g., apparent mind reading) can be accomplished without supernatural forces.
On the Ledge – Moderated by Derek Colanduno, this panel was originally planned as a discussion of the independent film The Ledge, but the film’s writer/director, Matthew Chapman, was forced to cancel at the last minute. Although the film came up, the panel, which included D.J. Grothe, NCSE executive director Eugenie Scott, Margaret Downey of The Freethought Society, and myself, focused on the definition of skepticism as well as the missions and scopes of the organizations promoting skepticism, secularism, and atheism.
I believe we agreed on the overlapping, but separate roles and goals of these organizations as well as the reasons demarcations between them exist. It is about more than focus and the best use of resources. It is a matter of maintaining integrity. Something that Genie Scott said stuck with me. She noted that we each have ideologies which we cannot and should not ignore; they make us who we are. However, these ideologies (about which we do not all agree) must be set aside in the pursuit of knowledge because they affect the way that we reason and make decisions (as the literature in my field has clearly shown). This is precisely the argument made in regard to the scope of skepticism (the broader scope, anyway): political, religious, and other ideologies carry with them the baggage of untestable claims, non-empirical conclusions, and conclusions which are arrived at through biased views of evidence.
Very Superstitious… – Moderated by Kylie Sturgess, panelists were me, Atlanta Skeptics Stephen King (a Stephen King, not the Stephen King) and Robert Blaskiewicz, and Skeptic Neurologist Steve Novella. We heard some funny stories about some of the more interesting superstitions which are widely (or narrowly) practiced and discussed the origins of superstitions as a natural product of the pattern- and control- seeking human brain.
Token Skeptic Podcast – I participated in a live recording of Kylie Sturgess’s podcast, along with Derek Colanduno and Steve Novella. It was the last day of Dragon*Con and Kylie was the only Australian in attendance this year. In a departure from the usual serious science and skepticism Kylie produces, she took the opportunity to abuse the Americans. In the first five minutes, she managed to claim Tim Minchin for Australia and disown Mel Gibson, throwing in Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe to boot. I think she just wanted an excuse to dump Mel on us. If that wasn’t enough, she tortured the audience with musk sticks and vegimite! Of course, I don’t know if you can call it torture when they volunteered, but she certainly would have known that they would be skeptical of Steve Novella’s description of vegimite (“It’s like chewing on my dirty gym socks.”) I likened it to Big Foot’s toe jam and I stand by that assessment. Musk sticks are a particularly vile “candy” which tastes strangely like aftershave. blech.
She did redeem herself by offering some wonderful carmels and discussing a topic I know little about: gaming. Apparently, my co-guests were both avid gamers and Novella wrote a few (well, more than that – 7) rule books. As the wife of a gamer who is often asked to calculate odds, I was impressed. The rules for these games are incredibly complicated and must be balanced enough to ensure that a game holds the players’ interest. I thought the panel was going well until the fire alarm went off and Kylie did her best Mel Gibson impression before diving off the stage into the audience… Okay, that’s not exactly how it went, but the panel did end and the ‘all clear’ was sounded before we got much further than the hall.