Darwin’s Bulldogs and the Rest of Dragon*Con

Posted October 31, 2009

I have intended to wrap up my Dragon*Con experience with a run-down of the panel discussions and talks I either participated in or attended. Since others have done that for me in the past month, a lot of this will involve links.

Darwin’s Bulldogs
The Skeptic Zone Podcast’s current episode (#54) includes a panel discussion on the Science Track which I found most enjoyable called “Darwin’s Bulldogs”.

NCSE T-Shirt I picked up at Dragon*Con

NCSE T-Shirt I picked up at Dragon*Con

I think that all of the panelists were thrilled to share the Table with Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. Dr. Scott and her organization are primarily responsible for the successful law suit against those attempting to inject “intelligent design theory” into biology classes in a public school in Dover, Pennsylvania in 2004. The result of this case was a clear legal labeling of this “theory” as religion, not science. So, she’s a bit of a hero to most of us who deal with evolution resistance in our classrooms.

Also on the panel are several other brilliant skeptics, all of whom I will mention shortly since I also shared the Table with them on other panels. Instead of summarizing the discussion here, I defer to the podcast where you can listen to it yourself — it really is a great discussion.

Luck, Amazing Coincidences, and Other Charm(ing) Delusions
My first duty at Dragon*Con was a wonderful panel discussion with Kylie Sturgess and Martin Bridgstock during which we discussed many common myths which have resulted from illusory correlations and other matters of “luck”. After a short introduction, Dr. Bridgstock discussed work by Richard Wiseman in which he asked people how lucky they thought they were, the measured just how lucky they actually are. You can guess the outcome.

Kylie talked about a review of the literature she conducted in an attempt to explain “full moon fever“. Of course there are many explanations for this effect, but the effect itself does not exist. (Click on that link, by the way. She managed to work in some ninja kitties!)

A favorite myth I spoke of is that sugar makes children hyperactive. This actually sparked some obvious frustration and anger from at least one audience member who expressed her skepticism during the Q & A which stunned me just a little. It was testimony to how strong these kinds of beliefs can be.

Skeptical Psychology and Skepticism in the Classroom
My last “job” was the Skeptrack panel which convinced me to attend Dragon*Con and my fellow panel members were moderator, Kylie Sturgess, Matt Lowry (Skeptical Teacher), Martin Bridgstock, and Point of Inquiry host (and CFI director), D.J. Grothe. The conversation followed an interesting path. After a discussion of how we each approach the challenge of teaching critical thinking to students who resist our epistemology, the audience seemed most interested in a topic which keeps surfacing in my own classroom: the poor learning strategies which result from outcomes-based education like the short-sighted, but well-intentioned No Child Left Behind Act. Unfortunately, teaching with the goal of improving scores on standardized tests does not promote learning, much less critical thinking. Although we did not propose solutions to this problem, we all agreed that this is an issue which needs some attention today.

Synesthesia-Fours are Red, Sevens are
Green, and Green Tastes Funny

How a synesthete with letter/color overlap might see written words

How a synesthete with letter/color overlap might see written words

I was also excited to participate in a discussion of synesthesia on the Science Track. This panel was requested by several attendees and this year someone volunteered me for the task. At the time, I was schedule for more (and more demanding) talks than what ended up in the final schedule and, since synesthesia is a neurological condition, and neuropsych is only a small part of my training, I was nervous to handle it alone. Thankfully, Jason Schneiderman, a clinical neuroscienst, stepped up to the plate and took over. Joining us was the ever-brilliant Steve Novella, so who could complain?

I wrote a summary of the topic and included a few demonstrations I produced for the talk in a recent blog entry.

BSG: The Last Half Hour, or ‘They REALLY frakked the daggit!’
I am still unsure how I ended up on a “fan” panel, but it seems to fit. This discussion, which included fellow “Bulldog” Christopher Barrett, and A.C. Trenya, focused on two things related to the final moments of the popular show Battlestar Gallactica. I will spare you the spoilers and just say that two of us and our moderator agreed that the ending was inconsistent with the rest of the show (basically, ALL OF IT) and fairly anti-science. As a scientist and skeptic activist, the show’s ending really bugged me, so this was definitely a good outlet for my discontent.

The Large Hadron Collider and Armageddon? Don’t Panic!
Finally, although I did not participate in this Science Track event (it was a solo talk by Matt Lowry), I wanted to mention it because it was a great example of skeptic activism rolled into science education. Matt did a fantastic job of covering the basics of this incredible machine in layperson’s terms. He also addressed many of the arguments given by those who have asserted that the collider is dangerous. I learned a few things about what we have accomplished in recent years and just how small a black hole created by the collider would be, but I will go into detail since Matt covers the topic quite well on his own blog.


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