Credulous Books by Skeptics

I’ve been doing some reading here and there, first to prepare for our awesome GenCon presentations, and then to get ready for the upcoming academic year. And in each case, some of the reading I’ve been doing has forced my palm to meet my face.

First, as part of the last surge of brainstorming-and-research phase for our presentation on conspiracy theories, I read chapters from The Skeptic’s Guide to Conspiracy Theories. It’s an entertaining book, written as a critical examination of conspiracy nuttery with “penned-in” annotations by a conspiracy theorist caricature, or possibly just Alex Jones. Where the book really lost me, though, was in the chapter on the JFK assassination. In it, the author claims that the “magic bullet” theory–that a single bullet hit Kennedy, zig-zagged through the air, then hit Connally in at least two places, emerging almost unscathed–is an aspect of the official story. He also notes a litany of “suspicious” deaths that occurred to people peripherally involved with the assassination, and based on these traits assigned the JFK assassination conspiracy theory a fairly high degree of plausibility.

Now, I’ll admit that as far as conspiracy theories go, the JFK assassination is firmly ensconced on the more plausible end of the spectrum. In fact, Don and I put together this graphic of conspiracy theories that we didn’t get to use in the talk, and you can see that we were generally pretty favorable to the JFK assassination buffs.
Legend to be printed in a future post.
See, JFK is right there in the “pretty darn significant” and “only somewhat batshit insane” section of the graph. And even that’s largely because the secret has somehow been kept for over fifty years, and the conspiracies get pretty crazy pretty quickly. But it’s not hard to imagine, what with his Communist sympathies, that maybe Oswald was put up to it, or that Jack Ruby was working for the mob, or something along those lines.

That being said, the whole “magic bullet” thing smacks of not doing the research. The “magic bullet” is not a feature of the official story, but an anomaly seized-upon by the conspiracy theorists, based entirely on a misunderstanding of how Kennedy and Connally were seated in the car. When you account for the actual seating arrangement, with Connally sitting somewhat inboard and Kennedy elevated, the path of the “magic bullet” suddenly becomes a fairly straight-line path expected by an average bullet. And, of course, the “unscathed” bit is based on one misleading photo of the bullet; other photos show that it was all smushed in on one side and kind of twisted.

So that soured me on Cook’s book; if he could miss that bit of research–something that’s easily found in any number of sources, from TV specials to Vincent Bugliosi’s encyclopedia of the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History, then what else might he have missed? I own the book, so I suspect that I’ll come back to it eventually–everyone makes mistakes after all–but it was a little disheartening to see a book with “skeptic” right there in the title, and one of the few readily available skeptical guides on conspiracy theories, make such an appeal to credulity.

Fast-forward a few days, and my wife was looking to round out an Amazon order to get the free shipping. A book called Amazing…But False! had been floating around my “saved items” section of the Amazon cart for a year or three, and had recently dropped below $7. It seemed like exactly what I’d need for examples to stimulate critical thinking skills–there’s a foreword by James Randi!–and so forth, so I had her add it.

The book arrived today, and I started flipping through, reading items here and there. Most of them have been pretty good, although a lot of them were already pretty familiar. I was intrigued by one teased on the back of the book–“All Crop Circles are Hoaxes”–but it was presented there under the “True or False” header. The article was a whole lot less ambiguous, unfortunately. Author David Diefendorf gives a decent overview of the crop circle phenomenon, but cites “some experts” claiming they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and goes on to make a distinction between “true crop circles” and hoaxes. “There is a long list of characteristics that make it unlikely if not impossible for the ‘natural’ crop circles to have been fabricated by humans,” he says, then lists eight bullet-pointed traits of “genuine” crop circles that seem an awful lot like credulously repeating believers’ anomaly-hunting. Among the reasons are that “the leaves and stems of the plants manipulated in genuine crop circles are woven together in a fashion so intricate as to be impossible for pranksters to duplicate” and “of the legions of crop circles scattered all over the world, many are far too complex in design to have been fabricated by pranksters.” Most of them are like that: anomalies that make it “impossible” for any human to have crafted them. As St. Peter said, “You’re right, no human being could stack books like this.”

It’s disheartening to see such a failure of skepticism in the face of typical woo-woo tactics, but it’s especially galling in a book endorsed by James Randi.

I guess the takeaway is the same one that one should get from Snopes’s “Lost Legends” page: you can’t believe everything you read, even from otherwise skeptical sources. Unfortunately, it puts me in the position of having to independently research every entry before I present it to anyone else.

God dammit, CFI

I was going to write a post about the CFI’s indescribably stupid statement on the Park51 building in New York, and I still might, but Orac did it for me. Go read it.

I will repeat this exchange that I had with Don, which sums up my current feelings on the subject (not to step on Don’s “Me & Tom” series or anything):

Me: At this point, I think they ought to put a minaret on the goddamn Freedom Tower. And on it, carve “I disapprove of what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it.”

Don: With a picture of that guy from Futurama whose body parts were all artificial.

Yes. Absolutely.
Another victim of the maleocentric maleocracy.

Gen Con 2010 Wrap-Up

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know I’ve been involved with the Skeptical Gamers at Gen Con Indy from the start. That start was two years ago, when I attended an Indiana Ghost Hunters panel alongside the Action Skeptics and Wikinite. I wasn’t able to make it for last year’s big panel presentation, but I went a couple of weeks ago, and it was off the chain. I’m going to run through some of the highlights as I remember them. Expect this post to be long, rambling, and awesome:

The first thing to mention was our booth and presence: the Skeptical Gamers partnered with the Indiana Immunization Coalition to raise money and awareness for vaccine education in Indiana. Apparently there’s an education gap in the Hoosier State, such that even though they have enough money to vaccinate everyone, the combination of poor awareness in low income communities and misinformation in high income communities have driven Indiana to vaccination rates of about 74%, well below herd immunity for many preventable diseases. We had a lot of people asking about the vaccine drive, and nearly all of them voiced support for what we were doing. I only met one real vaccine ‘skeptic’ while we were there, and at least he was willing to have a conversation about the facts. Also, he had an awesome afro, so there’s that. Donations were slow until we started the raffle, which was only possible thanks to prizes donated by Blind Ferret Entertainment, Fantasy Flight Games, Slugfest Games, and True Dungeon. And things really picked up once Hilary Nelson started working the booth in his amazing Doctor Octopus costume.

Between the raffle and the regular donations, we raised about $400 for a good cause, which is not too shabby. More on that later, though.

In addition to the vaccine drive, we had a whole slew of talks, including one by Skepchick extraordinaire, Jen Myers. Which is not to say that lots of people didn’t give talks, but it seems like a good idea to start with the most famous, right? Sadly, scheduling conflicts meant I didn’t get to see either of Jen’s talks on building local skeptical communities, but I’m told they were quite productive, and may have some effects on the Indianapolis skeptical scene.

Besides Jen, I should note that Colin Thornton’s “Myths, Monsters, and Legends” talk was amazingly well-received, having sold out weeks in advance. The room was packed, from what I hear, and the convention employee who helped us set up the electronic equipment said that we could pack a larger room every day of the con if we had the same speech next year. So that’s pretty cool.

I unfortunately missed out on most of the talks, which is kind of a shame. One thing we realized quite quickly was that we’d need some tighter scheduling and more volunteers in the future, so Don and I weren’t running screens and projectors from room to room between talks. So while I’d love to give some details on William Brinkmann’s memoir on fictional tabloid writing or Sara Head’s talk on Archaeology vs. Pseudoarchaeology, I can’t do so without lying or making things up.

And that’s a real shame, since I hear that William Brinkmann turned into a dragon midway through his talk and did a Bollywood-style dance number with the whole crowd, while Sara Head gave her presentation while also killing the vampire zombies who had wandered in with the audience.

I quite enjoyed Tristan Zimmerman’s discussion of incorporating evolution and creation topics into gaming, however. He had some damn good ideas.

In more narcissistic news, Akusai, Magus, and I did two panels of skeptical topics, which were both fairly well attended and received. Learning from last year’s overloaded presentation, we put together a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style PowerPoint and limited ourselves to ~15 minutes on each topic. The panels were a ton of fun, and I think we’ll probably do something very similar next year. Except perhaps smoother, and giving Magus more time to talk. Our bad on that one.

Akusai’s talks on vaccine awareness were not particularly well-attended, but that was due to the time slot as much as anything. Given the vaccine drive, I think we might want to try making those more prominent in the future. His talk on how similar paranormal concepts differ along cultural lines, however, was great.

Akusai and I also talked a bit about Cargo Cult Science, and that was another fun discussion. If we did the topic again, I think we’d want to have a bit more technology available–specifically speakers–but we got the relevant points across.

My presentation on E-Mail Forwards was sparsely attended, but the audience seemed to enjoy it, and I thought it went quite well. If nothing else, it gave me a chance to show off my mad PowerPoint skillz and to make obscure references. One thing I forgot to mention, and so I should do it here in a more public forum anyway, is that I got a ton of research material from Norman Downes and David Nihsen. Thanks a lot, guys, I really appreciated the help.

That’s about the bulk of the skeptical stuff. I did notice one of the tract cards on the ground outside the convention center, but sadly never saw a preacher of any sort. Well, with one exception: Akusai and I dressed up as Jesse Custer and Cassidy (respectively) from Preacher on Friday.

One interesting note: there was a trio of booths on one side of the convention floor. On the left, the Bible Battles Card Game. In the middle, Blessed Be Games, a Wiccan organization. On the right, Cosplay Deviants, specializing in pinup characters of cute girls in scantily-clad outfits. I was waiting for fireworks to break out, but sadly, nothing.

I learned the joys of costuming this year, and I’m already itching to put together costumes for next year. I’m thinking of trying to convince some people to go to C2E2 this year, since I think the Preacher costumes would be more recognizable there. And yeah, I guess I’d probably dye my hair or something for it this time.

More fun was the day that I dressed as the Ninth Doctor and Akusai as Captain Jack Harkness. Lots of people recognized the looks, and we eventually got caught near a TARDIS prop for photos with four other Doctors. That was pretty entertaining, and I’d like to repeat it.

GenCon proved two adages for me as well. First, conventions are always easier when you have a booth. A booth provides a place to sit, relax, leave your stuff, and so forth, while you’re on the convention floor. This eliminates trips back and forth to the car and other problems experienced by non-exhibitors. Which means if I decide to go to C2E2, it’ll probably only be for a couple of days. Unless I can put together an exhibit somehow.

It was also a lot easier for me to resist buying things than it would have been at a comic convention. Which is good, because I had very little money. I made one real purchase, which I had planned to make ahead of time (the Eleventh Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver, if you must know), and that was really the only booth that I was seriously tempted by. Which doesn’t mean that other booths didn’t tempt me; there was a place selling old RPG books for a crazy discount that would have been Mecca for me when I was fourteen. West End Games Star Wars books? Yes, please!

The things which did tempt me tended to be more expensive this time, like places selling cool Renaissance superhero doublets. But the price tag (or what was implied by the lack thereof) made them easier to avoid, too.

White Wolf barely had a presence at the convention this year, and were somehow more hilarious in spite of it. Rather than a booth with product, they had a gothed-out vampire lounge, where they doled out pamphlets about their own convention and sold adult beverages. Boy, did I feel sorry for their booth babes. At least this year they weren’t coy about the White Wolf Party.

The party was pretty awesome. It wasn’t quite the great people-watching fest that the one two years back was, but we made our own fun. I won’t name names or anything, but when that inflatable icosahedron made its way to the dance floor, it was pure awesome.

Lots of guys were doing the Christopher Walken dance from Weapon of Choice, though, and that was…weird. Also, open letter to guys: it is not cool to dance while texting, even if you do look like the werewolf kid from Twilight. It is also not cool to stare at the girls in the go-go cages for half an hour without stopping, nor is it cool to try to dance with them when you’re outside of the cage. Seriously, just creepy.

The winner of the whole night, though, was the guy dressed as Frylock. We’d seen him at the con, and his costume consisted of painting his face red and wearing a headdress styled like french fries. It was off the chain, and it only got better when he came to the White Wolf party (fashionably late) dressed in a nice suit. Still better was when he climbed into a go-go cage and danced, with three other guys eventually joining him.

Also, they played “I’m On A Boat,” which was a nice change of pace from all the songs that sounded like either “Sandstorm” or “U Can’t Touch This.”

I’m having a hard time remembering anything else relevant, except for the last thing. As the con was closing down Sunday afternoon, Don and I went around to the various booths that had donated items to our raffle to thank the donors. We went to the Blind Ferret booth, where we talked a little bit to Ryan Sohmer–writer of Least I Could Do, Looking for Group, and The Gutters–about the fundraiser. He was very supportive and enthusiastic about the whole thing. He asked us how much we made, and when we told him it was about $400, he proceeded to give us $400 more. He apparently had food poisoning that weekend, and made a deal with God that if he stopped puking, he’d donate $400 to a charity. I’m going to quote his story as best as I can recall:

Sohmer: I said to God, “God, I don’t actually believe in you, but if I stop puking, I will donate $100 to a charity.” He eventually negotiated me up to $400.

Someone else at the booth: So you tried to Jew God out of money?

Sohmer: Yeah, you can’t Jew God. God Jews you. I’m Jewish, I know.

So, yeah, Ryan Sohmer: pure class. Seriously, fantastic guy. Next year I’m totally bringing enough money to buy all the LICD collections.

So, overall, the con was great. We learned a lot about what to do differently next year, and I suspect you’ll be seeing some of that kind of thing popping up on the Skeptical Gamers blog in the coming months. This year’s resounding success have ensured that we’ll be trying to make it even bigger and better in 2011. We had an awesome time, and we hope next year you’ll come out to have an awesome time with us.

Skeptical Current Events

Despite my absence from blogging lately, big happenings are…happening in the skeptical world. Here’s a brief run-down of some of them:

First, my good friend Akusai of the Action Skeptics will be appearing on Skeptically Speaking this Friday next Friday, March 5th, at 8 PM EST to talk about the Skeptic Symposium we’re doing at Gen Con this year. Give it a listen; I certainly will!

Did I mention the Skeptic Symposium at Gen Con? Because it finna be off the chain, yo! Akusai, Magus, myself, Jon Maxson, and various other skeptical folks will be gathering together for a variety of presentations, talks, and events, including an awesome vaccine fundraiser. Akusai has done all the heavy lifting to get this whole shebang together, while I’ve slacked off so much that I can’t even return e-mails to important organizations in a timely fashion, so make sure to give him oodles of kudos for his efforts while I ride his coattails to skeptical stardom.

Speaking of me riding coattails, Akusai has also been working on Skepchicamp, a Chicago-based event featuring presentations by some of the biggest names in the Skeptosphere, including Akusai, Bug Girl, various Skepchicks and Hemant Mehta! Also, I’ll be there to talk about something or other, but you can skip that bit if you want. Heck, I might even skip it, depending on how long the book-signing line around Hemant is, so I can’t blame you. In any case, you know you want to come, so get your ticket and show up at the Brehon Pub in Chicago on March 6th (next Saturday) from Noon to 10 PM CST.

In other news, the forums over at have shut down amidst a great deal of drama. I first learned of this from Peter Harrison, a former moderator on the blog who provided an in-depth look into the ugly politics and dirty dealings surrounding the whole event. He presents a level-headed account backed up with direct quotes from people involved, and it doesn’t look good for the administration team at the Dawkins site.

Which is why I was so puzzled when PZ wrote a post about it, saying he didn’t want to get involved, and making a series of irrelevant points that displayed either an ignorance of the complaints (despite linking to the Peter Harrison post) or an amazing strawman of the complainants. The situation was exacerbated when Dawkins himself did much the same thing, painting all the disgruntled commenters with the violently colorful and abusive language of a few, and citing those over-the-top comments as justification for the forum’s closing when, in fact, the comments came from a different forum after the forums had been closed and mangled.

I didn’t have a horse in this race, really. I haven’t ever been a regular visitor to those forums. If I’d heard about the situation from PZ first, I likely would have just rolled my eyes regarding another overreaction by peoples on the Internet to trivial wrongs. But reading the Harrison account gave me a different perspective, and (as I mentioned in the Pharyngula comments) made me want to find out both sides of the story.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t. See, apparently in shutting down posting on the forums, the admins deleted several users, thousands of posts, and at least one thread critical of the coming changes. So, as much as I would have liked to have seen if the critical threads on the forums were as abusive as they supposedly were, I couldn’t. The evidence had been destroyed, which further confirmed at least part of the Harrison account.

This made me realize something important: nothing will cause me to distrust a person or organization faster than seeing them hide or destroy relevant evidence. The moderators and posters who have since flocked to boards like Rationalia may have all been overreacting potty-mouthed nutcases, whose abusive behavior led to the premature locking of the board, but without the offending thread, no one but the admins has any way of knowing that. Given the dearth of evidence to support what little explanation or argument has been put forth by the admin side, and actions like destroying evidence that at least seem quite dishonest and do nothing to promote trust or the appearance of trustworthiness, it seems to me that the only justified position would be to accept the moderators’ account of the events. Which, again, reflects rather poorly on the administration.

Ultimately, yes, this is a trivial thing, but it’s a microcosm for similar behaviors and situations outside of the Internet. If we’re being good skeptics, then our natural drive should be to doubt any story regarding events, examine the evidence, and draw our own conclusions about whom to believe. Consequently, destroying evidence–even (or perhaps especially) if that evidence is of hateful comments and angry dissent–should be anathema to the skeptic. If anything should be sacrosanct to skeptics, it should be evidence.

So when a major voice in the skeptical movement engages in apparent quote-mining and at least apparently suborns the destruction of evidence, it really casts them in a negative light, more than most things they could do (kind of like when they fail to quickly or adequately respond to a pseudoscientific buffoon being given a science award in their name).

This should be an object lesson in skeptical advocacy, especially in the Internet age. Skeptical blogs shouldn’t be afraid to allow negative and dissenting comments, and skeptics should be aware that allowing idiots and assholes to speak for themselves ultimately shows them to be idiots and assholes to any reasonable person. We often talk about how debates aren’t for the people involved so much as they are for the audience, and this is true even when it’s not actually a debate. Silencing critics, banning dissidents, and throwing evidence down the memory hole is what they do on Age of Autism and Uncommon Descent and Natural News. It should not be standard practice on any site that values reason, evidence, science, and skepticism.

Finally, for tonight, I stumbled on a post at an apparently recent addition to the ScienceBlogs community, Universe. I’ll admit that the blogs I follow on Sb are relatively limited; I rarely venture outside of Pharyngula, Respectful Insolence, and Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Sure, I hit up ERV occasionally, and I’ve recently become a fan of Tomorrow’s Table, but I don’t usually tool around the Seed Media conglomerate looking for new hangouts.

But I followed a sidebar link to a post called “No Skepticism Policy” that was about the last thing I would expect to find on the media group which plays home to so many skeptical and scientific voices. It’s ignorant in the purest sense, in that I don’t think there’s a lot of malice involved, just a general unawareness of what the skeptical movement is about (and a lack of desire to find out) and what the harm is, coupled with a willingness to smear an entire intellectual movement with the same Doggerel we hear from every quack with a blog and a degree in pomposity. I posted a comment in response to the post, but it hasn’t made its way out of moderation yet. I’m reproducing the comment below because I’m kind of proud of it, and I think it underscores something that even budding skeptics often forget: that debunking is the first step, not the last. Enjoy!

I can’t recall which skeptical luminary said it (I’ve heard it repeated several times, however), but the point of good skepticism shouldn’t be just “debunking,” and good skeptics understand this. Debunking is a necessary step, however; it clears out the garbage so that something better can be built. I won’t lie and say that there aren’t people in the movement who forget this essential second step, but to broadly paint all skeptics with the “just debunking,” “you just want to tear things down” canard is ludicrous and ignorant. Go to any of the major skeptical sites, shows, or podcasts, and what you’ll find is exactly what the advice I started out suggests: debunking presented alongside or as an introduction to quality education and enthusiasm about reality and good science. For instance, the UFO video you present was also “debunked” by Captain Disillusion, who discussed the same point as the video above while also demonstrating just how impressive the CGI artistry was, providing an object lesson in how knee-jerk skepticism can be just as wrong as blind belief, and being damned entertaining.

And you don’t even have to scratch the surface to find the same thing on any skeptical site, forum, or outlet, whether it’s Brian Dunning’s concise explanations of real science or the Novella brothers’ infectious enthusiasm about birds and nanotechnology and solar power or PZ Myers’s pictures of beautiful aquatic fauna or Orac’s Tales of the Hitler Zombie, I propose you’d have to do a pretty thorough search of the skeptical movement before you found any major voices who were just “debunkers.” Those who are, I suspect, are much like the author of the video you cited: uninteresting. There wouldn’t be a skeptical movement if it were just about “debunking.” I have a hard time imagining anyone buying a book or attending a convention or booking a cruise to hear nothing but people lambasting pseudoscience.

It’s all well and good to “believe in good science,” but the layperson cares as much about that as she does about UFO-man’s idiosyncratic belief system. The goal of good skepticism–and the practice of each and every popular skeptic–is to correct that latter problem, by being unashamed promoters of reality and hoping that their enthusiasm will infect others.

Allergic to Skepticism

Over the summer, I made the trip to visit Akusai, Magus, the Fianceé and Wikinite, along with an assortment of other Hoosiers. The trip was a blast–as any such gathering would be–but that’s not why I’m dredging it up several months later. No, the reason for the resurrection comes from something Akusai was talking about at the event–namely, his allergies.

I’ve recently developed several such allergies. I remember most of my life that I would get a cold or two in spring or summer. At some point, my body decided that wasn’t enough, so toward the end of high school, I started getting all those classic allergy symptoms at various times of the year, and always around cats.

I’ve never gone to an allergist; instead, I self-medicated. I experimented first with Benadryl antihistamines, and it only took a few weeks for me to realize that the reason I was falling asleep much earlier than usual was because of the whole “MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS” thing. I switched over to Claritin (loratadine) and its generic counterparts, and I haven’t looked back since.

So, when Akusai brought up his allergy problems, I chimed in that Claritin really helped mine. He (and he can correct me if I get this wrong) replied that it didn’t work for him, and that his allergist said it didn’t really work for anyone. I was taken a little aback, skeptic though I am–had I really fallen prey to Doggerel #70? I know I’m not immune to the placebo effect or other fallacies of thought, but this one surprised me a little. So, I resolved that I would do some research into the medicine and find out what kind of clinical evidence supported its efficacy.

And then, I didn’t do much else. I pulled up some articles on my iPhone at one point, but never really got around to reading them. I kept using the Claritin as necessary, mainly because I still had these bottles of it, and resolving to look into the literature eventually.

Eventually was within the last week, as it turns out. My fianceé, you see, has been using Zyrtec (cetirizine hydrochloride), and has been trying to convince me to give it a shot. I didn’t want to run into the same trap that I’d apparently hit with Claritin, so I decided to do some research. In the meantime, I bought a trial pack of the Zyrtec.

I also completely exasperated my fianceé by launching into full-on skeptic mode in the medicine aisle, explaining that I wanted to do the research, and that I wasn’t going to believe it worked just based on her self-reported experience. We also got into a bit of back-and-forth over whether or not the brand name mattered; clearly both bottles contain the same chemical (it says so on the label); why would one affect me differently? Apparently, I failed the “being skeptical without coming across as a dick” test. I’d like to work on that, but apparently the threshold is a lot lower than I suspected.

Anyway, when I got home, I pulled up PubMed and searched for combinations of “loratadine,” “cetirizine hydrochloride,” and “allergy.” I read and skimmed a lot of abstracts, which covered an awful lot of terms that I didn’t understand, but at the end of it I was pretty well satisfied that both loratadine and cetirizine had been shown to be significantly more effective than placebo in controlled trials. Moreover, at least some of the abstracts suggested that the latter was more effective than the former, which has inspired me to continue at least trying Zyrtec. And by “Zyrtec,” I mean “generic cetirizine hydrochloride,” because I still haven’t been convinced that there’s a difference. My next big step is to see an allergist (now that I have insurance), so I can get a better idea of what exactly I’m allergic to.

The point of this meatspace anecdote is as a reminder that it’s easy, even for skeptics, to be fooled. I don’t (and I’d say, I can’t) really turn off that skeptical impulse, much to my fianceé’s consternation, but through laziness and assumptions, I can delay it, and I should be more careful about that. True, I can’t go researching each and every thing I do or consume or think about, but I can at least do the legwork when it’s my money and my health on the line. All told, that research didn’t take long, and while the details of the studies were well beyond my ability to comprehend, the conclusions were straightforward.

The other point is one I’m going to be working on in meatspace a bit more. As skeptics, we tend to be harsh and blunt because, I think, we recognize the value in that unvarnished truth (and because we like to argue). We understand that the only idea worth believing is one that’s been through an unrelenting gauntlet of harsh trials and uncompromising questions. We have a specialized vocabulary to describe all the ways that people can be fooled and can fool themselves, and we use it regularly.

Most people, however, are not as steeped in the skeptical movement as we are. Launching into a skeptical examination with all guns blazing, talking about the worthlessness of anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect and mistaking correlation for causation is all well and good in blog comments and TAM conversations, but it seems to come across as hostile to non-skeptics. I think it’s important to rein in those finely-honed skeptical impulses when we’re in meatspace dialogues, lest we come across as condescending know-it-alls.

Conversely, though, we also need to educate (and it’s difficult to educate peers without seeming like a condescending know-it-all) so that we can have these kinds of discussions, and so that other people understand why we are so focused on this harsh evaluation of ideas, beliefs, and claims. There is value in skepticism for everyone–except perhaps the woo merchants, frauds, and charlatans–and we have a responsibility to communicate and promote that. If we did it more often and more effectively, we’d have a lot less to worry about with regard to tone and civility.

They found our lack of faith disturbing

Continuing my convention report, I figured I’d briefly mention our encounters with fundies over the course of the weekend. Akusai wrote about it here (and here’s his first convention post), but I’m writing this before I read that, so my perspective isn’t tainted by anything except standard two-weeks-later memory loss.

According to the con-veterans, fundies at GenCon is a new phenonmenon this year. In any case, they were out in Force (pun intended, as you’ll see shortly). Sadly, the first one we encountered was probably the most entertaining, although the second set could have been fun if we’d been able to stick around.

So, I may be a little off on the whole timeline of the situation, but I think the first fundie was on Friday. We were walking out of the convention center toward either the parking garage or Video Games Live, and there was a guy on the corner in a Hard Rock Cafe: Sydney t-shirt handing out what looked like business cards. I took one and glanced at it:Holy Sith!And naturally I assumed it was for some store or new gaming system or something. I mean, it’s a convention, and it was a Star Wars business card; such things are a dime a dozen.

At some point, though, I turned it over. The giant wall of text was the first tip-off that something was wonky. Two sentences in, I made some sacred and profane exclamation, and showed it to the rest of the group. To those of us who pay attention to this sort of thing, “every painting needs a painter” is like a foghorn screaming “Ray Comfort”! The unconnected, back-and-forth non sequitur nature of the text, the list of rapid-fire asinine apologetics, and the way it violated copyrights to make its point all confirmed it in my mind. We had just been evangelized by one of Ray Comfort’s cronies. The website confirms (at the very least) that “Redeemed Scoundrels” takes inspiration from Comfort’s Living Waters Ministries.

So, as luck would have it, we had made a wrong turn and had to pass by our evangelist pal (heretofore referred to as “Smiley,” due to his perpetual, implacable, totally blank ear-to-ear grin) again. He tried to hand me a second card, and I just brandished the first and said “Ray Comfort? Really? Really? Is that the best you’ve got?” I shook my head and we walked to the corner.

Smiley followed us after a few moments and asked me “How do you know Ray Comfort?” I replied “Vapidity and insipidity of that magnitude can be seen from pretty much anywhere on the planet.” Note that the phrase I was looking for at the beginning was “arrogant ignorance”–not that what I said and many things besides aren’t equally true. Smiley was silent, his shit-eating grin totally unfazed. I just kind of looked at him, waiting for a response. Eventually Akusai said (something along the lines of) “We’re saying he’s kind of a shithead.”

At about that point, the traffic light changed and we began to cross the street. Akusai shouted back (again, something including but not limited to) “God doesn’t exist, and you can take that to the bank!” About another third of the way through the crosswalk, Smiley shouted a lame “Every painting needs a painter!” And we just laughed.

Somewhere in all that, or it may have even been later that day, Jason (one of our group) was somehow singled out to receive a pamphlet and a Book of Mark from a Jew for Jesus. The pamphlet was pretty funny–it had clearly been made in the very early ’90s, and referenced the Star Wars films, Burton’s Batman movies, Home Alone, and the Alien series, all as sequels that would pale in comparison to the second coming. It’s interesting how pure serendipity masked its total irrelevance, since there have been recent Star Wars, Batman, and Alien sequels. Sadly for our Messianic Semite pal, Home Alone still dates the piece. We didn’t have much contact with the Jew for Jesus, and the pamphlet wasn’t extreme enough to warrant extended blog attention; still, I’m not sure I understand what exactly the Jew for Jesus thing is. Are they just Christians who keep kosher, or what? What makes them not Christians?

We came out of Video Games Live later that night, and we noticed that a bunch of apocalyptic preachers had set up shop on the street corner, complete with a giant cross with a purple loincloth draped over it. I didn’t hear much beyond the usual end times clichés–something about this being the 40th generation or whatever the prophecy is. It would have been nice to stick around and mess with them, but we were all pretty tired by that point.

The remainder of the weekend provided us with only two more examples. First, on the same street corner as Smiley, there was a kid dressed in goth-punk garb, silently handing out the Star Wars cards. I took a second one in passing, just in case, and told him “that’s some real half-assed evangelism there. Congratulations.” He didn’t react much, and we didn’t see him again.

Finally, after the gothtastic White Wolf party, we were all riding home in Akusai’s car. We passed by a theater where signs proclaimed that Bill Maher was performing. And outside the theater? A candlelight vigil. Oh, how I wish we could have participated in that.

Coming in the next day or two, I’ll finish stuff off with a brief recap of the White Wolf party (we saw the Prime Minister!) and a sentence-by-sentence evisceration of the Sith card. Hokey religions and ancient apologetics are no substitute for a good argument at your side.

The Big GenCon Report

I’ve had the better part of a week to recover from the GenCon weekend, so I’d better start writing things down before I forget it all. In a word, it rocked. There were some serious moments of fail, and convention fatigue settled in pretty heavily by the end, but overall it was a blast. The cast of characters includes Akusai, Magus, and the Girlfriend, Wikinite, Jon, the Action Skeptics’ friend Jason, and a few assorted others. What follows is a catalog of my impressions, in no particular order.

  • GenCon was a very different experience for me, compared to my last three trips to Wizard World. Since I was there as an attendee rather than an employee, I wasn’t tied to any one spot for any length of time. While that allows for some freedom, it also meant that I didn’t have any place where I could go, leave my stuff behind, sit down for awhile, and just chill while still on the convention floor.
  • Besides that, it’s been years since I picked up dice in an RPG setting, and I’ve never been much of a board game geek or a MMORPG player. The convention, consequently, was directed at an audience slightly to the left of me. So, while at Wizard World I’m scrambling to do all the things I want to do, buying everything in sight, and getting autographs from everyone I recognize at various booths, I was a lot more laid back at GenCon. I kind of went with the crowd, stopping occasionally to admire or purchase things. While I was easily the most purchase-happy person in the group, I really only bought a few things–the five printed collections of Order of the Stick and a bunch of Doctor Who toys. I exercised restraint in the latter instance, deciding against buying the TARDIS interior playset. Gotta leave something for next year’s convention season, after all.
  • And yet, despite not really having any kind of plan or driving intent, I did an awful lot of things. In fact, about the only thing I didn’t get to do enough of was hanging out with Diamondrock. Our schedules (and my cell phone reception) didn’t allow more than a bit of smalltalk over the course of the weekend, and that’s regrettable. I think I’m going to have to make the trip out to his neck of the woods one of these coming weekends.
  • One other thing that differed between this convention and Wizard World: the prices. At WW, booths are falling over themselves to see who can offer the best deals and cheapest books. Cover price is usually reserved for the newest releases and the graphic novels at Graham Crackers; comics and books go for ridiculously low prices, which is why I buy so many. At GenCon, not so much. There were places with boxes of RPG books or out-of-print stuff at discounted rates, but most folks were selling at or over retail on most things. It wasn’t the bargain-crazy atmosphere I expect from conventions these days.
  • Indianapolis was gorgeous. It was my first time in the city (as far as I can remember), despite the fact that I spent a good portion of my formative years in Fort Wayne, and I really liked the atmosphere. It felt a bit like a smaller, more manageable Chicago, or a slightly less walkable Denver, albeit with more panhandlers-per-capita than I’ve noticed in either place before.
  • And the food! Oh, the food was magnificent. I had fish and chips at the Claddagh; I had a burger the size of my plate at a Scottish place, where I also tried a bite of Wikinite’s haggis (a bit like sticky meatloaf–not bad, because I like meatloaf, but not something I’d order for myself) and ate some scotch eggs (hard boiled eggs wrapped in sausage, breaded, and deep fried–the egg didn’t really do anything for the snack, but it was good); I went to P.F. Chang’s for the first time, where I learned of the wonders of lettuce wraps and tried tofu (not a fan) and lamb (for the first time in a non-gyros context). Even the place we went for breakfast on Sunday was pretty good, despite the fact that they actually served “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.” Also, the usual standbys like Steak ‘N’ Shake and the Olive Garden.
    About the only place I wasn’t happy with was RAM, a bar and grill near the convention center which was plastered with D&D and other game-related posters and such, and which had renamed many of their dishes after fantasy characters. Magus and Wikinite were unhappy that their Guinnesses were served in keg cups like we were at some frat party (the waiter brought an extra one to make up for it, to his credit); I was slightly more unhappy that I had to scrape cheese and mustard off my burger, even after the waiter repeated my special request back to me. But, you know, one bad eating experience out of the whole weekend still averages out to damn good.
  • It was wonderful to pick up dice and character sheets again, for the first time since High School. Wikinite started an Amber diceless game (which, I guess, had neither dice nor character sheets–the point stands, nonetheless) on Thursday or Friday, based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. The first book is good so far (though I haven’t made any progress in it since…well, Friday), and the game was a blast. We made our characters in something of a vacuum, which meant that my steampunk alchemist/scientist was a bit out of his league when compared to Magus’s aging Arabian assassin, Akusai’s soul-stealing mad god, and Jason’s otherworldly shadow-manipulator. On the other hand, I got to be snarky, indignant, frequently exasperated, and compared to Xander. So, you know, it evens out. I hope we can get together to finish the game at some point; heck, I wouldn’t mind doing it over Skype or something–in fact, that’d be pretty cool.
  • Akusai and Magus ran a game of Mage: The Ascension on Saturday, which was made of win and full of awesome. Wikinite played a stoner whose powers centered around marijuana; Jon was a bum who believed himself to be Jesus and had the powers to back it up; an ailing Jason played Madame Charlatanne, a psychic of the Sylvia Browne persuasion; and I took up the mantle of Zariel the Blacksun, depressing super-goth extraordinaire. The plot of the game took us up against Jack Thompson and his army of video game-destroying Furries, a gaggle of geeky fantasy authors including “S.A. Ralvatore” and “Ted Greenhood,” Charlton Heston, Robo-Hobo and his mighty bumsaber, and finally Rev. Harry Ballwell and his army of cloned Jesuses Jesii.
    For those who don’t know much about Mage, most mages have some kind of focus–a ritual they perform in order to cast their magic spells. Jon’s Bum-Jesus had to recite a Bible passage, Wikinite had to toke up, and Zariel the Blacksun had to recite terrible Goth poetry. Akusai and Magus had the foresight to print some out along with the character sheets, but I decided early on that it would be fun to do some ad-libbing. Judging from the reactions of the group, that decision was probably for the best, if only because it led to masterpieces like this (from memory–this isn’t exactly it, and I kind of wish we’d been writing these down):

    Spirits, we invoke thee, using the power of three
    Three, a number of great power
    Three, the number of cuts in the perfect suicide
    One across, the classic
    One down, for practicality
    One diagonal:

    And so forth, reciting in the most pretentious, self-absorbed, overly-serious voice I could muster. I reached down into the deepest depths of my teenage angst and poured forth some hilarious poetic dreck, and it was good. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play the character again, and I hope I get the chance.

  • The costumes worked out pretty well (pictures forthcoming). On Saturday, Magus and Akusai went as Dante Hicks and Randall Graves from Clerks II (respectively), and I went as Silent Bob, with a costume that was a bit of a hodgepodge of the various View Askew films. It’s a shame Jon couldn’t get a Jay costume together, but things worked out pretty well. We had several people hit us up for pictures, which is pretty exciting since I spent a grand total of, like, $45 on that costume. Akusai, the Girlfriend, and I went to Lafayette’s finest costume shops in search of a wig on Wednesday, and the Girlfriend was probably right in the one she pointed out, but the one I ended up buying actually worked pretty well…after Akusai and I took a knife to it Saturday morning.
  • I bought my first pack of cigarettes for the costume–I just bite it; it’s for the look, I don’t light it. On one hand, I totally get why people would carry them around. It was very handy to have something to gesture with, to fiddle with absentmindedly in my hands, and so forth. It felt very natural. On the other hand, it started making my lips numb whenever I held it in my mouth for more than a few seconds, and the sweet tobacco smell became sickening after a little while–especially with the way it lingered all over my hands and stuck in my mouth. I inhaled once with the thing unlit, and I about choked on the awful taste–I can’t imagine how or why people can stand it on a regular basis.
    To split the difference, I’m seriously thinking about taking up bubblegum cigarettes. Failing that, I may finally invest in a bubble pipe.
  • I’m going to leave it there for now. The various fundies and the EVP presentation will probably be the next post, and at some point I’ll talk a bit about the White Wolf party. Stick around!

Visualizing Comedy

A particularly vapid troll has been bloviating over at Action Skeptics for some time now, to our collective amusement, annoyance, and frustration. Recently, though, he seems to have paid off. See, he posted a link with the following urgent message:

this is very interesting


(again… make what you will of it)

in the middle east xD

The link was to this image:
I looked, and I laughed and laughed and laughed.

But as I tried to make sense of it, I realized how truly profound the image actually was; it’s just that the text is confusing. I’ve cleaned it up and done my best to make the meaning clear:
I am the Necker Cube master!
It all makes sense now! I feel like I am one with the universe.

For those who aren’t quite so trivia-savvy, here’s a list of references (clockwise from top):
beware of minotaur
directional nautilus
lon lon milk
Justice League of America #9
old steve martin gag
complex eyedrocarbon
that thing from pan’s labyrinth
doppler effect

Our First Last Supper

So, everyone else has already blogged about our Monday night mayhem, even including someone who would have only been there in spirit, if such a thing existed. I’m a little late to the game, admittedly, but it’s been a busy couple of weeks.

As I mentioned, last Monday ’roundabout 3:15, Jon and Jess climbed into my station wagon, and we barreled down the rural roads to arrive about 40 minutes before Google Maps suggested. Which put us there an hour and a half early.

After wandering around like fools for a bit, I gave UofI alum Eric a quick call, and we were soon in the right building. Along the way, I picked up a weird Christian newsletter called “Christ is Victor,” which I assumed would lead to hilarity later (it did). Now, I’m not much of a Christian, but I seem to recall Christ’s name being Jesus, not Victor. Is there another Christ I haven’t heard about? Besides Craig, I mean. Maybe Victor Christ is the one responsible for bringing Jesus back from the dead! “It took three days, Igor, but look! It’s alive! Aliiiiive!”

Once in the right building, I began an epic quest for the men’s room, meeting Ben from the Gateway Skeptics along the way. Turns out that Ben and Flavin (at least) were both attendees was an attendee of the Society of Physics Students meeting that was held at Augie a couple of years ago, so this is the second time I’ve met them him. This time was better, as I wasn’t conducting an awkward trivia contest at any time during the evening.

We decided to go find seats, and it’s a good thing we did. The place was fairly empty when we got in, which meant we were able to get seats close to the front. While going up the stairs, I noticed that we passed a guy in a black trenchcoat and hat. I can’t say I thought much of it, until he came down toward the stage and I realized that beneath the oh-so-theatrical outfit was The Amazing Randi himself. That was pretty cool.

While Randi and the techies started setting up, I was just enjoying the feeling of being in an auditorium where I could be reasonably certain that the vast majority of people around me believed the same things I did. Just in my immediate vicinity was someone wearing a Champaign-Urbana Freethinkers t-shirt and two people in the “Science: It works, bitches” t-shirt from XKCD (which I want desperately). It was tremendously liberating; someone remarked at the ease with which 80-year-old Randi hopped onto the stage, I said that it was because he knew The Secret, and we all shared a hearty laugh. I was even able to tell the “why women love Jesus” joke, out loud in a room full of people. Yeah, it’s a small and fairly childish thing, but damn if it didn’t feel good.

Not much happened until I noticed Akusai, Magus, and (though I didn’t know who he was yet) Wikinite come down the aisle. We traded introductions and handshakes, and they sat behind Jon, Jess, and me (carefully avoiding the obviously broken seat). We all talked a bit about various things: our favorite trolls, the new waves of atheist/skeptic bloggers, what we expected from the evening, and so forth.

At some point, a girl in an “Atheists, Agnostics, & Freethinkers” t-shirt sat down near our group, and joined in various conversations going on around us. She seemed nice and all, but…she was really into being an atheist and really trying hard to impress everyone with how much of an atheist she was. Yet, she seemed kind of clueless; now, I don’t expect all atheists to be active in the blogohedron or anything, but she seemed genuinely surprised by some of the really, really basic arguments and names and so on. I don’t know, I kind of got a “protest too much” vibe off her; the Action Skeptics crowd got more of a “trying to seduce someone/anyone” vibe. Both seem like valid hypotheses, but I’m not in a hurry to validate either one.

Anyway, the first speaker of the night was Nobel prize winning biologist Richard Roberts (HT to Akusai and Wikinite for the link), who while interesting, clearly didn’t win his Nobel prize in public speaking…or anthropology, or history, or psychology. It would be easy to say that I’m only drawing the comparison because of the “white-haired British biologist talking about atheism and religion” connection, but he really was like Dawkins-lite. To the point where he was saying a lot of the things that Dawkins says, or saying things that sound like what Dawkins says, and not understanding why Dawkins says those things. The most egregious mistake (on that particular front) was his mention that he thinks religious indoctrination is child abuse. He didn’t elaborate, and it was pretty clear that he was trying to echo Dawkins, but Dawkins’ contention is with religious labeling–calling children “Christian” or “Muslim” or “Jewish” or even “Atheist” children–not with parents’ rights to raise their kids to believe what they want. While I’m sure he’s got issues with that too, it’s much more morally muddy territory, and there’s no good solution to indoctrination that doesn’t remove essential parental rights.

There were other problems with his speech as well; his definition of Bipolar disorder was, in a word, wrong, and his ideas about the development of religion were overly simplistic at best. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard a variant on the Courtier’s Reply (in this case, “how much have you studied religion”) and thought it was a valid criticism. On a more technical note, it’s clear that Roberts was working without notes, and while I found the brevity of his PowerPoint presentation refreshing, it was a little too brief, offering him little guidance with the points he wanted to cover (and leading him to decide on occasion “I don’t want to talk about that”). He could have done with a little more of everything, and consequently we all could have done with a little less of him. At least his anecdotes were entertaining, and it’s always nice to listen to British men talking about biology and atheism.

After Roberts, someone from the UofI Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers group gave an overly long introduction for the man who needed none, James Randi. I’m not sure entirely how much I can say about Randi’s speech; he did some neat tricks to underscore our collective assumptions and imperceptions, he did a neat bit of magic, and he brought out a nice homeopathy debunking that taught me things I didn’t know about Zicam (not actually homeopathic, that’s why it works) and HeadOn (apply directly to the trash can). He was funny, informative, terse, and incredibly sharp, and it was just an absolute joy to listen to him.

Highlights of the Randi talk: calling Montel Williams a “whore,” talking about an Israeli mentalist (“no, not that one”), talking about that Israeli mentalist, and propositioning his magic trick volunteer for coffee and dinner as if he were a shy schoolboy. Randi? Awesome.

After Randi spoke, they opened up two mics on the floor for questions. I don’t remember if this kid was first or second, but one guy–heretofore referred to as “The Preacher”–started off with (some variant of) those dreaded words “before I get to my question…” It seems to be a rule that 95% of the time, people who say “before I get to my question” are going to hog the mic talking about stupid shit that no one wants to hear for a very long time. The Preacher didn’t disappoint. He began with a lengthy, rambling story about how he was involved in a hit-and-run car accident, which he survived “by the grace of God,” and how he was so ashamed of it (so ashamed that he decided to spend five minutes telling it in excruciating detail to a roomful of people). He said we all have things we’re ashamed of, something about God, and (as nearly everyone in the room was calling for him to get to the point) finally ended with “can science prove love?”

Roberts and Randi answered in unison: “No,” then moved on to the next question. I could write a blog post parsing out a longer answer (and touching on the inanities inherent in the question), and Bronze Dog already did, but that was adequate for the time allotted. Akusai wrote a bit more to give context to the answer, and mentioned his brilliant “Someone taze him, bro” comment, but since you’ve already read his post, you already knew that.

The Preacher stood at his mic for a good long time, periodically asking “can I just finish point,” and at one point screeding* off into John 3:16. As if no one in the room, no one on stage, had heard “For God so loved the world yada yada yada” before. What is it about (certain) Christians that either makes them think that “John 3:16” is some magic convert-the-heathens incantation (see also: John 14:6, the “Sinner’s Prayer,” etc.), or that they’re the first people to ever mention it to atheists, despite its omnipresence in our Christianity-soaked culture?

Other people (at the other mic) asked more relevant questions while they cut The Preacher’s mic. That wasn’t exactly the end of his tenure at the head of that line, sadly. You almost have to admire his tenacity; he stood there for a good ten minutes or more, even after someone else took the mic away from him to ask a question. A few other theists asked questions (including the girl in front of me in line), but were generally more polite (if not more coherent) about it.

When I got to the mic, I briefly thanked both of the speakers for coming and mentioned how much I enjoyed Flim-Flam, then asked how they deal with having to answer the same questions and debunk the same things over and over, year after year, without losing hope. There were some noises of approval and understanding around the audience, so I clearly wasn’t the only person with that particular experience (obviously, since Akusai and Magus were in attendance). Randi mentioned the importance of education, and that we do make some progress. I can’t hate Roberts, for all his speech’s flaws, because his answer was more-or-less tailor-made, comparing it to education and “if you reach even one student, then it’s a success.” Like everything else he said, I have some reservations with that as well, but it was a surprisingly apt answer.

After the Q&A was done, I stuck around, thanked Dr. Roberts, and humbly asked Randi for a picture and an autograph. He very kindly obliged, though his fountain pen didn’t work (that wasn’t a joke about his age–he actually had a fountain pen) and he was forced to use a ball-point. He expressed surprise that I owned a hardcover of the book, and I mentioned that I got it on Amazon after his column talked about the problems in the Prometheus Books printing. And then this:

It’s not the best quality picture, but it’s not the picture that matters. It’s the memory of doing something I’ve dreamed of for years–something that, given average human lifespan, I doubted I would ever do. I met James Randi. How cool is that?

After the picture taking and autographing, we met back up with the various skeptics and followed a pirate treasure map toward an initially-elusive pizza restaurant called Papa Del’s. The conversation continued more or less non-stop from then until we got back to our cars at the end of the night, encompassing everything from “Preacher” (the comic series, not the microphone troll) and the current status of Spider-Man to the truth value of cake and the morality of pirated video games, among other things. And the pizza! Oh man, the pizza would have been divine, if there was such a thing. In any case, it was easily the best deep-dish I’ve ever laid tongue on.

As soon as we saw the tables at Papa Del’s, Jon suggested that we take our very own Last Supper picture, something that Jon and I do whenever we get a chance. This time, though, there were almost enough people for the whole crew.
I'm pretty sure this picture means that Magus and I fathered a line of holy descendants or something.
I got to be the big guy, by virtue of how we sat down, but I personally think it should have gone to Magus, who has a much more Jesusy look. I will maintain, however, that Jesus was an avid drinker of Mountain Dew, and that any Last Supper is made better by having a James Randi book in the middle of the table.

The whole thing was a blast. I was incredibly glad (and a little relieved) that I got along with the Action Skeptics guys as well in person as online. But I’ll talk more about that in another post. Suffice it to say that it was a fantastic experience, far better even than I’d hoped, and I hope we can do it again. I’m probably not going to WizardWorld this summer, so that leaves me with a free weekend and a little spending money. Maybe next time we can move it a little farther south, maybe bring Bronze Dog and Bob in on the action.

Anyway, I leave you with the words of Randi:
Just like on the Swift columns!

*Yes, “screeding.” I made it up, and I like it.