Skepticism & Science at Dragon*Con 2009
Posted by mattusmaximus on September 7, 2009
Well, I’m starting to wind down here at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, which I have basically concluded is Mardi Gras for geeks – a lot of people dress up & party, and I was no exception. Below was my small contribution to the party atmosphere
On a serious note, while Dragon*Con is essentially a big science-fiction convention & general geek-fest, there is a very serious science & skeptical presence here. The Skeptics track is now in its second year, and it seems as if it grew out of a desire to counter or provide a rebuttal to some of the more woo-ish paranormal nonsense that you see here. For instance, there is a track which seems quite heavy on the paranormal woo called the X-track where all manner of ghost hunters do their thing. With so many people attending Dragon*Con who can actually distinguish fact from fiction, it’s no wonder that many people are interested in the actual science & skepticism tracks.
I will outline all the things I did here – lecturing on the Large Hadron Collider & particle physics, participating on the Science of Star Wars panel, moderating the Darwin’s Bulldogs panel on teachers combating creationism, and participating on the Skepticism in the Classroom panel – in future posts. What I want to discuss for the rest of this post is why it is that I think having skeptics present at events like Dragon*Con is important in the first place…
I think it is important to have a skeptical presence at these events for three main reasons:
1) Science Fiction is Cool! – science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) is a great genre which has wide appeal to many people. Just think about all of the influence sci-fi classics like Star Wars and Star Trek have had on our society. The drawing power of sci-fi is undeniable, and as such it can serve as a vehicle for teaching real science and skepticism & critical thinking to those gathered.
For example, when participating in the panel on the Science of Star Wars, as a physics & astronomy professor, I was explaining to those gathered the difference between SW physics and real-life physics regarding the Death Star, FTL travel, wormholes, lightsabers, blasters, artificial intelligence, etc. But rather than being a wet blanket the entire time, I was making references to the really awesome stuff we do in real life – such as the Large Hadron Collider, which is a real-life machine larger than any piece of technology ever built by humans. And when I started talking about the power requirements of the LHC, everyone gasped with the realization that “Hey, that’s the real thing, not movie fantasy. That’s cool!”
So while we can appreciate good sci-fi and fantasy, I think the real pleasure comes from recognizing the difference between the sci-fi science and the real stuff. This can lead to a greater appreciation of the real thing, because the sci-fi fans are already kind of “hooked”.
2) Combatting the Woo – As I mentioned earlier, there is a real element of woo and pseudoscience at Dragon*Con. Perhaps the best example of it is all of the paranormal & ghost-hunting crap you see – people from groups such as TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) are here. And they are very popular, drawing large numbers to their panels, where they go on about… well… a lot of nonsense, in my opinion. Such widespread and unaccountable spreading of woo needs to be countered, and having a Skeptic track is a perfect way to do it.
For instance, the woo-meisters can have their tracks on haunted houses and other paranormal stuff. But over in the Skeptic track, we have people like paranormal investigators Ben Radford & Joe Nickell present who lecture about their researches into these various paranormal/supernatural claims and lay them bare for all to see as completely baseless. And the skeptical track is getting more and more popular, because we take on other woo-ish issues, such as creationism…
I participated in a panel discussion today called “Darwin’s Bulldogs, Teachers on the Front Lines” which was composed of high school & college teachers discussing our experiences with creationists and how to effectively counter their pseudoscientific nonsense while also promoting good science education. Our main guest was Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, who – along with the other panelists – provided a plethora of information to those gathered on how to address these questions. There were also a large number of science teachers present who were eager to get involved, which brings me to my final point.
3) Socializing & Networking – Attending events like Dragon*Con helps to build the social cohesion of the scientific & skeptical movement. It helps to get us out into the world with other people who are not as much of a hard-core skeptic as me. This is what I refer to as fighting the Ivory Tower mentality which seems to have afflicted some of the older-generation of skeptics, who seemed to have insisted upon an overly academic approach to the subject. I’m not saying that the academic community doesn’t have a place in the skeptical movement, because it most certainly does have a pivotal place. But it isn’t enough to rely solely on the academic side of things, because there is very clearly a social & networking side to the skeptical movement that cannot be neglected, ignored, or dismissed.
I think it is precisely because the younger generation of skeptics have broken out of their collective shells and started to go to events like Dragon*Con that the skeptical movement has grown so much in popularity in recent years. We need to send the message to others that being a skeptic is fun, it’s cool to think critically and not take woo claims at face value, and that while we’re serious about our approach to understanding the universe with science we are also human like everyone else. Socializing and networking through non-”skeptic only” events like Dragon*Con are a perfect vehicle for doing this sort of thing.
So there you have it: some of my immediate thoughts on skepticism & science at Dragon*Con 2009. There’s a lot more I plan to blog about in the next few days regarding some things I mentioned here, plus other things I didn’t mention, so stay tuned for more!