Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Skeptic Zone, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, and My History Can beat up your Politics

The Skeptic Zone this week featured Richard Saunders covering the Shonky awards given out by "Choice" magazine of Australia.  Of particular interest was the Shonky award to the "Power Balance bracelet."  This is the bracelet that promises to make the purchaser of it improve their energy or power and make the wearer able to be stronger and more flexible, etc.  Showing what a con this item is has been a minor crusade for the Australian Skeptics, so it was quite satisfying for a third party watch group to agree and give the item such dubious recognition.

This was followed by Saunders covering the Zombie Walk in Sydney where a lot of people met up in zombie garb and walked around as the undead.  Saunders admitted that this whole activity had nothing to do with skepticism, and it was a nice bit of fun.  However, for something that really is quite visual the segment could have been edited a bit.

Then there was another Think Tank, and not just a Think Tank, but a Think Tank with Dr. Dunlop.  Also in attendance with Dr. Dunlop were Saunders, Maynard, Eran Segev, and Nurse Jo Benhamu.  I do not know what it is exactly but these segments flow better with Dr. Dunlop in attendance.  The gang discussed a number of topics including Pennsylvania's own George Hrab's styrofoam tour of Australia and New Zealand.  They covered that a local pharmacy chain, the Chemist Warehouse, is selling their own version of the Power Band bracelet "the hot band,"  which is worse than Boots in England selling their own brand of homeopathy.  The defense of selling the item is just as pathetic as Boots' excuse which is whether it works or not the customers want it so we'll sell it.


If such nonsense is not bad enough apparently some medical establishments are offering Reiki therapy before performing a colonoscopy.  However, the most interesting portion of the Think Tank was the recent flap in the twittersphere and blogosphere regarding skeptics spending too much time preaching to the choir at such events as TAM and not enough time spreading the gospel (so to speak) to the public.  Also, discussed were recent complaints that certain larger skeptical meetings, namely TAM London, are too costly for many skeptics to attend.  It was a highly interesting discussion, and it made me do some hard thinking on the drive home last evening and walking Ike this morning.

Here's my two cents:  First the easy part, the idea that it is wrong or improper for skeptics to gather in big conventions or small pub type events is ludicrous.  Like-minded people gather all the time whether at church, at a Veterans club, those who enjoy bowling, or educational conference for doctors, attorneys, architects, etc.  It is useful to learn from each other, discuss the hot topics of the day, and just for the plain pleasure of being a room full of folks who have something in common.  It is human nature to gather for such things, and a valuable part of consensus building.

The hard part is the cost in monetary value to attend some of the larger events such as the various TAM events.  The current flap seems to have focused more on the current TAM London.  My first thought, why is this an issue now?  Here's my thought and I could be completely off but here it goes.   A decade ago, it seems skepticism was dominated by middle aged white guys many of which had beards and more than a smattering of pocket protectors.  However, in the past few years the age and gender of skeptical convention attendees has become a lot younger with a much higher proportion of women.  I think this shift, especially in age, likely has also shifted the average amount of disposable income to a lower amount.  Instead of a bunch of guys later in life with more fiscal security, you have a lot of attendees and people who would like to attend but with less means to attend.  Personally, I would love to attend TAM or QED, but I have made a decision to instead seek the warmer climate of Florida this winter and a pleasant Dominican beach this summer.  It is a choice for me, and one which I hope to sacrifice tropical splendor one year for skeptical nirvana.  I am also aware that in 1998 or so when I was a law clerk there is no way I could afford to attend TAM or QED or Dragon Con.  If one does not attend such a convention especially for those of us who do some modest activities in support of skeptical world view you can be at a disadvantage.  I was lucky enough this year for Karl to cover TAM 8 and for Trystan to cover TAM London.  I know I ought to attend an event to get ideas and perhaps gain new authors to this blog.  It does set up a system of have and have nots.

So what's the solution to this issue?  Basically, there is none.  Sure, the smaller events such as skeptics in the pub can be a local resource, and scholarships and press passes can be shared.  Perhaps increased activities in these efforts can be done.  The larger TAM events could help promote the less visible events such as QED and DragonCon.  I would be surprised if this were not done.  After all, Dr. Novella, a skeptic of some note, is attending QED which is wonderful cross pollination in the skeptical realm.  Realistically, there is always going to be those whether due to income, family commitments, or bad geography who are just not going to be able to attend a large skeptical event.

The only wild idea I have about TAM London to make it more affordable might be to turn it into TAM England or TAM U.K.  and move the location from gritty London to some other city that is less expensive.  One of the brilliant moves made by the JREF was to move TAM from Florida to Las Vegas.  Las Vegas is a hub of relatively less expensive airline tickets and and room rates than say New York City or Los Angeles which would have made sense as leading urban areas in North America.  I've always been reticent to attend NECSS conference since even New York City overnight can be amazingly expensive, which I imagine London to be the same.

In the end, there is no easy fix in this regard.  Events cost money and not everyone has the means to attend who might wish to go.  Unlike professional gatherings which are often underwritten by one's employer (the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania pays for my continuing legal education needs for example) for the vast majority of TAM attendees this is coming out of your own pocket.  It is a wider challenge than other gatherings.  The JREF and TAM should make efforts to make such events more affordable, and at the same time people have to realize one cannot always do what one wishes.  I just hope that after the recent "Don't be a dick" hubbub and now disagreements about the accessibility of large scale skeptical events the recent rise of skepticism does not fragment into various camps.

Needless to say, this week's Think Tank got me thinking, and I found it quite engaging.

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe featured all the Rogues present and accounted for.  The Rogues seemed to be in an easy form this week.  Perhaps they were all well rested or giddy from the delights of Halloween being in the air.  I'll just point out a few items.  The first was the discussion on ghosts making cell phone calls in Britain.  What was interesting was not the actual alleged occurrence, but how the occurrence made it to the media.  A British cell phone company basically charted a poll about ghost cell phone calls from an "expert" in ghosts, and the press basically reprinted the press release with the poll as news.  Michael Marsh, one of the Indignates of Righteous Indignation and founder of the 10:23 Campaign, is the resident skeptical guru on such dubious reporting, and it was good to see this type of activity getting a wider airing on the SGU.

My personal favorite topic was the YouTube video of a person holding a cellphone in a Charlie Chaplin movie trailer from 1928.  The maker of the video claims this is evidence of a time traveler.  My wife spent Treat or Treat night (a Thursday in our parts.  I won't go into why it is not the evening of the 31st.  It's complicated) handing out candy and showing me the video on my iPad.  To us, it appears to be cellphone pareidolia, and is likely something much more mundane than a time traveler getting caught on film talking on a cellphone at a time when cell towers did not exist.  Basically, the Rogues agreed with our general assessment.  I also suspect this could be a marketing ploy by the filmaker for his other work.

Finally, the interview consisted of a brief discussion with the SGU forum moderators.  Moderating a busy forum has got to be thankless work, and it is always nice to see some thanks thrown to those who work in the bowels of the SGU.  I must admit I do not frequent the forums nearly as much as I used to do.  I am not sure if traffic is down on the forums and if this was also not meant as a way to advertise their existence to the vast numbers of listeners to get more involved.  In this age of Twitter, FaceBook, and a zillion blogs out in the Skeptic-dom the need and the time for the forums is less so than even two years ago.  Still, every once in while I surf the boards after I have written a post just to see what others think and what's the current buzz.

Finally, on a non-skeptical podcast on My History can beat up your Politics, it was a interesting podcast on Argentina vs. United States history and politics.  It was an interesting 25 or so minute episode that I suggest to someone who desires a brief podcast on something different.


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Righteous Indignation came out early this week.  Marsh was out but Jame O'Malley of the Pod Delusion ably filled the spot.  The interview was of Joe Nickel, investigator extraordinaire, by Marsh during a European skeptics conference.  I'll try and come back to this episode later this week.  The best part of the show was not the discussion on the above mention "time traveler" on a Charlie Chaplin movie, or even Mr. Nickels interview.  For my money, it was the discussion on religion and skepticism and where one draws the line, and being a skeptic and stomping on some folks rather delicate toes.  I also enjoyed Hayley discussing how the "Moth-man" as a child scared the socks off of her.  I can sympathize.  The gray aliens at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" scared the crap out of me.  My god, they still freak me out to this very day -all gray and silent that can control your mind.  Yikes!"

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