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Dragon*Con 2011: Forward Progress

So what does the Boise State college football program have to do with skepticism? 

Allow me to tell you a story about a surreal moment I had while attending Dragon*Con this past weekend, and it will hopefully become clear. It requires some non-skeptical related background, so just bear with me.

The Boise State football team has garnered national attention in recent years for winning the 2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowls, and for finishing four of the last five seasons ranked among the top ten teams in the national Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rankings.

Please click on this link and watch this 3-minute video of the highlights of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. This game has been referred to by some as one of the greatest games in college football history. Even if you have absolutely no interest in college football, you can’t help but appreciate the improbable series of atypical scoring events, capped by the most unlikely trick play, one which has never been seen before in a championship game by a national television audience.

To help complete the picture, think about it in this context. Here you have this relatively obscure and  unknown football program in Boise State going up against one of the country’s perennial powerhouse college sports programs in Oklahoma. David, meet Goliath. At stake was nothing less than the capstone of their 2006 “Cinderella Season” as the nation’s only undefeated team.  As the eyes of the college football universe (est. population: 45 million) fixed its gaze on this one game, it was abundantly clear that all of the pressure rested squarely on the shoulders of Boise State.

Immediately after the unorthodox touchdown pass by a non-quarterback (a rarity in own own right) with 6 seconds remaining in the game, Boise State head coach Chris Petersen could have called for an extra point to tie the game again. Nope. Instead, Coach Petersen and his staff called for a two point conversion. And not your typical two-point play, but the rather obscure and almost-never-used Statue of Liberty play. Any of us who were kids playing football in our backyards would horse around with this seemingly antiquated, outdated, long-since-attempted trick play.  Trick plays in football are wonderful, practical exercises by which we can witness the power of deception in action, such as our good friend Richard Wiseman reminded us during his excellent presentation at TAM9.

But as far as the pure sport is concerned, this was a classic “do-or-die” moment. A national championship and undefeated season hung in the balance based on the outcome of this one, fragile call. Simply put, in the history of gutsy coaching decisions, this one tops the list.

(Still with me?  I promise the skeptic angle is coming shortly.  But a little more setup is required.)

I may not be the most experienced skeptic around, but I have been in the “industry” of promoting science-understanding and critical-thinking since 1996. Professional skepticism is a bubble. Over the last 15 years, our bubble has greatly expanded. In that time, I have seen our industry grow from being just one organization with a decent level of national recognition (CSICOP) blossom into a robust international movement with too many important people and organizations to list here. The surface of the skeptical bubble rubs up against another super-bubble; one of the biggest and most dynamic bubbles out there I like to call “the mainstream”.

Anytime the bubbles of skepticism and mainstream touch there is a wonderful synergy at work.  It is truly a symbiotic relationship: the mainstream gets a little inoculation against its omnipresent viruses (such as the paranormal or alternative medicine) and at the same time, the skeptical community receives recognition and acknowledgement inside the mainstream bubble (which, by nature, tends to have an overall aversion to skeptical practices and attitudes.)

As I mentioned before, I spent this past weekend at Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia. You might think that I would be blogging about any of the number of happenings which occurred on the Skeptic or Science tracks at the convention. As interesting and fun as those moments were, the skeptic-related highlight of my entire weekend in Atlanta occurred outside of Dragon*Con.

This past Saturday night (actually it was Sunday morning around 1am) I was having a bite to eat at a local diner with Donna Mugavero (aka, Ms. Information from The Geologic Podcast). I must admit I did not care for the atmosphere of this diner. It was loud and crowded. There was awful karaoke blaring at about 100 decibels in the background (not a great place to rest my speaking voice after our live event just a few hours earlier) and the mostly-drunken crowd this place attracted brought the whole atmosphere to a level of weirdness to which I am not very unaccustomed. However, the food was good and there was nowhere else to have a meal at that hour.

When all of a sudden, in walk five gentlemen wearing the unmistakable blue and orange colors of Boise State. Sure enough, the writing on the shirts proclaimed their Boise State affiliation.  You must appreciate the contrast at this moment: in this loud diner filled with a mix of drunken Dragoncon goers in full costumes along with the local elements adding their own levels of weirdness to the scene, those men wearing the Boise State shirts stood out like sore thumbs. They take a seat at a table just across from us.

I am not a college football enthusiast (my days of following sports waned in the late 1990’s, another story for another time) but I still pay attention to the larger happening in sports. Boise State’s rise to the top of the college football world is something even the most peripheral sports follower knows. A smile crosses my face as I explain to Donna the significance of Boise State football and the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.  I could not contain my curiosity, so Donna and I went over to talk to the Boise State clad gentlemen.

I asked them if Boise State played Georgia earlier in the night, which was an easy way of introducing ourselves (the answer was a rather obvious “yes”.) After I asked them if they won (which they did, a slightly less-safe conversation gamble on my part, but I figured a losing team might not be out celebrating at a diner at 1am) I asked them how they were affiliated with the team.

These were members of the coaching staff!

“This is so cool!” I thought to myself. Sure enough, I start to geek out with them on the 2007 Fiesta Bowl (something they probably have to deal with a regular basis with geeks like me talking about “The Game”, but such is the price of living large in the mainstream.)

When that conversation ran its course, they asked us if we were in town for Dragon*Con (even though we were without costume, I’m sure our northern accents gave us away as non-Atlantians.) They asked us if we were attending or presenting, and I told them I was a presenter as part of a radio show they probably have never heard of called The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. One of the coaches nods his head and says that he HAS heard of us. “You are the guys who do all that debunking and stuff”, he said.  The conversation turned from the Fiesta Bowl to skepticism, and seemed to pique the interest of the other coaches at the table. A conversation ensued about how skeptics evaluate the paranormal using science and logic. They all seemed rather interested, if not being overly polite about the conversation.  They indulged us with their company until their food came to their table and we said goodnight.

Now that the first question is (finally) answered, the follow up question is begged …

Why is anyone on Boise State’s football coaching staff aware of the SGU?

Surely the day-to-day life of a football coach is spent immersed in football, and little else. When the bar is set to that high of a level (especially in the competitive sports industry) and you spend your days and nights trying to obtain (or maintain) your position at being the best in the world at your career, when is there time to even know about skeptical podcasts or radio shows?

In my opinion, there is only one answer.  The skeptical movement’s efforts are working. We want shows like the SGU to be in the mind of a college football coach. We want blogs like Science Based Medicine to be read by politicians in Washington.  We want organizations like The James Randi Educational Foundation to be uttered by actors in Hollywood. We want the names of people presenting at conferences such as TAM, NECSS, and Dragon*Con to be mentioned by local and national news media outlets.

Our collective hard work, perseverance, and focus are penetrating some of the most unlikely circles of life.  I’d say it is no coincidence that the same qualities are ingrained in the minds and attitudes of the most successful college football programs in the nation. This one, thin crossroad between skepticism and big-time college football is one more thread of evidence showing the skeptical community’s effectiveness.

NOTE: I feel bad that I cannot precisely remember the names of the coaches I met. However, several of them from the university’s website look familiar. They include (as best as I can remember): head coach Chris Petersen, along with assistant coaches Pete Kwiatkowski, Brent Pease, Chris Strausser, and Bob Gregory.  If I forgot someone or acknowledged someone incorrectly, please forgive me.  After all, 1am in a crazy diner in Atlanta with the music blaring is a rather challenging environment for hearing names clearly.

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