Sep 02 2008

Skeptics at DragonCon

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This is a lesson in the power of historical contingency – sometimes things happen for unique and quirky reasons. They do not make sense because they were not designed from the top down from a sensible plan, but occurred spontaneously from the ground up – in other words, they were a product of real life. They therefore do not make sense unless you know the quirky history.

And so most people’s reaction to the heavy presence of skeptics at a fantasy/sci-fi/horror/gaming convention is befuddlement.  For me, however, DragonCon 2008 was completely natural.

The quirky history you may not know, as I understand it, centers around Derek and Swoopy – the hosts of Skepticality, a popular skeptical podcast.  DragonCon is divided into “tracks”, so there is a sci-fi track, a horror track, a writers’ track, etc. Derek and Swoopy have been running the podcasting track – and they happen to be skeptics. So they incorporated a lot of skepticism into their track. This year the skeptical presence increased to the point where they got their own track – so now there is a skeptics track at DragonCon. There is also a science track at DragonCon, which makes sense as there is quite a bit of science in science-fiction.

I was there for most of the convention this year – my first time – and it was a blast. The skeptic track was a tremendous success, with great lectures by James Randi, Phil Plait, Richard Saunders, George Hrab, and Michael Shermer. There were also many panel discussions with those listed above as well as Pamela Gay from Astronomy Cast, Ben Radford from Skeptical Inquirer, Ginger Campbell from Brain Science, and DJ Grothe from Point of Inquiry.

I gave a lecture on Science-Based Medicine and was on two panels: science podcasting, and a skeptic vs believer live debate. On Sunday we also recorded a live episode of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. It was a busy weekend.

(In the picture, from left to right, me, Bob Novella, James Randi, Derek Colanduno, Pamela Gay, and Evan Bernstein.)

I am sure that I have left out some great people and events, but that is because there was so much going on. There essentially were three simultaneous conventions going on – the science, podcasting, and skeptic tracks – and they went from 10 AM to 11 PM. I simply could not get to everything.

As always it is great fun to just hang out with my skeptical colleagues and chat with readers of this blog and listeners of the SGU. Thanks to everyone who made the time to come by and introduce themselves to me or chat about some skeptical topic.

And, of course, this all took place surrounded by tens of thousands of people, most of whom were in full costume. The costumes ran the full spectrum from lame to awesome, but most were awesome, or at least interesting. I think my favorite was Saruman from Lord of the Rings, but the funniest was Elvis Presley in a Darth Vader suit.

I think that DragonCon in its current form is a good metaphor for my approach to such things. I greatly enjoy many types of fiction, including sci-fi/fantasy and even gaming. But there is a sharp line between fantasy and reality that enables me to enjoy one as entertainments while at the same time promoting the other. There is no inherent conflict – in fact understanding the human tendency for story telling and the structure of myth is helpful to identifying the line between science and fiction.

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