September 6, 2010

Dragon*Con 2010

I shook hands with James Randi!  That was probably my highlight for the whole weekend.  He is also known as James "The Amazing" Randi, the magician.  He is probably the most influential skeptical activist ever and is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).  It was truly an honor.

I also shook hands and chatted with Joe Nickell, a leading paranormal investigator for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.  He likes to joke that he's been in "more haunted houses than Casper" but of course has yet to find any compelling evidence for ghosts.  He's the nicest guy ever.

I met  Daniel Loxton and got him to sign my Evolution book. He's the editor of Junior Skeptic Magazine and does most of the writing and illustrating.  Ok, maybe he's the nicest guy ever.

I also interacted with George Hrab, got a hug from the amazing Kylie Sturgess of PodBlack Cat blog, Skeptic Zone and Token Skeptic fame and Rebecca Watson, among other awesome Skepchicks.

And I can't say enough good things about the Atlanta Skeptics who run this thing.  All volunteer and all amazing.

I sat in on another fun episode of the Australian Mystery Investigators.  This is great for getting ideas on just how exactly to teach critical thinking to younger kids.  Show them cool stuff and ask thoughtful questions.  Richard Saunders kept asking, "How could I test this?"  "Can we all be tricked?"  "So does that prove anything?"  A great show and great interactions for the kids.  The covered optical illusions, dowsing, psychic abilities, and even a bit of consumer protection with their Fabulous Amazing Kinetic Electricity device.  Adults need to see this too!

The highlight talk for me was "I Very Much Doubt That!" a talk from James Randi.  The ballroom was packed.  I don't think anyone knew what a huge draw Randi would be.  He got a standing ovation just walking into the room.  He just sat and talked and answered questions but he tells them so well and is so inspiring.  He reported doing well after his chemotherapy due, he winked, to "a little thing called modern medical science."  He discussed the particulars of his famous $1 million dollar challenge if evidence can be found for paranormal abilities.  At another talk he was involved in, the moderator asked the audience of skeptics to raise their hand if they would be happy if he had to give the money away--if compelling scientific evidence could be found for some paranormal ability.  All hands went up.

I also attended the talk "Spotlight on Adam Savage" which was one hour with the Mythbuster in a wide-raging, funny, insightful, and intelligent talk.  He said they had no idea that the show would be embraced by kids and teachers and that he's glad they didn't because if they were shooting for that audience they probably would have messed up.  Now there's a commercial free version on cable due to the STEM initiatives to get kids interested in science.  It's called Head Rush and is hosted by Kari Byron.

Another fun one was "How to Raise a Mad Scientist" put on by the National Science Center's Fort Discovery folks.  They did a number of explosive and fun science experiments you can do with kids using around-the-house or very cheap stuff.  Awesome.

I went to the Astronomy Cast Live! podcast and heard all about the funding issues at NASA.  I wish there was a way that the federal government could only be in charge of funding, but not how the money is spent.  Then we wouldn't have the change in administration whiplash we have to suffer every four to eight years.  Of course, I wish the same thing about education!  Just give us the money and let us figure out how to spend it.  Leave the politicians out of it.

A surprisingly moving discussion was the "Raising Skeptical Geeks" panel.  The panel included Jamie Ian Swiss, Daniel Loxton, Adam Savage, Barabra Dresher and more.  It also included Will Philips' mother.  He's the 10-year-old who decided to quit standing for the pledge in his classroom in Arkansas because until gay people can marry, he decided, then "we don't have liberty and justice for all."  There were some great comments on bullying and then she told her story.  He's now being home schooled because not only the kids but the teacher's and administrators were awful to him and his family for "all the gay stuff."  Nice.

The last big panel I just had to see was "Skepticism in Education."  It was moderated by JREF president D. J. Grothe and included Matt Lowry (The Skeptical Teacher), Daniel Loxton (Jr. Skeptic), Dr. Pamela Gay (Astronomy Cast), Barbara Drescher (ICBS Everywhere), Kylie Sturgess, (PodBlack Cat) and Michael Blanford (Director of Educational Programs at the JREF).  Matt and Kylie get extra points for mentioning the great work of school librarians!  Some of the main points they discussed will not be a surprise to anyone interested in teaching real critical thinking.  They talked of teaching students to use multiple lines of evidence.  They talked of there being more than one way to an answer.  They talked of letting students follow their enthusiasm and mess with things to see what they can come up with, that, as Drescher put it, "The natural world is discoverable."  My two favorite quotes:  "Kids dig monsters!" from Loxton and "I like to ask my students what is a unit of chi?" from Lowry.

A great, thoughtful and inspiring round of discussions.  Check out their sites for more.

Astronomy Cast

James Randi Educational Foundation

Joe Nickell

Junior Skeptic Magazine

Mystery Investigators

National Science Center

PodBlack Cat


The Skeptic Zone

Skeptrack 2010

Token Skeptic