Two things inspired me to speaking at cons more than anything else. Space-faring and a skeptical approach to the paranormal. I wont name names or anything, but the first panel I ever saw on space faring was just so poorly done that I felt obligated to set things right. Ironically that panel was taken off the schedule in subsequent cons - I guess I wasn't the only one that thought it was done badly. The other thing that I felt needed to be addressed was the number of psychics and ghost-hunters giving talks at cons. That was something I just had to address.
So with that introduction, I offer the third talk I ever gave at a con. It's 8 years old now, and has evolved based on questions from the audience. I've annotated the slides as best I could, but they're pretty dense reading, making them somewhat self-explanatory if you read all the text.
Slide Show: Paranormal - Fact or Fake
One of the most striking things I found in my research is that the paranormal question was seriously asked and answered nearly a century ago. Harry Houdini and his beloved wife devoted a great deal of time, emotion and energy (lost friendships, money set aside, a heartbroken widow unable to move on, etc.) to debunking the paranormal. Mary Sullivan - a New York City police detective - investigated, debunked, and arrested (for fraud) countless mediums and fortune tellers 80 years ago. Why are we even still talking about this? I think the answer to that question is that people find day-to-day life mundane. They want to be startled, surprised, and jolted into feeling alive. But the universe is an interesting place. There are ways to do that without subscribing to BS. If you want to feel startled and alive, then get off your ass and go rock climbing. That’ll do it. I promise.
In addition, this is one of my few presentations that has been videoed (at DragonCon, 2014). I'll tell you up front that it's not my best work. I'm used to standing up, walking around and interacting with the audience. In this case, I was asked to sit at the table to make filming easier. To make bad matters worse, the wireless microphone had a short in the antenna, so I was asked to keep still. That subdued me quite a bit. If you'd like to watch the whole hour, be my guest. If not, I do suggest you watch from minutes 22:00 to 29:00. That's where I tell my own personal ghost story.
Video: Ben's Paranormal Talk
One other thing: In a similar vein to James Randi, I have spoken to a number of ghost hunters. Their standard complaint is that mainstream science wont give them a fair hearing. So I've spent the last 8 and half years handing out my card and offering to go to any haunted house they'd like to take me to, and prove to me that ghosts exists. No one has taken me up on that offer. The offer still stands. I make it at every presentation. And I make it here as well.
Enjoy the links!
I did go on a ghost hunt at the invitation of a group of hunters from a con. There is much to tell of this story. Much of nothing. Here’s my one minute wrap-up of the nights events.
That should have been the end of it. But the next morning I got an angry message from the ghost hunter. I was told that my video was an insult and this event was just a practice run without “extensive equipment” or a “team.” I was also told, “it would have been difficult to have heard [vocalizations] over the continuous talking about philosophy and criticisms” and to let him know when I was “serious about it.” Here is my response to him in full:
“I was asked to do an update before heading home. Chris and I actually discussed what we could say that WOULDN'T be overly harsh or insulting. We did a quick sign-off to capture the moment and left. I literally thought I went as easy on you as I could. What I hear you saying is that you really didn't want me to say anything at all. But people knew I was going and expected some kind of report. But yeah I'd love to try it again in a more rigorous setting. If that what it takes.”
As you can see, I tried not to alienate him or insult him further. I told him I would be happy to take another drive to Chattanooga to try it again in a more controlled environment. Alas, summer is over, and he’s had more than 90 days to invite me back, or at least respond. So let me tell you how I REALLY feel about it now. My buddy, Chris Webb and I planned an entire trip around this. He drove up an hour from Columbia to rendezvous with me and then we drove another 5 hours from there. We stayed until just after midnight (after even the ghost hunters had given up and gone home) and then we had another 5 hour drive back to Greenville. I’m pretty sure dawn had already broken before either one of us had gotten any sleep. I didn’t make that trip on a whim. I was told this would be a real ghost hunt. We’d scheduled weeks in advance. When we got there, we were encouraged to ask questions and listen to their stories of what they’d seen before. If there was a moment we were all supposed to shut up and start listening, that was never announced. If this wasn’t a genuine effort on their part, no one bothered to tell me. As far as I’m concerned, Chris and I are the ones that have a right to be angry.
Basically, it was a waste of time to try to show that these kinds of endeavors are a waste of time. I stood in a graveyard until after midnight, essentially alone and surrounded by 75,000 dead people. I could have just as easily been in an empty meadow in Yosemite. And I would have liked that much better.
Are There Aliens Among Us?
We’ve all come across “believers” in our day-to-day lives. Some of you probably have family or friends who believe aliens visit our pale blue dot on a regular basis. Some even go as-far-as to say that various governments from around the world are working in secret with extra terrestrials to advance their own agenda. So let’s take a few minutes to explore these possibilities.
The idea has all the earmarks of a conspiracy theory*, but offers no explanation as to why the aliens would go along with such a thing. Any civilization that could travel a minimum of 4 light years to get here would be no respecter of regional governments. I also don't believe they'd be coming to acquire any resources, so there'd be no need for contracts with suppliers for material (i.e. "unobtanium" a la Avatar). There are no gaps in the periodic table and no element would be easier to get by traveling to another star system. If you didn't have enough of a certain rare material, it would still be easier to make it one atom at a time in a particle accelerator, or nuclear reactor, than traverse the cosmos looking for a place to mine it. I’d suggest a similar answer to the using-humans-as-slave-labor theory as well. They would have mastered robotics and AI to be sure.
No, if they came at all, extraterrestrials would come for cultural reasons. They'd be eager to talk to the best authors, musicians, poets and even scientists (to understand our current level of knowledge). As far as I know, most of those people wouldn't agree to keeping that secret, even when asked by their local governments.
Finally, secrets are harder to keep than most people seem to think. I remember a panel I attended at Dragon Con a few years ago where a fellow had taken his telescope/clock drive and attached it to his computer. He used it to take and make enhanced images of the space shuttle docked at the International Space Station. He then published pictures of it on his website. The "guys in the black suits" (AKA the FBI) came knocking on his door. He said they were incredibly polite and even cordial about it. They simply said that they had no idea that a private citizen could develop that kind of capability and wanted to know how he did it. They made it clear he'd broken no laws. They were simply impressed and wanted to know how easy it would be for other governments to do the same thing. If the star ship Enterprise were in orbit over the earth, some backyard astronomer or asteroid hunter would stumble upon it. And then of course, there's Edward Snowden. It's simply a secret that is too big. No government could keep for 50 years.
The Problem with Pseudoscience
So, I try not to rip on my students in general. I especially try to avoid poking fun at them online. But occasionally one does something so monumentally stupid that I have to talk about it (don’t worry, I don’t share my postings with them, and no names or places will be mentioned). In this case, there was an event from my public speaking class that I think worthy of discussion. I had my students give an hour-long presentation (actually 45 minutes). At the beginning of the term, I told them to pick any subject they were passionate about. The idea was to teach them the skills needed for an effective presentation after all, not to make the assignment hurt even more by forcing them to research something they didn’t care anything about. Now, one student asked if he could do a presentation on “higher dimensions” of existence. I wasn’t entirely sure where he was going with it, but I thought, “how bad could it be?” Again, I’m grading the presentation, not the pet interests of the students. If he can generate a talk, no problem. Well, problem. But it has proven instructive for me and all the rest of the students in the class.
Fake It ‘Till You Make It, It’s a Thing
Things were as bad as you could possibly imagine. There wasn’t bloodshed. That’s the only limit to the carnage. On the night of the presentation, he begins talking about the normal spacial dimensions we all know and love... and getting even that wrong. He starts off by saying a plane is a one-dimensional object, that we all live in two dimensions, and that we become spiritual, and “fully aware” when we reach the third and fourth dimensions of existence. I asked him for his source on the information, and he literally tells me “some guy on the Internet.” He then ignores my look of absolute horror and proceeds to tell me, still with a straight face, that there are 7 universal laws connected to 7 known dimensions of reality. I simply could not make this kind of malarkey up. The other 6 students in the class look at me to see what I, their teacher (and physicist), is going to do about this obvious train wreck. The only person that didn’t seem to be aware this was a locomotive disaster was the conductor himself. As appalled as I was, I continued to listen. I wanted to just see how deep we were going into this rabbit hole. If he was truly aware that he’d lost his entire audience, peers and professor alike, within his first 7 minutes, he did a wonderful job of hiding it.
So, here’s why I find the whole thing instructive. This is pseudoscience. It’s obvious to me and everyone else in the room that it’s pseudoscience. What makes it special is that the polished veneer has been stripped away. It’s so bad, that it’s crap even to the most casual observer. And with that, it demonstrates the basic formula used by all pseudo-scientists.
You Don’t Already Know This Because “They” Just Don’t Want You to Know
Have you ever noticed how when someone wants to believe something that goes against mainstream thinking that they always want to claim some sort of conspiracy? Sorry, but none of the people I know are that organized ... or dishonest. Scientists and engineers included. Religious people can’t bury a new religion that works better than theirs. They can barely deal with holding their own against competing religions and atheism (or just materialism) these days. Car manufacturers would be happy to put oil companies out of business (and take their market share) if they could make a car that ran on water. And every scientist/engineer I know would dearly LOVE to be able to build a perpetual motion machine. Get over yourself. No one is out to get you. I sincerely doubt they’ve even noticed you.
Leveraging (and Corrupting) the Things You Hate
The next trick is to start with established science. You know, like saying the first 3 of your 7 dimensions of reality begin with the ones we already know, and then building on that. Another example might be homeopathy, where they start off with viable drugs but then argue that they can be diluted down to concentrations literally comparable to the proverbial drop in the ocean - and just think of all that 100-million-year-old dinosaur pee that you’re drinking every day - because, you know, the water “remembers.”
Make Everyone Else Work Harder Than You
When you ask a pseudoscience true believer how they know all the things they’re touting, the answer is often some variant of “why not?” “Who’s to say that the universe isn’t a bigger place than science realizes?” “Who’s to say this isn’t exactly the way things work?” “Can you prove me wrong?” Learn to recognize this argument in all its forms. It’s not logically feasible to prove a negative. I can’t even conclusively prove that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist, but that’s not the point. One can prove something does exist. You can show me the Tooth Fairy, have her say “hi” and give me a couple bucks for a molar, now I have evidence. It’s not my job to prove your pet theory WRONG. That’s the intellectual equivalent of turning me into Sisyphus and asking me to push a rock up a hill forever. No, it’s your job to probe your pet theory, and then provide the evidence to prove it RIGHT. Einstein had a really odd theory. Most didn’t believe it could possibly be correct. He then spent the next 20 years or so convincing people. If he wanted to see it done, it was his job to do it. And that was a Nobel Prize winning scientist.
Letting Your Brains Leak Out
When disagreeing with them, pseudo-scientist will often give you disapproving looks and tell you that you just aren’t open-minded enough. As the saying goes, “keep your mind open, but not so open that your brains fall out.” * Not everything imagined is real. That goes for unicorns, ancient Greek gods, flat home planets, or mind-altering drugs in jet contrails. I mean, how concentrated does that stuff have to be to fall 35,000 feet out of the sky, spread all across the ground, and still have a measurable impact from the bit you actually breathe in? Maybe it’s homeopathy again.
“We Just Can’t Get No Respect” (And There’s Probably a Reason)
We may not always like experts, especially when they tell us things we don’t want to hear... like “eat more kale and less sausage.” If we’re reasonable and mature, we even understand that they can occasionally be wrong in their assessments, but still mean well and have likely done their due diligence. We certainly accept that they’ve probably had some training and put some effort into being good at what they do. I remember talking to a “ghost hunter” in a panel and having her tell me that her biggest problem was a lack of respect from the scientific community. She could do so much, if only scientists would actually listen to her. My response was not the standard “that’s because you’re a kook” or “you’re untrained.” No, I took a different tack. I told her that if she had evidence of anything paranormal that I would approach the scientific community on her behalf. I would introduce her to researchers. I would help her write the papers. And then I gave her and her friends my card. That was 6 years ago. I’m still waiting. I still see her every year at the same convention. I try to walk up and make sure she still knows how to get ahold of me when she finds a real haunted house, or whatever. She usually avoids eye contact and goes the other way. When I am able to catch up to her, she just says she’s still looking for “a really good case” for me to study.
So what is THE problem with pseudoscience? It always starts with a predetermined notion, and ignores, nay FIGHTS, any and all evidence to the contrary. That’s not being open-minded. That’s pushing a pet agenda for something you’ve already decided to believe. And usually someone is profiting from it. Even as they condemn all the money the nasty old establishment is making.