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.