My Weekend at Dragon*Con September 10, 2010

My Weekend at Dragon*Con

(Hemant’s note: This is a guest post by JulietEcho. She has been the fantastic admin for the Friendly Atheist forums for over two and a half years!)

Over the past weekend, I attended Dragon*Con in Atlanta, along with over 30,000 other sci-fi and fantasy fans. Some came for the costumes, some came for the parties, some came for the gaming — but I was there to see some of my favorite skeptics and sci-fi actors! Unlike TAM, the “Skeptrack” at Dragon*Con was only one of thirty-five different tracks available to attendees, so it had to compete with some formidable events. Still, plenty of skeptics showed up for panels and talks given by guests such as James Randi, Margaret Downey, D.J. Grothe, Heidi Anderson, and Adam Savage.

I was reminded during the “Skepticism and Sexuality” panel that we shouldn’t be hesitant to apply skepticism to a topic because it’s taboo or sensitive. Many skeptics have learned this lesson regarding religion — something that can be a very sensitive subject, indeed — but that’s not the only area where skepticism can be controversial or unwelcome. Benjamin Radford addressed myths and studies about sex offenders, and some of the facts he cited really surprised me. For instance, “Megan’s Laws” have never been shown to be effective, and the offenders listed in such registries are (contrary to common knowledge) very unlikely to reoffend.

Heidi Anderson talked about how it’s necessary for those who work with sexual assault victims to be aware of basic information about what it means to be transgendered, transsexual, etc. Barbara Drescher cited some interesting new studies about teenagers and sex and also talked about some about correlations between religiosity, affiliation, and sex. She talked about how while differences in education don’t usually change the behavior of teenagers (they’ll basically have sex anyway), it changed how they felt about it. Instead of resulting in actual abstinence, abstinence-only education “grows guilty teenagers.” Myths about pornography, bisexuality, and other sex-related topics were also discussed.

I was motivated enough to get up for an 8:30 “Skeptical Coffee Talk” session (which notably provided no coffee for the speakers or the attendees!) where I was rewarded by some really great commentary on the connections between being a magician and being a skeptic. James Randi, D.J. Grothe, and Joe Nickell shared their experiences as magicians who became skeptics. One point that was made repeatedly was that scientists often live in “an honest world” where no one is trying to trick them, which leaves them occasionally vulnerable and unprepared when it comes to testing people with tricks up their sleeves. Magicians, on the other hand, know about preparing to detect cheating. If you know a trick, you can detect it.

Everyone on the panel (and the audience too, judging by the wild applause) said that they would love for someone to win the Million Dollar Challenge. An audience member asked each panelist what supernatural claim they’d most like to be true. Joe chose ghosts, as he said he would be comforted by the implications they give of consciousness surviving death. After joking that “spontaneous human combustion has always had a certain charm for me,” Randi said he’d most like to see intelligent alien life from beyond Earth. D.J. chose telepathy, agreeing with Joe that some indicator of mind/body dualism would be comforting, “even though there’s no evidence for it.” Randi’s response: “There’s lots and lots of evidence for it! It’s just all very bad evidence!”

I was surprised and amused to hear that some people have claimed that James Randi is a powerful psychic who puts out “negative vibrations” in order to trip up other psychics taking his test. He explained the extraordinary lengths he goes to in order to stay completely uninvolved in the testing process, which includes insisting on not being told when or where the tests would take place. Despite knowing how to perform tricks that fool people, many magicians, according to Randi, don’t understand the psychology behind why such tricks work. Magicians aren’t necessarily skeptics — they might really believe they have a gift. I was reminded of a video that both amused and depressed me, featuring a UK psychic who took the Million Dollar Challenge and seemed genuinely upset and disturbed that he kept failing tests.

I was fortunate enough to have my picture taken with James Randi afterwards, and he was extremely gracious and pleasant. He also gave me his autograph, addressing it to “[JulietEcho], the ‘Friendly Atheist’s’ friend.” We had our picture taken together too, and no, I don’t usually wear sackcloth and dirt on my face! I was dressed as Fred Burkle from the TV show Angel.

D.J. mentioned that he’d heard Richard Dawkins say that perhaps too much interest in fantasy (one of the two genres heavily represented at Dragon*Con) among kids could lead to credulity. He said that Dawkins should really come to Dragon*Con to understand the unique connection between many fantasy fans and the skeptical community. You can find many a skeptical geek if you look among fantasy fans. I got the impression throughout the weekend that most of the people around me were not religious, although there was certainly plenty of woo represented.

One of the highlights of my weekend was attending an event called “Spotlight on Adam Savage,” where he answered questions from the audience about Mythbusters, his personal hobbies, and miscellaneous topics. He started by whipping playing cards at the poor guy who was trying to introduce him. He explained that it’s a bad habit he picked up on the show, and he’s not allowed to do it around Jamie (heh). Whipping one out into the audience, he quipped, “I think I just hit a baby!” He talked about improving science education for kids by showing them the process of figuring something out, not just presenting findings. He also clarified that because they have to cut a lot of footage from Mythbusters episodes, many tests and experiments are performed but not aired on the show, due to mind-numbing repetition being a bit of a ratings killer.

When asked about “Buster,” the dummy used to test hundreds of dangerous situations on the show, he said, “There’s actually a Church of Buster — he’s been resurrected so many times for your education!” When talking about the future of the show, Adam said another thing that I liked so much I transcribed it word-for-word:

“People still believe a lot of stupid crap. There’s still a ghost hunters show on Discovery! Wouldn’t you love it if you turned on the History Channel and they said, ‘Sorry about all those Nostradamus shows?’ I would love that world.”

In his spare time before Dragon*Con, Adam worked on a costume to wear on Sunday. I found out later that he’s done this sort of thing before, and sometimes the first person to figure out who he is wins a prize. We didn’t spot him, although I was suspicious of every masked and helmeted person I saw! If you want to see Adam in the costume he made, here’s the link to a photo a fellow attendee took.

For the Mythbusters fans out there: according to Adam, one of the upcoming episodes will feature a test of the circumstances involved in the famous Valkyrie operation that almost killed Hitler. Specifically, they’ll be testing whether it would have been successful if the same steps had been taken in the room where the targeted meeting was originally scheduled to take place.

The last official Skeptrack event I attended was a panel called “Women, Myths, Feminism and Skepticism” that included Melissa Kaercher, Desiree Schell, Brian Gregory, K.O. Myers, Donna Mugavero, and Barbara Drescher. Health care was a popular topic for discussion, as was the information (that keeps showing up in studies) that there are higher levels of belief in woo among women than men. Paganism was mentioned in particular as a set of supernatural beliefs that attracts many women because it’s female-centric and avoids many of the patriarchal stereotypes embodied by other religions.

An interesting discussion also cropped up concerning the big issue of “tone” from atheists. Assertive women are often painted as “bitches” and “harpies” if they take controversial or unpopular stances, and atheism is certainly a controversial stance among the general population. Yet I’ve seen female atheists pointed to as examples of “gentler” atheists, especially when contrasted with white men. See Greta Christina and Amanda Marcotte for excellent responses to that claim, in case you missed them the first time around.

Skeptrack also held a free vaccination clinic on-site, which was advertised all over the four sponsor hotels and provided pertussis (whooping cough) booster shots, which most people don’t realize they need.

All of this was really the tip of the Skeptrack iceberg, and I was sorry I couldn’t attend more of their events. But a girl has to make time to see the Deep Space Nine cast and the Futurama voice actors, right? Maybe next year we can arrange a meeting of Friendly Atheist readers who attend, or Hemant could even go as a guest (c’mon Hemant, you know you’d love it!) and rub elbows with Scott Bakula and Jewel Staite in the process. I heartily recommend it!


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  • Teenagers don’t need any extra guilt. It’s a shitty time already. They might as well be informed and do their best at making choices that are right for them

  • I went for the first time this year (flew all the way from England). It’s great fun, and I’d love to see more atheist bloggers there for a meetup next year!

  • VXbinaca

    RKwatson, who I consider a must-view in my YT subs, made a video about the Dragon*Con vaccinations:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=el3qyhDDq4o

    Juliet, you do look like that character quite a bit.

    Is Randi short or are you tall? I’ve been meaning to take a tour of JREF since it’s on the other side of the state from me, for quite some time.

  • Bob

    I have numerous friends who go to D*Con (I’m in the 501st Legion), but have never attended personally.

    SF Fandom is not *always* chock full of skeptics, however – I recall a convention in the 1980’s, where a panel on creating believeable magic systems for fantasy novels kicked off with the corker, “Science doesn’t know everything,” and promptly turned into a science-bashing session that had nothing to do with the subject of writing fantasy literature.

  • JulietEcho

    @VXbinaca – I’m tall, but he’s also quite short. I’m 5’10” for reference, and I have good posture 🙂

    @Bob – Yes, there was even a “Paranormal Activity” track that was new this year, apparently. They had “psychics” and ghost hunters and that sort of thing. I don’t know if it was more popular than skeptrack or not. I imagine that (loosely speaking) skeptrack had to compete with the big sci-fi names whereas the paranormal people had to compete with the fantasy panels, so that could have had an effect.

    I do think that the kinds of supernatural thinking most attractive to fantasy and sci-fi fans are non-religious. Ghosts, UFOs, ESP, and other non-religious woo seemed to be the order of the day.

  • Sackbut

    Heck, I wish I had known about this. My wife and I were in Atlanta this weekend visiting my stepdaughter, and her boyfriend informed us that all those costumed people were from Dragon*Con. I may have walked right past you!

    A get-together for Friendly Atheist readers or forum members would be really nice.

  • Drew M.

    That picture with you and James Randi is adorable!

  • Secular Stu

    We had our picture taken together too, and no, I don’t usually wear sackcloth and dirt on my face! I was dressed as Fred Burkle from the TV show Angel.

    If you’re wondering how weird that sounds to someone who’s unfamiliar with that program, it still sounds very weird.

    I didn’t think the outfit looked bad, I thought it was stylish until you said it was sackcloth. Excuse me I have to go examine my life.

  • Gauldar

    I never watched the show. When I saw the pic my first thought was ‘Paperbag Princess’?

  • JulietEcho

    @Sackbut- Oh man, it would have been great to meet up! I should have asked around the forum to see if anyone else was going to be in the area.

    Angel was a spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Fred was a geeky physicist who spent several years trapped in another dimension where humans were used as slaves. She eventually joins the cast and is awesome. I’ve been told I look like the actress (Amy Acker) before, so I figured it was a good fit. It’s a shame you can’t see the fake dirt on my face in the picture due to lighting – I matched it perfectly!

  • VXbinaca

    @JulietEcho

    Well then it’s a bit of both I suppose since I’m 6’3.

  • PhkGzs

    interesting note: I ran into Jewel Staite on one of my many drunken elevator rides in the Marriott. I was wearing a Boston Bruin’s shirt that has HAIL SATAN written in giant letters. (for #81 Miroslav Satan)

    She giggled and said my shirt was “amusing.” I could’ve died a happy atheist that day.

    Although the shirt refers to hockey, it got a lot of compliments and comments at this year’s DragonCon…which is slowly becoming Atlanta’s biggest party.

    Who doesn’t like getting wasted with their favorites TV/Movie characters!?

  • I was reminded during the “Skepticism and Sexuality” panel that we shouldn’t be hesitant to apply skepticism to a topic because it’s taboo or sensitive. Many skeptics have learned this lesson regarding religion — something that can be a very sensitive subject, indeed — but that’s not the only area where skepticism can be controversial or unwelcome. …

    Perfect timing, giving the previous post regarding the Humanist book giveaway and how it degenerated into a slapfest of what is, and is not, humanist sexuality. We not only have to turn a skeptical eye toward the old ways of thinking, but also toward the new ones. Something, I think, many people tend to forget.

  • Donna Lafferty

    My crush on Adam Savage just grows day by day. His costume was V?! WOW. Awesome!

  • Dawkins said that, huh? I dunno, man. I’m as damn nerdy as they come, what with hundreds of RPG books and like that, and I don’t believe in anything.

  • Thanks for reviewing those two panels in particular! 🙂 I was on the last one and had a hand in suggesting the sexuality one, so it’s great to know that they had this kind of impact on the audience – really appreciated! I hope we’ll see you next year (in fact, please let me know if you’d like to join us on stage if there’s a topic you’d like to propose?). Kylie Sturgess.

  • allison

    Aaaaahhhhhh!!! I saw Adam Savage in costume and didn’t know it because I didn’t know he’d be in costume that day! Now I’m kicking myself.

    The panel for kids at Skeptrack was pretty good. My kid enjoyed it, and played some of the tricks on his brother later. 🙂 He was interested in attending Savage’s talk as well, but soured on talks after attending one of the YA book clubs (really, I should have bailed when we realized that he was the youngest by four years and the wrong gender).

    As a fellow mathematician, I was a bit flummoxed at the focus on health care at the “Women, Myths, Feminism and Skepticism” panel. I don’t know…..does the mistrust in health care extend to the other sciences to that extent? I have the suspicion that the mistrust has at least as much to do with post-modernism and the “many ways of knowing” idea even if the people involved don’t read much direct post-modernism themselves.

  • JulietEcho

    @podblack
    Seriously?! I’d gladly join you onstage next year if you do a panel on, say, skeptical communities online, or on sexuality again (I’m 1/3 of a polyamorous V that’s about to celebrate four years together, and I’ve written about it for Hemant before). Would I get a yellow “guest” ribbon to wear on my badge?

    It’s really all about that guest ribbon, you know.

    Or if Hemant goes, I could be his assistant and collect the exorbitant fees he’ll charge for autographs 🙂

    @allison
    I definitely think that post-moderism has had an effect on the viewpoints of plenty of people who wouldn’t call it that or even know a good definition for “post-modernism.” I think that the mistrust is probably stronger when it comes to healthcare, in my experience anyway, because it’s such a personal area of science. People don’t worry about whether astronomers would be better off using “alternative” methods of building telescopes or charting stars, for instance, because it’s not affecting them on an intimate level.

  • Aj

    I’d like some statistics to back up the claim of a correlation between skeptics and fantasy. I know that a lot of skeptics and geeks are into fantasy through role playing games, which is not a surprise considering the allure of such entertainment, and then there’s the many novels written by geeks in the fantasy genre. Tolkien definitely appeals to many geeks. Christians love CS Lewis, and there are plenty of New Age or wiccan woo-merchants that love fantasy that incorporate elements of their beliefs. The popularity of fables, myths, and religion throughout history suggests that fantasy is popular in general. Not all fantasy is represented in the culture that created Dragon*Con, there’s an overlap of skeptic and geek culture.

    Richard Dawkins stated he didn’t know whether fantasy had an effect on children. He also said he would like research done. He then suggested he would be writing a book for children that included characters using reason and science, in the real world, because while there is plenty of fantasy there’s not much of that. People usually interpret extremes from what he says with no justification. DJ Grothe said that Richard Dawkins thinks that religious people are idiots on his podcast after interviewing Dawkins in a previous episode. DJ Grothe made that up, Richard Dawkins doesn’t say that, and contradicted such accusations. DJ Grothe can’t be trusted, if you want to know what Richard Dawkins thinks and says read the articles he writes.

    Children’s stories contain a lot of magical concepts, virtually all of the stories I remember had them. I used to love reading about witches and dragons, and Hans Christian Andersen was one of my favourites. I’ve noticed that people explain things to children with superstition and personification, even those that are skeptical. Research suggests children are biased towards the intentional stance, is it biological, learnt behaviour, or both, I don’t know but they’re legitimate questions.

    Amy Acker playing Fred on Angel was the number one reason I watched that show.

  • JulietEcho

    @Aj

    Mine too (regarding Amy Acker), and the fifth season was especially awesome, what with James Marsters joining the cast and getting so much great screen time with Acker. I loved her on Dollhouse too.

    It was lax of me to neglect finding the original Dawkins quote – I was taking notes furiously and decided to represent what the panelists said at face value – crediting them alone for their claims – since the format wasn’t ideal for anyone citing sources. I would also be interested in the fantasy/skeptic statistics – I think a breakdown of different sub-genres of fantasy might be especially revealing.

    In future Dragon*Con skeptracks, perhaps panelists could prepare a joint list of references they plan to cover (i.e. links to studies they’ll be citing, articles they’ll mention, etc.) available to the audience. It would be very much in the spirit of skepticism, because it would allow the audience to more easily examine the claims of the panelists for themselves.

  • I went to the Paranormal Track sessions with Chris Fleming (of the horrid show Psychic Kids). It was not well attended, honestly. The lines at the Ghost Hunter table in the celebrity petting zoo were longer than most, however.

    If you are at all interested, I recorded a contentious exchange I had between Chris and m’self after his Psychic Kids session.

    http://hjhop.blogspot.com/2010/09/chris-fleming-and-i-at-dragoncon.html

    HJ

  • Deanna

    Yay to hear about your trip to Dragon*Con.

    This was my family’s 4th year in a row, and I’ve been begging Hemant to attend for years. We had our own two teenagers, and brought two more with us.

    We were only able to attend one SkepTrack event this year, but at least we got to see James Randi. My husband and son got to spend time with Adam Savage during his free autograph session, and we attended the Adam Savage and friend panel, where they just chatted. Most of our time was spent at SciFi panels like Stargate, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, Magenta from Rocky Horror and “Aargh, Pirates” along with very awesome Saturday parade of thousands down Peachtree.

    I was happy to see so many paranormal guests cancel at the last minute. I’m sure that hurt panel attendance. I’m just glad that have the paranormal stuff in one hotel and Skep Track in another hotel.

    It really does drive our family nuts that SyFy has so many ghost shows. Ugh.

    BTW, very cool Fred outfit.

    We are already planning to go back next year. They should be selling the 2011 tickets very soon.

    (Please convince Hemant to come next year!!)

  • @julietecho:

    “It’s really all about that guest ribbon, you know.”

    Guest status is given by Dragon*Con and isn’t anything to do with the Tracks – you can apply at the official dragoncon.org/dc_guests_list.php site, but they rarely give such status unless you’re on television /film /established author /artist /scientist /president of organisation, et al. You can see a list of the kind of people who make ‘guest’ status on the official site (Shatner, Nimoy, Glau, Grothe, Randi, Drescher, Saunders, Gay, Hrab, Downey, etc.). Many people get knocked back and it’s even rarer that people get any payment/gratis (like flight-costs) for appearing.

    This year – Guests numbered about 400 people out of the about 40 thou people attending.

    They have cut back on the status over the past two years, due to the requirement that Guests must appear on X number of presentations and if there’s too many Guests, there’s not enough time or opportunities for people to present. So, in short – no, it’s not all about the Guest Ribbon and certainly it’s no problem if one doesn’t have it. I’ve worked for Derek C of SkepTrack (Staff member) for the past three years, and personally found that much more fun and rewarding as a contributor. Perhaps you can get in touch with other Tracks too if you’re keen to be a part of things?

    It’s a good idea to propose a few panel / presentation ideas to Track directors (not just Skeptic, but Science/Space, etc) if you are hoping to either see something happen or perhaps be included in a panel – I’ve sent in several ideas over the years and although some aren’t included, I try to keep them broad enough so lots of different people can take part. That’s just something I like to encourage, rather than the ‘same faces’ or just the ‘same representatives’ every time. 🙂

  • Ren

    I was shocked and appalled to learn of vaccinations going on a D*C. I took a walk over to be completely disgusted to see them doing vaccinations out in the open without rubber gloves or running water. That was more likely to spread germs and disease than whooping cough itself. Skeptics, use your brains and not your sheep mentality.

  • JulietEcho

    @ Ren, I don’t know enough about proper medical procedure to know whether to be disturbed (when I’ve had blood drawn and vaccines I do think there were always gloves involved), but that’s awful if it was sloppily done. Americans don’t need *more* reasons to be reluctant to get vaccinated.

    @ podblack, I was joking about the ribbon! Whether I end up involved on the presenting side or the audience side, I’ll be there next year. I was glad to hear Adam Savage talk about how much he liked Dragon*Con in particular, and it seemed like many of the skeptrack guests seemed committed to returning in the future.

  • Bethany

    I live within an easy day’s drive of Atlanta, but have never been to Dragon*Con. I’m a skeptic and a SF/F fan, but my one experience at a con was so lousy I resolved to never go to another one unless I were promoting my own work.

    This post makes me re-think my resolution. If I’m still in the Southeast, I may find my way to Atlanta next year.