Personal Heroes

Ken and I were fortunate enough to take part in the Amazing Adventure 5: Skeptics of the Caribbean sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation randi.org It was a wonderful, rum-soaked seven days full of laughter, bonding and skepticism.

We were also treated to the presence of the Amazing One himself, James Randi. For those of you not familiar with Mr. Randi, go to YouTube and search. He has been working to expose charlatans for a good number of years. His favorite adversary was Uri Geller. Yes, that spoon-bending guy.

Scientists actually studied what they called The Geller Effect. Mr. Geller never admitted that what he was doing was nothing more than a trick. He constantly swore that he was just doing something that came naturally to him. Scientists were actually fooled by this. If he were, after all these years, to admit what he had been doing, he would be sued for fraud by multiple agencies.

Randi also took part in the first card trick ever done in outer space. He created the Alpha Project projectalpha.html which fooled paranormal researchers for over two years. Banachek, who grew to have a full career in stage magic and mentalism, was one of the Alpha Kids.

He was also kind enough to take a personal interest in my own journey as a fledgeling skeptic. I have been very fortunate to be able to spend some one on one time with him. Thanks to Randi’s kindness and advice, I’m finding my footing in the skeptical world.

Another personal hero that I’ve mentioned in previous articles is the wonderful George Hrab of Geologic Podcast fame: The Geologic Podcast Home. His humor and insight have influenced my development as a skeptic. He’s the one that taught me, and keeps reminding me, that personal heroes are people just like me. Even though they’re giants, they still put their pants on one leg at a time.

From George I also learned patience in dealing with non-skeptical people. He was the first person I heard say that you cannot change the mind of a True Believer but you CAN plant the seed. He uses an adage from Patrick Swayze’s movie Road House. “Be nice. Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.”. And so, I try very hard to be nice even when I want to apply a baseball bat upside the head to knock some common sense into some of these people.

On the other end of that spectrum is my personal hero, Penn Jillette. From Penn I learned that it’s okay not to believe what everyone else believes. I’ve never really been part of the herd even though I spent most of my life trying VERY hard to be just that.  Please don’t misunderstand me, Penn is a very kind and compassionate man. It can be seen in some of the Bullshit episodes and his video blog episode about the man who gave him the Gideon pocket Bible. He just has zero tolerance for so-called psychics or other charlatans that cause harm or take advantage of people. This is evident from ANY of the episodes of Bullshit. I hope one day I’ll get the privilege of meeting him so that I can tell him personally what a difference he made in my life.

I am an adult, but I’ll tell you what; THESE are the people I want to grow up to be.

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You Don’t Have To Be A Rocket Scientist

No, Really. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist…or any kind of scientist for that matter, to be a skeptic. Learning a new way of thinking is pretty scary. You wonder if you’re doing it right. Especially when you read posts on the JREF forum. It’s hard not to feel a little less than intelligent.

The wonderful think about the skeptic community is that we are a pretty diverse group. We have members of all ages, genders, ethnicities and education levels. One of the major players in the skeptical world, James “The Amazing” Randi, didn’t finish high school. He has traveled the world performing magic and working to educate people about charlatans and frauds. Mr. Randi is working on his 10th book currently.

Penn Jillette is a graduate of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Clown College.  Teller, his partner, formerly taught high school Latin has been a guest lecturer at Oxford University and appears to have attended MIT. So even within famous skeptical partnerships there is a wide range of educational background.

Penn has written numerous essays and a book, “Sock”. His communication is insightful and thought-provoking. While he comes across as brash and overbearing, his writing indicates a much greater depth.

And then there’s me. I’m one of those jack of all trades types. I don’t have a formal college degree though I’ve attended Northwest College as a photojournalism major. Turns out I have no talent for photography so I dropped out. Then I tried animation at the Art Institute of Atlanta. I changed majors to graphic design because the redundancy of drawing frame after frame with only minute changes drove me nuts.

After a year and a half of graphic design I quit because I didn’t see how a degree in that field could be of help to anyone. I saw it as crass manipulation and I didn’t want to manipulate people on a mass level. Or any level for that matter.

Later I spent a year with the psych department of the University of Maryland. That’s where I took what would later become my favorite college class ever. Statistics. Even though I felt like my brain was leaking out my ears and half the time I didn’t think I had any clue what I was doing, that course taught me how to read medical studies and evaluate research. This is probably the most important skill I have.

Unfortunately after that year I didn’t feel that I could, in the end, be of help as a psychologist. I don’t think I have what it takes to listen to people’s problems day in and day out for years on end. So I dropped out.

Intertwined amongst all that is over 500 hours of training in various disciplines of hypnotherapy. There is no formal degree in hypnosis, though I looked at several unaccredited “universities”. When we moved to Florida my hypnosis practice collapsed. I still have that skill set though because I am a skeptic, I have set it aside. We still do not really understand how hypnosis works. I’ll be covering that in a later article.

Then, of course, there is all the time and money spent on training in Reiki, crystal healing and herbalism.

The point of this long, rambling bit of text is that even though there are lots of people with big, intimidating degrees from MIT, Oxford and Harvard, it’s people like you and me, the average person, that makes the skeptical movement grow. We learn new ways of thinking and exploring our world right here in our own living rooms. We go to skeptical events, we share ideas with others that may or may not be skeptical.

This is how the skeptical movement grows. With people like us just being skeptical.

WIDW – A Family Story

Welcome to the first installment of the “Why It Doesn’t Work” series. Today I’m talking about the ideomotor effect. ideomotor.html

When I was little we had a Ouija Board in our house. It was fun to play with because the little planchette seemed to skate across the surface of the board all by itself. When I had sleep overs, we had “seances”. It was fun and kind of scary because ghosts were talking to us by moving what we called “The little thing”.

Girls at that age were, as they are now, boy crazy. So of course the big thing we all wanted to know what “What are the initials of the man I’m going to marry”. Even then I found it a little odd that one set of initials that came for me was MM. Those were my maiden name initials. It was fun to get ANY kind of feedback, no matter what the initials were. We all just laughed and guessed who it would be, naming boys we knew at school.

When I got a little older, my Mom told me a story about her grandmother (my great grandmother). She and her friends were having their own “seance” while they waited for my great grandfather to arrive. One of the questions that she asked was “When will my husband die?”. The planchette pointed out the date of the following day.

According to my mother, my great grandfather died in a car accident that next evening while on the way home from work.

I have not verified this story with any of the other relatives. I don’t know if this is true or if it is just part of the family mythology. Either way, my mother swears by this story.

Here’s why a spirit or ghost did not predict the death of my great grandfather: Ideomotor effect.

The ideomotor effect is an unconscious motor behavior. In other words, we do it without realizing that we’re doing it. Dowsing and a pendulum work the same way. What happens is that our muscles twitch involuntarily. It’s similar to when we breathe without thinking about it. If you hold a pendulum you’ll notice that after a brief period it will start moving on it’s own. This is an example of the ideomotor effect.

Here is a video that shows an example and explains in further detail how the ideomotor effect works:

The Amazing Adventure 5

The JREF’s Amazing Adventure 5: Skeptics of the Caribbean is fast approaching. The cruise leaves Fort Lauderdale March 6 and returns on the 14th. So far there are 85 skeptics set to sail. Provided his health allows, the Amazing One himself, James Randi, will be joining us on the cruise!

Here is a link to the itinerary and information about the cruise http://bit.ly/EZb4I During the lovely sun-filled, rum-sodden days, talks will be offered on a myriad of topics. I’m scheduled to give one on skepticism in daily life. As if going to the Caribbean, hanging out with like minded people and spending time with The Amazing One wasn’t enough of a thrill…you get ME!

What I would like to know is this: What would you like to hear about in a talk/discussion about skepticism in daily life? Leave a comment here or email me at fledgelingskeptic@atheist.com