This blog is a focussed experiment. I wanted to test my ability to publish and produce a taut multi-media blog on something. I attended TAM7 in July. It struck me as the perfect 4-day crash course. The "course" didn't go as well as I hoped, but I learned a lot. I'm continuting to update as I have the opportunity to - eventually I'll have covered the entirety of my experience at the conference.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

An Audience with the Master

One of the things I underestimated about TAM was just how populated it is by the blinding-light deities of skepticism. You could throw a rock and hit a prominent skeptic. Truly. Having been in the entertainment industry for pretty much my entire adult life means that by now I've largely overcome the sensation of being star-struck. But I've got to say that at TAM I was overcome by it more regularly than I thought would still be possible for me. I AM fairly well equipped to handle it when it does happen:

  1. Treat the person in question as a person, not some kind of precious glass object or religious icon;
  2. Decide fast whether you really have something worth saying to them and get it said efficiently, chances are you won't really have a conversation, merely something that has the illusion of being one;
  3. If you are going to beat yourself up for not saying 'hi' to them then christalmighty say 'hi', but remember points 1 & 2;
  4. If other folk are waiting to bask in the glory of their celebrity, remember point 2 and move along as fast as feasible – get your photo and get out;
  5. If by some chance you actually have a chance for a real conversation, make it a real conversation – none of that "remember when you were in the Beatles" stuff – talk about something current & relevant to you both
  6. Be respectful, thank them for their time/photo/autograph/hand-shake and don't be mad at them that they haven't got more time for you – the fact is there are a million of you in their lives.

I may have blown it once at TAM, but generally I did well.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I met Joe Nickell. Pretty much first thing. I turned around from registering and there he was, talking to another attendee. He was my first TAM celeb. Not two hours earlier I'd been reading an article of his in the Skeptical Inquirer at fifty-thousand feet. I had an internal moment of "Oh my god! That's Joe Nickell!" and then I reminded myself that if I didn't say 'hi' I'd be mad at myself. I had no idea at that point how many opportunities I would have.

I walked up and as his conversation with the other delegate wound down I shook his hand and told him that we'd used Lake Monster Mysteries as a resource on "Beast..." – he said "Oh yeah? Is that the Moby Dick film?" The answer of which was "yes, yes it is." (Inside the answer was more like "YES! Omigod-omigod-omigod! Joe Nickell knows about our film!!!" But that wouldn't have been cool... nor "cool".)

We talked briefly. There was no one else around so it was really kind of an actual conversation. I took the opportunity to invite him to the sneak preview of the film that night. Joe (he insists you call him 'Joe' not 'Dr. Nickell.') politely declined, but asked if we'd send him a copy when it was available.

Skipping back into the chronological timeline again....

After the Anti-anti-vax Panel was the first of two fund-raising auctions. I knew I didn't have the money to truly participate so I didn't stick around. I went out into the concourse and found some of my fellow Vancouver Skeptics.

As we talked there was another conversation going on nearby. Michael Goudeau from the panel was talking with someone else – Oh my god! It was Penn Gillette! He wasn't even 'on' until the next day. Of course they work together on Bullshit! I asked myself if I had anything to say to Penn... and the answer was somewhat surprisingly 'no'. I had nothing to say that wouldn't fall into the category of "Hey, you're famous. I want to talk to you because you're famous." I actually had more to say to Michael Goudeau at that moment, and I'd only ever heard of him an hour earlier. But between the two of them they had amassed a quick crowd and I didn't really feel like I had much more to offer than "Thanks for your brief but heartfelt input. It's so good for us as a community to know that there are sane parents of autistic children out there."

So I chatted with the Vancouver crew. I was surprised to find that many of them – not all – felt underwhelmed by the presentations thus far. No doubt I'd enjoyed some more than others, but overall I was having a good time. I think a significant portion of the lack of enthusiasm was based on reactions to Bill Prady – both his apparent failure to prepare, and his comments that were interpreted as sexist by some folks, but I've covered that elsewhere. I have to wonder what people were expecting for content? I really can't imagine. A number of them had decided to take advantage of the imaginary break that the auction was providing (many others people had stepped out during the auction) and call it quits for the main session of the day. There was only one talk left, so they were heading for the poolside bar.

Only two of us, myself and Fred, returned for the last talk – Joe Nickell! Many other folks also did not return. I'm not sure what the logic of that scheduling was. I'm guessing the JREF anticipated that Joe would be such a draw, being of the reknown he is, that he'd keep people waiting through the auction. Sadly they were wrong. Fred and I were able to move up into the first section of seating – within about three rows of the front for Joe's talk. It was a worthwhile experiment, but I found that I liked my original seat – with a table and the open aisle in front of me and immediately beside – better than being close but without a table.

I have to admit that Joe's presentation was not my favourite of the day – not really even in the running – but it was one I was NOT going to miss. He was truly one of the people I had come to see. He could have talked about beaded glass-work (Why, I don't know.) and I would have sat still in my seat with tightly focussed attention.

His talk was about Sasquatch and Alien Visitation.

He began with a quick message to Randi, wishing him well in his convalescence, pointing out that he is the 'toughest guy I've ever known' and then moved into the meat of it.

Part of what makes Joe's approach so special is that he truly is an open-minded skeptic. Every time he approaches one of his paranormal investigations he beings with the evidence, not the conclusion that the claims are hokum. It's admirable and must take an awful lot of discipline to maintain. Most of 'us' simply will not bother. The sort of claims he investigates have generally if not specifically be studied over and over in the past with no supporting results forthcoming. So, for the average critical thinker, we write it off under the well-used (and rightfully so) adage that "exceptional claims require exceptional evidence" which essentially places the burden of proof upon the claimant where it should be. Do those claimants ever bother to proceed with properly constructed investigations? No. They don't. They might claim they have, or even think they have – but when asked to present, their efforts always fail to pass muster for a variety of reasons. I'll save numerating those reasons for another time. But Joe, Mighty Joe Nickell, he is almost masochistic in his willingness to get in and do what should be their work for them – and the skeptical community is very appreciative of that. He wades in without an a priori debunking agenda (in fact he is quite insistent that he is not a 'debunker') and assesses each piece of evidence on its own merits – even take a forensic approach as necessary. Not to look for evidence to support one's claims, but to look at the evidence and let it lead where it will. The way "the debunking takes care of itself."

As a result of his respectful approach there are those amongst the believers who are more than willing to accept his findings. Case in point, he investigated a weeping icon in Toronto – and when he declared it a fake, the church supported his finding. THAT is what makes Joe Nickell great.

His secret for walking on fire? When friends try to take a picture. DO NOT STOP AND POSE.

He has demonstrated inflicting stigmata upon himself with sleight of hand (ouch!) (& no pun intended) to show how easily it can be achieved.

He has gone undercover to expose psychic healers.

Today Joe was talking about mythology.

"Most of us when we think of mythology, we think of something way back in time that the Greeks and Romans did" but in truth Joe contends that myths are "stories that are made up to explain certain phenomena." He cited Zeus making thunder, Poseidon controlling the seas and the Abrahamic 'god' creating the heavens, earth, animals and mankind. He went on to call Noah's flood "not a true story, but a true myth."

But other subjects fit the definition of myth. For example Faeries or talking to heaven. People have powerful emotions that they would like to attribute to guardian angels... or even the story of the resurrection of Jesus.

And then there are the mythologies of our time – extraterrestrial visitors to the planet earth making crop circles or passing on wisdom to our ancestors.

Joe once did a study on the evolution of crop-circles. They began simple, but they became more and more complex. Developing an increasing mathematical elaboration and artistry – to the point where some are far more 'art' than 'math' as they once were – clearly indicating a case of one-up-manship... more than likely human. In his exploration he actually went out and made crop-circles with "pros" – not professional alien astronauts, professional artists with experience in crop circles... it CAN be done my mortal men – why do the doubters refuse this when it has been accomplished time and time again. (The farmer was paid for the damages incidentally.)

Anthropomorphisizing from ancient times 'til modern is a regular aspect of mythologies. From the earliest records man has made the central figures in his mythologies in his own image. Take for an example, ghosts – a transparent form of us; angels a holy winged form; bigfoot a lunk-headed ancestral form; vampires, us with an attitude; or even the standard image of E.T.s – a futuristic form with a message.

We are interested in the figures that are like us. The abominable snowman came to public awareness in the 50s. Before that there wasn't much interest in bigfoot and it's cousins. But now it has flourished and evolved from the concept of man-beast. Joe's investigations unearthed a huge variety in the reported nature of the beast – some horned, some fanged, some walked on all fours and some walked upright, the colour range seemingly represented the entire spectrum and they had anywhere from two to six toes. There is a trend towards standardization after the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film.

Joe outlined his trip through Northern California looking for Bigfoot... sounds like a beautiful place. He went to the same area where the Patterson-Gimlin encounter occurred. They didn't see bigfoot. Not that that is definitive. But more than anything they took note of the culture of bigfoot in the region. They went to the bigfoot museum. They spent a night at the Bigfoot Motel. Bigfoot is everywhere... in the culture. But everytime they had a bigfoot sighting it was a mural or a business – Bigfoot Hardware, Bigfoot Burger, Bigfoot Books, Bigfoot Coffee. (We found the same thing with Ogopogo in the Okanagan. The only thing that springs to mind is 'Ogopogo Automotive.')

He showed many photos of bigfoot sculptures – many tongue in cheek as he admits – most carved with chainsaws from huge chunks of wood.

"Bigfoot is a metaphor for our past, and at the same time on this same lonely planet we are looking outward and we're seeing aliens. Bigfoot is now behind us and here the future – UFOization."

Joe talked about the Roswell 'crash' – going over the same old information; how the original crash information from Project Mogul has been wilfully corrupted – that the debris was made of high-tech materials beyond man's ability to make (apparently foil and rubber was beyond our abilities in the 1947s by the measure of the Roswell proponents), and how an 'alien body' has been added to the mythos despite the original report.

"We know what crashed at Roswell. One thing that crashed there was the truth." Excellent line there Joe. Absolutely quote worthy... but I suspect that it too will too easily be co-opted by the credulous.

He went on to show his timeline of the evolution of the alien images that haunt us.

He finished by reading from a blog he did on the subject:

"Essentially bigfoot is becoming a true myth a story, presenting super normal episodes that are powerfully explanatory. As our planet shrinks, with wilderness places becoming fewer and less remote, hairy man-beasts survive mythologically as evolutionary throw-backs, endangered species of an imperilled planet. 'Bigfoot is an eco-messiah' states anthropologist David Haglund(?) 'if it survives; nature survives.' And as we turn from bigfoot metaphors of our past we look ahead to the frontiers of the universe with its mythological futuristic appearing humanoids. Various contactees and abductees claim to receive messages, often telepathically from extra-terrestrials. Messages like one about 'the danger facing the earth – ecology.' As time when the old myths including those of the great religions are in decline, we stand witness to vibrant new ones spawned for by concern for our planet and our place in the cosmos. These are developing right before our eyes. While sometimes the mythic beings are bogeymen representing our primal fears, at other times they are expressive of hope. Prophetic beings offering us a type of salvation."

He ended there.

Having gone back and re-listened to Joe's talk, I have got more from it a second time. Most of the talks at TAM were largely pragmatic in nature, but not Joe's. Ultimately his talk was far more about the psychology of how and why we develop these powerful myths to fill the gaps in human culture. As he himself said (I paraphrase) – he is getting older and trying to pull his life's work together; trying to make sense of it all and give it a shape. In that context it makes far more sense. I have to admit I got lost (read: bored) in the bigfoot portion (which I have significantly truncated here) and upon going back I was better able in translating it to this entry to assimilate his greater point without getting lost in the details.

And thus ended the first day's sessions. But the day was not over yet. There was still the SGU dinner to follow and a certain amount of sitting around in the bar afterwards just shooting the shit with people... but that is at least one, maybe two posts in it's own right.

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