Posted by: Ticktock | May 3, 2009

Skepticamp – Reporting Back!

Lee and I just returned from Skepticamp.

It was a long and satisfying day of presentations, discussions, games, and socializing. Lee brought his kids who were entertained the whole time by the staff of Camp Quest, the first secular summer camp for kids. I’ll be talking more about Camp Quest later this week when I interview their Executive Director, but in the meantime, check out their web site and see what all the fun is about.

I really enjoyed all the presentations I attended, but I connected the most with Joshua Hunt of The Cleveland Skeptics (check the link – it’s a top notch resource for people new to skepticism). Josh and I are both actors, we both worked at Second City (not as performers), and we both got into skepticism by becoming aware of our own gullibility.

Joshua Hunt of Cleveland Skeptics

Joshua Hunt of Cleveland Skeptics

Josh had a particularly rocky introduction into skepticism – learning the hard way. He told the story of how a psychic moved to his college town, fleeced him (and others) of all their  money, and then took off like a bat out of hell. There’s nothing like getting hosed by a scam artist to wake you up to your own pathetic naivete.

I also found Glenn Davis’ presentation interesting because he was talking about the “self help” movement. Even though I grew up going to the Methodist church, I feel like the true religion in my family was “self help”. My Dad was very enthusiastic about the virtues of positive thinking, creating your own reality, and taking responsibility for your personal success. Honestly, I can see the benefits of having a more positive psychological philosophy, but I can also see how the “self help” movement can drag an advocate into a perpetual need to buy more repetitious information on the same tired concepts of positive thinking (and the like).

Glenn seemed a little apologetic toward the “self help” movement, and perhaps understandably so because he spent so much time as a disciple of Wayne Dyer, EST, and Alcoholic’s Anonymous. He spent a lot of time reviewing the basic tenants of each program, but spent little time actually challenging their claims. I’m not necessarily bothered by it, but it made me wonder if we had been infiltrated by a true believer (we hadn’t, just to be clear).

In the discussion afterward, we ended up talking about the roots of “self help” by psychologists Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis and the philosophy of stoicism. We also established that the secular version of Alcoholics Anonymous is SOS (Save Our Selves).

The last presentation I attended was a great one by Dr. Mark Mentser, a pediatric kidney specialist. He spoke about complementary alternative medicine. For those who don’t know, this subject is really interesting to me because my wife studied acupuncture. I liked that Dr. Mentser condemned the use of CAM on children; he was visibly repulsed by the idea of spinal manipulation chiropractic being done on babies. I plan on interviewing Dr. Menster later this week, so look for that.

Well, that’s about it. I forgot to mention that Ashley Paramore and Skepchick Jen Myers planned this whole thing. Much thanks to them for being on the ball and organizing this. I really enjoyed the game show at the end – very clever.

Jen Myers

Jen Myers

Ashley Paramore

Ashley Paramore

Remember that all this week, I will be publishing my notes on my “Myths, Monsters, and Legends” presentation. That’s right, boys and girls, you get one mythical monster per day for five or six days. And just for Tyler, Lee’s daughter, I might finish the week with a bonus myth – the genie!



  1. Enjoyed your presentation, as well. Thanks for attending. 🙂

  2. Nice recap and it even motivated me to see if there’s a skeptic group in my area — sure enough there is. Also looking forward to the interview with the kidney specialist.

    If the mood ever strikes you, I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts on the positive thinking thing. I agree that it is sort of secular religion, but what’s the alternative? The only thing I can think of is fatalism, in the god-willing/it-was-meant-to-be vein. Is there something in between?

  3. Positive thinking and boosting self-esteem seems like an open and shut case – of course it’s good for you, right? But kids and adults need negative feedback too. I remember when teachers wouldn’t correct our papers because they didn’t want the red ink to deflate our egos. Congratulations, the world is now full of undereducated graduates with hyper-inflated egos.

    The only problem is that positive thinking regimens failed to boost grades. Kids kept getting reinforced for giving things a “good try” and “great effort”, but if they were rewarded even when they failed, they had no incentives for progress.

    Motivation stems from unhappiness. If we are taught that we can be happy in any situation, then why would we want to advance beyond being a fry cook at McDonald’s?

    So, I feel like there are other factors that can make a person successful and happy other than positive thinking. I think passion is much more important than positivity. If you are passionate about life, enthusiastic about school and work, and motivated to be the best, then you may forget your troubles because you’re too active to worry about yourself. The problem is teaching people to be passionate, and I don’t think there’s really a switch for that. We just have to encourage our children to follow the appropriate paths in life that interest them, and we should lead by example.

    Part of the problem with “self help”, in my opinion, is that it’s so focused on the “self”. If Tony Robbins and Lou Tice would tell people to send that positive energy outward rather than inward, we would all be in better shape.

  4. TickTock: Hey, thanks for talking about my talk!

    I did mean to spend more time challenging some of the absurd claims of the different self-help programs I talked about. An hour goes by fast!! However, I am also interested in the question of what good, if any, comes of participation in these programs — a proposition I think skeptics tend to reject without cause.

    OOTO, some highly dubious claims made in self-help programs are embedded in our culture, and tend to go largely unquestioned, to our detriment.

    Along these lines — WonderingWilla: I suggest positive thinking may have a dark side. TickTock touches on this very nicely. Life often doesn’t turn out the way we’d like, and it seems to me that people who are cheerfully well-adjusted to that fact are better off than people who mistakenly believe they can bring about good outcomes by imagining them.

    The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics were fatalists, and this, for them, was not a dour and unhappy philosophy but a cheerful, life-affirming one. By “fatalist,” I mean they believed much of their lives was outside of their control. They thought fate dictates a role for each of us, and the best thing we can do is play our role the best way we can, whether my role happens to be, at this moment in time, a rich and powerful person or a beggar. This philosophy also accepts that my lot can change at any time. I cannot control this, and if my lot changes for the worse I will be better off if I am reconciled to it beforehand.

    In raising this, I don’t mean to come across as a true believer in fatalism (or Stoicism) vs positive thinking! I don’t have strong evidence one way or the other. However, in the absence of evidence I would suggest, as TickTock says, that the case for positive thinking vs fatalism is nowhere near as open-and-shut as you might think.

  5. Between posting my question and reading these responses, I listened to an interview with the author of this book:

    And she kind of addressed the issue similarly to the two of you. Drawing from neuroscience, she points out that while you cannot will an outcome, you can choose where to put your attention and gain satisfaction from that.

    As for the dark side of positive thinking, I am indeed very familiar with it. A distant friend lost his wife three years ago due to an unusual illness, for which they tried alternative treatments until it was too late for medicine to help her. He is still quite bereft and has not moved on and one thing he dwells on, informed by The Secret style philosophy, is that she didn’t want to be healed and live enough, so he’s kind of blaming her, I guess.

    In contrast, another friend from the same group also lost his wife to brain cancer around the same time. He memorializes her, he fundraises for cancer research, but he hasn’t gone down the maudlin path that the first guy has.

    Thanks, I appreciate the discussion.

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