Posted by: Ticktock | September 7, 2010

Dragoncon 2010: Reporting Back

The best times at Dragoncon are the times in-between panels when you’re meeting friends, having conversations with scientists and authors, and wandering through a crowd of costumed characters.

The action kicked off at the Star Party cancer benefit at Emory University. I began the night with a nice long conversation with Dale McGowan about the future of Foundation Beyond Belief and possible changes with the podcast that I will be implementing soon. He also told me about his new super secret children’s book idea, which sounds FANTASTIC (and apparently controversial – but not really).

Then, I wandered over to visit the Australian skeptics and spoke with Dr. Rachael Dunlop about the recent victories against the AVN, an anti-vaccine organization in Australia. I was also quite interested to hear Dr. Rachie’s opinion on Aubrey De Grey, a British Saruman-like scientist who insists that the chances are probable that we will reverse the effects of aging within the foreseeable future. Dr. Rachie is a cell biologist specializing in degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.  Aubrey and Dr. Rachie met and seemed to be at odds, but I have no idea how that conversation turned out. I’m intrigued.

I also introduced Sean Faircloth, lobbyist for Secular Coalition of America, to Will Phillips, precocious 10 year old and gay rights activist. Sean played devil’s advocate to Will’s humanitarianism; it was an inspiring moment that I’ll never forget. Why are people living in poverty less worthy of civil disobedience than LGBTQ? According to Will, poor people aren’t dehumanized and denied the right to marry. Score one for the kid! Sean and I both encouraged Will to expand his activism beyond the gay community and stand up for anyone who is oppressed. I’m pretty sure Will doesn’t need my advice… he will be going far in life, I’m positive.

I woke up Friday morning eager to start the day, only to wait in the badge registration line for two hours. Waiting for your badge is the only lame thing about dragoncon, so take an ipod and plan on listening to a few episodes of your favorite podcast. Once I obtained my badge, I was ready to visit the skeptrack room to check out the morning panel featuring magician and celebrated debunker, James Randi. Randi, the ol’ curmudgeon, took some jabs from the other panelists… you could tell that they were all very friendly with each other after years of attending conventions, cruises, and secret meetings of the illuminati (mwa ha ha ha).

For lunch, I met KO Myers (of Grassroots Skeptics fame) for an informal lunch with other regional skeptic organizers, but I couldn’t concentrate on too many conversations because I was too busy thinking about my costume that I would be donning shortly after the meal. As I stated in my last article, I decided to go full-tilt geek (or at least in my world), and re-visit an old villain from G.I.Joe Vs. Cobra.

Somebody on Facebook said that the photo looks like something a crazy mixed bag of nuts would take just before going on a killing spree. Hmm… I was going for ninja saboteur action figure come to life. Anyway, the thrill of wearing a costume was really so much fun. And since there were so many other fanatics dressed up, I looked normal enough that most people just ignored me. Except for a nice girl who asked to take a photo of me. Thanks random girl!

Once out of my camo garb, I went to see Heidi Anderson’s panel on sex. Bravo to her for managing to educate a packed room of adolescent-minded geeks the appropriate labels to use for people of alternative sexual lifestyles. I found out that I’m a cisgender heterosexual in a closed relationship. I will say it loud and proud… I AM CISGENDER!!! Whew… glad I got that off my chest. Now go look up the definition so you can announce it to your friends too.

I finished the evening by hanging out with Blake Smith (of Monster Talk fame), Daniel Loxton (of Junior Skeptic fame), Rob Tarr (of here fame) and Laurie Tarr (of here fame). I shared with them my ideas for the future of skepticism, that we will soon welcome politics into our range of acceptable targets. There’s no reason that fact-checking, of the sort done by Politifact, should be considered outside the realm of skepticism. I plan to talk more about that later.

Saturday was a blur. I walked out of my hotel and ran smack into the Dragoncon’s Saturday morning parade of geeks (which was awesome and I will never miss it again). My friend Austin and I were trying to get to the WTF Foundation’s vaccine booster clinic to get our T-Dap when we ran into Rebecca Watson (of Skeptic’s Guide fame). She was trying to get her booster too. After fighting a throng of tourists and costumed characters, we finally found the store front for the vaccine clinic and walked in to introduce ourselves. Here’s Rebecca getting her vaccine shot…

Did I mention Sean Faircloth, lobbyist for Secular Coalition for America? He was a fantastic speaker, who really knew how to capture the attention of his audience. So, I’m doing him a favor by asking everyone to visit and signing up for the SCA “Action Alerts”. The fundamentalist Christians have the ear of congress, do you?

Ben Radford (Skeptical Inquirer editor and paranormal investigator) did not have the most organized Paranormal Investigations workshop, but it wasn’t his fault. The paranormal track director sabotaged him by insuring that the room to his workshop would be locked and unavailable. Yes, I am starting a mini-conspiracy theory against the paranormal track, but I don’t care. Finding a room for Ben’s workshop is a long story that involves running from hotel to hotel with an amiable Australian, finding myself opening the door for “The Cigarette Smoking Man” from X-Files, and enjoying a Warren Zevon tune with custom Radfordized lyrics (well done Rob).

At this point in time, I was starting to panic about the live episode for Podcast Beyond Belief. Laurie needed tea bags, I needed to write my script outline, John Paul needed parenting science, and Heidi needed a break… the big moment was drawing near. So, I worked on the podcast, met up with my wife, and ate some delicious Jamaican jerk chicken. Then we headed back for the live recording, which surprisingly involved one less co-host and one extra Australian. But, it all worked out and you can listen to the episode when it’s published.

I didn’t attend much of anything on Sunday because I wanted to spend time with my extended family in Atlanta. But, I did get to see Laura Phillips (quick witted mother of young activist, Will) kick some major ass on the “Raising Skeptical Geeks” panel. She was so impressive, as was Laverne Knight-West, that I nearly forgot Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) was on the panel at all. My only gripe was that the panelists spoke about Santa very casually without regard to the fact that multiple children in the audience were probably having this year’s Christmas dashed on the rocks of skepticism. Be careful prominent skeptics that you don’t snap Santa’s beard in front of the kiddies, unless they’re your own, ok?

That’s basically my Dragoncon experience. Wish there was more time to see more stuff and more friends, but my experience at Dragoncon was extremely fun. I intend to go back again and again, as long as they keep having a skeptrack. Thanks to Derek and Swoopy (of Skepticality fame) for basically volunteering their time to make this happen every year. You guys rock!



  1. for the record, i totally believe in santa, still! its more than the magic of the season, its a great way to teach kids about the joy and spirit of giving and the wonder of surprise. will figured santa out pretty fast, but his siblings have not yet. so, there are always presents from santa. always. and i totally wanted to amend some of my co panelists statements and reassure some of those kids that santa was for sure real. sigh…\
    we had so much fun.
    great to meet you!
    Will’s Mom 🙂

    • Laura: Yes, that was regrettable, though I expected it. The moderator, Desiree Schell, had amended her planned question on the topic out of consideration of any young children in the room, but it almost always comes up regardless.

      Junior Skeptic, the kids’ science section I do for Skeptic magazine, has an FAQ that addresses the topics of theism and Santa:

      What is Junior Skeptic’s position on God or religion?

      Junior Skeptic has no position for or against God or religion. Instead, Junior Skeptic concentrates on accurately describing the findings of science and history — including the robust evidence for biological evolution — while leaving religious discussions to families and communities.

      What is Junior Skeptic’s position on Santa Claus?

      Junior Skeptic has no position on Santa Claus. (The personal feeling of Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton is that “Santa is a wonderful bit of childhood magic best left to parents.”)

    • I would have stayed away from the Santa thing myself, but by then the presents were out of the bag.

      In my experience, there is a somewhat narrow age group who even process that discussion – the group questioning Santa. Among those (about age 7 to 10), most are in such deep denial that they let it fly right over their heads as well.

      Then there is always the comeback of “Sheesh. These people just don’t WANT to believe, do they? Well, more presents for US!” 🙂

  2. As a parent in the audience, with a child, I have to say I was a bit disappointed that that happened. On the other hand, I was a parent who brought their child to a skeptic panel at DragonCon, so I can’t complain too much, I knew what I was getting into.

    Being new to the whole skeptic community though, I was not super familiar with all those who were on the panel. I knew who Jamy Ian Swiss and Adam Savage were of course and I was familiar with Laura Phillips after seeing her and her family on the news last year. I had heard of Daniel Loxton and Barbara Drescher in articles I had read. But, I cannot for the life of me, figure out who Laverne Knight-West was? Even aside from her hypocritical Santa slip (she was pissed because people were telling her children what to believe, but then she makes the decision regarding Santa for all the people in the audience with children for them), I did not really enjoy what she had to say. She had a couple of decent points, but the rest of her talking seemed to be just that, talking. Can anyone here give me a little more background on her, so that maybe I can understand why she was on the panel?

    Please note, there really are no hard feelings. We used it as an opportunity to open up a conversation with our son. I would really just like to know if I am missing something about this women and not hearing what she really has to say.

    Also, Laura, since I see you commented, I had to tell you that we were sitting on the front row, next to your family and my son, who is nine, was so excited to be sitting so close to Will and said hello to him after the panel, which helped ease the uncomfortableness of the impending Santa conversation he knew was coming.

  3. Laverne was on episode 43 of Skeptically Speaking, which is hosted by Desiree Schell, the moderator of the “skeptical geeks” panel. I was unfamiliar with her too, but I thought she was really funny.

  4. I loved the multi-camera action on the burning teabag experiment! (downloaded the video from the Podcast page, a link that should be on the top menu bar)

  5. Hi,
    Stumbled on this blog and was wanting to say “sorry” for my santa fumble. I’m pretty new to the Skeptic Community. I was asked to attend in short order and did not have a great time to prepare.
    Please allow me to address this.

    maggiebree says:As a parent in the audience, with a child, I have to say I was a bit disappointed that that happened. On the other hand, I was a parent who brought their child to a skeptic panel at DragonCon, so I can’t complain too much, I knew what I was getting into.

    I am a little baffled I thought that a discussion about raising children might exclude them from the discussion. I make it a habit and ask my kids to not share that point of view(santa) with other kids. I don’t understand how parents can have conversations about children and how to raise them with the kids right in the room. (silly me)
    Someone asked who I am. Former, talk-show host, reporter, producer for TV and Radio and a mother of 4 boys. My expertise is in living and writing about the human condition. I am a particular advocate for keeping religious and state business apart. And I advocate the freedom to do that.
    I shared about my “Santa” experience and the similar experience shared by my son…as an example of how it impacted my path in life and eventual move toward more independent thinking. It was not so much about “Santa” as my right to “not” believe in him being challenged. I felt that others on the panel did a great job discussing what they believed. I thought that was what we do discuss..
    What I was sharing was how I came to be here. I don’t have kids who are in the spotlight, publish a magazine, or host a national tv show. When I asked why they were asking me to do this…it was because of just those things. The skeptic movement is not just about letters or accomplishments, its about seeking for yourself and communing with others who want to find out. Hopefully, mothers like ourselves.

    But for the fumble to those who teach this, I say sorry for invading your parental space…a thing I would not do intentionally. To Daniel and Laura so much thanks and to the host of this blog “thanks too”

    LaVerne Knight-West

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