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IIG Visits the Wonderful World of Woo at Para-Con

Jim Underdown

November 3, 2010

Any good skeptic should touch down in an alien world like Para-Con every now and then, so there were good reasons for us to attend the convention.

I have to admit that when it was first suggested by members of the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) that we attend something called the SoCal Para-Con (Southern California Paranormal Convention), I was … uh… skeptical. In my eleven-plus years with the Center for Inquiry and my ten-plus years with the IIG, I’ve crossed paths with scores of people who believe in strange things. So the prospect of spending a day with ghost hunters, psychics, UFO enthusiasts, and others from the wonderful world of woo did not initially appeal to me. But because the eagerness of some of our investigators was a bit contagious, and I remembered that not everyone had been to this sort of thing before, the IIG ponied up $25 and bought a booth.

Para-Con was held on October 2, 2010, in a relatively small section of the very large L.A. Convention Center. The organizers charged $35 per person for admission, though there were ticket deals to be had up until a few days before the event. There were only twenty-some vendors present, including the IIG and a few other investigation teams. The whole convention took place in two connected rooms and could be covered at a leisurely pace in forty minutes. We were in the room with the stage featuring ghost hunters, UFO experts, and other paranormal “authorities.” Most of the speakers had a few dozen (or fewer) people listening to their tales, and we suspected many of those audience members were just looking to sit down.

Any good skeptic should touch down in an alien world like Para-Con every now and then, so there were good reasons for us to attend the convention. Here are a few of those reasons:

  1. Know Thy Enemy: Ok, enemy might be a bit strong, but there is no substitute for live interaction with people for getting an insight into how they think and what they believe. For instance, we learned a couple of new phrases that people are using: “quantum theophysics” and “We’ve gone over from being believers to being knowers.” This reminded me of people who say “I know what I saw” when they apparently don’t. In any case, face time with believers can be valuable.
  1. How Do You Develop Diplomacy? Practice!: As we sat in the belly of the paranormal beast, people dropped by to see what the IIG was all about. With IIG brochures and issues of Skeptical Inquirer on display, we greeted every visitor with a smile. We opted for the attract-more-flies-with-honey approach and tried our best not to be confrontational, even when offering claimants a chance to apply for our $50,000 Paranormal Challenge. (I had to excuse myself when a woman claimed the ability to clairvoyantly identify forty-seven Zener Cards in a row. As the odds of this are slimmer than multi-trillions to one, it was time for me to leave lest I destroy our diplomacy record.)
  1. Who Needs $50k?: Many people out there who are blessed with miraculous skills are unaware that they can win $50,000 if they can prove paranormal ability under scientific testing conditions. Under our brand new IIG banner, we posted a sign notifying people that such a prize is available. One woman amazingly claimed she wasn’t interested in the $50,000, didn’t know anyone who’d be interested, and couldn’t conceive of someone needing $50,000. Now that’s a wild claim!
  1. NEW Targets: We met people who have interesting claims we’d not heard about before—most notably a man who is visited by aliens (i.e., ETs) two to three times per week. We even chatted with members of a ghost-hunting group who admitted to not finding any ghosts to date. They seemed decent, though, and might be worth tagging along with to see what they’re up to. We were familiar with the kinds of claims made by most of the folks there, but you never know what you might run into.

Overall, attending Para-Con was worth the effort. We got our name out there and introduced a few believers to the idea of organized skeptical inquiry into paranormal claims. And I think we did so without stepping on any toes—not too hard anyway.

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James Underdown has been Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles since 1999. He is also the Founder and Chair of the Independent Investigations Group, a team of inquirers who look into paranormal, pseudo-scientific, and extraordinary claims. He is also the creator of the Steve Allen Theater at CFI-L.A. Jim has appeared on numerous radio and TV shows including Hannity and Colmes, Penn and Teller's Bullshit, History's Mysteries, Proof Positive, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is a regular Skeptical Sunday guest on the SETI Institute's Are We Alone? radio show/podcast. His many pre-CFI endeavors include writing and directing short films (A Day in the Life of Frank Sinatra, The Test, Dear Father), and directing his stage play, Party of 13, a secular re-telling of the Last Supper. Jim also toured midwest comedy clubs as the Poet Laureate of Calumet City, IL.