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From Steampunk to Skepticism: Outreach at DragonCon 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

September 16, 2010

Dragon*Con 2010 was estimated to draw more than 40,000 fans, dealers, exhibitors, artists, guests, and volunteers from all over the world...

This year at Dragon*Con was the first year that I attended the Parsec Podcast Awards at the downtown Atlanta Marriot. The shows up for trophies included novelists, short-story writers, fan-groups of various films and TV shows, comedic podcasts and – a new category called ‘Fact Behind The Fiction’. I held my phone open to ‘tweet’ the results via Twitter, hoping to reach the rest of the internet-savvy crowd across the way at the Hilton, where a live recording of the ‘Monster Talk podcast’ was in progress. Would a skeptical podcast win the day?

Since 2008 I’ve volunteered to work behind the scenes at the Skeptic Track (or as it’s more fondly known as, ‘SkepTrack’), after being told by Skepticality podcast’s Derek Colanduno that it was a ‘don’t miss experience’. Why? The four-day event (running across the September Labor Day weekend in September in Atlanta, GA) has more broad talks and topics scheduled than any other skeptical convention that is currently running. Dragon*Con 2010 was estimated to draw more than 40,000 fans, dealers, exhibitors, artists, guests, and volunteers from all over the world – including myself, all the way from Australia, with a flight-time of nearly a day to get there. It’s worth it, I assure you!

Apart from the high attendance rate, another aspect that makes it very useful in terms of attracting new people to skeptical thought is the way that new people (who might never consider attending a skeptical convention) regularly drift in from other ‘tracks’ and venues. While ‘ordinarily dressed’ people are not uncommon, you should not be surprised by the occasional Star Wars costume or homage to a Doctor Who character. There’s even a full-blown H.R. Giger ‘Alien’, who is quite a skepticism fan, if his regular presence around the Hilton Hotel is any indication!

Some of the highlights of this year included the annual blood-donor drive, a vaccination clinic (held a few hotels over in a empty storefront in a mall), and sightings of a bemused comic-book legend Stan Lee in nearly every elevator in the Hilton foyer. This mixture of serious outreach to the hundreds of thousands of attendees and light-hearted fan homage makes this quite a unique experience and one that is clearly embraced by all ages. You don’t have to be dressed as a Stormtrooper to brave a shot, but it kind of helps – especially if you are the sort who winces at the sight of needles.

Talking to fellow Skepticality podcaster Swoopy, I learned that this year attendance at both the SkepTrack and Podcasting tracks were up - and so were the range of topics and investigations. Naturally, what might be considered typical ‘Skepticism 101’ presentations appeared on the schedule, as they have in past years – I greatly enjoyed Maria Myrback’s ‘Skepticism in Daily Life’; a ‘introduction to skeptical blogging’ led by Australian Dr Rachael Dunlop and I even caught the early morning ‘Coffee Talks’, with the much-loved James Randi explaining what ‘Zwinge’ meant, why he became a US Citizen and what were the beginnings of his skeptical career.

There were also a healthy helping of new presentations and even new faces in evidence. These included magicians (Brian Brushwood, Jamy Ian Swiss), paranormal investigations by Joe Nickell, Blake Smith and Benjamin Radford, and even a fully packed talk for Mythbuster’s Adam Savage, with views on ‘raising skeptical kids’ with Daniel Loxton, professor Barbara Drescher and Canadian ‘Skeptically Speaking’ radio show host Desiree Schell. Members of the Skeptic Zone podcast team returned with the Mystery Investigators show, which drew in more children this year - I guess my only criticism is that there aren’t more shows that consider the younger years attending skeptical conventions.

I had the opportunity to present on several psychology and/ or education panels with Barbara Drescher, and (like last year) people approached the stage after every panel to ask questions, get information, and continue the discussion. We did not see ‘the same old so-and-so’, nor did we get the impression that many were ‘those regulars you see at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) Amazing Meetings’. This was particularly encouraging for me, as not only do I travel a great distance to attend, but grumbles about ‘preaching to the choir’ lead me to seek out potential presenters with a variety of qualifications and skills. Thankfully, the SkepTrack is more than keen to improve; even the technology in 2010 was stepped up, with Abrupt Media’s Mark Distler providing some fantastic interactive timing devices and recording equipment for every show.

Just a few of the discussions that Barbara Drescher and I had at Dragon*Con (with people who, for the most part, didn’t know much about “us”) included a new father looking for a community, but afraid to join an atheist group for fear that he would be indoctrinating his child as much as any religion does. After the panel introducing JREF’s Michael Blanford as the new Director of Educational Programs, we spoke to a woman who was teaching a pseudoscience course for the first time and wanted help finding materials to use in classroom demonstrations. While serving at the table, a man who was seriously questioning a long list of beliefs soaked up every detail we could give him, while another loaded up with Daniel Loxton’s book ‘Evolution’, with an aim to suggest using the illustrations in a power-point discussion with her primary-age classes.

This year Dragon*Con even included a two-hour sold-out Scientific Paranormal Investigation Workshop by Benjamin Radford that was hosted by the Paranormal Track, indicating that a cross-over with different content was not out of the question for those who wanted to work with other groups at the convention. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K) appeared at a late-night show and guests from Troma Films who wandered into the SkepTrack were warmly welcomed and incorporated into presentations. Martial arts myths (and quite a lot of weaponry!) by John Clements and the addition of Sheer Brick Studio’s Donna Mugavero and artist Melissa Kaercher to panels on topics like consumerism, skepticism and feminism, led me to wonder if it would be a good idea to suggest to Derek that there be a mandatory ‘new person’ per panel to help liven up the mix. I have read that Margaret Downey even plans to promote a ‘skeptically-minded addition’ to the annual Dragon*Con Parade (this year she featured as a beautiful tree from the movie ‘Avatar’).

As for the winner of the Parsec Award for the best ‘Fact Behind the Fiction’ podcast this year? Well, in 2010 I continued my tradition of not only filming fun, short YouTube adventures around the vendors rooms (where board games, comics, steampunk goggles and corsets were being snapped up by eager attendees) – I also filmed some of the ceremony. My friends Swoopy, Jennifer and I heard the announcement for Skeptoid Podcast as the winner and immediately ‘Twitter-alerted’ Brian Dunning that he was missing out on his presentation - unless he ran over immediately! It’s these kind of experiences that will stay with me: being with great friends, challenging my mind and my beliefs, the recognition of excellent and effort by an audience beyond those who identify as ‘a skeptic’… and the sight of Brian Dunning shyly slipping into the back of the hall, amazed that his work really does matter and that conventions like Dragon*Con allow it to be showcased.

As Swoopy herself has pointed out – ‘Everyone is welcome to contribute/suggest/participate – it’s your convention – it doesn’t belong to any one group or organization. is the place to go to do that. By the way, have you noticed how other conventions like Indianapolis’ GenCon now feature Skepticism? Wonder how that happened…?’

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.