Proud teacher moment

As loathe as I am to promote somebody else’s blog (it’s a competition, right?) I have to send you over to The Young Australian Skeptics for three reasons:

1) A fantastic site redesign

2) An edge-of-your-seat exciting interview with yours truly by the wonderful Ted Janet.

3) A fabulous dinner party survival guide written by one of my very own students, Liz Riaikkenen. She attended the National Convention just recently and was a smash hit. Scoring hugs from Richard Saunders, Rebecca Watson and James Randi she hasn’t looked back and has dived right into the sceptical lifestyle. Here’s hoping she sticks with it and doesn’t become swayed by the appeal of unicorns on the other side.

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Highlights of the Australian Skeptics National Convention

It’s been a month since the Australian Skeptics National Convention and I have been terrible lax in not writing anything about it. It’s actually been a little difficult for me to write anything because I honestly don’t know where to begin.

Simply put, it was one of the best weekends of my life.

Thursday night was a very special (and exclusive!) fund raising dinner. 20 guests got to mingle with James Randi, D.J. Grothe, Brian Thompson and Rebecca Watson for an amazing dinner at the Royal Society of Victoria. The special guests moved around the room to sit at a different table each course. What made the evening wonderful was the opportunity to chat about things non-sceptical with the guests. I discussed Dr. Who fans with Brian, horrible siblings with Rebecca, favourite comic books with D.J. and Isaac Asimov with Randi. Plus, Randi showed us a rude trick you can do with a spoon. Dinner just doesn’t get any better than that.

Friday night kicked off with a meet and greet cocktail party at the Immigration Museum. It was a great way to start the event as it gave me the opportunity to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while (such as Lawrence Leung and Eran Segev) plus meet some people I had been contact with but never met face to face (like Tim Mendham and Lynne Kelly).

Saturday was the big day for me. I was given the opportunity to truly live the expression “hard act to follow” by giving my talk directly after Randi. Fortunately my nerves kept themselves under control and I was able to enjoy his presentation without fear of killing him.

I gave my talk and answered a few questions. I think it went well judging by the laughter. I get nervous making small-talk but I love being in front of a large crowd. I think I should admit that the only reason I became a teacher was for the captive audience.

Later in the day Dr. Krissy Wilson gave a very entertaining talk about her research into the psychology of belief and her research laboratory, Science of Anomalistic Phenomena (SOAP). According to her profile page at the Charles Sturt University website, her main claim to fame is once playing a prostitute on The Bill.

Lynne Kelly gave a riveting talk on the history of oral cultures and some of the techniques they used to remember the vast amount of knowledge needed to survive in the world. Her doctoral theory is that stonehenge is a giant mnemonic device used to record information. What I loved about her work was that everything she said made so much sense and made me think “That’s so obvious! Why didn’t I figure that out?” I love that feeling.

Rebecca Watson gave a fantastic presentation on how to use social media to further the goals of scepticism. She also showed us some interesting techniques that can be used to determine whether or not an image file has been altered. Many photos of cats were also shown.

Saturday evening was capped off with a gala dinner hosted by the wonderfully funny and sardonic Brian Thompson. He shared his thoughts on Australia with us to great applause until he lost us by criticising Vegemite. A rookie mistake which I’m sure he won’t make on his next visit. One of the personal highlights for me happened during the dinner but I will speak of that in a future post.

Sunday was opened with a talk by D.J. Grothe about scepticism around the world. We tend to hear mostly about scepticism in Australia, America and England so it was wonderful to hear about what is going on in other countries.

A thrill for me was when he displayed a photo from my website and said he wished he could bottle me and send me around the world. D.J., I would love to. Also, a 1.5l bottle would easily be big enough.

During question time I asked him whether or not we were winning. His answer was “yes and no”. We are constantly preventing the spread of dangerous thinking but it keeps springing up all over the place. The trick is to not stop fighting.

Lawrence Leung stole the show by giving the funniest talk of convention which was appropriately enough about using comedy to engage people with scepticism. He shared some highlights and behind-the-scenes stories from his sensational TV series,  Unbelievable.

Dr. Rachael Dunlop spoke to us about scepticism in science, and when it can go too far. What is worth delving further into and when should we walk away?

Finishing off the convention was a twitter quiz led by Rebecca Watson. Contestants were Brian Thompson, Lawrence Leung, Richard Saunders and myself. She asked a series of science and scepticism themed questions which we had to answer while the audience sent their responses to the big screen via twitter. I had a wonderful time, especially after making a joke that earned me nothing but silence. A great feeling.

A student of mine was at the convention and Rebecca asked her to be the judge on the quiz. As a teacher the sensation of being marked by a student was an uncomfortable one and one I hope I never have to experience again.

During the lunch break on Sunday I had a moment that I will never forget. James Randi took me aside and showed me an old magic prop of his. He explained what it was and how it worked, then handed it to me and said “I want you have this.”

Day. Made.

All photos shamelessly stolen from Mal Vickers.

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When James Randi visited Sceptic School

James “The Amazing” Randi

So, it turns out that James Randi is indestructible. Like a rare form of extremophile he can survive in just about any environment, from the Arctic wastes to the depths of the ocean.

Or even more impressive, our school lecture theatre.

Randi and Co. turned up at the gates of my school on Thursday the 29th of November, just before noon. A day that for some reason had decided to reach 38°C, the hottest in November in recorded history.

By 11:45 it was already sweltering and I was feeling nervous. Would the students be receptive? Would they behave? Would Randi melt?

After setting up the stage we marched in approximately 300 students and gave them a moment to settle down. As the mass of bodies added their considerable body heat to the temperature of the room, a horrible realisation struck me.

The air conditioning wasn’t working.

Randi playing to a packed house

I had essentially thrown 300 students, teachers, guests of honour and James Randi himself into a sauna. Would this be the end of my sceptical career? Would I go down in history as the man who killed Randi with heatstroke? I do not say this with any sense of exaggeration, I was genuinely worried.

Our head of junior school took to the stage and introduced me, who introduced DJ Grothe who introduced Randi and the show began. Randi asked the students “How do you know things?” A simple question, but a deep one. How much of our own knowledge is based on assumptions?

Randi showed us quite  convincingly how easy it is to make false assumptions by pointing out that he had fooled us from the very beginning. We all assumed he was wearing regular glasses right up until he took them off and showed them to be nothing more than empty frames.

Shocked at his ‘Psychic Surgery’ performance

It punctuated the point that it is incredibly easy to be deceived. Of course, believing that somebody is wearing a pair of glasses isn’t terribly dangerous, but Randi gave us an example of how wrong things could go.

He told us about psychic surgery. A “medical” technique where a psychic surgeon will seemingly penetrate your skin with their bare hands and remove any infected organs.

He showed us a fantastic video of him appearing on the Johnny Carson show where he gave a wonderful demonstration of what it looks like: James Randi – Psychic Surgery He explained how many poor people travel to other countries to have what is essentially a magic trick performed on them. A magic trick that would leave them thinking they had been cured. Most of these people  then return home and die, having failed to receive proper medical treatment.

Randi having fun with his audience

Randi having fun with his audience

While the students found the video equally disgusting and wonderful, they really had an opportunity to understand just how deadly false beliefs could be. They also saw how horribly deceitful and greedy some people are. No better example of that could be found than Peter Popoff. Randi told us about this faith healer who used his con tricks to bilk thousands of people out of thousands of dollars and like the psychic surgeons, preventing them from receiving proper medical help.

With a chilling reminder of how gullible and forgetful people can be, Randi told us that after being publicly exposed as a charlatan, Popoff is now back in business and raking in seven figures a year. More people like Randi are needed to actively fight these criminals wherever they show up.

My students tying up a defenceless, old man.

Unfortunately his talk had to end a little early due to the heat, but not before he performed some magic for the kids. Finding volunteers wasn’t a problem with dozens of kids wanting to take part in the magic. He had a couple of students tie him up and they did not hold back. The two of them were pulling those knots so tightly it was like watching a tug of war. I actually got worried that they were hurting him but Randi barely seemed to notice. If anything he was encouraging them.

He escaped their knots with ease, and then proceeded to perform a second escape in which he slipped his bonds before anybody had even noticed! You could see the years of experience as a magician at work. He wowed the kids so quickly and effortlessly (seemingly, anyway) and I got my first real taste of how he earned the moniker “The Amazing.”

Richard Saunders took to the stage at this point and ran a Q&A session for the kids. Not surprisingly most of the questions were of the “How did you do that trick?” and “Can you do another one?” variety. He must have gotten his second wind because he whipped out a deck of cards and performed a fantastic version of a trick called “Out of this World.”

Randi, master of the sceptical look

It was a wonderful day and one that I never thought I would see happen. To be honest I never expected to meet Randi in person let alone have him speak at my school. I want to thank the Victorian Skeptics for giving me and my students such an amazing opportunity. In particular I want to thank Don Hyatt for spearheading the event.

I must also thank Richard Saunders who stepped up and assisted Randi during his talk when it looked like the heat might be getting the better of him.

On a personal note, thank you D.J. Grothe for helping me relax when I was contemplating the likelihood of going down in history as the sceptic who killed Randi with a heat wave. He  patted me on the back and said “Don’t worry, it’s not even close to worst gig he’s had.”

Thanks, D.J.

All images courtesy of Andrew Krause Imagery.

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James Randi is coming to Sceptic School!

Ok, just give me a minute to calm myself down.

Breathe in… breathe out…

You know James Randi? World’s #1 sceptic? Founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, Exposer of Uri Gellar, Peter Popoff and James Hydrick?

Also known for appearing on the first episode of Sesame Street, guest starring on Happy Days and getting kicked off the Don Lane Show. Plus he was on some show called Oprah.

Also also, he toured with Alice Cooper which is more than most of us can say.

Well, on the 29th of November James Randi will be making a personal visit to Sceptic School! Randi of course will be in Australia for the Australian Skeptics National Convention but has very kindly agreed to make a guest appearance at my school, McKinnon Secondary College.

Thanks to the support from our principal, Pitsa Binnion, he will be speaking to close to 300 year 7 students for around an hour and a half.

Needless to say, this is exciting. Very, very exciting.

I’d like to personally thank everybody in the Vic Skeptics who was involved in organising this and will be writing a (probably very long) report on how his visit went.

Stay tuned!

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Cheltenham Psychic Expo – The bad, the ugly and the really ugly.

On the weekend I was unexpectedly driving up the Nepean Highway in Cheltenham due to a surprise invitation to lunch by some friends. At a very specific moment of my journey I happened by chance alone to turn my head to the right and noticed a sign proudly claiming “Psychic Expo”.

Clearly, this was no coincidence.

In fact, one of the vendors inside told me that to my face.

At $5 entry I figured, why not? It should be a good way to kill a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon and possibly learn a little bit more about what these chaps were up to.

The event was held in the Kingston City Hall and was not particularly busy. There were around 15 vendors inside and possibly 30 visitors. More came in over the two hours I spent there but I don’t think they would have had more than a hundred or so altogether.

I have ranked them from what I think were the least to most harmful. A couple were fairly innocent, just a bit silly. Others angered me to the point of contacting the city council and asking them why they allowed such people to sell their wares in an official city building.

The Bad

A very nice lady was selling some very nice children’s books full of positive messages such as “I love family” and “I love breathing.” She told me how thinking “I love my body” could really help, and I asked her if she meant that I could stop going to the gym. She said no, just that being positive about it meant I would be more likely to take care of it. She was definitely the least kooky of the bunch.

Only slightly more kooky was the lady selling the Himalayan salt lamps. Apparently they emit negative ions which counteract the harmful positive ions produced by electronic devices in your home.

I asked how a big a lamp I would need to balance my 48-inch TV and I was told to go by feeling, not size. She suggested at least one in each room, especially children’s bedrooms. I commented on the irony of the fact that the lamps contained positive ion emitting light bulbs but she said they don’t, they just heat the salt which is what makes them work.

More bizarre were the heart shaped salt rocks labelled “angel poo”. Apparently angels defecate in the shape of a heart. Who knew? Ultimately I didn’t find these terribly bad. The science behind her claims is non-existent but at least she wasn’t making any real health claims.

Also, the lamps were quite pretty so I can’t fault her aesthetics.

The Ugly

Most of the tables were for the fortune tellers. All of them had Tarot cards but a couple also claimed to be able to communicate with the spirits.

“What are spirits?” I asked.

“They’re just dead people, basically. Yeah, they’re dead people.”

Gotcha.

One said she might be able to contact my father (alive and well in Healesville) but couldn’t make any guarantees. They’re still people so who knows what they’re up to!

Prices varied from $20-$30 for 15 minutes up to $45 for a half hour. I decided to give the cheapest tarot reader a go and this is where I learned my first lesson: you get what you pay for.

I spent the reading looking for cold-reading techniques and trying my best to not give away any information through my body language. I needn’t have bothered as she didn’t look up from the cards once.

She had me shuffle and deal out eleven cards onto her green velvet draped table, which were then arranged in some kind of pattern. I got told that I am very organised (I’m not) and that there will be a lot of retrenchments at my business (I’m a teacher) and I would rise to a leadership within the next six months (no chance in hell). My three-year old daughter (I have no children) was very wise for her age and that my wife and I don’t see each other as much as we’d like to (we’re both teachers and see each other too much, according to my wife).

I did notice a couple of cold-reading techniques coming out. I’m fairly convinced that she wasn’t aware she was using them, or least wasn’t doing anything deceitful. She clearly seemed to believe in what she was doing.

Psychic: You are very organised.

Me: No I’m not.

Psychic: Well you could learn.

See what she did there? She turned her miss into a hit. Of course I could learn to be more organised, pretty much anybody could!

“You’re a ballerina!” “No I’m not!” “Well you could take lessons!”

I asked her to tell me about my family and she dealt out some cards, one of which was the two of pentacles.

Psychic: “Do you have two children?”

Me: “No, I have one daughter.”

Psychic: “Well it must mean your wife and daughter.”

Another miss turned into a hit! The third time I noticed it was when she turned a miss into a hit by telling me that I was wrong and she was right.

Psychic: “Is your daughter an Earth sign?”

Me: “No, she’s a Sagittarius.”

Psychic: “Well she has a lot of Earth sign characteristics.”

One of my students pointed out that she was essentially saying that I couldn’t trust astrology, anybody could be anything.

$20 later I looked around for something else to do.

The Really Ugly

More disturbing than most was the representative from a cult known as Eckankar who taught me a magic word that could be used to communicate with God and reveal my past lives. The word is HU (pronounced hew). This will open your body (or your soul, they’re essentially the same thing) and then you chant MANA (pronounced marna).

He spent a lot of time trying to give me free books and pamphlets and encouraging me to attend their fortnightly chanting sessions. Of course, he was very friendly and open but cult recruiters generally tend to be.

Not so encouraging was the Scientology man. I spent around twenty minutes with him, learning about them and what they do. He showed me a booklet containing an emotional scale known as a “tone scale”. 1.5 is anger, 2.5 is boredom, 3.5 is cheerful and so on. Apparently everybody has a base level which they will revert to. A person whose base level is 1.5 will generally be angry all the time. They may feel more positive emotions from time to time but will eventually default back to anger.

I took an E-meter stress test to see how I was doing and apparently I am a 3.45, quite cheerful! This pleased me no end.  The fact that I could make the little needle on the machine jump around by moving the handles was irrelevant, I suppose.

What hurt my feelings was that he made absolutely no attempt to recruit me. He didn’t tell me where they met, he didn’t try to sell me a book or DVD, he didn’t tell me how much better my life would be if I joined them. Am I not special enough? Could he sense my lack of riches? Was my slack-jawed yokel impression not good enough to mask my cunning intellect? I felt like writing Tom Cruise a letter to complain.

It was actually a lot of fun pretending to be completely ignorant because these people were falling over themselves to get their message out there. No question was too stupid for them to answer. I did feel very welcomed there and I see that as a real danger. It would be a very tempting place for somebody who was feeling lost or alone.

Even worse than the cults (in my opinion, anyway) were the alternative medicine pedlars. One lady told me that she could reverse type-2 diabetes through diet and twice-yearly detoxes. She couldn’t use the word “cure” due to legal reasons but had cleverly discovered that saying “reverse” meant the same thing and didn’t incur the wrath of the diabetes foundation.

The stall that really upset me was run by a lady who sold magical rocks. No wait, they weren’t magical. Actually nothing at the entire expo was magical. They were all 100% scientific. These scientific rocks grew in the earth and contain minerals. We contain minerals. Therefore these rocks can help us by giving out powerful emotions. She had bowls full of beautiful little stones, all shiny and polished and in varied hues and colours. Each one has a different effect, such as tektite which is as follows:

  • Is a meteorite and is believed to enhance connection to other worlds
  • Delves deep into the heart of a situation, so you see the cause and effect
  • Bio-magnetic energy around the body
  • Signify spiritual change & development
  • Bury near your front door to guard against fire, storm, hostility & to attract abundance
  • Too powerful to use on children & animals
  • Reduces fevers, aids circulation and prevents transmission of diseases, skin disorders, illnesses that drain strength

Worried about the spread of HIV in Africa and the fact that the Catholic church tells them that condoms are evil? No problem! Just give them a small piece of tektite. Sick of replacing your smoke detector batteries? Just bury one by your front door and you’ll be fine.

That’s not even the bad part. She mentioned using one for her son who suffers from migraines. One placed under his pillow at night fixes them right up. I asked her what else her rocks could cure and she dropped the big C right on me.

Cancer.

Cancer is nothing more than repressed emotion, apparently. And what is the cure for repressed emotion? Amethyst. Carried with you, worn as jewellery or placed under your pillow at night time won’t just prevent cancer but completely cure it. I agree that repressing your emotions isn’t healthy but it sure doesn’t cause cancer.

As funny as I found some of the exhibitors ($80 for a badly drawn picture of a guardian angel) I can’t find a single thing to laugh about here. Even one person taking her advice over a doctor’s would be one too many. How would you feel if somebody close to you abandoned their medical treatment for a magic rock?

I do understand that desire, cancer treatment is no picnic and I don’t think we can blame people for wanting an easier, less scary option. What we can do is blame the people pushing these decisions. They are taking advantage of people’s fear and weakness and turning it into a profit.

I’m not going to call this person a con artist because I think they believe in what they are doing. That still does not excuse the fact that an untrained individual is giving out very serious, very flawed and very dangerous medical advice.

Given that this event was held in the Kingston City Hall I have written to the council expressing my anger and concern. Finding people making unsupported medical claims and two cults operating out of an official city building is not the type of thing I expect. I have no doubt they will respond with something along the lines of “It is not up to us to monitor every stall holder and people have the right to express their opinions yada yada yada.”

I hope I am wrong.

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SkepticZone interview

Of course you all know about The Skeptic Zone, The Podcast from Australia for Science and Reason. It’s hosted by Richard Saunders plus several regular guests including Dr. Rachie and Maynard. It focuses on scepticism in Australia but also has a lot of international guests including most recently, the great Ben Radford.

At the end of this latest episode Richard interviewed me briefly about our recent staring experiment. It was a fun little chat only occasionally interrupted by overhead planes.

It’s free to download and well worth subscribing too. It beats listening to breakfast radio on the way to work.

Download here (I’m at 47:20)

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The Skeptic – It’s Behind You!

In the latest issue of The Skeptic a two-page spread was devoted to our staring experiment from several weeks ago. They have kindly made it their feature article which means you can download a PDF of it for free.

Even better though would be to subscribe! It’s very cheap, very worthwhile and goes towards a very good cause.

Do it. You’ll feel good about it tomorrow.

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