Berkeley skeptics conference has attendees believing
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
The fourth annual Northern California Science and Skepticism conference (SkeptiCal 2013) on June 15 proved its own relevance when the 84-year old keynote speaker, magician and scientific skeptic James Randi, was taken ill.
Perhaps it was skepticism -- and years of living according to an all-questioning perspective -- that allowed the event's presenters to move with alacrity to dispatch an overnight solution.
Filmmakers Tyler Measom ("Sons of Perdition") and Justin Weinstein ("Elmo, A Puppeteers' Journey) are three years into the making of a documentary film about Randi and appeared via Skype in his stead. Even that feat by the organizers offered moments for healthy doubt, when a slow link between the conference's Berkeley Marina hotel and filmmakers' Scotland hotel room threatened failure.
"Can you see me yet?" Measom's voice asked from a blackened screen. "I'm getting skeptical," someone in the nearly 300-member audience called out.
"You're just a spinning circle," said event coordinator Sheldon Helms, an Ohlone College associate professor of psychology and a member of the Bay Area Skeptics board.
"That's kind of how I work," joked Measom.
It's also how skeptics think: constantly spinning the dial of inquiry in pursuit of objective truths. Patience and persistence are the legs of critical thinking and soon enough, Measom and Weinstein popped into view.
Randi, their documentary's subject, is known to television watchers for his frequent visits over the years to Johnny Carson, Penn and Teller and other stage or broadcast performances. From breaking Houdini's underwater breath-holding record to wrestling his way out of a straitjacket while dangling upside-down over Niagara Falls, Randi is a scientist wrapped in a showman persona.
His James Randi Educational Foundation is dedicated to testing the terrain of paranormal zealots and eradicating pseudoscientific claims. The foundation has a standing $1 million offer that remains unclaimed for producing evidence of the paranormal under controlled conditions.
Grand, challenging gestures make the expected spring 2014 release of the Randi film, "An Honest Liar," a highly anticipated happening. A fourth-highest-ever Kickstarter campaign spurred the filmmakers into action: announcing a current, online opportunity to become a contributor caused nearly the entire audience to text, write or memorize the sign-up link, anhonestliar.com.
A more immediate thrill was seeing a sneak preview clip -- a tantalizing glimpse of the 300 archival videos, letters, documents and interviews Measom and Weinstein collected for the project.
"This is like letting you see the ultrasound of our baby," Measom said.
And it actually was, as a grainy, aged film showed Randi, squirming and wrestling his way out of 200 feet of rope and emerging victorious, like a newborn. "You just hope the theater doesn't catch fire because they're likely to leave you behind," Randi quipped in an on-screen interview.
"The image of Randi as a wizard is captivating," Measom said, emphasizing the documentary's storytelling, narrative approach.
Weinstein said Randi's life is also packed with more serious stuff: Immigration reform, gay rights awareness, educational grants to promote scientific inquiry, and grass roots outreach workshops to teach resourceful, scientific activism.
Mike Carlson traveled to the event from his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his 9-year-old daughter, Caralyne.
"I like everything about science," she said. "I like learning."
"Most of science for kids is media-based, like (the television show) Mythbusters," her father explained. "Getting our hands on it is exciting -- and wanting her to see all these women who are doing that, that made me want to bring her along."
Outgoing National Center for Science Education Executive Director Eugenie Scott has been "hands-on" throughout her career. She led attendees on a skeptic's snapshot history from the harmless folklore of "Urban Legends" to playful "Pranks" and harmful "Hoaxes" to criminal, deceptive "Frauds."
The varying cost to science and society was evident as she advised: "One can be wrong and sincere, or wrong and fraudulent. Enjoy urban legends and pranks: be wary of hoaxes and frauds."
Ohlone College astrophysics major Nabeel Naqui, a Pakistani native, said he comes from a religious family and hopes to bring awareness about critical thinking back to his homeland. "I don't want to tell them the answers, but I want to help them think," he said.
The all-day conference included "Thought Experiment" training and breakout sessions.