Exploring extraordinary topics and people: Back from a conference

I have returned from this weekend’s Exploring the Extraordinary (ETE) conference in Gettysburg. It was a three day event, about 40 participants, many academics, and me, who sat through the whole thing as a self-identified materialist skeptical person.

I am going to write about this conference for my Sounds Sciencey column but I decided to hit a few high points that were more personal.

I can find nothing to criticize regarding the event. It was well done all around. I attended every talk. They were varied and unique – a blend of arts, science and speculation. Since lunch was served there was extra time to sit together and chat. While I did not attend the dinners in town (I had work to get done), that also gave people a chance to chat so there was a nice cooperative, networking, friendly vibe. Cheers to the organizers!

One of the speakers, a grad student, spoke about her anthropological research of a local ghost hunting group. Much of her findings overlapped with what I had also observed in my work. I asked her a question about the group being “scientific” and she said she purposefully left that angle out. Curious. But the next day, she came over to me and said she was happy to meet me because she was familiar with my thesis and articles, she knew that scientific aspect had been covered by my work already but didn’t even know that was me asking the question! We laughed and agreed to keep in touch.

I actively took a TON of notes and learned so much. I was furiously writing during George Hansen’s talk on liminality – the betwixt and between. George was the one who notified me of this event. He is not on a side. He is known in both the skeptic and believer communities. Now I am too. Maybe we are both in the liminal zone in that sense! I don’t agree with all the speakers said, but I don’t always agree with the conclusions and attitudes displayed by several skeptics either. However, I can listen and learn and gain a much greater understanding than I would closing myself off to one or another viewpoint. I am in the liminal zone between skeptic and believer.

The first day, when I was with Howard Lewis of The Skeptical Review, we self-identified as nonbelievers in life after death during a “straw poll”. I wasn’t going to lie or remain hidden. By the end of the second day I was CLEARLY the only person there who was a participant in skeptical activism. While in the lunch line, one attendee said, “So, you’re the skeptic? Why are you here?” Her tone was snide. My reply was that I am interested in various persepectives and this meeting had great content. I also heard grumbling about the “skeptics” editing Wikipedia. (After a quick check with Susan Gerbic via twitter, I found out they were complaining about an entry her team didn’t even touch!) In running into another person I’d so far just known via the web, who publishes a predominently non-skeptical paranormal web site, he assumed I’d be skewering the speakers and ideas or that I was some sort of spy who would take info back to CSI or JREF. I have no clue where people get that from. Is it just a skeptical stereotype? Do I look and act like a skeptical stereotype – I’m not old, not male, not curmudgeonly, not a debunker, not hostile, not argumentative, not confrontational. I have an opinion but it’s an informed one. Or if I don’t know, I will tell you so. I’m no stereotype!

This morning, one of the organizers, a Gettysburg professor, introduced himself and mentioned they were talking about me at dinner the night before.

“Oh? In what sense?” I asked, slightly uncomfortable.

“That you were nice,” he answered.

HA. Maybe I am doing my part to change the skeptical stereotype. I do hope so. This is the second paranormal-themed conference I’d attended where people were openly surprised and probably suspicious about a “skeptic” in their midst. But why? I’m just as fascinated and curious about these topics. I just make a slightly different conclusion sometimes. I think I only had a question/comment twice in the three days.

Perhaps I belong everywhere. Or nowhere. Sometimes it feels that way. I’m not PRESS, I’m not a spy. I’m just curious. But I have to say that I am utterly disgusted with the bad mouthing of “skeptics” at the pro-paranormal conferences (which I did hear a bit of). Yet, I am just as disgusted with the bad mouthing of “believers” at the skeptical events. I could find much common ground with these lovely folks who are mediums, or have had paranormal events happen to them, or who research spiritualism and psi. And they also noted much common ground with me.

All in all, it was a excellent forum for exchanging ideas. As I’d heard about the TAM experience, several people at ETE noted they felt energized by the conference. I had a enlightening time and I was quite comfortable there.

3 thoughts on “Exploring extraordinary topics and people: Back from a conference

  1. > we self-identified as nonbelievers in life after death during a “straw poll”

    There’s got to be a joke in there:

    “I just came back from a UFO conference. There was a straw poll about a government coverup of Roswell — and the straw men were soundly defeated.”

  2. Well, I’ve seen you “in action”: you ARE nice, even when tempted to be rude by people pushing their agendas with persistent, rude questioning

  3. “I am in the liminal zone between skeptic and believer.”

    I don’t think you are; you’re a skeptic, while most of the other people calling themselves skeptics are actually debunkers. Because they’ve corrupted the term, you find yourself looking for a new one. Don’t. I suggest you call yourself a skeptic and make sure to point out to debunkers that they need to give the term back.

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