PWR Podcast Ep. 33: Ben Radford

October 29, 2010

On the latest episode of Parenting Within Reason, we interviewed paranormal investigator and Skeptical Inquirer editor Ben Radford. If you’re a fan of mystery shows you may have seen him featured once or twice. Here are a few clips…

Ben spoke to us about the myth of razor blades in apples, and the statistical unlikelihood of sex offenders molesting little children on Halloween night.

For some reason, we’ve decided that Halloween is particularly dangerous when it’s actually relatively safe. The crossing guard at my daughter’s school encouraged me to come to the school-sponsored “Trunk or Treat”, which she described as a “safe” Halloween experience. I do think it’s well-intentioned and nice for our school to offer this service, but please don’t do it in the name of “safety”. Aren’t there more accurate reasons, like building community or having fun?

Also during the podcast, we were joined by our guest co-host, Blake Smith, co-host of Monster Talk, to discuss his paranormal experiences and monster expertise.  Blake mentioned a time when he was deployed overseas and experienced what he believed, at the time, to be a haunting. The most chilling event that occurred during this haunting was waking up to the sensation of someone sitting upon his chest only to turn on the light and discover that nobody was there. Many years later, Blake realized that he was actually experiencing hypnagogic “sleep paralysis”, which is a natural phenomenon that combines the hallucination of lucid dreaming with the paralysis of REM sleep. It feels very real and very intense. Here’s a little video about it…

I’ve actually experienced hypnagogic sleep paralysis on a few occasions. I usually wake up with a feeling of absolute helplessness because I can’t move my body, and then I imagine an intruder entering my room to murder me and my wife. On the few occasions that this has happened, I’ve been woken up by my wife who is annoyed that I’m mumbling like a jackass. Little did she know that a murderer was about to kill her and that I was powerless to stop it, or at least that’s what I believed during the hypnagogic episode. It’s very unpleasant.

I’ve also had an instance in college where I woke up with the sensation of floating above my own body. At the time, I attributed the experience as a metaphysical out-of-body-experience. The truth is that my semisomnambulant mind was acting according to natural neurological stimuli. Nothing supernatural at all, but try telling that to the hippie college version of me.

In the spirit of being honest about our “true believer” pasts, I’m wondering if any of you ever experienced mysterious phenomena that you couldn’t explain at the time. Please, do tell. Very interested to hear your stories.


Dragoncon 2010: Reporting Back

September 7, 2010

The best times at Dragoncon are the times in-between panels when you’re meeting friends, having conversations with scientists and authors, and wandering through a crowd of costumed characters.

The action kicked off at the Star Party cancer benefit at Emory University. I began the night with a nice long conversation with Dale McGowan about the future of Foundation Beyond Belief and possible changes with the podcast that I will be implementing soon. He also told me about his new super secret children’s book idea, which sounds FANTASTIC (and apparently controversial – but not really).

Then, I wandered over to visit the Australian skeptics and spoke with Dr. Rachael Dunlop about the recent victories against the AVN, an anti-vaccine organization in Australia. I was also quite interested to hear Dr. Rachie’s opinion on Aubrey De Grey, a British Saruman-like scientist who insists that the chances are probable that we will reverse the effects of aging within the foreseeable future. Dr. Rachie is a cell biologist specializing in degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.  Aubrey and Dr. Rachie met and seemed to be at odds, but I have no idea how that conversation turned out. I’m intrigued.

I also introduced Sean Faircloth, lobbyist for Secular Coalition of America, to Will Phillips, precocious 10 year old and gay rights activist. Sean played devil’s advocate to Will’s humanitarianism; it was an inspiring moment that I’ll never forget. Why are people living in poverty less worthy of civil disobedience than LGBTQ? According to Will, poor people aren’t dehumanized and denied the right to marry. Score one for the kid! Sean and I both encouraged Will to expand his activism beyond the gay community and stand up for anyone who is oppressed. I’m pretty sure Will doesn’t need my advice… he will be going far in life, I’m positive.

I woke up Friday morning eager to start the day, only to wait in the badge registration line for two hours. Waiting for your badge is the only lame thing about dragoncon, so take an ipod and plan on listening to a few episodes of your favorite podcast. Once I obtained my badge, I was ready to visit the skeptrack room to check out the morning panel featuring magician and celebrated debunker, James Randi. Randi, the ol’ curmudgeon, took some jabs from the other panelists… you could tell that they were all very friendly with each other after years of attending conventions, cruises, and secret meetings of the illuminati (mwa ha ha ha).

For lunch, I met KO Myers (of Grassroots Skeptics fame) for an informal lunch with other regional skeptic organizers, but I couldn’t concentrate on too many conversations because I was too busy thinking about my costume that I would be donning shortly after the meal. As I stated in my last article, I decided to go full-tilt geek (or at least in my world), and re-visit an old villain from G.I.Joe Vs. Cobra.

Somebody on Facebook said that the photo looks like something a crazy mixed bag of nuts would take just before going on a killing spree. Hmm… I was going for ninja saboteur action figure come to life. Anyway, the thrill of wearing a costume was really so much fun. And since there were so many other fanatics dressed up, I looked normal enough that most people just ignored me. Except for a nice girl who asked to take a photo of me. Thanks random girl!

Once out of my camo garb, I went to see Heidi Anderson’s panel on sex. Bravo to her for managing to educate a packed room of adolescent-minded geeks the appropriate labels to use for people of alternative sexual lifestyles. I found out that I’m a cisgender heterosexual in a closed relationship. I will say it loud and proud… I AM CISGENDER!!! Whew… glad I got that off my chest. Now go look up the definition so you can announce it to your friends too.

I finished the evening by hanging out with Blake Smith (of Monster Talk fame), Daniel Loxton (of Junior Skeptic fame), Rob Tarr (of here fame) and Laurie Tarr (of here fame). I shared with them my ideas for the future of skepticism, that we will soon welcome politics into our range of acceptable targets. There’s no reason that fact-checking, of the sort done by Politifact, should be considered outside the realm of skepticism. I plan to talk more about that later.

Saturday was a blur. I walked out of my hotel and ran smack into the Dragoncon’s Saturday morning parade of geeks (which was awesome and I will never miss it again). My friend Austin and I were trying to get to the WTF Foundation’s vaccine booster clinic to get our T-Dap when we ran into Rebecca Watson (of Skeptic’s Guide fame). She was trying to get her booster too. After fighting a throng of tourists and costumed characters, we finally found the store front for the vaccine clinic and walked in to introduce ourselves. Here’s Rebecca getting her vaccine shot…

Did I mention Sean Faircloth, lobbyist for Secular Coalition for America? He was a fantastic speaker, who really knew how to capture the attention of his audience. So, I’m doing him a favor by asking everyone to visit http://secular.org and signing up for the SCA “Action Alerts”. The fundamentalist Christians have the ear of congress, do you?

Ben Radford (Skeptical Inquirer editor and paranormal investigator) did not have the most organized Paranormal Investigations workshop, but it wasn’t his fault. The paranormal track director sabotaged him by insuring that the room to his workshop would be locked and unavailable. Yes, I am starting a mini-conspiracy theory against the paranormal track, but I don’t care. Finding a room for Ben’s workshop is a long story that involves running from hotel to hotel with an amiable Australian, finding myself opening the door for “The Cigarette Smoking Man” from X-Files, and enjoying a Warren Zevon tune with custom Radfordized lyrics (well done Rob).

At this point in time, I was starting to panic about the live episode for Podcast Beyond Belief. Laurie needed tea bags, I needed to write my script outline, John Paul needed parenting science, and Heidi needed a break… the big moment was drawing near. So, I worked on the podcast, met up with my wife, and ate some delicious Jamaican jerk chicken. Then we headed back for the live recording, which surprisingly involved one less co-host and one extra Australian. But, it all worked out and you can listen to the episode when it’s published.

I didn’t attend much of anything on Sunday because I wanted to spend time with my extended family in Atlanta. But, I did get to see Laura Phillips (quick witted mother of young activist, Will) kick some major ass on the “Raising Skeptical Geeks” panel. She was so impressive, as was Laverne Knight-West, that I nearly forgot Adam Savage (of Mythbusters fame) was on the panel at all. My only gripe was that the panelists spoke about Santa very casually without regard to the fact that multiple children in the audience were probably having this year’s Christmas dashed on the rocks of skepticism. Be careful prominent skeptics that you don’t snap Santa’s beard in front of the kiddies, unless they’re your own, ok?

That’s basically my Dragoncon experience. Wish there was more time to see more stuff and more friends, but my experience at Dragoncon was extremely fun. I intend to go back again and again, as long as they keep having a skeptrack. Thanks to Derek and Swoopy (of Skepticality fame) for basically volunteering their time to make this happen every year. You guys rock!