October 24, 2012 by kittynh
The skeptic community is very fond of conferences and meetings. They’re our chance to get together as just be ourselves. You can tell a joke about astrologers, and no one in the group is going to not laugh and tell you about the amazing astrologer they consult for every decision in their life. Skeptic conferences and meet ups are often jokingly referred to as a skeptic form of “fellowship”. Churches offer a chance to make friends and for people to be supportive, so do skeptic meet ups!
More often than not, there are fantastic speakers at skeptic conferences and meet-ups. I’ve been lucky enough to have attended every TAM in the US and have heard some of the best skeptical speakers: Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, James Randi, Pamela Gay, and Dr. Eugenie Scott, to name just a few! I’ve also heard some less-than-stellar speakers. Speakers who have struggled. The sin of reading every power point slide, saying “you know” at the beginning of every sentence, and even two cases of out right on stage melt down are memories I hope to one day forget seeing and hearing. However, when someone is failing badly, I do find that skeptic audiences tend to cheer the speaker on. This is because skeptics want to hear the information that speakers have to give us, and we understand the speaker is not a public performer. The audience also understands that, one day, they could be the one standing up on stage nervously giving a public presentation.
I started giving public talks about skeptic topics when asked by Jeff Wagg, a friend, to give one during a JREF Amazing Adventure cruise to Mexico. Jeff knew I did work in the UFO/alien field and felt I could speak about the UFO situation in Mexico. I was given terrific material to work with. Who would not enjoy hearing about flying witches (the one on video is rather a slow moving witch), aliens that jump out of trees and attack police officers, and the Mexican Air Force capturing UFO’s on infrared camera? The problem was choosing just what to cover from such an array of stories. I was fine until I was told James Randi was going to be at the talk. My first skeptic talk.
James Randi is my personal hero. He’s the reason so many of us became interested in becoming involved in the skeptic community. I felt like a newly ordained priest who had been told the Pope was coming to his first sermon. I prepared carefully during the days before my talk, checking every power point slide and reviewing my note cards (which I never looked at the entire talk). Eventually, I realized that I was on a cruise ship and could not just run away. I was going to have to give my talk, nervous or not!
When the day of my talk finally came, I wasn’t the first person to speak, and my hands were shaking by the time I did get up to speak. I looked into the front row where Randi was sitting, and I noticed that he had just nodded off. The cruise happened shortly after Randi had recovered from a major cardiac event. I knew this cruise was very tiring, and I could understand why he was now happily resting his head on his chest and sleeping.
It was the best thing that could ever have happened to me, and I relaxed.
Randi was not going to be judging my first real skeptic talk. I smiled, went up to the mike and gave a fun filled talk about flying witches, Mexican UFO talk shows, and why UFOs designers and builders can’t seem to agree on just one type of vehicle. Somehow no one can explain why no two UFO photographs show exactly the same kind of vehicle.
It should be noted, Randi did awake once I started talking. He smiled, and I somehow kept talking and even found I was enjoying myself.
In fact, I enjoyed my first talk so much that I went on to accept more offers to speak. I have spoken about how I work with supposed alien abductees and what methods I’ve found the most successful with helping them learn to think critically.
Unlike psychics that count the hits more than the misses, skeptics often count the misses and not the hits. A hit is where you do succeed in helping someone learn how to think critically. My work isn’t just about changing someone’s mind about the existence of aliens kidnapping humans, it’s about teaching critical thinking skills so that a person can figure out these things for themselves. A fantasy prone person gains no benefit if just one of their beliefs is discredited.
My favorite group to speak to is the CNY Skeptics based out of the Syracuse, New York area. The group has kindly had me to speak three times. It’s a wonderful drive from the New Hampshire area where I live to Syracuse. I enjoy speaking in the Fall when the leaves have first started to change so the drive to Syracuse from New Hampshire is especially lovely.
For my he first talk at CNY Skeptics I spoke about alien abduction. For my second talk I spoke about how the Granite State Skeptics (my local skeptic group) does haunted house investigations. Let’s just say it’s different that the reality TV show groups do a haunted house investigation.
My latest talk for CNY Skeptics was about Betty and Barney Hill. I have lived in New Hampshire for 20 years . However, despite doing work for the past 7years with people that claim to have been abducted by aliens, I had never bothered much with The Hills. On day, Travis Roy, who co- founded the Granite State Skeptics with his wife Dale Roy, asked me why I had never been to see the Betty Hill collection that is archived at the University of New Hampshire. He has done extensive research there, and thought I would be interested to learn more about the first modern alien abduction covered by the media.
My first visit to the archives with Travis a revelation.
Perusing The Betty Hill Archives at UNH is like stepping into the mind of a UFO alien believer. Betty Hill saved fan mail, brochures, letters from Stanton Friedman, and contracts for speaking engagements. She obviously really loved her role in the UFO community. It is a treasure trove for those wishing a glimpse into the paranormal world. A world where logic and reason have all been turned around. One example is that Carl Sagan, beloved by skeptics, is declared “unscientific” for his portrayal of the Hill abduction experience on “Cosmos”.
One of my favorite comments is from a letter to Betty in which the sender ends with almost the exact same thing I have heard many skeptics say. The letter is a long complaint about how the government is still covering up the UFO and alien story. However it ends with a sentiment that I have only heard skeptics say before.
“I really and truly hope and wish so very much that one would land right on Reagan’s White House lawn. I would really celebrate if one did.”
Skeptics often complain “Why don’t UFOs just land on the White House lawn?” When I visited the Betty Hill collection, I found out that believers also have the same longing for that final irrefutable proof that skeptics demand. Just as skeptics are waiting for definite proof before we believe, so are believers waiting for definite proof so that everyone believes, just as they already believe.
I knew going through the archives that my next talk for CNY Skeptics was going to be “Betty and Barney, After the Abduction”. I wanted to share what happened to their lives once the world was told their abduction story. They did not just go back to their quiet lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
I am going to share just what, for me, giving a skeptic talk is like. I will use for my example my latest “Betty and Barney, After the Abduction” talk.
I wake the morning of the talk to find, simply by chance, that it is the 51st anniversary of the Hill abduction. (Sept.19-20th) Skeptics find these just interesting coincidences, but I did have a moment of “Well that’s spooky”. I wish I had remembered earlier, so the talk could have been advertised as being given on the anniversary. I then find out it is also “Talk like a pirate day”. I figure this would be a good opening joke. I remember to throw in a few “arrs” and then promise not to give the talk in pirate speak.
I show up early at the Dewitt Library, which is located in a shopping mall. The first time I went to speak I drove around lost for about 20 minutes because my GPS was sending me to a shopping mall. I did not know that libraries are now often located inside shopping malls. A nice gas station attendant assured me my GPS was correct, the mall was the location of my talk. This is why if you are giving a talk it is very important to give yourself plenty of time to get to the location.
CNY skeptics Lisa Jong-Soon Goodlin
and David Harding met me as I came in. My husband and I helped move chairs around and set up a table. CNY skeptics supply free pizza and drinks at their talks, just one of many reasons why I love speaking to this group. We set up around 20 chairs and figure we’re fine. We are not fine. People keep showing up. Soon the room is packed to standing room only and we have run out of chairs. Lisa comments “We didn’t even advertise this much”.
It is almost time to speak, when
Lisa and another member of the CNY skeptics wave me over for a quiet chat. It seems a hard core UFO believer could be there. He has caused trouble in the past. I am earnestly told, “If he starts asking questions, you have to shut him down fast.” I quickly scan the crowd, unsure just who they mean. I am also unsure how to shut someone down fast. My past work as a preschool teacher makes me wonder if I can give him a time out. While I look over the group in a panic the CNY skeptic member assures me “Well, I’m sure you have had a lot of experience with this in the past. It should be no problem for you.” I am for a moment thrown exactly who he is speaking to. He means me. It dawns on me he has far more faith in my ability to “shut” someone down than I do.
I take a deep breath and wonder if this is going to be more nerve wracking than that time when I had to give my first skeptic talk in front of James Randi. I know most of the talk is simply quoting from the archives and factual history about the Hills. I don’t think there is much anyone can disagree with. I then take one last trip to the restroom to make sure I look alright. My husband, seeing me leave, becomes worried. He later says for a moment he was sure I wasn’t coming back, knowing the bigger than expected crowd size could have caused a massive panic attack. He was sure he would have been showing power point slides, and saying “I have no idea what in the heck this one is about, anyone have a clue?” I finally return, and he then relaxes. He spends the rest of the talk eating pizza and looking on the internet for Atari games. He is a wonderful husband and fully supportive of my skeptic work. However, is his much more a fan of vintage Atari games than listening to me speak.
I stand at the front of the room, power point on the wall, and look down to see people. Since the room was so small I have actually have to be careful I don’t step ahead or I will land in the lap of the first row. I look up and see man covered head to toe in camouflage clothing. Camouflage man is dressed head to toe for deer season. His cap is brown camouflage. His heavy coat, which he never takes off, is camouflage. He looks to be a Big Foot hunter who has somehow ended up at the wrong skeptic talk. I begin to fear he is the hard core believer I must “shut down”. I tentatively smile, but he leers back. Throughout the rest of the talk whenever I begin to even hint UFOs and aliens may not be true, he leers more and leans forward. I quickly throw in a “But of course I can’t prove Betty and Barney were not abducted by aliens.” I do not throw in my usual skeptic tag line of “I also can’t prove they weren’t abducted by unicorns.” My husband later asks me why I soft peddled the talk a bit, and I tell him “Because while I love skepticism I’m not ready to die for it. Camouflage gear makes me nervous as it reminds me of hunting. Hunting reminds me of guns.”
Later during the question and answer session I find camouflage guy to be pro UFO but reasonable. He is actually interested to learn about some of the claims Betty Hill made about the “humanoids” (as she called them) who abducted her. He can’t get in a fight with me because these are things Betty wrote. There is a person that looks like a hard working college student that is a surprise UFO believer. I manage to answer questions about the Hill abduction without offending anyone. My talk was about what happened after the abduction, but I still get many questions about the actual events of that night. One question was about the star chart, which was supposedly matched to an actual area in space. I handle it without offending anyone. My husband compliments me on my ability to “not answer a question”, without anyone noticing I didn’t answer the question. He suggests I run for political office.
There is also a very nice woman that sits right up front. At one point, she is mouthing “thank you” to me. This is the part where I talk about how therapists and doctors should treat with respect people that think they have had a paranormal experience. I add that I find most medical and mental health professionals are now very helpful to these patients. I suggest to the skeptics that instead of scorn, or calling these people “nut jobs”, they try engaging them in conversation and help them learn critical thinking skills. At the end of the talk, this woman is in tears.
While everyone else is clearing up, I sit down with the woman and we talk. I make sure to make physical contact with her, holding her hand. She tells me her story. She thanks me for not making fun of people that have had a paranormal experience. I make sure she is getting the help she needs. She assures me that through therapy she is at peace now. We hug. I find most of my talks open to the public will bring at least one person that has had what they feel is a paranormal experience. It’s important to me personally to speak to these people, and to give them an email address where they can reach me. I think if the only skeptics they meet are ones that make fun of them, then they will simply go to the people that will reinforce their paranormal belief.
My husband and I enjoy that after speaking at CNY skeptics we are taken to Dinosaur BBQ for a well earned meal. It’s especially gratifying after a talk to go review it with my husband and fellow skeptics. My husband jokes that my head will take days to “deflate” after having such a larger than expected crowd show up. I raise up my glass and give a toast to Betty Hill, who is still pulling in the crowds 51 years after her abduction experience.