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Thinking About Stuff: Introducing "The Critical Angle"

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Thinking About Stuff: Introducing “The Critical Angle”

Bringing the methods of science to questions of pop culture.

At the ninth annual Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS, pronounced “nexus”), Leighann Lord addressed the question that Twitter was dying to have answered.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how much of a blerd are you?” “Blerd,” of course, is a portmanteau of “black nerd.” But you already knew that.

In front of 300 reason and rationality enthusiasts in New York City, Lord gave the only logical answer — 42.

Thinking About Stuff: Introducing "The Critical Angle"

Already a pro at livening up science, the comedian and sometimes co-host of astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio podcast made her first appearance at NECSS the weekend of July 1, where she felt at home in front of the sci-fi loving crowd, while telling the red-shirted staffers not to worry.

“We’ll go with Next Gen[eration] and call them “Command,'” she said, admitting that even though the original Star Trek series was best, Jean-Luc Picard was her favorite captain. Really, she was just happy to be in a place where those jokes weren’t met with crickets.

There tends to be a broad overlap between fans of science fiction and other geeky media, and those interested in science. This year’s NECCS appropriately focused on space exploration, with a presentation by science communicator Summer Ash on the amazing things in the universe we miss by only looking at the visible spectrum. The conference’s keynote address was delivered by frequent Big Bang Theory guest star and first man to tweet in space, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who recalled having to break a handle off the Hubble Telescope during a space walk, leading to the sober reminder, “No matter how bad a situation is, remember you can make it worse.”

Thinking About Stuff: Introducing "The Critical Angle"

“Science fiction is the gateway to science,” proclaimed Jay Novella, in-between pictures of his toddler wielding a Star Wars lightsaber. Novella was actually at NECSS to describe his skeptical approach to parenting, which began with finding all the original research he could on whether breast-feeding really is best, and continues today as he encourages his son to ask questions, and reminds him that it’s okay to not know all the answers.

Novella is the co-host of the massively popular Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, a weekly showcase of all things nerd, with regular segments including the “Forgotten Superheroes of Science” and “Science or Fiction,” in which Jay’s brother and series host Steven Novella asks the cast to determine which of three true-sounding science headlines is actually a fake.

It’s a good exercise in critical thinking, and that’s all skepticism really is. Or, to put a finer point on it, skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. Makes sense, right? Why wouldn’t you do that? Especially in a #posttruth world of #fakenews and #alternativefacts.

Thinking About Stuff: Introducing "The Critical Angle"

Being born of science, organized skepticism usually takes aim at testable, physical claims, like whether that light in the sky was really unidentified, or if astrology actually works (spoiler alert: no). But it doesn’t always have to be about the paranormal, and it definitely doesn’t have to be a buzzkil.

At this year’s NECSS, skepticism advocate and the musician responsible for such albums as Trebuchet and Coelacanth (named for a once-thought extinct, deep sea fish), George Hrab, gave the audience a rundown of his favorite skeptics in pop culture, and none of them were scientists. Okay, maybe Spock.

Yes, there were many Star Trek characters on the list, including most of the captains, but especially Kirk, if only for the one good thing from Star Trek V, the penetrating and ruse-busting question, “What does God need with a starship?”

And Batman! Batman is sort of a scientist, but he’s mostly a skeptic, always trying to find the most reasonable and likely explanation for the clues he’s accumulated. Sometimes the culprit really is an interplanetary monster, but more often than not, it’s just a crazy criminal. Which is in contrast to the ultimate childhood skepticism vehicle, Scooby Doo, where no matter how weird things got, it was never actually ghosts.

“It’s always a guy in a mask,” Hrab said.

Thinking About Stuff: Introducing "The Critical Angle"

Going back further in time, you find the quintessential child sleuths in Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and back further still is the highly observant man who started it all, Sherlock Holmes. Funnily enough, Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed in all manners of unsupportable things, famously being taken in by spiritualists and even the Cottingley Fairy hoax. It was a paradox that frustrated to no end Doyle’s good friend and uber-skeptic, Harry Houdini.

“Houdini would sit there and facepalm,” Hrab said. “You created Sherlock Holmes, how can you believe this?!”

Of course plenty of skeptics do walk the walk while talking the talk, like Johnny Carson, who often invited Houdini’s successor in both escape artistry and paranormal investigation, “The Amazing” James Randi, onto The Tonight Show. And let’s not overlook the Mythbusters, the ultimate empiricists, who put every fantastic claim they could find to the test.

“They did not say, ‘Let’s make a show about skepticism,'” Hrab said. The Mythbusters’ intention was just to explore curious questions, and that’s something we can all do.

Thinking About Stuff: Introducing "The Critical Angle"

Just as science and geek culture are inextricably intertwined, so should our fandoms be subjected to critical thinking. What do those comic book sales really say? Why was Warner Brothers so surprised at the success of Wonder Woman, when all the data on increasing female interest in traditionally male-oriented media is right there, for everyone to see?

We’ll explore questions like that and more here in AiPT!’s new, recurring feature, “The Critical Angle.” The tools of skepticism can (and should) be applied everywhere, especially to the things we care about most. Like we say, “When you love something, it’s worth discussing.”

And yes, there probably will be a few pieces about UFOs and ghosts, too. Old habits.

Thinking About Stuff: Introducing "The Critical Angle"

Russ Dobler is a geophysicist and journalist who volunteers for the New York City Skeptics, one of the producers of NECSS.

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