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Sharpen your critical thinking skills the fun way, with 'A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance'


Sharpen your critical thinking skills the fun way, with ‘A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance’

The mega-popular cast of ‘The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe’ hit the road.

You won’t know what to expect, except perhaps that it will be something intellectual and fun. That seems to be the attitude the Rogues of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (SGU) want you to have going into A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance.

The touring live show put on by the popular, award-winning podcast crew (who also happen to have authored a best-selling critical thinking guidebook of the same name) is hosted by musical artist and fellow skeptical podcaster George Hrab. Together they describe the show as “sciencey games” that “challenge your perception of reality.”

Sharpen your critical thinking skills the fun way, with 'A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance'

From left to right: Cara Santa Maria, Evan Bernstein, Steve Novella, Jay Novella, Bob Novella, George Hrab

I would describe it as more of a variety show, divided into different segments — part game show, part science lecture, part musical performance, and part improv comedy sketches. There’s often a good amount of audience participation, along with some psychological shenanigans designed to fool spectators (in fun ways). The bulk of the educational content comes from learning how NOT to be fooled so easily, in the future.

Games recently played at the Skeptical Extravaganza include:

  • Mock Debates, where two opponents are assigned a side to take on some geeky issue (such as the Millennium Falcon vs. the Starship Enterprise), with each having 30 seconds to make their case. The winner is determined by audience vote.
  • “Frieze Frame” is spelled that way because the Rogues’ stances often resemble those of carved friezes. One team member has to guess what specific movie the rest of the members have assembled themselves to depict.
  • A version of Taboo, in which a team member has to figure out all the words of a story, while the other tries to describe it without using anything from a list of prohibited words.
  • SG vs. U: A trivia game where all the individual audience members get to compete with the collective knowledge of the entire SGU team as a whole.

Other examples of segments include:

  • Songs performed by George Hrab, often with skeptical themes
  • Running through the truth behind common misconceptions
  • Demonstrations of tricks that con artists can use to sell their bunk, such as psychic cold reading, or how Power Balance bracelet demos are faked

Since no two shows are ever the same, though, and the Extravaganza‘s segments could evolve and vary over time, there’s no guarantee any of these particular activities will be part of future shows you might see.

The idea got its start about five years ago, and was initially done exclusively for skeptical conferences. The first ones were in Ohlone College in California, then for conventions in Australia and New Zealand. They eventually became a tradition at most of New York City’s NECSS conferences.

Evolving and improving A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance over the years has been a highly collaborative effort between its three main organizers of Hrab, Dr. Steven Novella, and his brother, Jay, who play off each others’ ideas. Hrab gets to surprise everyone the most, though — as host, he assembles the trivia questions and other specifics for each challenge.

The show also features the other long-time members of SGU, Bob Novella, Evan Bernstein, and Cara Santa Maria, who also hosts the Talk Nerdy podcast. There might even be a special guest joining them. Some of the early NECSS editions had participation from Bill Nye the Science Guy!

The team was encouraged to go on a national tour by Brian Wecht, a theoretical physicist, comedian, and the ninja portion of the band Ninja Sex Party, and it’s been a huge success. They even packed Brooklyn’s Bell House on Super Bowl Sunday.

Sharpen your critical thinking skills the fun way, with 'A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance'

The cast has to imitate a scene from the movie Jaws in a game of Frieze Frame, from an April 2019 event.

There is currently only one future tour date of A Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance announced, in Seattle, Washington, this Saturday, February 15, but Jay Novella assures us more will be added. And if things continue going as they are, there will likely be another tour next year, with “big changes” to keep things fresh.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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