The Susan Gerbic tour continues. With the mission to seek out more people to recruit to the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project, I visited Albuquerque, New Mexico April 10-13, 2018, for the purpose of speaking to the New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR) group, as well as spending some time with friends from the skeptic community.
No visit to New Mexico is complete without a visit to Squaring the Strange Studios to see where the podcast magic happens. I got to hang out and record Episode 53 with Ben Radford and Pascual Romero. Sadly, I missed seeing cohost and content producer Celestia Ward. First, they interviewed Matt Crowley about his years in the circus (he might have been the person who inspired the condom snorting challenge). I kid you not, this is a very strange podcast. Please give it a listen, with the caution that you may feel an overwhelming desire to join GSoW after listening. Trust me, it is a better decision than snorting condoms.
The Squaring the Strange podcast is relatively new. They started in spring 2017 and have turned out a show every week. They just released episode 57. Celestia Ward began as the content producer and was added onto the show with a “fortune cookie” segment, until eventually she became a cohost. Celestia is an artist specializing in caricature; her company is Two Heads Studios. Her artwork can be found in many places, but you might have seen it in the back of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and also in Ben Radford’s Investigating Ghosts book. Pascaul Romero is from a long line of New Mexicans. He has been in many heavy metal bands as a vocalist and bassist and also works in film and TV.
The three of them, Ben, Pascual, and Celestia, form a great team with diverse backgrounds, which makes listening to their take on strange stories all that more interesting. Celestia the visual, Pascual the audio, and Ben the research methods. Give it a listen.
I spent the night at Ben Radford’s house, which was wall to wall books and two cats. My kind of place. I really enjoy spending time in productive people’s offices; it’s inspiring to watch them work and see what tools they use to juggle projects and stay focused. Ben has filing cabinets and piles with past, present, and future projects. According to Amazon.com, he has written over ten books—it’s difficult to keep track. His more recent ones include Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, Lake Monster Mysteries, Bad Clowns, Tracking the Chupacabra, Media Mythmakers, and one of my favorites, Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment.
Ben has a really interesting way of staying organized: he collects clothes pins. It’s an interesting collection that he puts to use; he has strung up a clothes line in a part of his office, and he keeps paperwork and notes associated with his projects and to-do list clothes pinned to that line. Very clever and a nice way to enjoy your collection. Another thing I learned was how he writes indexes for his books; he uses filing cards and manually and meticulously notes page numbers and names to refer to. He explained he discovered that people who are doing research aren’t going to take the trouble to use your book as a citation if they don’t have access to an index. I’ve noticed this since he pointed it out. When we are doing research for a Wikipedia page, we don’t have time to read the entire book looking for a few sentences to quote; often we move on to another book that is indexed.
The next day I was on my own and set out in my rented car to explore Albuquerque, New Mexico. I first stopped at a local library to take a look around and discovered that the Netflix show Breaking Bad was filmed in Albuquerque and also the author George R.R. Martin, who wrote the Game of Thrones books, is from the area. I’m not a fan of either of those things, but my friend Robin Welsh assures me that you can visit all the filming locations for Breaking Bad as she did when passing through New Mexico. Apparently, it is a tourist magnet for the area.
I first headed for downtown Albuquerque to find the KiMo Theatre, which Ben has written about because it was supposedly haunted. This is one of my favorite investigations, and the first time I think I really understood the harm to the family of the “ghost.” Bobby Darnall was a six-year-old who died in the lobby of the theater when a water heater exploded in 1951. The theater and the town have embellished the story to say that Bobby haunts the theater and causes disruptions, takes bites out of doughnuts, and needs to be appeased with gifts of toys. Ben tracked down Bobby’s siblings and asked them what they thought of the story. They were not happy about it at all. They loved their little brother and it hurts them that strangers are capitalizing on their tragedy. It’s cruel, and I think people should contact the city and the theater and pressure them to end this practice. I wrote to the city a year ago and didn’t hear back. Looking at their “things to do” website shows at least six blog posts mentioning Bobby as a ghost. It’s sickening.
After lunch I headed to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and was greeted by two amazing metal sculptures of a pentaceratops, “Spike,” and an albertosaurus, “Alberta.” I noticed a plaque showing the artist’s name was David A. Thomas, which seemed familiar yet also a common name. I later learned that this David Thomas is the father of my lecture sponsor, physicist and mathematician Dave Thomas. Dave is also a fellow of CSI and the current president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the group I spoke to that night.
The museum is worth a visit. I didn’t have time to see the da Vinci exhibit or the IMAX but did make it through the rest of the museum, which sadly was pretty empty of visitors. I’m not a scientist but am very interested in science communication. How are the exhibits designed? Are children interacting with the displays in a good way? Are adults lingering to read and discuss the exhibits? Personally, I would have liked to see human evolution exhibits, as they are very focused on dinosaurs. Apparently, this museum showcases dinosaurs found in New Mexico. I had difficulty understanding what I was looking at in the dinosaur areas; the scientific names were too complicated for my little brain. But what it lacked (for me) in that area, it made up for in other areas. The next time I visit, I’ll either get one of their audio tours or take along some school kid who loves dinosaurs to explain everything to me.
There was a glassed-in area called Fossilworks, where you could watch people tediously poking and brushing at large dinosaur bones, which was really interesting. Another of my favorite areas was The Naturalist Center. I wish I had gotten the name of the volunteer that day, because she was terrific. She approached everyone, starting a conversation about whatever they were looking at, telling us the name of the animal, where they found it (most are rescues), and something else about it. She had it down, not spending too much time lingering over something, but just giving you enough to make you say, “oh wow” and then you would feel a bit more connected to the animal and even learn something new.
In the Hall of the Stars, they had an exhibit that allows visitors to interact with the night sky. You can push buttons to see the stars during the seasons and look at constellations or planets; it was very hands-on. One of my very favorite exhibits was a very large elevator that was actually a time machine. Okay, it wasn’t really an elevator or a time machine, but I still enjoyed it. The room shook as it went through time periods, and there is a screen with a person who is leading you through the different eras. He gets out of the elevator/time machine at one point and is chased by a dinosaur. It was a little hokey, but it was fun, and things were explained in a way that I understood.
Onward to the lecture for the NMSR group, which was held at the local community college. The group has a nice setup: AV and seating for 100. We had about thirty people show up, several of whom were old friends from skeptic conferences: Matthew Loftus, Mark Fraser, Gabriel Shalless, and Ruth Frazier. And we also had five CSI fellows: Ben Radford, Kendrick Frazier, Mark Boslough, Dave Thomas, and me. We had five students from the college attending my lecture to get extra credit for a math class they were taking. I made sure to include some statistics in my lecture just for them.
The energy in the room was great. I had a lot of fun and people asked great questions. I did my March for Science lecture but used Thomas Bopp as one of the main examples. We had extra time after the Q&A, so we signed onto the internet and we pulled up the Wikipedia page for James Randi in Korean and we as a group added a photo to the page. The audience loved it. The majority of my lecture can be found here. After the lecture we all rushed outside to watch the International Space Station cross the sky for two minutes.
I stayed the next two nights with Ken and Ruth Frazier. It was really relaxing with books, cats called Pretty Kitty and Hercules, and a dog named Darwin to hang out with. Kendrick is the editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and has written at least one article for the magazine every edition for the past forty-plus years. He is a science writer with over ten published books as the author or editor on various topics. He has one book about a northwestern New Mexico area called People of Chaco: A Canyon and Its Culture. I was able to visit Ken’s office with overflowing bookcases on every wall. Very inviting. Ken, Ruth, and I spent a few hours at the Botanic Garden and Aquarium in Albuquerque, another really interesting place to visit.
I haven’t (as yet) received any new GSoW editors from New Mexico, but one Squaring the Strange listener, Johan Neser from Perth, Australia, wrote to me after hearing the interview, joined GSoW, and has already finished training and is working on his second Wikipedia page rewrite.
It was a quick three days for me. The weather behaved itself with pretty mild temperatures. I need to get back again, visit the Sandia mountains, and take a trip up to Santa Fe and Los Alamos.
It’s really difficult to know if it is worth the time and expense for me to travel to speak to small skeptic groups for the benefit of recruiting new GSoW members. It’s something I consider every day as I plan for more lectures. I think it is too early to know what the results will be. Sometimes the results are much farther down the road and making connections, renewing friendships, observing, and reporting back (as I’m doing with this article) are what’s important. Time will tell.
If you would like to become involved in GSoW or would like to learn more, please visit our website here. Many thanks to Julie Berents for proofreading this article.