Being an Entertaining Idiot in the Land of the Skeptics

A while back I told the ‘Brainstab’ audience of my soon-to-be triumph in the world of Skepticism; to whit, my forthcoming publication on the possible rationality of so-called paranormal phenomena. Some searching souls asked after the piece, wanting to know when it was likely to come out and whether they could have an advanced look at it. My answers were, variously, soon and ‘That’s an ecumenical matter!’

Today I reveal more, but I do it unconventionally. For that is the Brother Morthos way (which is usually loud, brash and features exploding nuns and ninjas jumping out of windows (Jamaica style).

For the last three years the University of Auckland, under the guise of PGSA (the ‘Black Council of the University of Auckland,’ purporting to be the Postgraduate Student Association) has run a graduate fair called ‘Exposure;’ its purpose to provide a forum where graduates can display their research peacefully. It’s a port of call, a home away from home… Sorry, gratuitous Babylon 5 reference there. ‘Exposure’ is designed to show off graduate research in three ways, those being the visual, the multimedia and the oral presentation.

As a trained public speaker oral presentations suit me just dandy. As a trained public speaker who learnt his trade through Drama training I am also not the perfect candidate for a serious academic seminar. Modern academic teaching focuses on substance rather than style, and style really is treated as nasty infection one should be without. I learnt this last year when I gave an oral presentation at Exposure04 on the North Head Tunnel Conspiracy and How It Relates to Critical Thinking Teaching. Whilst I wowed the crowd the judges went for the very mundane but academically standard presentation and left me only with a USB Flash Drive rather than a replacement iBook.

Woe was I. Flash forward with me now to July of this year, nine months later, where my eventual triumph in academic circles was first realised, vis a vis the Paranormal paper’s acceptance into a magazine of some standing.< Once I had submitted my paper to Dr. Michael Shermer I rather closed the book on that the article. Until such time it was published I really couldn’t do anything with it. As an article under contract I could give it to colleagues to look over but I couldn’t post it on the Internet. I could discuss the contents of the article in classes but I couldn’t really give out the piece to students without the proper attributions, which would only become known when the ‘The Skeptic’ went to press. That part of my life would be, for the time being, over. Exposure05 was about to change that. The article, I wager, is the most normal academic treatise I have ever written; it is earnest, coherent and eminently sensible, as befitting its audience. Thus it seemed obvious that if I wanted to re-present it to the world I would have to go all the other way. Make it funny, make it silly and, overall, make it almost non-academic. Think ‘Hard Copy’ rather than ‘Nature;’ ‘Sixty Minutes’ rather than ‘A Brief History of Time.’< Thus the Exposure05 oral presentation was born. I would present the Paranormal paper but do so in a guise that made it an entirely new and original work, yet do it in such a way that it all looked superfluous to requirements when really it would still be, at its core, a piece of fine Philosophy Pundits will tell you that educational pedagogical comedy is one of the hardest genres to write. Comedy is not naturally instructive; indeed, there is an article waiting to be written on just how fallacious arguments are persuasive whilst good arguments are not in the context of sitcoms. Educational works are not naturally comedic; whilst some writers can come up with funny illustrative analogies often they precede or are preceded by serious exposition. To turn a serious, originally six thousand word treatise into fifteen minutes of fun, would just be the icing on the cake. The resulting artefact does not succeed on all levels. It has moments of humour and moments where things should be funny when they are not. I am please to say that the content, the philosophical substance, lurks there, only vaguely emasculated. Some of the argumentation has been replaced by suggestive analogies and much of the terminology has been simplified so that it almost represents what philosophers think but does it in a slightly more intuitive (and thus more prone to error) way. As a piece of Philosophy it is more successful than it is as a piece of Comedy, whilst as a piece of Comedy it likely obstructs the Philosophy from shining through. Fine and good, you say. But, as you are also wont to proclaim, what does this mean to us, the readers? Well, gentle view, one who has gone this far, you too can enjoy the presentation I gave. Whilst you were unable to be with me the day it was given you can experience it now as a smallish (32 meg) download. In the course of building up the presentation and practicing the dialogue I ended up producing a narrated version of my slides so that I work out the relevant timings of my transitions and where to place vocal emphasis. The following file is somewhat representative of the presentation I gave, and I present it as a delightful prelude to the publication of its bigger brother in ‘The Skeptic’ either late this year or early next. Science vs. The Paranormal – A Narrated Video (I recommend ‘Save As’ rather than just clicking the link)

(The editors of ‘Brainstab’ would like to point out, at this juncture, that this might well be the longest case of ‘Here is an amusing video to watch’ that they have had the displeasure to see written on their weblog in many a month. They would like to apologise, but don’t really know how and, frankly, do not really care all that much about your feelings after all. Piss off.)


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.