Sometimes I really feel lucky. I know as a skeptic that this whole ‘luck’ thing is really nothing more than statistics and perhaps a little planning. But somehow despite the math and probabilities, I still manage to meet some of the most fascinating people and HALF the time they even talk to me. My life SO completely kicks-ass approximately 50% of the time! Those are pretty good odds! Like recently for example, I went up to Berkeley, California where I was stalking Karen Stollznow attending a conference on skepticism. Everything was seriously coming-up-Amy that day and Karen was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to let me photograph her and ask her a few questions so we could get to know her better. I hope you enjoy!
Click below to read the interview!
1. What first got you interested in skepticism?
My career in skepticism began when I approached the Australian Skeptics seeking work experience. I became an undercover Mata Hari for an investigation into alternative therapists. I had consultations with an iridologist, a naturopath, a homeopath and an aura reader. I then underwent a series of tests with an orthodox medical doctor, and the alternative practitioner’s diagnoses were compared against these results. None of the diagnoses were accurate.
This inspired me to undertake my own investigations, and for the past 14 years I’ve researched and road-tested many paranormal and psuedoscientific beliefs and practices.
2. Do you think skepticism should focus its energy on specific topics or do you find that skepticism as a method can be applied to a broad aspect of issues?
The paranormal and pseudoscience are the bread and butter of skepticism, but I see practical applications for skepticism in everything. As critical thinking, or just common sense, it doesn’t always have to be rigorous skepticism, but it does help to be healthy skepticism.
Overall, I think skepticism is broadening in scope. This is our own ‘evolution’.
3. You have a long history of investigating the paranormal. What is the strangest claim you have ever encountered?
They’re all strange, from the hairdresser who read her clients as she cut their hair, to a Voodoo Priest in New Orleans who asked me if I liked the “long, thick snake” wrapped around his shoulders that helped him with his rituals and predictions.
My current nemesis is Frank Sumption, a Colorado guy who invented a radio that supposedly receives messages from aliens, angels and the dead. He claims these entities see him as a woman and call him their “Purple Princess”, and that he has time traveled from ancient Egypt. That is just the beginning…
4. You recently gave a talk about psychics and how their claims are changing as time goes on. Can you give an example of that change?
In my observation, psychics are slowly shunning the label “psychic”, and favoring more ambiguous-sounding names, such as “intuitive” and “sensitive”, or more professional-sounding terms, like “advisor”, “teacher” and “counselor”. Moreover, many have gone from claiming they have a “gift” passed down through the generations, to saying that everyone is psychic, but practicing psychics have merely refined this “sense”. In this way, they believe that psychic abilities are more like intuition, hunches, gut-instincts and common sense.
I talk about this in my Naked Skeptic column article Psychics Aren’t Psychic Anymore .
5. If you could have one super power what would it be?
My super power would be the ability to get exactly what I want using language. To be able to effect any desired outcome with words is a little bit prayer, and a little bit magic. Maybe being a persuasive demagogue isn’t completely out of reach as a “power”.
I would be called Doctor Manipulator…or does that make me sound like a Chiropractor?
6. You recently took over as Host of Point of Inquiry! That’s not a question. I just think that is super cool. Congratulations and keep up the great work!
Thanks! I’ll be speaking with some really cool guests over the coming months…after then, the guests are very uncool.
7. You also contribute to the Monster Talk podcast. Could you tell us a bit about that podcast and what type of monsters you investigate?
MonsterTalk is a podcast presented by Skeptic magazine, and hosted by Blake Smith, Ben Radford and myself. Our show examines cryptozoological claims from a scientific and critical perspective. We like to give the scientists a platform where they can say more than their usual sound bites, and the science doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor.
We have already discussed Bigfoot, the Chupacabra, werewolves, Bigfoot, ghosts, giants, aliens, Bigfoot, claimed sightings of extinct animals, and monsters created in the lab…and more Bigfoot. But it’s not all Bigfoot really. Some listeners have asked me, “when are you going to run out of monsters?” But between the cryptids, the legendary creatures and the constant, credulous media claims, that won’t happen anytime soon.
8. If I told you there was an invisible, fuzzy, sock-thieving-monster who lives at my parents house and occasionally steals my underpants, would you believe me? Could we do a podcast episode about it?
I already told you I was sorry for stealing your undies, and you promised you’d never mention it again…
9. Would you rather spend a romantic all expense paid vacation with Bigfoot, claimed psychic John Edward or the Loch Ness Monster?
Everyone knows I slept with John Edward already…can I take both the wild man and the snake?
10. You are a member of the Bay Area Skeptics. What events and activities does that group participate in? How would one get involved with that group?
I’m a Director on the Board, and the wonderful Genie Scott is our Chair. A major event was our recent inaugural conference, SkeptiCal, the Northern California Science & Skepticism Conference. It was a sold-out event, and we had speakers such as Genie, Brian Dunning, Seth Shostak, Chris Hoofnagle, and me. And you were there!
We plan to make this an annual event, and bigger and better next year.
We have a newsletter BASIS, a blog, and we hold regular events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, including lectures and Skeptics in the Pub meetings. So come find us on our website and Facebook page and attend one of our upcoming gigs!
11. You are also a researcher at the University of California Berkeley. What are you currently working on there?
I work for the Script Encoding Initiative, a joint project between UC Berkeley and Unicode that aims to preserve and encode endangered writing systems. I’ve recently been working on the Wingdings symbols, to ensure our upcoming proposals aren’t doubling up on symbols already encoded in Unicode.
I flatter myself that I’m like a chick Indiana Jones, that is, until I’m doing the paperwork…
12. How do you think we could get more women interested in science and in skepticism?
I think we need to make skepticism more pervasive and accessible in general, injecting critical thinking into any work any of us do. And the more skepticism in popular culture, the better.
I once said on a panel that skepticism needs more people per se, but I said it as, “We need bums on seats”. “Bum” means “bottom” in Australian English, but people thought I meant “transients” instead…
13. Why are you so awesome?
Because an awesome person says it is so!
Special thanks to Karen! Even though she is crazy-busy with all the fascinating work she does, she still let me chase her around with my camera! Until next time, this this has been, Surly Amy with another edition of, Get to Know Your Skepchicks!