Welcome to another edition of The Skeptic Next Door where we introduce you to some of the hidden gems in the wonderful world of skepticism. In this edition I bring you an interview with a woman who finds plenty of gems on her own time.
Sherri Andrews is fascinating and very active in science and in skepticism. It is almost impossible to describe her in a few sentences. She is a professional archeologist, a paranormal investigator, the organizer of multiple skeptic meet-ups in the Los Angeles area and with all that on her schedule she is also working towards a law degree. I caught up with Sherri in between all of her many obligations, snapped some photos and asked her a few questions to help you get to know her better. I hope you will be as inspired by her as I am!
Click below to read the interview.
What skeptical organizations or events do you organize in the Los Angeles area?
I organize the Greater L.A. Skeptics Meetup group on Meetup.com. Weâ€™ve gone from about 60 members when I took over the group a couple of years ago to almost 500 now â€“ itâ€™s very exciting to see how much interest there is and how many like-minded community-seeking people there are out there! We are definitely assisted in visibility by the support of the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles (CFI-LA), who are nice enough to include our monthly Drinking Skeptically and Book Club in their upcoming events emails. However, in addition to those regularly scheduled events, we also do occasional dinners (skeptidinners!) that have proven to be very popular as well.
A lot of readers are often asking us how to go about getting a skeptic’s pub night or other similar gathering going. How did you first get your local meet-ups started?
We started several years ago with the idea of having a book club for skeptics, and got permission from CFI-LA to hold it there. That was promoted just with some flyers around the Center, from which we got a very nice base of membership. About a year later, I was still casting about for some additional sorts of more social activities that we could facilitate, as I have long been committed to building community for freethinkers beyond just being in a room together every so often to hear a lecture. Through the grapevine, I heard about NYC Skeptics starting a group called Drinking Skeptically (based on the concept of the previously existing Drinking Liberally) and I thought that was a great idea, not only because I like any good excuse to drink… :) …but also as another different type of opportunity for folks to get together. At that point, I thought we needed a broader outlet for reaching out to folks outside of those already in the CFI sphere, and Meetup.com has turned out to be a great medium!
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start a drinking skeptically or skeptic type event in their area?
Just do it! If you build it, they will come! Meetup is not the only choice, though it is a commonly used social networking group. Start a little get-together, post it on some of the skeptic listsâ€¦ and just give it a little time to get off the ground. Donâ€™t give up. Drinking Skeptically, for example, went from a first meeting with three people (two of whom I begged to be there so I wouldnâ€™t be sitting in a bar alone all night!) to a typical minimum attendance of 25-30 people every month. Freethinkers are looking for community, and all of us can be part of that building!
Your day job is very fascinating. Could you tell us a little about what you do for a living?
I work as an archaeologist in southern California, primarily dealing with Native American sites and artifacts. I work for a private firm, and we do a lot of work on military bases (Iâ€™m the current Queen of the Live Bombing Range Survey!) and also for agencies such as Caltrans, water and power companies, etc. Fortunately for preservation of our past, most entities have to comply with environmental laws, either federal or state, and archaeology falls under the umbrella of the environment. Yea! In support of this compliance, I conduct a LOT of surface survey in advance of development projects or other land-use changes (like they want to run more tanks or drop more bombs), looking for and recording archaeological sites so that they can be adequately documented before destruction or (best case) avoided entirely and thus preserved.
What site are you working on now and what type of artifacts are you looking for?
Right now I am working on a large survey on a bombing range near the beautiful Algodones Dunes in southeastern California. The government is required to document all cultural resources on its land, and boy howdy, are we documenting! This range is adjacent the former eastern shoreline of what was ancient Lake Cahuilla, a huge body of water in the middle of the desert that was formed when the Colorado River would occasionally overflow its banksâ€¦ and led to a veritable hotbed of Native American activity over the past 1,000 or so years. The lake was full of fish and provided all variety of other resourcesâ€¦ fish in the middle of the stinking desert! We are finding many, many sites consisting of dropped pots, lots and lots of ceramic sherds from broken bowls, dishes, and ollas. On what is now a sandy, duney, sometimes barren desert landscape with few to no current resources, the presence of so much past activity through the area is fascinating and definitely stirs the imagination!
What is the most interesting thing you have found while searching the deserts or other potential excavation sites?
There are so many really cool ways that people in the past interacted with the landscape, and itâ€™s so much fun to try to figure out what they were doing and how it all worked! Just as an example, in the deserts, what Iâ€™ve found most interesting are the fish traps that line the old shorelines of Lake Cahuilla. Now they just look like stone Vâ€™s sitting apparently randomly on the desert floor. But when plotted out, it can be seen that they follow the shoreline of the lake as it rose and fell over decades, all laid out in lines around the perimeter. Whatâ€™s most interesting to me is that the people developed a whole special set of fish-capturing methods suited specifically for this coming-and-going lake phenomenon. When the lake evaporated, they went back about their regular business, but when it came back, there were right there to take advantage of its abundance! I was involved in some experimental work a few years ago, both reconstructing the fish traps, trying to figure out how they actually worked (â€˜cause just looking at a stone V lying on the ground, itâ€™s pretty hard to figure out how the heck that caught fish!), and excavating them too. What folks were doing in the desert back in the day endlessly interests me!
Not only are you a professional archeologist but you have also decided to go back to law school. That is very impressive as it must be a lot of work and a very time consuming endeavor! What inspired you to get a law degree? And what type of law do you plan to specialize in?
Someday I wonâ€™t be able to climb the mountain or walk the desert any more, and I wanted a backup plan that I might even be able to use for the greater good while I was at it. I am not very good with a cubicle-based work life! It is a huge amount of work â€“ I hope it all pans out. If so, my current plan is to extend my archaeological work into the more modern world and get involved in historic preservation work. I would love to save at least one great L.A. building from wanton destruction in my lifetime! And maybe Iâ€™ll get to do the occasional amicus brief for the CFI.
You do a lot of really time consuming academic and scientific work and yet you still find time to be on the steering committee for the Independent Investigations Group here in Los Angeles. Could you tell our readers a little bit of what the IIG is about?
The IIGâ€™s goal is to investigate claims of the paranormal from a scientific perspective. I was present at the first IIG meeting 10 years ago, and have been involved ever since! While we donâ€™t get to do as many actual paranormal tests as we might like (most claimants donâ€™t actually show up to be tested â€“ surprise, surprise!), we try to fill the rest of our time with special investigations or other types of outreach. On the special investigation front, weâ€™ve been involved with looking into California Nursing Board requirements for issuance of continuing education units. We discovered that the requirements are full of loopholes and allow any number of non-scientific modalities to be taught to your healthcare givers, such as â€˜therapeutic touchâ€™ which is neither! Weâ€™ve picketed John Edward at performances and book signings. Weâ€™ve gone out to investigate some allegedly haunted homes, and even an â€˜alien skullâ€™ (one of my personal faves!) The primary goal is to provide reasonable alternative explanations of things that many folks find mysterious or confusing, and to promote critical thinking skills along the way.
Why do you think it is important that we test paranormal claims?
Itâ€™s important to do the tests for any number of reasons, the aforementioned critical thinking being not the least of those. People also need to be reminded that something can hardly be called a â€˜skillâ€™ if it canâ€™t be replicated pretty much at will â€“ which is what our tests minimally require â€“ â€˜cause thatâ€™s the basis of science! I think from the skeptics point of view, too, we need to be reminded that we arenâ€™t just dealing with â€˜wooâ€™ in some theoretical way â€“ we are dealing with real people who really believe things, and we need to be sensitive to that reality. I like to think that interacting with folks in examining their claims allows us better insight into ways that we can more effectively share our message, as we should be reaching out to the public, not always preaching to the proverbial skeptical choir.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, Sherri! This has been another installment of The Skeptic Next Door and until next time, this is Surly Amy signing off!