AI: Heroes We Deserve

Recently, on the Skepchick backchannel, we had a conversation about how disappointing it’s been for many of us to meet our skeptical heroes.

But that’s what “they” tell us — Don’t meet your heroes; they will disappoint you. “They” (both of the advice givers and of the heroes who will disappoint) specifically being guys like Penn Jillette. A lot of times we learn that our heroes are flawed and human. (Like that time I declared Headset Vince a hero… then he punched a hooker and had an pitchzealectomy.)

Yet I’ve met plenty of my personal heroes who did not disappoint. Guys like Orac, Phil Plait and Steve Novella… and women who were even more amazing than I imagined… like Rebecca and Pamela Gay. Not to mention all the people who became my heroes only after I knew them personally, like my mom and Jamie Bernstein. So really, if I think about it, my positive hero experiences far outnumber my negative ones. But man, the negative ones sting.

Have you met your heroes? Have they disappointed or impressed you? Who are your heroes you’d like to meet? Do you have any reservations about meeting people you admire? Did you get the heroes you needed or the heroes you deserved? 

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Featured Image courtesy


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

Related Articles


  1. I try not to have heroes for that reason.

    My faith (LOLOLOLOL) was somewhat restored in August. I was at the Atheist Film Fest in San Francisco and recognized Greta Christina. She is just as charming, gracious, and witty IRL as online.

    Also, years ago, I ran into my favorite band (Franz Ferdinand) at LAX and they were super chill about it, too.

    I guess my lowered expectations help, but hey, I’m glad to have positive stories to offer.

  2. in Children of Dune Leto says something along the lines of “all humans are flawed and all leaders are human”. I think it’s good to keep that in mind when it comes to thinking about our heroes as well.

    While i’m not sure if i’d actually consider them my heroes I have gotten to meet my favorite authors, bands, bloggers, podcasters, etc. and really don’t have any unpleasant stories about them.

  3. When Sam and I met Neil Tyson for the Skepchick interview he was awesome. Totally friendly and hung around to chat while we broke down the set afterwards.

  4. I’ve never met someone I’d consider a hero, or even influential to me, after I’d started to feel influenced by them.

    Overall I’m not surprised by the failings of most people who are influential in one way or another, though. I stopped getting enchanted by heroes when I found out that Ray Bradbury had been a Luddite.

    1. I met Bradbury when he spoke at my school back in 1996 or so. He was hard of hearing and pretty crabby (about 15 years ago, so I imagine he only got crabbier). Still, he was a fantastic speaker.

  5. I think it somewhat has to do with the degree of human interaction you’ve had with someone.

    For example, you may read an author and admire them… their thoughts on paper are brilliant, well organized, logical, etc. Then you interact with them on a human level, and you come to realize that they’re batshit crazy, or that their persona in writing is a nice cover for a vile human being. e.g. Orson Scott Card. I know several people who admired him based on his novels, but when his social and political writings came out… well, he was a nutjob.

    Or, recently, Adam Baldwin, who I love as an actor (If I don’t quote his characters on a day, it’s rare; if I don’t quote a character of his on a game day, I’m probably quite ill), but had to unfollow on twitter (his conservatism gave me something to think about; his posting about chemtrails…).

    On the other hand, I’ve interacted with Elyse and Rebecca (etc.). Not in person, and frequently less personally, but I see aspects of their personal life, I see their opinions on diverse and varied things (Rebecca, for example, turns into a kleptomaniac when you stick her in a computer game ;-)).

    Heroes disappoint us when the imagined person is at variance with the reality we interact with. As we have more personal interactions with our heroes and celebrities (through twitter, FB updates, whatever), I think we’ll have fewer discrepancies, and many of those discrepancies will be more appropriately blamed on the fan, not the “celebrity”… because much of the truth of the celebrity is out there to see, while the fan may add their own embellishments.

  6. I feel suddenly compelled to quote Heroes in its entirety. ;)

    I’m a geeky sci-fi nut. I love meeting people who portrayed favorite characters in tv shows. I know they’re “only human” under that, but I can deal. It’s like Santa for grownups.

  7. My Hero is Terry Gross from Fresh Air on NPR. Quite simply because all she did was ask questions. What’s more important to a Skeptic than to ask questions?

    Otherwise I agree I try not to have heroes. Heroes are like gods, we tend to worship them. Worship means unquestioning loyalty, fealty, and admiration. And that’s the problem, you never question them, and thus logic fails.

    But I’m allowed to have Terry Gross as my hero because she asks questions :) How can you question the wisdom of asking questions? ;)

  8. I grew up dreaming of being a cowboy and Loving the cowboy ways.
    Pursuing the life of my high-ridin heroes, I burned up my childhood days.
    I learned of all the rules of the modern-day drifter; don’t hold on to nothin’ for too long.
    Just take what you need from the ladies, then leave them with the words of a sad country song.

    My heroes have always been cowboys and they still are, it seems.
    Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.
    Cowboys are special with their own brand of misery from being alone too long.
    You could die from the cold in the arms of a nightman knowin’ well that your best days are gone.

    That’s right, my hero is Sheriff Woody.

  9. I don’t like the idea of a hero, although I agree that people are capable of heroic behavior. I’d rather talk about that cool thing they did or the insightful book they wrote rather than deifying them as a hero because even people who do amazing things usually turn out not to be so impressive once you really get to know them. The whole concept of a person as a hero revolves around willful ignorance. Christopher Hitchens, for example, was an amazing speaker and thinker, but I doubt I would have let him sleep in my house.

    So the answer to your question is, no. I have met some accomplished and wonderful people, but I have never met someone I consider to be a hero.

  10. I’ve had pretty good experiences with the heroes I’ve met. And a few heroes who got knocked off the pedestals long before I had a chance to meet them. So, it’s been ok for me so far.

    Although, there was also (as a nubile 19 year old SF Geek) finding out that a lot of my author heroes were way nicer to me than other fans because I had a great rack. That was a little disappointing.

  11. I’ll second the issue of meeting heroes, though I am not sure if I would have described Orson Scott Card as a hero, strictly speaking. I liked his stuff a lot, and to this day I think he’s a talented prose stylist, and knows ho to structure a good plot. (I think the fact that much of his Alvin Maker series could be divided into short stories speaks well of it).

    But it makes me think of the following story, which I’ve told often:

    I met Orson Scott Card in 1992 or ’93 to do an interview while I was in journalism school. At the time I had no idea how to sell the thing but at a minimum I figured I could use it in an assignment or something.

    I spoke to him for about an hour (I wish I still had the tape) at a little coffee shop in Berkeley (on Euclid Avenue, for you locals). He was nice. And he seemed like a pretty strong humanist. I asked him about the politics of his Alvin Maker work relative to the then-new book, Lost Boys. I wasn’t sophisticated enough then to really get into it in a good way, but I asked him how he felt about things like abortion and the like, and how it informed his writing. I (clumsily) asked him why he characterized the black slaves the way he did in the Alvin Maker books, and why he went in a certain direction in Lost Boys. That kind of stuff. I was no Ed Murrow, to be sure. :-)

    After all of that, he said something that did stick with me after all these years. (probably wrong, but this is what I remember) “In politics people sometimes see the other side as devils… You can’t work that way.”

    Then I read Pastwatch, which he wrote just a year or two later. That is a pretty strongly humanist work, though one cold have certain kinds of problems with it, the effort to write a story about what might have averted the horrors of the Spanish conquest said to me the guy was largely OK.

    Fast forward a decade. Post 9/11. Card seemed to go a little crazy. So did a lot of other artists whose work I liked. (Frank Miller, to name one, though I have never met him).

    9/11 seemed to send Card off the deep end somehow. Now, I am a decade-and-a-half New Yorker. (OK, I’m still a Red Sox fan, but you can’t have everything). But I was never able to get as frothing-at-the-mouth angry at Muslims over 9/11. I just can’t muster up that kind of anger and hatred. I’m more likely to get mad at Christians, FFS.

    But Card — wow. He wasn’t even in the city. And he seems to have gone whole hog into hating brown people mode. Miller too, though Miller was always more right wing and seems to have gotten more so with time. And Hitchens also seemed to glom on to this. I wonder if there’s some need there for an Other, in all three men.

    Anyhow, Card: he’s human. I can’t say he disappointed me, exactly. More like, made me sort of sad. He is obviously no dummy but seemed to not think through what he was saying as carefully as the man I met in 1992. I’ve always wanted to meet him again and ask him. Precisely because I like his books, at least his early- to mid- period stuff.

  12. I have developed a weird celebrity-awe mentality with the people I follow most closely in Skepticism. I have no idea why, and I know it’s dumb, so I’m super self-conscious about it, which makes it worse.

    It’s pretty much the Skepchicks, the hosts of SGU, James Randi and PZ Myers. I am too socially awkward to just walk up to people at TAM, but through buying things, talking in a workshop, and one weird interaction where I tried to just go up and talk to Rebecca then kind of wandered off, I’ve met Rebecca, Steve, Jay, Surly Amy, and Randi in person, and I talk to you Elyse, Rebecca, and Bug Girl on facebook all the time. Jay and Amy were super nice, and everyone else seemed nice but looked at me like I was crazy, probably because I was acting extremely awkward and slightly crazy and they didn’t know what to do. I blame Asperger’s.

    The people I talk to on facebook are really cool. I’m on facebook like all the damn time, so I have a lot of opportunity to see all their posts and I feel like I comment way too much. In my experience, the people I’ve met in person who I was close to on facebook first are exactly like they seemed they would be, although I’m assuming public figures are more guarded on social networks.

    1. I guess what I have are not heroes so much as Asperger’s syndrome fixations. It used to be fictional characters. The same way that other people with Asperger’s get fixated on bird watching or train spotting or Star Trek. Skeptical leaders are like rare birds or particular train numbers or whatever to me. As far as heroes, i don’t know I always have people I respect and admire, and about half of them do things that disappoint. I was a great admirer of Richard Dawkins for a while, but not so much now. But listening to the SGU hosts have an actual human conversation as opposed to scripted drama, I think I get a pretty good sense, and sometimes they say stupid things that disappoint me, but the next week I’m listening again and I still like them. I’m trying to think of what heroes I had before I was a Skeptic, but I can’t remember any.

  13. I guess I am not as weird as I thought when I say I don’t have heroes.

    I think it starts with realizing your parents have flaws, your siblings have flaws, and you have flaws.

    And ultimately, everyone I have gotten to know closely, my wife included, has opinions or does things that I really don’t like.

    Additionally, sometimes I am curt or less than pleasant with people for reasons that have nothing to do with them but are just a matter of me having had a bad day.

    I don’t hold people to a high standard and I cut them some slack when they don’t meet it.

  14. I was lucky enough to attend a Saul Perlmutter lecture after he won the nobel prize for physics. After the talk, some of my friends went to talk to him. They were very excited to be there, and i was too. Turns out, that after talking to him, they were not impressed. I don’t know what they expected, an Einstein, a person with Feynmann’s charm? After all, Nobel Prize winners are still people…

  15. I don’t have a whole lot of heroes, but some of them are teachers I’ve had–for example, John Todd, inventor extraordinaire and proponent of living machine wastewater treatment systems.

    It’s nice to have a hero who’s your hero precisely BECAUSE you’ve met them and they are quite awesome.

    1. I completely agree. I was going to say something along these same lines. The people who are heroes to me are that way because I’ve gotten to know them, mainly a few of my teachers and some of my family and friends.

  16. There’s not a lot of famous people I’ve met that I would call my heroes, but there have been a few.
    I’ve met all the guys from hardrock band Uriah Heep. They were all very friendly and genuinly interested in what the fans thought of the show and the prospect of a new album etc. They took their time to talk to all the fans and participated in raffles, sing-a-longs and other fun stuff.
    John Oliva and Chris Caffery of metal band Savatage were also very friendly, although mr Caffery seemed more interested in the attractive woman that asked for autographs :).
    Also I’ve met my political hero Joop den Uyl. Former prime-minister of the Netherlands and leader of the Dutch Labour Party. He was prime-minister of the only progressive cabinet The Netherlands has ever had. He showed me that feminism can/must be an integral part of social-democracy. For my father for instance womens rights were just a by-product of the “class struggle”, not a main goal per se. Den Uyl and his wife Liesbeth, one of the most prominent feminists in Dutch history, showed that womens rights are essential for a healthy social-democracy. Den Uyl died in 1987, but I still have fond memories of the day I met him. A real hero.

    1. Wow, you met the guys from Uriah Heep?

      That was my FAVORITE rock band in about 1973!

      (Rainbow Demon…with his pistol, sword and gun..Yeah!)

      Great to know they were decent human beings.

      Now I am a big Rammstein fan. Sad for an old dude, I know.

      1. They’re still going strong. And playing Rainbow Demon at concerts. It was a loyal fanbase that kept them going during their 1980’s dip, and they never forget that.
        There’s nothing wrong with enjoying Rammstein, even at an advanced age. Though I’m not quite sure if the women on this site approve of some of their lyrics ;)

    2. When the subject of heroes comes up, I think of these lines from Dune Messiah (IIRC):

      Here lies a broken king
      His fall was not a small one
      We did but build his pedestal
      A narrow and a tall one.

      (Bene Tleilax motto)

      I’ve seen it happen IRL more than once.

  17. No personal heroes for me, only questions. Like,.. Where did those people find the courage to do that? What drove that person to spend their entire adult life doing THAT?
    Who was that person who gave her/his life so that the young child was saved?
    I will never know what makes a hero. I just know that there are moments for them and they can be the most unlikely people.

  18. My hero is my grandmother and she’s awesome and could never disappoint.

    But other than that, no real heros. I do have people I admire. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson. There is NO WAY that man could ever disappoint, I’m sure.

    And, honestly, I tend to admire people more when I know they are human and therefore flawed. I don’t like when people are put on a pedestal. That’s not something to admire, because no one can ever be perfect.

  19. I have to say I think I’m pretty fortunate in the heroes department – I’ve met a handful of people I admire enough to consider them heroes and I haven’t been disappointed by any of them.

    I’ve occasionally been let down by people I admire *coughDawkins* but I think only one “hero” has ever let me down [Stan Lee] to the extent that I’ve completely removed them from the hero pedestal, and that was not through my one brief encounter with him [it happened later, gradually].

  20. I don’t have that many heroes. Many of the few I have are dead too.

    As for the skeptics movement, there is a few people I follow that I’ve met: James Randi, PZ Myers and Lawrence Krauss for instance. I can’t say I liked Krauss much. PZ Myers was very fun to talk to, I liked him. James Randi was just this old friendly guy with a nice smile and a warm handshake.

    I’d like to meet Neil deGrasse Tyson. Phil Plait also seems to be a nice guy. Actually, there’s a lot of people I’d like to meet. There’s a whole list of female bloggers for instance. Guess I need to attend more skeptics conferences :)

  21. I’d say the problem lies with us and with setting certain people on pedestals. If we appreciate the good work they do and not imagine more, there’s only room to be pleasantly surprised as we discover they humanity.

    Easier said than done, though.

  22. Let’s see… I’ve “met” Richard Dawkins (lived up to expectations), Steve Novella, Rebecca Watson, Evan Bernstein, Jay Novella, Bob Novella, James Randi (!), Harriet Hall, and probably a few others that I’m neglecting. I don’t think I’d call these people “heroes”, simply because “hero” implies perfection, imo, and I’m aware that none of these people are perfect. On the other hand, all of these people have greatly influenced my life, and have my thanks for it. It’s also easy to forgive their faults since I have so many of my own. :P

  23. I hear a lot of people saying that heroes are just as flawed as the rest of us. As a teacher, I see heroic acts daily. I have too many heroes to count.

  24. I don’t have much in the way of heroes and I’m fine with them having flaws and occasionally disappoint me. I have flaws and occasionally disappoint me. I’m not religious and don’t require perfection.

    The only one I’ve met is Will Eisner. He was quite nice.

  25. I’ve only ever met two of my heroes.

    Neil Gaiman was an absolute gentleman, taking the time to shake hands with every person getting something signed, and chatting to me about libraries as he doodled cats in my copy of Endless Nights.

    Professional wrestler Colt Cabana was funny, charming, and personable, although he did spend a lot of the conversation trying to get me to buy a T-shirt (I bought the T-shirt)

  26. This post was written for me? No? Hmmm.

    I have had the grand fortune of meeting many skeptical celebs in the last few years. In some cases, we have even become close friends. This is terrific.

    Some of them are heroes of mine as well. But not because they are celebrities, and not because they are friends.

    Heroes, by my definition, expend effort and/or take risks to right wrongs. Seems sappy, but it is true.

    The wrongs they battle these days include the spreading of dangerous misinformation and advancement of harmful legislation including anti-vax, alt-med, anti-women’s rights, anti-LGBT rights, anti-science, and many others.

    These things cause genuine harm, and every time they are defeated someone is saved some measure of pain or sorrow.

    That these heroes are also human, with human failings, doesn’t change that.

    So, yep. I know some of my heroes. It is wonderful.

  27. I’ve met and worked with Jane Goodall and Richard Leakey. They are both quite genuine in real life. Don Johanson is a bit of a character, though. He was once my inspiration but I have been disappointed every time I’ve met him.

    1. I’ve never met any of those people, but I admire all of them. I can totally see what you’re saying about Johanson, just based on seeing him in interviews and documentaries. He seems like he might have a bit of an inflated ego. I honestly get tired of hearing his story about Lucy. Like, what ELSE have you done, Don?

  28. The only person I remember thinking of as a hero was my father, and my learning and accepting that he was flawed came years after his death. When I was very young I didn’t have any other heroes because I thought of everyone as a ‘villain’ so to speak, dismissing everyone as soon as I saw that they had any flaws at all. More recently, I don’t think of anyone as a hero or a villain. At most I’ll think of someone I admire as “pretty damn cool,” and someone I might’ve called evil once as “unfortunate,” or possibly just “wrong about some things.”

  29. I met Fred Rogers (of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” fame on US public TV) at a concert in Pittsburgh. His wife is a concert pianist here.

    We noticed him sitting in the row in front of us, so after the concert I introduced myself. He was every bit the warm, kind, humble, and friendly man you might imagine him to be.

  30. It somewhat depends on how tolerant you are with faults, and how much you read into their misdeeds. If they step on your pet issue, and you decide they must have thought carefully about every possible interpretation and consequence, and then did it anyway just to spite you, then you probably shouldn’t hold anyone up as a model.

    I guarantee you, we will see more people who are currently lionized in the movement becoming “persona non grata” in 2012.

  31. There are some people I’d like to meet,(mostly authors) but like others who’ve commented previously I don’t have any heroes; well any heroes that are alive anyway. And I’ve enjoyed going to a few TAM’s and meeting and talking with other attendees has always been much more rewarding and enjoyable than a few truncated pleasantries with a speaker or author.

  32. I met Elyse Anders once and tried to tell her a funny (but highly admiring) thing a friend had told me about her. She glared at me, said something about “crazy talk”, and called security. :-(

  33. I have a google plus circle called “to meet for reelz”

    I’m not going to tell you who’s in it, but many of them are astronomers, and at least one of them is bad.

    Someone mentioned upthread that they’d be too socially awkward to go and meet their hero(es) at a con, but I’ll go one better and say that I probably wouldn’t go to a con to begin with. Just thinking about it makes me anxious.

  34. Well, I’ve disappointed a couple of people who assumed I was something I am not. I said a couple of things they disagreed with and you’d have thought the world ended. The problem with heroes is that they live in the mind of the beholder. One of my best friends is a hero to many, and while no one should feel sorry for her that she is so well-loved, it can be hard to know you can never live up to fantasy.

    That’s why I always assert that “Jesus” never existed. The “Jesus” people think of when you say the name could never exist anyway. Since everything we “know” of Jesus is 100% fanfic, this Jesus is fiction.

  35. It happens, but that’s no reason to stop seeking heroes. Just seek better. :) But, then, I think most of my heroes are people who I perceive to be good people. And I don’t put the pedestal up too high. It’s unfair to them. I learned that from an early career in the music business when I met some ‘famous’ people and came to realize that they’re just regular people with weird jobs.

    Some of my heroes who’ve lived up to, or exceeded, my expectations:
    * Top of the list. Bill Nye is the hero we need and deserve. And he is the nice guy you think he is.
    * Artist Mike Kaluta lives up to all that I’d ever imagined him to be.
    * Andy Ihnatko, a Mac/journalism hero of mine for years, is warm, smart and one of the most kind-hearted people I know. Now that I live nearby, he’s a hero who went on to become a good friend.
    * My dad. No, I’m not being treacly. He wasn’t always a hero. My dad wasn’t the best in the world when we were little. He was a distant, OK ‘absent’, and a bit selfish and it ruined my parents’ marriage. And then one day he decided he didn’t want to be that person. He broke through his problems and learned to express his love for us, to devote time to us, and now he’s the most honest, giving and fair-to-a-fault people I’ve ever known. The entire extended family looks up to him and… he’s just amazing. I love my dad so much for who he is, not just for being my dad.

    And then you also find heroes you didn’t know you had yet:
    * I met Orac at NECSS and, he having no idea who I was as we were merely standing near one another, said hi and engaged in a spirited peer-to-peer conversation with me. And he was SUCH a nice guy.
    * Mark Crislip became a hero after meeting him and finding out he really is just that awesome.
    * Same with Kimball Atwood. A nicer, more personable guy you’d be hard-pressed to find. (You’re awesome, K!)
    * Gerald Holton. He is one of the finest human beings alive on this planet. I kid you not. My respect for him cannot be measured. He’s one of those people that, upon meeting him, you have an urge to strive to be a better person.

    FWIW, I used to sort of put Penn up on a pedestal too. As Penn the performer and face of ‘reason’ to the mainstream, he’s still a hero. As a Penn the ‘just some guy’… I don’t care for him all that much.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button