In Search of Skeptical Friends
by Arlo Eisenberg
“NERDS! NERDS! NERDS!!”
I’d just arrived at the Del Mar Lounge in the South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Some jackass with a buzzed haircut and “bro” sunglasses affixed to the back of his head was standing in the bar screaming into his cell phone.
“I’m surrounded by NERDS!!” he shouted as he went into a Chris Farley-esque, high-school-gym-coach-style quarter squat with one hand resting on his knee to exaggerate his bemused disbelief before shouting back into his phone, “NERRRRRDDDDDDDSS!!”
I was in Las Vegas attending The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), which is an annual conference for Scientific Skepticism and is the largest gathering of Skeptics in the world. After a full day of listening to interesting talks (loosely) based on the theme, “Skepticism and the Brain,” I made my way down to the hotel bar, a nightly ritual, to unwind, have some drinks and socialize with the other TAM attendees (sometimes affectionately referred to as “Tammers”).
Rather than make my way to an open seat in the lounge or near the bar, as was custom, on this night I chose instead to hover conspicuously near the man screaming into his cell phone.
It was clear that he was not with the conference. He had a few friends sitting at the table near him, another guy and two girls, and he was completely worked up over the patronage of the Del Mar Lounge on this night. “You have got to see this,” he said, laughing to his friend on the other end of the line, “It’s like a sea of nerds! They are everywhere!”
I was incensed by his antics and it wasn’t long before he noticed me glaring at him. “Yo, you gotta problem, bro?” he snarled.
“Yeah, I do have a problem.” I said.
He made his way over to me, still holding his phone to his ear, “Hold on, some dude is looking at me,” he told his friend, in a kind of running commentary.
“What the fuck is your problem?” He barked.
“My problem is that you are standing here screaming, ‘Nerds! Nerds!’ and I find it offensive.”
“I was talking on the phone, mind your own fucking business,” he shot back.
“No, you were screaming it so that everyone in the bar could hear you, you were making a big show of it. You wanted your friends to think it was funny. You wanted your friend on the phone to think it was funny. You were trying to have a big laugh at the expense of the people here. No one here is bothering you, everyone just came to have drinks and have a good time and you are trying to make everyone feel bad about who they are just to be funny and just because you are an asshole. It’s not funny and I don’t appreciate it.”
“What are you going to do about it?” he said aggressively as he puffed his chest out and moved even closer to me. I could feel the adrenaline rushing through me.
“Believe me, I would love nothing more than to knock you out right now,” I told him, “but, I paid a lot of money for this conference and I CANNOT afford to get thrown out of this hotel. I just wanted to let you know that I heard you and I wanted to confront you, to make you aware of your behavior, and to hold you accountable for it. You weren’t being funny and your friends are not impressed or amused by you. You have insulted and hurt a bunch of strangers who are minding their own business and who have done nothing to you. All you’ve accomplished here is that you’ve made your friends embarrassed and you’ve shown yourself to be a complete and ignorant asshole.”
I turned and headed for the bar half expecting a blow to the back of the head. I sat down with some friends to have a drink. My hands were still shaking from the adrenaline.
The Amaz!ng Meeting attracts over 1,000 Skeptics from all over the world. I’ve been to the last two (there have been over fifteen so far). The conference takes place over a long weekend and each day is scheduled to have talks from about nine in the morning until about six in the evening, so that most of the days are spent in dark conference rooms listening to guest speakers. This leaves the evenings as the best time to socialize and interact with other Skeptics and the Del Mar Lounge has become the de facto place to meet.
This last year, more than ever, I really made an effort to get to the lounge and to spend some time there. I met a lot of new people and began to forge some new relationships. People attend TAM from all over the world, so email addresses, phone numbers and Facebook profiles were exchanged and some budding new Skeptical friendships are now being cultivated (electronically) for the year until we all meet again in Vegas.
In the meantime, back home, being a Skeptic can be a kind of lonely proposition. Outside of TAM, back in the real world, in my day-to-day life, I only have one other friend who identifies as a Skeptic. Just one.
Steven Powers and I have been friends for over five years, since before he was old enough to drink. The last two years Steven and I made the trek from Orange County, CA to Vegas to attend TAM together.
Steven is the only person that I can talk to completely openly without having to fear being misunderstood. I don’t have to give a lot of background or qualify my thoughts or statements. I don’t have to worry about confusing him or offending him or hurting his feelings (unless I don’t respond to his texts inquiring whether or not I will be “getting wild this weekend”). He is a skilled debater and has polished oratory and critical thinking skills, which he deploys all too readily whenever he encounters an extraordinary or unsupported claim (whether in conversation or on social media).
Interestingly it is not through Skepticism that Steven and I first met each other. In addition to Skepticism, Steven and I also both share an interest in the (way, way) underground and much maligned action sport of aggressive inline skating, more commonly (and comfortably) referred to simply as rollerblading.
I used to have a clothing company that was somewhat popular in the rollerblading community called GOST Brand and Steven was one of my interns. For some reason, one day at the GOST warehouse, the subject of James Randi came up. James Randi is an illusionist and a seminal figure in the world of Skepticism. In fact, The Amazing James Randi, as he is called in his performances, was the eponymous founder of the world's largest Skeptical conference, The Amaz!ng Meeting. When Steven asked me if I’d ever heard of James Randi, naturally my heart leapt, and immediately I showed him to my library of Skeptical books and my collection of Skeptic magazines. A Skeptical alliance was formed and I had my first true Skeptical friend.
Some years later Steven bought his girlfriend a gift certificate to a local Orange County tattoo shop for her birthday, a very Millennial gift to give. Unfortunately they broke up before her birthday and Steven was left with the gift certificate (and some heartache). After some months to grieve and get over the relationship Steven resolved that he would use the certificate himself to get his first tattoo; his first Skeptical tattoo.
Steven chose for his first Skeptical tattoo the subject of Ockham’s Razor, a fitting first choice and incidentally also the same first Skeptical tattoo that I ever got. The tattoo hadn't even healed before Steven was already scheming to get his next Skeptical tattoo. Steven had officially caught the bug and Skeptic Tattoos had its first acolyte!
For his next tattoo Steven chose Hypatia of Alexandria. Hypatia was a Greek mathematician and philosopher who was head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she was killed by an angry Christian mob. When Steven told me about his tattoo idea he was a bit distressed to learn that Hypatia was another tattoo that I already had.
Steven was loath to keep getting tattoos that I already had, but I had a big head start on him and as far as Skeptical themes go I had already picked most of the lowest lying fruit: Darwin, Houdini, Galileo, Sagan, Giordano Bruno, even Randi! There were only so many ideas to go around. There was a big problem brewing.
It became apparent pretty quickly that Steven and I were going to be locked into a kind of Skeptic Tattoos arms race. There would be competition for novel ideas and new Skeptical themes and a race to see who could get to them first. I tried to reason with Steven that it was inescapable that there was going to be overlap as long as we were both getting Skeptical tattoos and that was okay. There was still plenty of creative room within each theme for a wide range of distinct ideas. I offered Houdini as an example, I could get handcuffs (which I did) and Steven could get a straight jacket (for instance) and we could have two completely different tattoos based on the exact same theme.
But no amount of reasoning could circumvent the grim reality of our situation. Steven and I sat next to each other in the conference hall at TAM listening to speaker after speaker, whenever an idea or topic came up that sounded like interesting fodder for a new Skeptic tattoo we both raced to scribble it down in our notes, each covering our page with one hand while exchanging sideways stares.
When Steven was getting his most recent tattoo he called me from the tattoo shop, “Can you please come here to make sure they don’t screw this up.” Steven was getting another tattoo, another tattoo that I already had, but the circumstances surrounding this one were very different and kind of unique.
I have the logo of my company, GOST Brand, the one that Steven and I worked on together, tattooed on my wrist. It is a stylized ghost with crossed knives. I never really intended to report on this tattoo as a Skeptic Tattoo because it can’t really be considered a Skeptical tattoo without invoking a kind of circular reasoning: I designed the logo and I am a Skeptic, so my tattoo of my logo is a Skeptical tattoo.
But now that Steven was getting the GOST ‘n Knives tattoo also maybe it was becoming a kind of Skeptical tattoo, although for Steven and me the connection was more personal and goes beyond just Skepticism.
As it turns out Steven and I aren’t the only ones with GOST tattoos. In fact, there are many of them out there, mostly on rollerbladers. This was the reason Steven called me in such a panic from the tattoo shop. We had seen so many examples of really bad GOST tattoos that Steven was traumatized and he wanted me there, in the shop, to personally art direct his tattoo and make sure that it did not come out like so many of the butchered attempts we’d seen before.
The shop was Sid’s Tattoo Parlor in Santa Ana where I’d had most of my work done so I knew it well. I drove out there to meet Steven. The artist was a buddy of mine named Beam who does really great work, so I knew Steven was in good hands. I came armed with a printout of the GOST ‘n Knives logo for reference and some minor guidelines for Beam to follow and about an hour later Steven had one of the best executed examples of a GOST tattoo either of us had ever seen.
Steven is a good friend, a very good friend. That never changes. If anything it has only become more evident. But the fact that he is my only Skeptical friend, that is changing.
In the short time since I started the Skeptic Tattoos site and the accompanying blog I have already had a couple of people approach me, one at work and one at the gym, to express an interest in Skepticism. In both cases they were each predisposed to a kind of critical approach to claims, but neither knew quite how to articulate it. In the time since their exposure to Skepticism one has become a dues paying member to the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (the leading Skeptical podcast) and the other has purchased a subscription to Skeptic magazine. My opportunities for Skeptical interactions are becoming more and more frequent.
After years of bemoaning my isolated existence as a Skeptic things are finally starting to change. I made one really good friend purely through dumb luck, but the other Skeptical relationships that are starting to blossom are the result of putting in just a little bit of effort. I put in a little more time socializing at the Del Mar Lounge at TAM and I have been reaching out to likeminded people via my blog on Skeptic Tattoos. The more I see results the more I am beginning to realize how much of my isolation might have been self-imposed.
I was sitting near the bar in the Del Mar Lounge in Vegas finishing my drink. About twenty minutes had passed since my encounter with the asshole who had been berating the TAM conference attendees in the lounge. I saw him get up from the table where he was sitting with his friends, he started making his way toward the bar – toward me. As he got closer I began to tense up, I wasn’t sure if I should be preparing for another altercation. He came around to where I was seated and said, “I just want to apologize for what I did. I was way out of line. It wasn’t cool. I feel really terrible about it and I am truly, genuinely sorry.” And he stuck out his hand.
I shook his hand and told him that I was really impressed that he apologized and that it was really big of him and I offered to buy him a drink. He sat down and we had drinks and talked for the rest of the night.
Friendships can be forged under the strangest of circumstances and in the most unexpected of places. Sometimes you have to seek them out and sometimes they find you…
And sometimes you just have to challenge people and give them a chance to surprise you.