You might not expect to see a professional cartoonist at a skeptics convention, but there Zach Weinersmith was, giving a keynote presentation at July’s Amaz!ng Meeting, presented by the James Randi Educational Foundation. The creator of the immensely popular Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic, Weinersmith spoke about how censorship in comics usually just leads to bad comics and not much social change. Be skeptical of cure-all solutions.
We spoke to Weinersmith about that and other topics, including one of his newer projects, BAHFest! Here is part two of that interview.
AiPT!: So the big question then is, “What are you doing here?”
Weinersmith: What am I doing here! I got invited to talk and they said they’d fly me to Las Vegas, and that sounded pretty good.
But no, I used to be more in the “skeptic community,” you might say. I’m not as much now, in part because business has gotten big enough that I don’t have much of a social life, and then I had a kid on top of that, so I hardly do anything that’s not business or kid stuff — I just can’t. So I don’t feel as involved as I used to, but as movements go, skepticism is the one I’m most akin to.
AiPT!: Did that kind of come from the interest in science?
Weinersmith: A little bit, maybe. More an interest in curmudgeonliness. I suspect that’s generally true here. Bunch of people who really like popping other people’s balloons, and I’m one of them …
It’s fun also to sort of critique your own thought processes and say to yourself, “How do I know that this thing I feel is true is true?”
AiPT!: And what is your talk today about?
Weinersmith: I’m giving a talk about the history of comics, but the sort of theme of it is we probably overestimate how important people like me are for determining the nature of culture. People like me, I suspect we reflect culture more than we create it, and that has implications for censorship, or what’s appropriate in terms of restricting content at the level of legislation.
Psychiatrist Frederic Wirtham’s book Seduction of the Innocent used biased samples to “prove” that comic books were corrupting young people, leading to the industry’s self-imposed Comics Code. Yet somehow, rates of undesirable behavior remained mostly steady.
AiPT!: Do you have anything new or different or interesting coming up?
Weinersmith: Too much! I have my shows, BAHFest! [is] coming up.
AiPT!: Tell me about BAHFest!.
Weinersmith: I almost did a talk about it, but I was worried it was going to be too self-promotional, but it actually fits nicely with skepticism because the idea is people go up and give lectures that are just totally bullshit, but they’re really well-substantiated. Our winner at the west coast one last year was Dr. Sarah Hird, and she gave a presentation — the argument of it was that animals sleep to avoid themselves. And you can prove this because you can show that animals that have disgusting, horrible lives and are really ugly tend to sleep more, such as the possum and the bat, whereas animals that have nice lives, like giraffes and elephants, sleep much less.
What was nice was that she had really good evidence for this. Of course, at least one of her cheats was just total omission of literally hundreds of thousands of countervailing bits of evidence, but it was really just meticulously crafted, this absolute, obvious lie. The best talks we have are ones where the hypothesis doesn’t even pass the sniff test, but there’s great evidence for it. It’s just stuff like that. We have celebrity judges that rate the talks, then we give the winner a cash prize and some books and a little statue of Darwin looking unimpressed.
We’re opening up a new one in Seattle … where the idea is you give big science proposals, like propose a billion dollar project. My example, because it’s a little hard to describe, is a refrigerator that works by accelerating food to near light speed so it doesn’t experience the passage of time, or, at least, compared to your time reference frame. Propose that, work out why it’d be great, and how much it would cost, and who should pay for it.
The “BAH” in “BAHFest!” stands for “Bad Ad hoc Hypothesis.” An ad hoc hypothesis can be thought of as a last ditch effort to save an idea when there’s strong evidence against it — i.e. “It doesn’t matter that you can’t see the dragon in my basement, it’s um … invisible!” Or, “Koalas really are unhappy because they eat shit all day.”
Seattle’s “BAHFEST! Big Science” takes place on Sunday, October 11, and an evolution-themed event goes down in San Francisco goes down on Thursday, October 22. Tickets are still available for both.