Christmas in summer: Interview with Derek Colanduno, director of Dragon Con’s “Skeptrack”



Critical thinkers know how to party, too.

Dragon Con is an experience. The “fans first” convention celebrated its 30th year in 2017, growing from a 1,200-person initial attendance to an 80,000-person, five-day, 24-hour party that takes over five of the biggest hotels in Atlanta, Ga., every Labor Day weekend. Imagine Burning Man with less drugs and more cosplay.

Though there is a “Walk of Fame” featuring invited celebrity guests, much of the yearly Dragon Con programming is made up of “fan tracks,” organized independently by subject. Topics run the gamut from Star Wars to anime to alternate history to … skepticism?

Derek Colanduno (Image credit: skepticality.com)

Skepticism has been defined as an approach to evaluating claims that considers evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason. Doesn’t THAT sound fun? And yet, Derek Colanduno’s “Skeptrack” has packed the house for 10 years, and now threatens to outgrow its already impressive footprint.

“We have, like, one whole half of the hallway on the second floor of the Hilton,” Colanduno says.

Colanduno got turned on to skepticism early, when his dad brought home a copy of Skeptic magazine one day, and he learned there was a real term for the way he thought. As a radio DJ, Colanduno was one of the first to jump on the podcast trend when he and co-host Robynn McCarthy debuted Skepticality in 2005, which actually became the official podcast of Skeptic the next year.

Directing the first ever Podcast Track at Dragon Con led Colanduno to accepting the invitation for producing a solely skeptical track, which he rightly knew would be a big draw, because it’s something that never goes out of style.

“The world has a never-ending supply of bullshit,” Colanduno says. “All you can do is leave the world a little more rational than when you found it.” Whether it’s reminding GMO-haters of the good food innovations can do for the developing world, or taking anti-vaccine proponents to task for helping spread preventable diseases, there’s a purpose for the exacting critiques.

“Skeptics have a place to, kind of, hold back the tide of insanity,” Colanduno says.

While skepticism’s branched out to more public health and “Consumer Reports”-type advocacy over time, helping us use science to understand what does and doesn’t work, it’s historically been known as the bane of believers in the paranormal, a buttinsky asking questions no one truly wants answered. But when asked if it would be okay for Dragon Con to also promote a Paranormal Track, Colanduno was actually thrilled.

“Definitely,” he responded. “I guarantee it will get more people in my track.” Not only that, he got another panelist out of it when Patrick Burns, co-host of truTV’s Haunting Evidence, went turncoat and joined the Skeptrack. The show’s producers were not thrilled.

Ian Harris (Image credit: csicop.org)

This year’s Skeptrack will feature conjurer and mentalist Jamy Ian Swiss — “This man has actual world records to do with card magic” — private investigator Bob Nygaard, devoted to taking down scammers who use tricks in bogus fortune-telling rackets, skeptical comedian Ian Harris, who also happens to be an uncanny voice-over artist and MMA trainer, and many others.

The coup for 2018, though, is surely getting actor John de Lancie, aka all-powerful villain “Q” from Star Trek:  The Next Generation, to represent the Skeptrack in one of Dragon Con’s most popular attractions, the annual parade down Peachtree Street. The banner on his car is set to read something along the lines of, “Even a supreme being can be a skeptic.”

“It’s so much work, you get beat down, but you don’t care because it’s so fun,”Colanduno says of the need to keep those surprises coming, every time. It’s his most exciting time of the year, when he gets to see old friends and even the people who come to Dragon Con specifically for the Skeptrack. It’s like a second Christmas, and he has no intentions of bah-humbugging any time soon.

“When it stops being Christmas, maybe I’ll stop,” Colanduno says.

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