Reflections on Camp Inquiry 2010

July 26, 2010

I spent much of last week at a camp for kids in Holland, New York, run by the Center for Inquiry. Summer camps are common; however camps that emphasize science, critical thinking, and logic to young people are not. This was my second visit to Camp Inquiry; four years ago I was also a guest speaker. It was a smaller group of kids back then, and I gave a few short talks about critical thinking and scientific paranormal investigation, about how the world offers countless mysteries and about how it’s our job to understand the world around us as best we can through science.

I was pleased to see that the camp had grown in both scope and attendance since my last visit. Nearly fifty kids were at the camp—a delightful mix of ages and races, brought together for a common purpose. As director Angie McQuaig explained, “This is a place where kids can be themselves. We work toward helping youth confront the challenges of living a non-theistic/secular lifestyle in a world dominated by religious belief and pseudoscience. Grounded on the conviction that kids can begin establishing habits of the good and ethical life early on, Camp Inquiry 2010 adopts a three-part focus: The arts and sciences, the skeptical perspective, and ethical character development comprise an integrated approach to this ‘Age of Discovery.’” 

A lofty idea perhaps—but one largely achieved. Thedays were spent doing crafts, listening to presentations, and learning about science and critical thinking. The nights ended with campfire songs including the official Camp Inquiry song and a moving rendition of John Lennon’s humanistic song Imagine

I gave two presentations, the first one on the suitably spooky topic of ghosts. There had already been one talk on ghosts the day before, which helped ground the kids in the basics. I expanded on the subject, focusing on how ideas of ghosts had changed over the centuries and concluding with a powerpoint presentation of ghost photos sent to me over the years. I showed the kids how to critically analyze the photographs, and armed them with information that should help them debunk any so-called ghost photos they may see on TV or in magazines. 

I had planned to only speak for about an hour (minding the kids’ attention spans), but they kept asking good questions and when we wrapped up I was surprised to learn that I’d hit 90 minutes and the kids had neither wandered off nor fallen asleep. The kids were a real treat, and taught me a few things. For example, I mentioned a ghost story involving Bloody Mary, a scary spirit who supposedly appears in mirrors late at night when the lights are off, a candle is lit, and her name is called three times. I asked how many kids had heard the story and was surprised to see a sea of hands shoot up. I selected about a half-dozen kids to come up in front and retell the version of the story that they had heard. 

The following day I switched gears and talked about another one of my specialties: monsters. I touched on the best-known creatures (Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster), then moved on to one of my favorites, el chupacabra, and described my detailed analysis of the best-known photograph of a lake monster, Champ of New York’s Lake Champlain. Once again interaction and audience participation was encouraged as I got the kids to tell me what they knew of monsters. (Once again the kids were a fount of knowledge; I had no idea that unicorns farted rainbows, nor that their poop looked like Skittles candies.) I promised that the next time I visit I’d do a workshop on one of my interests: boomerangs. I’ll go over the history of boomerangs, the scientific principles that make them fly and return. And, of course, show the kids how to throw them so they might come back! 

There were several other speakers and presenters, including Dale McGowan, author Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Mystopher the magician who was on hand to perform an old-fashioned seance for the kids—showing them that what they may experience as ghostly or paranormal may just have a naturalistic explanation.  But the best was saved for last as the Amazing One himself, James Randi, showed up at Camp Inquiry—at first telling Angie that he was there to keep an eye on me and keep me out of trouble. Instead of that thankless task, Randi delighted the kids with his magic, stories, and feats. He gave several performances, including a presentation on some of his greatest hits including the exposure of fake faith healer Peter Popoff and Uri Geller. As Randi spoke to the audience—most of whom were about seventy years younger than he—I hoped that they would remember and appreciate his time with them. It can be easy to lose sight that Randi is more than just an icon and a cult of personality. He’s more than just a scowling silhouette on JREF banners, tote bags, and Web sites. If I were a teen I doubt I would truly appreciate what Randi had accomplished in his long and storied career. TV clips from two decades before they were born may not mean much to the kids now (“Who is Johnny Carson?”), but in the coming years as they hopefully grow into a life of skepticism they will understand that they were in the presence of greatness. And it’s through the work of programs like Camp Inquiry that more and more kids will help take up the cause. As Randi would say, woo isn’t going away. 

I couldn’t attend the whole camp, but was there for the better part of three days and it was a great experience with a real sense of community and common purpose. It was great to see a camp filled with pro-science, critical thinking activities. I even saw a few kids tearing up at the campfire. Maybe the smoke got in their eyes, but I think they were overcome with a sense of belonging. They had found a place where science was not only acknowledged but respected and revered; where their questions—about science, God, or anything else—were not discouraged but welcomed, and where they didn’t need to avoid or apologize for their disbelief in anything. Camp Inquiry showed that there is wonder and delight in science; there is indeed magic in the world—at least when Randi and Mystopher are nearby.