ScienceSkepticismVisual Art

NECSS in Review (Part II)

I was saving this for the last part, but honestly, this should have been the first. Chronological order be damned.

Photo by Larry Auerbach

Flash forward to Sunday. Saturday was great, I will write about it, and many clear messages were put out there for Skeptics to do well and listen to. But it was on Sunday, (one of the final events of the conference in fact) that Hai-Ting Chinn of Scopes Monkey Choir fame was set to perform. You may remember her and “Monkey” Matt Schickele from such interviews as Feelin’ Those Woo Vibrations and Sing a Song of Science. Friends of the Lab to say the least.

At NECSS Hai-Ting performed Variations on the American Mammal, which was composed by Matt and inspired by a 1951 field guide by Ivan T. Sanderson, who I was later told was a cryptozoologist. Somehow fitting when you really look at some of the writing. It is part of her larger, solo piece called Science Fair, which is still in the works. I’ll explain more about this and how you can get involved in a little bit.

Months before NECSS, Hai-Ting reached out to MAL in order to procure some visuals for the piece, but the e-mail never went through. After waiting patiently she finally found me somehow and asked if I would be interested in the venture or at least pass the message along. I shamelessly jumped on it, as I was looking for ways to get involved on the behalf of the Lab, and because I needed to face my uncertainty towards drawing animals (I still hate drawing horses). So I set about drawing all sorts of creatures featured in the piece, a good quarter of which I had never even heard of before. The list includes less common wildlife such as the American Marten and Jaguarondi, to well-known staples such as the Bison and the Wolf, which served to bookend the song with operatic howls. I’ll try to get a gallery up with all the animals soon.

But the part that I feel is most important to us as Skeptics and Labbers happened before the performance began. Matt recounted finding the book, and the long wait at the airport which spawned the tongue-in-cheek piece. Then he said something that touched all of us as creative skeptics:

We’ve got a lot of talented artists here at NECSS:

George Hrab, Surly Amy, Jennifer Michael Hecht — there’s even a rumor going around that Jay Novella plays a mean Didgeridoo. Surrounded by so many skeptical artists, it’s easy to forget something: they’re really rare. In my experience, most artists are very fuzzy thinkers. And not just because most people are fuzzy thinkers. Artists tend to feel that they have to be fuzzy thinkers, that reason is the enemy of emotion and expression.

Well, it isn’t.

Emotions are real. They don’t go away when you think critically. So support your skeptical artists. Be good to creatives who embrace reason. They are a rarity and should be encouraged.

Matt touches upon an extremely important topic here. While thankfully artists who embrace science and reason aren’t actively shunned, the common understanding is that if you’re an artist, you must be “weird” and “spiritual”. After all, real artists consult gurus, eat a lot of mushrooms, and talk to their books.


It would be a better world if for every Elizabeth Gilbert, opining about muses and titles coming to them in dreams, there were more people like Chuck Close, who gets around his prosopagnosia by treating faces like landscapes—studying and analyzing them—and working to educate people on about his condition. But Matt is right. We are a rare breed, but really that just means we have to shout a bit louder. As creatives, our talents are weapons of mass information delivery.

  • Be they bananas or quack-wary infographics, visual arts get the word across.
  • Music has a unique way of unifying people and presenting ideas in an entertaining way.
  • Creative prose speaks louder than any crude fundie slogan.

This blog was started under the notion that art and science get along splendidly and that reason is not a bad art word. I had no idea how many skeptical artists were out there until I joined MAL, and while I may not be the most prolific of contributers (working on it!)

I am damn proud of you all.


If you want to get involved and help support skeptical artists, drop us a line!

If you want to get involved with Hai-Ting’s musical extravaganza Science Fair, she is looking for your ideas in the form of favorite Mr. Wizard style experiments. There are guidelines though:

  • They have to safe.
  • They have to be easy to perform while singing and dancing.
  • They need to convey a basic scientific principle

If you think you have just the thing, send it on over to mail (at) hai-ting dot com.

Hai-Ting, let me know if I forgot any guidelines. I may have made up the second one.

Thanks to Matt Schickele for remembering his quote because I was too awestruck to write it down.

Photo courtesy of Larry Auerbach. You can view the whole album here.


Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner. He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.

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  1. I, too, was struck by Matt’s quote. I suppose on some level I had entertained those thoughts before, many times in fact, but hearing it voiced in such a setting really brought it home.

    And as a bit of an aside, I would include Todd Robbins in the list of talented artists that were at NECSS. I saw his show, Play Dead, Sunday evening. Really cool.

  2. @Sam: You were at NECSS?!?!?! How did I not meet you?!

    EDIT: I was so dumbfounded that I didn’t meet Sam that I forgot to comment on the actual post.
    When Matt said what he did, I let out a loud, ill-timed WOO because I was so thrilled to hear a member of our community speak those words to such a large audience. To hear that and then see Hai-Ting’s performance along with Maki’s art at a science and skepticism conference made me feel… included. And it was in a way I had not felt before.

  3. This was my favorite part of #NECSS. I am going to make it a point to shout from the rooftops: Come out smart artists, come out! Together we can change the world!

  4. Larry Auerbach here, Maki. 🙂

    I too was excited by what Matt said and by what he and Hai-Ting were doing. I’m an artist and don’t have a whit of credibility in the world of skeptics as far as having anything rigorous, intellectual or philosophical to contribute, especially with all the brilliant scientists, academics, performers and writers already prominent in the community and in evidence at NECSS. However, my atheism/skepticism and my experience with being a believer many years ago in New Age things, my excruciating “de-conversion” and transition to total non-believer-dom totally colors and informs my creative work. I’m glad to see other creatives in the midst of the crowd questing to fit in and find ways to enrich this movement, which I’m finding to be of more and more importance to me with each passing month.

  5. @Brian G: I don’t know, but it seems to be a developing (and disturbing) trend for me of late. Was speaking to a fellow skeptic recently, and she said, “You know Sam, we need to get you to a TAM one of these days”.

    I’ve been to every TAM, including the very first one.

    I guess I don’t make much of an impression on people.

  6. I was also at NECSS and Matt’s comments really resonated with my own experience. I am a painter involved in the museum/ gallery side of art, where I think there really is a lot of woo, for lack of a better word. Art isn’t restricted by empirical facts about the world- as say medicine is, but I think there is room for skepticism here too. Much of what is written or said on behalf of art is convoluted or vague and doesn’t stand up to the light of reason- (I have my doubts that this is sincere, but here is a particularly over the top video of what I mean). I wonder if this is part of what Matt was referring to?

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