2017 O4SR Scholarship Winners for CSICon

Susan Gerbic

One of the joys of attending skeptic conferences such as CSICon is introducing new people to the community and seeing them spark when they meet more people and then become more involved in the getting work done. One way to make sure this happens is to get more first-timers to conferences and that means donating money, arranging everything, and supporting attendees through that process. One of the only groups doing this correctly these days is the Oregonians for Science and Reason (O4SR). I interviewed Jeanine DeNoma and the three people they sent to CSICon in 2016. And when I say “sent” I mean they paid for everything and arranged everything as well as made sure they felt comfortable, introduced them to people, and then when it was all over they followed up with their scholarship winners. It was heart-warming to meet and interview Courtney Shannon, Andy Ngo, and Michael Sieler. You can learn all about their stories and the O4SR scholarship process by reading this article.

CSICon 2017 was held in October, and although it’s been many months, I still think it’s a great idea to talk to the 2017 scholarship winners and touch base with O4SR once again. First, we are going to hear from James Rodriguez who oversaw the scholarship process this year.

James Rodriguez: In 2016, the board of Oregonians for Science and Reason decided to send a small group of Oregon students to CSICon. We wanted to reach as many people as possible and the process we followed to be fair, but we had no formal scholarship application process. A few board members spent time putting together an application packet and the entire board chose the final recipients. Jeanine DeNoma, our board president, handled everything else. She announced the scholarships at meet ups in Oregon, sent the application packets to each individual who was interested, answered any questions, rented the hotel rooms, and issued travel expense reimbursements.

It was a lot of work, and she wasn’t sure she had the time to do it all again this year. During one of our board meetings, someone suggested that we form a scholarship committee. Jeanine had already been through the process once, so she was able to provide the committee with a detailed timeline of events. That made things much easier than it otherwise would have been.

The full board met about a month and a half before CSICon to pick the final applicants, and we had one available slot left. Midway through the meeting, Jeanine turned to me and said that she had talked with each board member over the last few months and it seemed to be the case that they all thought I should go to CSICon as a scholarship recipient. I had just graduated from Portland State University with a Master’s degree, and I was very active in the skeptical community, so I met the key requirements of any of our other scholarship applicants. Nevertheless, I was the committee chair, and this was a clear conflict of interest.

Only the board president or the treasurer could spend the organization’s money, and we had pretty much purchased everything in bulk so all the costs would be the same for each recipient. Still, I told the board that I wanted no part of this decision and left the room. They made the decision to send me to the conference anyway.

Introducing the (O4SR) Scholarship Winners

Daniel, Zach and James at CSICon 2017

Zachary Silvey: I’m a research analyst from Portland, Oregon, currently working in the tech industry. I was introduced to skepticism through the Skeptics Guide to the Universe when I was 14. From there I read as much Sagan, Dawkins, and Hawking as I could get my hands on. This interest in science and skepticism eventually led me to study behavioral neuroscience in college. I finally decided to attend my first Skeptics in the Pub in 2016 where I ultimately was introduced to Oregonians for Science and Reason, through which I was able to attend CSICon.

James Rodriguez: My name is James Rodriguez and I have been active in the skeptical community since I was a physics major in the early 2000s. As adjunct faculty in the physics department, I was the advisor for the newly forming humanist group on campus, and I volunteered with science-based organizations in Idaho. Before I met Jeanine DeNoma in 2014, I’d never heard of Oregonians for Science and Reason. However, O4SR seemed like a good fit for my overall interests, and I’ve been volunteering ever since.

Daniel Breitmayer: I’m 18 years old, currently enrolled at LBCC, and aspiring for a Pre-Nuclear Physics degree, though I enjoy spending more time at OSU with my girlfriend. My interests vary across physical/political/economic science, math, and philosophy, but physical science is certainly my foundation when exploring all kinds of topics. I really enjoy playing devil’s advocate, and I think it’s important to discuss avenues of thinking that are just unconventional enough that perspective and humility can make their way to the forefront of conversation.

Why are you interested in the topic of skepticism?

Silvey: Skepticism interested me initially because of how empowering it was as a framework for making decisions and understanding the world.

Rodriguez: When, as an undergraduate student, I learned about homeopathy, my mind was blown. I knew enough about the way matter worked to be able to say that homeopathy had no basis in reality. But people believed it to be true. What was more egregious was that those who peddled homeopathy made a lot of money selling something that was basically water. Clearly science and the scientific method had utility that went beyond numbers and the lab. To get at what’s actually useful to society, we have to adopt a more skeptical mindset and be willing to subject claims to some kind of systematic test so that we can figure out whether they are true.

Breitmayer: I wasn’t really subsumed under the definitive community or philosophy of skepticism until attending this event, but my answer for how I would utilize this mindset is the casual one: sustaining incredulity to the exploits of human nature and avoiding misinformation.

Were you familiar with the CSICon speakers in advance?

Silvey: I was familiar with about half of the speakers, many of whom have been guests on SGU or other skeptic podcasts.

Rodriguez: I listen to a lot of podcasts and a significant number of the speakers have rotated on and off them over the years. I have also read pretty much everything written by authors in our movement since my first Richard Dawkins book as an undergraduate student. That being said, CSICon was my first exposure to Britt Hermes’s story, and the Science Moms Movie.

Breitmayer: I learned about Lawrence Krauss a few weeks before attending CSICon, and I really enjoyed what he had to say about physics. It was a pleasure to meet him and read his book. As far as Richard Dawkins goes, I knew he was a controversial public intellectual but never delved deep into his ideas on atheism and evolutionary biology until going to this event—the latter is really fascinating. All of the other figures were completely new to me.

What did you expect from the conference?

Daniel and Joe Nickell
Photo by: James Rodriguez

Silvey: I expected to meet like-minded people, network with other activists, and learn from the speakers.

Rodriguez: I think the board made the decision to send me to the conference because they were hoping to provide some professional development and networking that would be invaluable to anyone doing our work in Oregon. For me, I was hoping to learn some new information, meet some interesting people, and network with other skeptics who live across the country.

Breitmayer: I didn’t quite know what to expect from the conference. CSICon is clearly for a community of individuals who prioritize critical thinking and skepticism, but apart from the basic predictions of everyone’s average temperament, it’s hard to guess what everyone and everything is going to include. From what I knew at the time, there wasn’t a way I would be able to predict that there would be talks about the history of the Colosseum, the misconception of GMOs, exploited gambling fallacies, neutron star collisions, and various other wonderful topics.

What did you discover?

Silvey: I discovered that this community is one of the most welcoming I have experienced. For some reason I expected to not be able to hang with all the PhDs and long-time members of the community. I was pleasantly surprised when I encountered zero elitism and was welcomed with open arms by everyone I met.

Rodriguez: I sat in the audience next to Richard Dawkins, and I got the chance to have my picture taken with members of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. I also gained a new understanding of naturopathy from an insider’s perspective, and I gained a deeper understanding of the science behind GMOs. Finally, I was given the opportunity to join the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project.

Breitmayer: I found an amalgam of eccentricity, aristocracy, untamed intellectuality, openness, intrigue, maybe some hubris here and there, and so many *widely* varying discussions, some that ended up keeping me on the conference floor until midnight, talking with strangers about particle/wave dualities.

Rewarding moments? Highlights?

James and SGU

Silvey: Seeing a live taping of SGU was a big moment for me. I have been listening to them for nearly half my life; being in the room with them was a bit surreal. I was expecting to be informed and even entertained by the presenters; I wasn’t expecting to be moved. Hearing Britt Hermes talk about her journey out of pseudoscience and into skepticism was inspiring; seeing the Science Moms documentary and then attending the panel was moving.

Rodriguez: For me the most rewarding part of the conference was having lots of conversations with other skeptics.

Breitmayer: All of the people I met and spoke to, as well as the insight, perspective, and food for thought that I was able to experience.

Do you feel this was rewarding?

Silvey: The experience was very cool. I think most of us in the community only ever interact through articles, podcasts, and tweets. Being in the same room as some of the most influential minds in the movement was an incredible experience. One I would recommend to anyone who considers themselves a skeptic.

Rodriguez: All of my experiences at the conference were very rewarding. I am grateful to the board of O4SR for making the decision to send me, and I hope to continue doing my part in the future to ensure that other Oregonians have the opportunity to go.

Breitmayer: Undoubtedly.

What do you think the community should be doing to involve more people … students?

Silvey: Engaging with students and other young people where they are is key in my opinion. Working with social media influences who are involved in the sciences to expose the movement to younger minds would be huge. The community of science communicators on YouTube is huge and ever expanding, if an organization such as the Center for Inquiry worked with these creators to make skeptical content they would reach a completely new audience.

Rodriguez: Most of our local community organizations already hold low cost lectures and meetups, but I think we also need to make an effort to reach outside of our regular memberships. We should table at events or encourage those who know us to talk to friends and family members about who we are. If there are organizations that have been successful in bringing in new people, we should learn about what they’re doing so that we can see if some of those activities will work for us. We should also be open to talking to the people who keep coming to our events so that we can learn about what works for them. Finally, I think we should talk to younger skeptics in our organizations about what brought them into the movement so that we can better understand their motivations and, perhaps, the motivations of their peers.

Breitmayer: What’s difficult about this question is that we’re talking about a marginal community. While skepticism and critical thinking can always become more prevalent, there are only so many individuals willing to drop their responsibilities to explore terrain like this, especially because this event takes place during the school season. Reaching out to public schools to consolidate the stand-out nerds always sounds like a good idea, but it can only go so far outside of academic institutions because it’s hard to hear about it otherwise; I didn’t know about CSICon until my aunt recommended that I register for this scholarship. But, overall, hit the students where they spend the most time in creative ways, and that may bring the best results


As you can see, it’s a delight learning more about these people. I felt moved to read how they left inspired and motivated to be more involved. We long-timers forget how intimidating we can be; we seem to know everyone and move with confidence though these conferences. I was really moved to read Zachary’s comment that he felt very welcomed and was surprised to find “zero elitism” amongst the community. That made me smile.

What deeply saddens me is that since my 2017 article about bringing more students to CSICon (and other skeptic conferences) no one has reached out to Jeanine DeNoma or the O4SR for more information about how to offer scholarships to people in their skeptic groups. I didn’t directly ask for donations to O4SR to help them sponsor more people in the future, but I thought that some of the readers might reach out to them and offer frequent flyer miles or money to help. No one did.

Look people, we are not going to get anywhere with growing our movement, encouraging new voices, and making real change if we don’t join together and make an effort. My group, About Time, is an umbrella non-profit that oversees the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project, Monterey County Skeptics, as well as the various investigations I run concerning grief vampires and more. About Time is hoping to fund conference scholarships as well. See our website for more information about our activities and donation information. Here is the meet-up site for O4SR and their Facebook page. Let me be clear, we are both non-profits and would welcome donations to further our outreach. O4SR is more than happy to answer questions about setting up your own scholarships; it is more work than just handing people money, unless of course you want to go through an organization that is already set up to do so.

So, please join with me to welcome more people to our community, our conferences, and our activism. Thank you all for being so welcoming to our first-time conference attendees. If you are new and feel like you know no one, please reach out to myself or really anyone. The person sitting next to you at the conference is probably thinking the same thing: they wish they could know more people also. If you are attending CSICon 2018 (and why wouldn’t you), please join the Facebook social group for updates and information about what is happening, what to expect, and where people are gathering for a beer or coffee to hang out. We will always try to include one more chair at the table; just let someone know, please. We are just as eager to meet you as you are to meet us. Welcome.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.