Cover Image: John Anglin talks about moon hoaxes to Coral Academy of Science Las Vegas. Photo by Ron Lee.
This article is about one of the skeptic community’s biggest success. We have been seeing so much bad news lately that I know this will warm up your aortas.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about our skeptic conferences is that we lack youth. And this concern is 100 percent correct; attendees are overwhelmingly older people. And when you think about it, that makes perfect sense. Conferences like CSICon happen in October during the school year, so it is unlikely we are going to pull in students. The other main issue is that conferences aren’t cheap; they require a hotel room, food, transportation, and of course the conference fee, something that students and parents with young children aren’t going to have the budget for. Taking time off of work also is a problem for people who don’t have a lot of vacation time saved up if they are newly employed. Face it, to solve the problem of getting more youth to our conferences we are going to have to get creative.
One group has been doing its darn best to bring students to CSICon for the last few years. Oregonians for Science and Reason (O4SR) funds three Oregon current or newly graduated students to attend. All their costs are covered: conference fees, travel, hotel room, and a VISA card with money for food. Jeanine DeNoma and her team work for months to find people to apply for the scholarship. I’ve written about O4SR’s efforts to bring people to CSICon here.
The issue with bringing in students to Las Vegas can be problematic once you start considering doing this yourself. Bringing in students is expensive; O4SR spends about $1,000 per attendee. Scholarship winners should be eighteen or older, which means we are eliminating most high schoolers. And again, there is that problem of CSICon happening at the beginning of the school year. Considering travel time, you are going to miss either school or days of CSICon. I still think it’s a terrific idea, and it grows your specific community. But it is a bunch of work to organize and finance.
I’ve had an idea for several years that a better use of our money would be to bring in local students to attend the conference. But how do you find these students? I have no desire to cold-call schools. And they would probably be suspicious that some skeptic they have never heard of living in California would want to encourage students to attend a skeptic’s conference in Las Vegas. The word skeptic requires some explaining to strangers. I figured people would hang up on me or not return my emails.
Then one day I was chatting with one of my Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) editors who lives in Las Vegas: Ron Lee. He was going to be attending CSICon and was pretty excited about it. I asked if by any chance he knew of any local science clubs, teachers, or schools that we could possibly invite and pay for their attendance. And at first Lee didn’t have one in mind, but he thought about it and eventually he remembered reading something on Facebook about a school, Coral Academy of Science Las Vegas. (Lee explains what happened further in this article)
Lee and I went back and forth with ideas that started with “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring some teachers too?” and “Maybe we can give them special nametags so they stand out at the conference.” After Lee met with the school who was really interested in this idea, we kept adding more to the plan.
I was adamant that we would not allow one person to fund this project. The skeptic community needs to pony up the funds; a little from many people would pull it off. That feeling of involvement is how you grow a community; I wanted people to feel vested. I approached CSI and asked if they would add a donate area to the registration website, which they did. I made a few Facebook live videos asking for donations, and the funds started to roll in. I wasn’t surprised at all; our community has been generous for several of my grief vampire projects, and I knew that sending Las Vegas STEM students to CSICon was a terrific idea that people would fund if asked.
The next thing that occurred to me was that we wouldn’t be able to bring a lot of students to CSICon as it was $100 a student and $175 for each teacher. But what if the school allowed us to send speakers to the school to talk in the classrooms? Lee asked, and they loved that idea. So, I reached out again, this time in an email to CSI fellows and tech consultants as well as the CSICon speakers asking if they would donate some time to speak to a classroom of a local STEM school. Oddly I didn’t get a lot of response; only Stuart Vyse wrote back saying he loved the idea but only had Friday afternoon free. He said he would miss some of CSICon as he felt it was worth it to speak to a classroom of students. John Anglin heard me ask for volunteers on one of my Facebook pleas for donations and said he would be happy to do a talk. I asked Kenny Biddle if he would have some free time and of course he quickly volunteered, but the only time he had free was Thursday morning right before the workshop he gave at CSICon. Mark Edward of course is always happy to help as well so I contacted the school again and we set up times we could go to the school, and the principal found teachers that would welcome us to their classrooms.
On Wednesday before CSICon, Ron Lee volunteered to drive myself, Mark Edward, and John Anglin to the campus located in Henderson about thirty minutes from downtown Las Vegas. We showed up, signed in, and were met by Principal Yolanda Flores. We passed by a wall of academic trophies for all kinds of STEM awards and knew we were in the right place. Anglin was taken into a science classroom and Edward and I went into a computer lab of eighth graders in Michael Dandridge’s class. The students entered the room, looked at Edward and I suspiciously, and started to log into the computers. The teacher announced that there were special guests today and that we were going to give them a presentation. Edward asked the students “Who likes magic?” Every hand went up, and we were off. Edward did two magic tricks, one involving a refilling water vase and the other a rope trick. He explained that all magic is science and told them if they wanted to know how the water vase worked they would have to do some research. But he did show them the rope trick solution, which the students just loved.
We only had a total of fifty minutes, so he took half of the time doing magic and then cold-read some students with very general statements such as “You love to travel but don’t get to do it often, right?” and “You are the type that wants to figure things out for yourself, right?” The kids ate it up, felt that he was so correct, and could not figure out how he knew them so well. Then it was my turn. I explained what cold-reading was and how the statements Edward had made applied to most people in the room. I asked for them to raise their hands if they also liked to travel but didn’t get to do it often, and every hand went up. They had a good laugh about that. Then I explained hot-reading using examples that TV psychics use, how they look at social media to learn things about people they read, and how they sometimes pay people to sit in the audience to pretend to be a stranger. And how on TV they record for hours, and then the editor cuts down the tape to get the best hits possible and that is what you see on TV.
The kids loved the entire presentation. It was my first time doing something like this with the very basics of hot and cold reading. They asked a lot of questions of us until the bell rang and they had to go to the next class. When it was over, we met back with Lee and Anglin in the principal’s office. She asked how it went, and we all said that we had a great time, and the students were terrific. Personally, I could have stayed there for hours. The teacher had asked us to come back in the afternoon, but we needed to get back to the hotel. I’ve asked Ron Lee, John Anglin, Kenny Biddle, and Stuart Vyse to talk about their experiences at the school.
From Ron Lee: On May 24, 2019, Susan Gerbic told me that she would love to sponsor some local students to CSICon 2019. She was wondering if I knew of any schools that may be interested. I did not! Not initially anyways. Not until I remembered that a few weeks earlier I came across a Facebook message regarding a school protest. I searched, I scrolled, I left no post unread until I found it. The post read, “So my son’s school had some visitors yesterday. He’s at Coral Academy of Science and Math middle school and high school. Three religious radicals decided to stand across the street with a megaphone and tell them they are all being brainwashed. Science is not real. These poor kids.”
I must say that my initial idea was for getting these kids to CSICon was rooted in sophomoric passive aggressiveness. I could think of nothing more satisfying than to bring these kids to Richard Dawkins. What poetic justice right? Christian science-denying proselytizers would be indirectly responsible for kids not only getting inspired by some of the world’s leading scientists, they would also meet one of the closest living examples of a demon, Richard Dawkins. Of course, none of us would call Dawkins a demon; in fact, he is a great inspiration to me. The protesters who told those kids that they are being brainwashed, I believe they would be very uncomfortable with such innocent and impressionable young sheep meeting such a great man of science and … yikes … atheism. So that was my motivation. However, although I volunteered to help make this childish plan of mine a reality, I did not think that it would happen. I felt as though a school would be taking a lot of risk allowing a bunch of skeptics to influence their children. Do they even know what a skeptic is? Will they think we hate vaccines, hugs, and GMOs?
Well I was ready to explain myself to ensure that they know I believe in the moon landing and the physics behind 911 if asked. So took a deep breath, cast my self-doubt aside, and called the school; a week later I had a meeting with the principal. I brought the CSICon 2019 flyer and told them our grand idea. I told them that we wanted to raise enough money to send a classroom full of students and some teachers to this year’s CSICon. I told them about all the amazing speakers and all the STEM they would be exposed to throughout the week. They were on board; I did not need to sell them on the idea. In fact, when they heard about my childish reasoning for selecting their school, they said, “At least something positive came from those protesters.”
This was an amazing lesson for me, it only took one phone call to set this amazing event into motion. Once we had the school’s permission, the CFI/CSI family stepped up to raise enough money for sixteen students, two teachers, lunches, and a bus. Furthermore, the school even allowed some of our speakers to give a presentation at the Coral Academy to reach the students that were not able to attend the conference; it was a complete success! Gerbic’s vision, the protesters, my immaturity, the speakers, and the school’s support and trust in us surely altered the course of a few of these kids’ lives. I sincerely believe that we created an entry level familiarity of critical thinking, reasoning, truth, science, and an appreciation of a little bit of magic. We may never know the secondary and tertiary effects of sending these kids to CSICon, but we can safely say that they are less likely to deny evolution and joining the protesters after receiving a free copy of Dawkins’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.
From John Anglin: In October 2019, I was given the opportunity to speak to a group of middle school students as part of an outreach program connected with CSICon. As a high school physics and engineering teacher, I have always been concerned with my students’ ability to develop critical thinking skills early in their educational careers. So, when I was presented with this opportunity, I felt compelled to accept. I thought about a topic that I could easily use to teach critical thinking as well as some science principles that the students may not have been previously aware of. Ultimately, I decided to discuss a topic that always generates good discussion: the idea that we never actually landed on the moon in 1969.
Of course, the students had at least heard of the topic and were familiar with some of the more ludicrous conspiracy theories. My approach was to first show how easy it is to fall into these traps of shallow thinking and then demonstrate how science and reason can help escape the same trap. After introducing myself to the students and giving a partial resume (including my degree in astrophysics) and a few random anecdotal facts (I was born in Huntsville, Alabama, where we built the rockets that took us to the moon), I presented the first problem. A well-known picture of Neil Armstrong taking his first step off of the LEM. I then asked the obvious question: Who took the picture? I further suggested that this was evidence hiding in plain sight that there must have been a staged event filmed in a studio by Stanley Kubrick. The results were shocking. The students immediately assumed I must be telling the truth. After all, I am an astrophysicist and a teacher. This opened the door to many more questions. What else must be faked then? How many people know the truth? The world must know!
After the initial shock set in, I began to explain to the students that I had lied to them. Why? Why would I do that? To prove the point. Just because someone claiming to be a subject matter expert says something is true, you are under no obligation to accept the statement on face value. The afternoon continued with conspiracy theory and crazy ideas being disproved by science and logic. Then, the second, and more impressive, surprise of the day occurred. The students begged to know more! They asked for more information on science, physics, and mathematics. This is something that is severely lacking in my experience with our education system. The bell to go to the next class rang and the students left, many of them feeling excited about math and science for the first time in their lives and most with all new questions to explore. Oh, and who did take that famous picture if it wasn’t Kubrick or some underpaid NASA intern? Mr. Armstrong himself of course! How is this possible? I will leave that mystery for you to discover. Now go ask good questions and spread the true gospel of science and reason!
From Kenny Biddle: A few hours before the start of CSICon 2019 (and my workshop), I found myself at the Coral Academy of Science charter school in Las Vegas. Susan Gerbic, the energizer bunny of skeptical activism, had arranged for some of the conference speakers to visit the school and talk about our various specialties. I was both excited and nervous when I was asked to participate; I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to a classroom of kids before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Nevertheless, this was a chance to inspire young students, so I wasn’t going to pass it up.
As the students settled in their seats, the teacher informed the kids (eleventh graders) that I was an investigator of paranormal claims and they were free to ask questions. My nervousness quickly faded as the kids’ faces lit up with wonder and curiosity. After a brief explanation of what I do (investigate and solve mysteries), hands from enthusiastic students shot up ready to ask questions. We talked candidly about how to determine good sources of information from bad, fact-checking, how to look deeper into extraordinary claims, Ouija Boards and the ideomotor effect, paranormal “reality” shows and their lack of science, ghost hunting gadgets and what they really do, and so on. I have no doubt the kids would have stayed all day if given the chance.
I spoke to two classes, and I was happy to see the enthusiastic thirst for knowledge and understanding from all the students. They didn’t just accept my explanations at face-value, many had follow-up questions to clarify specific points; something I promote in my own lectures/workshops. The students were so eager to learn, and being able to help inject lessons on critical thinking as it pertained to a popular subject (paranormal) made it interesting and entertaining for all. Several students even approached me after class, thanking me for being honest with them and clarifying stories they’ve heard. This was an amazing endeavor and I hope that it can become an ongoing feature of CSICon (and other science conferences) in the future. Instilling critical thinking skills early on is something I firmly stand behind, and I’m happy I was part of it.
From Mark Edward: Performing magic for the kids in their classroom prior to their attendance at CSICon was a high-point of my week spent in Las Vegas. By showing simple methods of misdirection to these gifted kids, I saw the light turn on in their minds firsthand. Much like when I first witnessed a demonstration of live stage magic when I was about their age, the wonderment of seeing something thought impossible take place, tethered to the real world with the concept of science not superstition worked perfectly. Their curiosity was boundless and by the time we met up at CSICon, I could see that Susan Gerbic’s idea was and is an important component we all need to encourage wherever and whenever we can. Catch them while they are young! Science inspires! Seeing one student take home a huge stack of Skeptical Inquirer magazines, I couldn’t help but think that each article in each issue will eventually reach an innovative mind and make a difference. As I told them, all magic is science. Bravo for this highly successful educational outreach!
From Stuart Vyse: When Susan Gerbic dreamt up a plan to introduce high school students in the skepticism movement by inviting them to CSICon, I immediately saw the brilliance of the concept and made a small donation to help pay for student admission fees. But when she also suggested that some of us might go into the schools to talk to students who could not get to the conference, I immediately volunteered. The psychology of superstition is one of my areas of expertise, and because it is such an inherently interesting topic, I immediately volunteered to go to the high school to talk about it. I was only available on Friday, which meant I’d miss some CSICon sessions, but I felt like the effort was worth it.
I was assigned to a teacher and a time at Coral Academy of Science Las Vegas and Ubered to the location with my PowerPoint presentation on superstition on a thumb drive. As it turned out, I was there a full period early, which afforded me time to tour the classroom and talk with the teacher. Somewhat surprisingly, this was an English class, but the young teacher who signed up for my presentation had a particular interest in skepticism. As I perused his classroom, I noticed a display of logical fallacies on the wall, and a bookshelf that included copies of Thomas Gilovich’s Why We Know What Isn’t So and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.
It had been a while since I talked to a group of high school juniors, and it was, after all, Friday afternoon, the last period of the day. So, I had a bit of a challenge on my hands, trying to teach them something about why people are superstitious and also hold their attention throughout the period. But the teacher was very helpful, intervening when necessary, and the students were quite excited by the discussion of black cats, the number 13, and the evil eye. I also threw in mentions of some celebrity superstitions, such as Taylor Swift’s paradoxical affinity for the number 13 (she was born on December 13, 1989) and model Heidi Klum’s peculiar practice of carrying around a small pouch of her baby teeth for luck.
Visiting a local Las Vegas high school was an altogether great experience. It is wonderful to work with curious young people, and I believe it is important for them to know about our movement as early as possible. I look forward to similar opportunities in the future.
Susan Gerbic Concludes: I couldn’t be at the school on Thursday and Friday to see Kenny Biddle and Stuart Vyse’s talks, but I sure wish I could have been.
So, Thursday afternoon arrived, and we have about $4,000 donated for scholarships. We don’t have a full count on how many students will be attending. As this was our first time attempting anything like this, we learned how to arrange this better for future years. We knew we could afford to bring a lot of students, but we needed to transport them, which required us paying for a small school bus. That was $850. For every ten students we needed an adult to attend, which means $175. And the school needed signed permission slips and also a substitute teacher for every teacher we brought to CSICon.
The Oregonians for Science and Reason (O4SR) group I mentioned at the beginning of this article had generously paid for the attendance of one teacher and also paid for the extra lunch and lecture by climate scientist Michael Mann.
On Thursday night, the Principal emailed me a list of sixteen students and two teachers that would be attending. Pat Beauchamp and Rosemarie Giambrone from CSI were amazing. They wanted each student to have a professional nametag and folder with the schedule for the conference waiting for them. I had ordered bright red ribbons that attached to their nametags that said “STEM” so the students would stand out in the audience. We had envelopes ready with $15 in cash for each student so they could go to the food court and get lunch. We were all ready for them. The staff had also added “STEM scholarship donor” to all the CSICon attendees that had donated to this project. I heard from several donors that this little gesture was appreciated.
At 9:15 a.m., I got a text from teacher Dandridge saying they were on the way, and after winding around the halls of the Flamingo they found us. It was so exciting; the conference had already started and the room was full, but I told the students to find a seat anywhere. Everyone was happy to have them here. They walked in during Gordon Pennycook’s talk “Fake News and Pseudo-Profound Bullshit: Who Falls for it and Why?” Next up was Janyce Boynton’s talk on facilitated communication followed by Jeff Hawkins’s talk “How the Brain Leans and Why it Sometimes Gets it Wrong.” Then the first break. I was back in the book room at the GSoW table not knowing what to expect.
Several students came into the bookroom and found Boynton at the GSoW table. They descended on her asking her questions about facilitated communication (FC), including why was it allowed and other great questions. Boynton loved that these students had “got it” and were really concerned about the harm of FC. She exchanged emails with one student who was working on a school project and thought that she might include some information about FC in her essay.
Back into the audience they went. Troy Campbell’s talk “Beyond the ‘Issues’ the Personal Skeptical Existence” was first up. Then David Mikkelson from Snopes talked about “Junk News.” And right before lunch it was Jann Bellamy who talked about pseudoscience in law. During the time the students were in the conference hall, I started thinking of how awesome it would be if some of the students could attend Michael Mann’s talk on climate change. As a speaker, I had my lunch ticket available and texted the teacher that he could give it to one student. Then Janyce Boynton saw what I was doing and offered her lunch ticket also. Then Kenny and Donna Biddle walked over and handed me their lunch tickets. Our community is so generous! I texted Dandridge again and said I had a total of four lunch tickets, and he had to choose which four students would go to the fancy lunch with the climate change talk. Somehow he chose four students to attend the lunch (remember his lunch had been paid for by the O4SR group).
After lunch, the students again came to the book room all excited; they were having a great time and were learning a lot. They descended on the free Skeptical Inquirer magazines like locusts (next year CSI will bring more magazines) and were reading off the titles of the articles to each other “Look this is about UFO’s” and “I got one on Vampires;” they were really into it. Apparently at the climate change lunch, one of the students asked Michael Mann a really good question about the statistics of climate science. Two female students were a big hit at the table they were sitting at, and one of the other people at the table purchased Mann’s book and gave each a copy. WIN!
Back into the lecture hall to see Jen Gunter talk about Modern Wellness and the “Religion of Pseudoscience,” then Kavin Senapathy talked about “The Overblown Breast is the Best Mantra.” And finally, Piff the Magic Dragon ended the day for the students. Unfortunately, they were not able to stay long enough to see Richard Dawkins speak as they needed to get back to the school.
They came back to the book room, and because we had some cash left over from the donations, we gave each student a CSI “I Doubt it!” t-shirt and then they got to get a free book. They had to choose between a book by Richard Dawkins and a CSI book by Ben Radford or Joe Nickell.
They left with their arms full—and talking excitedly to each other. It was a terrific day for them, a completely new experience. And it was an amazing day for me. I was smiling the entire day because these young students were there. And I heard from so many people how exciting it was to see so many young people attend Friday. And unbeknownst to me, there was another school that attended. Apparently another STEM Las Vegas school paid for ten or so of their students to attend.
Sorry for the length of this article; it was such a blast to see this start with just an idea in the back of my brain and see it all the way to the end. I kept adding more and more ideas as I went as opportunities arose and it kept working out. I want to thank everyone at Coral Academy of Science, the donors who gave us more than enough money, and the people at CSI who were so patient with me not knowing how many would attend and what their names were. Just so helpful and all wanting to make sure the students felt welcome and wanted. One attendee who had already donated to the scholarship, Phil Ferguson stopped me in the hallway twice to ask if I had enough money to fund all the students. The bus seated thirty people and that was my goal to fill up the bus, and we might have done so with a little more planning.
I especially want to thank GSoW Ron Lee for doing so much work to make this happen. And to John Anglin, Mark Edward, Stuart Vyse, and Kenny Biddle for taking the time to go to the school to give talks.
I’ve supplied a lot of detail in this article, mainly because this project should not be the exception but the norm. We should have several school buses at CSICon in future years. And we should be sending many speakers to these local schools. It takes a bit more planning, but I think we now have a relationship with Coral Academy of Science. We can reach out to other schools in the area as well, offering more opportunities for our speakers to go to the schools a few days before CSICon or even the Monday after. And other skeptic conferences might follow our lead and reach out to the community near the venue to see if there is interest in student attendance, then start raising the funds.
Our community is amazing. They want to help; they just need to be asked. So, let’s start communicating.
Rob Palmer (also a GSoW member) recorded a series of interviews with CSICon attendees and speakers for The Skeptic Zone podcast. In Episode #578, he talks to one of the Coral Academy students about their experience at CSICon; it’s worth a listen (well actually they are all worth a listen) but student Daniel Spangler is at 13:26 here.