An Interview with CSICon Speaker Sheldon W. Helms

Susan Gerbic

Sheldon W. Helms is a professor of experimental psychology at Ohlone College in Fremont, California, where he serves as senior faculty member in the Psychology Department. He holds a master’s degree in psychology and is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at Alliant International University.

Susan Gerbic: Sheldon, it’s so great to be able to catch up with you. We just saw each other at SkeptiCal in Berkeley, but you were so busy with the conference we didn’t get a chance to really talk. Speaking of SkeptiCal, this was the eighth year, and it seems to be growing. I’ve always enjoyed attending and learn so much each time. I know it’s still early, but any news on changes for 2018?

Sheldon W. Helms: Yes, I saw you at the Monterey County Skeptic’s table, telling everyone about Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia, and we barely even had time to say hello! It was a really fun conference, though, and there wasn’t an empty seat in the place. 

The SkeptiCal Conference was the brainchild of Shane Trimmer, the former president of the Sacramento Area Skeptics, who proposed a one-day conference on science and skepticism that pulls from local talent to make it affordable to the general public. They joined forces with our group, the Bay Area Skeptics (headed up by Eugenie Scott), and we held our first conference in 2010. Since then, it’s only gotten bigger and better.

We have a long list of great speakers we’re considering for next year, but nothing I can talk about publicly yet. The only thing I can say is that we may have outgrown our venue yet again, and we’ll probably be looking for a bigger one for 2018, although still in the East Bay of San Francisco of course. What a great problem to have, though!

Gerbic: You are going to be speaking at CSICon this year, Saturday October 28, at 10 am. Your lecture, “Straight Talk about Gay Conversion” is a topic I’ve heard you speak on before. Really interesting lecture and topic. Don’t give away your entire lecture here, but what can you tell us that’s new on this issue? I keep thinking that it is long gone, and then another story pops up in the media. How frustrating.

Helms: I’ve been speaking publicly about Gay Conversion Therapy for several years now, and it’s a subject that continues to shock and horrify me. Sometimes I can’t believe there’s even a need for me to talk about this. I mean, with all the progress that’s been made in the social and political landscape for the LGBT community, you’d think that this topic would be relegated to the history books by now. But the stories you’ve seen in the news media prove that we haven’t won the battle yet.

Formal attempts to convert gay people to heterosexuality have a long and ugly history, dating back at least a century or more. They include religious as well as nonreligious strategies, none of which have any effect on someone’s sexual orientation, of course. We have far too many stories of attempts to commit suicide (many of them successfully), years of battling depression, social isolation, and self-harm, all after taking part in programs claiming to covert people to heterosexuality, all of which ultimately fail. Although they don’t have an effect on sexual orientation, they do have an effect on people’s self-worth and mental status, and that’s my big concern. They are ineffective but not at all harmless. And my talk will concentrate mostly on that harm.

That’s not to say that we haven’t seen any progress at all. Some readers may have seen announcements of laws that have been passed in some states recently in an attempt to discourage or eradicate these practices. But, as people will hear in my talk, those laws don’t go far enough. They have huge legal loopholes that mean that people will still be at risk of being subjected to these barbaric techniques.

Gerbic: The college you teach at, Ohlone, has a lecture series that you created.  I know you have had James Randi speak. Who else would our readers know?

Helms: By the time I was hired at Ohlone College in 2001, I had been attending talks by psychologists, scientists, and other professionals for decades—even before my involvement in the skeptic community. After becoming the faculty adviser to the Ohlone Psychology Club, I mentioned to some students a talk that I had attended, Michael Shermer’s speaker series in Los Angeles. A club member said, “That sounds like fun! Why doesn’t Ohlone College do that?” I didn’t really have an answer for her. After a lot of groundwork and getting financial backing from our Student Government, we hosted our first talk in 2009, which, as fate would have it, was by Michael Shermer. (Readers may be amused to know that Dr. Shermer has an “act of God” clause in his speaking contract, which made me laugh out loud.)

Since then, the Ohlone Psychology Club Speaker Series has become almost fully financially independent on campus, and has hosted a wide variety of talks by people like Brian Dunning, Eugenie Scott, Carol Tavris, Anthony Pratkanis, the cast of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (with emcee George Hrab), and yes, James “The Amazing” Randi…twice!

Randi’s talks are always mind blowing and sell out in record time. We’d gladly host him again if he found time in his schedule and was interested in coming back. He and his husband, Deyvi, have actually become close friends to my husband and me, and we recently attended Randi’s eighty-eighth birthday celebration at their home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We’re looking forward to seeing them at the CSI conference in October, where I’m sure Randi will be as adorable as ever.

Gerbic: You’re a long-time skeptic conference junkie (like myself). What do you say to people who complain that we are just speaking to the choir? What’s the best argument you can give for people to attend lectures and conferences?

Helms: More appropriately, I’d say that I was a long-time TAM (The Amazing Meeting) junkie. I think I attended all but the first two TAMs, and I made a lot of great friends in the process. I attended my first CSI conference last year, and it was probably the closest I’ve felt to the TAM experience since the last one in 2015. I was honored to be part of a workshop before the end of TAM and was given the opportunity to host a main-stage discussion on “Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology” with a panel of five of the most well respected psychologists in the U.S. So, I guess you could say that I’ve had the skeptic conference experience from newbie to speaker—and everything in between.

I’m guessing from my own experiences that people have many different reasons for attending skeptic conferences. Some are brand new to the community and only recently decided to give up their magical or superstitious worldviews. Their attendance at the CSI conference would probably involve a lot of “checking us out” to see who else thinks the way they do. There will also be people at these conferences who, like myself, are involved in educating others. They come to hear new ideas, to meet authors and speakers whose work they admire, and to network. And, of course, there are lots of people who come to these conferences not so much to sit in on the talks but to meet up with old friends and make new ones. The social aspect of TAM and the CSI conference is one of my favorite features that sets them apart from conferences like the ones held by the American Psychological Association.

Gerbic: At TAM 2012, you were walking by when we were arranging a Sylvia Browne protest and asked what we were doing. We explained we were leaving in a few minutes, and you jumped on the opportunity to go. That was such a blast; we even have video of experience. And again, when I asked for volunteers to help out with Operation Bumblebee and attend in character a Chip Coffey event, your hand went right up. (Readers who would like to know more about the event they can read about it here and here.) As a professor of psychology, what insights can you give into the mind of believers of psychics? To us we clearly see cold-reading happening. It’s hard to imagine that someone in the audience can’t see it also, even if they don’t know what it’s called; these statements are so leading and general.

Helms: I think people believe in psychics for a variety of reasons. Most who seek out their advice are probably doing it for entertainment. Where it gets tricky, and sometimes even dangerous, is when the psychics ply their trade to prey upon the naive and the weak. By naive, I mean those who are generally unaware that some of these folks are quite willing to victimize them for financial gain, sometimes taking small fortunes from them. And by weak, I mean those who are grieving, desperate, or frightened. As you know, a favorite target for these sorts of psychics are those whose loved ones have died, have disappeared, or have been the victim of a crime. In those times, we are at our most emotional, and therefore at our least logical. It’s quite easy to shift into a state of desperation in which we’re willing to give up our basic reasoning powers in the hopes that our fate will change. And when that happens, charlatans move in, ready to manipulate the target to her or his advantage.

A common misconception on the part of the general public is that people who get taken advantage of by psychics and other con artists must be stupid. The implication is often that they somehow deserve to be taken advantage of. Nothing could be further from the truth. People from all walks of life, and from every educational or intelligence level, can be victimized by swindlers. When I discuss these issues in my classes, I warn students that “If you think you can’t be fooled or that you’re impervious to these persuasive techniques, then you’re probably the first one who’ll be victimized.” I say this because people who feel this way often let their guard down, and that’s all the con artist needs to begin the scam.

The good news is that we have so much more information today than ever before about how these scams work and the psychological principles behind them. I’m fortunate that my job as a professor of psychology has allowed me to teach these techniques to thousands of people, making them and their loved ones a bit safer in the process.

Gerbic: Thanks so much, Sheldon. I really look forward to seeing you again in a few weeks. Folks, the date is quickly arriving for CSICon. Arrive on Wednesday and leave on Monday after breakfast. Remember to follow the after-hours activities on Facebook. Zombie Disco is on Saturday night. Don’t forget! See you there.

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.