Colorado Dreaming

Susan Gerbic

In February 2011, Mark Edward and I attended the first Fort Collins SkeptiCamp. In fact, that was the very first place I ever spoke about the project that would eventually become Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW). Mark was speaking at the SkeptiCamp and I wanted to as well, so I racked my brains to think of a topic and thought of how I had been editing Wikipedia and thought maybe I could tell the audience that we all should edit Wikipedia, for the greater good. That seems so far away; I had no idea that GSoW would become the power-house it is today. It was because of that one SkeptiCamp that forced me to put a name to the GSoW project. After eight years, Mark Edward and I returned to Colorado to speak once again at the Fort Collins SkeptiCamp.

Colorado had been one of those hubs of an active community: names, podcasts, projects, and ideas came out of that area. I don’t want to mention names as mostly they are long gone, for reasons that affect all communities: time and drama. It was a very sad era, but as they say, time heals all wounds and I was really curious to see what had happened to the community. Are the players from before still active? Have new people and projects taken their place? Please Colorado, give us some hope.

My first lecture was to the Secular Society in Denver. They gather nearly every day at a center they rent on Downing Street. A few steps away from the very last train stop on the L-line. According to Ev the event organizer, they have out-grown the space and are looking for a new place. And they are busy with events; when we were trying to pick a day for my lecture, we didn’t have a lot of open spaces on the event calendar to choose from. They have coffee socials, lectures, AA meetings, movie nights, “Newbie Night,” training workshops, and Sunday morning services. They are funded by memberships and donations; always a wonderful thing to see people relying on themselves to grow. According to their meetup page, they have 1,257 members. And the Denver Post did a really nice write-up on the group back in 2017. A few more of these write-ups and they will be notable enough for their own Wikipedia page, but I digress.

I’m always wary when speaking in front of a group I know little about, especially one that is more secular than skeptic related. You get a mixed bag of attendees; people who want to hear about atheism and how we edit pages against religion but grow upset if I talk about editing pages on homeopathy, UFOs, and ghosts. When you speak to a skeptic group, you just assume that you are all on the same page and everyone knows who James Randi is, what the Skeptical Inquirer magazine is about, and who Uri Geller is. Not so with an atheist group. But after talking with Ev and looking over their meetup page and then later learning that one of their Board members is Chris Shelton (ex-scientologist—produces a podcast titled Sensibly Speaking, which I had been interviewed on, and also the author of the book Scientology: A to Xenu: An Insider’s Guide to What Scientology is All About), I knew I would be in a group of good critical thinkers, who maybe didn’t know all the names of the skeptic world but would be fine in the other areas. Give my Sensibly Speaking interview a listen.

I spoke to a room of about sixteen people; many said that this was their first time at the Secular Society, and I’ll take full credit for that happening. One attendee Robyn Baxendale attended with children who became very animated when I mentioned that Mark Edward had been on Adam Ruins Everything. Robyn manages the Durango Skeptics & Atheists group which is about a five-hour drive from Denver. A place I hope to speak to in the next year.

I did my “March for Science – Now What?” lecture, but added in a section about Stan Romanek, a Denver resident whose claim to fame was that he had been abducted by aliens from another planet; he made a video with a space alien face looking in his window that the Internet lovingly called “Boo.” Romanek’s claims were investigated, the video recreated, and it was shown that he had fabricated his stories. Anyway, GSoW wrote a Wikipedia page for him in 2012. It was rarely visited until Netflix did a documentary on his life, and the next thing we knew Stan Romanek’s Wikipedia page was getting 50K views in one day. Good thing there was a Wikipedia page for them to visit, otherwise they would only have random articles scattered around the Internet to read, or his own website, and the documentary to get the “facts” from. Not likely to get great info from that; a well-written Wikipedia page is much more usable.

The lecture at the Secular Society went really well, despite they didn’t really know who Stan was; someone did say he looked familiar. They asked great questions; some people came with questions already written down and several people were already Wikipedia editors. It was terrific, a great discussion, and a really great location. Give them a visit the next time you are in the Denver area; they have something going nearly every day. Tell them Susan sent you.

The next morning, Mark Edward and I rented a car and drove the hour and three minutes to Fort Collins, Colorado. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this was where GSoW began as a “Susan Gerbic thing” back in 2011. They are on their eighth SkeptiCamp, and I love these mini-conferences. You really get to see the health of the group, and the diverse topics and research are always something I learn from. It’s a lot like CSICon’s Sunday Papers!

First up was one of my dear friends Linda Rosa, who is the indefatigable advocate for Empirically-Supported Therapies. She is also the mother of Emily Rosa from Therapeutic Touch fame. Linda’s presentation called “A Year of Skeptic Activism in Colorado” was excellent; I could barely keep up taking notes with all the things she has been active in. They have filed over fifty-six complaints against naturopaths in the state. Attachment disorder garnered her attention after she noticed that the Colorado Department of Health Services was cosponsoring a conference offing nurses Continuing Education Credits (CEC) for learning alt-med methodologies. She (and her team) managed (just hours before the conference) to get the American Psychological Association to pressure the Department of Health to cancel the CECs.

Linda Rosa is a retired nurse, which is why she so often goes head-to-head with the alt-med world. And when I say “she” I mean Linda AND her team, which can include people such as Craig Foster, Jane Mercer, and elected officials. One task is to get the state to only use the term Empirically-Supported Therapies, and that says a lot about their goals. She spoke to us about Parental Alienation Syndrome, which was the first time I had heard of it. Chronic Lyme Disease and about a woman named Olivia Goodreau that takes eighty-seven pills a day and is the “poster child” for CLD in Colorado. It’s a wonder that Goodreau does not see flying saucers too with all those meds interacting with each other.

Fluoridation, which was “invented” by a dentist in Colorado Springs, but Rosa told us that many sections of Colorado Springs remain unfluoridated because of “concerns.” Apparently, the Colorado skeptics were active with a March of GMOs (May 19, 2018, is next one). And yet, I later learned that they didn’t march for science in Fort Collins. A fact that I mentioned several times in my GSoW lecture. “Caring Science” was another threat that Linda talked about, and someone named Jean Watson RN who has a Theory of Human Caring group. Linda also announced that it is the twentieth anniversary of her daughter’s scientific research of therapeutic touch, which led Emily to have over thirty TV interviews and to be the youngest person every published in JAMA at the age of nine.

So many great quotes and information from Linda Rosa’s lecture; see it for yourself in the YouTube playlist included at the bottom of this article. One great response from Linda to the question asked during Q&A, “Do they believe this nonsense?” (meaning the people supporting alt-med) was, “Naturopathy has lots of money to be made, Lyme also … There is no standard of care with naturopathy, five colleges in the USA claim it’s ‘like medical school’”.

One important bit of business we did decide during Linda’s talk was that the skeptic community should start using the phrases A Quackery of Naturopaths and A Dilution of Homeopaths when talking about those groups in numbers.

Our next speaker was Doug Holland who had been at the first Fort Collins SkeptiCamp. Doug’s talk was called “When Normal People Believe in Crazy Things: why stating facts won’t persuade them, and what does work to persuade.” Lots of great tips, a sort of primer to skeptical activism: “People don’t listen to facts … don’t tell them they are wrong, try to get them to realize it for themselves.” He said to stay calm, create dialogue, and ask questions when you are talking to someone with opposing opinions, “when people are angry they aren’t open for persuasion.” “The appeal to emotion” according to Doug is not what we are taught in debate but “in the real world, it works.” And lastly, “People don’t reason to find the facts … they seek something to prove their argument and disprove the other guy.” Check out Doug’s talk, link at the bottom of this article.

Caleb Hendrich’s talk was a complete surprise as I had no idea what a loot box was, I know more now, and found myself telling people back home all about this topic. They were engaged in learning more also. I took a lot of notes, and Caleb supplied a bibliography for further reading. Turns out I ran out of battery on the video camera I was using, so I only got part of the lecture. But please watch what I did get and check out the bibliography; it was a great topic.

“The Loot Box – A Case for Industry Regulation” was the title of Caleb’s talk, and once he started describing what a loot box was, and the gaming experience, it started making me remember some things I heard from my sons about the expense of gaming. In my day, we went to the store, purchased a game off a shelf, came home, and loaded floppy disks (later CDs) into the computer, and played the game. Everyone was equal. You owned the game and you played; later the Internet allowed us to look for discussions about the game and cheat codes (Myst and Riven were my games of choice). The industry caught onto the social aspects of DLC (Downloadable Content), and added for just a few dollars the ability to add things to the game to make it more enjoyable but not change the game-play. Items such as a more attractive horse, a cool weapon, healing items, or fun game skins. Gamers were upset, made a fuss, but kept playing, and eventually the business model shifted to “Tank the Outrage – Then Double Down” adding more and more fees to games, even AFTER the game was purchased. They include Season Passes for games not yet offered, tiered content prices, extra missions, extra prizes, gold editions, collectable cases, and game maps all for real cash.

We were given a lot of background and history of the gaming business, and then he explained what a loot box is. Remember playing with Magic: The Gathering cards or Pokémon cards? You wanted to get some really extra cool or powerful card, and they were sold in small packages with other cards; the odds of getting that special card were really rare, yet kids would purchase and purchase and purchase trying to get the card they really wanted. Loot boxes are like that, except they are usually virtual. No one is mailing you anything, no need to go to the store and wait in line. You purchase a chance to get what is inside the loot box; the odds on getting what you really want are high. The companies say that this is a “players choice to purchase – IT IS NOT GAMBLING!” But experts like with the Video game addiction treatment center say that it exploits people who do not have the cognitive abilities to understand that they really don’t need all these extras, but peer pressure forces these young people to purchase and purchase.

The industry says they need to continue charging these fees to pay for “development” and “better graphics.” But Caleb says that the publishers make billions of dollars of profit: “it’s just cream.” Tetris and Minecraft have horrible graphics yet are some of the best-selling games. Also, the industry does not release their budgets to prove that these extra fees are needed. And their claim that IT IS NOT GAMBLING! is starting to look pretty suspicious, like maybe it IS gambling. Parents are mostly unaware of what is going on, yet they can have control of the situation as you need a credit card in order to make these purchases; but kids are clever about getting money out of parents. Caleb argues that regulation and oversite needs to be discussed and possibly implemented. One really great quote from Caleb was “People don’t expect to find a casino inside their video game.”

After a quick break—we were at Mulligan’s Pub in Fort Collins, so we ate through the whole day, great service and food—it was my turn. “March for Science – Now What?” I used my Stan Romanek slide and a couple people remembered his photo. Then when I told the story about the Boo Video, a lot of people had aha moments. People were open and excited about GSoW; they asked great questions. And I had two people sign up for training, Jamie and Luke. Totally worth the trip to Colorado to gain two new quality people. 

Mark Edward was up next and did his usual terrific lecture, starting with mentalism to get the audience’s energy back up as it was at the end of the day. He talked about how to really upset a psychic performance: laugh. They can’t throw you out, and it makes other people laugh and it just ruins the whole mood of the performance (and it is a performance). Mark explains that he hears the statement all the time, “there is no way that psychic could have known,” so he showed the SkeptiCamp audience many ways a psychic can know all about you: cold-reading, body language, sitters misremembering even a nice discussion on hot-reading. Mark talked about various encounters with grief vampires and how frustrating it is that they are still in business even after educating people for years. He brought along a few copies of his book Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium, and they were snatched up by the attendees. Please see the link at the bottom of this article for the full video.

Our last speaker, Howard Landman, talked about attending a flat-Earth meeting in Fort Collins. He said that it was quite an experience and he tried to attend a second meeting, but his brain forced him to leave mid-way. There were about fifteen people, but some were not flat-earthers, an Italian reporter, and a few curious people also. “It’s really hard to describe the set of beliefs these people had, because there were a whole bunch of different ones,” Howard explains. “It was like a vin diagram where the overlap was flat earth.” Religious claims, UFO beliefs, lots of conspiracy theories, chemtrails, and even fluoridation were mentioned. Howard tried to explain that it is possible to actually test the claim that the Earth is flat, but they kept telling him, “no it’s too difficult and too expensive.” Even after Howard told them about eight and ten-year old sisters who sent up balloons in space to over 110 thousand feet, “how can you tell me this is too hard?” They responded, “No, it’s too hard.” They told Howard that the edge of the Earth is Antarctica; they can’t go there because the military won’t let anyone see the edge. At this point, Howard put his hands on his head in frustration. He said, “It became clear that these people do not want to test their beliefs; they know they are right, and they don’t NEED to test their beliefs.” See Howard’s full lecture in the link at the bottom of this article. 

About twenty-three different people attended the Camp, at least nineteen stayed the entire day from 1-7 p.m., and many stayed even later after Mark and I left to drive to the Denver airport to return the car and get ready for the flights home.

Back to the questions I had asked before: What about the health of these communities? Are they still vibrant? Can Colorado have that spark and give the rest of the skeptic community hope? Well, some of these people are the same as before in 2011; they, mostly with the exception of Linda Rosa, keep a lower profile. They enjoy their meetups, interactions with each other, and I’m told there is very little drama within their communities. Fort Collins seems very happy with the current state of being; one of the organizers, Brian Cottle, told me that they have had thirty attendees in the past, but he thinks twenty is a better number. It keeps people engaged, but there is less chance of conflict. In past SkeptiCamps, they had attendees that didn’t understand that they were scientific skeptics and not skeptics in the conspiracy theory way; that was quite awkward for everyone. Attendee Hans Masanetz said he has been to TAM8 and regularly attends the meetups; he said “that SkeptiCamp brings in new faces and new topics that spark conversations about different topics.”

The Denver Secular Society was unaware of the past dramas in Colorado (and I wasn’t going to tell them); there are mostly all new people to the community, energized and ready to put their money to work to build a new community focused on secularism.

In conclusion, frankly I’m not sure. It seems that the skeptic community was badly scarred. Divisive personalities fractured long friendships. People moved away, fell quiet, and moved on with their lives. The movers and shakers I knew back in the years I visited Colorado in 2009–2011 are mostly silent, not attending skeptic events even outside Colorado as far as I can tell. 2012–2015 was an ugly time in the skeptic community; it’s rebuilding, but slowly. A few that are still around told me that they paid little attention to the drama and stayed away.

I saw no signs of effort to actively recruit new people; just showing up, putting together a SkeptiCamp once a year and socializing. And what great talent; I’m so happy we visited and spent quality time with these people. I got to know a whole new group of thinkers. I’m very happy that I managed to sneak out these videos in order to share them with you all. Okay, they all gave me permission to film, but still it felt odd that I was the only person that seemed to realize that they are creating great content that people all over the world would love to view.

Here you go, Enjoy! Fort Collins SkeptiCamp lectures playlist

Thank you, Stuart Jones for helping with a quick read of this article. All photographs and videos are from me, Susan Gerbic.

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.