CSICon 101

Susan Gerbic

I’ve been hearing that attendance numbers for CSICon 2019 are ahead of last year’s pace, and each year more people attend than the previous year. I’m sure conference organizer Barry Karr does not believe in jinxes, so of course he will be fine with my confidence that we should put out a primer for those attending their first CSICon. Keep in mind that this year CSICon is being held at the Flamingo for the first time, so I’m not aware of the specifics of this particular casino. But I can make some broad generalities that should prepare the first time CSICon attendee, who quite possibly may also be a first time skeptic conference attendee.

I’m a regular attendee, and the pointers I’m about to make are my own. I’m not speaking for CSI. And just to get broader opinions, I’ve also asked a few regular CSICon attendees for some advice. At the end of this article, I’m including a lot of links to past photo albums, articles, and video playlists. All this should help you get your CSICon 101 on.

There are several things I can’t stress enough and will continue doing so throughout these tips. Everyone had a first time to a conference, and most of the time they didn’t know others either. If you think you are alone, look around you: people sitting next to you at the lectures, wandering around, standing in the back, or eating alone in the buffet are probably wishing they knew someone also, so introduce yourself. Also, Facebook (and possibly other social media platforms) is a great way to get to know people ahead of time. CSICon has an Event page on Facebook where we share updates before and during, so check it often.

Arrive at CSICon early and stay until Monday after breakfast. If you are going to be dealing with jet lag, then arrive even earlier so you can get over it as best you can. Don’t hurry away on Sunday; the Sunday Papers are some of the best parts of CSICon. And after the Papers, we will have Brian Greene presenting. Don’t hurry away after that, either. Stay and have lunch and dinner with new friends you have met at the conference. The old-timers usually gather at the yet-to-be-decided restaurant for breakfast, and half-awake we share our highlights from the conference. It’s one of my favorite parts of CSICon.

Generally, the hardcore CSICon attendees will arrive on Tuesday or Wednesday and scope out the place. We will find a location where we can move around tables and chairs, get drinks and food, and be as free as we can be from the noise and cigarette smoke where hotel staff won’t care if we hang out for hours. Once that place is found, we will announce it on the FB event page, and that is where you will usually find people outside conference hours. This casino is close enough to others that we might find a great hangout nearby.

For some people, the costs can be quite prohibitive, but there are several ways to stretch your money. Find someone to room with, maybe several people. We will have a discussion on the Facebook Event page of people looking for roommates. Also share your arrival and departure times on the Event page. It’s very likely you will find someone you can ride-share with.

The lunches on Friday and Saturday require an extra ticket, but the food is usually excellent with dessert chosen by our very own Barry Karr who has a sweet tooth. And on Friday you will be treated to a presentation by Michael Mann, which is worth the extra price, even without the fancy dessert. Saturday has a VIP luncheon with Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, and John de Lancie.

 

The Halloween party is always a blast. You can come in a Halloween costume—skeptically themed are always some of the best. But this year the general theme is the 1950s. We’ll dance, take lots of photographs, and have a great time. I highly suggest if you are an extrovert or would like to pretend to be one for the night that you attend the Saturday night party. Costumes are not required, but they make everything more fun.

Photo by: Karl Withakay

 

Workshops are also an extra admission price, but these are excellent crash courses in Skepticism 101. I’m not just saying that because Mark Edward and I will be giving one on Thursday 11:00 am to 1:00 pm, but because these are a great place to interact in small groups with knowledgeable speakers. You have to choose which workshop you are going to attend because they run concurrent with each other. I see that Mark and I are up against two of my favorite skeptics, Chip and Grace Denman who are going to be doing a workshop called “Asking Good Questions.” I will not be offended if you choose the Denmans’ workshop over ours, which will be about activism. The Thursday afternoon workshops are another difficult choice. Kenny Biddle and Jim Underdown on “The Investigators” vs. “Introduction to Critical Thinking” with Ray Hall.

If you can, arrive on Tuesday, because you won’t want to miss the Skeptic’s Toolbox. This is a day-long event from 10 am to 6 pm that is very hands-on. The details are not available yet, but generally they will pick one topic, break you into groups, and give the groups things to read and a task. Then at the end of the day, the groups will report back to each other with some kind of presentation. I’ve seen plays, songs, and all other kinds of clever and fun presentations. The leaders of the Toolbox workshop are three of the most esteemed names in modern scientific skepticism. James Alcock, Loren Pankratz, and Ray Hyman. You will get a wealth of information from these three, and I strongly suggest you take advantage of this workshop. Besides, it will give you a major start in meeting new people.

Another tip for all you bibliophiles, especially if you are like me and have a weakness for autographed books: Pack your suitcase lightly so you will have the room to purchase books to bring home. You should have the opportunity to get most of these books signed and probably a photo with the author. I have shelves of books from past conferences that are like old friends. If you already have the book at home, bring it with you for an autograph. Remember to bring home extras for friends and family (Christmas will be right around the corner) and if you are part of a skeptic meetup, bring home a book to auction off or give as a prize to one lucky local attendee.

Get to know the speakers before you arrive. Most have well-written Wikipedia pages (many written and maintained by the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia Team [GSoW] that I manage).

I know that you would think that this conference is all about the speakers, and truly that is a very awesome part of the conference. You will be able to interact with them, sit with them at meals, take photos, and ask questions. And the lectures are of course high quality. Take lots of notes, because you are going to learn so much. But to me and most regular attendees, the best part of CSICon is meeting new people and revisiting with old friends. We go to the conference for the speakers, but we return for the people. And here are a few opinions from other CSICon attendees.

Stirling Gerbic-Forsyth – Always have a light coat or sweater. It gets cold in these air-conditioned buildings. Make a list of everyone who you want to meet. If you’re going for autographs, always have a sharpie on you. Go to lunch or dinner with other attendees as much as possible; you will meet a lot of people that way.

Rosemarie Giambrone – Make the effort to  spend as much time as you can with other attendees. They are brilliant and kind people, and I have made many lifelong friendships. And go to the party. It has been and probably always will be a blast! Costumes are encouraged but not mandatory.

Tracey Lonsdale-Harris – Dear Newcomer:  Skeptics are really a friendly bunch.  Introduce yourself and never be shy to ask a question (you will not be laughed at) or give your opinion (everyone has one at CSICon).  Attend a pre-con session too, because you will enjoy them and likely meet more people in the smaller forum. And avoid that white haired wiki lady with the funky hat. She’s got a cult going on over in the corner. [I suppose this is a reference to me. It’s gray hair, not white, Tracey!]

Craig Foster  I’ll admit it. I feel nervous going solo to a party. Listen. The world needs more skeptics. Bring a friend. If that doesn’t work, buy a beverage at the introduction, find a table, and strike up a conversation (but please stop and listen once the speakers start). We have to take care of each other by creating a supportive, inclusive atmosphere. Starter questions: Why are you here? What form of unreason do you hate the most? Is there really going to be a Gwyneth Paltrow piñata? Don’t shy away from the extracurricular events. If you see me, feel free to say hi. I like people, and if my wife is with me, she will overestimate my cachet.

Ray Hall – I often find the conversations among attendees at CSICon as interesting and meaningful as those coming from the stage. The diversity and breadth of expertise at this conference has been a source of continued inspiration. More than once I’ve met a future collaborator at CSICon, and the atmosphere is purposely inviting for making new connections. The promotion of critical thinking, and science, works best through community effort.

Kenny Biddle – My advice for newcomers to CSIcon is this: get your rest beforehand, wear comfortable clothing, bring a notebook, and come ready to learn. It is four non-stop days/nights of workshops, lectures, and interaction with people fully committed to their fields of study. Oh, and there’s a lot of fun in between. Not only do you get to hear about the latest research in various areas of science, but you can also approach the speakers afterward for follow-up questions or simple conversation. You won’t have time to sleep, because there are nighttime activities as well—from a magic show to the Halloween party, you won’t have time to rest. An added bonus is how friendly and outgoing the attendees are. I have made life-long friends at the conference with people from all of the world because everyone is friendly and easy to talk to.                                           

Mike Jarsulic – I think one of the best reasons to attend is the friendships you make. It’s very rare that I travel to another part of the country for work and I don’t have friends there that I have met at CSICon. Some advice for new people attending.

  1. Purchase one of the lunches. It allows the opportunity to meet new people at lunch, and it’s highly possible that one of the speakers will be at your table.
  2. Share a room with someone. It saves money and allows you to have someone to hang out with during the lulls in conference activity.
  3. If you hear a conversation that interests you going on, feel free to join in. I have done this for years and have always been welcomed into the conversation.

Ross Blocher – CSICon is a refreshing chance to get away from all the online debates and meet people who care about what science actually tells us. You’ll come away with lots of great, new, relevant information from a variety of experts, plus a bunch of new life-long friends. Take advantage of all the social opportunities! Everyone’s there to teach, to learn, and to have a great time.

Mark Edward – Don’t drink too much. Always have a witness nearby. If you want to double your money in Vegas, do what my grandfather advised: fold it in half and keep it in your wallet.

Leonard Tramiel – I suggest that first-time attendees to CSICon go to the Opening Reception and introduce themselves. (Perhaps we can get Barry to have them raise their hands so that they can be greeted). In addition, there is time between sessions as well as before and after to meet new people and find groups that are going to eat and join them.

Rob Palmer: The Well Known Skeptic – Having now attended two CSICons, my advice for those coming for the first time is to be bold. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself to the “famous” skeptics (science communicators, authors, podcasters…) whom you have previously only admired from afar. They are regular people. Also make sure to introduce yourself to the other conference attendees. This is your chance to meet like-minded people from all walks of life and make connections. Most will appreciate your effort and be glad to talk to you.

Brian Engler – You may have read Skeptical Inquirer or other classics of skeptical, scientific, or Freethought literature. Well, get ready, because these few days in Las Vegas will be like SI brought to life! You’ll get to hear and, perhaps more importantly, to meet and talk to some of the top thinkers, writers, and performers in the world of scientific skepticism. And don’t forget that these folks are very approachable, so don’t hold back. The conference is laid out to afford everyone multiple opportunities to interact and network. Be sure to take advantage of your time at CSICon and enjoy it! I look forward to renewing old friendships and making new ones. Hope to see you there!!

Bill London – I like to chat with attendees at CSICon and learn about their wide range of topical interests, educational backgrounds, areas of expertise, personal odysseys leading them to pursue skeptical inquiry, involvements in skeptical activism, and viewpoints about how skeptics ought to go about promoting skepticism.

Jeanine DeNoma – When you come to CSICon you will notice that we are a friendly, interesting community. The talks are fabulous and informative, but don’t let that divert your attention from everyone else who is there. Take time to meet interesting people, make new friends, and hang out with other skeptics. There is usually a hang-out spot; find out where it is, make your way there, and join a discussion. The social atmosphere is one of my favorite aspects of CSICon. As a local group leader, I love hearing what other skeptics groups and individuals are doing. I also love hearing how other people have arrived at the skeptics community. Sometimes I feel like I have the most interesting friends in the world!

Our Oregon local skeptics group, Oregonians for Science and Reason, sponsors college students to attend CSICon. If you have the means, send a student. As one of our students said of her time at CSICon, “Skepticism is kind of like science, but so much more.” She noted how much she learned from the speakers that were not things she was learning in graduate school.  You will learn something new too.

That was fun! Most people put the emphasis completely on getting to know your fellow attendees. That is really awesome! Stirling’s reminder to bring a sweater or light jacket was spot on. It might be Vegas, but in my opinion they over air-condition the building. For those looking for more of what to expect, I’ll leave you with links to past CSICon interviews, videos, photos, articles, and so on for you to peruse.

 



With the exception of the photo by Karl Withakay of Kenny Biddle, Cathy Smith, and me at the 2018 PJ themed party, all the photos were taken by me. I will be roaming the room taking more in 2019, so wear a fun science shirt and practice your smile.

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.