At the opening reception for this year’s CSICon conference, the audience was polled to ask who was attending their first CSICon. A very large number of hands went up, initiating sounds of surprise, quickly followed by appreciative applause from the audience. Personally, this was only my second CSICon so I still felt new at this conference thing myself. I had attended both times due to my association with the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW) team. So I began to wonder about the diverse reasons these people had for coming to their first conference, and I decided to make it my goal to ask a number of them to share their thoughts on their first CSICon experience.
The skeptics you will meet in this article have a wide variety of backgrounds and interests and are from Canada, Denmark, Poland, and the United States. This group includes an undergrad student/science communicator, a PhD candidate doing research on the spread of fake news, a fellow GSoW team member, the creators of a website tackling 9/11 Truther claims, and a popular atheist and skeptical activist YouTuber checking out the skeptical conference scene for the first time.
I met Claus Flodin Larsen and Steen Svanholm, the creators of 911facts.dk, early in the conference. Like me, the pair were scheduled to speak at CSICon for the first time. They had the final speaking spot of the six presentations at the Sunday Papers session, so we certainly had much to talk about. I was especially intrigued by the unique story of how their trip from Denmark was funded. You can watch their CSICon presentation, “The Harrit Syndrome: A New Explanation of Why and How People Become Evangelical Conspiracy Theorists,” here.
Claus and Steen on stage at CSICon. (Photo by Karl Withakay.)
Claus: Steen and I had long wanted to attend a major conference of skeptics. Having been to the first six TAMs, I wanted to introduce Steen to the conference scene, so in 2017, I suggested that we both attend CSICon 2018. The timing was right, since by then we had reached a point in our research on conspiracy theorists where we felt we had something to contribute to the community. We were also fully funded, since we had recently won a copyright infringement lawsuit against a conspiracy theorist, which netted us a cool $9,000. We may be the world’s only skeptics attending a skeptic conference on a Truther scholarship!
Highlights were many: Stephen Fry was uncannily eloquent, Steven Pinker was a shot of optimism in an otherwise doom-and-gloom world, and Deborah Hyde took us on an intriguing tour of vampirism. Of special interest to us were Mick West, who took on—and down—the perhaps central claim of the most dominant conspiracy theory of our times, the (non)existence of nanothermite in dust from the World Trade Center. Joseph Uscinski explained well how conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism for loss of trust and subsequent control, confirming our own findings.
We would highly recommend anyone to attend such conferences. Not only do you learn a lot about how easy we all can be deceived, but also meet with like-minded people from all over the world. The atmosphere is very relaxed, generous, and tolerant, where you mingle with attendees and speakers with the same ease. It is particularly easy to make new friends at CSICon, and a joy to re-connect with old ones.
The Sunday Papers is a great way to share your work with the community. The short format not only forces you to condense your ideas in an effective way, it also makes room for more speakers.
I met Magdalena de Góralska from Poland at the Guerrilla Skeptics’ table, where she was asking questions about what our team does to fight misinformation and add skepticism to Wikipedia articles. I took her aside, and we talked for quite a while on the topic. I also learned a bit about why she was attending the conference, and it turned out that her questions about GSoW were in support of her academic research for the Oxford Internet Institute. (After the conference, Magdalena followed-up by interviewing me over Skype about GSoW for her project.)
A CSICon selfie with yours truly, Alice Vaughn, and Magdalena de Góralska.
de Góralska: I came to CSICon as an anthropologist, researching alternative sources on information about science online. It happens that many participants of the convention are engaged, on different levels and in different ways, in science popularization.
My interest in the topic started with a concern over misinformation that happens online and may affect our choices in the areas of great importance, such as health and nutrition. To examine the issue, I have designed a mixed-method study that I hope will bring more insight into how misinformation happens and spreads online. Speaking to different internet users engaged in sharing information helps me to understand what happens with all these particles of data when they circulate online.
The conversations I had gave me much insight into the matter, and I decided to come to Las Vegas to meet some of the people I spoke to and meet more, in the hope to gain more understanding of their ways of communicating about science.
CSICon is an extraordinary event that brings together people with various background, concerned about similar things. Skepticism, whatever its source, is what unites every participant of this conference. Through exchanging our experiences, we can grow our understanding of the community, and perhaps find out new ways to collaborate to improve online communication about vital topics such as science, health, or nutrition.
I first corresponded with Thomas Westbrook three weeks before the conference after watching a debunking video, Psychics: What’s the Harm?, that he made for his popular Holy Koolaid YouTube channel. Sandwiching the great takedown job, the video began with Thomas discussing “C.S.I.” Con and its speakers, and ended with him expressing his intention to attend “C.S.I.” Con. From his repeated non-standard pronunciation of the conference name, it was clear to me that he was going to be a first-timer. I made it a point to talk to him in Vegas and was not disappointed. I only wish we had hung out more, especially because that may have led to having dinner with Bill Nye. (Read on!)
Another CSICon selfie: Thomas Westbrook at dinner with that Science Guy.
Westbrook: Hey! Thomas Westbrook here. I was raised as a missionary kid in a former-Soviet, Muslim country. I was pretty heavily indoctrinated with religious teachings and was taught that the Earth was created in six days and was literally 6,000 years old. It wasn’t until college that I really started to dig deeper. I fell in love with science and started looking behind the curtain—reading the Bible with skeptical glasses on. I realized that truth withstands scrutiny and set out to explore the world from a scientific perspective, leaving no stone unturned.
Early in my exploration, I set up a YouTube channel called Holy Koolaid to document the journey. I would dive deep into a scientific field, drink it all in, and use what I learned to evaluate paranormal/supernatural claims. I covered faith healing, miracles, and alternative medicine. I even created an entire series on psychics. It wasn’t long before I found the works of James Randi, Banachek, Dr. Ray Hyman, Dr. Susan Blackmore, and so many other legends in the world of skepticism, and I repeatedly referenced their works in my videos.
You can imagine my excitement when I discovered CSICon and saw just how many of my heroes were speaking! This was my chance to meet them in person, shake their hands, and thank them for helping me in my journey to discover how the universe actually works. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the funds to attend, but I reached out to the organizer, Barry Karr. I showed him my series on psychics and asked if I could help promote the event on my channel in exchange for a ticket. He not only agreed but was generous enough to give me a press pass and my own press room to interview people at the conference! My friend Greg was also attending and had an extra bed in his hotel room, which he generously let me have for free. The next thing I knew I was on a flight to Vegas!
The conference itself exceeded my expectations with so many highlights; I don’t know where to begin. The speakers were friendly and approachable. I got to interview Dr. Ray Hyman and Dr. Jennifer Gunter. Banachek had retweeted some of my videos before, so I not only got to interview him for my channel, but he asked if he could interview me for his podcast as well (which was a huge honor)! James Randi signed a copy of his book, Faith Healers, for me. I got professor Stephen Pinker to get out on the dance floor during the pajama party (he’s got moves). I was able to meet Stephen Fry and Adam Conover, and I even had dinner with Bill freakin’ Nye, who just showed up to the conference out of the blue! I walked out of the conference hall, saw a group of friends talking with him, and they asked me if I wanted to go to dinner with them. I sat right next to him, and he just turned to me and said, “Hi, my name’s Bill.” After Alice Vaughn told him about my channel, he asked me what it was called, and wrote “Holy Koolaid” down on a piece of paper. The whole thing was pretty surreal.
CSICon was just one highlight after another! If anyone loves science, wants to know how the universe works, or wants to meet the scientists and academics at the forefront of this exploration, CSICon is the conference to go to. And not only that, but these people are incredibly genuine and super fun! It was my first time going, but I really felt like I found my people there.
One of the most interesting first-timers I encountered at the conference was Ada McVean. This multifaceted undergrad student, barely in her twenties, had travelled solo to the conference (and from another country to boot)—something I would never have done at twice her age. On advice from her colleagues, she had sought out the Guerrilla Skeptics team and wound up hanging out with us quite a bit. Although still a student, she is already an accomplished science communicator writing for Montreal’s Office for Science and Society. You can check out her articles here.
McVean: Hi! I’m Ada McVean. I’m in the last semester of my undergraduate degree at McGill University (in Montreal, Québec) where I’m finishing a double major in bioorganic chemistry and gender, sexual diversity, social justice, and feminist studies (the evolution of women’s studies). I’ve worked with the McGill Office for Science and Society (OSS) for almost three years now, first as a filing assistant and now as a science writer, communicator, IT helper, and general get-shit-done person.
The story of how I wound up at CSICon is very indicative of how our office operates a lot of the time. I was just walking into the office one morning when my colleagues started discussing their travel plans for their attendance of CSICon. I asked when it was, and my boss, Joe Schwarcz, responded: “October. We’ll send you too!” Just like that, I was set for my second science communication and skepticism convention and my first trip to Las Vegas.
In the end, every one of my colleagues ended up cancelling their attendance due to personal reasons, leaving me, the 22-year-old intern, to travel to Las Vegas and represent the OSS alone. A slightly anxiety-inducing task. A short 7 AM flight later, I was in a foreign town in a foreign country surrounded by foreign people, trying to adjust my brain to its first ever time change. At the advice of my colleague, I sought out Susan Gerbic (the leader of the GSoW team), and meekly introduced myself and asked for her help meeting people. From that moment on all was well.
The GSoW team and CSICon, in general, welcomed me into their ranks and helped to make sure I was meeting who I should, seeing what I should, and having a great time. It’s funny how much having someone to sit next to during talks can help you feel welcome, but it’s certainly true. The talks were really fantastic. Covering an incredibly wide range of topics, from things I’d consider myself somewhat of an expert in (like sex vs. gender or chemophobia) to things I’d never heard of (9/11 conspiracy theories based around microspheres), they entertained, taught, engaged and amused, and almost more importantly encouraged.
Comparing my fellows in science to my fellows in gender studies can sometimes leave the scientists seeming a bit stuck in their ways, elitist, unwelcoming, or even rude. But that was not the experience I had at CSICon, and I’m so happy to have made so many contacts with people who share the same penchant for busting pseudoscience as me and who can also take a joke, have a drink, and generally operate in approachable, kind ways. Come next semester I’ll be applying to graduate schools and making decisions about my future. Experiences like CSICon helped me to cement a place in that future for science communication. I also met Bill Nye, so that certainly provided a fair amount of scientific inspiration.
Jeff Gehlbach is a fellow Guerrilla Skeptics team member, and we had interacted online, but this was our first real-world meeting. Jeff spent much of his between-presentation time at the GSoW table (located just outside the presentation room) discussing Wikipedia editing with curious conference attendees and even demonstrating how to improve an article in real-time. (See the video here.) Jeff is currently writing his own article for Skeptical Inquirer, which will cover his CSICon experience in more depth. Keep an eye out for it!
Jeff taking a break at the conference. (Photo by Karl Withakay.)
Gehlbach: A child of the 1980s, I came up in a small town in the southeastern United States, luckily in circumstances that instilled a mostly pro-science worldview. Over time I picked up a now-mortifying degree of credulity around spirituality, the paranormal, and alternative medicine. The first two I shed gradually at university; the last one was on its way out when a terminally ill family member’s turn away from medicine threw reality into sharp focus for me. I committed myself to scientific skepticism and filed my first medical board complaint against a quack MD, a rewarding but somewhat time-consuming process. These days I do most of my activism through the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project, which I joined in late 2017.
From my work with open-source software I have long known how valuable conferences are as a way to make contacts and get involved, so I was sure that I wanted to attend skeptics’ conferences. I knew about CSICon through word of mouth, and decided to make it my first skeptical conference after seeing that many of my fellow GSoW editors would be attending. The event did not disappoint! The workshops, sessions, and “hallway track” provided an abundance of opportunities for learning, collaboration, and networking.
The most memorable moments involved getting to know my fellow GSoW editors in person, as well as meeting and chatting with communicators whose work I have long admired, including Ross Blocher, Brian Dunning, Bill London, and Bill Nye. Everybody involved in scientific skepticism, whether an old hand or just getting started, should go to at least one conference, and CSICon should be at the top of the list to consider.
It is my impression that most people come to the big-name conferences, including CSICon, to hear and meet the well-known speakers. However, what makes a bigger impact long after the conference is over is not necessarily the details of the presentations by those skeptical-movement luminaries. Sometimes it is the contacts you make, and even friendships that grow out of time spent with average skeptics like yourself—including first-timers like the people featured here. Hopefully these personal accounts will convince some readers who have not yet done so, that they should attend a future CSICon themselves. Be sure to introduce yourself to me when you do!