CSICon 2019: Meet the First-Timers

Rob Palmer

2019 was the third consecutive year I attended CSICon in Las Vegas, and the second year in a row for which I was a speaker at the Sunday Paper sessions. This time, I also served as guest reporter for The Skeptic Zone podcast. As enjoyable as those unique experiences were, attending all the interesting presentations and spending time with fellow skeptics before, after, and in-between the presentations and other scheduled events were also highpoints of the five days.

As a CSICon veteran (that’s a joke for folks who have been attending CSICon and its predecessor TAM! seemingly forever), one particular thing I have enjoyed each year was meeting people for whom that particular conference was their very first CSICon. Last year I wrote about such people in “CSICon 2018: Meet the First-Timers.”

At this year’s conference, I met another set of newbies and again asked some of them to share their thoughts about their conference experience. The first-timers you will hear from in this article are: a new member of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) team along with her young son, a popular YouTuber known as the Genetically Modified Skeptic, a United States Air Force Academy cadet studying the promotion of pseudoscience on social media who was one of the five speakers at the Sunday Paper session, and another GSoW teammate who was a featured speaker on the subject of Facilitated Communications.

 


 

I first met Brandi Purney at—of all places—the Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame. A group of GSoW team members took Ubers to check it out on the evening before the conference officially began, and I joined them. Purney, a Vegas local and brand-new member of the GSoW team, decided to join us there as well. Neither she nor I seemed much into playing the games that evening, so instead we spent time talking about science, skepticism, our religion (or lack thereof), favorite science topics, podcasts, and life in general. (A not-so-unusual mix of topics at CSICon.)

In the days that followed, we sat together for many of the presentations, shared several meals, and on the final day of the conference I even met her son, Aedan, who had joined her to meet physicist Brian Greene. I was so impressed by Aedan’s interest in science, that in addition to asking both Purneys to participate in this article, I also interviewed the pair for The Skeptic Zone podcast (that interview is available here).

Brandi Purney

Brandi Purney: I had been listening to skeptical podcasts and following the skeptical movement online for some time when I first heard about CSICon. At first, I thought it was just for those active in the community, like science communicators and such, and I was not active in the community. I’m not a scientist nor a science communicator either, but I was wanting to get more involved somehow. After reading more about the conference online, I found out that it’s really for anyone, so I made up my mind to go.

In the meantime, I kept hearing about Susan Gerbic’s work with Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia, which sounded like a great way for me to do something in the name of skepticism. I got in touch with her and started my training. She also encouraged me to go to CSICon and got me in touch with other GSoW members who planned on going to the conference.

I’ll admit that I was having second thoughts about going, since I was planning on going alone and wouldn’t know anyone there. But thank goodness for Susan and her group. They made me feel like one of the team immediately, and I was able to meet up with a bunch of them before the conference. So, the day of the conference, I felt like I was meeting up with old friends. Between Susan Gerbic and Rob Palmer, I felt like I belonged. It was my first time at a conference of any sort, so it was great having them around to explain things, show me where to go, and point out or introduce me to certain people in the skeptical community. I don’t know what I would have done without them.

The conference itself was a lot of fun. There were so many amazing speakers. The topics were varied: from Kurt Andersen’s talk on his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, to Brian Greene’s presentation on black holes and string theory. Of course, there were talks on more common skeptical topics, too, so there was something of interest for everyone.

On the last day of the conference, I brought my fourteen-year-old son, Aedan, along. He had been a fan of Greene’s since elementary school and back then he wanted to be a theoretical physicist when he grew up. He has since directed his interests to video games and game development, but we couldn’t miss the chance for him to meet one of his childhood heroes. He listened intently during the presentation, and, afterward, he was able to have some of his books signed by Greene and got his picture with him.

CSICon was an event I will never forget. I made new friends, my son got to meet someone he admired, and I learned so much. I also got to cross some books off my wish list and had them signed by the authors who spoke at the conference. If you are considering going, but you are worried about not knowing anyone, don’t be. Everyone was so welcoming. I have honestly never met a friendlier group of people. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Brian Greene with Aedan Purney

Aedan Purney: When my mom first told me about CSICon, I wasn’t that interested, until she mentioned Brian Greene. He was an idol of mine for the majority of my childhood, so I was excited for the opportunity to see him talk and maybe even meet him.

My first impressions of CSICon were good. The talks were very interesting and put things into a perspective a kid like me could understand. However, I felt like there weren’t enough kids there. I felt like there could have been more interactive parts to the convention to attract more kids.

Brian Greene made an excellent speech about black holes and their history. Afterward, we were able to get some of the books he wrote that we brought with us signed. He even signed my CSICon souvenir: a stuffed pink flamingo. It was so great to meet someone I look up to in the science community. After seeing one day of the con, I am hoping to make it to next year’s and attend every day.

 


 

When I met Drew McCoy at CSICon he was dressed like a hipster. I did not see what this had to do with the 1950s theme for the costume party we were attending (maybe he just always dresses like that?), but who was I to judge. After all, I was wearing a costume that could seem to have nothing to do with the time period either—unless one got the movie reference. Hint: my clothing and numerous movie-replica props were straight out of 1985 … October 25, 1985, to be precise!

Anyway, McCoy and his party had sat themselves at the small table I and some friends had claimed as our own at the beginning of the party but had left unoccupied except for some personal items we left on the table, including my copy of Grays Sports Almanac. I was about to explain to the interlopers that I and other people were sitting at that table, when suddenly I had an odd feeling looking at the fellow sitting in “my chair” that I knew him.

Then it hit me: I had spent countless hours over many years enjoying his insightful YouTube videos challenging both religious belief and pseudoscience. In fact, I was one of his nearly 200,000 subscribers. It was the Genetically Modified Skeptic in the flesh! I introduced myself and had a pleasant conversation, which included possibly interviewing him for this article. And, I will be doing a full article with McCoy as well, so let this serve as an introduction.

Drew McCoy: Hi! I’m Drew McCoy of the YouTube channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. As a full-time atheist activist, I’m lucky enough to spend my time making videos about atheism and skepticism, working as a board member of the Atheist Community of Austin, and running my own conference, Faithless Forum, by and for atheist YouTubers. Having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian in Texas, I’m particularly interested in building community among atheists and skeptics so we all have a place to speak our minds without condemnation from less skeptical, more ideologically driven people.

I attend a lot of conferences as an activist, and CSICon easily has been one of my favorites so far. Anyone who knows my YouTube channel knows that alternative medicine and other health-related quackery really gets under my skin. So naturally, I loved hearing Dr. Jen Gunter and Britt Marie Hermes tackle those subjects in their talks. Of course, getting the chance to see Richard Dawkins speak was a treat as well. Just a few days before I was to set out to Las Vegas from Texas, my wife took a look at the conference’s programming and instantly decided she wanted to join me. We both had a blast!

Something I found incredibly refreshing about CSICon was its mix of educational talks and fantastic shows. I was constantly learning and always engaged in the programming. I mean, with Dr. Gunter, Dawkins, Banachek, and Piff the Magic Dragon, how can you not be? On top of that, the 1950s party was a blast! Socializing with other skeptics is such a breath of fresh air when you live in the south. I only took issue with one thing throughout my whole experience at CSICon: Rob Palmer didn’t win first place in the costume contest with his excellent Marty McFly costume (complete with a flyer about saving the clocktower). There’s always next year, Rob, and I’ll be there!

 


 

Jessica E. Tuttle is a cadet in her final year at the United States Air Force Academy. She is currently majoring in Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and will serve as an officer in the United States Air Force after she graduates. I met Tuttle on Saturday, the day before she was to be the first speaker at the Sunday Paper sessions. She was in street clothes at the time, and I almost did not recognize her when we met on Sunday morning in the front row reserved for the day’s speakers. She was wearing her Air Force uniform and cut a commanding figure. As I almost attended West Point and spent much of my engineering career as a sub-contractor on military projects, if she barked an order at me that morning, I may have jumped to carry it out. At the podium, of all the Sunday Paper presenters she seemed the most formal in her delivery. I had no doubt this was due to her no-nonsense military training.

You can watch her CSICon presentation, “From Boob Tube to Woo Tube: A Method for Examining Science and Pseudoscience in Video Social Media,” here.

Cadet Jessica Tuttle presenting at CSICon (photo by Karl Withakay)

 

Jessica E. Tuttle: What got me here is my professor, Dr. Craig Foster, telling me about his experiences coming to the conference for the past couple of years. His stories of talks that he has heard and people he has met really inspired me to see the conference for myself. I was given the opportunity to speak at the Paper Sessions. So, I came to CSICon 2019 to give my presentation regarding Pseudoscience and Video Social Media during the sessions on Sunday. Fortunately, by that time I had been seeing skeptics talk for two days. I got to see what being a skeptic truly meant in a community of other skeptics. I learned about topics that had never entered my sphere of influence before, such as facilitated communication. I also had the chance to sit through some amazing talks, the likes of which I have never experienced in my undergraduate studies.

I research, and am most interested in, social media and the spreading of pseudoscience, fake news, and bad science. Social media is a growing arena of news and information, so the more prevalent it becomes, the more likely it becomes that it’ll be misused. What I have found is that conferences like this speak heavily to this topic—at least they did this year. It helped me in my understanding of how there is misinformation on a variety of different news outlets, not just social media. I received several questions and comments after my presentation that have aided me in adjusting the research method I had used. More than that, the various people I met changed how I think about the topic in general.

Being skeptical was not something I was raised doing, but when I began my undergraduate education it was something emphasized heavily. It is a virtue to be able to critically think about what is said over the internet and even in our day-to-day lives. Being at CSICon, thinking critically was such a common practice that I found it hard to remember a time before I was skeptical. The more critically we think as a human race, the less likely we are to believe in pseudoscience, false science, and fake news in general. Everyone at the conference saw how dangerous it could be to be swept along with stories that aren’t founded in science. At the very least, I know there is a community of people fighting fake news to protect the greater population from being swindled by pretty stories and magical cures. That is something that I find myself wanting to aid in now and in the future. The world revolves so much around what the “next big thing” is, that very few stop to skeptically ask but is it actually? The people of the skeptical community are those few, and that makes me hopeful about how much this community is capable of.

 


 

I was familiar with Janyce Boynton, a collage artist from Maine, due to our online interactions in the Guerrilla Skeptics’ private Facebook group referred to as the “Secret Cabal” (named as such due to our total control of Wikipedia from that sinister venue). However, we had not met in person until we ran into one another at CSICon at the Guerrilla Skeptics table in the book sale room. I got to know her better during a team meal we shared, and when I interviewed her for The Skeptic Zone podcast a few days later. (That interview is available here.) The depth of her feelings about the travesty that is the continued use of facilitated communications is palpable and was the impetus for her presentation on that subject at this conference.

You can watch her CSICon presentation, “FC: Communication Unsound,” here. As I understand it, this was Boynton’s first presentation anywhere, but it almost certainly will not be her last. Also, last year she was featured in an article about FC by Stuart Vyse in the Skeptical Inquirer, and you can read that here.

Janyce Boynton: As a first-timer to CSICon, I had some trepidation about what the conference might be like, but I need not have worried. Within an hour of arriving at the hotel, I found myself sitting around a table sharing food and drinks with other conference goers who’d come from all over the world to participate in the event. These conversations continued in various forms right up to the moment people left the hotel to catch their flights home.

I came to give a talk on facilitated communication (FC), a topic that is emotional for many people and one that is deeply personal to me. I once believed in the very technique I was there to tell people was pseudoscience. I’d braced myself for negative reactions but wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming support I got from this community. I’ve received a lot of criticism from people outside the skeptic community, which often ends in ad hominem attacks.

But here, at CSICon, the response went something like this: You believed in something you thought was true, tested it, realized it wasn’t real, accepted the science, and now you’re trying to educate people about it. Cool, let’s go get coffee. The kindness I received from people at CSICon—particularly around this issue—is something that I will never forget.

Highlights: talking with the students who attended the conference on Friday, meeting people I’d only previously known through email, making new friends, and seeing my name on a bottle of wine next to the likes of Elizabeth Loftus, Richard Dawkins, Ray Hyman, Britt Hermes, and so many others who spoke at CSICon 2019. How awesome is that?

 


 

This conclusion is from my 2018 First-Timers article, and I see no reason to change one jot or tittle of it for this sequel:

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, they should attend a future CSICon themselves. Be sure to introduce yourself to me when you do!

Rob Palmer

Rob Palmer has had a diverse career in engineering, having worked as a spacecraft designer, an aerospace project engineer, a computer programmer, and a software systems engineer. Rob became a skeptical activist when he joined the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia team in 2016, and began writing for Skeptical Inquirer in 2018. Rob can be contacted at TheWellKnownSkeptic@gmail.com Like Rob's Facebook page to get notified when his articles are published.