CSICon Las Vegas: “Go for the speakers, return for the people”

Susan Gerbic

Have you heard the saying, “Go for the speakers, return for the people”? That was CSICon this year. Held October 27–30, 2016, at the Excalibur Casino in Las Vegas the lineup of speakers was some of the stars of science and skepticism, making this a must-do conference. CFI Communications Director Paul Fidalgo kept up a running blog of all the lectures, and I highly encourage anyone interested in that aspect to read his thoughts here. Conference organizer Barry Karr has assured me that videos of the lectures will be available by January 2017. This link http://www.reasonabletalk.tv/ is where they will eventually reside; you can follow @SkeptInquiry on Twitter or the Skeptical Inquirer Facebook page to receive notifications as they are released.

Traditionally, CSICon conferences have moved locations: New Orleans in 2011, Nashville in 2012, and Tacoma, Washington, in 2013. There is no word yet on whether CSI will continue this practice. CSICOP conferences have existed since 1983 and have been held worldwide, sometimes co-hosted with other organizations. For many years, the JREF Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) met in Las Vegas in July, maxing out with an attendance of 1,500 people. In 2015, James Randi announced his retirement from JREF and, apparently, the end of TAMs, but not the end to Randi’s energy and lecture tours. I’ve been told that the JREF will continue, in some form. But a future TAM is unlikely.

The speculation before this year’s event was “could CSICon be the next TAM?” I know that CFI wasn’t comfortable with this question, as they have been running events long before the JREF, and CSICOP was the beginning of the modern organized skeptic movement. CSICOP was the inspiration and motivation for so many organizations to form, so I understand that they felt like they had nothing to prove. Yet they have not had the attendance numbers TAM has had in the past. Keep in mind that holding an event in October makes it difficult for students and educators to attend.

According to Skeptical Inquirer’s editor Kendrick Frazier, “Over our first thirty years, CSICOP held major conferences… Then for a time starting in about 2005, and for reasons hard to explain, that tradition went into a seven-year hiatus. James Randi’s JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation) began filling that gap with a new series of popular conferences, TAM, held in Las Vegas.”

I am a technical consultant for CSI but do not work for them. I have very little insider knowledge, but I can say that there seemed to be a worry that if CSICon was not a success then there might be no more CSICons. There was a lot riding on this; money is tight and getting people to attend in late October, a week before the Presidential election, was a gamble.

In my opinion, it exceeded expectations. It took the best and brightest of TAM and added to it.

We spend so much time behind our computers, passively listening to podcasts, watching science videos, all with very little collaboration with our peers. Personally, I need to interact, to break bread with others, to sit until the wee hours of the morning talking. Hearing about new projects, getting updates on old ones. I know that we are preaching to the choir, but sometimes that is what is needed; I need it. The embers die down from time to time and we need to kick the fire, put fresh wood on it, get the blaze going again so we can go home and get things done.

I love the speakers: at conferences like CSICon, you can spend time with them, take a selfie with them, share meals, ask questions, and get advice. Sitting in for the lectures is always great, a large room full of people all nodding their heads together, laughing at the same joke, and getting that awesome feeling in your gut that you are here, listening. Lawrence Krauss had to cut his talk short because he had a plane to catch, but knowing that just made him being there even more special. He was like that famous relative who drops in on the family dinner because he really wants to be there; he does not have time to be there, but he wanted to drop off presents, talk to the kids and see how they are doing in school, grab a piece of pumpkin pie, and though he would rather stay with us, he had obligations to be somewhere else. It was like that. I remember feeling pride knowing that he is one of us, he gets us, and we get him. Because it was early on Sunday morning, some of what he said went way over my head, so I’m really looking forward to the videos, but there was one very important thing that stuck with me. He was describing how they designed the gravity wave machines (LIGO) and he told us that only right now have we been able to build these machines and analyze the results. A few years ago, we didn’t have the technology. That hit home with me: what an amazing time to be alive.

Besides Krauss, the only lectures I attended were the Sunday lectures. More on that in a minute. So why is Susan Gerbic writing this article about CSICon if she didn’t attend the lectures? Because CSICon is so much more than lectures. I was there for the people.

As the leader of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (GSoW), I was there to work. On Thursday morning, Stephanie Guttormson and I shared a workshop presentation on Skeptical Activism. If you missed it, the video will hopefully be out soon. Stephanie spoke about her experience making a “response” video to a person who claimed all kinds of medical cures without evidence. As a consequence of her video, she received a court document telling her to take down her video and retract her opinion. Stephanie’s attorney was in the audience and the Q&A was quite interesting.

I spoke about the importance of having our spokespeople’s backs by giving them the best possible Wikipedia pages we can. And how, once those people have a strong Wikipedia page, it allows them to get more media attention, and therefore educate more people. You will just have to wait for the video, as I said a lot more than that, and Stephanie and I answered a lot of great questions. It was really exciting to look out at the audience and see so many interested faces looking back, but even more special when I saw people whose Wikipedia pages were worked on by GSoW. People like Paul Offit (see my pre-CSICon interview with him here) and Ronald Lindsay.

What you missed by not attending the conference were some really great moments. As I said, as the leader of GSoW I am there to educate, recruit new editors, and get work done. This involves capturing voice audio intros for Wikipedia pages. GSoW adds a one to three–minute audio clip of the Wikipedia page target’s voice. We managed to collect audio for nine different Wikipedia pages. Also, photography for use on Wikipedia pages is very helpful. Brian Engler and Karl Withakay as well as myself were able to upload many new photos for addition on Wikipedia.

Figure 1. Eugenie Scott – “Sins of Evolution Education”. Photo by Susan Gerbic.

I was given a long table off to the side of the lobby in order to be able to sit down with people one-on-one and answer questions about Wikipedia. I love doing this. People all through the conference came and sat with me, and we browsed through pages, explaining why things are the way they are, editing bits as needed. People left learning something more about Wikipedia, and several promised they were going to become future GSoW editors.

One more hallmark of CSICon is that it takes place near Halloween. I and my son, Stirling, took full advantage of this and came prepared with different outfits every day. I was Medusa on Friday, a Queen on Saturday, and a Victorian ghost on Sunday. Stirling on one morning started out as a mad scientist and over the course of the day morphed into The Fly. Even Richard Dawkins got into the fun of it and examined Stirling’s proboscis.

Figure 2. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins examines Stirling Gerbic-Forsyth’s proboscis. Photo by Susan Gerbic.

The Halloween party was a blast. It started out pretty quiet; I didn’t recognize most people, but after mingling and photographing costumes, the party started to warm up. Jim Underdown had the idea to get people to submit karaoke songs but rewritten with a skeptical message. I was happily surprised to see that several people took him up on it and belted out on stage. Then the Halloween costume contest started. They were terrific and clever; many had skeptical themes, such as Ed and Lorraine Warren who see demons everywhere, including their haunted Raggedy Ann doll, which they brought to CSICon. It was a lot of fun to see a real paranormal investigator, Joe Nickell, engage with this couple. One very popular character was Hunter Perrin, who went as Zombie Trump. He was hilarious with his “Don’t vote for Vampire Hillary; let’s send her back to Transylvania and build a wall and make them pay for it.” One of my favorite bits was when Genie Scott wore a nametag that said “Nasty Woman” and hammed it up for the camera asking for the vote, and Zombie Trump was lurking behind her until she noticed and they both burst out in laughter. Jay Diamond wore a shirt that said “Keep an open mind” on the front. The back said “But not so open that your brains fall out.” And then his head had guts and gore everywhere; it was terrific. Dave Thomas was mad scientist Dr. Thomas from Los Alamos. Christopher Columbus and Queen Elizabeth paid a visit as well as many Star Trek (original series) characters. Marvin the Martian wore a Tyson/Nye for President t-shirt. Little Red Riding Hood brought the Big Bad Wolf. Angie Mattke entertained as a belly dancer. CFI’s own Stef McGraw came as Joe Nickell. Schrodinger Cat’s Vet showed up, complete with scratches. I was disappointed (and actually a little happy) that so few people knew who I was even after I told them I was Sylvia Browne. The winner of the contest was Mitchell Lampert who was not a strawman, but a straw Vulcan. There were so many terrific costumes and songs I’ve included links here for you to look through. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVEArFmqUCE and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_vgwalchtE&t=1s

Figure 4. CSI staff at Halloween Party. Photo by Susan Gerbic.

George Hrab’s sing-a-long is always super popular. He does one with his songs, like a free concert. And then another one that usually lasts until the wee hours of the morning where people call out songs and everyone sings along. He not only performs his duty as emcee: he acts as host wherever people gather. He is a talent and a gem. To learn more about him, read this interview I did with him before CSICon.

Figure 3. Emcee George Hrab in concert. Photo by Susan Gerbic.

Being in the foyer so much, I did get to spend quality time with speakers, which is one of the highlights of the conference. Harriet Hall and Kevin Folta were there (both of whom I interviewed before the conference. Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Elizabeth Loftus, Ray Hyman, and more were hanging around the beverage area and, for a fan girl like me, I got a thrill each time I saw them. Attendees were always coming up to them for a photo. When I took a photo of Dawkins and Bertha Vazquez together, he said “Be sure to send me a copy of that.” How cool is that?

So, we are nearing the end of this really wonderful conference. One of my favorite parts of TAM was always the Sunday Papers. This is a tradition started years ago and curated by Ray Hall. CSICon has kept this tradition and because Lawrence Krauss preceded this year’s Papers, the lectures were well-attended. Those that stayed to listen were treated to six fifteen-minute, carefully constructed, and practiced presentations. I love these mainly because they are from people I do not know, about subjects I’m unaware of. The speakers may be experts in these topics and it is such a unique perspective to be able to “look over their shoulders” into what inspires them. This year’s presenters were Dave Thomas “War of the Weasels: An Update on Creationist Attacks on Genetic Algorithms”; Ellen Tarr, “The Truth about Rh-Negative Blood Types”; Robert Knaier, “Homeopathy on Trial: Allen v. Hyland’s, Inc and a Failure of Evidentiary Gatekeeping”; Craig Foster, “Predicting Pseudoscience: Concussions and the Developing Defense of American Football”; Kathleen Dyer, “Evaluating Education for Critical Thinking: Can College Classes Reduce Belief in Nonsense?”; and Mick West, “Expert Elicitation vs. Chemtrails.” What a terrific mix of lectures. To learn more about the history of the Sunday Papers, please read these interviews I did with Ray Hall and Katie Dyer and with Jay Diamond.

It was all such a whirlwind of activity. I think I slept for twelve hours when the conference was over. When I woke up, it was not over for GSoW and I. We had to review photos and voice audio, get them uploaded and added to Wikipedia pages. One major surprise that happened only a few days prior to the start of the conference was that prolific GSoW editor Leon Korteweg, working in the Netherlands managed to pull together a Wikipedia page just for the conference. This is really incredible and GSoW has since been trying to update it with the events that happened this year. Please give it a look.

I’m working on another article about the conference, this time focused on the viewpoint of people who were first-time attendees. So be on the lookout for that, and I’ll leave you with this. If you want conferences to continue in the future, then you must fight to keep them. I heard a lot of people say “I’ll go to the next one.” If too many people say that, then there might not be a next one. Assuming there will always be one waiting for you is not the attitude to have. If you can’t go, then help sponsor some else to go. Donate to a scholarship drive so we can keep seats filled and numbers up. Now more than ever we need to keep our conferences healthy and relevant. We are at war with antiscience attitudes. We need to keep our critical thinking skills finely tuned. To do so, we need to get out from behind our computer screens and shake hands with someone new, share a drink, take a selfie, and kick those glowing embers. We need you.

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.