Fifteen Minutes of Skepticism: The Sunday Papers, An interview with Jay Diamond

Susan Gerbic

Jay Diamond is known on the West coast for his unending enthusiasm for scientific skepticism as well as his San Francisco speaker series and activist group, Reason 4 Reason. Jay also presented a Sunday Paper at TAM 2015 on evidence-based fitness and skeptical bodybuilding.

Susan Gerbic: Jay, you are quite a popular personality in the community, but the real reason I wanted to talk to you today was because of your involvement with the Sunday Paper presentation at TAM 2015. I know the deadline to petition to speak has already passed, but I don’t think the average attendee understands how much work goes into these fifteen-minute presentations. Can you please tell us about the experience of qualifying to speak?

Jay Diamond: You definitely need to do your work. I applied in 2014 and made the short-list but wasn’t selected. I refined my work, did more research, and made the cut in 2015. The first piece is writing a synopsis that quickly identifies that you’re appropriate for the audience. You should demonstrate an understanding of scientific skepticism and critical thinking, research, experimentation, and a novel subject or twist on a well-understood subject. It should also be of mass appeal and potentially entertaining, so detailed math proofs are probably sub-optimal subject matter.

If you are selected, you must submit a formal paper, and the hard work begins. You must organize and articulate your work, as you would with any formal report, and clearly separate how you are bringing scientific skepticism to your subject. Most importantly, you must back up all assertions with evidence.

No changes were made to my paper, but I needed to clarify that specific citations backed up my claims. It’s the kind of clarification that would and should be requested of any good skeptic. I’d been writing a blog on the subject for several months, so much of the work had previously been done in parts.

Finally, you should remember that your paper is being selected as part of an ensemble and that Dr. Hall is attempting to create something both educational and entertaining. You may not be selected only because another subject fits better with the ensemble, and there’s nothing you can do about that but apply again in subsequent years.

Gerbic: Tell us about your talk.

Photograph by Brian Engler

Diamond: I went on a journey from the worst shape of my life to vastly exceeding my fitness goals and had to wade through mounds of questionable claims to understand which claims were valid. In the process, my research unveiled some surprising facts and busted some myths. I discussed the science behind actively improving your health, the rationale behind taking protein supplements for bodybuilders, and the ultimate secret for building muscle. It was a combination of historical research, calculation, and critical thinking.

I’d always wanted to do a talk at TAM, and this was a chance to give back to the community by talking about a subject that combined a life-changing event with scientific skepticism. I had no idea that I’d be opening the last day of the last TAM. Since the talk, I’ve had a number of people credit me with losing weight, improving their fitness, or changing their perceived fitness goals. It’s been incredibly gratifying and undoubtedly the highlight of my skeptical experience.

Gerbic: One of my first experiences speaking about the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project was a Sunday Paper Presentation at TAM9. I know exactly what you are talking about. Ray was kind but also strict with making sure I was prepared. It was nerve racking but looking back well worth it.

Diamond: It’s much easier to do an hour-long talk than fifteen minutes. For the short talk, you need to be very well rehearsed. I’ve presented to Nobel Laureates, billionaires, and industry leaders, but I’ve never been more prepared and more nervous than presenting to a room with 1,000 skeptics.

Gerbic: CSI will continue the tradition of Sunday Papers this October. You and I have talked about this before; it is both of our favorite part of the convention. Why do you think that’s so?

Diamond: The Sunday Papers are “best of” the skeptical community. Grassroots skeptics get fifteen minutes to discuss their passion, so they are concise and clear. The presentations are almost always on subjects not otherwise discussed. Dr. Hall curates the talks to ensure a broad diversity, so if a subject doesn’t interest you, wait fifteen minutes. Speakers span armchair skeptics to skeptical activists to experts in a field. I’m usually riveted by one or two of the talks, fascinated by another two, and the others are wild cards—the right balance to ensure diversity and broad appeal.

Getting up on the last morning of a long conference is hard, but I do it every year because it’s completely worth it. DO NOT MISS IT!

Gerbic: I hope to talk to a few other Paper presenters, as many have stuck with me over the years. How about you? Which ones were your favorites?

Diamond: I remember Dr. Martha Keller discussing alternative veterinary medicine in 2012, combining her work with her passion for scientific skepticism. I was surprised at the breadth of treatment, which includes acupuncture, chiropractic, and homeopathy. The talk was fascinating, funny, and left me with something actionable—to warn my friends with pets.

In 2013, Andrew Hansford discussed “The Marblehead UFO,” which was basic grassroots skepticism. Andrew did what every skeptic wants to do but rarely does. He did basic research on a UFO sighting to find the source of the sightings by assembling press reports, searching through flight logs and weather reports, triangulating maps, and performing basic calculations to unquestionably identify a specific airline flight that was responsible for the sighting. He changed a UFO to an IFO, and everyone left that talk thinking “I could do this.”

The same year, Australian Shane Greenup discussed his inventive internet platform for global debate, Rbutr. His goal of spreading critical thinking and civil discourse was so motivating to me that I asked Shane to travel to San Francisco and give the talk for my local speaker series.

Gerbic: So there will be a Halloween contest this year at CSICon. I was hoping you were going to dress up as Phelps with the red cupping marks, power balance bracelet, and nasal tape strips. Any chance that is going to happen?

Diamond: I was planning on going as the Wikipediatrician, but I’m not sure I can get the rights…. Know anyone that can help?

Gerbic: HaHa, Jay. Let’s get serious for a minute, Jay.

Diamond: This will be by far the largest gathering of skeptics in costume. It’s in Vegas, and I’m going all-in. I have a costume planned, but nobody will see it until that evening. Everyone going to the conference should plan on going to the party and attending in costume. We have so many creative people in our community; I think it will be the highlight of the weekend—outside of your workshop, of course—and skeptics won’t be able to stop talking about the brilliant costumes.

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.