From TAM to CSICon: An Interview with Ray Hall and Katie Dyer

Susan Gerbic

Ray Hall and Katie Dyer are professors at California State University, Fresno, Ray in physics and Katie in child and family science. For years, Ray has worked behind the scenes for the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) The Amazing Meeting (TAM) by organizing and selecting the Sunday Paper presenters. This year he will be continuing that tradition at CSICon. Ray and Katie will also be presenting a workshop on Thursday, October 27, 1:30–3:30 pm called “Teaching Critical Thinking.”

Susan Gerbic: Katie, Ray, it’s so great to be able to catch up with you both. Can you please give the readers some background?

Ray Hall: I started my career in high-energy particle physics. I spent fifteen years working on a large particle detector at Fermi National Laboratory near Chicago. A highlight was in 1996 when I was part of the team that discovered a fundamental particle of nature called the “Top Quark.” Since that time, I’ve moved back to California and invested more and more in teaching. I just completed my sixteenth year at Fresno State. As I worked on my PhD, I became more curious about not only the science of physics but how science itself works. My first subscription to Skeptical Inquirer was in 1984. I discovered SI in part because I was trying to distill the difference between astronomy and astrology when I was an astronomy teaching assistant as an undergraduate. So these three threads, skepticism, philosophy of science, and physics, all came together in my teaching. My favorite class to teach is a critical thinking class called “Science and Nonsense.”

Katie Dyer: Ray is the insider here; I’m only riding in on his coattails. I’m a social scientist; I study parent education and infant sleep. My work deals with critical thinking, of course, as I teach research methods at the college level. I’ve been teaching students and parents how to interpret the research on things like corporal punishment, bed-sharing, and breastfeeding for two decades. I’ve also been combating nonsense such as the anti-vax movement and the Mozart effect, because those issues are salient to my discipline. But I didn’t know that there was a skeptic movement until I met Ray. Since then, he has introduced me to the work of James Randi and other proponents of scientific skepticism. We have collaborated as researchers studying the pseudoscientific beliefs of college students, and we’ve gotten married. A lot has happened!

Gerbic: I first became aware of you, Ray, when I applied for a Sunday Paper slot in 2011. That was at TAM9: From Outer Space. I was selected to present, and you were so kind yet firm in helping me get the presentation down to the time limit. That was almost my first time publically talking about the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. Looking back on that video now, I realize how much our project has changed for the better; I was still finding my feet back then. The Sunday Papers even before 2011 were always one of my favorite parts of TAM. I was very happy to see that you would be continuing that tradition at CSICon this year. Please tell us how you took that role on.

Hall: Blame Hal Bidlack. If memory serves, I gave the very first Sunday Paper at the very first TAM in Florida in 2001. I applied again to give a paper at TAM2 (at the Tuscany in Las Vegas) and was accepted. It was at TAM2 when Hal Bidlack, the TAM emcee, sensing that I would apply again next year, approached me and asked if I would accept responsibility for vetting the Sunday Papers. I’ve been doing it ever since. One aspect of the Sunday Papers at TAM that drives me is how James Randi exemplifies where non-academic credentials are valuable to the skeptic movement. James Randi uses his skills as a magician to offer something very important to the cause, and he taught academics a thing or two to say the least. The Sunday Papers are an opportunity for anyone with a specific expertise to lend their skills to the movement. Every person can participate. In essence the Sunday Papers represent these crucial contributions of James Randi.

Gerbic: It’s too late this year, but perhaps you can give some pointers for anyone interested in applying for the honor of presenting in the future? You have a set number of slots open; it must be terrible to have to decide who is in and who is not.

Hall: Yes. One of the hardest parts of this responsibility is to inform those whose proposals did not make the cut. I feel it is important to be supportive of all those who submit, and I try when possible to offer tips for potential future resubmissions. In terms of the selection process, the first cut is to ensure the topic aligns with the mission of skepticism and the dissemination of critical thinking skills. If the talk is a good fit, the selection criteria, like skepticism itself, are about evidence and logic. Papers that are data driven get high priority. Sometimes I get proposals that are mostly a description of a project in the planning stages, or sometimes a wish to use the stage to crowd source a project. These are given much lower priority than studies that have already collected and analyzed data or, say, a media campaign that has a measurable outcome to report. Proposals that make it to the stage have some or all of these characteristics: they are well researched (with citations), introduce new data and analysis, discuss successes in media outreach, and the speaker’s credentials are well matched to the content of the proposal.

Gerbic: Katie, at TAM 2015 you presented a paper also. I heard many good things from people wondering where you have been all these years. Can you please tell us about that presentation?

Dyer: Ha ha! Thanks, Susan. Well, Ray has a vision that the Sunday Papers are an opportunity for anyone in the skeptic community to share their serious scholarship, even those of us who are not professional skeptics. So it seemed the right venue to share some preliminary results of research that I was doing at my own university that I thought would be of interest to the group. As a teacher, I wonder pretty much constantly why some students seem to “get it” and others don’t. I wonder what I can do to help move everyone into the group who embraces learning eagerly. This interest seems shared by skeptics who wonder how to educate others, whether formally or informally. I started off wondering how to “spark” curiosity, assuming that curiosity is what differentiates the eager learner from the apathetic one. So I’ve been surveying my students about their curiosity, along with other things such as their religiosity, their academic aptitude, their interests, and even their belief in pseudoscience. Ray and I have started evaluating the effects of educational interventions on pseudoscience belief. But last year, I shared the prevalence of epistemically unwarranted beliefs in a large sample of college students. This year, I’ll share the results of some intervention studies, but you’ll have to wait until CSICon to hear what works and what doesn’t!

Gerbic: One of my personal goals for organized skepticism besides rewriting Wikipedia is to help grow our community by finding the “doers” and encouraging and supporting them. Ray, can you tell us about some of the Sunday Paper presenters that like myself have used it as a stepping stone to do more? The first one that pops in my head is Robert Lancaster who presented on his Stop Kaz website and then went on to become a giant thorn in the side of Sylvia Browne. Who else?

Hall: Yes. Stop Sylvia was an amazing moment. Robert Lancaster’s has to be one of the most remembered Sunday Papers. But Tim Farley also comes to mind. He gave a Sunday Paper in 2008 called “Building Internet Tools for Skeptics.” He has gone on to do work with the website What’s the Harm?, among many contributions. Steve Novella and Harriet Hall presented from the Sunday stage, although it’s clear they were both active and rising stars promoting, and perhaps defining, evidence based medicine.

Dyer: What I most enjoy are the Sunday Papers that apply critical thinking in unconventional areas.

Hall: Yes. I love being introduced to fields and endeavors where skepticism is needed but where I hadn’t heard or thought of it yet. Some examples from recent Sunday Papers: Skepticism in veterinary medicine, in the patent office, in English and history textbooks, concerning the way law is practiced, and even skepticism at the gym. In thirteen years of Sunday Papers there have been a lot of surprises! Many wonderful surprises—and thankfully only a handful of cringe-worthy moments!

Gerbic: Katie, you have been to many TAM events as an observer and insider. Are you, like me, excited that CSI is taking the best parts of TAM and adding their own special pizzazz to make this the skeptic conference event of the year? I mean we have the Sunday Papers AND James Randi. Richard Dawkins AND the organizing strengths and history of CSI. Even a Victorian Houdini Séance by Mark Edward held at Midnight. How much better can it get?

Dyer: Don’t forget that we’ll be having a costume party, as it’s the weekend before Halloween!

Gerbic: Ray, after your years of working with the JREF, can you share some of your best memories? Maybe some behind-the-scenes gossip only the organizers would know?

Hall: The inner workings of all but the last TAM remain a mystery to me. I always did only the one task asked of me (Sunday Papers) until TAM 13 last year. My favorite memories involve my children. I have three, and over the thirteen TAMs I was able to bring each at least once. At TAM 5 I had my oldest son with me and at a dinner he got to sit across from James Randi and watch as Randi made a salt shaker disappear in front of Richard Dawkins. At TAM 6 my middle son pointed out to me that Matt Parker and Trey Stone were on the elevator with us and later had a nice conversation with Adam Savage. And I have a fantastic photo of my daughter at TAM 9, an eighth grader at the time, standing next to Randi after the entire audience participated in a “bending of the spoons” with Richard Wiseman.

Dyer: I am delighted that we have a chance to fill in the gap where TAM used to be.

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.