Let’s Bring More Students to CSICon

Susan Gerbic

I had the honor of speaking this October at CSICon, held at the Excalibur Casino in Las Vegas. Attendance was respectable with about 500 attendees. I had many conversations with attendees over the four-day conference, the most popular question: What more can we do to teach critical thinking skills? The answers were always the same: better education in schools, educate the media, educate parents, and grow the movement. I would have to agree with all the above, but they are so general that really what can be done? At the conference, we heard from many experts in how they specifically are doing this. Great ideas, great inspiration. Hopefully the ideas will spread throughout the attendees and fuel them to do more once they leave. One answer, grow the movement, is what I’m hoping to answer.

I am of the mind that conference attendance, even if it is only to a skeptics in the pub event with ten of your peers, is activism. Getting out from behind your computer screen, pulling out the earbuds from your favorite podcast at least long enough to meet other like-minded people. Big things happen when we start to know each other, learn from each other and hopefully make plans to continue the conversation. Getting to multi-day conferences has all kinds of difficulties: time off from work, family obligations, finances, travel distances, and more. So often I hear, “next time” or “someday,” we need to make sure that when someone is ready and able to attend, the conference is still there to attend.

What I’m advocating for is a more focused effort to raise money for scholarships. Over the years, we have seen organizations and individuals raising money in order to sponsor first-time conference attendees. This effort seems to have become less common; at least I haven’t seen any sharing around social media of any fund-raising efforts. I see a lot of memes, cat videos and other important links, but no one has asked me to fund or share a skeptic conference scholarship fund. And why not? I think we would all agree that in order to grow the movement, motivate and inspire new people, getting them to a conference is an important first step.

Let me mention again that most conferences offer student discounts, some in limited supply. While this is helpful, remember the goal is to keep conferences happening. Discounting too many tickets is not in the best interest of the conference. These events are massive endeavors, money is always in short supply, and remember that these are a gamble for conference organizers; everything depends on attendance. So I’m not advocating for the conference organizers to lower their costs to students, but for the community to step up and help fund getting new people to the conference.

Jeanine DeNoma and husband John.

One group came to my attention that went above and beyond this year. Oregonians for Science and Reason (O4SR) gave away three scholarships, not only for conference fees, but for travel, hotel, and food costs. Jeanine DeNoma has been a good friend of mine since I met her at the 2002 Eugene, OR, Skeptic’s Toolbox. She is crazy busy in real life, but somehow her group managed to organize these scholarships and I want to know the nuts and bolts of how this happens. I don’t think you just throw money at people; there must be a lot more behind how to arrange this process. I’ve asked Jeanine what went on behind the scenes to pull this off efficiently.

I was also able to meet the three winners who were all first-time conference attendees and asked them about their impressions of the conference, what they learned, and their thoughts on the scholarship. Besides Jeanine, you are about to hear from Michael Sieler, Courtney Shannon, and Andy Ngo.

Susan Gerbic: Jeanine you’re first—Please tell readers a bit about O4SR and what went on behind the curtain.

Jeanine DeNoma: Oregonians for Science and Reason (O4SR) is an educational 501(c)3 not-for-profit membership organization formed in 1994. The idea for an Oregon local skeptic’s group grew from attendance at the Skeptic’s Toolbox held each August in Eugene, Oregon, on the University of Oregon campus and led by Dr. Ray Hyman. Over the years, our members have been generous, which has allowed us to establish an educational fund. We live in an area where science and technology are important to our economy, and perhaps because of this we’ve had members whose employers have made donations. The question our Board of Directors has asked is, “How we can best use this fund to support our mission of fighting pseudoscience and promoting critical thinking?” We sponsor free public talks with excellent speakers and promote networking among local skeptics. Like other scientific skeptic groups, our membership is primarily older and many of our founding members have since died or are no longer able to actively participate. Looking to the future, we want to help build the next generation of skeptics for this movement.

In the past, we have given scholarships to local students to attend the Skeptic’s Toolbox; we were encouraged that some of our sponsored attendees have gone on to become leaders in the skeptical community! This year, as there was no Toolbox scheduled, the board decided to fund scholarships to CSICon.

We first set a budget; we felt that it was important to cover all the costs as these were college students. We decided that as this was the first time we were attempting this type of scholarship, we would set aside $3,000, which we felt would cover conference fees, hotel, airfare, and food for three persons. We also included a $100 Visa gift card for each to cover unknown expenses.

The board defined our goals, which were that we wanted to promote involvement and skeptical activism. We wanted them to benefit personally from the experience, and see ripples in the community, local campuses, and within our local skeptic group. We viewed this as an investment in the future of our organization and the skeptical community. Board members also wanted feedback from the recipients when they returned—to hear what value they received by attending. We needed information to decide if we should do this again. Is this worth O4SR’s resources? We decided we would ask each scholarship recipient to present a project. It wouldn’t matter what that might be. It could be as simple as coming to a board meeting to tell us about their experience or something more complex. We also decided not to evaluate the applicants on what they chose to do, only that they agreed to bring back something.

Once this was accomplished we drafted three documents: an announcement about the scholarship, an application form, and a waiver of liability. We initially required recipients be a current Oregon college student, although we later expanded it to include recent graduates. We stated that applicants must be at least eighteen years old, but later we learned that the hotel required them to be at least twenty-one for their own room.

The four questions on our application were:

  1. How will attending CSICon contribute to your immediate and long range educational and career goals, life skills, and/or your contributions to the skeptical community?
  2. Why would you be a good candidate to receive this scholarship?
  3. What skeptical issues are most important to you?
  4. O4SR would like feedback about the value of your experience at CSICon, and we hope you will share what you have learned with Oregon’s skeptical community. This may take any form you choose: a short essay, presentation to the Board or at O4SR’s Annual Meeting, or something more creative such as a video, blog posts, etc. In this space, suggest what you anticipate that project would be if you are awarded a scholarship.

We emailed the announcement to our membership, to related Oregon groups, professors and contacts at local universities, local CFI and campus organizations, and other groups that support our goals. We handed out the announcement and the fliers for CSICon at every skeptic event and to our three local Skeptics in the Pub meet-up groups. Pub groups were great because, here in Oregon, we take our beer seriously and a lot of young people attend our meet-ups.

The scholarships were competitive. We received seven completed applications and had additional inquiries. We had some decisions to make. One board member had years of experience evaluating Rotary college scholarships, so he developed a fair and objective evaluation process. Before the selection committee met, we each individually reviewed and ranked the applicants. When the selection committee met, it turned out we were in general agreement as to the top four candidates. We needed only to select the top three and name the fourth as an alternate if anyone was to withdraw.

The process after selecting the attendees was a learning process; a lot went into scheduling and funding the winners. If you want to learn more, please contact O4SR and we will give you more details.

We are just beginning our evaluation process. How well did our process work for them? Can we improve? We were aware that prior to applying for the scholarships, some applicants had never heard of O4SR, CSI, or CSICon. They may not have even been aware of the skeptic’s movement. On our part, we needed to know that anyone accepting the award was sincerely interested in the conference, receptive to the content and experience, and would follow through on their project. We needed to know they did not envision this as just a free trip to Vegas. In this regard, we were not disappointed in 2016.

Our call for applications came out in the summer and in hindsight we should have planned further ahead so we could have reached more students. We believe this kind of opportunity should be available not just to students, but to new graduates and young professionals who could otherwise not afford to attend. We did finally open eligibility to these groups, and we’d encourage others who might think of sponsoring someone to consider this.

We are a small organization, but as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit public corporation, it was important to show good stewardship regarding both risk and use of our financial resources. The Board felt the scholarships clearly supported our mission, which in turn guided our goals. We put a lot of effort into developing a process for selecting good candidates to meet our goals. Now we have a process and documents that can serve as a future template. Our final step is evaluating the outcome, including feedback from our scholarship recipients.

Introducing the (O4SR) Scholarship winners

Michael Sieler: I’m currently a sophomore at Portland State University. I’m studying biology and getting a minor in German. My areas of interest in biology are genetics and biotechnology. My areas of interest in the skeptical movement are learning about effective science communication, advocate of critical thinking skills, and teaching people about the science behind genetic engineering. The seeds of skepticism were planted in my head about four years ago by my step-mom with her introducing me to Dr. Steve Novella and Dr. Joe Schwarcz, but it wasn’t until a year-and-ahalf ago that I became active in the skeptic community.

Courtney Shannon: I am currently a geographic information systems analyst and cartographer. I do contract work for environmental non-profits that focus on ecology and environmental outreach. Two major projects I am working on are the Black Oystercatchers Monitoring Project and The Hayden Island Cat Project. Prior to working in spatial analysis and ecology, I was a chemist at environmental testing labs where I tested soils, wastewater, and drinking water for inorganic analytes and prepped samples for semi-volatile organic compounds. My undergraduate degree was in environmental science.

Andy Ngo: I am a first-year graduate student in political science at Portland State University. And a science journalist.


Gerbic: Why are you interested in the topic of skepticism?

Sieler: I’m very passionate about skepticism now, because I feel that there are many people who were like me—before I discovered skepticism—that hold onto irrational fears, worries, and beliefs about things that don’t align with reality. These can be such a drain of energy, time, and resources for oneself. Also, believing in pseudoscience or superstitions can have potentially dangerous effects in one’s life (foregoing vaccinations, getting sucked into conspiracy theories, wasting money on bogus health products, etc.). If we can teach people scientific skepticism and critical thinking skills, I think it can offer people happier and more rewarding lives because they’ll be able to sift through the misinformation that is pervasive in our society and better align their beliefs with reality.

Shannon: The reason why I wanted to go to a conference focusing on skepticism is because I wanted to learn from both speakers and other attendees on how to communicate what skepticism is to the general public. When I used to tell my friends what skepticism was, they seemed to think of it as doubting everyone or being a contrarian. What I learned from skeptics such as Kevin Folta, Joe Nickell, and Kavin Senapathy is that you should show what skepticism is, not explain it. Don’t tell people you are “debunking” something—tell them that you are on a journey to get to the truth.

Ngo: My introduction to the skeptic community was through the Center for Inquiry. While most atheists I’ve met also deeply value skepticism, I found that the two communities generally have rather different focuses. Consequently, most of my energy and attention since becoming an atheist has been on challenging religion. Unfortunately, I neglected simultaneously developing good thinking skills to be a strong skeptic. In some ways, I was quite dogmatic with my anti-religion ideas.

Gerbic: Were you familiar with the CSICon speakers in advance?

Sieler: I was familiar with many of the speakers, notably: Kevin Folta, Richard Dawkins, Kavin Senapathy, James Randi, and Harriet Hall. There were a few I didn’t know: Bertha Vasquez, David Helfand, and Eugenie Scott. There were some I knew, but didn’t realize it: Julia Belluz (Vox writer) and Paul Offit.

Shannon: I was familiar with some of the speakers prior to attending the conference. A couple of years ago, I read Dr. Paul Offit’s book, Do You Believe in Magic. I particularly enjoyed that book because I read it shortly after I worked on a local losing political campaign concerning public health. Dr. Offit’s book showed me that some of the most effective purveyors of quackery are true believers themselves. Often they advocate for their pseudoscience through talking about their own life experiences, and that makes what they are saying compelling, even if they don’t have medical studies to back them up. Dr. Offit’s presentation at CSICon was about painkillers and addiction, which was a different topic from Do You Believe in Magic, but fascinating nonetheless.

I read Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game before attending the conference. It was great to hear the stories of famous con artists through history and hear the crowd’s reaction to them. A phrase that has struck me during the presentation is: Con artists create a story where you are the good guy. Prior to reading her book and seeing her presentation, I would have thought the signature move of con artist is the lie, but now I understand that con artists make us marks by appealing to our best qualities. In light of our current political climate, this lesson is more important than ever.

Ngo: Taking a look at the speaking roster, I was familiar with the headliners such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and James Randi. The lecture topics by all the other lesser-known speakers actually interested me more, however.

Gerbic: What did you expect from the Conference?

Sieler: Make connections with fellow skeptics. Meet my skeptical heroes who were in attendance. Get a sense of where the skeptic movement was and where it is headed.

Shannon: I went to the conference hoping to meet skeptics outside the Portland area. Although I have been active in the skeptic community in Portland for years, I wanted to see if there were skeptic/scientific topics overlooked in Portland and/or unique to Portland.

Ngo: I thought the conference would be skepticism from the atheist paradigm but in fact it did not talk much about religion at all (Dawkins did a little). This was surprising to me and I like that I got to meet skeptics who weren’t necessarily atheist.

Gerbic: What did you discover?

Sieler: The skeptical movement has its own political “drama” or “growing pains” like any other community. There seem to be two camps within the skeptical community: social justice vs. free speech. Every movement has its politics and issues it’s working through, but I think what makes the skeptical movement so resilient in the face of adversity is our ability as skeptics to own up to the evidence.

Shannon: Some of the attendees asked me about why I loved skepticism and ideas on why there aren’t more younger women involved in skepticism. I am still figuring out the answer to that myself, but I think a significant part of that is so much of the products that are marketed to women these days are heavy on pseudoscience. I have known several people over the years that are salespeople for multi-level-marketing companies that peddle things such as essential oils and multi-vitamins. These companies convince their salespeople that selling their nonscientifically based “cures” is “empowerment.” Spa treatments and retreat resorts that are heavily marketed to women really promote the false concept of “answers outside science” and they package it as “relaxation” and “rejuvenation.” I have gotten into disagreements with friends over these issues through the years. What I have learned is that it’s really hard to see that you are falling for pseudoscience when definitions of “empowerment” and “relaxation” relaxation rely on you not questioning the people who are selling you that form of happiness.

Gerbic: Rewarding moments? Highlights?

Sieler: Meeting James Randi, Joe Schwarcz, and Kevin Folta. Connecting with the hard-working skeptics that are behind the scenes, such as yourself, Susan, and Debbie Goddard at CFI. Plus the numerous other volunteers and organizers of CSICon.

Shannon: This might sound hokey, but I just really enjoyed the whole conference. I honestly enjoyed just listening to the presentations. It was great to meet skeptics outside the Portland area and discuss with them what issues they dealt with in their communities. Maria Konnikova’s lecture made me feel less bad about falling for con artists in the past. It was also great to meet people such as you and Brian Engler. I haven’t been to a skeptic’s conference, so to finally go to one was a big deal

Ngo: The range of subjects, from tackling pseudoscience to identifying fake news, showed me the versatile applicability of strong critical thinking. The conference itself was enriching but I think the curated topics stayed generally within the realm of “safe” topics. I would have liked it if the conference featured analysis that was controversial or perhaps not unanimously accepted among the skeptic community (but still utilized empirical evidence and logical reasoning for its argument). With that criticism said, one of the main highlights was when New York Times contributor, Maria Konnikova, spoke about the destructive and dark side of storytelling vis-a-vis rape and abuse hoaxes. This is controversial and one of the few times I heard a speaker broach about the social difficulties of being a consistent skeptic. I mean, who wants to be seen as a rape denier?

Gerbic: Do you feel this was rewarding?

Sieler: Definitely. I would like to attend more conferences in the future, I learned a lot from all of the speakers.

Shannon: Yes. Although I am on the introverted side so I am generally less inclined to go to large gatherings, getting out to conferences to meet others and discuss scientific issues is great and helps me learn more about scientific communication.

Ngo: As a young adult and student, I think the skeptic community can reach my demographic better by discussing topics that cut into both political divides. Many in my community are nonreligious yet deeply ideological about various beliefs. Going after deeply held beliefs in a nonpartisan, consistent manner will serve the millennials well.

Gerbic: What do you think the community should be doing to involve more people… students?

Sieler: Offering more scholarships like this to students all over the United States. I know many students would be interested in attending, but don’t have the finances to attend. Conferences could feature one or two student speakers.

Shannon: I think it’s going to be difficult to get more students to come to future CSICons. I’m saying this not because of the conference itself, but mainly due to the time of the year that the conference takes place. Universities have different schedules but I could imagine a lot of schools having midterms around that time. The other big hurdle, as with most conferences, is the cost. Perhaps a way to help with that is to offer $300–$500 travel grants? If I did not have the O4SR scholarship, a travel grant to offset costs would have been compelling.

Ngo: People like myself being young adults or young-adult students? What I was trying to say in my longer answer is that I think skepticism would have more resonance with my peers if skeptics were willing to discuss controversial things, particularlyabout culture. People get upset when their beliefs about homeopathyand acupuncture are questioned but they can be truly rattled if their ideological beliefs are directly challenged. I’d like to see more of this. Ideology doesn’t necessarily mean religious beliefs but could be certain hypotheses which have become taboo to question at university (i.e., gender wage gap due to misogyny).

Gerbic: That was terrific; I really enjoyed learning more about these winners. And I had no idea that there was this much involved in organizing scholarships.

As we are thinking creatively, remember that there are all kinds of avenues open to this idea. People living near the conference venue will probably not need hotel and travel costs covered. Possibly a group could work with a local science professor to help find attendees. Another way to keep costs low is to help find roommates for each attendee, possibly mixing them with other scholarships coming from different organizations. Maybe people can donate gift cards for food areas near the conference venues?

I’m hoping that this discussion will help inspire more groups to step up and fund scholarships. And for those that are, we need to get more exposure to you in order to help fund your efforts. Conferences happen all year round all over the world, it would be a great project for an individual or organization to manage this as a project, gathering up all the names of the groups that are funding scholarships for the community to help donate. As well as helping potential attendees find the organizations that are willing to sponsor them. I’m not advocating for anyone outside of these groups to handle the funds, but to help make this easier for everyone involved. I don’t know if this is even viable but I think growing our conference attendees is an important step in growing our movement. The goal is to keep our conferences profitable so we can keep them available. And we need to grow our community. We can do this people; let’s make this happen.

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.