MCS SkeptiCamp: Bringing Skepticism to the People

Susan Gerbic

The first skeptic conference of 2018 is over. Did you miss it? My local group, Monterey County Skeptics (MCS), has just completed its fourth SkeptiCamp, held January 6, 2018 in Seaside, California.

I’ve noticed that there seems to be less SkeptiCamps these days; I’m not sure why. They are simple and inexpensive to set up. I’ve written about how my group, MCS, managed this process in 2015 and 2017. We have learned a lot over the years and fine-tuned along the way. We have joined with our local humanist group, Humanist Association of Monterey Bay Area (HAMBA) and have established a great relationship with the local media. We used Eventbrite for people to RSVP and we have moved to a new location at the Seaside Community Center.

MCS leaders Kathy McKenzie and Deborah Warcken were instrumental as usual. They wrote a press release and sent it to all the local newspapers and followed up with them if they didn’t hear back soon. This led our SkeptiCamp to be covered in print and online by several newspapers. Two sent photographers who did write-ups on the event. Publicity before is great but afterwards is so satisfying; articles can be used for future events, Wikipedia pages, and more. I would stress to future SkeptiCamp organizers to look to the smaller local newspapers, TV, and radio; they need content, and our world is so interesting to report on.

Our 2018 SkeptiCamp featured many familiar faces, and we added one new speaker, Dr. Jill Yamashita who is a psychology professor at our local university, CSUMB. She researches false memories and how they may be influenced. She spoke to us about her research on eyewitness testimony and how difficult it can be discriminating between faces from a different ethnicity. She explained, “Errors are the biggest factor in false conventions … Juries LOVE eyewitness testimony and trust them more if the witness is confident.” She suggested if you are a witness to an important event, take notes with as much detail as possible before discussing it with anyone. When we talk it over with others, we can be influenced and actually change what we thought we remembered. Our memory uses shortcuts—“we were not meant to remember details but only the gist of it. We fill in the details based on our expectations of what we think we should see.”

Glenn Church, who is a local farmer, businessman, and member of our board, gave us a lecture called “Why Your Vote is Meaningless, and Also Extremely Important.” Church has a skill to explain politics in a non-partisan way, so that even I can understand. He had two visuals that illustrated his point: He made everyone raise their hand if they had voted in the 2017 election. Then he had us put our hands down in turn if we didn’t know who our Senator, House of Representatives, and local judges and representatives are. Finally, he asked the few still with hands up if they remembered any name of anyone from a school board. Out of a room of fifty people, six people’s hands were still up by the end. The other visual was he made a graphic with one black pixel representing every vote in the 2017 presidential election and added one red pixel to represent his personal vote. When visualized this way, it was impossible to see the one red pixel. He kept doing this with different 2017 elections, showing that the ones with the smaller vote counts would show the one red pixel. Glenn pointed out that it is important to vote in all elections, mentioning the Virginia House of Delegates with the two candidates with the same vote total, one vote would have changed the whole election. His point was that it is important to always vote, but pay attention to the smaller local elections as the outcome may have a stronger impact on your life.

Leonard Tramiel Is a physicist from Columbia University, a board member for Center for Inquiry, and a member of the Executive Council of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. His lecture was “Atheism and Skepticism: How They are Related and Why Skeptics Should Care.” Tramiel started by talking about the history of the modern skeptic movement, something he attributes to the book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner. The question “Skepticism and Atheism, is there a relationship?” and Leonard answered that a lot of people see this as two very different questions. Skepticism asks, “how should claims be treated?”, and atheism is the answer to the question, “do you believe in the contention that there is a god or gods?” He asked the question, “How can atheism help skepticism?”, and the audience struggled with an answer other than “to get more butts in seats.” In conclusion, Tramiel said that typically people who say they are skeptics are usually also atheists. “Skeptics should care because resources just aren’t finite, and some atheists are NOT skeptics.”

We tried something new this year; we cut back on the Q&A time for the first four lectures and set aside thirty minutes before lunch. We brought up all four of the speakers, and allowed the audience to ask more questions. I really enjoyed it; it allowed people to think about how the various topics related to each other and we got some really interesting questions.

For our lunch, we kept it simple and purchased sandwiches, chips, and sodas and had a few extra-large pizzas delivered. Great looking around the room and seeing people socializing, some with people they met for the very first time that day; it felt wonderful. I even managed to get in a few games of backgammon with Scott and Paula. We returned from our lunch a bit early because mentalist Mark Edward had arranged a séance for us. He brought a giant box of fortune cookies and passed them around. He had everyone read their fortunes and put them in a hat. One person from the audience drew one slip of paper and held onto it far away from Edward. Then he went into a trance and called upon the spirits to reveal the fortune, which was about flowers and sunshine. Edward then asked the audience member to read the fortune he had drawn from the borrowed hat. It talked about flowers and sunshine … incredible, there was no way he could have known that, or could he?

One of our members, Arlen Grossman, has had a recurring trivia segment for all four of our SkeptiCamps. He starts off the Camp with “Questionable Quotations” before the first full lecture and then again before we start after lunch. I think this really sets the tone for the whole SkeptiCamp and allows first-time attendees to relax and understand that this isn’t a typical conference; it is a place to interact in a relaxed atmosphere. Grossman for nine years wrote a weekly quiz for the Monterey Herald called “What’s Your Quotation Quotient?” This year, he gave the audience a series of common statements and asked if it could be attributed to Mark Twain or not. In the afternoon segment, Grossman gave statements and asked if they were from Donald Trump or not. Both segments were very entertaining, with lots of comments from the audience. As a warm-up exercise it was a lot of fun, but more importantly it showed us that we need to be careful what we think we know. Sometimes we just assume a statement is correct because it “sounds like something he would say” or because we “want to think it is true because it satisfies our preconceived beliefs.”

Our next speaker drove the farthest. Kyle Polich has spoken at three other of our SkeptiCamps and lives in Los Angeles, which is about a five-hour drive away. Polich is the host of Data Skeptic Podcast, works in the data scientist field and has a background in artificial intelligence. In 2017, Polich spoke about the Missing 411 books by David Paulides. The video of that talk got the wind of Paulides and his fans and has more views and comments than any video we have on our channel with 2.3K views. It has seventy-five comments, almost all of them negative, and fifty-one thumbs down votes. This is terrific as it means that all these people found our channel and learned about SkeptiCamps and scientific skepticism. Yes, they were not happy about Polich’s conclusions about the Missing 411 conspiracy, but that’s fine with me. The research he did lead to a Skeptical Inquirer article and for GSoW editor Rob Palmer to rewrite the David Paulides Wikipedia page. That rewrite has received 125,885 pageviews to date. So sorry I digressed there for a moment. This year Polich’s lecture was “Artificial Intelligence and Why We’re Afraid of it.” He talked about Anthony Levandowski’s Church of Artificial Intelligence. Polich says that A.I. does not keep him from sleeping at night, some of the things that humans are doing might though. A.G.I. is possible, not soon, but “nothing precludes it from happening.” Someday in the future, we may create intelligent computers; when that happens it isn’t a big leap that we will have to have conversations about computer rights.

Another frequent MCS SkeptiCamp contributor Jay Diamond spoke next. Diamond is the founder of Reason4Reason and a board member of the Bay Area Skeptics. His lecture was “MADMyths: Marketing Myths and Why Skeptics Must Embrace Persuasion.” Diamond gave us three marketing myths, “I’m way too smart to fall for this crap,” “If you just tell the truth, you Win,” and “Anyone can do Marketing”. He asked, “why should skeptics care?” He said that most skeptics that are pushing back on bad marketing are like showing up to a gun fight with only a knife. We need to become persuasive, use it like a tool. Skepticism is a great product and with better public relations, branding, promotion, and packaging we will be able to do more.

I was next up. I also was the emcee for the SkeptiCamp and the main photographer. Next year I don’t think I’m going to take on so many responsibilities. The topic I choose to talk about is one that I have been interested in for several years: Facilitated Communication (FC). This is the discredited technique used by some schools, caregivers, and parents to communicate with people with severe communication disabilities. FC involves a facilitator to touch or hold the arm, wrist, or finger of the disabled person to guide or give moral support allowing them to touch a keyboard. What the scientific skepticism community has discovered is that the facilitator is actually (probably unknowingly) the person guiding the communication. Much as you would with a Ouija Board. When the facilitator does not know the correct response or cannot see the keyboard, then the disabled person is unable to communicate clearly. I showed photos and video of facilitator sessions where the only person looking at the keyboard was the facilitator, in no way was the communication coming from the disabled person.

Our last speaker of the event was also someone who has presented at three different MCS SkeptiCamps, Mark Edward. He said that this was one of his more personal lectures as he talked about his time working in the psychic business. He spoke about one specific time when he did an infomercial for the Psychic Revival Network with two other psychics and celebrities Nell Carter and Erik Estrada. Edward painfully recounted the decision he made to go along with the organizers of the revival, gathering in advance the questions the audience members wanted the “spirits” to answer (mentalists call this pre-show). Edward explained that this was a very difficult situation to be in as he knew that by going along with this, he would be influencing people to believe in psychics. But because he had to learn all the tricks of the psychic business in order to educate the public he felt he had to. Years later, Edward published a book explaining what goes on behind the scenes, Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium. He is a professional mentalist that specializes in séance and appears on TV and at skeptic conferences explaining the tricks psychics use. Edward was most recently on the Halloween special for Adam Ruins Everything.
Conferences such as SkeptiCamp are relatively easy to organize and run compared to larger conferences. But still there is work to be done to make it look easy and even though this was our fourth many people are needed. We had lots of help, from Robin Welch who gave a room to one of the speakers, to Bay Area Skeptic’s Board member Greg Dorais who arrived early and stayed late with all kinds of audio equipment from the Bay Area Skeptics. MCS member Peter brought several drawings showing differences between religion and science and why people have a need to create a God and then connect with him through meditation or prayer. Stirling helped by putting together Grossman’s slides. The other speakers, board members, and audience were so helpful throughout.

SkeptiCamp is not your typical conference; its goal is to build a local community within your group, to bond them to each other, and to give them the motivation and opportunity to be involved. Outreach is terrific; media coverage and new members to the group are all great goals. The most important outcome of SkeptiCamp is networking with other curious-minded thinkers; people who are willing to spend a Saturday listening to scientific and skeptic related lectures. Can’t wait for next year; Monterey County is amazing in January. Pencil it on your calendar now before you forget. And if you want to present, please be in touch


Videos from the Camp can be found on our YouTube site.

Local media coverage can be found here:


(All photos by Susan Gerbic)

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.