Local Skeptical Outreach & Activism: Monterey County SkeptiCamp

Susan Gerbic


Photo of Arlen Grossman by Jay Diamond.

On January 7, 2017, the first skeptic conference of the year, SkeptiCamp, happened in Monterey County, California, and was put on by my local group Monterey County Skeptics (MCS). In January 2014, we held our first SkeptiCamp, and I reported back on it. Now that our third and most successful SkeptiCamp has concluded, it’s time to disseminate the information we gathered. I want to not only interest readers in the lectures but also to inspire groups to put on their own SkeptiCamps.

First off, what is a SkeptiCamp? Started in Denver, Colorado, in 2007 by Reed Esau, SkeptiCamp began as a free one-day event. SkeptiCamp speakers are not normally people you will hear at the big skeptic conferences. They are usually locals who might even be speaking in public about a non–work-related topic for the first time. SkeptiCamps are meant to be fuss-free, low publicity, and donation and volunteer run. Each skeptic group has started with this model and adapted it to suit the needs of their group. Monterey County Skeptics sistered with the local Humanist group, Humanist Association of the Monterey Bay Area (HAMBA), as we are natural affiliates.

Early January might seem to readers an odd time of the year to hold a conference. That might be true in most of the Northern Hemisphere, but Monterey is located along the coast of California. It’s about a two-hour drive south of San Francisco and a five-hour drive north of Los Angeles. The weather here is normally mild. January is our cold month, but never anything that would stop people from attending. This year, the news was full of headlines saying “Monsoon Coming This Weekend,” which really didn’t happen, but I’m sure it had a lot to do with the drop in attendance from our expected numbers.

I suggest that you register your conference on Lanyrd. This is a free service that is owned by Eventbrite. Lanyrd allows you to have a public website where you can send people for registration and where they can view scheduling and all the info they might need to decide if they want to attend. Also, Lanyrd allows you to do a “call for speakers” several months in advance. Once the conference is over, Lanyrd acts as a repository for gathering all the videos, photos, audio, news articles, and slides from the event in one easy to use place. The GSoW project uses Lanyrd all the time to gather information for the Wikipedia pages we write. It’s a one-stop-shop for conferences. Of course, using Facebook and Meetup.com are essential as well. You can view our Lanyrd site at http://lanyrd.com/2017/skepticamp/.

The idea of SkeptiCamp is to bond your local group. You will find that you are going to rely on each other’s skills throughout the entire process of planning and executing the conference. In my case, I had several people step up to help, and we used a secret Facebook group for all our planning. This really helped everything come together. Meeting in person to discuss issues was fun but not always as productive. This year’s MCS planning committee was Deborah Warcken, Kathy McKenzie, Stirling Gerbic-Forsyth, Arlen Grossman, Glenn Church, Robin Welch, and me. It’s important to delegate; most people really do want to help and are just waiting for someone to tell them what to do.

The secondary importance for SkeptiCamp is community outreach. You are trying to get beyond the normal choir, to grow your group and show people that skeptics aren’t a bunch of curmudgeons and naysayers but are fun and interesting. Skepticism as a “thing” is unknown to most people; they don’t understand that there are communities, conferences, books, podcasts, and more that focus on all kinds of topics. It’s our responsibility to educate the public about these matters. We are all on a journey trying to muddle through to discover what the truth is, or at least as close as we can get to finding it out. Ben Radford during our camp told the audience that we should not blame people for not having great critical thinking skills. Why should they have them? Schools don’t focus on teaching these skills. IF it were intuitive, we wouldn’t face the issues we have now with anti-science and paranormal beliefs. Everyone in the audience has had to learn to think critically. Some are farther along on their journey than others. We had to start somewhere, so no one is going to ridicule people who are just beginning. So as far as community outreach, the group’s goal is to get media attention for the SkeptiCamp.

Photo by Susan Gerbic.

The night before the big day we organized a casual meet-and-greet at a local hotel. We had about twenty people attend, some of whom had never been to a skeptic event before. Several speakers were in attendance, and it was fun for people to be able to talk to them about their upcoming talks. I encourage groups to plan social gatherings before and after your Camp. We forget how important it is to have human interactions. If people were attending just for the lectures then they could stay home and watch the videos when they come out.

We started out our Camp by handing out flyers with the schedule as well as a brief definition of skepticism and humanism. I emceed the entire event and was sure to explain that the lectures for the day might challenge the beliefs of attendees. “The lecturers will not be attacking people personally, only the claims made.”

At our 2016 SkeptiCamp we hit on a fun warmup that slyly added critical thinking to the event and allowed for some audience participation. Arlen Grossman wrote the “What’s Your Quotation Quotient?” column for The Monterey Herald newspaper for nine years, and we asked him to give the audience popular quotes and then three choices for who said that specific quote. With a show of hands, Arlen asked the audience to vote. Then he revealed the correct answer and explained where the quote came from.

Photo of Glenn Church by Susan Gerbic.

Our first speaker, Gary Griggs, works in ocean sciences, and his research deals mainly with erosion and sea levels. He gave us a terrific forty-minute lecture on climate change mostly focusing on the Monterey Bay Area. One thing that struck me was that before his lecture I went up and introduced myself and asked how long he was going to stay with us. He said that he didn’t quite know as we might ask him to leave after his lecture. After talking with him a few more minutes I realized that he thought we were a doubter group. He hadn’t Googled us and had never heard of a pro-science community called skeptics. Quite eye-opening to him and me.

Next up was our own local political skeptic, Glenn Church. He writes a monthly blog on politics called The Political Skeptic. Glenn kept changing his topic, and so I didn’t know quite what to expect. The lecture he gave us was called “How and Why Did Donald Trump Win?” Glenn claims that it was a perfect political storm. What really interested me as one of the organizers of the Camp was how non-partisan it was. It was just the stats and the interpretation of those numbers. Fake news hurt; American voters were unable to separate the facts. Both Clinton and Trump were very unpopular candidates. One analysis Glenn pointed out was that Clinton needed her own Checkers speech to improve her popularity and draw out the vote. You can see Glenn’s notes on his speech and video of it here.

Photo of Ben Radford by Jay Diamond.

Ben Radford was brought in from New Mexico just for this SkeptiCamp. He is a great talent and one of a very small group of professional skeptics. I’m sure readers of csicop.org already know about his prolific career. Ben was asked to speak to the room twice; the first lecture was more of a general introduction of skepticism. His later lecture at the end of the day dealt with more specific topics and fake news. People tell him that topics such as ghosts and psychics are beyond science and that we can’t understand these things. Ben reply’s, “Of course you can…. Science is the prism we use to understand the world…. You can’t put odd topics like ghosts and UFO’s in a box and not try to understand these things, open up that box, and take a look inside it.”

After lunch, we had a quick segment by Jan Wachtel who reported back on her visit to the Missouri Penitentiary as a tourist. She attended a ghost tour at night where she said they primed the group to hear noises and see ghost orbs. Jan said it was a very creepy place, and it was easy to see why believers in ghosts would think they saw them. Oddly, when asked who the ghosts were, the tour guide said that they have never gotten a name because too many ghosts wander the halls. Jan returned the next morning and went through a history tour, which she said was much more interesting. It was dismaying that they offered many ghost tours a day but only one history tour. Obviously, the tourism revenue was higher for the paranormal than the historical.

Kyle Polich gave a lecture at our very first SkeptiCamp talking about stats as is his expertise. He has a podcast called The Data Skeptic. I really had no idea what Kyle was going to talk about this year, and at the meet-and-greet he said he was going to be talking about a conspiracy theory concerning missing hikers in National Parks. I still had no idea. Well, Kyle knocked it out of the park with the most surprising lecture. It concerned a man named David Paulides who is a frequent guest on Coast-to-Coast AM. He normally talks about Bigfoot but has lately written books on something he calls the Missing 411. Apparently, according to Paulides, people have been disappearing from or missing time after visiting National Parks. Kyle became interested because he listens to a lot of paranormal podcasts, and the word clusters came up in relation to data. Kyle as a data scientist said this peeked his interest. Paulides, takes any case of a missing hiker as being a part of the conspiracy, even if the case has a natural explanation. He gave no reason for these disappearances but finds odd correlations for them. For example, two women missing in different years both had names starting with an “A” with three-letters, Amy and Ann. Paulides in another example stated that something was odd because in a few of the disappearances berry bushes were nearby. Seriously! After the lecture, I asked GSoW to get involved, and one of my editors, Rob Palmer, went through David Paulides’s Wikipedia page and cleaned out all the bad citations and promotional language. Kyle’s research is now a part of the Wikipedia page. I asked Kyle to write up his investigation for csicop.org, so watch for it soon.

MCS member and practicing attorney Robin Welch was next up. She spoke to us about the observation and case law concerning the separation of church and state issues in the United States. She went over all the founding documents and discussed how focused the Founding Fathers were on leaving religion out of them. Robin also explained the differences between “free-exercise” and “establishment,” something that many people get confused. She talked about several case studies and was complimented later on her ability to sum up entire case law into one sentence.

Leonard Tramiel, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Center for Inquiry and on the Executive Council for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry gave us a talk on the basics of skepticism. He used graphics that showed optical illusions explaining how our brains fool us. He showed a graph that can be found on Wikipedia called the Cognitive Bias Codex. This included logical fallacies that he explained with examples. Leonard tells us that education is the key. We need to understand these biases and why we think the way we do. Skeptics “need to get it right more than we [currently] do. In a complex world, we need to get it right more often than we did in the past. … We need to understand why we are more likely to get it wrong.” He goes on to explain that people aren’t stupid, just mistaken. This is common for most of the population.

This ended the formal part of our conference. Everyone felt it was a success. We had fifty-four people show up, and forty-eight were there the entire day.

SkeptiCamp is all over for my local group, and now we have a whole year left to plan the next one. We received a lot of feedback, and other MCS members have told me that they would like to speak next time. We have added a few new members to our Meetup, and I feel like this whole experience did what it was meant to do. The people already in MCS bonded further and the attendees left feeling motivated and educated. Two people who drove up from Los Angeles told me that they are going to start planning a SkeptiCamp for the summer in their area. We exposed more people to scientific skepticism as a community, and I think that we will move the attendance numbers up for SkeptiCal, which is held in Berkeley on June 11, as well as for CSICon held in Las Vegas the weekend before Halloween. And we handed out a bunch of Skeptical Inquirer magazines that were given to us by CSI. I think that we will be able to continue to grow and give back great content to our community. Please contact me directly at susangerbic@yahoo.com if you should have any questions or need help planning your local SkeptiCamp.

Pertinent Links

YouTube videos from MCS SkeptiCamp: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLo47WezQVTsYXjWf_vD9dYwEecwA6n9Mu

Monterey Herald coverage: http://www.montereyherald.com/events/20170106/national-author-to-keynote-monterey-county-skeptics-third-annual-skepticamp

Monterey County Weekly coverage: http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/blogs/arts_culture_blog/three-skepticamp-guests-speak-on-science-church-and-trump/article_65241f6e-d387-11e6-972e-e7ea2908dc8e.html

Monterey Herald coverage: http://www.montereyherald.com/science/20170107/skepticamp-show-proof-critical-thinkers-told

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.