Musings on SkeptiCal at Ten

Susan Gerbic

It has been ten years since the Sacramento Area Skeptics and the Bay Area Skeptics cosponsored the first SkeptiCal. I’m very proud to say that I have attended all ten and enjoyed them all. The conference is usually held in either Oakland or Berkeley, but this year it found a new location. On June 9, 2019, it was held at the San Francisco Airport Hyatt Regency.

SkeptiCal has a special place in my heart not only because it is only ninety minutes from my house, but because I gave the second lecture I ever gave on Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project (GSoW) at a SkeptiCal (the first was a SkeptiCamp in Fort Collins, Colorado).

This was so early in GSoW history that we didn’t even have a name for the group. I was one of the breakout speakers who was competing for attendees against Bob Carroll talking about the Skeptic’s Dictionary project, and the woman who wrote the Darwin Award books. I was shocked that my workshop was full of at least fifty people crowded in a small room. I hadn’t been feeling well that day, and the room was so cramped and hot that fifteen minutes into my ramblings (seriously) I went whiter than normal and barely made it out of the room before passing out. I had managed to flag Mark Edward first and said to the audience “And now Mark Edward will say a few words.” Without missing a beat, he was in front of the group talking about something—I have no idea what. I got to the bathroom with the assistance of a few friends who could see I was passing out. After ten minutes, I felt better and went back in and finished my lecture. It was just one of those crazy moments in life that make you laugh when you look back at it. Anyway, I’ve not been invited to speak at SkeptiCal since. Maybe they don’t want to push their luck?

I have written about SkeptiCal several times: you can read the articles for the 2015, 2016, and 2017 conferences as well as this sweet article about Isabela. Every conference has a theme even if it is unofficial. The past two years it seems to have been speakers focusing on “fake news.” This year the unofficial theme was flat earth. There are articles about it all over social media. Is this phenomenon fueled by the media? The flat earthers might not be the ones trolling us but rather is the media looking for clicks-throughs. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it’s something to ponder. The GSoW project has also jumped in, and our editor Meghan Hannay has rewritten the Wikipedia page for the flat earth documentary Behind the Curve, which interviews prominent flat earthers and follows them to a convention in Texas.

Monterey County Skeptic regulars Deborah Warcken and Arlen Grossman and I headed out to SkeptiCal on Saturday afternoon to check into our hotel and then attend the pre-conference meetup at Original Max’s. Organizer Jay Diamond explained that he had reserved an area for twenty-five, but at one point in the evening I counted forty. The staff was wonderful! People often ask why SkeptiCal is on a Sunday. You would think that Saturday would be more popular and draw more people. The answer is that venues are quite expensive in the San Francisco Bay area, and weddings and graduation parties push up the prices on Saturdays in June.

The unofficial hangouts are always my favorite part of conferences. Seeing old friends and meeting new people is such a blast. It is so great to see people from all over California attend. We are a big state, so people from Los Angeles have at least a six-hour drive. Ray Hall and Katie Dyer came from Fresno (Ray will be speaking at CSICon). We even had Thomas Westbrook attend from Texas (Thomas runs the popular Holy Koolaid YouTube channel). SkeptiCal speakers Jim Underdown, Mick West, and Bill Patterson attended the get-together. On the drive up to the conference, Deborah, Arlen, and I were discussing Mick’s podcast, Tales from the Rabbit Hole. Mick reported on a Las Vegas conference he spoke at recently. Some of the stories he told were incredible; one I just could not wrap my brain around was about a man who asks the question “When photos are taken from the Space Station, why aren’t the buildings upside down?” We pondered on the drive up how to answer that question. Being able to pose that question to others who had also listened to Mick’s podcast was so much better in real life, and to then be able to talk to Mick one-on-one was even better.

So now we come to the big day, Sunday, June 9. I don’t know how familiar you are with the San Francisco area, but it isn’t known for hot weather. It should have been a pleasantly warm June day, but possibly foreshadowing days to come, it was actually unusually hot. And we were using an outdoor pavilion. It was a great location—good acoustics, plenty of room—but the air conditioning wasn’t working. I know there were several exhibitor tables where the staff just wilted. The Hyatt did keep us well stocked on ice water, but there were times when it was difficult to focus on the presenter. This was all out of the organizer’s hands, obviously, but really made me think of a future with higher global temperatures. Oh my!

There is nothing like experience to make conferences better over time, and SkeptiCal had several changes this year that were improvements. Everyone in the audience was able to sit at a table, which as every conference attendee knows, increases the comfort factor. Another change that all organizers should note: on the back of our nametags was the speaker schedule. Emcee Lauren Camp does a terrific job of keeping the conference on time, another hallmark of SkeptiCal. There is plenty of built-in time to socialize, and they treat the exhibitors well. Each exhibitor is given one minute on stage to present an elevator pitch, so they have to be sharp. Camp Quest West had us all stand up and participate in a camp song, complete with funny voices. That was a hoot.

The Hyatt has a parking garage that charges $30 for the day without validation or $7 with it. The Hyatt had the validation machine right inside the conference room, which was convenient.

Someone brought a Harriet Tubman ink stamp. We were able to take out our $20 bills and stamp over Andrew Jackson’s face with American slave and abolitionist Harriett Tubman. I guess I’m not ink stamp coordinated because my stamp looked pretty weird. I ended up using the ink stamp on my hand instead. It was the only thing I really noticed that could be considered political. I barely remember any of the speakers referring to our current president, and when they did it was usually concerning climate change. It was a nice change from a lot of conversations lately.

During lunchtime, those who remained in the room were treated to Joey Fabian singing and playing guitar—The Skeptic’s Jukebox. At the GSoW/MCS table we had lots of candy, googly eyes, and Jerry Andrus optical illusions to give away. The conference t-shirt logo was terrific, so I had to purchase a t-shirt to add to my growing collection of shirts I will never have time to wear out. Kernan Coleman and Ranch 7 Creative handle all the graphics and have always done a terrific job. Kernan tells me that he designs a shirt that he wants to wear.

As far as demographics, I didn’t get the actual numbers from the organizers, but the gender balance has been improving over the years. The youngest attendee was Allison Bush at fifteen—that is until Sam strolled in. That is literally strolled, as he was in a stroller and only two and a half months old. Folks, we’ve got to get them young.

And now to the actual speakers. I managed to take notes and did the best I could to follow along. I’m hoping that I sum these up well. You will be able to review them yourself when they appear on the Bay Area Skeptic’s YouTube channel (subscribe).

Peter Gleick: The Beacon of Science in a Fact-Free Fog

Gleick spoke at one of the very first SkeptiCal’s, and it was really nice to see him back again. He talked a lot about logical fallacies—the Dunning-Kruger effect, cherry picking data, and understanding what the scientific consensus actually means. I learned many things, including what a “ratioed tweet” is, one that has more comments than “likes” or “shares,” which usually means there is something wrong with the tweet. And the term sealioning, which is when someone pretends to ask sincere questions but is really just trolling. I loved this quote from Gleick: “The science is uncertain, but it does not mean we don’t know things.” I think I heard this correctly: he said that Eugenie Scott coined the term Gish Gallop, which is a term I hear all the time.

Gleick suggests that the public must resist attempts to misuse science. Funding must be transparent, and the more we know about logical fallacies the better off society is. We should learn about the fallacies of social media. The public should push for use of science in policy and against the assault of science. Science can be wrong; be aware of internal problems. And Gleick’s opinion of Twitter is that he loves it. Even though it has its issues, it has allowed him to be able to communicate science to audiences he would never have been able to reach otherwise.

Jim Underdown: Feet to the Fire—Investigating Paranormal Claims

This was a very entertaining lecture; most people mentioned it as one of their favorites. Jim has been investigating the paranormal for several decades, and he could tell stories all day and people would ask for more. Jim runs the Investigation Group (IG) headquartered in Los Angeles in the Center for Inquiry West building, previously called the Independent Investigation Group. Jim is the executive director of CFI West. I was a very active member of IIG for many years, so these stories were very familiar to me. It was a fun recap of some of my favorite investigations. Their most recent was of the flat earth claim, and Jim showed the audience a very entertaining video of the investigation. Jim stated that the IG has tested more people than anyone, and they are the “biggest game in town.” The IG is backed by the Center for Inquiry with a $100,000 award for evidence of the paranormal. Check out their website for more information.

Mick West: Science Communication and Conspiracy Theorists

Mick West is the author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole. How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. I mentioned his podcast earlier in this article. I’ve seen Mick speak several times, and so far he has done an original talk for each audience. He spoke at my SkeptiCamp at the beginning of 2019 about Wildfire conspiracy theories (you can see the lecture here). In this SkeptiCal lecture he began by talking about a video where a woman thinks that there is something wrong with the water supply because it is oozing something out of the ground and creating rainbows in her sprinkler. Mick tells us that even though we probably think we know how a rainbow is created, it is much more difficult than you think. So Mick went on to explain how rainbows are created to the SkeptiCal audience. I stopped taking notes at that point because the explanation quickly went over my head. I looked at Deborah next to me, and I could see she managed to get a bit further but still it was over her head too. Mick’s point, I think, was that when you are trying to explain something complicated to someone, you need to be careful that you are not over-complicating it. The points I wrote down were don’t over explain, tailor the explanation to the person, find common ground, show instead of tell, and keep science at hand in case an observation is needed.

What I got out of Mick’s talk was that to some people whom you are trying to explain even simple science to, it might sound (to them) like Mick’s explanation of how rainbows are formed. It’s not enough to just throw facts and arguments at people; you need to break it down into chunks they can understand. Don’t patronize them, but maybe it is best to just show them how it works by shooting a quick video on your phone of a sprinkler, sunshine, and a dark background.

Lynn Rothschild: Is There a Universal Biology?

In other words, do aliens look like us? Rothschild is a senior scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The first thing she told us was we would need to define what life is, decide how long it takes to evolve, and answer other questions before we can even start to decide if there is a universal biology. She gave some really great examples—rose thorns and porcupine and cactus spines. All are different but all evolved to say, “Do not eat me; otherwise, you will be sorry.” She called this an argument for convergence. Broadly, she stated that universally we would be made of organic carbon. She interspersed her slides with a photo of a very sweet looking puppy, knowing that audiences will pay more attention to her slides this way and that universally people will see the puppy and say “awwww.” It was a very adorable puppy.

Glenn Branch: Flat Earth Rising?

Glenn Branch is the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. His lecture at SkeptiCal was a history of the flat earth movement, starting with its beginning in 1819, to Charles K. Johnson, who started the Flat Earth Research Society in 1956, and then onto the new movement we keep hearing about from celebrities and documentaries. Branch dates the new strand to about 2011, when the first YouTube video, “The Globe Model attempts to deceive the public,” was uploaded. Branch explains that old-school flat earth theory that focused more on creationism is dying out. The new growth is fueled by social media, which is something that Mick West would agree with. YouTube algorisms feeding people video after video pushing them further down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. What really hit home to me in Branch’s talk was that he thinks that this new flat earth craze is going to fail. They have no consensus between methods. I would agree and add that they also don’t have scientists, strong leaders, and an organization. People are going to get tired of being ridiculed, and we will be onto some new conspiracy theory. Branch’s final thought was that whatever happens, the “National Center for Science Education will be there to fight.”

Elisabeth Bik: Misconduct in Scientific Papers: Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification

Elisabeth Bik worked for fifteen years at the Stanford School of Medicine, studying microbiomes of humans and marine animals. In 2014, she founded Microbiome Digest, which lists scientific papers in the microbiome field. I thought to myself when I saw the title of this lecture, “Ho hum. I’m not a scientist or an academic, this won’t be interesting to me.” Well I was wrong; her talk was so interesting. She is focused on plagiarism and left her career to do this full-time. She calls it a “weird hobby,” but the more she described what she is doing, the more I thought about how crazy the GSoW project must sound to people: rewriting Wikipedia pages about science and the paranormal in all languages. “You must be nuts!” Well she is attempting to review thousands of published papers and check for plagiarism and report anything that is a problem. She took two years to analyze eighty papers. Thirty-five were rejected, and eleven were corrected and rereleased. It’s so sad to hear that plagiarism is such a common problem in the science world.

As if she doesn’t have enough to do, Bik also has been analyzing images of micro bio things. Every image for every research paper should be different, even more than snowflakes. But after reviewing 20,000 images (now she is up to 30,000) she found that 4 percent were inappropriate image duplications. Ten percent of the images have been retracted. And I think this is a correct number: four of 10,000 papers have been retracted. Normally students are the ones blamed for these errors, but as Bik states, the senior author of the paper is the one responsible for the content. She showed us globs of colored circles on the screen and asked if we could find the images that had been duplicated. It was worse than a Where’s Waldo? She must be really trained to look at these slides; it’s amazing. She does assure us that “most papers are okay.” But it was really great to know that someone is watching for this.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Bik has another project. She explained predatory publishers to us. What a scam. They claim to be scientific journals, but they lack open access and peer review. They publish low quality papers that are not indexed and so much more. I took a lot of notes and learned a lot. To prove her point about how they will accept anything as long as the author pays, she used a website that will generate a research paper if you just feed it a couple sentences. One of these predatory publishers agreed to publish mostly gibberish that Bik coauthored with her two cats. Brilliant work. I was very happy I stayed to listen to her talk, and so were others I spoke to later.

Skepardy! with Bill Patterson

Skepardy! is such fun. Bill did it for my local group at SkeptiCamp in January, and it was a great way to end the conference. Just like Jeopardy! on TV, the players have to push a button that lights up a colored bulb, and then they are called on and have to answer in the form of a question. Bill makes up all the answers, and they are very cleverly written. There were a few that were supplied by Richard Saunders, and Bill gave him visual credit for them by putting an Australian flag on the screen. I’m usually not so great at this game, but I aced the category on James Randi. The players were Mick West and Jim Underdown. Then a person from the audience was chosen from a random draw of submitted names, and Dixon Wragg from North Bay Skeptics joined the game.

Answers like “He, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, was also an assumer of the notion of evolution. But he likely referred to it as ‘transmutation.’” Bill was looking for an anagram. Categories were varied: “Alternative Medicine,” “Apparitions,” “Templeton Prize Winners,” “Strange Gods,” and “Skeptical Words with Friends.” Here is the $600 answer for Alternative Medicine: Reiki, from Japanese indicating soul spirit and vital energy, is the notion that this two letter entity is physiological and can be manipulated to treat a medical condition.” For $400 in Apparitions: “The Philip experiment, which took place in this 2nd largest country, was a curious attempt to summon a fictious spirit which purposed to show that a ‘traditional’ séance works best to call any spirit.” The $800 Apparitions answer submitted by Richard Saunders was “It’s the name of the 2013 movie directed by James Wan based on an investigation by Ed and Lorraine Warren.” And here is one that everyone reading better know the question: “This CSI fellow has been at the vanguard of research into ghosts and other phenomena for nearly forty years. His first of many books was: Inquest into the Should of Turin.” The final Skepardy! Answer was: “Louie Steven Witt, better known in JFK conspiracy lore as THIS, claimed his strange gesture was a protest against Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy.”

How did you do? The three—West, Underdown, and Wragg—were really competitive, and it was a lot of fun to watch. The eventual winner? Mick West. Putting on Skepardy! is a lot of work, but I hope Bill is able to keep doing, it because it is such a treat.

I’m also proud to say that there were five trained GSoW editors who attended SkeptiCal. We are just like any other attendee, but we keep our eyes open to opportunities to add to Wikipedia. I took several photos and video that have been uploaded for use on Wikipedia. Editor Rick Thomas recorded audio from several of the speakers and uploaded them to their corresponding Wikipedia pages. GSoW wrote (or completely rewrote) the Wikipedia pages for Jim Underdown, Mick West, and Glenn Branch. There is a funny story about the way we were made aware that Glenn’s Wikipedia page needed rewriting. One of his creationist critics had written a blog complaining that Glenn Branch should not have a Wikipedia page because he wasn’t notable enough (I think the creationist’s Wikipedia page had been deleted or something). Someone shared that article with me, and I realized that the Glenn Branch Wikipedia page was a mess and badly needed a full rewrite. It was very satisfying that a creationist complaining that it needed to be deleted was what inspired a much better page.

I know that SkeptiCal is a lot of work and the organizers don’t make a profit, but the organizers are a terrific bunch of people. From what I can tell as just a conference attendant, there is a great division of labor and everyone seems to know what they are doing. It’s been ten years, and I think they should grow the conference to two days. This question is asked on every SkeptiCal survey, and the answer is always 50/50. It would be more of an incentive for people outside the local area to make a full weekend of it. Not that you need the draw of a two-day conference as an excuse to bring people to San Francisco. But they will attract more people from farther away, even outside California. I don’t know, though. It’s six of one and half a dozen of another. I tend to be optimistic and think that this is something we need to see replicated all over the world with each local skeptic group sponsoring their own conferences. I’m not sure we are quite ready, though. Local groups still struggle to get ten people to attend a monthly meetup, and my own local group struggles to hit sixty attendees at our yearly SkeptiCamp, which is usually the first Saturday of the year in the Monterey Bay area. This is probably a discussion for a different article, but all groups should be considering how to best grow our communities. I’m sure that the organizers of SkeptiCal give this a lot of thought.

Thank you, SkeptiCal organizers, for ten great years. Thank you, Derek Hennecke, for the article suggestions and to SI editorial and webmasters for putting up with my endless writing gaffes.

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.