Skeptic from Czech Republic Checks Out CSICon

Susan Gerbic

Photo by Karl Withakay.

Claire Klingenberg is a public relations and events manager living in Prague in the Czech Republic. She is also the liaison for international relations of the Czech Skeptics’ Club Sisyfos, as well as the co-organizer of the Czech Paranormal Challenge. I met Claire at CSICon 2016; she had just attended QED in Manchester, England, a couple weeks before.

Susan Gerbic: Hello, Claire! It’s so good to be able to talk to you again. I wanted you to talk about your attendance at the two skeptic conferences you attended in October 2016 and also about the upcoming conference you are helping with, the European Skeptics Congress held by the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO).

So, let’s start with a bit of an introduction. Please tell readers a bit about yourself.

Claire Klingenberg: Hello, Susan! As you mentioned, I do public relations and events management for a group of magicians, mentalists, and card sharks. Apart from that, I am studying comparative religion and religious studies. I’m quite new within the skeptics’ movement. I officially joined two years ago. Prior to that, I was helping with organizing the experiments of the Czech Paranormal Challenge (since 2013), as well as interviewing close to 100 possible participants. I am very proud to say that our challenge currently offers the second-highest monetary award for proving a paranormal claim in the world. Oh, and I have the absolutely cutest dog—Figaro, a 150 pound Greater Swiss Mountain.

Gerbic: Wonderful! It was a joy to meet you. Our mutual friend Leon Korteweg in the Netherlands told you to make sure to look me up when you got to Vegas, didn’t he? Leon is a very important part of my GSoW project and is quite active in the Dutch skeptic as well as the European skeptic communities. We joke that Leon is my mini-me.

Klingenberg: Oh, absolutely! Leon is great; always keeps me on my skeptic toes. Yes, he told me so, but not just him. Many people at QED spoke about you as being not only the must-meet celebrity of the skeptic world, but wonderful. I was very excited to have the opportunity to meet you the evening before CSICon and am happy to say they were right.

Gerbic: Wow, thank you. I was a speaker at QED in 2014 and loved it. It’s held in Manchester, England, and the vibe is really different than the American skeptic conferences. What is this conference all about, and what were your impressions?

Klingenberg: QED, at least from my perspective, is a very high-energy event, with many things going on at the same time (talks, workshops, podcasts, films, panel debates), so many brilliant people mulling around and simply not enough time to see and do everything, which makes you want to come back next year. The range of topics covered is astounding—from ethics in magic to evolutionary biology to effective science communication and everything in between. Both the audience and the speakers are on average young and very active in their fields of interest. It was all so energizing and motivating.

Gerbic: Then almost two weeks later you found yourself in Las Vegas attending CSICon. How different were the two conferences?

Claire Klingenberg with Massimo Polidoro at CSICon 2016, photo by Karl Withakay.

Klingenberg: CSICon was more what you would imagine under the word “conference” at first impression. But after getting to know the other participants, it started to feel like a family, community meeting, even to my Czech colleague and me, who were complete outsiders.

Gerbic: Claire, tell me about some of your highlights of CSICon.

Klingenberg: The talks at CSICon were shorter with the advantage that you could hear and see everyone, giving you a taste of everything (and food for thought) without the feeling that you are missing out on something. The participants were incredibly welcoming, and even though CSICon had a slower pace than QED, there never was a dull moment. I love being around and speaking with people smarter than I am, and CSICon was wonderful because it offered many opportunities to do so. I am very happy to have become a part of the CSI community and can’t wait for the next CSICon.

Gerbic: Now let’s talk about the European Skeptics Congress (ESC) happening September 21–24. I’m so excited that I will be a speaker at this event, my first time in Europe (outside of the UK trip). What should I and other attendees expect? Will English-only speakers be comfortable attending?

Klingenberg: This is the seventeenth ESC. It will be held in Wroclaw, Poland, which was last year’s European Capital of Culture. It is a co-organization of the KSP—the Polish Skeptics Club and the Czech Sisyfos. It is an international conference, so don’t worry if your Polish and Czech are a bit rusty, all of the Congress will be held in English. Even I and my colleague from the Polish side, psychologist Tomasz Witkowski, communicate in English. We couldn’t understand each other otherwise.

The skeptic community is not that large, and the speaker list can get a bit repetitive when you regularly visit skeptic conferences. So to spice things up, we took the “concert” approach. Start with what the audience knows and can sing along to (Susan Blackmore, Mark Lynas, Scott Lilienfeld), then introduce them to something new and enriching (brilliant Czech and Polish speakers), and end with the evergreen hit (James Randi).

Gerbic: So, there must be something you are getting out of all these skeptic conferences? Why do you attend these? Most people in our community have never attended even one skeptic conference, and here you are attending several in one year. Personally, I think that it can completely change your life for the better. The people you meet, the experience of being in a giant room with so many people who think of things the way you do, who see the science speakers as rock stars—I mean James Randi! He is in the top ten of amazing people, much higher on my list than any movie star. What can you tell readers that will finally convince them to pick a conference to attend this year?

George Hrab and Claire Klingenberg at CSICon 2016.

Klingenberg: In the last year, I’ve been to four conferences: the first Rationalist International Conference (RIC) in Tallin (Estonia), Skeptikon in the Czech Republic, QED, and CSICon. Even though all of them center around skeptical and rational thinking, they are very different. The RIC focused on the religious and secular clash in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India and the issues related to multiculturalism and cultural plurality. Skeptikon was about the importance of skeptical, critical, and rational thinking. QED and CSICon were about everything, though both in different ways.

What I personally get out of all these conferences is a feeling of humility and many wonderful new ideas and projects to work on and introduce in my country and to my fellow Czech skeptics, as well as creating personal relationships in different countries, which is absolutely crucial when cooperating on trans-border issues. This is something the European skeptic community is well aware of and working on. Europe is a small playground, divided by many languages, but combating issues that do not respect borders, be it quack-medicine or conspiracy theories.

Gerbic: Thank you so much, Claire. I look forward to meeting new people and renewing friendships at the ECSO conference in Wroclaw this September and hope you will find the energy to attend CSICon again October 26–29 in Las Vegas, baby. Everyone check out the CSICon Facebook page for updates and socializing.

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.