Jul 17 2012

I’m Back – What I Learned About the Skeptical Movement

I am just getting back home from TAM2012, the largest annual skeptical meeting  hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Many of you were likely there as well. During the trip I also stopped off for a tour of Pixar (which was awesome) and to give a health seminar at Google. If you will indulge me, I like to use such events to take the pulse of the skeptical movement to see what I can learn.

First, I am happy to report that the skeptical movement remains vibrant and energetic. These events are always invigorating – it’s a pleasure to meet with those who listen to the SGU or read my blogs and to be told directly that all the hard work is worth it. So thank you to everyone who approached me during TAM to offer their kind words, it really does have an effect.

Attendance at TAM was down about 25% from last year. TAM9 had over 1600 attendees, the highest attendance of any TAM and I think any skeptical meeting. This year the attendance was over 1200, which is still huge for a skeptical conference but down from last year. Of course among those involved with TAM there is much discussion about the cause of the shrinkage. There is certainly more competition – more such conferences, including NECSS, which the NESS is involved in running. DragonCon also has a growing skeptical track, and CSI is getting back into the conference game with the second CSICON in October. Further, last year there were several big headliners (Tyson, Dawkins, Nye) who tend to be a big draw, and while this year’s speakers list was stellar last year simply had some bigger names. There are also issues that have nothing to do with skepticism, like the economy. Perhaps last year’s conference was simply exceptional, and this year we are experiencing a little regression to the mean. And there have been some controversies surrounding TAM this year, which I will discuss below.

It’s difficult to tease apart these various factors, and perhaps others.   However, from my perspective while the numbers were down the enthusiasm from the average TAM goer was not. The main hall was packed with attentive audience members, and the lectures and panels were studded with standing ovations. One attendee commented to me, “You know you’re having a good day why you are involved in five spontaneous standing ovations.”

So lesson #1 – the skeptical movement is full of people who share a love of science and reason and who love to get together and talk about these things.

Early on in the week I was asked to participate in a debate against an antivaccinationist, Dr. Whitaker. I was a last-minute sub, so had no time to prep – I basically went in cold. The debate was across town at the Freedom Fest, a libertarian conference. I will let David Gorski, who came with me to the debate, along with Michael Shermer, tell the story in gory detail. It is, of course, hard for me to objectively assess my own performance, but by all accounts I did well (David thinks I crushed Whitaker, and who am I to argue). After the event many people in the audience (who are not skeptics, mind you) came up to me to tell me that I had essentially “won” the  debate, in that it was clear that I had the science on my side. One attendee said she came into the debate not sure what to think about the whole vaccines and autism controversy, but by the end I had completely won her over.

Lesson #2 – debating cranks and true-believers can be effective skeptical outreach, if you have sufficient mastery of the topic at hand. I would add that mastery includes more than knowledge of the science of the topic itself, but also knowledge of the arguments used by the other side. Just as many solid evolutionary scientists have been demolished in debates against slick creationists (like the infamous Duane Gish), it would be folly to go up against an anti-vaccinationist without a thorough knowledge of their propaganda.

For example, Whitaker threw up a chart of measles death rates which appears to show that the measles vaccine had an insignificant effect.  I and David instantly recognized this graph and knew exactly what the deception is (mortality is not incidence and reflects only improved medical care over the 20th century – see David’s post for more details) and how to precisely demolish it. In a debate when you have to think on your feet, knowing the other side’s arguments is priceless.

There was a bit of a pall hanging over TAM, as regular readers of skeptical blogs likely already know. There was a controversy over TAM’s sexual harassment policy (or lack thereof) and the effect that some female skeptics are having by publicly discussing the problems faced by women at events in general, including (but not especially) skeptical events and TAM. First let me say that for the average TAM goer this was a non-issue. They were there to learn about science, meet with fellow skeptics and prominent voices in the skeptical movement, and have a good time – and they did. This was mainly an issue for insiders who are either involved in some way in skeptical activism, the JREF or TAM speakers and organizers.

Overall I was surprised by how little this issue was brought up, at least to me. I am closer to the issue than most as Rebecca Watson, my co-host on the SGU, is at the center of this controversy. Perhaps that kept some people from raising the issue directly with me.

However, the issue was there. This is a very touchy topic with strong feelings on all sides, and it is not my intention to do a thorough analysis here. The core issue is the experience that women have at these types of events, the degree to which they feel safe and welcome, and the response of conference organizers to the issue and the way it has been discussed publicly. From talking to various people about the issue (when it did come up) the consensus seems to be that the issue is real, but it is unfortunate how it has played out so far, and can’t we just move forward in a constructive, mature, and professional manner (perhaps I am projecting a bit).

Lesson #3 – The skeptical movement is to some degree a victim of its own success. We are growing rapidly and yet do not really have the social infrastructure to deal with this growth, which is happening in full view of the public thanks to social media (which has also been a major player in this entire episode). We need to quickly learn what we can from recent events. Pamela Gay, who I interviewed this weekend on the topic, likened recent events to ripping a bandage off a festering wound. To extend this analogy, this means we need to transition into a phase of healing. How we move forward I think will say much about our movement.


TAM 2012 was overall a success, and I was happy to be part of it. I enjoyed meeting with all of the friends I have made over the years at such conferences, and meeting many new enthusiastic skeptics.

35 responses so far

35 Responses to “I’m Back – What I Learned About the Skeptical Movement”

  1. ChrisHon 17 Jul 2012 at 11:53 am

    Dr. Novella:

    (morality is not incidence and reflects only improved medical care over the 20th century – see David’s post for more details)

    I agree, it is immoral to tout deaths instead of incidence. This is when I pull out my measles incidence census data. Over the years I had to tell them to not include deaths, different decades or even different countries. Though it was fun to tell one of the pair who run the UK “Childhealthysafety” (which is anti-child health and anti-reality) that neither Wales nor England were in the USA.

  2. SkeptiDCon 17 Jul 2012 at 11:58 am

    Steve, I’m the filmmaker that interviewed you at NCESS this year – I think your debate with Dr. Whitaker is a pretty inspirational example of debating quacks/anti-vaxers. The fact that you were able to strike down all his arguments (and convince some fence sitters) gives me hope. It shows that if you are well armed, the other side’s ammo is pretty weak, especially in a forum where you are allowed to provide your argument freely, unlike say in an edited situation like the Dr. Oz show. I’d like to see more instances of debates like this. Keep it up.

    – Ben

  3. roadfoodon 17 Jul 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Steve, I was at TAM and I really wanted to ask you about the Rebecca/sexual harassment issue, but as you suggest, I shied away from it thinking that you wouldn’t want to talk about such a touchy topic with some random TAMmer.

    However, I did manage to work up the courage to ask Evan about it. He was quite willing to talk with me about it, and he was as gracious and open and level-headed and non-biased as one could imagine. I was tremendously impressed and I’m grateful that he spent that time with me.

    As a newcomer to both the skeptical movement and TAM, I agree that it is unfortunate the way this has played out, but after talking with Evan I am very hopeful that it will be worked out.

  4. locutusbrgon 17 Jul 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Glad your back felt like I have been all alone in the world the last week. Even started listening to old pod-casts for moral support.
    I was unable to go to TAM. I have never been there but will make it eventually. I cannot speak for others, but for me my family and young children make a non-work related conference a struggle. Especially in the summer when the kids are out of school. Despite the sales pitch I have never found Vegas to be Kid friendly. I couldn’t go last year for similar reasons so I am probably not representative of the numerical difference. I know the JREF plans this, but I have often thought that having an “on strip” conference center would push more people to go. Even the former Hilton “off the strip” conference center would have a grater draw to the casual Skeptic. Not complaining, I would love to go just to be with like minded folks for a change. Just saying you would probably get more people interested to go even if the price were higher.
    Anyways since I don’t get a chance to say this in person this year. I find you to be inspiring, I don’t know where you get the energy to do all the blogs, podcasts, TV, conferences, talks, and still practice medicine. You and your podcast were the catalyst, that changed my life. You focused my inherent skepticism. You changed the way I think, learn, and teach. Four years of listening to your podcast has made me a much better informed, and science based nurse practitioner. My patients would thank you, if they only knew. For example, I always thought acupuncture was bullshit but until I found the SGU I never had the tools to teach others. Can’t thank you enough. Someday I will get to thank you in person.
    Be well
    Next post we will get back to arguing.
    Steve P

  5. Sancluson 17 Jul 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Dr. Novella

    It sounds like a great trip overall. Thanks for taking the time to go down to Vegas to attend and be a level-headed presence. I am still amazed at how many people seem so willing to accept that vaccines, one of the most important contributions of medical science, are somehow causing more harm than good. Statistics don’t lie, but people do and they can fudge the stats. This is a debate that comes up more often than I would like in my personal life and its always good to have somebody with a high profile in the skeptical movement win so visible a victory, as Pyrrhic as it may seem at times.
    On a side note, I have been a weekly listener to the podcast for a couple of years and I have recently downloaded all of the past episodes. I have been listening to them in sequence. I must say that your Podcast has one quality that is most impressive; consistency. The show is always an excellent skeptical discussion and it is much appreciated by me. I often feel like an animal caged in a zoo of superstition, magic and ludicrous claims. Your podcast helps to partially alleviate that. Keep up the great work and thank you to you and your co-hosts.

    Daniel Brennan
    Pelham Bay, Bronx, NY

  6. Szabolcson 17 Jul 2012 at 2:48 pm

    Dr. Novella

    I am new here on your site. English is not my mother tongue, so apologies for my mistakes! 🙂
    I did not know where to write to You!
    I have recently come across “FIVE PROBLEMS IN THE PHILOSOPHY OF MIND”. Although it has nothing to do with your current topic, I’d like You to scan it through and write an opinion about it, if You have time, motivation etc.

    I read Your blog daily! It is so beneficial and it has quality to a layman in science like me!

    All the Best, Szabolcs from Hungary

  7. nybgruson 17 Jul 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Hi Dr. Novella,

    I too could not make it to TAM (and never have). This was the closest I have come, flying home to Southern California during the TAM weekend. However it was a stopover on a trip to Hawaii (where I am currently writing this from) to be best man in my friend’s wedding.

    However, me and an equally if not more skeptical med student friend are already planning on making TAM next year. This may well be very possible for me since I will most likely be doing a critical care rotation in San Diego when TAM is going on.

    If we do make it, I will definitely come by to say hello to you and all the SBM crew as you have certainly helped me (as locutus said) hone my already inherently skeptical nature and educated me immensely. That, and learning all the ins and outs of actual medical evidence and all the little factoids I’ve gleaned from here have served well to impress my attendings and give me (so far) all “exemplary” reviews in my clinical rotations. It has also helped me speak very intelligently to my PI and impress him enough to be asked to speak to his sepsis team, given me first authorship on a paper, and he is working on getting the hospital to cover my costs for going to a large conference next year to present our abstract.

    So all in all, you (and the rest of SBM) totally rock. Next year I’ll say thanks in person but this will have to suffice for now.


  8. jreon 17 Jul 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Welcome back! I was impressed by the account of your debate with Whitaker, and more than a little relieved to learn that rationality really can triumph over oily self-righteousness. Though, to judge by that gobsmackingly stupid graph, Whitaker would have been out of his weight class with the average second-grader. Not taking anything away from you, good Dr. N; it was a fight worth having.

    It’s kind of sad to see Rebecca and DJ come to this pass. For me, the takeaway message from elevatorpalooza was that it is possible for one person to have a perfectly valid complaint, while another person with a different life experience finds it all but impossible to appreciate that complaint’s validity in an immediate, personal sense. With good faith and a little effort, I think this community can bridge that experience gap and emerge healthier for it.

  9. ChrisHon 17 Jul 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Oh, oh! A commenter at http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/07/16/battling-antivaccinationists-at-freedomfest/#comment-191932, has noticed that the Freedom Fest folks have a bit error in their blog post about the debate:

    Dr. Julian Whitaker and Dr. Steven Novella (Yale) on “Vaccines: Good or Bad?” It would have been a good debate, but Dr. Novella was a “no show”!

    Perhaps you should ask Dr. Shermer how such an error would occur.

  10. ChrisHon 17 Jul 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Oops, that blog post from Freedom Fest is last year! I don’t believe Dr. Novella knew about that debate. How could he be a no-show if he did not know about it?

  11. etatroon 17 Jul 2012 at 11:50 pm

    I’m interested in viewing the debate as well. The Freedom Fest 2012 site seems like they are selling mp3, CD’s, and DVD’s of debates, lectures, and “videos.” However, the Novella/Whitaker debate is not mentioned. I assume that Steve is not mentioned on the agenda because (as he indicated), he was filling in for someone who didn’t make it. Regarding the 2011 debate-that-didn’t-happen, maybe Steve could fill us in. Anyway: congrats to Steve and others. I can’t wait to go to a TAM or another skeptical meeting some day.

  12. Steven Novellaon 18 Jul 2012 at 8:06 am

    Like this year, I was asked to join the 2011 debate at the last minute, and also during the same week as TAM. When asked initially if I was interested I said yes, but then I never received any follow up. They apparently waited til the last minute, and I was traveling to TAM and busy at TAM when they next tried to contact me. This time I was prepared for the lack of organization and the last minute rush so I made sure all the details were locked in on my first contact with them. Michael Shermer also helped coordinate my involvement in the debate and helped avoid the 2011 debacle.

  13. Szabolcson 18 Jul 2012 at 9:25 am

    I completely forgot to share the link I read:http://edge.org/conversation/five-problems-in-the-philosophy-of-mind.


  14. Geek Goddesson 18 Jul 2012 at 9:35 am

    Comic-Con was the same weekend. Quite a few regular attendees of TAM go to that. Bad timing to have them on conflicting days

  15. Oracon 18 Jul 2012 at 9:54 am

    Heh. One wonders if Dr. Whitaker will be up for a rematch next year. Somehow, I doubt it.

  16. ChrisHon 18 Jul 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Ah, that makes sense. The Freedom Fest is free from timely planning.

    They sound like they are run by a collective of college kids (or people who think like them), like my son. The one who only decided to find a new place to live the week before the lease ran out on his apartment. The result is that his furniture is in our garage, and he is in our spare room.

  17. DLCon 18 Jul 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Hm. Well I’m glad the event went off well enough for you. With any luck and some judicious planning perhaps it will improve — TAM, that is. Don’t give two farthings for Freedomfest.

  18. etatroon 18 Jul 2012 at 1:39 pm

    It sounds like they weren’t very gracious hosts over there at Freedomfest. At least at the top level, organization leadership (whoever that might be). If one or two rank and file attendees were fence-sitters whose minds were changed by having attended the debate — they will go home to their family and friends and perhaps have an influence. I’d call it a success. I looked at the other speakers on the published agenda for the Freedomfest, and Leslie Manookian, who produced the movie “The Greater Good” (which I haven’t seen but have read about as being anti-vaxx propaganda) and she presented, “Vaccines: Health Risk or Health Protector?” I hope there’s discussion & recap on SGU about it.

  19. sarahton 18 Jul 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Hi Steve, I attended TAM for the first time this year. I am not very active on line and I only recently learned about the existence of skeptical organizations like JREF. (Yes I’ve kind of been living under a rock.) I am really excited to find a group of people who share my interests and so much of my world view. I realize I’ve been a Skeptic for 20 years, but I never knew that I was part of a “movement!”

    I admit, as a newbie female skeptic, I was pretty distressed when I stumbled across the reports of “issues” at past conferences. I attended TAM with some trepidation as a result. However, everyone I met was polite and respectful, and the conversations were mainly focused on the fantastic speakers and skeptical ideas. I’m not discounting any negative experiences that some women have apparently encountered in the past, but I had a great time at this year’s conference and I’m looking forward to attending next year.

    Certainly, the skeptical movement is not magically immune to problems like boorish behavior by individuals (male or female) under the influence of alcohol at evening events. I’ve seen that kind of thing at professional conferences, holiday office parties, and, heck, at my own relatives’ weddings. The key is to respond quickly and effectively to complaints. Sexist or inappropriate behavior by invited speakers “behind the scenes” is another matter and should certainly be dealt with promptly, by reprimanding the speaker and dis-inviting him (or her) from future conferences. I hope JREF will address the issues so that the present controversy can be put to rest. Meanwhile, I just wanted to chime in that I personally had a great time at TAM.

  20. Draalon 18 Jul 2012 at 5:48 pm

    One metric that was mentioned was the % of women at these type of conferences. How did the % women at TAM this year compare to last year?

  21. tmac57on 18 Jul 2012 at 6:37 pm

    ChrisH- Your son may have been doing more planning than you give him credit for 😉

  22. ChrisHon 18 Jul 2012 at 8:29 pm

    Not really. He does not like living at here.

  23. dfcwordpresson 18 Jul 2012 at 10:44 pm

    No doubt multiple factors combine to explain the lower numbers at TAM this year. But as an enthusiastic member of the skeptical social-media audience, I wonder if the fact there seems nothing new to talk about plays a role. I wasn’t at TAM and don’t know the full program details but, when it comes to homeopathy, vaccines or UFOs, I feel I’ve heard almost all there is to say on these subjects. I’m sold.

    These are important subjects – and there is much more work to be done in the broader community – but they are well-worn subjects in the Skeptical community. The same goes for podcasts, blog posts and other skeptical media. If I see a summary that features these subjects, I tend to skip. Again, it’s not because they are not important issues – its just I’ve heard it many times before. I’m sold.

    What are the new areas the skeptical movement could look at? Issues that are not niche. Issues that have wider community interest and relevance. What about climate science for example? It does get touched on – but not nearly as hammered as, say, homeopathy.

    Anyhow, just my thoughts.


  24. jayceeon 18 Jul 2012 at 11:26 pm

    I realise that the harassment issue didn’t get picked up by your radar much but I would be interested in your thoughts on the behaviour of your Science based medicine blog colleague Harriet Hall towards Skepchick Amy Roth.

    And perhaps next year SGU may give thought to supporting Rebecca and boycotting TAM if they don’t improve their attitudes towards the harassment issue, assuming Rebecca thinks that would be useful.

  25. idoubtiton 19 Jul 2012 at 7:56 am

    Hi Dr. Steve:

    I don’t think you were projecting regarding people want the discourse to get out of the gutter. That is my impression as well. I received several comments from people who have seen online exchanges and said they prefer civil behavior over namecalling and personal attacks.

    If there are serious issues to be discussed, it does not seem prudent to write blog posts calling out certain people as the “bad guys”. This is better dealt with in person or as close to that as possible and NOT hashed out in comment threads and dueling personal essays.

    Since you are one of the most respected people in the community, I hope you take the lead on this and not endorse those who continue such behavior. Thanks for writing up your thoughts on TAM.

  26. ChrisHon 19 Jul 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Now there is moaning and groaning about the t-shirt that Dr. Hall was wearing. It included a phrase that she was not a “skepchick.” Something I actually understand.

    Thirty years ago I am sure that Dr. Hall (aka Air Force Colonel Hall) was doing what I did as a woman in a male dominated profession: telling co-workers to not call me “girly”, “chick”, “little lady”, etc. I corrected on fellow engineer on the phone when called me some female diminutive, and he asked me what I wanted to be called. I simply answered “You may call me Chris, because that is my name. Just like I am calling you Bill.”

    I do enjoy the Skepchick website, but the name is a bit off putting for those of us who endured similar hostile situations in the past. Though I do wonder if one guy really decided to stop flying on most commercial airliners once he found out that Boeing has been hiring women engineers for most of its history.

  27. elmer mccurdyon 19 Jul 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Oh, quit stalking me, Davies, you jerk.

  28. elmer mccurdyon 19 Jul 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Sorry, wrong thread.

  29. elmer mccurdyon 20 Jul 2012 at 12:12 am

    Bye bye.

  30. ChrisHon 20 Jul 2012 at 12:48 am

    Well, that was surreal.

  31. Jared Olsenon 20 Jul 2012 at 6:28 am

    It warms my heart to know that you are out there battling frauds like Whitaker, like some skeptical super-hero! That fool certainly didn’t see you coming..

  32. kakaydinon 20 Jul 2012 at 10:55 am

    Any chance someone shot video of Dr. Novella’s debate with Dr. Whitaker?

  33. banyanon 21 Jul 2012 at 11:57 am

    There was some talk about the Google Health Seminar being put on YouTube. Any updates?

  34. thetalkingstoveon 24 Jul 2012 at 10:44 am

    “From talking to various people about the issue (when it did come up) the consensus seems to be that the issue is real, but it is unfortunate how it has played out so far, and can’t we just move forward in a constructive, mature, and professional manner (perhaps I am projecting a bit).”

    I wish you would be a little more openly supportive of Rebecca and co here. This is a very bland statement.

    The way the sexual harrassment issue has been handled at TAM is unfortunate, but the poor behaviour and unprofessionalism is from DJ Groethe and TAM, not the Skepchick side. A shame you can’t make this clear.

  35. Steven Novellaon 24 Jul 2012 at 7:51 pm

    I have been publicly and privately a strong supporter of Rebecca since the beginning, and have made it clear that the misogyny aimed and her and other women who dare to speak out is unacceptable and reprehensible. That wasn’t, however, the point of this post. I did not want touch on this topic without doing it justice. Stay tuned.

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