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.

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