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CFI Summit: Impressions

Conference Report

Susan Gerbic

Volume 38.2, March/April 2014

CFI Summit logo

Back from the CFI Summit, I am completely impressed. Not only was there no obvious twerking, but there was no drama, and in our tight little community of scientific skeptics that is a wonderful thing. I will say very little here about the lectures, as I didn’t really attend them. My agenda was not passive; I went to network and recruit people to join my Skeptic Action and GSoW projects (Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, see SI Interview, March/April 2012).

The Summit was the same week as Halloween. For years now I have been saying I will dress up “next year,” and when that year arrives it doesn’t seem to happen. Now I’m bald from the chemo killing my breast cancer and felt that finally “next year” was “this year.” So I went all out: I changed costumes twice a day. Cleopatra, Medusa, Che Guevara, and many, many odd hats. For the costume party I was a phrenology dummy. Susi Beyerstein, Jeanine DeNorma, and Herb Masters had the honor of drawing the wonders of the brain all over my head in eyeliner. I took second prize (best skeptical costume, though). The cleverness from our community to come up with great skeptical costumes was really delightful.

Susan Gerbic gives activism instructionSusan Gerbic gives activism instruction to Jeff and Jon Taylor-Kantz, Suzi Beyerstein, and Ray Hyman. (Photo by James Underdown)

I wasn’t sure what my reception would be; since I was a speaker, should I reflect a more professional attitude? Well, it isn’t every day you get a pass to blame everything on the chemo, so I just went with it, and no one cared. In fact it was extra wonderful. CFI was more than helpful—Wi-Fi, food, electricity at a free table. The general attendees loved the outfits and hats. All day, every day people came over to talk about what I was wearing. The mood was great; so many people were attending their first skeptic/humanist conference, and they were excited to be able to see fun like-minded people who wanted to meet them also. Not only was this happening in their backyard (the Pacific Northwest), but the quality of the speakers, great food, Wi-Fi, and tables in the lecture room really spoiled them. The Hotel Murano was a lovely place, glass art everywhere, just like staying in an art museum.

My goal was to hang out with attendees, network, photograph, and recruit. I was also able to spend quality time with many people teaching them how to use Web of Trust and Rbutr and to edit Wikipedia for skeptical activism, which is my specialty. Because of my unique position, I was able to listen, observe, and talk about the event with lots of people. Now, after some reflection, I would like to share my opinion on the big question organizations like CFI want an answer to.

In many quarters there seems to be an attitude that humanism and skepticism should be kept separate. We are too different and don’t understand why “they” would be interested in what they are doing, when what “we” are doing is so much more important. The general opinions are that skeptics are naysayers and “Bigfoot skeptics.” All that nonsense has been long ago debunked so why should anyone care anymore? And humanists (also called atheists) are too focused on social issues, don’t follow the scientific method, and believe all kinds of antiscience things (Bill Maher is an example).

The theme of the CFI Summit this year was to open this debate and hope to come up with some kind of answer. After all, times are tough, we have to watch our dollars, and if thousands were attending these conferences and all seats were filled, then I’m sure the separate conferences would happen. We could even throw conferences focused on specific topics like UFOs, atheism, medical quacks, and so on, but at the moment we don’t have that luxury. So how do we best spend our conference dollars?

a women draws lines and writes words on Susan's headJeanine DeNorma and Suzi Beyerstein turn Susan into a phrenology dummy for the Halloween costume contest. (Photo by Herb Masters)

Clearly, I did hear lots of people (usually first time conference attendees) state that they were attending an atheist conference. Some people said they were telling their families that they were attending a science conference, because I suppose they wanted to avoid backlash. For two hours on Thursday there were competing workshops, one on “Atheism and Naturalism” and the other on a “Skeptic’s Toolbox.” On Friday I was part of a panel that discussed investigation and activism, while in a different area the humanists discussed measuring unbelief. The rest of the conference we all met together in one big room with various topics, scientific as well as humanist.

Here is what I discovered. The initial opinion from the skeptics, that the humanists were not interested in scientific skepticism and that they held antiscience opinions, was unfounded. I never once heard a humanist with this opinion. They seemed just as interested in psychics and medical quackery as any skeptic. And while the skeptics might have felt a bit hurt that there were more antireligion type lectures at the conference, they were happy to join in the conversations once they attended, the exception being when the lecture seemed angry or ranting about religion. Some of the lectures were difficult to decide what camp they fell into. Eugenie Scott and Zack Kopplin’s lectures about creationism in the classroom and legislature were common ground. Katherine Stewart’s research into the Good News Clubs in America was also gripping for both groups. There were also lectures discussing legislation as well as psychology of belief, important topics to understanding what we are up against. Topics like creationism in the schools and antiscience medical claims hit home to both camps.

Many good points were made, one of which is that on college campuses today, atheism is hot, and we should be emphasizing this while they are interested. Another point made was that sometimes more doors will open when we are focused on science and not religion. Schools are more likely to allow in a skeptic group than an antireligion one. Debbie Goddard stated the obvious when we were discussing leaving CFI magazines in public places for people to find. She said she suspects that more people are likely to pick up a magazine on ghosts or vampires to browse through, than an issue devoted to humanism. Possibly it is just easier to use science and skepticism to start the discussion with people. And that is what we are trying to do after all: start a discussion.

Susan with a hat of snakes on her headLearn to edit Wikipedia with Medusa. (Photo by Brian Engler)

I’ve learned that some churches are using cryptozoology as real to disprove evolution. What happens to that theory when the child looks up Nessie on Wikipedia and discovers that Mom and Dad have that all wrong, and find that “Evidence of its existence is anecdotal”? Followed with plenty of citations that child can follow to the investigations and evidence our skeptic community has left there for them to find? This is why people start questioning their religion, small questions that start a snowball of questions. This is what happened to me. But didn’t I say earlier that people aren’t interested in Bigfoot skepticism? Someone should tell the 87,841 people who visited the Loch Ness page last month that no one cares about that stuff anymore.

I totally understand that religion is hot news right now. (When has it not been lately?) It seems like you can almost draw a line from most social problems back to people’s unquestioning belief in something that has no scientific basis to it. They cling and fight to hold tight those tenets. We have to find lots of ways to have these conversations. Brian Dunning from the Skeptoid podcast tells us that maybe the best way to have these uncomfortable discussions is to find a topic you both can agree on and work your way to the hot topic when you are ready. Talk about what evidence means, how to question something correctly, just keep talking and listening to each other.

On the thirty-minute van ride back to the airport I think the point was much clearer. Joe Nickell, Leonard Tramiel, and I totally engaged the four strangers also traveling with us. We had great conversations about Bigfoot and UFOs and what evidence means. They were thrilled to hear stories about Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. We were the cool kids in that van, and when the city bus rolled by with Bill Nye and the CFI Summit advertisement on it we were beyond the cool club. One woman said, “I wanna hang out with you guys.” I suspect we would not have had the same reception if we were talking about religion. Yet, if we had the time, the conversation might have gone in that direction. And they would have been more receptive to it if done in that order.

So back to CFI’s theme this year. Can we find common ground in our community? Should we combine conferences at least until the time we have grown so large we are holding them in mega-church halls? My opinion is that we have to work together. We overlap so much and we are such a small community in comparison to others. We need to find a way to respect each other’s passions, and talk to each other, not tweet at each other when we have a complaint. Face-to-face contact at these conferences is very important. The networking, training, and bouncing of ideas off each other is what is needed. Yes, we have to continue to grow and grow and grow. But first we need to start thinking of ways to stay together and find the common ground. Then maybe we can start making more efficient progress.

Yes, conferences might lose money. It’s difficult to find the right formula in the right location at the right time of the year. And what works this year might not the next. I doubt we are clever enough to figure it out. What I do know is that the one-on-one contact recharges our batteries. People like Harriet Hall (Skepdoc), Lindsay Beyerstein (cohost of Point of Inquiry), and myself came from CSI’s Skeptic’s Toolbox. We weren’t primarily authors or lecturers, just people with a passion for the skeptical movement who decided it was our turn to step up. You can’t buy that fire, but sometimes you might have to kick the embers to keep us (and others) out there fighting what seems to be an insurmountable world of woo. Conferences are essential.

Oh yeah, a couple more things, at the end of every lecture the same question came up. What can I do to help? The main answer we heard was “give money.” Very little happens without money; apparently it is pretty powerful. Besides that, pay attention to your local elections, especially school boards where your vote can make a big difference. And the most obvious activism advice was to follow Skeptic Action on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ and join the GSoW team.

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic's photo

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 and the Skeptic Action projects. You can contact her at SusanGerbic.com.