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CSICon New Orleans 2011 - Where Meeting Awesome Skeptics Is As Easy As Saying ‘Hello’

Conference Report

Julia Lavarnway

Volume 36.2, March/April 2012

Indre Viskontas and Karen StollznowIndre Viskontas and Karen Stollznow take a break from skepticizing to smile for the camera. (Photo: Adam Isaak)

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry held its CSICon New Orleans 2011 conference October 27–30 at the New Orleans Marriott. It was a welcome resumption, after an eight-year hiatus, of CSICOP conferences.

It featured a dozen symposia on everything from conspiracy theories and UFOs to evolution versus creationism and skepticism in the media; special talks by skeptical luminaries; an awards banquet; and a host of social and entertainment events. The latter included a “Smarti Gras” parade and New Orleans Halloween Party Saturday evening at a French Quarter bar after the special conference address by Bill Nye “The Science Guy.”

Read more about CSICon and register for 2012’s CSICon Nashville at the CSICon website.


Even before CSICon 2011 in New Orleans officially began, I was already having great conversations with skeptics from all over the country. While helping at the registration table I met Skeptical Inquirer readers and supporters from as close as a few blocks away from the conference hotel to as far away as the United Kingdom. It was amazing to see people from so many places convening in one place to celebrate reason, science, and skeptical inquiry.

Indre ViskontasIndre Viskontas reminds us immediatley dismissing someone’s story can be counterproductive to skepticism. (Photo: Brian D. Engler)

It sure is something to be surrounded by so many like-minded people. Dorion Cable, who authored a great write-up on CSICon 2011 on her Detroit-based blog (http://motorcityblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/csicon-2011-best-assignment-evar-by-dc.html), com­men­ted that she recalls no place other than CSICon that people have actually recog­nized her Flying Spaghetti Monster necklace. But even some non–conference-goers had their interest piqued by the high concentration of skeptics. One hotel employee remarked, “You guys have the guy from the X-Files and Bill Nye the Science Guy? My nerd self just freaked out.”

The first session after opening re­marks on Thursday was “The In­vesti­gators” panel with stellar talks from Joe Nickell, Massimo Polidoro, Karen Stollznow, and Ben Radford on various investigations they’ve undertaken. Be­cause the topic of women in the skeptics movement is of particular interest to me, I was happy that I was able to ask Karen Stollznow during the Q&A session after her talk if she has noticed any advantages or disadvantages to being a female paranormal investigator—a minority within a minority. She answered that she hasn’t noticed her gender making a big difference either way but that many of the people she meets tend to assume she is a believer.

PZ MyersPZ Myers sports a CSICon T-shirt during his talk on Sunday. (Photo: Brian D. Engler)

Meeting Karen after many years of exchanging the occasional email was a conference highlight for me. As I gushed on my Twitter page: “Finally met @karenstollznow in person! She’s just as awesome as I knew she’d be.” It was my conversations at CSICon about women in skepticism over dinner with Karen, Miracle Detectives star Indre Viskontas, and CFI Communications Director Michelle Blackley that in­spired me to get more involved in the movement and to start the blog We Are SkeptiXX (http://bit.ly/skeptixx).

Phil Plait’s talk on the “Death from the Skies!” panel on Friday had me in stitches. “How do you keep [asteroids from hitting the Earth]?” he asked his captivated audience. “Well, if you ask Hollywood ... you will get the wrong answer.” After showing a clip from the horribly inaccurate 1998 movie Arma­ged­don, Plait pointed out that perhaps the most ludicrous detail in the scene is the fact that it is violently raining on the asteroid as Bruce Willis attempts to get the bomb into place. What’s wrong with that? Just the little fact that asteroids don’t have their own atmospheres and therefore there is no weather on them. I was able to talk with Plait for a couple minutes and compliment him on his ability to make his talks so enjoyable. He told me of a college professor he once had who during his classes would literally play a recording of himself giving a lecture. The memory of having to sit through those “lectures” is one of the things that motivate Plait to ensure that all of his own talks are engaging and entertaining.

Margaret DowneyMargaret Downey, founder of the Freethought Society, was a smash hit at the Smarti Gras party as the Tree of Life. (Photo: Brian D. Engler)

Another highlight of the conference was once again seeing CSI Fellow James Randi—they sure don’t call him “The Amazing” for nothing. His talk during the “Sleights of Mind” panel on Friday was nothing short of inspiring. He re­minded us all that no matter how much pride we take in our skepticism and critical thinking skills, every one of us can fall prey to tricks and smoke and mirrors: “I don’t tell you how the tricks are done for a very simple reason ... I want you to know that you can be deceived.” One of my very favorite conference keepsakes is a picture I was able to snap of Randi “conjuring” CSI Fellow Richard Saunders’s famous origami Pigasus, the mascot of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

Another panel I really enjoyed was Saturday’s “Skepticism and the Media,” which featured William B. Davis of X-Files fame, Miracle Detec­tives star Indre Viskontas, and New York Times science writer Sandra Blakeslee. Led by CFI Communica­tions Director Michelle Blackley, it was the first CSI/CSICOP conference panel with a female moderator. After Davis’s engaging talk in which he admitted he once unknowingly agreed to moderate a panel of 9/11 Truthers—“You must do your homework!” he reminded us—Indre Viskontas wondered aloud, “How can I follow Cancer Man? Well, at least I wore my cigarette pants.” On a more serious note, she went on to remind us all that “It is counterproductive to dismiss someone’s story off the bat,” a mistake that she has seen some skeptics make. As Viskontas told Sharon Hill in her SI interview (Novem­ber/December 2011), “Once you’ve dismissed them, you’ve lost them. They don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

James RandiJames “The Amazing” Randi conjures an origami Pigasus. (Photo: Julia Lavarnway)

CSI Fellow Richard Saunders, Life Member of the Australian Skeptics and the sole skeptical judge on Australia’s psychic-seeking reality show The One, was another delight to meet. I think ebullient is the best word to describe Richard. You’d be hard up to meet a more enthusiastic and personable skeptic. Richard not only allowed me to film him creating a JREF Pigasus (http://bit.ly/SaundersOrigami), he also invited me to appear on The Skeptic Zone podcast (http://bit.ly/skepticzone158). His Sunday presentation debunking Power Balance bands, in which he had some help from SI Deputy Editor Ben Radford in the form of audience participation (http://bit.ly/powerbalancedemo), was a big hit. (See also, “Power Balance Down and Out in Australia,” SI, September/October 2011 and “Power Balance Bracelets a Bust in Tests,” SI, January/February 2012).

My vote for “quote of the conference” came from SI Editor Ken Frazier during the close of his opening re­marks on Thursday: “One of the secrets we’ve kept from the public all these years is that skepticism is not just important, it’s also fun!” CSICon 2011 in New Orleans certainly proved the truth of Ken’s aphorism. Where else but CSICon would I have had the opportunity to have incredibly interesting conversations with luminaries in the skeptics movement while fast-dancing with the “big boss,” CFI president and CEO Ron Lindsay; rockin’ out to the Heathens (led by Inde­pendent Investigations Group founder Jim Underdown); eating ice cream with the eminent Massimo Polidoro; and admiring the awesomeness that was Steven Novella’s Dr. Horrible costume for the “Smarti Gras” party? I will most definitely be back at CSICon 2012, and I hope to meet even more of you SI readers and supporters there.





Bill Nye Wins In Praise of Reason Award; Novella Presented with CSI Balles Prize

Bill NyeBill Nye “The Science Guy” received CSI’s In Praise of Reason Award. (Photo: Brian D. Engler)

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” received the In Praise of Reason Award, the highest award of the Com­mittee for Skeptical Inquiry, at the CSICon New Orleans 2011 conference awards banquet.

The In Praise of Reason Award is given in recognition of distinguished contributions in the use of critical inquiry, scientific evidence, and reason in evaluating claims to knowledge. Previous recipients include Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, James Randi, and Nobel laureate physicists Murray Gell-Mann and Leon Lederman, among others.

Nye has a long string of television credits that promote good science, starting with his Emmy Award–winning 1990s series Bill Nye the Science Guy. An aeronautical engineer by training and early experience, Nye drew on his scientific and engineering background as a solid foundation for his demonstrations of scientific principles that are at the core of his communication of science to the public.

Subsequent programs include The Eyes of Nye, 100 Greatest Discoveries, Greatest Inventions with Bill Nye, and Stuff Happens. His Bill Nye’s Climate Lab is a new permanent exhibit at the Oakland, California–based Chabot Space and Science Center.

Nye is now the executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California.

“If you think Bill is popular among skeptics, you should attend a science teacher conference where he is speaking,” said Eugenie C. Scott, a member of CSI’s Executive Council, in presenting the award. “The National Science Teachers Association draws upwards of 12,000 [to] 15,000 teachers; I think all of them attend his talks, because although the organizers schedule his lecture in the largest ballroom in the conference center, there still are people standing in the back and in the aisles.

“It is obvious why,” said Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “Ken Frazier spoke at the opening ceremonies about the sense of exhilaration that skeptics feel in enjoying science—and that skepticism is ‘fun.’ Hardly anyone has as much fun as Bill Nye when he is talking about, and especially when he is demonstrating, principles of science.

“If you have seen any of his programs discussing astrology or other, to quote Carl Sagan, ‘extraordinary claims,’ you will soon see why he was made a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a longtime skeptic and proponent of critical thinking—obvious in all of his television programs.”

* * *

Steven NovellaSteven Novella is keeping his CSI Balles Prize tucked safely under his arm. (Photo: Adam Isaak)

Steven Novella was presented with CSI’s Robert P. Balles Annual Prize for Critical Thinking at the same awards banquet. The $1,500 award is given to the author of the published work or body of work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science.
The award, previously announced (SI July/Aug­ust 2011), was presented by CSI Executive Council member and Skeptical Inquirer Edi­tor Kendrick Frazier.

In his case, Novella was honored not for a particular article or publication but instead for his “tremendous body of work,” including the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe weekly science podcast, the Science-Based Medicine blog, his Neuro­logica blog, his Skeptical In­quirer column, “The Science of Medi­cine,” and his tireless travel and lecture schedule on behalf of skepticism.

“You may be the hardest worker in all of skepticism,” CSI Executive Director Barry Karr said when he first announced the award. “We are honored to present you with this award.”

Novella is a clinical neurologist, assistant professor, and director of general neurology at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is a fellow of the Com­mittee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Julia Lavarnway

Julia Lavarnway is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and assistant editor of Free Inquiry magazines.