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A Chat with Ron Lindsay about CSICon, Costume Contests, and Jerks

Skepchick

Rebecca Watson

August 27, 2012

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

Thank you for sitting down with me, Ron. So I heard CSI has been throwing skeptical conferences since before it was cool. True?

Ron Lindsay

True!

Tell me a bit about that.

Well, CSI has been around, under different names, since 1976. I can’t tell you the exact year the first conference was started but it was in the ‘80s.* We were the pioneers of skepticism. We were essentially the only skeptical organization around, for a long time. We had nationwide, even international conferences, for instance in Beijing. We were the forerunners.

Unfortunately, for a period of time we didn’t have conferences that had a specifically skeptical theme, as part of the relationship between CSI and the other affiliates, CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism. At one time, before I became president and CEO, there was a deemphasis on skepticism, but with CSICon, we’re picking it back up again.

Well, these days we’re very lucky to have tons of skeptical conferences happening around the world. Why should people come to CSICon?

The Halloween Party, of course! No, that’s part of it, but I think one thing that distinguishes CSICon from other conferences, and not to say anything bad about them as they all have their virtues, but we have a bit more of an academic orientation – but not in the sense of “ivory tower” sort of stuff. We try to get all our presentations geared toward contemporary, important issues but we do call upon experts in different areas so they can apply their background and their research to those issues.

For instance, the panel I’ll be on has Chris Mooney and Daniel Kahan, and we’re talking about the research Dan and Chris have done about how people arrive at certain conclusions. Is there a difference in the way conservatives and liberals reason? This is research that has important implications.

Likewise, we have a panel on gender differences and science, and we’ll have three people talk about the psychology of gender differences and talk about the research in that area. Is there really a difference between how men and women reason about certain things, and if so how would that play out in certain behaviors? Is it innate, or is it a reflection of culture? These are issues people are talking about, without necessarily paying attention to the research.

So one of the important contributions of CSICon is that we’re bringing the actual research to bear on the issues people are talking about.

But there will still be fun Bigfoot talks, right?

We try to cover the whole area of skeptical interests, so yes! We’ll have talks on Bigfoot and other phenomena like that. So we’re covering some of the same topics but from a different orientation.

And not to emphasize it too much, but we’re going to have a lot of fun! We’ll have some nice parties, and the Halloween party with a skeptical theme and the award for best costume.

And this will be an exclusive scoop for you – the party will be a big, fun event like it was last time. We’ll have prizes for best costume, best skeptical costume, but also, because there are people out there who say they have psychic powers, we’re going to give them a chance to prove it. This week, I will write down the costume I’ll be wearing at the party, put it in a sealed envelope, and deliver it to Barry Karr. The person who is able to use his or her psychic powers to figure out what costume I’m wearing will be inundated with fabulous prizes.

That’s right, at the CSICon costume contest last year, you dressed as some kind of German soldier. How do you plan to top yourself this year, in terms of lightheartedness?

[Laughs]
I won’t be wearing an authoritarian-themed costume this year, but it wasn’t a German soldier! It was supposed to be a Latin American dictator.

[Laughing] That’s not better! That’s still a terrible costume idea!

It was mock ironic! Because I’m the CEO! But no, there won’t be any kind of overtones like that this year. It will be a costume everyone can rally behind.

So why Nashville?

We thought Tennessee might be good, because Tennessee sadly has been at the forefront of some anti-science legislation, some legislation that got across the church-state boundary. Some might see that as a reason to avoid Tennessee, but we saw it as an opportunity to bring some enlightenment, to bring the skeptics down there.

And we also wanted a city we thought had a fun reputation, and Nashville seemed like a good choice.

Nashville is known as Music City. If Ben Radford and Joe Nickell were to perform a duet of "Islands in the Stream," who do you think should be Dolly Parton and who should be Kenny Rogers?

[Laughing]
This... I have to work with these people! I think their talent is so deep and varied that each of them could play both those characters very well, so actually they’d probably trade off during the duet.

Wow, that’s a very diplomatic answer and an intriguing possibility.

I’m going to have nightmares now thinking about that.

So CSICon, and in fact all CFI-sponsored events, now has an anti-harassment policy. Why did you decide to outlaw fun?

[Laughs]
Well, we didn’t outlaw fun. It’s important. I’m somewhat embarrassed that we did not think of this before because at all of our conferences, including CSICon, what we’re most interested in is having people feel free to exchange ideas, because that’s what skepticism and free inquiry are all about: exchanging points of view, discussing things. To do that, you need to feel comfortable, you need to feel safe. You need to feel like it’s a welcoming environment. And that’s not the case if you have to worry about hostile conduct or harassment.

So we really see this as a way to further our objective to have free and open discussions. I’ve had this criticism, since we’ve implemented the policy, “Oh you’re against free speech.” Quite to the contrary, we feel this is a way of ensuring we have free speech, so that people there feel comfortable, feel free to exchange ideas, and it’s not going to outlaw fun at all.

I don’t want to get too much into people’s proclivities, people want to do what they want to do and that’s great. We as an organization are in favor of adults having consensual relationships and pursuing fun as they see fit, but the key there is “consensual relationships.” So in prohibiting hostile conduct and harassment, what we’re doing is trying to eliminate the jerks, to put it as bluntly as possible, and make sure everyone else has fun.

Speaking of fun, a seance will be held Saturday night at the conference. If you could conjure the ghost of one deceased skeptic to give the paranormal keynote at CSICon, who would it be?

Oh my goodness, this is going to be a very difficult question.

I don’t know if he counts as a skeptic, but Carl Sagan is certainly someone who i think approached things with a scientific mind, and he was the one who I think coined the phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”** He’d be my first choice.

He definitely counts as a skeptic! And he had a relationship with CFI, right?

He did! He talked at a number of our conferences, he received a couple of awards, and we have a continuing relationship with his widow, who continues to give us support and allows us to use his name in promotional materials and such. So yeah, I think he’d be my choice.

Good choice. One last question: has CSI ever considered pranking the attendees of CSICon by creating a tale about the hotel being haunted, then using an elaborate set-up of projectors and two-way mirrors to see if you can convert them?

Did you gain access to our memos? I thought that was confidential.

I knew it!

[Laughs]

Thanks very much Ron!

Thanks!

*According to Barry Karr, the first CSI conference (then known as CSICOP) was in 1983 in Buffalo, NY.
**Apparently, Sagan popularized the saying but CSI cofounder Marcello Truzzi may have originated “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.”

Rebecca Watson

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Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.