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CSICon New Orleans 2011 - Critical Thinking in the Crescent City

Conference Report

Karen Stollznow

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 36.2, March/April 2012

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.

Margaret Downey and CFI–DC Executive Director Melody HensleyMargaret Downey and CFI–DC Executive Director Melody Hensley are all smiles at CSICon. (Photo: Brian D. Engler)

A Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) conference has been long-awaited since the last event held in 2003. The inaugural CSICon, the conference dedicated to scientific inquiry and critical thinking, was held October 27–30, 2011.

For such an event there simply is no better location than the French Quarter in New Orleans and simply no better time than the Halloween weekend. As I demonstrated in my talk “Making History,” New Orleans is the most “haunted” city in the country (or at least one of the many “most haunted”).

NOLA is famous for its music, cuisine, and Cajun and Creole culture, but it’s also a city teeming with pseudoscience and the paranormal. Jackson Square has art galleries and museums but also resident psychics offering tarot, palm, and astrology readings. The French Quarter is infamous for the reputation of Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, and Southern Decadence, but it’s also known for its underbelly of voodoo, hoodoo, and Santeria. The city has a remarkable and vibrant history but is often best remembered for its folklore of ghosts, vampires, and Voo­doo Queen Marie Laveau. The conference was a haven of rationalism, inquiry, and skepticism amid the myths and legends of the Big Easy.

Paul OffitPaul Offit talks about the importance of vaccination during a special luncheon address. (Photo: Brian D. Engler)

CSICon featured an exciting array of dynamic speakers. These are people we’ve seen on television, whose writings we’ve read in books and copies of the Skeptical Inquirer, and who we’ve listened to on podcasts and radio shows. There were fascinating and informative talks presented by James Randi, Bill Nye, PZ Myers, Lawrence Krauss, and Indre Viskontas of the TV show Miracle Detectives. The conference was well-attended with over 300 people but intimate enough to enable personal conversations with speakers and fellow conference-goers.

CSI was well-represented by speakers from within its own ranks, including Fellows Phil Plait, Seth Shostak, Edzard Ernst, David Morrison, Dave Thomas, and Sandra Blakeslee; Execu­tive Council members Eugenie Scott, Scott Lilienfeld, and James Alcock; and Point of Inquiry’s Chris Mooney.

Current, critical, and classical topics were tackled, including creation and evolution, science and public policy, investigations, UFO claims, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine claims, and grassroots activism and outreach. Skeptical Inquirer Editor Ken Frazier, CSI Executive Director Barry Karr, and Center for Inquiry President and CEO Ron Lindsay presented stirring speeches about the history and future of skepticism.

David WilleyDavid Willey entertains awards banqueters. (Photo: Adam Isaak)

This was also a time for commendation. During a banquet dinner, Bill Nye received the “In Praise of Reason” Award and Steve Novella was presented with the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking. For his decades of investigative work, Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell was recognized with an asteroid named after him. (See separate stories.)

CSICon encouraged knowledge-sharing and networking, but it wasn’t all “work”; there was plenty of play with many unique extracurricular events. At the opening reception there was a performance by the Heathens, a band led by Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group (IIG). David Willey, the “Mad Scientist,” presented “How Does a Thing Like That Work?,” an entertaining and interactive lecture consisting of the more visual and dramatic demonstrations from an introductory physics course.

One of the many highlights of CSICon was the Smarti Gras parade. It was a sight to behold—hundreds of skeptics in Halloween costumes led by a police escort and jazz band to the legendary Tipitina’s jazz club. In true New Orleans style, passers-by joined in with the merriment, cheering us along and even following the parade. We hope to have the same public reaction to our critical thinking!

David Willey takes a sledgehammer to the chestDavid Willey takes a sledgehammer to the chest (wielded by his assistant) in the name of skepticism. (Photo: Adam Isaak)

This is what CSICon is about: showing that skepticism is not only important but also fun.

The party included music, dancing, jambalaya, and Halloween costumes. Blake Smith, of the IIG in Atlanta, won the best skeptically themed costume award for his “Occam’s Shaving Cream” outfit.

Unlike in other conference reports, the cuisine deserves a mention too. CSICon departed from the usual bland conference fare, offering crab cakes with a spicy remoulade, eggs benedict with andouille, and an ice cream buffet with freshly made waffle cones.

The conference concluded with CSI’s annual Houdini séance hosted by Joe Nickell. The session included talks by cold-reading expert Ray Hyman and psychic-buster Massimo Polidoro. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, Houdini didn’t turn up, yet again.

Vonnie Galligher and CFI Vice President of Outreach Lauren BeckerVonnie Galligher and CFI Vice President of Outreach Lauren Becker enjoy the Smarti Gras party. (Photo: Brian D. Engler)

Disappointed that the festivities were over, enthusiastic skeptics continued the revelry with a post-conference tour of the beautiful flora and fauna of the Louisiana swamps and marshes.

In general, the conference was a wonderful opportunity to learn and share learning, reconnect with old friends, and establish new friendships. Attendees left the conference armed with new information and perspectives, reinvigorated to step outside of the conference hall and take skepticism to the streets.

This was a highly successful and refreshingly different conference. Nego­tiations are already underway for next year. It is rumored that CSICon 2012 is being planned to be even bigger and better and that CSICon is poised to become a preeminent skeptical conference for years to come.

Joe Nickell Has Asteroid Named After Him

It was a surprise announcement at the beginning of the Friday night awards banquet at CSICon New Orleans 2011. Astronomer and CSI scientific consultant James McGaha came forward and announced that an asteroid has been named for Joe Nickell in honor of his distinguished work on behalf of science, skepticism, and critical inquiry.

Nickell, the tireless investigator, prolific writer, and author who is CSI’s senior research fellow, accepted the award. Asteroid 1999 CE10, discovered by McGaha on February 9, 1999, will henceforth be known as Joenickell. It is a main belt asteroid about five kilometers in diameter with a period of 3.44 years. The Inter­national Astronomical Union’s Com­mittee on Small Body Nomenclature oversees the official naming process using a set of well-defined guidelines.

Here is the citation:

31451 Joenickell = 1999 CE10

Named in honor of Joe Nickell (b. 1944), the Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. A noted author, investigator, and skeptic, Nickell has written more than 30 books on mysteries, frauds, forgeries, and hoaxes. He promotes scientific inquiry and reasoned investigation of extraordinary claims.

Nickell joins several other prominent skeptics in having asteroids named for them. Previously Martin Gardner, James Randi, Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Philip J. Klass were so honored (SI, July/August 1998; May/June 1999). Philosopher and CSICOP founder Paul Kurtz and CSICOP itself (“for its contributions to science education and skepticism”) received the honor on CSICOP’s twentieth anniversary (September/Octo­ber 1996, p. 8). Others include PZ Myers, Philip Plait, Michael Stackpole, and Rebecca Watson (September/October 2008).

James McGaha and Joe NickellJames McGaha (center right) announces an asteroid has been named after CSI senior research fellow Joe Nickell (center left) while Eugenie C. Scott, Bill Nye, and Steven Novella approve.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]