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A Report from the Inaugural NYC SpeedyCamp

The Well-Known Skeptic

Rob Palmer

July 20, 2018


On June 10, yours truly—someone who had never done a presentation anywhere as a skeptic with a capital “S”—was the very first speaker at the very first New York City Skeptics’ SpeedyCamp. So, of course I have absolutely no choice but to report on this event right here and now in my new column.

So, what is a SpeedyCamp? Well, many of you may already be aware of SpeedyCamp’s older, bigger brother SkeptiCamp, which has been a thing since 2007. SkeptiCamps are a much less elaborate version of the huge skeptical conferences such as CSICon, NECSS, and QED. Unlike those big conferences, SkeptiCamps need less planning and are much shorter. Most importantly, while the big conferences attract well-known speakers, SkeptiCamps allow less well-known speakers, and even totally unknown people, to have a go at it. [1][2]

Russ Dobler, a member of the board of directors of the NYC Skeptics, and one of the six SpeedyCamp speakers, told me that he credits the president of the NYC Skeptics, Spiro Condos, with the idea for SpeedyCamp. Russ sees SpeedyCamps as a mid-year, shorter version of their annual day-long SkeptiCamp, which his organization has held each December for some time, with fifty to eighty people typically attending.

The NYC Skeptics went pretty far to downsize the SkeptiCamp model: this first SpeedyCamp was held in just two hours. At NYC SkeptiCamps, speakers have been allocated thirty minutes on stage (including Q&A time), but SpeedyCamp only allocated half that time. Another difference is that to present at NYC SkeptiCamps, prospective speakers are vetted by supplying their proposed topics and presentations for review by the organizers, in accordance with detailed instructions. [3] For this SpeedyCamp, as far as I have discovered, there was no vetting of material. I know that no one reviewed my slides, and Russ confirmed that this applied to his presentation as well.

I believe the rationale may have been that if someone gave an inappropriate—or just uninteresting—presentation, it was only fifteen minutes lost. No big deal. Or perhaps it was just that the event was arranged with insufficient time for vetting (more on the repercussions of this in a little while!). I also noticed that, for some reason, the six allocated speaking spots were being filled right up to the eleventh hour. Again, perhaps this was because the announcement went out with insufficient notice. I found out about SpeedyCamp and contacted the organizers just nine days before the event, and I was only the fourth to be added to the published speaking schedule. [4] Also, one of the six presenters, Russ, told me he was a last-minute fill-in.

The final list of speakers and topics was posted as follows. (Note that three of the topics provided no description beyond the title.) [5]

Perhaps short notice for the event kept the attendance down; I counted just twenty in the room including myself, those running the meeting, and all six speakers. Initially, the low turn-out disappointed me. I had spent many hours preparing for this and then travelled nearly three hours (in awful NYC traffic) to give my presentation about the Guerrilla Skeptics team in the slim hope of gaining new members. My article on the subject published online by Skeptical Inquirer [6] and upon which my SpeedyCamp presentation was based, had garnered several recruits. But I had decided to try my hand at an in-person recruitment talk. After all, the more folks I can get to know about and join GSoW, the better the skeptical movement will do in its perpetual battle against woo. With so few people in the audience, I knew the odds were not good that this trip would bear fruit.

On the other hand, having a smaller audience would calm the butterflies in my stomach that seemed to be multiplying as the time drew near to take the microphone. In my professional career as an aerospace engineer, I have frequently presented to large audiences on technical matters, and I had grown comfortable doing so. But I have not done a presentation in over a decade and felt extremely rusty. Also, this would be my first presentation to a group of skeptics, and I imagined that saying absolutely anything in the least bit suspect would get me bombarded by rotten tomatoes. This SpeedyCamp was being held in a café after all (The Brooklyn Commons Café) with conveniently palm-sized food readily available for throwing.

But when I took the stage as the first speaker and was unexpectedly, ceremoniously presented with the official PC remote control on a decorative throw pillow (don’t ask—I didn’t get it either), the small size of the crowd actually helped my nerves. I delivered my presentation smoothly (I think) and finished with time to spare on the nerve-wracking countdown clock. My presentation was broken into these parts: why Wikipedia matters to the skeptical movement, the scope of GSoW’s work (including key examples), how GSoW articles are found by the public, the impact of GSoW (with stats), example of journalists quoting GSoW’s work, my reasons for joining GSoW, and the difficulties of going it alone on Wikipedia vs. joining GSoW. Those in attendance seemed engaged, no one was hostile, and there were several really good questions asked by the audience during the five-minute Q&A session that followed. I was relieved to have gotten through it unscathed. The next speaker was not so lucky.

Bill Chapman’s topic was advertised as “Introducing the Intellectual Dark Web,” but no other description had been listed on the schedule. I had not heard the phrase and was intrigued, thinking it was going to be a technology topic. However, I could not have been more wrong; the presentation was all about left vs. right American political discourse. Bill used most of his time to instruct the audience about the characteristics and dogma of what has been described since about 2012 as the “regressive left”. [7] He then reported that those with political views not conforming to this philosophy are being suppressed by that group and by the mainstream media as well, and they have resorted to interacting and publishing their opinions using a collection of fallback communication outlets, which include podcasts, closed FaceBook groups, YouTube, and Twitter. In just the past few months this phenomenon has been dubbed the Intellectual Dark Web.

Although Bill may have made some good points, the presentation was extremely political and was peppered with hyperbole, so I found it very off-putting. An example was a claim Bill made regarding the regressive left’s core philosophy: that “In any conflict between two people, what happened between them is unimportant and what matters is only that whoever is in the more privileged group is wrong.” In any conflict? No matter what happens? Really? Could it be that black and white? (No pun intended.) That seems like a big exaggeration … a strawman representation of a certain point of view. Another problem was Bill’s (erroneous) claim that in order to change the demographics at the Bronx High School of Science to suit the agenda of the regressive left, NYC Mayor de Blasio had signed a law to eliminate the school system’s entrance exams.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Q&A session resulted in confrontations and criticism. The de Blasio claim was rebutted by at least two audience members who spoke up and gave the actual facts—that no law as described had been enacted—and Bill backtracked. Another audience member exclaimed that this was a “prejudicial presentation” and the MC intervened to mitigate the backlash. He ended Bill’s segment by playfully asking the audience “Any other questions, or objections? Anyone have any rotten fruit they’d like to throw?”

Besides finding some of Bill’s claims and details problematic, I believe his entire topic was over the line (way over the line) of acceptable themes as was specified in the instructions provided to SpeedyCamp presenters: The “Guidelines for Topics on the Borders of Science” section of the Session Leader's Guide clearly states: “Please avoid political advocacy or blatantly partisan political talks. You can talk about areas where science applies more directly to policy, or you can be skeptical of specific science claims made by politicians…” [3] So, I believe that if topic vetting had been done this presentation would not have been approved in the first place. But it certainly was an interesting deviation from what I had expected; and it was just fifteen minutes long. After the IDW talk, the remaining four topics were more in line with what I expected at a skeptics meeting.

I found the third topic, the Analytic Hierarchy Process, “fascinating.” Yes, that’s a Spock reference. Chris Everett presented a method to help make complex decisions in a structured, mathematical fashion, and the example he used (which included a photo of the Vulcan Science Officer) was determining “the best sci-fi franchise.” (In case you are wondering, using this method Star Trek overwhelmingly beat-out both Star Wars and Doctor Who. Live Long and Prosper!) Chris reported that AHP is “far and away the most popular decision-making framework in use today.” I like the technique, but fear that if I were to use it to retroactively verify the choices I made for all the important decisions in my life up to this point, it would only serve to prove that I have royally screwed-up more times than not. Who wants that? But maybe I’ll consider using it going forward.

The fourth speaker was the previously mentioned Russ Dobler, and his topic was listed only as “Astrology,” a belief system unfortunately making a resurgence. However, the presentation was not so much about the details of astrology but about the cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and other human fallibilities that make people believe so many untrue things—including but unfortunately not limited to astrology. Skeptics tend to understand the general concept of self-deception, but perhaps not everyone knew all the details that Russ brought up, so I thought this was a very worthwhile topic to cover. Russ mentioned that he also delivered a longer version of this presentation to a general audience at the Brooklyn Public Library just weeks before. By the way, Russ does much needed skeptical outreach by writing about Science and Skepticism for AiPT! Comics, and he detailed this in April 2018 for the Skeptical Inquirer. [8]

The fifth topic was presented by one of the SpeedyCamp organizers who was also the Master of Ceremonies for the event, Mitchell Lampert. (To begin with, Mitchell the MC handed Mitchell the presenter the remote control balanced on the fancy pillow—just as he had done for me and everyone else. I figured he didn’t want to slight himself.) It turned out that Mitchell’s presentation was not so much about “How People Learn,” but more about the mistakes skeptics make when we try to get people to change their minds—or, in other words: understanding how people don’t learn. At one point, Mitchell took exception with James Randi’s claim that “Those who believe without reason cannot be convinced by reason.” It was clear that Mitchell has been actively researching the methods science is exploring regarding the most effective ways to teach people what they are reluctant to accept, and he encouraged the audience to “go on this journey” with him. He ended by recommending several books on this important subject.

The final speaker was Yelena Bernadskaya who, like Russ, is a board member of the NYC Skeptics. Rather than a typical presentation, after explaining the topic, Yelena had the audience participate in an “overconfidence quiz.” Basically, it is supposed to determine how well you understand the degree to which you know what you know. I did rather poorly, as did at least some others in the audience who I heard admit this out-loud. I guess that was the point. We tend to be overconfident in what we think we know. And realizing that fact is a very good thing indeed.

I have summarized the material provided in each presentation, but intentionally have furnished no opinion regarding the presentation skills of the speakers, including their oral communication aptitude, the quality of their textual material, or their skill at handling questions. As is to be expected in any inexperienced group, these skills varied widely. I will go no deeper. After all, the intention of SpeedyCamp, as well as big-brother SkeptiCamp, is to give folks with negligible presentation history a chance to gain experience and confidence, and also to bring a selection of interesting subjects to the attention of fellow skeptics. It seemed that those goals were certainly accomplished, and I hope that the SpeedyCamp concept flourishes and spreads to other skeptical groups. The presentations were all recorded by the event organizers, and I was told they would eventually be posted to the NYC Skeptics’ YouTube channel. My fifteen-minute session, however, has been uploaded to the GSoW Team’s YouTube channel. [9]

By the way, it turned out that all the time I spent constructing a presentation, plus my long round-trip to Brooklyn—all done for just fifteen minutes on stage at SpeedyCamp—was not done in vain. Several days afterwards, someone from that very small audience contacted me and joined the GSoW team! I can’t speak for the expectations and level of satisfaction of the other presenters, but to have gained a new team member from an audience of just nineteen made my NYC SpeedyCamp experience totally worthwhile.



References

  1. Wikipedia article about SkeptiCamp.
  2. Raising our game,” Skeptic Magazine article about the SkeptiCamp concept.
  3. Session Leader Guide for NYC SkeptiCamp.
  4. Incomplete SpeedyCamp schedule as it appeared just after I was added.
  5. Final posted SpeedyCamp schedule including all six topics.
  6. Guerrilla Skeptics: A Pathway to Skeptical Activism,” a Skeptical Inquirer article by Rob Palmer.
  7. Wikipedia article about the Regressive Left.
  8. Beyond the Echo Chamber: Skeptical Outreach through Pop Culture,” an SI article by Russ Dobler.
  9. Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, NYC SpeedyCamp 2018 presentation by Rob Palmer.

Rob Palmer

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Rob Palmer is a former mechanical aerospace engineer (spacecraft designer), turned software engineer (programmer), turned software systems engineer (too complex to explain here). Nearing retirement, he has finally found his true calling as a skeptical activist with the Guerrilla Skeptics team.

Rob can be contacted at TheWellKnownSkeptic@gmail.com

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