Report From SkeptiCal, the Northern California Science and Skepticism Conference
June 27, 2016
The seventh SkeptiCal was held Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the Oakland, CA, Asian Cultural Center. I’ve attended all seven, each is unique and I always leave feeling that I’ve had a great experience. This is billed as the Northern California Science and Skepticism Conference, and as usual for this specific event, is heavy on the science. The speakers are varied enough to keep the audience interested as you will soon see. The hosts are the Bay Area Skeptics led by Eugenie Scott and Sacramento Area Skeptics, Frank Mosher.
I attend as many skeptic conferences as I can, and each one has its own “flavor” and style. SkeptiCal differs from others by being a no-frills event, but without you noticing that those frills are missing. Many of the speakers are working scientists talking about their expertise, quite different from most skeptic conferences where the speakers seem to all have a new book out. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but the difference is that the SkeptiCal speakers usually are not people you will hear on podcasts or at other conferences. In fact in a conversation with one of the Bay Area organizers, Greg Dorais, he explained that they try to choose speakers that are local and are not someone you will find at other skeptic conferences; they try not to repeat speakers if possible. Keeping the speakers local, keeps costs low so admission is extremely reasonable. Another quirk is that it runs right on schedule. Emcee Lauren Camp was tasked with keeping everything moving, and she sure was on it.
Having a no-nonsense approach with a short introduction of each speaker and all the presentation slides loaded on the same computer allows more time for the speaker, frequent breaks, and a nice long lunch. I had a very good friend fly in all the way from Chicago just for this conference. Mike Jarsulic has attended many skeptic conferences, and at the beginning of the lunch hour he said to me, “Is the quality of the lectures always this excellent?” At the end of the conference, I asked him again what he thought and how it compared to others. He said that he learned a lot, and throughout the conference he felt that the speakers were able to expand on their topic more than normal as they had a full fifty minutes. They mostly were able to take a question or two during that time as well. He also felt that these were not people he had seen before, and that was refreshing. Mike said he was glad he had come out for the conference and hopes that it expands to two days so more people will travel in.
This is the third year that it was held at this location, and the attendance has remained steady at about 225. The venue would not allow for many more than that, and if the conference were to grow by 20 percent in attendance, it will have to move to a new location. The conference is one of the most affordable I’ve seen other than a free SkeptiCamp event. Purchasing a ticket at the day of the event is the highest price at $45. A student purchasing in advance can get in for only $25. That is a crazy price, especially at a venue this nice.
SkeptiCal is not a conference trying to raise money for its host organizations; everything is quality even though it is run on a small budget. No need for food as there are restaurants a plenty in the area, and we were given a ninety-minute lunch to be able to linger with fellow attendees at one of the local Chinese restaurants or local brew pubs that seem to be on every corner. Obviously, a lot happens because of the volunteers. Tables for the local groups and organizations are inside the venue, and are free to the group/organization in an effort to encourage a spirit of grassroots and “ownership” as OUR “local” conference.
This year’s exhibitors were: The Atheist Community of San Jose, Bay Area Humanists, Bay Area Skeptics, Camp Quest West, Central Valley Alliance of Atheist & Skeptics (CVAAS), Einstellung Labs, Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW), Monterey County Skeptics, Sacramento Area Skeptics, Independent Investigations Group, Secular Coalition for California, Stanislaus Humanists, Sunday Assembly East Bay, Sunday Assembly Silicon Valley and Wonderfest, and the Bay Area Beacon of Science. This year, the organizers created a fun contest to get the attendees more involved in visiting the various tables. A secret quotation was agreed on and one word was distributed to each vendor. Attendees had to go to each table and ask them what their secret word was. Once they had gathered those all together, they had to form them into the correct sentence and turn in their card in time for the drawing. The prize was a beautiful framed quote from Carl Sagan and autographed by Carolyn Porco. I was very envious of the woman who won it.
Each exhibitor was given thirty seconds on stage to plug their organization. This was also great fun. The prior year we had many people who ran over their thirty seconds. But this year we were rehearsed and no one was pulled off stage. Camp Quest West’s David Diskin did a “repeat after me limerick” and others were humorous or just factual. As an exhibitor myself, I felt that the organizers cared and treated us like we were an integral part of the conference experience.
Steve Silberman—“Everything you Know about Autism History is Wrong”
Silberman is the author of “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.” He talked about how he got interested in the autism discussion back in the 1990s when he postulated that maybe genetics were responsible for autism and not vaccines, which were normally blamed at that time. Silberman noticed that many tech people had children that were autistic, and suggested “some of the genes for autism might even prove to be advantageous in the tech industry.” At the time he started writing about autism, he was reading in the press that everyone was puzzled why there was a rise in autism. This confused him as he thought it was something the scientific world should know, and that is when he started researching the history of autism research. Silberman recounted what he had learned. I’m not going to reiterate that here, you will just have to read his book. But I can tell you that I was fascinated, and not just when the Nazi’s entered the story.
Jeff Sheehy—“CRISPR and the Promise and Perils of Gene Editing”
Sheehy’s lecture centered on the downsides and dangers as well as the positives of gene editing. He covered stem cells, T-cells, SCID, and CRISPR. He stated that the FDA has been lagging on approving these therapies; in Europe it is much more welcoming.
Jerry Schwarz—“Experience Testing Claims of Psychic Powers”
San Francisco Independent Investigation Group (IIG) founder talked about his experiences with designing protocols for applicants hoping to test for the $100K paranormal challenge.
Carolyn Porco—“A Decade Exploring Saturn”
Amazing photos of Saturn though out this presentation, we were all engaged with the latest news and her past history with Saturn. Porco was the focus of the article I wrote for SI “Isabela.” I hope you find it inspiring. Available at http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/isabela.
Indre Viskontas—“Brain Myths: Lessons from Neuroscience”
Viskontas recounted several of the brain myths that are popular these days, and how understanding these myths explains what we do know about the brain. Her talk was quite humorous and even I was able to understand everything she was talking about, and that is quite an achievement.
Debra Berliner—“Vaccinating Every California Child: SB277 and Beyond”
This lecture started out by explaining herd immunity and how personal belief exceptions (PBE) are usually found in clusters. In 2013, only 2.3 percent of California school children were not vaccinated because of the exceptions. Berliner makes the point that this shows that a “very small percent are anti-vax, but they are really vocal, and they have a powerful voice.” She explained that overall, children in California are about 93 percent up-to-date on their vaccinations. Then she explained the history behind the campaign to stop PBE in California for nonmedical reasons, starting with the story of when Mickey got measles. She discovered that it is really easy to find a doctor that will give a parent a PBE so anti-vax parents have a way of getting around vaccination law. She suggested that parents treat getting vaccinations as a default position and to be proud and vocal about getting vaccinations, just as you would if you wore a “I voted” sticker to show others that you had just voted.
Frank Mosher—“Workshop for Producing Skeptical Children”
This was the third year for this workshop. This is a hands-on workshop where the adults can blow things up, make magnetic goo, and let out their inner child. Each year, Mosher teaches the room new science experiments. This year the audience exploded balloons filled with hydrogen by lighting them on fire. Anytime we get to use fire I’m a happy camper. We also used dry ice for many experiments and made silly-putty.
Henry Gilbert—“Homo erectus: An inconvenient Transitional Truth”
This lecture made it clear that it is really difficult to classify fossils; within the evolutionary biology community there are a lot of opinions. Homo erectus has become a kind of catchall; sometimes the phrase “in the broad sense” is used to qualify it. “The more stuff you find the more different morphologies you find.” Gilbert stated that one of the difficulties of classifying fossils is that it is very difficult to test the claim. He said, “It is hard to teach human origins as it all is pretty confused and it shouldn’t be… it actually is a simple story.” One thing that is clear, Gilbert stated, that you have to have a skeptical attitude; people have agendas that you have to watch out for.
Ryan Kane—“Magic: Please enjoy responsibly”
Kane brought the convention to a close with a great magic show. Kane has his own unique humor that shows he is enjoying performing as much as we enjoy watching the show.
Monterey County Skeptics had nine representatives in attendance; four had never been to a skeptic conference before, not even a SkeptiCamp. After the event at dinner, seven of us went through all the lectures, rehashing them, and remembering favorite parts. Also because of the breakouts, not everyone saw all the lectures so they were telling others what they missed. On our two hour drive home that night, we four were still talking about things we learned and the questions we would have liked to have asked. Everyone I talked to had a good time, were inspired to attend again next year, and felt more involved. And really that is what it’s all about isn’t it. Building a community through our love of science and skepticism, fueling the flames that keep us putting up with the BS we hear at work and around us. We need this one-on-one with friendly, knowledgeable, like-minded thinkers.
I encourage everyone to attend at least one skeptic conference every year. If you can’t make it to one that is out of your area and there isn’t one nearby, then consider gathering together some of your peeps and meeting at the local pub for a pint or a burger. If you can’t find a speaker, then at least choose a topic and discuss it. A Skeptic’s in the Pub event can be very informal: put out a notice on your social media and just pick a date and place and show up. Make it a venue you enjoy. Add a sign at your table, or tell the wait staff to send anyone asking about the “skeptic meetup” your way. If no one shows up, then you have had a bite or drink alone and try again next month. Repeat until you find your crew; they are out there, probably wondering if they are all alone in the community. We need to find each other and support good scientific skepticism. Trust me on this.