Back from Springfield, Missouri as of last night, following our annual pilgrimage to the largest free skeptic/atheist/social justice conference this side of the Mississippi. I’ll review and categorize the talks in a future post, but I can say right now that the ones of most interest to traditional scientific skeptics are probably Psychology of Woo from Bo Bennett and the GMO talk from Kavin Senapathy. Also, the talk from Sam Kean. Keep an eye out for those when they drop on YouTube.
And now for a few hot-takes on the event itself.
Always bet on Satan
My favorite people to see at any given Skepticon (other than the awesome folks who came up from Oklahoma to table for Camp Quest) are always the emissaries of The Satanic Temple. An organization dedicated to using demonic imagery to brilliantly troll religious fundamentalists who are actively chipping away at Jefferson’s wall of separation, TST raises public consciousness every time people are made to consider what true religious equality would look like.
As we gathered in unholy congress at noon on Sunday, the TST performed a dark ritual known as a “raffle draw” by which the laws of probability are invoked and obeyed. In an attempt to curry favor with Our Father Below, my homeboy Austin whispered a prayer, which almost certainly had no actual effect. Nevertheless, he did win the prize.
— Blue Ball Skeptics (@BlueBallSkeptic) November 15, 2015
Beware skeptical shrinkage
Overall attendance has decreased somewhat, with Bo Bennett estimating 150 people in the audience while he was on stage. Didn’t see a few of the usual vendors this year, and support from Skepchick seems to have dried up. This shrinkage may be compounded by a more general trend: Regional or state-level conferences have proliferated across the Midwest, making prospective attendees less likely to travel out of state. Alternatively, it may be due (at least in part) to an increased focus on specific ideological and social issues rather than more traditional skepticism and atheism.
Never go viral
The main stage talks ranged from adequate to excellent, which is normal, but the talk which sprang from a controversial viral video is the one getting most of the attention online. Here is the talk:
For those unfamiliar with the backstory, here is short version. Mark Schierbecker is a skeptic and a secular activist, and an amateur student journalist at Missouri University. He filmed the expansion of the human circle around the #ConcernedStudent1950 encampment at Carnahan Quad at Mizzou, including an incident wherein student journalist Tim Tai stood up to a human meat wall which pushed him out of the area, saying “I believe we have the right to walk forward!” This video went viral, especially among cultural libertarians and right-wingers, who focused primarily on the blatant disregard of how public spaces are supposed to work under federal and state law. (For more details, and more than a bit of editorial comment, please see my link farm from a couple days back.)
Because Schierbecker was in the news, and because he was already planning to attend Skepticon, it was decided to add him to the lineup at the last minute, in order to give him a chance to relate his side of the story. At this point, his goose was pretty much cooked. There was no way that a privileged white college kid could go on that particular stage, talk about his unfortunate run-in with the white allies of a black student movement, and somehow make a good impression. Even if he made a point of roundly condemning racism in emphatic terms, he would still be considered a racist.
— Queen Brittany Dae (@BrittanyDae) November 14, 2015
I have to admire Rob Lehr for (1) working through lunch to make that event happen (2) working through the night to quick turn the video production and (3) having the courage to post this video at all, given the predictable negative reaction. All that said, Skepticon just isn’t built to handle this sort of controversy. Long gone are the days when they could put together a panel on the hot button issue of the day and expect a warm reception. Skepticon is now designed to be a safe space, free from ideas and images which might cause unrest or upset among the audience. Even the urinals are covered up, so as to prevent attendees of any gender from dealing with the unsightly spectacle of bipedal micturition.
As a direct result of the aforementioned talk, the speaker in question was thrown very publicly under the bus by his own publicist. My fellow SINner Notung ably sums up the problem with that posting here:
— Notung (@SIN_Notung) November 15, 2015
This whole kerfuffle has to rank among the worst public relations events in the history of PR. Prior to Skepticon, Schierbecker was known as the guy behind one particular viral video. Afterwards, he is known as the guy who “said multiple indefensibly racist things” on stage at a social justice conference. I’ve heard of character assassination, but this is more like coordinating a professional hit on oneself.
Overall, Skepticon did an excellent job of bringing in up-and-coming speakers who are not already well-traveled on the skeptic and atheist circuits. They should be commended for making that effort, though it may have depressed attendance somewhat. They also should be commended for implementing state-of-the-art live streaming and live captioning, which made it possible to enjoy some of the talks while en route. Every conference should follow their lead on these innovations.
As to dealing with contemporary cultural controversy, it is probably best for social justice oriented conferences to steer clear of that sort of thing in the future. As we learned at Mizzou, the public forum model is not a good fit for a designated safe space.