• Lessons from #Skepticon #sk8

    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.

    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.

    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:

    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.

    Category: ActivismAtheismConferencesPoliticsSkepticism

    Article by: Damion Reinhardt

    Former fundie finds freethought fairly fab.
    • Chas Stewart

      I hope that the social justice orgs don’t follow your advice on not holding these hot button issues but that the people like Mark Scheirbecker not allow themselves to be shamed by these intellectual cowards. Get up on that stage, make your argument and throw verbal middle fingers to the moral scolds.

      P.S. Activists, don’t laugh at anyone’s emotional distress. Don’t sideline their pain by labeling it “white tears”. That’s not what Humanism is nor should it be a part of any rational moral framework.

      • . . . make your argument and throw verbal middle fingers to the moral scolds.

        If Schierbecker had gone full Hitchens on that crowd he would be getting dramatically publicly shamed by at least four “freethought” bloggers right now. Perhaps he has the emotional fortitude for that, but I’m skeptical.

      • Chas Stewart

        No, Scheirbecker is probably not the right guy for that (and I neither would I) but god dammit.

      • Shatterface

        Mark is openly autistic and shouldn’t have been forced to confess his ‘white privilege’ until the audience had checked their neurotypical privilege.

        The mocking comments about ‘white tears’ were disgusting and I’m not surprised Rebecca Watson decided to stick the boot in either.

      • Rebecca who? :p

        ETA: I met Mark at Skepticon. He is very high-functioning and articulate when not cornered and klieglighted.

      • Chas Stewart

        I think the lesson is to not be honest about our emotions while lacking the correct skin pigmentation. Good lesson for the young man.

    • Otto Greif

      Where is the skepticism about the racist incidents at Mizzou? They were probably hoaxes.

      • You think the feceswastika was a false flag op?

      • Otto Greif

        That seems more likely than it being the handiwork of a neo-Nazi crapper. It’s also presumptuous to assume the swastika was directed at blacks. As far as the other incidents go, Payton Head admitted to lying about the KKK being on campus, is there any corroboration for his claim neo-Confederates in a pickup truck shouted slurs at him? Of course, even if the incidents were real, demanding the University President resign is ridiculous.

      • If I had to guess, I would wager that the crapper in question was an aspiring edgelord, and that (s)he takes that particular symbol of hate about as seriously as Prince Harry did back in January of 2005.

        But really, who knows?

    • Matt Cavanaugh

      “Overall attendance has decreased somewhat…. 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.”

      Ya think?

      • Yup.

      • Brenda Weber

        I’d like to know what you all think “traditional skepticism and atheism” programming would look like.

        I’m not being snarky, it’s an honest question. From someone trying to plan a freethought con. Promise.

      • I’d be happy to provide a few examples, just from previous Skepticons.

        1) https://youtube.com/watch?v=MML6khae8LA

    • An Ardent Skeptic

      So a college student, who won two national awards for photojournalism (http://journalism.missouri.edu/2015/06/photojournalism-student-tim-tai-wins-2-awards-in-national-hearst-championship/) by taking an extraordinary photo showing the pain which minorities endure in this country, is bullied by two white women at a protest on a college campus at which point the reporting shifts to freedom of the press rather than the minority experience on that college campus, and it’s decided that an autistic college student who videotaped this bullying is responsible for that shift in the national dialog about that event.

      And, furthermore, because freedom of the press is an important issue for this young person he has been willing to talk about his experience on national news outlets some of which are known for their very right-wing leanings so this makes him a racist who doesn’t give a damn about minorities because he’s focusing on an issue which is important to him – an issue which should be important to all of us. Freedom of the press is an essential right which gives voice to those less powerful – the disenfranchised in society whose concerns are often ignored. Giving voice to minorities and their experience on that college campus is precisely what Tai and Scheirbecker where attempting to do before two white women decided they know what minorities need and started calling the shots during that protest. And, now, SJW scolds have decided to chastise a courageous young man who documented this event as being a racist.

      We should be applauding his efforts, not destroying his resolve to fight for freedom of the press by blaming him for what others have done.

      • Shatterface

        The only reason he’s talking to the right-wing press is that the left-wing press have conceded free speech to the right.

        This is simply perverse; free speech should be liberal left-wing cause.

      • …two white women decided they know what minorities need and started calling the shots during that protest.

        You know, that was the oddest thing about the Scheirbecker video to me. I’d always presumed that student protests were supposed to be run by students, and that people of color do not require white leadership for their own movement. It was doubly bizarre, then, to see a ginger professor ordering students about and rallying them to specific actions.

    • whatever

      > Even the urinals are covered up, so as to prevent attendees of any gender from dealing with the unsightly spectacle of bipedal micturition.

      Sorry to be that guy with no sense of humor, but you are kidding here, right? The urinals were not covered up, were they?

      • whatever

        You’re serious!
        How was that justified!? How is that not “structural misandry”?

      • Not really a big deal, if you ask me. There were no urinals, but also no queue.

      • whatever

        It seems a denial of a preferred male method of urination. And if as you say, there was no queue, then there was also no reason for this to continue past the afternoon of the first day.

        It is colonialization to literally invade the men’s room, relabel it (literal erasure), stock it with feminine hygiene products, then to force men to sit down to urinate, disrespecting them, and preventing their preferred methods.

        And for what? If there were no queues, then all this did was impact men.

      • No one made me sit down, though. I was wearing a blue dot.

      • More seriously, I reckon #sk8 staff were basically following the Ada Initiative’s lead on how best to desegregate public restrooms.


      • whatever

        They should announce that, open it to discussion. Do attendees want this? Are there alternatives? Does it make attendees feel safe? More inclusive? Is any attendee offended?

        For the reasons I give and I’ve seen others give, it hardly seems gender neutral. It seems male negative, and clearly unneeded during this conference.

      • With the possible exceptions of (1) the guy in the Tapout shirt and (2) the stealthy Pitter whom I met at #sk8, I don’t think anyone there is remotely concerned with “male tears” over such a minor inconvenience.

        It does speak to a certain level of phallophobia, though.

      • Edward Gemmer

        That’s really … odd. Urinals are a wonderful thing.

      • Yeah but SURPRISE PENIS is, like, traumatic.

        Seriously though these are procedures written by feminist women who are most likely unaware of how careful men are not to wave their junk around even while in the can.

    • Kohoutek

      “Queen” Brittany? Grow up.
      ETA – Just started following Notung.

    • Shatterface

      Hypothetically, if white nationalist protesters intimidated a right wing journalism student and he decided to keep quiet about it out of sympathy to the cause would those condemning Mark for not participating in a coverup think that was acceptable?

      • The people condemning Mark do not believe he was intimidated. They believe he was the aggressor, forcing his way into a designated safe space.

      • The people condemning Mark do not believe he was intimidated. They believe he was the aggressor, forcing his way into a designated safe space.

        For example, Alex Gabriel seems to honestly believe that Mark Schierbecker was harassing Melissa Click, rather than the other way around

    • FoShizzle

      Constant whispering every time Mark spoke, is indication that his opposition wasn’t listening, didn’t care to listen, and aren’t open to discussion.

    • Edward Gemmer

      Not just Skepticon has a hard time with hot button issues. Perhaps my biggest disappointment with the atheoskeptic movement has been its deep insecurity at dealing with challenging issues. I guess growing up shooting ducks in a barrel like creationism and bigfoot didn’t prepare it for moving to racism and sexism.

      • “…shooting ducks in a barrel like creationism and bigfoot didn’t prepare it for moving to racism and sexism.”

        This is why organized skepticism should be seen as critical thinking boot camp at best. It is not advanced training, it is a process to weed out the most obviously feeble.