Skeptech Is Over


My weekend started at 8 a.m. Thursday morning and finished just a few hours ago. I haven’t gotten a full night’s sleep in that time. I’ve tweeted a ridiculous amount, took a shift overseeing a conference safe space, and moderated two panels, one with very little notice. I’ve had a house full of people, who all decided to congregate in the living room for some reason. I’ve seen people drool over our kitchen knives and our dog. I’ve had several conversations about what the skeptical and secular movements need and how to make those things happen. And I’ve heard more people griping about the snow….

Now, Skeptech is over. People have made dates to talk about planning for next year, then caught planes or collapsed in their respective corners. I’m too tired to really think about the conference, though I swear I had IDEAS up until the time I stopped moving. But here are some scattered thoughts.

I’m so glad these talks were taped. All of them were new for this conference by the request of the organizers, and the results were great. In particular, Ian Cromwell’s talk was the clearest, most accessible explanation of probabilistic decision-making I’ve seen, and I worked with consulting actuaries for more than a decade. It was also funny as hell. (So many funny people on panels and giving talks.) Kate Green’s talk about living “on Mars” was great, but her answers for the Q&A afterward made me ask her later if she has a book contract on the topic yet. (Answer: Not yet. Someone fix this.) Her nuanced answers to a broad variety of questions made it obvious she’s spent a ton of time thinking about every aspect of the study. There were a couple of presentations that I think will get better as they get used again for other groups, but they were all good and they all covered new information, which is great

Skeptech organizers did an amazing job of pulling together a group of genuinely nice speakers and panelists. That doesn’t mean they all agreed with each other, though it generally meant that disagreement took the form of nuance rather than flat-out contradiction. I want to grab the tweets for each session so once the videos come out, people can compare the tweets to what was being said on stage. That will also make it transparent how much information was being added by the people tweeting each talk, which is also always fun to see.

One of the nice things that focusing on tech does is remind us that our Names and Faces aren’t the only people doing important work in our movements. Tim Farley’s talk made this explicit, but it kept coming up in various contexts. This makes me very happy.

Aside from the inevitable snafus, like people getting sick, there was only one major problem at this year’s conference. Last year, there were a lot of students in attendance and not terribly many people from the larger community. That happened because Minnesota Atheists didn’t do a lot to advertise the conference. I don’t know that it was anyone’s fault; the subject just didn’t come up in time to make promotion effective. This year, Minnesota Atheists advertised the event, and community participation was up. In fact, it was quite good for a weekend in which the Cities also hosted a marathon comedy event that put at least three of Skeptech’s guests from last year on stage 15 miles away from this year’s conference.

However, there were very few students in attendance. This is because the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists isn’t a very active group this year. There was a big leadership change over the summer, and as sometimes happens, that saw a very active leadership group (overlapping with Skeptech leadership) be replaced with a group that assumed people would find them even if they did nothing to reach out. Not only did CASH do very little to promote the conference this year, but they haven’t maintained a profile that would have allowed their promotions to reach many students. There are plans in the works to fix the problems at CASH, but they weren’t going to pull students in this year. Next year should see a good mix of students and the broader community and a larger audience.

That said, the picture that the Twitter trolls are passing around as “evidence” that the conference was empty is hilarious. Tim Farley took the picture as a panel was being set up. There were 10-minute breaks between all the sessions, and people used them to grab drinks, stretch their legs, talk to the groups at the tables in the hallway, and of course, use the bathroom. That picture was taken midday yesterday, the busiest day of the conference. There are as many people in the audience in that picture as there were at the start of the first talk this morning, after some people had already had to travel home and after the pub night last night.

Was attendance huge? No. Do you want to blow your credibility by suggesting that was the full attendance? Be my guest. Just know that attendance was actually tracked–and that the point of recording these talks is to bring them to a wider audience than can attend. Conferences are no longer just about who can travel and hang out for a couple of days.

Oh, the poor little trolls. So much work for so little effect. The Twitter wall was masterfully managed, as usual, so no one saw them there. No one using the web client saw anyone they had or were moved to block in their hashtag search. Those of us using mobile Twitter clients were mostly people inured to their flailings. And the few folks who went to go look at what the occasional mention of hashtag trolls was about turned around and said, “Why would someone do that? Oh, say, have you seen that study about trolls being sadists?” Bros, do you even slacktivist?

There will be much more to say about Skeptech, particularly as the talks get released, but that’s it for tonight. Go sign this petition to put pressure on the FDA to shut down a cancer quack, then go to bed. I’m tired.

Comments

  1. ekwhite says

    One comment about the petition: FDA has already issued Dr. Burzynski and the Burzynski Clinic separate warning letters. This is a necessary legal precursor to shutting down his 20-year “clinical trial.” With that being said, sign the petition, and read the linked FDA form 483. A little extra pressure to take action couldn’t hurt.

  2. frogmistress says

    It sounds as if you was a wonderful time. I’m very sorry I missed it and really look forward to the videos!

    Booo for trolls.

  3. says

    What’s really galling is the fact that these trolls are so hellbent on disparaging anything their usual targets are doing that they’re shitting all over the hard work the students running the show did. They worked their asses off, staying up hours or getting no sleep at all, making sure panelists and speakers got to where they needed to get to, setting up flights, providing the space, and all the other work required to run a conference. The trolls were so determined, that they gave these students even more work on top of that keeping their Twitter wall free of their bullshit barrage, a feat that should be completely unnecessary.

    But hey, who cares when there’s work to do figuring out how many ways they can call Steph fat or PZ a perv. That’s how real skepticism works, right?

  4. says

    That and they apparently think the organizers expected 700 attendees just because the best space for the conference is that big. The American Atheists regional convention two years ago in St. Paul had about 200.

  5. says

    I’m really looking forward to seeing several of the talks when they go online – Kate Greene’s experiences on the HI-SEAS mission, and Crommunist’s talk on Sarah Palin’s death panels evidenced-based health decisions. Thanks Stephanie, Feminace, and all who were involved organising, talking, or fending off the inevitable harassholes on Twitter!

  6. says

    For certain values of “fending off” that equate to “pointing and laughing”. :) During the conference itself, all credit goes to Chelsea and her crew that ran the Twitter wall.

  7. Hj Hornbeck says

    I had a quick boo at the hashtag, and was struck by two things:

    1. It was being trolled hard on Saturday. It looked to be on par with what happened at the AA’s 50th Anniversary conference, which is quite impressive given the relative size of the two.

    2. It wasn’t accomplishing anything. I saw one person who attempted to engage, briefly, but for the most part those trolls were better off screaming at a brick wall.

    I’m also eagerly awaiting the videos. Tim Farley and Thibeault discussing online security should be a treat, as will Crommunist’s talk, and snooping on the Twitter feed revealed there was plenty more where that came from. I’ll be keeping an eye out.

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