SkepTech Impressions

This weekend I was at SkepTech, from which I’m just now recovering (very little sleep or good nutrition happened this weekend). I had a fantastic time.

As a disclaimer, most of the SkepTech organizers are good friends of mine, so perhaps I’m biased to some extent in seeing the conference positively. In any case, I loved it. I thought it was extremely well-organized for a free, student-run conference in its first year. There was a good mix of established and indie speakers. The venue was well-chosen. The atmosphere was vibrant, curious, and a little geeky. In that sense it reminded me a lot of Skepticon, of which I was also a huge fan.

A snazzy homosexual Jew goat.

Best slide of the con, courtesy of Jesse Galef.

On a personal note, seeing my friends was absolutely amazing. The fact that most of the people I love don’t live anywhere near me is kind of always a thorn in my side, but I’m incredibly lucky that every once in a while I get to spend a whole weekend learning and having fun with them. Hanging out with so many fantastic writers–Jason, PZ, Greta, Stephanie, JT, Brianne, and others–was also really great. The quality of the conversations and debates I had this weekend made coming home a sort of culture shock.

I didn’t meet as many people as I would’ve hoped, but part of that was that I already knew so many of the people there, and it’s kind of a tough sell to make yourself go and introduce yourself to new people when there are so many fucking awesome people you already know.

Anyway, a few specific things I liked:

  • The Twitter wall. The organizers had a laptop with Tweetdeck hooked up to a smaller screen off to the side of the main screen, which displayed both the official SkepTech account feed and the hashtag feed. Although some might argue (legitimately) that this is distracting, I found it a huge help in several ways. It boosted a feeling of community; instead of looking at their phones people could look at the screen. It was also interesting to watch it while I was speaking on my panels because I got to see what the audience was reacting to the most out of what I was saying. Furthermore, I often have difficulty following lectures (let’s just say I’m not an auditory learner), and when I spaced out for a few seconds, I could just check the Twitter wall and catch up on what I missed. The organizers were also really adept at using this well; when a few trolls started spamming the hashtag to say crap about SkepTech (ironically, this happened right during the talk on how to use social media effectively), the organizers quickly hid the spammers on their account so that we wouldn’t see them in the feed. (To clarify, though, you can’t actually ban/block someone from using a hashtag. You can only hide them from your own account, so if you’re using that account to display a Twitter feed for an audience, the audience won’t see them either.)
  • The hangout zones. You could tell there were a few introverts involved in the planning of this conference because outside of the auditorium and behind the tabling area, there was a huge space full of comfy chairs and couches where you could go to get away from people for a while, labeled “Safe Space Hangout Zone.” I saw plenty of people taking advantage of it throughout the conference. (Personally, my introversion kind of turns off when I’m at a con, but I still used it a few times when I needed to deal with some personal stuff.)
  • SkepTechs in the Pub. After Saturday’s talks, we all went out to a nearby pub to hang out, which was planned by the organizers beforehand. Although there was a little bit of a snafu with people under 21 nearly getting kicked out (not good for a student conference), they ended up being allowed to stay. We had plenty of space to sit and people mingled and there was an amazing Les Mis sing-off between JT and my friend Jesse. Good times were had by (hopefully) all.
  • The harassment policy. Yup, there was a pretty detailed harassment policy. As a result I felt like my comfort and safety were being taken seriously by the organizers and that I would have someone to go to if things went wrong. But they didn’t. In fact, I’ll just state for the record that the harassment policy did absolutely nothing to prevent all kinds of after-hours fun that occurred, and I’ll leave it at that. :)

And a few specific things that could be improved:

  • Dinner/lunch breaks. They were only an hour long each, which meant that you could either go to a chain restaurant, eat really quickly, or miss the talks immediately after the breaks. I opted for the latter, which I regret, but eating properly is really important to me. Although longer breaks would mean fewer talks, I think that would be a worthwhile trade-off in the future. That way nobody needs to choose between missing a great talk and eating poorly (or not at all).
  • Starting/ending on time and leaving room for questions. Although the conference generally ran by the schedule, there was a talk or two that actually started a full ten minutes early, and a few that started and/or finished late. There also didn’t seem to be any consistency in terms of leaving room for questions. Some speakers got tons of time to answer questions from the audience, and some didn’t get any. One of my panels took a single question from the audience and the other took none. This is unfortunate because getting to ask questions helps audience members be more engaged (not to mention learn more), so in the future I’d suggest asking speakers to plan on leaving a certain amount of time for questions.
  • Moar people! For a first-year conference, the attendance was great. I don’t know exactly how many people were there because I am not one of the organizers and I cannot count. But there were quite a few. That said, there was a lot more space that could’ve been filled, and I also think that the conference could’ve been promoted a bit better. I’m sure that next year will bring a larger audience regardless.
  • Diversity. Yeah, yeah, I know. We’re always harping about diversity. Of the 14 speakers (not including the people who were only panelists), only three were women and one was a person of color. (To be fair, there was supposed to be one more woman speaker, but she ended up being unable to attend.) As I said, I think the organizers did a fantastic job of getting some really great speakers, and it’s only their first year. But going forward, I hope there will be more attention paid to promoting inclusivity, and that the speakers of color that they do bring will get to speak about something other than race. Otherwise it’s a little like, “Yo, come tell us how to fix our shit.”
  • The Minnesota weather. Because fuck that.
A lovely self-portrait of Zach Weinersmith.

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics drew me this pretty picture!

My favorite talks:

  • Stephanie was awesome in her talk on psychometrics. It really got me thinking about the gendered ways in which we define and diagnose mental disorders. Blog post TBA.
  • Brendan Murphy talked about the neuropsychology of quitting and included a few tidbits on how to support people who are considering quitting a goal or project (here’s a hint: don’t implore them to “just keep trying”!).
  • JT talked about “hacktivism” and gave examples of things he’s done as an activist, including trolling Brother Jed. I think the best advice JT gave is to have fun with your activism–it encourages people to join and breaks down stereotypes about atheists (and, really, any other kind of activists).
  • My two panels–one on sex in cyberspace and one on meatspace vs. online activism–were super fun.
  • Ben Blanchard’s talk on using social media effectively was extremely useful. You might get a bit of a laugh out of it. :)

Anyway, tl;dr, conference was super fun and well-organized, and I can’t wait to come back next year. If you live in Minnesota or nearby, you should too!

Viewing History Skeptically: On Shifting Cultural Assumptions and Attitudes

I’ve been reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman’s sweeping social history of lesbians in 20th century America (this is the sort of thing I do for fun). At the beginning of the chapter on World War II, Faderman makes this insight:

If there is one major point to be made in a social history such as this one, it is that perceptions of emotional or social desires, formations of sexual categories, and attitudes concerning “mental health” are constantly shifting–not through the discovery of objectively conceived truths, as we generally assume, but rather through social forces that have little to do with the essentiality of emotions or sex or mental health. Affectional preferences, ambitions, and even sexual experiences that that are within the realm of the socially acceptable during one era may be considered sick or dangerous or antisocial during another–and in a brief space of time attitudes may shift once again, and yet again.

This is probably the single most important thing I’ve learned through studying history and sociology in college. For many reasons that I’ll get into in a moment, many people assume that the cultural attitudes and categories they’re familiar with are that way “for a reason”: that is, a reason that can be logically explicated. This requires a certain amount of reverse engineering–we note our attitudes and then find reasons to justify them, not the other way around. We don’t want gay couples raising kids because that’s bad for the kids. We don’t want women getting abortions because fetuses are human beings. We don’t want women to breastfeed in public because it’s inappropriate to reveal one’s breasts. We don’t want women to be in sexual/romantic relationships with other women because that’s unhealthy and wrong. That last idea is the one Faderman addresses in the next paragraph (emphasis mine):

The period of World War II and the years immediately after illustrate such astonishingly rapid shifts. Lesbians were, as has just been seen [in the previous chapter], considered monstrosities in the 1930s–an era when America needed fewer workers and more women who would seek contentment making individual men happy, so that social anger could be personally mitigated instead of spilling over into social revolt. In this context, the lesbian (a woman who needed to work and had no interest in making a man happy) was an anti-social being. During the war years that followed, when women had to learn to do without men, who were being sent off to fight and maybe die for their country, and when female labor–in the factories, in the military, everywhere–was vital to the functioning of America, female independence and love between women were understood and undisturbed and even protected. After the war, when the surviving men returned to their jobs and the homes that women needed to make for them so that the country could return to “normalcy,” love between women and female independence were suddenly manifestations of illness, and a woman who dared proclaim herself a lesbian was considered a borderline psychotic. Nothing need have changed in the quality of a woman’s desires for her to have metamorphosed socially from a monster to a hero to a sicko.

“Nothing need have changed in the quality of woman’s desires”–and neither did lesbianism need a PR campaign–in order for love between women to gain acceptance during the war. All that needed to happen was for lesbianism to become “useful” to mainstream American goals, such as manufacturing sufficient military supplies while all the male factory workers were off at war. And since having a male partner simply wasn’t an option for a lot of young women, the idea that one might want a female lover suddenly didn’t seem so farfetched. And so, what was monstrous and anti-social just a few years before suddenly became “normal” or even good–until the nation’s needs changed once again.

Once I got to college and learned to think this way, I quickly abandoned my socially conservative beliefs and got much better at doing something I’d always tried to do, even as a child–questioning everything. I also started seeing this phenomenon all over the place–in the labels we use for sexual orientation, in the assumptions we make about the nature of women’s sexuality, in the  way we define what it means to be racially white.

Unfortunately, though, the way history is usually taught to kids and teens isn’t conducive to teaching them to be skeptical of cultural assumptions. (That, perhaps, is no accident.) The history I learned in middle and high school was mostly the history of people and events, not of ideas. In Year X, a Famous Person did an Important Thing. In Year Y, a war broke out between Country A and Country B.

When we did learn about the history of ideas, beliefs, and cultural assumptions, it was always taught as a constant, steady march of progress from Bad Ideas to Better Ideas. For instance, once upon a time, we thought women and blacks aren’t people. Now we realize they’re people just like us! Yay! Once upon a time we locked up people who were mentally ill in miserable, prison-like asylums, but now we have Science to help them instead!

Of course, it’s good that women and Black people are recognized as human beings now, and we (usually) don’t lock up mentally ill people in miserable, prison-like asylums. But 1) that doesn’t mean everything is just peachy now for women, Black people, and mentally ill people, and 2) not all evolutions of ideas are so positive.

This view of history precludes the idea that perhaps certain aspects of human life and society were actually better in certain ways in the past than they are now–or, at least, that they weren’t necessarily worse. And while very recent history is still fresh in the minds of people who may be wont to reminisce about the good ol’ days when there weren’t all these silly gadgets taking up everyone’s time and wives still obeyed their husbands, nobody seems to particularly miss the days when a man could, under certain circumstances, have sex with other men without being considered “homosexual,” or when people believed that in order for a woman to get pregnant, she had to actually enjoy sex and have an orgasm.

Societal factors, not objective physical “reality,” create social categories and definitions. I believe that understanding this is integral to a skeptical view of the world.

In a followup post (hopefully*), I’ll talk about some specific examples of these shifting cultural attitudes, such as the invention of homosexuality and the definition of “normal” female sexuality.

*By this I mean that you should pester me until I write the followup post, or else I’ll just keep procrastinating and probably never do it.

Come to Skeptech on April 5-7!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m going to a new student conference in at the University of Minnesota this April. It’s called Skeptech and it’s being organized by Campus Atheists, Humanists, and Skeptics (CASH) at the U of M and the Secular Student Alliance at St. Cloud State University.

The lineup of speakers is fantastic and includes PZ Myers, Greta Christina, JT Eberhard, Stephanie Zvan, Jen McCreight, Hemant Mehta, and Zach Weinersmith, the author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (among many other really cool people).

There will also be a bunch of panels, two of which I’ll be speaking on! The first one is called “Sex in Cyberspace: Porn, OkCupid and the Internet“:

Dating online can be confusing. Grindr, okcupid, craigslist, and other media apps are all different ways technology has merged with sex and dating culture. How has this changed the way we hook up, the way we present ourselves, and how we relate to other potential partners? And what about porn—how can we be ethical consumers? And is online consent any different that “real life” consent?

The second is called “Real World vs. Cyberspace Activism“:

The panel will focus on a problem every activist has—how do we delegate time? Is it better to blog and be active online, or to spend more time volunteering in-person? How are the two approaches different or similar? Which is ultimately more effective? The point of this panel is to recognize the pros/cons of cyberspace and meatspace activism, and to figure out how we balance the two (if balancing them is even the correct response to begin with).

The organizers definitely managed to give me two subjects I have a lot of Feelings and Opinions about. I’m one of those people who’s endlessly frustrated by the way flirting and dating work online, and yet I somehow managed to meet my partner over Facebook (it’s a funny story). I think that the internet can be very empowering, particularly for people whose sexualities have traditionally been stigmatized and marginalized, but we also bring some of the worst parts of “the real world” with us when we go online.

As for the second panel, I find that I’m often having to defend the idea of online activism (it’s not all “slacktivism,” I promise!), but some of the most important activisty things I’ve done have happened mostly offline. I think that the internet can facilitate real-world action in ways that we take for granted sometimes, and I also think that it provides a space for activism for those who face serious social consequences for doing it out in the “real world.”

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say for now lest I give away everything I’m going to talk about at the panel, but if you have any thoughts on either of these subjects, go ahead and share them in the comments.

And, most importantly, consider coming to Skeptech if you can! Registration is free. :)

Skepticon and the Need for an Atheist Community

(Or, In Which I Rant Lovingly About Skepticon)

I haven’t written for a few days because I was off at Skepticon, which is the largest student-run atheist/skeptical conference in the U.S. It was amazing.

Spending a weekend with a combination of some of my best friends, a few of my greatest Internet Heroes, and a ton of cool people I didn’t know yet got me thinking about the concept of atheist communities–specifically, why we need them.

The idea of an atheist “movement” or atheist “communities” catches a lot of flak for various reasons. Some people are opposed to the idea that atheism should mean anything other than sitting on your butt at home on Sunday morning and not believing in any gods. That’s fine. For many of us, though, atheism informs and inspires what we do with the rest of our lives, and it’s unfair to deny the validity of that.

Others note the toxicity that certain parts of the atheist “movement” have–whether it’s Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, or outright bullying and harassment. Yes, these things happen in our community. But they’re not exclusive to our community. (Of course, I likewise disagree with the apologists who insist that because they’re not exclusive to our community, we should stop making a fuss about them. No, wrong. We should never stop making a fuss about them, because that’s exactly how we get rid of them.)

In other words, claiming that an atheist community is useless or counterproductive because of the nasty elements that it (still) contains misses the point. All communities contain nasty elements. The solution isn’t to disband the communities, but to kick those nasty elements out.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who chooses not to participate in our community because of that, of course. It’s up to you what you’re able and willing to deal with. Personally, I’ve found that the benefits of belonging to this community far outweigh the drawbacks, but that’s just me. And besides, for many years, I was one of those people who called myself “agnostic” (not realizing, of course, that almost all atheists are also agnostics) and shied away from atheist clubs and events. I had my reasons. Now I don’t.

Besides that, people who claim that there’s no point in having an atheist community don’t realize what it’s like to be newly deconverted or living in an area where atheism is heavily stigmatized. I met people at Skepticon who literally can’t be themselves anywhere but there (or on the internet, with pseudonyms). Doesn’t that matter?

Atheist communities can be both productive and fun, when done right. So what was it that was so special about Skepticon?

It was that I walked in and felt like I had come home.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people who really like the fact that I’m always ranting about psychology or social justice or whatever. I had so many interesting discussions all throughout the weekend, in many cases disagreeing with people. Tons of people wore Surly-Ramics (these amazing pieces of ceramic jewelry that an artist named Surly Amy makes to promote science and skepticism), and we compared ours.

Me, at home at last with my ridiculously political laptop. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

For this entire weekend, I didn’t have to apologize for caring. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry I’m being all serious, but…” I didn’t have to say, “I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being religious, it’s just that…” I felt like I was among hundreds of like-minded folks.

Some will say that this makes Skepticon like a “circlejerk” of sorts and that wanting to associate with people who are like you is wrong. I disagree. You don’t typically learn from circlejerks, and I learned a lot. And while it’s a bit immature to always avoid people you disagree with, there’s nothing wrong with escaping to your own “tribe” for a weekend. Constantly having to argue and defend your opinions can be exhausting. For me, Skepticon was like a vacation. An educational one.

Besides, there was plenty of disagreement at Skepticon. It just wasn’t about 1) the nonexistence of god, 2) the value of skepticism, or 3) the fucking awesomeness of science.

There were protesters outside the expo center. They were pretty nice as protesters go. One of them had a sign–I wish I remembered what it said verbatim–and it said something like, “Why such a big fuss over nothing?”

This is one of the biggest myths I hear about atheism, and it’s a myth stemming from the belief that god is all there is to live for. If there’s no god, there must be “nothing.” Nothing worth celebrating, nothing worth getting together for, nothing worth having conferences about, nothing worth getting up at 5 AM to drive 9 hours for. Nothing worth fighting for, nothing worth blogging about, nothing worth dying for. Nothing worth letting your kids stay up past their bedtime so you can teach them about it as they look on in wonder.

The thing is, Skepticon wasn’t just about atheism. Some of the talks were entirely about science and/or skepticism, like the workshop my friend Ben gave about pseudoscience, the talk PZ Myers gave about evolution (which I understood very little of; sorry PZ, you still rock), the talk about the Higgs boson, Rebecca Watson’s amazing talk on how evolutionary psychology is misused to promote sexist bullshit (which had us all squirming in our seats with laughter while simultaneously shaking our heads), and Jennifer Oulette’s talk about positive effects of hallucinogenic drugs and how our outdated national drug policy prevents further research on them.

Why does this matter? It’s not that theists can’t be good scientists or that they can’t promote skepticism and scientific literacy. It’s more that science takes on such an important status in the atheist community that celebrating it is par for the course. Walk into an atheist convention and you’ll see geeky t-shirts and hear references to xkcd and encounter people with PhDs in all sorts of cool scientific fields. My atheist friends and I once hung out over video chat and watched a live stream of Curiosity landing on Mars. When atheists talk about stuff, we’re rarely talking about “nothing” (or, rather, god’s nonexistence). We often talk about science, and science is absolutely worth celebrating.

Skepticon attendees counter-protesting. (Credit: Ellen Lundgren)

As for the more explicitly atheism-themed talks, theists might be surprised to know that nobody stood there repeating evidence for god’s nonexistence over and over. Greta Christina talked about how her atheism helped her cope with her father’s death and with cancer. She also mentioned how the atheist community donated so much money in the wake of her diagnosis that she was able to stop worrying about how to afford taking time off from speaking and traveling to recover. Hemant Mehta talked about supporting teenage atheists who are discriminated against in high schools. Darrell Ray discussed how religious ideas about sexuality have permeated even secular discourse, and how we can let go of them and stop feeling shame about our bodies and sex lives.

Oh, and JT Eberhard addressed common Christian arguments against atheism, finishing his talk with “But how do you know love exists?” JT knows love exists because we see evidence for it in how we act with one another, and in how he feels about his girlfriend. And then he proposed to her in front of the whole audience.

These are some of the things we talk about when we get together.

Skepticon is free, and its organizers are committed to keeping it that way. The money for it comes from donations and sponsorships. Just a few days before this year’s Skepticon, the organizers found out that due to an unexpectedly expensive contract, the fundraising had fallen very short. They posted a message asking the community for help.

And we gave them $6,000 in two days.

There is so much work ahead of us in improving our community–making it more accessible, more diverse, more friendly to women, more safe. But even as it is now, it amazes me, and I’m so happy to be here.

The new Surly I got this weekend to remind me to keep doing what’s important.

[Guest Post] The Importance of Skepticism and Critical Thinking in American Society

This post was written by a fellow skeptic and student of psychology, Matthew Facciani.

At best, a lack of skepticism and critical thinking in our society will leave humanity uneducated, insipid animals. At worst, it will be the cause of our ultimate demise.

To begin, I would argue that critical thinking (disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence) is related to and facilitates the process of skepticism (the method of suspended judgment or systematic doubt). In order to be skeptical, you must be able to systematically pick apart problems with the concept or idea. By utilizing critical thinking in one’s skepticism, we can challenge fixed beliefs and continue to advance our society with scientific, artistic, social, and other pursuits. Additionally, employers strongly value critical thinking in their potential employees and critical thinking skills are positively correlated with GPA.

Despite the obvious importance of advancing mankind, some individuals are actually opposed to teaching this kind of thinking. The Republican Party of Texas’ Official Platform explicitly stated they were against the teaching of critical thinking in public school classrooms (quoted from their platform: “We oppose the teaching of… critical thinking skills”). It is astonishing that these elected politicians would even consider such a position, let alone have it in their official platform.

This certainly reflects a problem in American society with regards to the values of critical thinking and skepticism. In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan discusses the problem with not valuing these types of thinking in our society. He mentions that even people who may want to study science can be overwhelmed by pseudoscience, and science is “often filtered out” before it reaches us.

The fact that scientists like Sagan are critical of our scientific inadequacies would not mean much if it not for the data that backs up their statements. Americans have embarrassingly low scores in worldwide comparisons of scientific literacy, science, and math. Skepticism and critical thinking are simply not valued in American society, and the data supports it.

Because skepticism and critical thinking are not cultivated in American society, many Americans cannot tell when they encounter something that is pseudoscience (such as homeopathy or astrology). Someone may want to learn about scientific research, but due to our society’s scientific climate, people are inundated with pseudoscientific claims. Furthermore, with the advent of the internet, there is so much information about everything so you can find arguments for any position–with sound evidence or without.

However, a keen understanding of science makes it easy to determine which claims have a substantial amount of evidence. For example, climate change has been documented as a real and problematic phenomenon by many, many researchers. But a few vocal people have found “evidence” against climate change that makes people think twice–as they should when presented with conflicting data. However, any scientifically literate person should be able to see that the overwhelming evidence is that climate change is a real phenomenon and the few studies against it are outliers, poorly done, or cherry-pick data based on their biases.

These biases also impact how people deal with scientific claims in general. People may blindly follow someone who they think is in charge or an expert without analyzing things for themselves (see Milgram’s obedience study). People also see others following these “experts” and are likely to try to conform (see Asch conformity studies). When many people are already blindly following perceived authority figures, it is likely to continue because people do not want to be nonconformists, and the cycle continues. It takes more of a psychological effort to research things for oneself as it is, but couple this with a cultural environment that does not foster critical thinking, skepticism, or science, and we have a legitimate problem.

Furthermore, science in general is often misrepresented in the media. My own field of psychology is often decimated by its public representation and perception. I am technically getting a PhD in experimental psychology, but if I say the word “psychology” to an average person on the street, they think I will psychoanalyze them on a couch, read their mind (though, ironically, my research is actually like mind reading in a scientific sense), or engage in some other pseudoscientific method they saw on television. So I often tell people I study neuroscience because it has less stigma compared to psychology–though people are less likely to know what neuroscience even is!

Most other sciences deal with these issues, as well. The average American is simply not inclined to research or understand scientific concepts because skepticism and critical thinking are not valued in our society. Listening to what people say on television is often good enough for most people. It may not directly impact one person who doesn’t know what an experimental psychologist actually does, but that mindset of incessantly accepting information without challenging it can have catastrophic consequences. We are left with a critical mass of people who do not challenge information presented to them. They blindly follow what perceived authority figures tell them without a second thought.

Critical thinking allows people to dissect and analyze information, and skepticism prompts them to question the information that’s being presented to them first. So I ask, I plead, whoever is reading this–please stand up for the importance of skepticism and critical thinking. Write to your local politicians telling them about it. Do not let someone say something mindless and unfounded without challenging them. We need to foster an environment in which people feel comfortable challenging ideas and concepts. Once this happens, many more people will be thinking critically about our society’s problems and greater progress will occur.

Matthew Facciani is a 2nd year PhD student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of South Carolina. He completed his undergraduate education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, receiving a B.A. in Psychology with honors. Facciani is also a secular activist, but advocates for any group that is oppressed or treated unfairly.