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Jan 18 2013

The con game

Aral Balkan writes about false dichotomies and diversity at conferences — at tech conferences. These issues come up in every field, and we atheists aren’t alone.

A person who calls for greater diversity is not necessarily advocating the implementation of a quota system — that’s a straw man fallacy. Similarly, having a diverse roster of speakers at a conference does not imply that those speakers were not chosen on merit. Diversity and a merit‐based selection process are not mutually exclusive. To state the contrary is a false dichotomy. And before assuming that a conference probably couldn’t find enough women because not enough women applied (blaming the victim), first find out whether or not the selection process actually included an open call for talks.

He covers the concerns well, but I want to add another point. Every time we discuss this stuff, there will be a number of people with sour grapes syndrome: they will say that conferences are too expensive (which is true), too difficult to get to (also true), and impossible to schedule for busy people with families (agreed). And then they will say they’re elitist and that they don’t need to go hear a bunch of jerks pontificate from a stage anyway, and that’s where they’re going wrong.

Every form of endeavor or interest that I’ve been associated with has conventions of some sort or another. When I was a software designer, we had cons. We even had in-house cons: the company I was affiliated with as an independent contractor, Axon Instruments, would bring us all in to learn about up-and-coming hardware and new programming techniques. I read science fiction; hoo boy, do they have cons everywhere. SF cons are all about bringing fans together to talk and brainstorm and have fun. And then of course, there’s science: every field has regular conventions on various scales, from local consortia to regional meetings to national events to international mega-conferences.

And here’s why equality is important: those meetings are essential stepping stones in career advancement. In my very first year as a grad student, I was trained and groomed to present my work at local meetings. Heck, when I was an undergraduate and had made it clear that I planned to pursue a research career, my professors took me to regional meetings. We all knew that this was how preliminary work was disseminated, that this was how you made connections with peers and leaders in the field, that this was how you linked your face and name in the community as a whole with a body of work.

It’s also where graduate students go to find post-doctoral positions, where post-docs go to find tenure-track jobs, where university departments send representatives to do preliminary interviews.

And of course the other important part of the meeting circuit is that that is where you get inspired and get new ideas. I have never gone to a science meeting but that I’ve come home afterwards fired up and excited about some line of research that I hadn’t known about before. It’s where I talk to new people and get new perspectives.

So don’t belittle cons if you can’t go. These events matter. It’s where community is built, where volunteers grow to play a bigger role in the progression of our goals, where everyone gets enthusiastic about some shiny new aspect of the subject.

And that’s absolutely why we have to do a better job of opening doors for everyone at these events. It’s the faces in the audience at the convention that will someday be leading the movement. It’s those faces that will go home afterwards and share the stories and get more people interested. And if we don’t make opportunities for participation by everyone, we will be limiting our growth.

So please, don’t complain. Your concerns are legitimate: a con may be too expensive, too far away, too inconvenient for you. You should instead try to think of ways to get one near you that you can afford and attend…and there are more and more of these things emerging all over the place.

What we should focus on is making them more accessible, more common, and more openly participatory.

43 comments

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  1. 1
    Cuttlefish

    I’m kinda wondering what “equal enough” means. I get “not equal”, but since I don’t see a legitimate problem with “too equal”, the concept of “equal enough” seems a bit like “healthy enough”; an excuse, but not a reason, to stop.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    Feel free to delete my comment, PZ, as it responded to a comment that is no longer there.

  3. 3
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    There literally are cons for everything – a colleague of mine went to a PEN convention. A convention about PENS.

  4. 4
    PZ Myers

    It’s OK. Just another slymepitter making noise.

    It’s a good point. I don’t know what “equal enough” means, either — it sounds like “not equal, but I got mine, so it’s good enough.”

  5. 5
    Inaji

    Kat Lorraine:

    A convention about PENS.

    Hey, pens are serious business! Some of us love pens. Lust after beautiful, shapely writing instrum…

    what?

  6. 6
    PZ Myers

    There are also conventions about guns. And cars. And gadgets. And insurance. And sex. And knitting. And snakes. And…

  7. 7
    BubbaRich

    Who’s arguing against greater diversity? Is this a straw man, or is this something from those slymepitters I never run across?

  8. 8
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    I’m there with you, Caine. I so much want to go to that convention now.

    And now I’m thinking of the Lusty Argonian Maid XD

  9. 9
    Nerdette

    I presented the preliminary findings of my graduate work for the first time last week in front of a crowd of 60-70 people for a conference on invasive species. It was nerve wracking, I was terrified of speaking down to a bunch of people who have been in the game for years, and I was the last presentation before lunch. (I really hope that was the reason I had zero questions following my spiel.) The two professors I am applying for a PhD position were there watching me, but considering it was my first conference, I didn’t think I did terrible at all. It’s an experience everyone needs in their life, certainly.

  10. 10
    Inaji

    BubbaRich:

    Is this a straw man, or is this something from those slymepitters I never run across?

    Right, it’s either straw or our imagination. Why don’t you do something useful, like fuck off?

  11. 11
    PZ Myers

    Oh, yeah, I vividly remember my first conference presentation, at Western Nerve Net in the early ’80s. I was a wreck. I spent the entire morning pacing in a stairwell mumbling to myself, and was simply terrified at the prospect. And then I went on, did my 20 minute talk, and…it wasn’t so bad.

  12. 12
    latsot

    I’m speaking at two conferences (at San Francisco and Chicago) in March. It’s going to be an expensive (for the British taxpayer) trip. The flights are quite expensive, then there’s hotels, meals etc. but the conference fees themselves are also quite pricey. The first conference is $820. It would have been $690, but since I’m an author, I have to pay more even though the conference couldn’t exist without authors. I expect the second one is about the same price.

    Of course, if anyone is foolish enough to want to read my paper, they have to pay for it. I don’t get a penny of that payment, naturally, and neither does my university. In fact, my university has to pay to access the paper I wrote while being employed by them.

    Access to science should be easier and cheaper than this.

    Scientific conferences really are great for the reasons PZ mentioned, but I can’t help but think we might be doing it a bit wrong.

  13. 13
    BubbaRich

    Thanks, Caine. A true religious believer.

    I haven’t seen anyone arguing against diversity, or even against increasing diversity. I can believe they might exist, but most of the attacks I’ve seen here have been strawman attacks against people who aren’t actually arguing against increasing diversity.

    I’m an electrical engineer, and had a professor who used to joke about women in engineering. Out of a couple of hundred students in my class, we probably had 4-6 women. One of them was a friend of mine, the head majorette (baton twirler) in the band, and my frequent lab partner. Oh, and she graduated at the top of my EE class. The two labs I’ve worked with for the last few years at Georgia Tech have a majority of women, but those women are a high percentage of the women in electrical engineering at GaTech. Our group was majority female going to an electrical engineering conference in Texas a couple of years ago, which again was a large fraction of the women at the conference.

    I’ve seen people fighting against all kinds of integration in engineering, and fought against them. I’m asking for evidence of people fighting against diversity and increasing diversity at atheist conferences. But, as I was told last week when I asked for evidence for claims here, I’m just not looking hard enough, and I’m stupid and evil. I like to see if there’s any truth and light to be extracted from this echo chamber. I even find occasional truth and news from FoxNews own echo chamber, albeit very rarely, but more so than here.

    Can anyone share anything about people fighting against diversity? Or is it yet another case where asking for real information about the target is just Another Tool Of The Oppressor?

  14. 14
    BubbaRich

    latsot:

    We need a gatekeeper to organize the massive flow of “data” out of researchers. The current setup isn’t perfect, but it works reasonably well, in that most good ideas have a chance to get support, including financial support, and most good ideas have a better chance of being seen in the flood of papers and conferences that occur even in the current world.

  15. 15
    PZ Myers

    I’m an electrical engineer, and had a professor who used to joke about women in engineering. Out of a couple of hundred students in my class, we probably had 4-6 women.

    Right. But you’ve never seen any evidence that people oppose diversity.

    You’re a fucking moron, BubbaRich.

  16. 16
    SallyStrange

    Oh no. Nobody’s AGAINST diversity. You see, Bubba, admitting that straight out in public kinda makes you look like an ass. So people don’t say that. They just harass people who support diversity and oppose any concrete measures to increase diversity.

    But no, goodness no. Everyone thinks diversity is a good thing. I guess some people just think it’s not quite good enough to make it worthwhile to actually achieve diversity.

  17. 17
    latsot

    We need a gatekeeper to organize the massive flow of “data” out of researchers.

    Do we? Why? And why the bizarre scare quotes?

    But I can understand that conferences are expensive to host and that the hosting institutions undertake a fair amount of risk by agreeing to do it. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s so expensive that they have to charge everyone $600-800, but I might be wrong.

    But even if we do need a gatekeeper, why should the public – who has already paid for the research to be carried out in the first place- have to pay again – and pay a *lot* – to see the results?

    I’m getting off-topic though, so I’ll shut up.

  18. 18
    BubbaRich

    It’s possible I haven’t said this clearly, so I’ll try again, even for the pathetic PZ Meyers.

    I have seen plenty of evidence of lack of diversity, and of people opposing diversity. In the engineering world. I have never seen evidence of either in the atheist or skeptic communities, and I’ve typically seen the complete opposite.

    Sally, do you see what you have done? You’ve created a world where you can make an accusation, you don’t have to provide evidence (as you say it doesn’t exist!), and even questioning you for evidence is evidence that you are correct.

    It’s a witch hunt. I still think there may be some real witches out there in the hedges, but it’s hard to see with all of you pulling old women out of their homes and setting them on fire.

  19. 19
    SallyStrange

    Bubba, Thunderf00t thinks having an anti-harassment policy is a bad idea. Ergo, he opposes concrete measures to increase diversity.

    You’re a fucking dumbass.

  20. 20
    SallyStrange

    Stop with the fucking witch hunt comparisons. It’s disrespectful to the millions of women and men who died at the hands of patriarchal religious authorities during that ugly period of Europe’s history.

  21. 21
    frog

    BubbaRich, howsabout before you spout off about something you clearly know nothing about, you go back and READ THE FUCKING BLOG. Are you just not paying attention, or are you new here? PZ and other members of freethoughtblogs have hundreds, possibly thousands, of posts detailing actions/statements/other fuckwittery by atheists who think that actively promoting diversity at atheist conventions is stupid/pointless/unnecessary/anti-white-dude/offensive/a-waste-of-time.

    If you can’t find those posts–there are several just in the past week here–then you need to go back to grammar school and learn how to do the minimum fucking amount of research.

  22. 22
    BubbaRich

    latsot:

    Can you suggest a different way to organize basic research, a way that motivates and rewards possible productive research and motivates checking that research, while winnowing it down enough so that interested people (including other researchers) have a chance to discover the research in progress and its results? I’d definitely support something that’s more publicly accessible, although I find the public call for and ability to comprehend research papers in engineering and even neuroscience to be somewhat restricted. However, having a gatekeeper like this also allows the few remaining science journalists to digest and popularize some of the research.

    When you’re Google, even GoogleScholar, the problem is NOT getting enough answers to your query, the problem is in restricting them enough so that the answers are useful.

  23. 23
    Inaji

    frog:

    Are you just not paying attention, or are you new here?

    He’s not new. He only shows up to whinge and moan and demonstrate the depth of his idiocy.

  24. 24
    frog

    And now the on-topic reply:

    Aside from conventions, there are also things such as Meetup groups and other local organizations. I’m sure it’s harder for people in remoter, less populated places to find other people to bond with some topics, and that sucks. But if you live in or near a city of any size, somewhere in that city are atheists, or skee-ball enthusiasts, or writers, or collectors of toejam. Seriously, humanity is weird, but even the rare weirdnesses are frequent enough that you don’t need more than a couple hundred thousand of us before they all start to repeat.

    If you can’t afford to go to a convention, try to find local groups of atheists who have coffee together once a month. The internet makes this a lot easier than it was ten years ago.

  25. 25
    latsot

    Bubba: remember when I said I was going to shut up because I was off-topic?

    Of course you don’t.

  26. 26
    PZ Myers

    Meetups are mini-conventions. Local meetings are an alternative, too. Technology is making virtual conferences feasible. So yes, lots of emerging methods to make face-to-face engagement more possible.

    One other factor of concern: many organizations use conferences as revenue generators, and that’s why they’re so expensive. There is nothing wrong with that — TAM gives the JREF part of the revenue they need to carry out activities all year long — but you should consider conference participation as also a way to contribute financially to favored organizations.

  27. 27
    PZ Myers

    Since BubbaRich is now dragging out the “witch hunt” histrionics, I’ve decided to tie him to a stick and set him on fire. Oh, wait, no…I can’t do that. I guess I’ll have to settle for banning the asshole.

  28. 28
    Deen

    Thanks for that link, it had some interesting links of its own. Seems like some hard work on outreach and anonymized selection can indeed improve diversity and quality.

    You’d also think this approach would appeal to skeptics – change a few variables, see what happens, and compare the results to those predicted by the “minorities just aren’t interested” hypothesis, or the “there are avoidable obstacles” hypothesis.

  29. 29
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    It’s a witch hunt. I still think there may be some real witches out there in the hedges, but it’s hard to see with all of you pulling old women out of their homes and setting them on fire.

    Fine, you should be able to cite good solid studies showing this is the case. Whereas there is lots of evidence for subtle de facto forms of discrimination still occurring.

  30. 30
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    Sally, do you see what you have done? You’ve created a world where you can make an accusation, you don’t have to provide evidence (as you say it doesn’t exist!), and even questioning you for evidence is evidence that you are correct.

    Where have I seen this argument before?

    I know where!

    The NRA was able to get one of their stooges to get a clause passed as part of a bill, a clause that defunded research by the CDC into firearms causalities. Because there is no data, claims can be dismissed.

    (Yes, I know I am answering the query of a person who has just been banned.)

  31. 31
    Spoon

    While I don’t agree with that last point (about jerks and stages) I will say these conferences tend to be bloody expensive. I was stoked to hear about the conference coming up in April in NYC, living in NJ as I do and going into NYC frequently enough, until I saw the price tag. It’s about twice the cost of going to New York Comic Con.

    Does anyone know why? Is it simple economics in terms of expected turnout and the cost of running the conference? Did I just answer my own question?

  32. 32
    Rip Steakface

    …PZ was a software designer?

  33. 33
    Tony Sidaway

    “Every time we discuss this stuff, there will be a number of people with sour grapes syndrome: they will say that conferences are too expensive (which is true), too difficult to get to (also true), and impossible to schedule for busy people with families (agreed). And then they will say they’re elitist and that they don’t need to go hear a bunch of jerks pontificate from a stage anyway, and that’s where they’re going wrong.”

    That would be me. I’d be paying a lot of money to look at a lot of ageing white guys whose demographic I would blend in with perfectly, but whose opinions I already know about because there are so many of us in the movement. In other words, if I’m looking at a lot of clones of myself I don’t see the point of paying the (really, seriously crippling) fees. I get enough of that at Skeptics in the Pub for a much more reasonable fee. And yeah, the problem starts at local level where the female skeptics are even sometimes in danger of being outnumbered by girlfiiends and wives of accompanying male skeptics.

    That’s why diversity is essential. Conferences and groups absolutely must start attracting and promoting people outside that narrow demographic, and being welcoming to the general population.

  34. 34
    PZ Myers

    #32: Yes. I wrote an image processing and laboratory automation package that was marketed by Axon Instruments for a couple of years. It used to be that instead of blogging, I’d be coding into the wee hours of the night making stepper motors whir and triggering shutters on microscope cameras.

  35. 35
    cardinalsmurf

    PZ, what prompted the change in career path? How difficult was it?

    I’m currently in SW/FW QA. I’ve been toying with the idea of career change for a long time. I’m scared. Hold me.

  36. 36
    PZ Myers

    What prompted the change is that it turns out to be a very poor idea to try and do two wildly different things at once, and I had to commit to just one in order to keep up. I chose biology.

    It was a tough decision, too. Biology was what I loved most of all and without question, but this was the mid-90s and I was getting actively buzzed by recruiters talking about $100-$150K jobs. It was hard to tell them no at the time, but it turned out I was wise anyway — that was before the big tech crash.

  37. 37
    katansi

    I’m mostly going to address the affordability aspect. The atheist meetup local to me brought up community building. It’s a big deal that cons are expensive and difficult to get to and I don’t think it’s getting worked on. Denver is the closest big city to me and even though I’m only a 30-40 minute drive from downtown I can’t get there basically ever. He wanted to take things that churches are good at and somehow apply them to the atheist group, namely the community building. Churches are damn good at getting people in the door. They have centuries of fortunes behind them and even when one church financially fails there’s another waiting to open the doors. Their people get in for free in any town in most of the world. That is of course a matter of time which the atheist community hasn’t had yet. I have only been to one meetup in this group so far because I haven’t had bus fare for most of the free events and don’t have money to socialize in the ones where they go to a bar or restaurant or something.

    (Just nipping this in the bud, yes, I have the internet and that costs money! On a bill that I share with my roommate and on a device that makes killing hours of time actually cheap considering I can spend hours reading a day and the library and bookstore aren’t always options.)

    It’s unfair to say just try harder to go to a con. I don’t belittle the cons, any con for any interest I have, but I can’t go to any of them. Poverty correlates strongly with a lack of decent education which itself correlates strongly with religious faith. It’s a big deal that cons are unaffordable, that people can’t just walk into any number of buildings on any given day and learn more about atheism. I’m going to suggest more responsibility go to the people of means and the organizers with means. If atheism is to grow as a community then it’s unfair (and kind of unjust) to tell interested parties to just try harder to go when the spread of knowledge is said to be so important to the people who set these things up.

    Another side effect of that is even people who already out atheists, like me, who are not of means, are alienated from a community we supposedly belong to. So not only am I told not to complain, even though I’m not disparaging any gathering, I’m told to just try harder to have more money. The easier solution will be the people who can already afford it to help others who can’t, not to say to those who can’t afford it to find more money. It’s like yelling bootstraps at poor people. Yeah, I have to do my part, and I do, and that doesn’t change my short term income in any way. The way things are going, I don’t expect to have any good amount of spare money at any one given point in life for about 10 years. Then that will probably go to the student loans I’m racking up. However, one charity ticket for even one day and a ride to Denver would’ve made a huge difference in my community involvement. If that happened even once a year well shit, I’d be delighted to have a big yearly atheist activity to look forward to. So far I know of only a couple discounts and one sort of con scholarship program.

    Also think of being poor and knowing that the only affordable community readily available to you is religious and that they are totally likely to fund raise to send you to a religious retreat or send your kids to bible camp or get you food and clothing EVEN IF YOU JUST SHOWED UP THAT DAY whereas your own people are not likely at all to help you participate. It is really not a surprise at all that atheism trends with wealthy. It’s not surprising science education is expensive and rare now. I spend a lot of time alone but it’s still tempting sometimes to go to church just so I feel welcome somewhere because even with nice atheists I feel like it’s not for people in my economic class. I really hate that feeling.

  38. 38
    Snoof

    There literally are cons for everything – a colleague of mine went to a PEN convention. A convention about PENS.

    In many cases, they’re industry or technology conventions. I know a guy who attends a packaging materials and technology convention every year, not because he finds them deeply fascinating, but because that’s the product he sells. They’re commercial, structured for the benefit of businesses, rather than for the joy of it, the way fandom conventions are.

    (Although I recognise there’s plenty of commercial reasons to get involved in fandom conventions too.)

  39. 39
    barfy

    The best, most concise argument for diversity that I have ever read.

    We are a social species, and face-to-face will never be replaced by Skype (no dis to Skype – it’s wonderful, for what it is.)

    An example:
    I have several friends who have played golf at Augusta National – beyond Mecca for the golfer and impossible to get into without knowing AND playing with a member. They didn’t get invited for their good looks and sparkling personalities. The invite was essentially a perk of doing a great deal of business with a member. So, yeah, don’t believe the BS – The men (and now two women) of the Masters absolutely conduct valuable business on the course.

    Working towards opportunity, reducing barriers to entry and vigilance against myopic privilege should be a duty of EVERY gathering of humans -with the rare exceptions accepting the burden of proof for why this policy is not being followed. Nowadays, the burden is bassackward.

  40. 40
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    What we should focus on is making them more accessible, more common, and more openly participatory.

    I agree. But I don’t think it’s sour grapes to say, “Because of reasons X, Y, and Z, I can’t attend your event.” It’s not because I have an entitlement complex and I think the atheist community needs to cater to my whims, or even that I’m boycotting conventions that don’t do what I want. It’s a simple statement of fact. Because of a physical disability, I cannot drive, walk long distances, climb stairs, or stand for a long time, and I’m on a (tiny) fixed income. Therefore, if an event is inaccessible by public transportation, is too expensive (or located in an expensive venue–a local atheist group holds meetings at a pricey restraunt, for example, and the speaker has to be pretty damn amazing to overcome my embarassment at nursing a glass of water all evening), or if it’s located in venue that doesn’t accomodate people with disabilities, I cannot attend, even though I would really love to go. And I think that when people talk about making events more diverse, these types of things should be on the table, too, along with discussions about speakers and harassment policies (which are also important, don’t get me wrong).

    Unfortunately, a lot of people who put conventions or meetups together either don’t think about accessability issues because they aren’t affected by them or know people who are affected by them, so it just doesn’t cross their minds (the charitable view) or they understand that a portion of the community will not be able to attend, but they are not important enough to put the time/money/energy in to providing accessable meetings.

  41. 41
    Erin (formerly--formally?-- known as EEB)

    @ katansi

    I spend a lot of time alone but it’s still tempting sometimes to go to church just so I feel welcome somewhere because even with nice atheists I feel like it’s not for people in my economic class

    Wow, do I understand that feeling! When I left the church, it was my entire life. I had zero friends outside of church. My mother is a pastor. My father was a youth pastor. I went to a religious university, and most of my credits were (are) in Pastoral Studies, which, yeah, that’s really useful in the secular world. I didn’t know anyone outside of the church, beyond superficial aquaintences..

    If it wasn’t for the internet, I don’t think I could have made it. I really truly don’t know what I would have done…maybe I would have been able to supress all that disbelief and go back, I don’t know. But with the exception of my immediate family, I lost every relationship I had. Just *poof* gone, years of friendship down the drain. And somedays I am so goddamn loney I could scream. I do think about going back to church. I’ve even seriously considered the UU church down the street–they openly court atheists, and you can be an atheist Unitarian. For the most part, I’m happy that I’m an out atheist (integrity is nice), and even if I was miserable, I still wouldn’t go back to church, because I know that it’s not true, and pretending just isn’t worth it. But, yeah, I would really like to be a part of a physical community again. I mean, the online stuff is nice, but sometimes I just miss being with people.

  42. 42
    John Morales

    [OT]

    Here in South Australia, there’s good awareness of accessibility issues.

    (Just trying to cheer you up) — anecdotally, I think there’s good compliance, certainly in the public sector)

  43. 43
    John Morales

    Um, my last was for EEB.

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