Misstep at #Skepticon

It got ugly for a while. There was a last minute addition to today’s schedule: a “panel” to discuss the recent events in Missouri, specifically the university resignations in the face of endemic racism, and the efforts by students to exclude journalists from a meeting place on campus. Good idea, I thought: we’re in Missouri, this is a major topic, it is entirely appropriate to discuss the problems in racism and in the efforts to oppose racism.

Only it turned out to be very badly handled. The event was simply an “interview” with a white photojournalist/student, Mark Schierbecker, who was the one who captured that viral video of the students and a faculty member blocking another photojournalist from taking pictures, getting questioned by Danielle Muscato.

Right away, a problem: no black students were on the stage. No one was representing any other side of the story, and there was no plan to let anyone else speak. It was a disaster of a one-sided event.

I tried to listen, but I gave up when Muscato asked a ridiculous question: “Are you a racist?” Apparently, the purpose of this event wasn’t to actually address the issue of racism, but to make sure the white man with a camera got a chance to rehabilitate himself.

I left. I spent some time with a few of the organizers/volunteers, where I learned a few shocking things. They weren’t too happy with this last-minute addition, and only included it to give an important and topical issue an airing. They didn’t realize what a mess it was. All I can say is…vet your speakers more thoroughly!

And then the most disturbing thing: this was not actually any kind of interview. Muscato is Schierbecker’s publicist! WTF? This was purely a PR move.

There was not supposed to be a Q&A, but there was a contingent of black attendees in the front rows, and they did not let that stand. They jumped on the two at the end, and I’m sorry I missed it, but I got echoes of the chaos on Twitter.

The most dramatic fallout is that immediately afterwards, Muscato resigned as his publicist and chewed him out for racist remarks.

I’ll also mention that later that afternoon, Mary Anne Franks, a law professor, gave an absolutely magnificent talk on fundamentalism that specifically called out legalistic fundamentalism: the stuff that fetishizes free speech and gun laws by treating the Constitution as holy scripture, rather than as document that needs to be interpreted as a tool for justice. She ended by highlighting the 14th amendment — too bad the gun and free speech absolutists can’t count above 2. When that becomes available on youtube, I’ll definitely post it here. So far, it was my favorite talk of the conference, and this weekend has been a regular festival of excellent talks.

With one exception.

Schierbecker has posted a video reaction. It’s painful to watch.

Skepticon organizers have made an official apology.


  1. says

    Yes, she talked about that in the prelude to Schierbecker’s talk. I was unconvinced. “I couldn’t find any willing black people/women/people actually affected by the issue” is an old excuse. It also rapidly became clear why she wasn’t finding any other participants — this was such a terrible set up to only benefit Schierbecker, and you’d have to be really stupid to join that.

  2. says

    I missed most myself, came in toward the end and at the back. It was sounding kinda messy from the bits I heard even there, though.
    At least besides Muscato’s quick response, I did catch some tweets from Skepticon and at least one organizer agreeing with the problems and fault. So at least there’s that.

  3. says

    In retrospect it’s very clear now that if they could not find any representative voices from the ConcernedStudent1950 movement to participate then they should have canceled Schierbecker’s talk entirely. Frankly this should have been obvious from the start. A talk on racism with no black panelists is like having a bunch of men get up and do a panel on institutional oppression of women. It’s whitesplaining is what that is.

    Next year the harassment and conduct policies really need to include some better procedures for vetting panels in advance and ensuring adequate represenatation from traditionally marginalized and non privileged classes. If there is a lack of representation then the panel doesn’t happen. There also needs to be a formal procedure for ending a talk in the middle if it goes off the rails like this. Maybe one or more of the con organizers should have constant control over the mics so they can just cut it off if the speakers step over the line? Maybe they can find some way to use phone apps and allow attendees to voice concerns in real time while the talk is happening and if they get above a certain threshold of complaints then it’s ended right there and then? It may be possible to apply the model of affirmative consent (from the audience) in some way here as well. Either way they need to do something different so this doesn’t happen again.

    There was also an awfully transphobic question asked of trans athlete and MMA fighter Fallon Fox but that was handled beautifully. The problematic question was called out in real time by both members of the audience and the moderator of the session and the questionner was immediately escorted out. Just the way that kind of thing should go down.

    In any case glad to see the swift reaction to this misstep and the fact that this is being treated as a learning opportunity by all involved. Kudos and keep up the good work all.

  4. throwaway, butcher of tongues, mauler of metaphor says

    What was Schierbecker saying that prompted the direct questioning by Danielle if he was a racist? She says in her report that

    During the session, Mark said multiple indefensibly racist things that, in my opinion, cannot be reconciled with a continued relationship with him.

    Like, on a scale of Mr. Rogers to David Duke, how flamingly racist were his remarks?

  5. says

    Not sure exactly what was said at the time but this Tweet from Schriebecker afterwards gives some insight into the problematic mindset at work here.


    Journalist Lives Matter: youtu.be/RGIeOgqNyEs?a via @YouTube

    Journalist Lives Matter
    And also fuck Sektpicon

    Yeah that’s right he pulled the old Black All Journalist Lives Matter card. That gives some idea where he falls on the racism scale…

  6. Lesbian Catnip says

    What’s next? #RacistLivesMatter catches steam because all his friends left him after finding out he was a terrible fucking person?

  7. says

    The parts I caught were about being upset the professor involved is still teaching, and stuff about how the assault on the journalist needs to be dealt with/prosecuted in order to move on to discussing the racism.

  8. says

    The question about whether he was a racist was clearly part of a prepared script. Similarly, he’d been coached about how to answer: he said the buzzwords about how everyone is a bit racist, he’s got white privilege, etc. He did not sound sincere. In the video linked in my post, he’s now saying that he didn’t mean any of it, it was just what Muscato told him to say.

    Schierbecker was not able to cope with questions that went off script at all, which is what happened when representatives of concernedstudent1950 started peppering him with difficult questions, and he melted down.

  9. chrislawson says

    Umm, does it strike anyone else as odd that a young photojournalist/student has a professional publicist?

  10. says

    I wouldn’t have expected a panel on the Mizzou events at Skepticon.

    I could wish that we stopped focusing on the professor’s mistake in keeping the journalist out. The real events have taken place over weeks, and just at the moment of triumph, she make a bad mistake and 3 minutes worth of time seems to be treated equally with weeks of effort.

    This wasn’t about freedom of speech, or journalist rights, this was about a couple of people making a mistake in the heat of the moment. The real story was about protesters showing the rest of the country how it’s done, and accomplishing some pretty amazing stuff.

    But that makes blacks the hero of the hour, so watch the networks scramble to find the “whiteness” in the event, and lo and behold, let’s focus on this professor, seemingly oppressing the poor journalist.

    Cue Yale, and “intellectual freedom”, and the dear children should be allowed to express themselves as the KKK or whatever their little hearts desire.

    There is little intellectual honest in any of this.

    Even at Skepticon, this disaster you outline. Even the skeptics indulge in cheap parlor tricks.

  11. says

    But would love to see the Franks video. Yes, please, post a tweet or something when it’s available.

    (And am I the only one who sees a crop of young “journalists” with little talent or integrity, ala Chuck Johnson? No wonder people support someone like Carson.)

  12. says

    Before the official Skepticon statement, Danielle said the following on her public FB page:

    Saturday, November 14 at the ‪#‎Skepticon‬ 8 conference in Springfield, Missouri, during a scheduled lunch period, last-minute time was allotted to allow Mark Schierbecker, a University of Missouri student and photojournalist for the student newspaper The Maneater, to answer prepared questions about this week’s events at the University of Missouri campus. Over the last week, he has been featured in various national news media for his role in shooting a viral video of the “clash” between journalists seeking access to protestors immediately following the announcement of the resignation of senior Mizzou administration, and student & faculty protestors, who were seeking to promote a safe space for ‪#‎ConcernedStudent1950‬ demonstrators to process the news as the hunger strike ended.

    Over the last week, when Mark began to receive an outpouring of media requests about his video, he asked me to help him because of my professional experience with public relations and our long term friendship. I wanted to help Mark and agreed to be his temporary, pro bono publicist for the next few days, and to interview him at Skepticon live on stage, mostly with questions I prepared in advance.

    During the session, Mark said multiple indefensibly racist things that, in my opinion, cannot be reconciled with a continued relationship with him. I regret this because I believe Mark is a good person who is trying his best. He admits that, like many others white Americans, he is not immune to unwelcome racism in his own thinking, and that he is working consciously to improve it. I admire that in principle. I, too, am constantly working to address my own privilege as a white person.

    On stage, I attempted to give Mark several chances to clarify his apparently racist remarks as not racist, but in my opinion, I was unsuccessful. I no longer wish to be associated with him in a representative way. I deeply apologize to everyone present, and to the Skepticon organizers, and to anyone else who may see footage of this online later. Mark has a lot of white privilege to address. He acknowledges this. He should not have been given a platform at Skepticon to say these things, especially at the expense of discussion about the deeper and more systemic issue of racism, which is being pushed even further to the wayside because of my actions.

    I want to acknowledge publicly that I made a mistake in hosting this session. I apologize and take responsibility for it. This should not have gone forward without #ConcernedStudent1950 voices.

    I made a mistake. I will do everything I can to learn from this and improve going forward.

    I am sorry.

    – Danielle Muscato

  13. says

    Shelley Powers @13:

    I could wish that we stopped focusing on the professor’s mistake in keeping the journalist out. The real events have taken place over weeks, and just at the moment of triumph, she make a bad mistake and 3 minutes worth of time seems to be treated equally with weeks of effort.

    Oh dear FSM, yes. The professor made a mistake. As did the other faculty that assisted her as well as the students that helped as well (though not all of the students who formed the wall participated in the harassment/bullying). But that’s not really in dispute. I see plenty of people trying to move past that, after acknowledging that those actions were not helpful and were wrong. But some folks just want to keep on talking about it. Which distracts from the main issues the protesters sought to draw attention to.

  14. Pumpkin Brewer says

    The complete lack of empathy and compassion for Mark Schierbecker on display here is appalling. This young autistic man had the courage to take a very public stage and discuss emotional events that occurred when he was bullied and assaulted in public. He did this despite having very little time to prepare for the event, being pushed by his (now former) friend and publicist to say things with which he was not comfortable, and an audience that was hostile from the get-go because they felt that his video made the movement “look bad.” (If they didn’t want to look bad, perhaps they should not have assaulted student journalists as they tried to do their jobs.)

    As Mr. Schierbecker noted before the session took place, this was his first time giving such a public speech. Give him a break. It’s unfortunate that his oratory didn’t meet the elitist standards of PZ Myers, but frankly, I would like to see Myers do better in similar circumstances — with autism, his first public speech, a hostile audience, emotional subject matter, an idiot publicist, and so on down the line.

    As for Myers’ ridiculous suggestion that journalists exercising their First Amendment rights to go where they please on public property and take pictures qualifies as “legalistic fundamentalism” — well, that’s very sad. Fortunately, while there may be some ivory-tower academics who take such a view, there isn’t a single actual court in the land that would agree.

  15. says

    Oh fuck
    So a white woman interviews a white man so he can show how totally not racist he is because that’s the real issue when black students are getting death threats. Is there ever anything not going to be about white people fee-fees?

    I’m glad Danielle noticed her mistake, I wished she’d noticed that before that clusterfuck.

  16. Knight in Sour Armor says

    Autistic people (myself included) do not get a pass for doing that shit… if he couldn’t cut it on a public stage without spewing racist shit, he shouldn’t have requested the platform.

    If his intentions weren’t pure (looks like they weren’t) then he shouldn’t have been given a platform.

  17. says

    Giliell @24: The evidence was ambiguous. On the one hand, there’s the commentariat of Pharyngula, who never get anything wrong ever; and on the other, the picture on her Facebook page, which shows a very male-looking individual, and no immediate clues otherwise. The name could have been a variant spelling I’m not familiar with. That’s why I asked, and thank you for clearing that up.

  18. Sili says

    Umm, does it strike anyone else as odd that a young photojournalist/student has a professional publicist?

    Weeellll, “professionel” seems to be stretching it a bit.

  19. Sili says

    NelC, 27,

    I don’t Facebook much, but if you want to use that as a source of evidence, then maybe “The FB Page of Danielle Muscato, an atheist activist, public speaker, writer, debater, and trans woman.” should have clued you in.

  20. Bernard Bumner says


    Yeah, you’re talking about Type 1 Autistic Spectrum.

    The Internet is talking about Type 2, which is the one that causes racism, misogyny, casual sexism, stupid old white dudes, mansplaining, etc.

    Type 2 is considered very controversial by some, but there is a growing body of anecdotes to support the idea that some people will insult people everywhere with autism, AS, Asperger’s, by blaming it for every type of behaviour, from merely arseholish to actually homicidal.

    The fact that there is no link is irrelevant, because as long as they can shift the debate away from what the person did and how that negatively affects a marginalised group, then they are happy. They will have that other argument, because then they don’t have to try to defend the indefensible.

  21. says


    legalistic fundamentalism

    There’s plenty of legalistic fundamentalists right here, just have to read the previous thread about events in Missouri.

  22. says

    Pumpkin Brewer @18,
    Having empathy for ConcernedStudent1950 is not the same as having no empathy for Schriebecker. Please don’t conflate the two. Also as others have pointed out please don’t blame racism on being autistic because that’s offensive and not supported by science.

    Nelc @23,
    C’mon now. You should know that physical anatomy does not equate with gender. There is nothing inherently “male” about a beard or even pattern baldness. That’s like saying “well this person has a penis so it must be a guy right?” Well no that’s not a fair assessment because the fact is that some trans women have penises too. Penis does not equate to guy, beard does not equate to guy, balding does not equate to guy. Your idea of “guy” is a social construct and it’s a construct that Danielle rejects in favor of a more authentic personal identity.

    Here’s a great analysis by FTB’s own Zinnia Jones that might help to clarify:

  23. karpad says

    Journalist Lives Matter

    It’s worse than that. The actual title of the video on youtube is “Journalist Livelihoods Matter.” Equating the ability of people who take pictures to make a buck off of it with the actual right to exist of black people. In the video he says he was “forced” to say things he doesn’t agree with, like “acknowledging my white privilege, and coming on record as to whether I’m racist.”

    Even allowing for presence on the spectrum making communication difficult, especially while he’s clearly upset, there’s really not a charitable reading of those words.

  24. says

    The worst is that Journalist lives matter indeed. Around the world journalists face serious repercusions for being journalists. They are imprisoned and they are killed.
    I’m not saying that zero bad happened to him, but that’s just plain nasty.

  25. says

    Sili @29: I’m sure it would have, if I’d noticed it. But I didn’t, I was confused, and so I asked. What is the problem? I am not questioning her identity, I asked for clarification because I is stupid. If there was a better way of asking, feel free to educate me on that.

    Plethora @32: Thank you for those extensive notes. Generally I use the rule that people are the gender they say they are. As I hadn’t noticed the small print on Muscato’s main page (because I am stupid, see above) I didn’t know what Muscato’s gender was and was puzzled over the apparent discrepancy, so I asked. I now know that Muscato is a woman, and need no further help with this particular piece of knowledge. It shall remain embedded in my brain far past its usefulness as it is.

    Maybe the Pharyngula commentariat can refrain from the habit of eating its own that has made it such a by-word for inclusiveness over the whole internet….

  26. Dreaming of an Atheistic Newtopia says

    You were wrong, you were very politely corrected, stop trying to pretend that you are being circled by hungry sharks, and stop proding with a stick…

  27. F.O. says

    @Giliell: yup, the little fucker managed to compare himself both to black people that are routinely killed, AND to journalists who are routinely killed. My first reaction was “send him to Afghanistan”.

  28. nicklink483 says

    > There was also an awfully transphobic question asked of trans athlete and MMA fighter Fallon Fox but that was handled beautifully.

    What was the question and its response?

  29. Pumpkin Brewer says

    To those who said that Schierbecker spewed “racist shit”: no, he didn’t. Watch the video. He was awkward, sure, as one might expect from someone with autism doing a public Q&A for the first time. But nothing he said was even remotely racist. Get your facts straight before commenting, please.

  30. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    But nothing he said was even remotely racist.

    Did he support the movement without question? Or did he show ambivalence?
    Either you are part of the solution, or you are part of the problem.
    Show me conclusive evidence that Shierbecker is part of the solution…..

  31. Pumpkin Brewer says

    Responding to your sentences, in order:

    1. Even if he showed ambivalence (which I don’t concede), that isn’t racism. He was accused of making racist remarks. He didn’t. Hence the problem. I should also point out that this was a *skeptics* conference… doing things “without question” would defy the whole point.

    2. That’s incorrect. George W. Bush used the same logic, by the way.

    3. What kind of reverse-onus nonsense is that?

  32. qwints says

    Saying ‘Journalists lives matter’ is racist (and yes, I know that’s not in the video).

    Yeah, it’s reflective of the standard white-privilege response of “my issues have to be just as important as black lives.” After listening to him, there were more than a few elements of that in there (at the very end he seemed to say that since CS1950 demanded an apology and resignation he was justified in demanding an apology and resignation). That’s wrong, but I wouldn’t call that sort of privilege blindness saying “indefensibly racist things” or believe it would require professional disassociation from a friend.

  33. says

    nicklink483 @39,

    What was the question and its response?

    The question was something to the effect of (paraphrasing here):
    “I do respect you as a fighter and an athlete and all but… isn’t your being born a male and fighting against women comparable to someone using anabolic steroids…”

    IOW the questioner was drawing a comparison between a trans woman MMA fighter and someone cheating the system by using steroids to get unfair advantage.

    The response was swift. The moderator who was on stage with Fallon immediately cut the question off, identified it as problematic and asked the person to leave or be escorted out. There was an audible reaction from the audience as well. Not sure if the person voluntarily stepped away from the mic or had to be ushered away but either way it was done before the person had a chance to finish their thought.

    Fallon answered the question anyway and explained some of the medical science behind HRT and how that affects physiology. She handled it like a champ and took the opportunity to educate everyone in the process.

  34. ChasCPeterson says

    But nothing he said was even remotely racist.

    Did he support the movement without question? Or did he show ambivalence?
    Either you are part of the solution, or you are part of the problem.
    Show me conclusive evidence that Shierbecker is part of the solution…..

    That’s some remarkable rhetoric right there, Nerd.
    hmm, where have I heard its like before?

  35. starfleetdude says

    Something else that was remarkable at Skepticon, a safe space men’s room that treated all equally:

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

    I’m guessing this was a well-meant, if ridiculous measure taken to cater to non-cis-males. It must be a lot of work to deal with such requests, and I don’t envy the conference organizers who have to deal with it all.

  36. Bernard Bumner says


    Was that in all of the gender-specific toilets or just the universal toilets described in their event policy?

  37. Bernard Bumner says

    I have to say that they most obvious explanation for a single bathroom is that they were broken via some common fault (a shared drain or flush system).

    I could also imagine that, if this was in the bathroom designated for all, it may have been a simple, but ugly and potentially misleading, measure to ensure the comfort of all users.

  38. starfleetdude says

    The covered urinals in the picture appear to be an Ada Initiative inspired move to have a gender neutral restroom. In a modern hotel/conference center, which presumably has adequate restroom facilities for both genders as well as family restrooms, it seems more of a PR stunt to have such a thing than a genuine need.

  39. Bernard Bumner says


    a) Public gestures are an important demonstration of commitment and support
    b) “both genders”? Perhaps you’re failing to see a need because you’re making a faulty assumption?

  40. starfleetdude says

    Bernard Bumner, symbolic gestures are all well and good I suppose, but this particular one seems rather pointless. As for genders, I was thinking of the men’s and women’s restrooms that public facilities generally provide, and also noted there are also family/gender neutral restrooms as well in public meeting places.

  41. starfleetdude says

    Thanks, John-Henry Beck. That would be a sensible enough thing to do under the circumstances then.

  42. consciousness razor says

    Apparently it isn’t just one then.

    One set of them, apparently, as John-Henry Beck had said. It seems the hotel didn’t already have a single restroom designated with a neutral sign, so the organizers did what they could with that pair/set of restrooms, to make it clear to everyone that they were both available as such.

    So it’s not so much an accommodation as it is a political statement in support of a gender neutral restrooms. O.K. then.

    I have no idea what this is supposed to mean to you, but if you say something is okay about it, then perhaps there’s no point in responding.

    It’s not accommodating (or not so accommodating) if it’s a “statement” supporting it? Of if such signs support that “politically” by designating them for that purpose (being a sign that is a functional “statement” of sorts), then it’s not really accommodating that very thing somehow? Am I missing something?