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SkeptiCamp Atlanta: A Personal Overview

By Simon
Posted on: 4/18/2009

Our own Simon went to SkeptiCamp Atlanta, and all he got was a T-shirt and a bunch of new ideas.

SkeptiCamp Atlanta

6 and 7th of February, 2009

A personal overview


When the first Atlanta SkeptiCamp was initially announced, it immediately aroused my interest. I am only a few hours away from Atlanta, after all, and it seemed like a good opportunity to meet with fellow skeptics and have a fun weekend of brain massaging.

(Getting there was a bit adventurous as I got knocked off my bike on my way to the rental place (my car went to automobile-heaven a few weeks ago), but I suspect these are the kinds of memories I will cherish when I grow into an old white-haired skeptic.)

I wrote this overview in the days after the event. It was written from a personal point-of-view, so there is not necessarily much in the following few pages in terms of in-depth analysis, and this write-up is mostly about personal feelings and anecdotal experiences. Normally, the talks and the corresponding PowerPoints will be available online at some point, but it does not seem that they are just yet. However, the event was made available on Live-Feed by Dr. Atlantis and, if you are into that sort of thing, could be followed on Twitter.

What is SkeptiCamp?

In short, SkeptiCamps are skeptically oriented user-generated conferences. SkeptiCamps are modeled on the BarCamp conferences, a series of informal conferences, the first of which was organized in 2005. These events are organized around user-generated content and most attendees are expected to give a presentation. The atmosphere of such events is also quite informal, and a large part of the content is generated through free-form interactions and casual debates. Similarly, the organization is also quite fluid and tends to rely more heavily on self-organization. The talk schedule, for example, was generated by speakers picking their favorite times, instead of a schedule imposed by the organizers. As a consequence, there were many small sessions with clear topics, which is hardly a problem for a two days event, but is likely to pose a limit to the size to which such a conference could grow.

Friday the 6th:

My first and main regret is that I missed the first two talks, a presentation of logical fallacies by Brian Jones and a summary of the last year of “What’s the Harm,” by Tim Farley. I am a great fan of Tim’s work; it is a great reminder that being skeptical, fun as it is, is also a duty. So, I will definitively have to get these presentations online.

Next Was Maria Walters’ “10 questions that every skeptic will be asked,” which was a good introduction as to what it is to be a skeptic and how to answer questions from the adepts of woo.

Following was Blake Smith’s presentation on Lord Dufferin, a classic debunking of a ghost story that branched out into a lively discussion on how to “bring the truth” to Wikipedia.

The last part of the day was devoted to “Podcasting skeptically.” Interesting stuff that was podcast live by Derek and Swoopy, with John Snider and David Driscoll of American Freethought.

By the time it was over, it was already past nine PM, so I grabbed my souvenir T-shirt and quickly broke off for the night.

Saturday the 7th:

I managed to be a bit late the next morning, which is quite shameful considering the talks started at ten AM. Being the next speaker in line, I am afraid I probably gave a bit of a worry to Taylor. Nonetheless, I did my presentation. The subject was an introduction to the scientific method, to illustrate why the evolutionary theory is science and why Intelligent Design is not. Hopefully, I did well enough.

My main regret is that I had started a slide about how evolution could have been falsified, only to cut it out of my presentation for brevity’s sake. Of course, I had a question about just that. I will probably modify the presentation and add a few examples while trying to keep the details short so that not to lengthen the whole presentation too much. Another limitation was that I only touched on the scientific method and did not have time to mention other important aspects of science such as statistical relevance, what we mean by “double blind studies” and why they are important or the importance of peer review. That could make an interesting follow-up presentation, I guess. Something to consider in the future.

After this presentation, I had several very interesting discussions over the breaks, including about endosymbiotic theory and endogenous retroviruses (a smoking gun of common descent), as well as how the irregularities in Uranus’ orbit was a test of the theory of gravity. To summarize, science is really cool and we are living in a very amazing universe. “Magic man did it” is so boring in comparison.

Then, Scott Little explored “Detoxification myths,” starting by contrasting real medical practices with the CAM version. Also, we learned of people getting coffee as colonic wash (I remember coffee enemas being mentioned in Futurama but I would never have imagined it being an actual practice).

The next presentation (by Jerry Lobe) was about Applied Kinesiology. After mentioning “origin insertion” (a great way to get a roomful of dirty-minded skeptics to laugh), he provided us with what I thought was the greatest quote of the weekend:
It’s why we don’t do double blind studies, it never works.
We then broke off for a minute, and took a few pictures.

After talking about the theory of evolution, I was particularly interested in Andrew Sevrinsky’s talk, another one on a similar subject: “Evolution is a fact: How to ward-off cDesign proponentsists.” He did a great job debunking the most popular creationists “arguments.” Many of the presentations’ content echoed what one can find at the Talk.Origin’s “An Index of Creationist Claims,” but Andrew managed to present it in a very entertaining and humorous way. Nonetheless, I am terribly jealous that I had never thought about using The Princess Bride quote myself.

Next was Christian Walters’ talk about how to design a good, clear and appealing website to present your good and appealing skeptical thinking.

Then Veronica Robertson tried to answer the question, “Are organic foods really better?” Essentially, the answer is “no,” although there are more exceptions than my cynical self would have guessed. We also learned that the horns from cows made great receptors for cosmic energies. I am not sure what that is supposed to mean but am ready to get indignant at the scientific establishment for ignoring this obvious solution to the energy crisis.

Next was Heidi Anderson’s “Skeptic guide to parenting,” that confirmed to us that children were a source of stress rather than happiness, although they do give you a pedagogical excuse to buy Darwin finger puppets. She then introduced us to the many resources for skeptical parenting out there, including the work by Dale McGowan, a personal favorite of mine.

After that was Lisa Hammet’s introduction to genetics, “Know Thyself,” in which she did a great job condensing much of what we know about genetics into a short 30-minute format.

The subject of the biology class then shifted from genetics to neurobiology when Rich Hammet did his presentation on neural function and neural plasticity. It gave me the opportunity to learn the term “Hebbian learning.” This presentation was made more personal with examples from Rich’s own experience following a car accident. It is interesting and revealing how somebody can use such personally difficult times and transcend them into an opportunity to explore, discover and learn.

Then was Stephen King’s (the other Stephen King) presentation about theatre superstitions. There are lots of them.

Finally, closing a long day of presentations, was Josh Goush’s overview of Carl Sagan’s Demon-haunted world. I have never read this particular book, believe it or not. But this presentation finally convinced me to move it to the top of my (already far too long) reading list. The presentation not only focused on the pivotal role of Carl Sagan as a critical thinker, it also reminded us how important it was not to get marred into an “Us vs Them” mentality. How the promotion of critical thinking and rationality was not to be accomplished at the price of kindness and humanity. A very fitting way to end the talks, I think.

By then, it was past eight. We were two hours behind schedule, which illustrated how rich and interesting the talks were, and we all went for dinner where I managed to kept my inner skeptic in check. “I am skeptical that this is chicken, rather than cat meat,” might not have gone well.

Concluding remarks:

I enjoyed the talks, but in fact, there was little in term of information that one could not gather from the Internet. In reality, the real value of this SkeptiCamp — and as such it is not different from classical scientific symposiums — was in social interactions and in meeting other skeptics. Not only did they tend to be smart, interesting people (and smart interesting people are always fun to be around), but it is pleasant to meet in real life people you are interacting with on a regular basis online. We skeptics are a real, if small, community, and one I enjoy being a part of.

As such, I had the opportunity to exchange contact information with several Atlanta skeptics. A first step, I hope, toward many more interesting exchanges with these people.

In addition, I must confess a bit of fan-boy enthusiasm at meeting, “in the flesh,” people I listen to or read about every day: Tim Farley, Massala Skeptic or Derek and Swoopy.

So, it was a really enjoyable weekend and an experience. One I will do my best to try to renew in the future, at TAM and Dragon*Con for example, and, of course, at the second Atlanta SkeptiCamp.

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