A Call to Skeptical Action

Good morning, afternoon, or evening, everybody. As a new Guest Bastard, I would like to turn your attention to an important topic: skeptical activism. The world of critical thinking seems to be getting a little wider every day as more people stand, like candles in the dark, to ward off superstition and nonsense in the name of science and reason. I aim to expand that bubble of light, in my own small way.

I’ve been doing that small-time for a little over three years now at my blog Action Skeptics, but I recently decided it was time for me to do more than that. I moved from the corner stickball lot to the minors (or at least to a somewhat larger stickball lot) when I was one of the lucky few chosen to give one of the Sunday presentations at The Amaz!ing Meeting 7. Before I ever even wrote the abstract for my TAM submission, though, three friends and I (my erstwhile blogging partner Magus, close friend Wikinite, and internet-friend-turned-meatspace-friend Tom Foss) were planning our own grassroots contribution to skepticism.

We had all attended Gen Con Indianapolis 2008 together, and among the costumes, vendors, and 30,000+ attendees, we found a well-hidden little event hosted by the Indiana Ghost Trackers: a panel on the “science” of “Electronic Voice Phenomenon,” known among the cool kids as “EVP.” Armed guards couldn’t keep us out of that one. We attended, and it was bad. Like really bad. They were all clearly almost entirely ignorant of the scientific method and were simply parroting the methods handed down to them through decades of ghost hunting lore. We decided, leaving the panel, that 2009 would see a skeptical panel at Gen Con.

So we did it. We put together and presented a panel called “Skepticism, Critical Thinking, and Pop Culture.” I won’t belabor the point, because you can read my in-depth summary here, but our panel had an audience of at least 40 people (we had set the max at 100 and expected somewhere between 0 and 1, so we were pleasantly surprised) and pretty much everyone seemed to enjoy it. We had people approach us afterward and share compliments and e-mail. It all encouraged us to attempt expansion next year and try for a large battery of quality skeptical programming that will attract audiences, which will hopefully attract some Big Names, which will then create a positive feedback loop between the two.

And why not? SkepTrack was huge at Dragon*Con in 2008 and even huger this year. The Skepchicks ran SkepchickCon out of Convergence in Minneapolis this past summer. Derek Colanduno, co-host (with Swoopy) of the podcast Skepticality and producer of Dragon*Con’s SkepticTrack, told me that he’s been approached by a convention in New York to design and produce a skeptical track for them entirely from scratch. The NECSS con last weekend was, by all accounts, also a huge success. It’s clear that there is a place in the convention circuit for science and skepticism.

What we have is motivation and, between the four of us, a pretty deep well of knowledge and creativity. But what we need is more. The four of us can’t possibly hope to create a respectable skeptical presence at Gen Con by ourselves. We need more skeptics, more ideas, more events, more web-presence, more publicity…just more.

That’s why I’m putting out an APB for any Midwestern skeptics to toss their ideas and knowledge and creativity into the mix. Anyone have ideas for a panel discussion? Anyone have a topic they’ve just been dying to speak about in front of an audience? Anyone good at up-close magic or simple mentalism? Anyone own and operate video or audio equipment? Anyone have any contacts among the larger skeptical community who might be interested in helping?

Basically, if you’ve got it, we want it. You don’t even have to plan on coming to Gen Con; if all you want to do is toss ideas around and help refine our programming to be the best it can be, we want and need that, too. The more people we have, the better our program will be.

“Akusai,” I hear you saying, “I want to help, but how can I do that? Don’t we need some kind of central location from which to organize a Gen Con skeptical program?” Why, yes, sir or ma’am, I believe we do, and that’s why I’ve thrown up a no-frills messageboard: the Gen Con Skeptics forum. It’s a place to brainstorm, hone and refine ideas through discussion, and organize into workgroups to take on the different projects and presentations we decide to give at Gen Con Indy 2010. Stuff that we’ve already pretty much decided on (and are working on already, because you can’t start too early) are as follows:

  • A modified, streamlined version of 2009’s panel as a general introduction to scientific skepticism and critical thinking
  • A panel on financial scams
  • A panel on street cons
  • A presentation by myownself and probably Tom Foss called “Cargo Cult Science”
  • Another presentation by myownself called “Culture and the Paranormal”
  • A panel moderated by our first raw recruit, a fellow who loved our 2009 presentation, called “Evolution, Creationism, and Gaming”
  • A vaccination drive, since the one at TAM7 worked extremely well and helped a lot of kids get their shots

I’m going to list, briefly, some things we need (from the “Things We Need” post on the board). If you can help out with any of these, we’d love to have you on board.

  • Panel speakers on various skeptical topics
  • Individual presentations on various skeptical topics
  • Publicity, publicity, publicity!
  • Volunteers to help manage things at the con itself
  • People willing to man a table (if we get one)
  • Camera equipment and people to run it (so we can put all of our material on YouTube)
  • Audio equipment (so we can put all of our material out as podcasts)
  • Creative new ideas for working skepticism into the convention

Finally, the big one, and perhaps the most difficult: attention from “big name” skeptics (e.g. Phil Plait The Bad Astronomer, James Randi, the Skeptical Rogues from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Michael Shermer and the Skeptics Society…The list goes on). If you can hook the humble Gen Con Skeptics program up with serious attention from these folks or anyone else not listed, you will have our eternal gratitude. Having even one of the Big Names come to Gen Con will make the program that much more awesome. Righ now we have two allies: Derek from Skepticality, who has offered his advice at length, and author and skeptic Mike Stackpole, who attends Gen Con every year (and seriously helped Derek get SkepticTrack started at Dragon*Con) and met with us over lunch this year to give us pointers and advice. I’m working on convincing him to give a talk about his Pulling Report, which debunked Christian fundamentalist myths about Dungeons and Dragons in the 80s.

(I’m also working on our kind host Les Jenkins, so if anyone thinks they can convince him to join up and maybe give a talk, have at it…)

So stop by the forum. Say “hi” and toss an idea or two out there. Tell your friends. We aim for a Skeptics Symposium at Gen Con no later than 2011, and we need your help to do it. Together, we can light a skeptical bonfire in Indianapolis, and perhaps, like the Torch of Gondor, it will be seen from afar and move yet others to greater action.

For science!

5 thoughts on “A Call to Skeptical Action

  1. ntsc: I’ve often found that the simple act of brainstorming among others can spark ideas and minor epiphanies in us even when we’re doubtful we’ll bring anything to the table. I’m sure you’ll have something to contribute. Thanks for signing up and lending us your brainpower.

    swordsbane: Thanks! Spread the word! Tell your friends!

  2. I’m checking out the site now. I have some experience in planning events (all be it small ones) and have a degree in project management. I can also help with technical stuff and could possibly volunteer time.

    This is the kind of thing I fully support!

  3. Thanks, Webs! We look forward to your expert project management advice.

    On the PR side of things, having a guy with a degree in project management on the team will probably make Gen Con take us a bit more seriously. I’m really glad to have you on board.

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