Takeaways from #csicon 2012

This past weekend, I attended my first skeptical conference, and my first conference as an employee at the Center for Inquiry. It was a mind-expanding and socially exciting experience. I got to meet and make friends with skeptics young and old, see a little bit of Nashville, and grow closer to some of the coworkers I spend each day with at our Amherst headquarters.

I’m going to try to share my favorite parts of the conference, in tweets. With lots of photos.


Arrived Wednesday afternoon, grabbed dinner in the hotel bar, and met and mingled with lots of new skeptics. There were no official events, but I met many of the CFI people that I’d previously only followed on Twitter, like Paul Fidalgo and Syd LeRoy.


Loved getting the chance to meet some Skepchicks before and after their opening workshop on skeptical activism! (And lucky to get to work with one of them every day.)

Unfortunately, I missed most of the workshops working on conference registration, preparations, and Halloween party decorating—but the handbook that was printed and passed out at the first workshop can also be downloaded in PDF form for free. It’s called the Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual, and worth checking out.

The first evening kicked off with a candid speech from Ron Lindsay, with a country song tribute using the conference slogan (It’s time to get empirical – our love is a miracle?) and a tribute to Paul Kurtz.

Next came the live SGU podcast. It started off with dead puppy jokes and ended with zombie apocalypse predictions, but in the middle was a nice segment with a poem by Joe Nickell remembering PK.

After this, we grabbed some quick dinner in the hotel bar, and made it back in time for the tail end of George Hrab’s musical serenades. He’s a master of the one-liners—nerdy, meme-thickened one-liners.

(My thoughts exactly.)


Lots of people gave blood in the blood drive.

Eugenie Scott talked about her work as director of NCSE in supporting teaching of evolution in public schools.

I got a book recommendation that I’d like to get for myself and my niece/nephew.

PZ Myers presented on the science and math of evolution.

Learned a new word from Joe Nickell, who also insists on on-site investigation.

Some great points from James Alcock’s presentation that really gets at the heart of why we should be skeptics:

Elizabeth Loftus spoke next:

Though I joked around here, in all seriousness, Elizabeth Loftus’ presentation was one of the highlights of the conference. Her important work shows that eyewitness testimony is highly unreliable, and what’s more important was her revelation in the Q&A session that some states are changing how they use this testimony to ensure jury’s are aware of potential inaccuracies in people’s memory.

Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist, was a funny, engaging, and fascinating presenter. She brought up the value of storytelling in retrieving memories, and brought up the method of loci technique. (I’d previously heard it referred to as a memory palace.)

I didn’t even know there was a conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was dead.

Massimo Polidoro presented, and was funny, entertaining, and informative. But I liked Paul Fidalgo’s response best:

In the panel covering the Paranormal Road Trip, I learned that lots of boring historical attractions may or may not use the lure of haunting to increase their popularity.

But the best part was probably learning about the mystery of Erdnase, an expert magician who has played the ultimate trick on us all by never being identified.

At some point during the day, I helped decorate for the Halloween party, and learned what a cool guy Jim Underdown is:

Heard Sara Mayhew for the first time, and learned that she drew all the graphics for her slides.

Next came dinner and the Halloween party. I can’t post all the Halloween costume pics, so I’ll choose a few highlights.


The morning started off with what was probably the most heavily tweeted (and possibly most controversial?) presentation—no surprise that the topic was the “gender similarities hypothesis.” To sum things up, Richard Lippa focused heavily on current data showing how men and women test differently in many ways. He made a point to define what qualified as a statistically significant “difference” early—and made a point to only point out those differences which qualified.

At one point, Lippa stopped to say he was “agnostic” about the reasons why there were observed gender differences, and didn’t touch too strongly on how much he felt the influence was purely biological as opposed to based on social influence. He did note four possibilities for study:

Carol Tavris followed with a quip, and then a wonderful examination of the history of our views on gender differences, and an examination of many of the caveats and explanations for why we observe the gender differences that we do.

Some gems:

This was fascinating, and really reveals to me something that is at the heart of skepticism—gender is such an obvious trait, that it is easy to attribute observed differences as due to our gender. But true skeptics are aware of our biases and look deeper to find the truth.

I just wish I had a hard copy of her talk to look over! It was very good.

Next up was Eugenie Scott again, who focused her presentation on science education advocacy.

It’s nice to have Scott as the director of NCSE. And to be reminded of just one reason why we need to pay attention to local elections:

Then came a discussion of science and public policy.

Ben Radford spoke on mass hysteria:

Steve Novella presented on the placebo effect:

Finally, Anthony Pratkanis did a fabulous job exploring a topic I was previously unfamiliar with—fraud.

After the talks and dinner, we headed downtown with a bunch of fun students. Had dinner at a local Nashville place, where they couldn’t recommend any typical Tennessean fare (go figure).


There was some positive coverage of the conference in the local paper.

David Morrison covered apocalyptic predictions, and how they affect people more negatively than you might expect:

Sharon Hill talked about the work she does covering Doubtful News.

And Scott Lillenfeld shared the importance of alternate accounts when debunking previously-held beliefs. He also shared Shepard’s tables, an optical illusion I hadn’t yet seen.

The closing panel was coffee and conversation with the CSI executive council.

For working in campus, this is a great idea worth thinking about:

Happy and/or Final Thoughts

One comment

  1. Stephanie Zvan says:

    Sarah, it was lovely to meet you. I hope you’ll be at WiS so we get a chance to talk more.

    One quick correction, the apocalypse session was David Morrison: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/2007/morrison.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *