Thursday, May 20, 2010
I attended the annual Atlanta Skepticamp this past weekend. I originally wrote this the day after it ended, but didn't get around to proofreading till today. It's really after the event that I knew what to think of it. When the time came to fill out a brief survey and give feedback, I was a little at a loss to think of anything useful to suggest except, "MOAR SWORDS!" (Explanation to come.) So I'm just trying to pull together a useful description for people thinking of attending in the future. Skepticamp is an event that is set up by any local group of skeptics interested in holding one. It's really just an opportunity for people living in particular locales to gather and present their thoughts and ideas regarding or stemming from skepticism.
First of all, I should point out that this is my first Skepticamp and really my first skeptical event. I wanted to attend the one being held last year, but I wasn't able to due to illness and other assorted life-stupidity. This year, I almost didn't make it again thanks to travel plans which I was able to postpone.
By the time I knew I was going at all, it was too late to set up a presentation, and I'm glad I wasn't given the opportunity, because frankly, I'm an idiot- I'd have tried to. I tend to bite off more than I can chew, and I'd have entertained visions of something way too complicated to pull together in the kind of time I would have actually had. Skepticamp registration is completely open, and anyone can participate, which is part of the appeal. This year's Skepticamp had a theme: Critical Thinking for Everyone.
I participated as best I could, since I signed on to be a volunteer. This mainly involved moving a couple of things around, hanging a Skepchick sign, and helping to clean up at the end- and I use the term "helping" loosely since I mainly stood around looking for something to do that would be useful without getting in the way. The organizers had a good handle on the event. Everything moved on schedule, the equipment (largely) functioned without a hitch and everyone clearly knew what they were doing. I had no idea what to expect, and was suprised, never having been to a skeptical event before (save an informal organizing brunch that turned out to be pleasant enough but entirely superfluous.)
That's my overall impression of the organization. The talks were all good, make no mistake, and I certainly didn't dislike any of them. Certainly there were elements in certain talks I disagreed with, which often had little to do with how interesting they were. Some I simply didn't understand or absorb well enough for my liking. In fact, that's my most serious criticism of the event: That there wasn't always a lot of time to necessarily absorb the presentation, or explain and discuss it. I understand that time is a precious commodity, but often that time was used by speakers more to convey information over implication.
In terms of content of the talks: I don't nitpick as much in real life as I do online, because I have poor memory for details. So the only things that I'll say bothered me were little things that individual presenters would say over and over again, and were somehow obtrusive. One of the most entertaining and vivid presentations was one given by John Clements who is the Director of the Association of Renaissance Martial Arts (The ARMA), where he discussed supernatural and problematic claims made in martial arts. This presenter instantly aroused everyone's interest, including mine, by bringing in swords. I've always loved martial arts, and I took up fencing briefly. My coach had encouraged me to read a few books on the subject, and so I was really interested in the talk from the get-go. He did overly-generalize when discussing Eastern martial arts to some extent. While he is right that the huge emphasis on unarmed combat over armed combat makes for a more dilute set of skills, he did seem to imply that their purpose was largely for combat, or that there was never any rigor.
One of the most popular far-eastern styles in the world come to my mind immediately, [modern] Karate is actually a fairly recent invention that was created for different reasons that would never place it on par with arts of war. Karate as originally concieved was in large part about self-development and discipline and not primarily a combat art. For a while in its early history, even sparring was frowned upon. It's essentially a sport with a distinct philosophy of practice. The expectation was that it would be used for self-defense no more than once in your lifetime, if at all. The more mystical aspects popularly attributed to Karate actually have a lot more to do with bad movies made about it, especially The Karate Kid. Eskrima is an example of an Eastern systematized method of armed combat that relies on angle of attack. I'm not intimately acquainted with every martial art on the planet, but I do know that people have been fighting wars for centuries, and I'm sure that it's an oversimplification to categorize all far-eastern methods of fighting as fitting in a particular mold. However, I do think that he does make some excellent points about how many popular far-eastern styles of fighting are presented to Americans.
The other talk that had a problematic element that stuck in my mind was one where the presenter argued that skeptics should not always be cheerleaders for scientific consensus. I largely agree, and it's certainly a topic worth it's own blog post. What irked me was how he kept mentioning global warming as an instance of scientific consensus we shouldn't necessarily accept. I'm not sure if I rolled my eyes, but I definitely wanted to. He also mentioned that we should paint the global warming "skeptic" with the brush of "holocaust denier" which is a common straw-man. "Denier" means, well- denier. Global warming deniers like George Will are not in any way being compared to people who deny the Holocaust. I'm a little more careful about how I use the term "denier" than some, but I certainly don't hold back because of some purported connection to the phrase, "Holocaust-denier." It simply does not mean that. Never has, never will, and frankly the persecution complex has gotten tiresome. I would also like to point out that cases of scientific consensus being wrong largely involve lack of knowledge about specific phenomena. It's impossible to predict where scientists will be wrong in these cases because it's impossible to know what we don't know we don't know. (You may have to read that a few times for it to make sense.
The presentations I enjoyed the most were the ones like that given by Dr. Ginger Campbell, who runs the Brain Science Podcast. It intrigued me if only because she talked about consciousness and the way neuroscience is in some respects catching up to and outstripping philosophy. I've been very interested in philosophy lately and it just seemed to intersect with my current interests very well. One presentation involved old-wives tales and was a great deal of fun. Another on Wikipedia given by Tim Farley (AKA Krelnik) told me a lot about Wikipedia I already knew, but I also picked up a number of very good ideas, and I found out that the Church of Scientology is banned from editing Wikipedia. The martial arts presentation was also very good, and one of the few that had any significant degree of audience participation. I'd even consider taking the classes his organization offers. I was really hoping he'd use the term "bullshido" and was disappointed when he didn't, but he did describe in accurate detail some unethical practices seen in martial arts demonstrations and learning environments. He really describes a whole wide world of irrationality and trickery that most people don't even think about.
I got the sense social media was supposed to be involved in this event in some vague way, as it is now expected to in almost every human endeavor. Frankly, I'm still waiting for someone to hook their toilet up to Twitter so we get their- um, dispatches. That said, I like social media and I now tweet more actively than I blog. I did a little tweeting on the first day but my phone was too cumbersome to really use effectively. I borrowed my brother's laptop and live-tweeted the shit out of the next day. I would actually think that having the ability to tweet questions would be an interesting development, albeit one that's a challenge to integrate. There was a live stream of the event, and I wanted to try seeing if there were any intriguing questions in the chatroom that I could ask during the Q&A's but I was unable to bring up the chat on the borrowed computer and I didn't have admin access to fix it. (Okay, so maybe I didn't borrow my brother's computer as much as "borrow" my brother's computer- I know, I'm a horrible, horrible person.) Overall, I didn't tweet as much as I would have because it seemed so few others were doing so as well. Either way, it wasn't a significant part of the whole affair, but something I thought I'd mention.
But, and my initial survey didn't reflect this, perhaps the best part of the event was getting to hang out with other skeptics. I took it for granted in the moment, but not a lot of my friends are skeptics and they don't always readily grok certain topics that I'd like to discuss. It's nice to have a conversation about certain ideas where you don't have to lay any ideological railroad tracks for the other person. It was a lot of fun, and everyone was friendly and had a good sense of humor. That's not to say we necessarily discussed skepticism all or even most of the time, but it was nice to have a sounding-board for certain ideas an opinions.
Overall, if you've never been to a Skepticamp, or skeptical event, I highly recommend it. If there isn't an event coming up in your area, the whole point of Skepticamp is that you can start one on your own, wherever you live, with whatever resources you can get your hands on. There are a number of organizations and entities, many of which you'll find in your local area, that are willing to sponsor a group of critical thinkers getting together. To my understanding, the Atlanta Skepticamp started as almost an idle suggestion. I do know that I've been inspired to get more involved with skepticism than I have been lately, and I'm looking forward to possibly giving my own talk at the next Skepticamp.