Friday, November 1, 2013

CFI Summit in Review

(Photo by Jeff Taylor-Kantz)

Fresh back from the CFI Summit.  I will share some of my observations as well as some of my favorite photos.  This is my first CFI event of this type, I've attended other functions by CFI in the past including the Student Leadership Conference in August 2013 as well as the Skeptic's Toolbox (4 times) held in Eugene, OR every August.

Let me first mention that this blog will say very little about the lectures, I attended very few full lectures.  My purpose for this conference was to spend as much time networking and recruiting as possible. The staff set me up with a table with power, and the hotel provided me with wifi. This allowed me to be set up right next to the food/drinks area and lure people over to sit and work with me. I was able to pull up Wikipedia pages and train as well as explain exactly what WoT is, how to download it and how to use it. This was a blast, and several people took the time to spend time with me getting all kinds of questions answered as well as real-life training.

So first off, why Tacoma, WA?

View from plane on way to Tacoma, WA

As it was explained to me, CFI had already selected the Pacific Northwest as the region for the next conference because of the demographics associated to secular thinking. Center for Inquiry is the “mother” organization, and Center for Skeptical Inquiry CSI (further known in this blog as the skeptics) and the Humanist group are under the umbrella of CFI. This is the first time that a conference was organized to include the two organizations. To be clearer, the skeptic group focuses more on the scientific aspects (things that can be tested) of CFI. The Humanist group on religion, legalization and secular values (social issues). There were two 3-hour panels that split off into opposite rooms in which the attendees where forced to choose which to attend. (on Thursday that was an extra price from the normal conference admission)

Brian Engler from GSoW was a MAJOR help.  He was everywhere taking images for the GSoW project,
I was able to relax and concentrate on finding editors and working one-on-one with them.

This conference's theme questioned if CFI should combine their conferences in the future to save money, and draw bigger crowds. After all, attendees for the most part are interested in the same themes and have the same world view, we also usually use the scientific method as our guide. This question was hotly debated all the days I was there, sometimes one-on-one with people at lunch or during a formal lecture.

What the skeptics told me at the beginning - Overwhelmingly the discussion turned to people saying that the Humanists (most of the time called Atheists) were not good skeptics, it was felt that they were more interested in “bashing religion” than combating medical quacks and doing research/investigations. There was some “hurt” that the skeptics felt they were not treated equally to the humanists because the lectures and speakers were slanted towards the humanist agenda. The general opinions I heard were that we should stay separate if we are not going to be treated equally, but on the other hand maybe we should combine in order to “teach these humanists to be better skeptics” so opposite opinions.

What I generally heard from the Humanist side (remember I am very social, and as I was not attending the lectures I was in a position to listen, and people were very open to ask me questions and give me their opinions) Lots of people referred to the conference as a “Atheist conference” I heard this from young and old, but mostly from first time attendees. These attendees were extremely knowledgeable about religion, they quoted Bible verses as well as knew a lot of history and were really well-versed in the subjects. In the entire time I was at the conference I never once heard someone from the humanist side say anything that I would consider pro-pseudoscience.  But the opinion from the skeptics was that the humanists were not interested in what the skeptics had to talk about,  personally I think that was not true.

I also asked people if they had attended other conferences in the past, to a lot of people, this was their first-ever event of this kind and were motivated to attend more in the future. They were really excited that this was happening in their “backyard”, but had such a great time they might be lured to events in farther locations.

The best part of attending conferences is sitting down with old friends and total strangers.
Conversations are always interesting. 

Loved meeting Ian Harris - His gig was really great, he has done his research when it comes to skepticism.
 Us bald people have to stick together after-all

Personally my thoughts taking all the feedback into consideration were that skeptics were very interested in most of the lectures except when the lecturer seemed "angry".  When the lectures dealt with humanism, science, investigation and legalization they were very enjoyed. Even when the topics were anti-religion they were enjoyed, it seems that it was any appearance of “ranting” was the problem. People who came for more of the atheist agenda seemed to love the talks concerning science, investigation and so on.  So for the most part, I heard from all sides that they enjoyed lectures that they might not have attended been exposed to.

My opinion is that I'm sure that the biggest donors are from the Humanist side of the organization, if that is true then of course CFI is going to probably lean more towards conferences that focus on that agenda. They need butts in seats after-all, and I can't say I blame them.

Overwhelmingly though with that said, everyone seemed to be interested in both “sides” once they heard the presentation. There was a lot of common ground, but it was not discovered unless they were “forced” to watch the lecture. When I say forced I mean that there was not a competing lecture running at the same time.     

Susan as Medusa

I had a different agenda, I want to appeal to all "sides".  I want all people to hear the message of crowd sourced activism.  My message is fitting to everyone at this conference, activism is activism whether it is claims of the paranormal or convincing the public that atheists aren't baby-eaters.  Editing Wikipedia is still the best way to spread our message, and GSoW has written (or rewritten badly written) pages for people on many sides of the community.  My Skeptic Action project is clearly only aimed at claims of the paranormal, we do not venture into pages that are religious only in nature.  But exorcisms and creationism are free game. 

So I decided that because I would be attending the conference bald, I would take full advantage of it.  Everyday was Halloween for me.  Working in the retail world this is a busy time for me, I normally tell myself I'm too busy to dress up, every year I say "next year".  Well having cancer has really made me stop and re-assess my life.  Next year is never here, so I decided that this year was going to be different and go all out on Halloween.  I knew there would be a contest, but decided not to wait for that night.  I was apprehensive about my reception.  As I speaker I thought maybe I should reflect a more professional attitude, at least for my personal lecture.  That didn't end up happening.

I wanted to attract people over to my table to talk to me.  I'm friendly, but really don't want to approach people unless they are comfortable being approached.   The general attendees and most people loved the outfits.  I changed clothes/hats half-way during the day, and people came over all day to thank me for wearing the outfits and tell me they were curious what I would wear next.  It was a lot of fun, got my photo taken a lot, and generally won over people to come sit with me, ask me questions and tell me what they thought of the conference.

Ron Lindsay welcomes us to conference on Thursday night

The first workshops were on Thursday and required a special ticket, I attended the skeptic one with Ray Hyman, Harriett Hall and Loren Pankratz.  It truly was a mini-Toolbox (held in Eugene, OR every August) the three speakers each took 20 minutes talking about investigation.  Then Hyman told the audience to break into groups of 3 and come up with a list of things that every skeptic should have in their "Toolbox".  The audience was a bit confused that they were asked to actually mingle with strangers and answer such a open-ended question.  But Ray knows what he is doing, the attendees moved their chairs around and formed groups and assigned a leader that had to report back in front of the entire group what their findings were.  As usual (I've been to a few Toolboxes) the audience rose to the occasion and came up with some great ideas.  This activity on the first day was a wonderful way for people to break the ice with each other.  After-all they said they came to hear the lectures, but really they came to interact with like-minded people.  There was a lot of laughter and socializing through-out this and afterwards.  We need more of this at the beginning of our conferences in the future.  

Harriet Hall in the Skeptic's Toolbox workshop

The amazing Ray Hyman

Jim Underdown was a fantastic Master of Ceremonies

The majority of the time we met in the bigger conference room where the audience was addressed by panels and lecturers.  It would have been nice to have a second large screen for the presentations (this is what I heard from people who did not get seats close enough to see the screen well).  As you can see from the images, in this main room everyone had a large table to sit at, this was really awesome as I saw a lot of people taking notes, and again it made it easier to socialize with people at your table.  So a major PLUS that probably no one noticed (but would have if the tables were missing).  

The main room where most lectures were held. Notice the tables

Wesley Da'Nomad from the Atheist Nomads Podcast who have 
interviewed me about GSoW.
Photo-bomb by Ben Radford.
Lectures video-tapped so I felt confidence that I could miss them and watch them when they come out.

Tim Binga and Tom Flynn turned to stone when I approached dressed as Medusa

The "Skeptical Investigation and Activism" breakout audience.  They are lining up to ask us questions.

When I got up last to do my 20 minutes I took the fortune from the cookies we had had at lunch and read it aloud, I said "My fortune says that I should beware of men with 3 letters in their name.  So Ken, Joe, Jim and Ben keep your eye out for me" Yep, the panel consisted of Joe Nickell, Ben Radford, Jim Underdown and me - moderated by Ken Frazier.  

Several people had tables set up to promote their groups

Great food every day.

Banquet Reception

Bill Nye giving it his all to inspire

This is Bill taking a photo of the standing ovation he received after his lecture.

This man drove over 20 hours to be here.  He (and others) thanked Bill for the reason why they have a love of science.  It was very moving and tear-jerking all the love aimed at Bill Nye that night.

Another of my costumes.  This is Suzy Beyerstein whom joined the GSoW team.  Great spending quality time with her, I've met her at the Skeptic's Toolboxes before, but didn't get to spend a lot of time with her like I did this week end.
(photo by Jim Underdown)

Jeff  and Jon (brothers) as well as Suzi joined GSoW.
Ray Hyman is just hanging out looking at crazy Susan.
(photo by Jim Underdown)

Another new GSoW recruit - I got to spend really quality time with him sitting beside me also.
 This kind of one-on-one makes it possible to train and show them real pages in real time.
 We were able to make edits and look over the forum,
when I was all done, he was totally sold on the project and ready to start training.
(photo by Jim Underdown)

Leonard Tramiel looking all spiffy. No snakes on his head.

Susan and Ian Harris

Bald and Proud! Ian Harris, Susan Gerbic and Ben Radford

Point of Inquiry finally back to recording with a whole new crew.  This was the first interview. 

Dinner with some of my Skeptic Toolbox friends.  The food was good, but the noise level was too much for great conversation.  We are such nerds that one of us even had a way to measure the noise from their phone app.  This is Jeanine DeNorma, Richard Wackrow and Herb Masters.  Richard gave me a copy of his book "Who's Winning the War on Terror" which I planned to read while waiting for the plane, but I was with Leonard and we talked the whole time. 

(Photo of head painting by Herb Masters)

My Halloween contest outfit was kept a big surprise. People were expecting me to wear some kind of fancy outfit and hat (think skeptical Lady GaGa) but I went totally in black and brought eyeliner and a list of phrenology terms so I could become a phrenology dummy for the contest.  Jeanine and Suzi were very generous with their time and skill to make this happen.  One of the funnest parts of the whole Summit was this hour we took to put the words on my head.  They started off really serious, looking at diagrams that we found on-line.  They were being careful for the first 20 minutes, then after awhile could not stop laughing. We went with traditional sayings, and then got really silly with things like... "42", "Press Here", "666", "this space for rent", "post no bills" and so on.  I have no idea how they managed to get so much writing on my head, I kept thinking they were all done, but Suzi and Jeanine kept saying "what do we want to put in this spot, and what about this one?"

I get my first look at what they have done to me.  Wow!

Jeff is a homeopathic doctor, he said it took him a whole week to earn his degree
A black hole (from the neck up she tells us) 
Harriet is a quack, she had all kinds of toys
Jon is a knight that says "Neh!"

Great fun with these boys
The Heathen's band was a blast, everyone kept telling me afterwards that the bass
 and guitar players were great to talk to, sadly I didn't get a chance to talk to them.   
This Father and Daughter team were Mormons from the "Book of Mormon" 
Home made outfit, Marvin the Martian won first prize.
He told me that he got the ray-gun from ACME 
Love this photo - Joe says "Susan I always said someone needed to examine your head"
Jeff lends a hand with Ray's part of the Houdini Seance.
Jim Underdown is super talented, here he appears as The Pope.
The Heathens were a lot of fun, wish they could have played longer.
Other great costumes, lots of dancing
Joshua is a PastaFarian.
More of The Heathens
This is Richard Dawkins - He even did a great job on the accent.
Multi-talented Jim Underdown and friend 
Joe Nickell ends the Houdini seance, Harry was a no-show again this year.
Ray Hyman in a quiet moment at our hotel 
Out for a walk to the Glass Museum.  Mike, Herb Masters and John DeNorma
The glass bridge a couple blocks from the hotel
See I did bring normal clothes
The glass bridge a couple blocks from the hotel
The glass bridge a couple blocks from the hotel
The glass bridge a couple blocks from the hotel
The glass bridge a couple blocks from the hotel
This is the lecture hall as well as where the glass artists have their kilns
At the glass museum
My favorite piece from the entire museum. This piece is from Tom Moore from Australia
This hotel was amazing (Hotel Murano) 
Loved these lamps
One of many areas to hang out at the hotel
There was glass art everywhere.
Fantastic chandelier
This is the view of the front desk.
Leonard and Joshua - bearded men flaunting off all their hair to us bald people.
Daughter and Father, they go to a lot of science events, this was their first CFI event.
Last day here, Mount Rainier is above Brian Engler's head but I didn't have the exposure correct.
Herb Masters is getting very friendly with my head.  Note the bruising on my fingers from the chemo. Interesting! 
Another really amazing moment that I have no photos from, was the drive to the airport in a van shuttle.  Joe Nickell, Richard, Leonard and I got in the van with 3 strangers and the driver.  They mixed us up depending on what order we would be getting out.  So we were talking across several rows in the van.  We talked about the conference and mentioned Tyson several times.  One woman finally said "Are you talking about Neil deGrauss Tyson?" To which we said, "yes, we know him" She was stunned.  Then we were talking about some of Joe's investigations, he said he interviewed a woman who reported that monsters lived in the water near her home, she knew this because of the small black creatures she sees in the lake, they make a slapping sound on the water, apparently exactly like raccoons. She thought that they had learned to imitate the raccoon in order to hide.  The stranger next to me bust up laughing, and he started telling us bigfoot stories.

Then we talked about UFO's and other investigations, then right next to us on the freeway was a city bus that CFI had paid for with Bill Nye's face and advertisement for the Summit.  Leonard noticed it first and man were the people on the van impressed.  We said "this is the conference we just finished attending" The woman asked if she could start hanging out with us, so I gave her my card.  

When we got to the airport to drop everyone off, that same woman said she was a little concerned when we first got on the van as she thought we might be kooks.  She was so excited to hear our conversation.  The driver said that he really enjoyed us and "way better than the rug people I picked up first".  The other two people told us they had a great time also.  It was a blast to meet average people who are excited about these kind of skeptic things we are so interested in.  I felt it just showed that we are making a difference.  It was a blast!

So to sum up the entire conference - I had a blast also.  Everyone I talked to and all the CFI staff were wonderful. The conversations were great, and people loved my outfits and hats.  I was able to recruit and train 5 people.  That's a lot, so very exciting.  I got a bunch of people who joined Skeptic Action (maybe at least 15)  Trained several people how to use a QR code and that made them very happy.  

I think I'm going to have to fall into the camp of blending conferences in the future.  But only if skepticism is given equal time.  I really don't like us splitting off into different rooms so that people have to choose.  I understand that it is one way to get more speakers/workshops.  But I think we really need to hear each other's message, its how we are going to learn to grow and work together.  I think we discovered by the end of the conference that we have more in common than we thought.  Sure we focus on different areas of CFI's big umbrella but we can come together and learn a lot from each other's approaches. 

At the final Q&A I stood up and made a statement to the panel of CFI staff.  I said that I understand that these conferences lose money overall.  But it is important to remember that they not focus on the monetary only.   There is no price tag they can put on the value of meeting people face to face, bonding with them over a drink or dinner, and learning from each other.  As I said, I go to these things to network and gain editors.  Everyone wanted to meet each other and form friendships.  People like Harriet Hall and myself came from the Skeptic's Toolbox (CFI event) and Debbie Goddard (who has the patience of Job) gave a lecture this summer that listed all the people that have come from CFI leadership training that have gone on to become the workhorses of the movement.  We have to keep our focus on training up new leaders and organizers.

One more thing, we need a lot more activism.  Overwhelmingly at the end of each lecture someone asked "what can we do?" Of course donating money to the mission of CFI is always a great idea, but people still wanted to know what more they can do.  My projects Skeptic Action and GSoW are terrific ways to change the Internet as well as educating millions.  One idea that was discussed a lot was making sure you vote whenever there is a local election, especially school boards.  We talked about getting libraries subscriptions and also just leaving older magazines in any place that has a waiting room.

So more activism, less "angry/ranting" lectures.  A big YES on having tables in the lecture area and probably we need to keep these conferences together (though I still could be convinced otherwise).

BTW here is the album with all the CFI Summit photos in one place

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