Reed Esau – SkeptiCamp: The Unconference

December 24, 2010

Reed Esau is a skeptical activist and one of the founders of SkeptiCamp. Also known as Open Events, these are informal, community-organized conference where speakers tackle issues regarding science and skepticism. SkeptiCamp encourages participation as well as observation.

A software architect by trade, Reed is author of the blog “An Illustrative Account”, and he writes for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s blog Swift. Reed is also a contributor to Skeptical Inquirer magazine for which he wrote the article “Reinventing the Skeptical Conference”.

In this interview with Karen Stollznow, Reed discusses the unique model of SkeptiCamp, which he calls an “unconference”. He explains how these differ to traditional conferences that feature “celebrity skeptics” over local and regional speakers. He speaks about how these Open Events aim to distribute knowledge within the community, and reach people beyond the community.

Must every skeptic contribute to skepticism? Does calling oneself a “skeptic” imply that one is active? Reed addresses these questions, and talks about what he calls the “Long Tail” of skepticism, and how skeptics can move from a more passive role in the movement to become participants. A self-confessed “Armchair Skeptic” for twenty years, Reed speaks about how he got out of the armchair to become involved in the community.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 24th, 2010. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. My guest this week is skeptical activist read. Esaw Read is one of the founders of Skip de Kamp, also known as Open Events. These are informal community organized conferences where speakers tackle issues regarding science and skepticism. A software architect by trade, Reid maintains the blog an illustrative account, and he writes for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s blog, Swift. Reed is also a contributor to Skeptical Inquirer magazine reads Welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Think of. Radio. One of the founders of skipped a camp. So what is a skip to camp? 

Skip camps are events that are organized by informal groups of skeptics. They’ll typically consist of a day of of talks and discussion on top that are where the content is drawn from the community itself on topics related to science and skepticism. And they focus on distributed knowledge within that community. And they build on a successful conference model from the tech community called Bar Camp. And that’s where the camp and skeptic camp comes from. 

And so you refer to skip the camp as an unconference. So what do you mean by that? And how is it different to the traditional conference model? 

Well, skip to camp as there are many different types of UN conferences and UN conferences. Pretty much all of all have in common that they depart from the traditional conference in at least one central way. But generally, the UN conferences are less speaker focused and more focused on the participants themselves. And they instant rather than rather than having formal lectures. They have the discussions and the interaction as opposed to those those one way lectures. 

So in a sense, you’re reinventing the skeptic conference? 

Yeah, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. 

We don’t test the contents of the camp to replace the existing traditional conference because those have so they have value in their own. 

It’s meant to complement the existing conference with with a participatory model. 

And you’ve also spoken about skipped a camp as being an experiment and not having an agenda. So it is a unique model. 

Yeah. We call them open events because we do. 

We’re not trying to impose any any particular definition of skepticism. We want the community to determine what that what that agenda is. And so we take that approach as it’s one less barrier for organizers to deal with. 

And these open events, as you call them, typically feature local and regional skeptics. Do you think that there’s too much focus placed on the so-called celebrity skeptics that you’ll find at traditional conferences like the Amazing Meeting and Dragon Con? 

Well, yes and no. The there’s a there’s a certain cost to having a sharp line between the stage and the audience, between celebrity and non celebrity. And it’s because it’s a barrier. It’s a barrier that sends a message that where most audience members are going to consider themselves passive consumers rather than rather than finding ways to engage. And the big cost of that is that we deprive ourselves of much of the knowledge, talent and experience in the community itself. 

Mm hmm. And you’ve said that skip to camp is about distributing knowledge within the community. And it seems to be about participation. 

But you skip to camp also about outreach to outreach is very tricky just because it is a different sort of thing than than in community knowledge sharing. And I would I would offer that for for skeptics, because we don’t have a big tradition of self education, the community that we have to learn to walk before we can run. We’re running as that outreach. And that’s why the main focus of skeptic camp, much like bar camp, is distributing knowledge within the community. And it’s if I guess if there’s any outreach message that skeptic camp can transmit in that that is that we were not an insular community, but rather we are open to contributions from the broad swath of the community itself. 

Mm hmm. Well, I have attended a skeptic camp myself firsthand. The one in Denver in June this year, 2010. And I can see that the camps do attract those who were in the periphery of the movement. 

That’s right. We’ve had a in our experience of organizing three events here in Colorado. 

We’ve. Seen a.. We’ve seen faces that we will only see at the open events and not typically at any of the other local skeptic events. 

And so how many of these events to be held now? 

In Colorado, we’ve had the three events, as I said, but that’s that’s only a small number of the events. There’ve been 23 in all in 13 cities, in three different countries. And over half of those 23 events happened just last year. 

Well, fantastic. So what have been some of the successes and some of the failures of these open events? 

Well, during this early adoption phase of this grand experiment, the the the big success are in those numbers that the 23 events that we’ve been able to take to get buy in from a lot of a lot of people, the skeptical community, who are very much interested in trying new things and tapping into that knowledge within their own communities. And and that’s and then we’re look like we’re we’ll be expanding to Australia next year where Australians are organizing their own open events. And I would expect additional growth, much like we’ve had this year. And that at buildout would count as big successes. So our failures go. There have been a few events that never really got off the ground for one reason or another. And one of the cities from last year did not repeat this year. And so those would be our failures. But they’re not terrible. Failures are expected growth pains. 

And you’ve spoken about people before who are in the the long tail of skepticism. So what is this long tail and what role do these people play? 

I see the skeptical community as having a continuum of of of involvement from the where a very few, like Michael Chalmers or yourself, contribute quite a bit and they work professionally as a skeptic. 

But the the vast majority of us, upwards of 99 percent, contribute very little. We might buy books, subscribe to magazines, listen to podcasts, attend a local meetup or or even just self identify as a skeptic. And we are that 99 percent is is the long tail of skepticism or what I call the longtail skepticism and the numbers maybe in the millions. And the reason why that’s why the whole longtail phenomenon is interesting is because the with the development of all sorts of new tools like those for social media, you can develop tools that allow the longtail to contribute at a much higher level than they traditionally have. Sort of like Wikipedia has, has grown through the accumulation of of millions of small edits by people. And thereby you can you can you can grow skepticism and increase its influence just by the contributions of a long tail. 

In addition to the the the head, the of the Michael Herbers, etc.. 

And you were talking about self identifying as a skeptic. So do you think that every skeptic must contribute to skepticism and is calling oneself a skeptic, imply that one is active somehow? 

I know I think that the I think most of us are are here, especially in the long tail. We’re just here to become better, better, more critical thinkers. And that’s that’s gonna be the that’s the extent of our our goal in skepticism. 

And so the I wouldn’t consider them to be necessarily in a and I wouldn’t wouldn’t consider them to be activists in any sense. But they may find a way to contribute in a small way and in founding skipped a camp. 

You’re clearly an activist for skepticism. But you’ve said to me, and I quote, that you’ve bristled at being called an activist. So why is that? 

It goes back to that the whole activist non activist dichotomy, which I which I think is should be replaced with an idea of having a continuum of involvement where where you have a few people contributing a lot, but a lot of people contributing a little. 

But were those little small contributions can can aggregate two to amount to quite a bit. 

And in our correspondents too, you’ve also said that activists are often positioned to support roles for the established organizations and that you’d rather support the cause instead of the organizations. 

I think I think both can happen to support the organizations. I think is important because they play they play a critical role in their own way in the community. And there are opportunities to contribute that just support skepticism in general. Such, for example, for those that might start a podcast or a blog. 

And you’ve often called yourself an armchair skeptic. And how cannot the skeptics get out of the armchair? Because I would not refer to he was an armchair skeptic. You’ve been very active in a lot of events that you’ve attended. So I recently attended a lecture with you. That was from by Chris Mooney, the paranormal guest. And you have been to a number of lectures. So you’re really getting out there and finding out what believers believe. So what advice do you have for skeptics to get out of that armchair and become more active? 

Yeah, I would I wouldn’t describe my. I’d been an armchair skeptic for 20 some years just before I became a little bit more active and in the past four years. And for skeptics to become more more active, to step out of the armchair, as it were, I would I would point them towards Daniel Loxton. What do I do next project? And in particular, the number 29, which deals with organizing an open event, a skeptic camp in one’s own community. 

And have you got any other advice for people to just become more active and more aware about skepticism and and what the other side believes in? 

Well, I’m attending attending all the big events, particularly the free or the low cost events that are offered by the either the UFO community, the paranormal community, or just anybody who’s identified as as either hostile or or skeptical of skepticism is a very, very illuminating experience. 

And then you can also write about it in in various forums and blogs afterwards so that other people can gain benefit from from the lecture you just attended. 

In this vein, you’ve written for the James Randi Educational Foundation Swifts. You’ve gone and attended events and written about them and shared your experiences. 

Yep. We are one of the notable ones was after after James, a few weeks after James Arthur Ray was involved in the sweat lodge incident. He was continuing to he was continuing his seminars in support of his his book and his organization. And he had come here to Denver. And I attended the seminar and wrote about in Swift in it. 

And it became a very popular article on the Randy Duckburg site. 

Maybe you can tell us a little bit about that, because he had a real hide in appearing in public again after that event. 

Yeah, it was it was interesting because I knew beforehand that some other local activists were going to raise their voice to James Ray to criticize them openly on what happened in in Sedona, Arizona, regarding the sweat lodge. And they had done so. And they and as expected, they had gotten themselves kicked out. But they were sitting on the other side of the room from where I work for. From where I was. And my role was simply to to be there and observe the full thing just so I could write about it. 

Do you think that’s attending an event like this, it is best to sit there and observe and to write about the events and disseminate that information to other skeptics, or do you think it is best to confront the individual? Because I know in a lot of situations myself, I’ve gone and heard such people talk. Sylvia Browne, as a case in point, ends. It is you do have that drive to wants to stand up and confront the person. So what do you think is the best way for skeptics to handle themselves when they’re in at an environment like that and they’re surrounded by hostile believers? 

Well, I think that there are generally two different paths. One is to go in and and not not interfere and just try to understand what’s going on and write about it from what you think is what’s important about the event and the people there and what’s happening to actually go in and be an activist and and do what the might be considered disrupting the event in some way. It’s a whole nother level of of an engagement. And I would say you’d have to be very careful in such a role because you you risk not if not only not only if they are getting arrested, but also you resist putting casting skeptics in a very bad light. 

If if you don’t do so very carefully. 

There was a an article, I think, did you read it by Steve Thom’s, the Canadian skeptic, in his blog Out and about Pernessa in the Canadian Way, where he was he attended a mind, body and spirit festival. One of those similar New Age events and was virtually thrown out by the staff and the security there. 

Yeah, from what I understand, at the previous year, they said they didn’t consider themselves to be disruptive at all. They were just asking questions and asking for evidence from some of the some of the buth at the Eppy event. And but this year, when they showed up, they they were identified by the by the event organizers and and ultimately thrown out. 

And so do you think that as skeptics gain more of a public face and attend more of these believer’s events, that we’re going to receive this kind of hostile reception? 

It could be that it’s hard to say. I know that for all the events that I’ve I’ve attended, even though my my face I have my face published to the local skeptics group, I’ve never I’ve never been in a situation where where I’ve been challenged or or thrown out of an event. 

You’re a very placid and peaceful, though. Read. 

That’s really. That’s right. 

But the I can I can very much conceive of situations in which in which it eh eh. A more active skeptic group will be will be watched more carefully by by by the by the believer groups who might not want their participation at all. 

And just going back to the James Arthur Ray talk for a moment. How did he handle the bad media surrounding the that particular event? 

As I recall and it’s it’s been a while since it’s been more than a year. But as I recall, he waited for the protesters to be escorted out of the out of the ballroom. And then he went on to read what what was a non apology apology that he had published as a press release to his website earlier that day about the sweat lodge incident. And then and once that was once that was complete, he went on with his seminar. 

So I’m I’m guessing that his audience was sympathetic to him. 

Yes. As the protesters were escorted out, the there were many people in the audience clapping and in and taunting the protesters. 

I guess it’s like with Peter Pope of these people, even when they’re exposed, they don’t lose their cool followers. 

I would imagine that. Yeah. 

That they feel that they’ll always have their their strong supporters who will love them no matter what. 

So your reads your infamous for your online debates on Twitter. So I’ve been following those for a number of years now. Some of these have been about issues like skepticism and civility and questioning the parameters of skepticism. So to me, it’s doubtful that these issues can be resolved online. So what are some of the limitations of these online discussions? 

Well, one of the I think one of the brands with any online community or any community that has it has an online presence, is that there’s a certain level of nastiness that arises because you don’t have the social or the social limits that you do of of in-person discussions and interaction. 

And so the fight for online discussions, it’s not unusual to see people saying things and behaving in ways that they would not do if they were in the same room together. And that we made, I think, some of the recent nastiness that we’ve seen in skepticism online may be a result of that. 

And so the question is, is there is there a way to deal with it in a in a constructive way? And that’s where that’s where open. Where our open events that promote discussion and interaction across the entire community might be of benefit. But that’s that’s it’s still early yet to say whether or not there it’s having any effect. 

Well, I would still say that Twitter and Facebook are useful forums to tackle a lot of these issues. What kind of success do you think that you’ve had so far? 

I see. Well, I’ve I’ve been on the periphery of a number of these debates. Not not at the center of them as far as if it’s had any positive effect. That’s a good question. I think they’re. On one hand, there are people that just won’t see their points in any any case, but simply by them making the points that it just get a certain number of people thinking, thinking about the issues that they might not otherwise do. 

I think that’s a very important thing to really raise awareness about these questions. So whether they’re resolved or not, but to get them out into the open and get people thinking about them and talking about them. 

That’s right. And I think that’s it. That has to be the just the minimal goal for. 

Well, when you’re when you’re talking about what the the scope, the scope of skepticism, it’s tone or what tone we should use and just how we should how we should. How would you look at skepticism going forward. 

And I think in some ways it’s good to nuts these questions out online rather than to take up magazine space her, she’s like that. 

I would imagine that if you’d want to plot the discussion happening across every form of media that you have, just so that the so that that is not missed. 

Yes. And I think it’s a good way for her people to be involved en masse as well. Marisa, it’s an article. It’s just one person and their opinions as opposed to an open debate. And so in a post on your blog, which is an illustrative accounts, you’ve said of skeptics that, quote, The crowd will tend to gravitate towards its own focus and set its own path for the future of skepticism. So in your opinion, what do you think is the future of skepticism? 

Well, that’s a big question. The that particular post I wrote, I believe I wrote in in a as a as if at least in part, a tongue in cheek cheek response to somebody else who was speculated in the future. Skepticism. But in a very narrow way. And I was trying to open open people’s minds to the idea that that the that the futures, the futures skepticism is is changed forever by the by the parole operation of these all these new tools, the tools that they just started with, the blogs and and the podcasts, but now extend to wikis and and in many other many other things. But as to the future of skepticism, I think that it’s I would focus on the one trend of of the of the of the future direction. Decades ago, when when contemporary skepticism was was first established, it was that the agenda was with a top down, one that was mostly academic in nature. And then with the with the emergence of the regional groups and eventually the blogs and podcasts. There are some diversification of the agenda going on where where skepticism to start to branch out in other directions. And now with the with with that proliferation of all the all the different tools, including the social media ones, blogs, podcasts, etc., it’s it’s it’s a trend that we’re going to see continue going into the future as more and more people get access and are able to contribute in some way. And so it’s it’s more of a skeptical ecosystem rather than a rather than a Top-Down skepticism. I think that we’re going to see. 

And do you have any forecasts about the popularity of skepticism? 

That’s that’s that’s an interest. That’s a very interesting question, because I’ve thought about it in terms of that long tail. It’s two, to grow skepticism and increase its influence very likely requires many different things to happen at once. You need more you need more influence from the from the from the head of skepticism. That is, those are the Jain’s rantes of Michael Shermer, etc.. 

And as well, you need more people involved. 

Just very broadly. And so as to develop a range of opportunities for people to contribute and people have the interest to contribute. You do tend you’ll tend to increase that influence the skepticism, as well as attract more people to the to the cause. 

And that’s it. 

And I think a lot of that could be explored in terms of the the the long tail dynamics, which is just not as a skeptic thing that I came up with, but is in fact another another thing borrowed from the tech community where they were they were companies will be, we’ll think in terms of long-tailed dynamics, in terms of the demographics of their customer base or in terms of their product line and how they how they can expand it now, what it what it means to their business model and how they can grow their business. 

And, of course, you’re a software architect by trade, so you’re bringing a lot of your background, knowledge and experience to skepticism. There’s a certain interdependence there, isn’t there? 

Yeah, the obviously the because I’m in the tech industry. I’ve I tend to see a lot of things from the tech and from the techs in these industries perspective. For example, back when I first back it back in 2007, I attended Tam Tam five, which was my first skeptic conference, big skeptic conference. 

And I, I, I went there, I enjoyed I got quite a bit from the experience, but one thing I came away realizing was that the it was, it was a conference in the traditional. 

It isn’t the traditional. Style with lectures, with lectures and a fairly passive audience. And I asked the question, well, how would skepticism be different if if if we saw some of the culture of the tech industry being applied? And that was the genesis of the of this get the cap open events that we that we tried later that that year in in Denver here. 

Okay, so that was your inspiration for Skip to camp? 

That’s right. The tech in the tech community is is interesting. One of the reasons why we call Skype a cabin experiment is it’s as I said, a skeptic camp is built on a conference model called bar cam from the tech community. And the tech community is a very different culture than skepticism. Where, where, where. Skeptics, by and large, are are fairly passive as far as the larger community is concerned. In the tech community, you have you have both a professional and amateur culture that are that are intensely active in writing software or or engaged in in in the industry at a very high level. And so it’s a it’ll be one of the very interesting questions going forward to see if a little bit of that culture rubs off and skepticism as we get the open events up and rolling. 

Well, I see a lot of overlapping between the tech industry, I.T. industry and the skeptical movement. Certainly a lot of people are involved in both industries. 

That’s an interesting observation. And I would I would wonder if that’s because of the skepticism has become has such a strong online presence and so many people in the tech industry are involved online. That’s just naturally that where we’re able to draw from so many people who are involved in tech. 

So just in closing, what is your skeptical sound bite from point of inquiry listeners? 

My skeptical sound bite would be the original catchphrase of skeptic camp, and that is be the candle in the dark. 

And that’s Carl Sagan reference it also an adaption of the Carl Sagan reference. 

It’s Carl Sagan’s subtitle Demon Did World was Science as a Candle in the Dark. And B, The Candle in the Dark is is to send the message that we want people to be more involved and think of themselves as as being part of skepticism by finding some way to contribute. That fits into their life. 

Very nice. We’ll read. Thank you so much for joining me. It was a pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. More information about skeptic camp can be found at Scepter Camp dot org and reads blog and illustrative accounts can be found at E.S. a w dot org to participate in the online conversation about the show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Atomize Jack in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. 

Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. Your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow