CSICon – The Conference Dedicated To Scientific Inquiry And Critical Thinking

October 05, 2011

Later this month—on Halloween weekend—the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is holding a conference: CSICon. It’s the latest in a line of CSI skeptics’ conferences going back to what might be the first skeptics’ conference ever held, a CSICOP (CSI) conference back in 1983.

This episode of Point of Inquiry revolves around CSICon. It features interviews with Barry Karr, Jim Underdown, and Debbie Goddard.

Barry Karr is the Executive Director of CSI and Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He was at that first conference in 1983 and he’s the driving force behind upcoming CSICon. Barry talks about how trends in skepticism have changed throughout the years, what skeptics talked (and worried) about then, what they focus on now, and where they should go from here.

Jim Underdown is Executive Director of CFI LA, Chair and Founder of the Independent Investigations Group (IIG), and lead singer and songwriter for The Heathens, an “all-star, all-atheist, all-skeptic, band from Los Angeles.” Jim explains how the band got started, what their music is all about, and where we can hear them play. He also talks about the IIG, their work, and what they’re planning to do at CSICon.

Debbie Goddard is Coordinator of the CFI On Campus program and Director of African Americans for Humanism—and more importantly she does the date stamp at the beginning of Point of Inquiry episodes. Debbie is speaking on a panel at CSICon called “Grassroots Outreach and Activism”. She talks about skeptical outreach and activism—and why it’s important, diversity in the skeptical movement, and how you can get involved.

Visit csiconference.org to learn more.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m Adam Isaac, the producer of the show Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, the think tank Advancing Science, Reason and Secular Values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

So this episode of the show is going to be a little different than normal and it’s all going to revolve around a central theme. And that theme is an upcoming conference, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Center for Inquiry are holding. It’s called Saigon. It’s this October following weekend. Twenty seven through the 30th. That’s in New Orleans. 

Part of the point of the show is and I’m actually serious here to let you know that Psychon is going to be really awesome. So first, it’s a top notch skeptic’s conference, the speaker list is as impressive as you would expect from a CSI conference, people like Bill Nye, Phil Plait, Barbara Forest, Lawrence Krauss, Harriet Hall, Steve Novella, William B. Davis. That’s right. The Cigaret Smoking Man is gonna be their regular host, Chris Mooney and Karen Stollznow and a lot more. So there’s all that, which basically already makes the trip completely worthwhile. But here’s what I’m also really excited about. There’s a bunch more stuff going on besides all that. So, for example, the opening reception sitting quietly, kind of awkwardly in a room, listening to someone talk about, you know, music by the heathens in a cash bar. Who are the heathens? We’ll hear from Jim Underdown lead singer and songwriter shortly who will answer that question. Saturday night starts off slowly enough with the parade, which leads the group to Tipitina’s, an historic jazz venue where the costume contest kicks off while listening to local funk music, eating food. And if you’re so inclined, drinking. Sunday night, there’s a Whodini sounds hosted by Joe Nickell and featuring James Randi, Ray Hyman, Massimo Impeller, Doro and D.J. Growthy, who all happen to be magicians. So enough plugging. It’s going gonna be really great. You should go. I hope to see their. 

An interesting thing about this conference is that it’s the most recent in a line of CSI skeptic’s conferences, going back to as far as I know, the first skeptic’s conference ever held. It was 1983 at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Now, CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which was originally the committee to scientifically investigate claims of the paranormal and other phenomena, had sprung into existence only a few years prior in 1976. This was their first big conference. Science, skepticism and the paranormal very. Carr, who is the executive director of CSI, has been doing this work for over 30 years. He was at that conference in 1983 and he’s the driving force behind Psychon. So I talked to Barry about this, about what we can learn from looking back at skeptic’s conferences where we are today and where we’re going from here. 

Very Carr, welcome to Point of inquiry. It’s good to be here. So, Barry, when we’re thinking about things that skeptics think about or, you know, what they worry about. One of the big shifts, Ben, since that first conference in 1983. 

Why look back at that program and, you know, some of the topics that we talked about back then. One of the big ones at the time was was literally cattle mutilations. Now, you don’t really don’t hear about that at all. But I mean, it was so, you know, topical back then. 

I mean, the FBI even had somebody do a report on it, whether or not, you know, something mysterious by that meaning, you know, UFOs, black helicopters or some sort of satanic groups were were literally going into fields and mutilating cows for whatever purpose they might have had. But that that was something that’s very topical again. People were claiming they saw UFOs and they see a UFO the next day they’d be cattle mutilated in the fields. Well, you don’t hear about that anymore. So that’s something that’s kind of gone away. Other topics, I think that, you know, that were very important back then were things like, you know, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, spontaneous human combustion. And again, for the most part, you don’t really hear about those things anymore. They’ve kind of gone by the wayside every once in a while. It’s true. Just like recently. Aye, aye, aye. Medical examiner in Ireland attributed a man’s death to a spontaneous combustion. And that was just in the last week. But, you know, really, it’s something you don’t really hear about anymore. And it’s not anything that people I generally I don’t think people believe in that sort of thing anymore. And, you know, Loch Ness Monster, you know, back 30 years ago, people would say, well, what would we do this close to finding something with this close to doing it? Well, it’s been 30 years and you haven’t found anything. We at the same state. So I think, you know, I think belief in those things have. Has tended to go down. I would say the same thing about what is said, the same thing about Bigfoot, except for this year, there’s a whole television show about people tracking Bigfoot. So, you know, who knows? We have an expression that some of these things are like the unsinkable rubber duck. You know, you have it in the bathtub. You put it under water. It pops right back up. So some things never go away. But I think, you know, generally belief in some of them is declining. 

What impact do you think that the skeptical community has had on those topics? Do you think that it’s just sort of cultural interest shifting back and forth, or do you think that skeptics have had a real impact on the popularity of these things? 

I do. I mean, we used to say back you know, back in, like the. 80S, you know, UFO, as we thought were dead. I mean, people who just UFO sightings, people didn’t know. 

UFOs was dead, you know, as as, you know, whatever, as visitors from outer space coming here. But then back in the late 80s, you know, phenomena, Roseworthy, alien abductions, we didn’t really know. That was kind of there. You know, historically there’s kind of there that Travis Walton’s it was you know, it was there, but. But then in the 80s, with Budd Hopkins, Whitley, Stryver, John Mack, those things that kind of blew up again and that’s all you heard about was alien abductions. And so we kind of it’s kind of like what is a cyclical pattern where you didn’t hear about it? That’s all people talked about. And now I think it’s kind of like it’s gone into another lull. Nobody can say I shouldn’t say I should start saying things like nobody but, you know, belief in alien abductions. You don’t hear about it anymore. It’s just gone away. So, you know, it’s mostly for the most part, it’s gone away. So, again, who knows? Maybe it’ll come up again. I don’t know. But some things do go in cycles. 

Yeah. And that kind of leads into something that’s been talked about a lot lately within the skeptic community. And that’s the skeptical canon. What should we be talking about as skeptics? What should we be focusing our efforts on today? 

Well, again, so I think some of the most important topics that skeptics should look at today are alternative medicines that has such a potential to affect people’s health. I know people looking at things that are in effect, like Third World countries, for instance, and we have an effort. We have allies that we work with in Africa and they do things like they look like anti witchcraft campaigns here in the States. United States, it doesn’t you know, witchcraft, it doesn’t mean much sorcery. But in places like Africa, people are dying. I mean, people are dying for you know, they say like albinos, people whose mutilated bios take body parts. Do they work because it works in some sort of potion or some sort of medicine that they that they use. So we have we have contacts in Africa that we work with. We started an anti witchcraft campaign in Africa. Those kind of things are important. They affect people’s lives, you know, on a daily basis. 

What do you think about the sort of core skeptical topics that have been talked about historically? Do you think that it’s as important now to talk about those things like, you know, UFOs, Bigfoot, that sort of thing? Do you think that it’s important to still address them or should we be shifting out of that and into what you just talked about? 

I think it’s I think there’s room for both. I mean, I think there’s room for both. You know, again, like I said before, they had like a historical record of a place where there is this body of knowledge. 

These things haven’t looked at repeatedly for years. And, you know, again, I mentioned before, people say we’ll just give it a few years and we’ll have evidence of lot as well. People even say that about UFOs, too. They’ve been saying just, you know, how it’s gonna happen any time, any time something big is going to happen. And, you know, nothing’s happened. 

But it’s nice to have that historical record which we have in the pages of the skeptical inquiry. People can look at us, say, look, people are talking about this back in 76 to talk about it today. Here’s the evidence for all these claims. And, you know, I mean, it’s interesting. I mean, I see TV shows now that we’ll be talking about cases that have been looked at in the Skeptical Inquirer 10, 15 years ago, and they bring them up as if there’s something new. And we’ll look if people ask us now, we put out there on the Web. People can look and say, no, look, here’s what the skeptics say about this. It’s there. It’s so it’s good to have this resource. Yeah. And again, there are definitely important topics new coming up all the time that we have to look at. And there’s no there’s no question, I think we should be doing that. But I don’t think we can totally say, well, we’re through we wash our hands of Bigfoot again. I personally don’t think there’s much likelihood and that we’re going to find a big four tramping around in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. I just don’t think it’s going to happen. But as I mentioned, there’s television shows out there devoted to this right now. There’s television shows, dozens of them, it seems, looking at, you know, haunted houses throughout United States. I think, you know, by this time next year, I think every House United States must have been visited at least once by a ghost hunter because they’re just always on TV. Somebody is doing it somewhere. And so it’s good to have, you know, what skeptical Squyres says about these things and what what we’re talking about, what you know, what’s the evidence? What is the evidence? Let’s look at the evidence. And, you know, it’s it’s lacking. Yeah. 

And I mean, it does seem probable that skeptics have had some kind of influence on the way the general public looks at these things. But like you said, we still have this constant supply of new nonsense being peddled to the public. Do you think that there is overall progress being made? 

I think we make progress on some things, for example. I think one of the bill’s biggest successes that I think we’ve played a role in is Skeptical Inquirer. Two things. One, I think is like the false memory argument back. You know, a number of years ago, people were, you know. 

Claiming that, no, perhaps they go to a psychoanalyst and they’d be, you know, basically having memories implanted of their abused kids, were abused by parents or other teachers would over and they’d be colonies under hypnosis or whatever therapies and skeptical inquiry was one of the first places with Elizabeth Loftus to kind of look at memory and how we know how our memories are fallible and how hypnosis is found. One that a lot of that came up also with the alien abduction research that we’re involved in. But so false memories, I think that has that played a real positive role in society. So I think that we we can claim a victory in that. So I think that thing has gotten better as skeptics played an impact, I think. Not just skeptical, quiet, but the skeptic community hall is like looking at it like like homoeopathy claims. It’s not so big here in the US. Maybe you make a case. It’s growing. But skeptics have played a major role and hung up. Like in Great Britain, where, you know, the people you know, people take homoeopathy as part of their regular medical treatments for things. And skeptics, especially in England, have been very out there in the public saying, look, this does nothing here. And they’ve they’ve managed to get like medical societies in England to come out against homoeopathy, that being the government paying for this kind of treatments. And it’s had that kind of effect. So, yeah, we can definitely play a role. And I think we’ve done a good job on some of these topics. 

That kind of brings us up to date and leads right into Saigon, which is coming up soon. So I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about Psychon and what you’re most looking forward to. 

And one of the reasons, like I’m really looking forward to to to say kind to come into the meeting is that it’s actually our first major, big conference since about 2003. We had gotten kind of a way from doing conferences here, particularly in the US, a big Currentzis. And we’ve we started focusing our attention. And, you know, as far as like organizing on a couple of things, one is international. And well, we’ve had conference we have had conferences since 2003. And when we had we were involved in world conference in China, we did one in Italy, we’ve done one in Germany, Belgium, Australia, Canada. And we’ve had some we’ve had a couple in Latin America, but we haven’t had a major one in the United States. And again, we thought maybe, you know. 


It was time to, like, try to broaden the skeptics movement to make it a worldwide thing, and I think we succeeded to some extent and we were involved heavily in organizing a lot of international groups. We have skeptics groups around the world and we helped organize them. We’ve had meetings with them. But I think we kind of you know, I think we’ve all been kind of itching to come back to the U.S. and, you know, we it’s it’s. Look, these meetings are fun. I mean, they’re educational, but they’re entertaining, but also fun because you get to see people that, you know, you might see only at these events. And I have many friends I’ve met through the skeptical community that, you know, when we see each other at something, it’s like it was like it’s like, well, I’ve heard people tell me it’s like coming home. And it’s this sense of community that these things build. I think that’s you know, it’s nice talking to like minded individuals as nice talking to people that share. Share your beliefs to share your other concern things. No, we don’t mean to preach to the choir. We don’t want to just preach the choir. We open our meetings up to the public. And again, we try to broaden our mission and try to broaden our issues to bring in more people. And we do, of course, major outreach on the Internet and in the mails and all that. But it is nice to just sit down and sometimes talk with your friends. And I think part of the second thing I’m going to enjoy most of all is I’ll be seeing people, you know, and I travel a lot. I meet a lot of people who I’ll be seeing people this meeting that I haven’t spoken to and haven’t seen personally in, you know, years. And I’m really looking forward to that. Part of it is, you know, kind of like coming home. 

I mentioned earlier that one of the things I’m most looking forward to outside KCON is just like Barry says, how much fun these conferences can be. So at this point, I wanted to talk to Jim Underdown, along with being the executive director of CFI L.A.. Jim is the lead singer and songwriter for the Heathens who are being featured at Psycho. Jim, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks. It’s good to be here. So, Jim, who are the heathens? 

The heathens are an all star, all atheists, all skeptic band from Los Angeles. 

And we’ve been having a good old time playing music that has to do with skepticism. And Freethought, really. 

Give me a brief history. The band. How did this get started? 

I guess the first incarnation came in 1999. There was a Freethought festival in Los Angeles and I threw a band together for that. And then it popped it set up a couple other times. We played at a conference in Los Angeles. A couple of us played on one of the cruises that CFI does. And then I sort of went dormant for a few years. And we I found out that some of the people who were coming to CFI, Los Angeles sort of regularly and friends of mine who were nonbelievers and skeptics and science minded, were these great musicians, these guys, it all played in bands or are currently playing in bands. Some of them have even been on records that you might know. And I said, why get the band back together? And they said, yeah, sure they were. They were really into it. And everybody’s working for free and everything. So and I had always been sort of writing parody lyrics to established rock and roll songs. And I said, you know, we already have like 10 songs together. You know, if you guys want to play and we played for the last two winter solstice parties at CFI in L.A.. 

Yeah, that’s interesting. The idea of injecting science and skepticism into things that might not usually have it, whether it’s the arts or otherwise, that’s always gonna attract an entirely new crowd. That’s always a good thing. 

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You know, a lot of people are just sort of in it for the social aspect of it or, you know, they. We do CFI does lots of different things and everybody isn’t into every little thing we do. So this is kind of a way to reach some other people. And, you know, we we talk about the arts and humanities being part of what we’re about. And music’s sure about that. And and rock and roll is part of it, too. So, you know, we just try to use some of that. And in the bottom line is, it’s a lot of fun. 

We have some fairly I don’t want to say raunchy but pointed lyrics at some of our our age old enemies, our age old cultural enemies. And it’s just it’s fun to get out a couple of shots in and have fun and enjoyable way. 

Yeah. So speaking of that, let’s get into some of your songs. What are some of the topics? What are some of the themes that you’ve been addressing with the music so far? 

Sort of across the. I mean, it’s across both the secular humanist and skeptic spectrum. Obviously, when we’re playing, we’re going to be playing in New Orleans at Psychon and we’ll be focusing more on the skeptical side. So, for instance, we took a Beatles tune, the Beatles tune. If I fell and turned it into if I fell for what you do and talk about some of the psychic’s and some of the people who we feel, you know, pull the wool over people’s eyes. 

Another one we’re doing is. 

The old song, and this reflects my musical taste, by the way, and maybe I’m a bit on the aged side when it comes to this, but I just love music from the 60s and 70s. So we took smoke on the water and turned it into smoke up my bunghole, which is about, you know, people trying to talk us into things that clearly are not true. It’s about something that that balance actually about something that really happened with Arie Geller and Criss Angel. And they had that show together and the AIG went and visited them and something happened at the thing. So it’s actually kind of a ballad set to smoke on the water. 

So stuff like that, you know, was one about the about Honky Tonk Woman is a song about a UFO believer instead of the honky tonk blues. It’s the UFO blues. So and we get we get one, I think has been very popular so far about L. Ron Hubbard said to the tune of Desperado. So, yeah, a lot of different foreign topics in. 

People have been enjoying it so far. 

So you mentioned the AIG and in in addition to all your work with the Heathens and CFR, you are also the chair and founder of the AIG, which was the Independent Investigations Group. What will the AIG be doing, arts icon this year? 

Well, this is our sort of our our first official presence at a CSI conference. We’re gonna be introducing the groups to people. We’re going to be doing a panel discussion with Blake Smith from the Atlanta IJI and Melody Handsley from the Washington, D.C. IJI. And there are five groups now and the U.S. and Canada. And we’re pretty excited about this whole adventure of training people all over the United States to conduct investigations. We’ve had you know, we’ve learned from, you know, the greats like Ray Hyman and Joe Nickell and James Randi and all kinds of people who’ve been doing this for decades now. And the idea is that, you know, we take some of this knowledge in and put it out there on a grassroots level and let people in individual areas go check out some of these claims. 

In addition to educating people about how to investigate claims themselves, you also have a challenge for believers in the paranormal. 

Yeah. So the AIG has a fifty thousand dollar challenge similar to Randy’s million dollar challenge for anyone who can prove paranormal ability. And we get lots and lots of inquiries about this and have done a number of tests just this year alone. So that’s another thing that that sort of brings some of the claimants to us and gets us an up close view at what they’re all about and gives us experience in and what we need to do to test them to see if they’re any of their claims are valid. We certainly aren’t expecting to see anything, but the whole process is very interesting and has taught us a lot about what’s going on in that world. 

Lastly, I wanted to talk to someone who will be presenting at the conference and someone whose voice point of inquiry listeners might be familiar with, even if they don’t know it. That person is Debbie Goddard. Debbie is the coordinator for the CFI on campus program, as well as the director for African-Americans for Humanism. She will be presenting on a panel at Psychon called Grassroots Activism and Outreach. 

Debbie, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks for having me on, Adam. 

So I hope that this will be a refreshing change from what I usually ask you to do, which is basically state the date allowed. 

Mm hmm. So thank you. Excited to try something new for the show. 

So, Debbie, how important is it that skeptics do outreach? 

Our mission is a big one. To get more people involved. In this movement is important. Otherwise, we can’t accomplish that mission. We want to spread critical thinking. We want to make sure that science is taught in science classrooms. We want to promote scientific skepticism. We want to we have consumer advocacy aspects of our mission. And the best way to make impact is to get more and more people involved in this. And that’s the nature of outreach, to get more people involved in this skeptical mission, to get more people involved and skeptical communities online and in person, you know, to get more people connected to what the big organizations are doing, the bigger efforts there and the coordinated efforts. That’s all part of outreach. And I don’t see how we could accomplish all these aspects of our mission if we don’t get people. 

Something I know you also talk a lot about is diversity in the skeptical community. With that in mind. Are there specific groups of people that we should be doing outreach to? 

Yet there are groups of people that the movement hasn’t historically attracted. We’re often stereotyped as a movement of old white guys and sometimes old is not part of that. But generally, white guys who are interested in science and philosophy and their reasons for that. There’s their cultural pressures that have me that that way. So often in the diversity conversation, we talk about how we can attract more women to the movement, how we can attract more young people to the movement, and how we can attract people of color, which is a demographic that’s sorely lacking in the movement. I wouldn’t say it’s more important that we grab one group or another, but it is important that if we want this movement to grow, that we don’t. Just attract the same people that we have been bringing in that we think about new ways to bring in women and people of color and even young people. If we look at other movements, social movements, the civil rights movement, women’s rights, things like that, we see that if the movement tended to attract one type of person like, say, early women’s rights, early suffragists or from kind of a leisure class of women, they didn’t even know that they weren’t paying attention to issues that affected working women and women of color. So we can have greater impact if we broaden the scope of the movement, if we think about issues that specifically tend to affect women more, affect people of color more. And we’ve seen a lot of success with this online, particularly with efforts like Skeptic Blog at addressing issues that we haven’t addressed in the past. 

The second panel is not just about outreach. It’s also about activism. What’s the difference between skeptical outreach and skeptical activism? 

Outreach would be very basically there a lot of ways that I could answer that question. And a lot of it depends on context. But very simply, outreach involves getting more people involved, maybe in small ways, that it’s just that they’re aware that this movement exists. They know what critical thinking is or in big ways where they’re actually getting involved in local groups or starting a local group or getting involved in activism. Activism is doing things to try to change things on small levels or big levels, using the tools of the political process, legislation, regulation, the rallying demonstrations, education, whatever it might be to try to affect change. 

It’s clear to me that this is a very crucial and important thing for skeptics to think about and to talk about. If people are listening at home and they might not be involved with any type of organization, but they want to be they want to be involved and active, what can they do to change that? What can they do to get involved and and help make a difference with this skeptical community? 

Well, there are a few things that they can do to get involved. Go on the Internet. There are a lot of skeptical blogs out there. They’re growing all the time plugging into that. Seeing what people are talking about, what sorts of issues they’re involved with is a good first step. Finding out if there’s a group in one’s area getting involved with a local group. 

Now, what a lot of local groups do is they’ll get together once a month, twice a month and do pub nights, skeptics in the pub drinking skeptically, events like that. And that might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least connecting to them, subscribing to their newsletter or joining the online group that they have is another good way to get involved. Subscribing to the newsletters from the national organizations, of course, seeing what different projects there are out there. It’s another way that also helps introduce us to new activism opportunities. A lot of what the skeptics movement does is reactive and not proactive. We see something’s wrong. We see it can be fixed, too. We see that we can do something about it. We get the word out and we try to do something about it. Down from. Different laws that areas are trying to pass regarding evolution and creation to regulation of homeopathic products, the way that we get the word out about that is through e-mail networks and blogs to vaccine clinics. No, there was something. Run by one of the skeptics, Elise Anders, who also created the Women Thinking Free Foundation. She’s organized with the assistance from others vaccination clinics at Dragon Con and worked with other groups to get vaccination clinics going. If you have skills, you’re an educator or a scientist, for example, or you work with health departments, anything like that. There are different ways for people to get involved. There are a lot of people do presentations as hobbies, things like dowsing. They’ll give talks and the skeptic camps in their area and give presentations on pet interests of theirs from Big Foot to you of those to whom myopathy. We have affiliated campus groups that host skeptics on campus so that they’re educating people about critical thinking, about why our brains believe weird things. They’ll runs superstition, bashes for fun, especially around Friday the 13th. We have the independent investigations groups for those who are interested in doing hands on paranormal investigations. Haunted houses. Haunted graveyards. You know, testing different theories whether or not power balance bracelets work. There are all sorts of ways to get involved. There’s a lot of information out there. So the best thing to do, I guess, is go on Google. Check out the blogs. Check out the organizations. Check out local groups and go from there. 

Well, we’ve reached the end of the show. Hopefully I didn’t screw it up too badly. And if you’d like more information about Debbie or Jim Underdown or Berry car or if you’re just interested in learning more about Psychon or booking your tickets, I recommend you go to Sci. Conference dot org. 

That’s CSI Conference dot org. And take a look. 

And now you’ve all been waiting for the heathens with. I’m a freethinker. 

I woke up one day. 

I want to thank you for listening to this special episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show or Psychon, join our online discussion forum. At point of inquiry, thought 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 talk. 

Point of inquiry is produced by me, Atomizing, and our person New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. 

Today show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host today, Atomizing.