As you know, early this month I had the privilege of participating in a number of events at Dragon*Con, a large sci-fi fantasy convention held in Atlanta every year. In this, my second year presenting on both Skeptrack and the Science Track, my presence was not without personal sacrifice. I arranged alternative lessons for my classes, traveled across the country at my own expense, and worked nearly non-stop during the convention. I had little time to attend events as just an audience member or wander around looking at costumes. I was not unhappy about that at all, since my reason for being there was to promote and teach critical thinking, scientific thought, and skepticism. I left feeling quite satisfied that I had accomplished just that.
Until I read Skepchick Rebecca Watson’s article at the Skeptical Inquirer Online entitled DragonCon: A Chance to Preach Beyond the Choir?
According to the article, some of the talks did not “really capture the attention of the sci-fi/fantasy crowd”. There was some question as to whether a talk called Mathematical Modeling Pitfalls could compete with a panel on the Science Track called How to Raise a Mad Scientist“. Rebecca implied that she would have rather attended a session titled Robot Battles than participate in a panel and suggested that the audience for this panel was small because of the competing session. She also suggested that, due to the distractions of other events, “…it may be well worth the effort for SkepTrack’s dedicated volunteers to avoid the typical and occasionally dry topics we see elsewhere and instead cater to the ridiculous.”
The promotional efforts of the Skepchick/Women Thinking Free (WTF) Foundation project were presented as an example of effective outreach to be emulated. The project involved bringing a free vaccine clinic to the adjacent Mall (it was too late to arrange for space at the convention itself) and a table for the organization was set up outside the large “Walk of Fame” ballroom at which they placed posters of sci/fi-fantasy characters with bandages from vaccinations.
Finally, several loaded/rhetorical questions suggested that Skeptrack is full of self-described skeptics and fails at outreach.
Essentially, what I read in this review is:
- Skeptrack is boring.
- Skeptrack content doesn’t appeal to Rebecca Watson, therefore she doesn’t think that it appeals to non-skeptics.
- Skeptrack events must be more appealing to compete with interesting events on other tracks.
- Skeptrack content should be “ridiculous” so that it can attract non-skeptics.
Valid, constructive criticism is invaluable, especially when a group with goals is struggling to meet those goals.
Baseless criticism is often harmful and sometimes offensive.
I was offended by this review.
I understand that many people found it innocuous and even amusing. Perhaps my being is offended is related to my level of personal involvement given the examples chosen for the article. However, I do not believe that I am alone in thinking that changes like those suggested are unwarranted and that implementing them could move Skeptrack in the wrong direction. These decisions are the track director’s to make, but such public criticism has a way of creating pressure even when it is clearly unfounded.
Skeptrack is the product of year-’round hard work by track director Derek Colanduno and a dedicated staff, including Robynn (A.K.A. Swoopy) McCarthy, who directs a track of her own devoted to podcasting. They work closely with the Space and Science Tracks to create a well-rounded program. Many of us present on those tracks as well. In its second year, Skeptrack was given a room quite a bit larger than similar tracks to accommodate the volume of attendees it attracted the first. This, its third year, saw a daunting schedule which began at 8:30 am and did not end until between 11:00 pm and 2:00 am. The audience size varied by day, time of day, and other factors, but all events were well-attended and many were standing room only. In other words, the track is extremely successful in terms of attendance.
Despite this success, the title of the article suggests that the track is merely “preaching to the choir”. There is no evidence presented, not even anecdotal, to support this assertion. I have seen this in only one other place and the evidence presented there was limited to “I don’t think I would be interested if I wasn’t a skeptic.” Since we do not have a systematic analysis of the audience to measure the level of familiarity each attendee has with “the movement” and compare this with those ouside the room, we can only determine if the large crowds were mostly self-described skeptics using our personal experiences, which are dictated largely by what we choose to do and with whom we choose to interact.
Kylie Sturgess’s review describes some of the interactions I had during the conference which formed my opinion that Skeptrack is successful outreach. This view is shared by many and documented in reviews, the most moving of which is Brian Dunning’s discussion on Skepticblog. Brian expresses some surprise and great pleasure that the event was indeed not only valuable outreach, but “rivaled that of any other critical thinking conference” he’d attended.
Regarding competition with other events, indeed, Rebecca walked out of Mathematical Modeling Pitfalls about 20 minutes into it. Her departure was conspicuous to me because it was not long after Jennifer Ouellette had handed me the microphone and I was looking out at the audience. Rebecca could therefore not have seen first hand that there was still a line at the microphone when we ran out of time for the question and answer portion, which was allotted half an hour. The room, which seats nearly 300, was 80% plus full. The article does not state whether Rebecca attended the other talk or if that room was full, however, the Science Track room holds approximately 150. Even if full, the law of conservation and, yes, a little mathematical modeling, tells us the answer to her question, “How could a talk about calculus ever compete with a talk about [How to Raise a Mad Scientist]?” Apparently, quite well.
The article also fails to note that Skeptrack included a parenting panel of its own. “Raising Skeptical Geeks” was held in the Crystal Ballroom in front of a packed audience. That room seats approximately 1,000 people. Adam Savage’s time at the microphone was short compared to that of the other panel members, yet many, many people have commented that it was their favorite panel of the weekend.
During the convention, I participated in panels and talks about consumer skepticism, the psychology of skepticism, parenting, perception, education, sex, feminism, and, yes, calculus and mathematical modeling. Perhaps some people find those topics boring, but I do not and, judging from the sizes of the audiences I saw, neither do a great many Dragon*Con attendees. Some of those were standing-room-only. None of faces of the people I spoke with following any of the panels were familiar and I recognized only a very small portion of the audience members, if any.
Attendance at the “Blogging 2.0″ panel that Rebecca wanted to cancel in favor of attending a Robot competition was approximately 70%. This is on the low side for Skeptrack, but that is more likely due to the fact that it was held on Monday than due to any competing event. I moderated a panel during the parade, which is the most popular event at the convention. The audience for it was smaller than other events, but still quite large. I had the same experience last year. There were plenty of geeks to go around.
The article also claimed that many of the panels were “composed of fans and enthusiastic amateurs talking about the subjects that interest them.” I was confused by this. I am not familiar with the content of all of the tracks, but since the topic of the article was Skeptrack, I found this insulting. Although there were a few individuals placed on a some of the later panels at the last minute, usually replacing someone who could not make it, these could be counted on one hand and not done without thought to their likely contributions. The content was certainly not “fans and amateurs” just “talking about subjects that interested them.” I suppose one could describe anyone who doesn’t receive a salary for skeptical activism or science as technically “an amateur”, but then that would include half of the Guest list.
As with any endeavor, even a hugely successful one such as Skeptrack, improvements are possible. The article suggests that we replace what the dry, boring content with… well, I’m not sure. The approach to promoting the vaccine clinic was described as “embracing DragonCon’s crazy, pop-culture-obsessed energy” by creating the posters I described above. I do not want to minimize the success of the clinic as measured by the number of people vaccinated in comparison to the numbers usually seen by the CDC. Even without a cost-benefit analysis, it is clear that 200 people vaccinated in the middle of an epidemic is an achievement. However, the question of whether the posters drove those numbers is unanswered. They were seen by 30,000 to 40,000 people, but the number of people who see advertisements is no measure of their effectiveness.
How many of the 200 who were vaccinated were involved in setting up the clinic? How many were skeptics presenting on Skeptrack? How many heard about it while attending a Skeptrack event? The clinic was promoted in nearly every panel on the track and in some on the Science Track. The claim that “it worked” is untenable and the suggestion that Skeptrack needs to “get crazy” is unsubstantiated.
The list of questions at the end of the piece ask, “What can we do to get them to step inside? How many are interested in what we have to say? How many are skeptics who just don’t know it yet?” I think that Derek and his crew have answered those by offering content which clearly interests people, gets them to step inside, and, judging from the personal anecdotes of new “skeptics” I have met in the past year, informed people not only that they are skeptics, but that being a skeptic is cool, fun, and interesting.
We have observed Skeptrack’s success. There is absolutely no reason to think that the programming is boring other than Rebecca Watson and a couple of other people claim to be bored by it.
Instead of suggesting changes which could turn the boat around, perhaps the critics would benefit from emulating and accommodating the current model at other conventions. Create Skeptracks everywhere and shoot for the same level of success Dragon*Con has seen from this model.