If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and don’t assume that you are the audience.

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.

Brian Dunning received a Parsec Award for his work on Skeptoid. Photo by Daniel Loxton

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.


Tables for the organizations were set up - a great place for outreach. Here Kylie Sturgess minds the store while chatting with George Hrab and Mykel Alvis.

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.

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14 comments to If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and don’t assume that you are the audience.

  • jennamarie

    There has been chatter among some skeptics, for example Ben Radford’s post at CFI, calling for some changes or enhancements to Skeptrack. I don’t necessarily disagree with Ben. I think that there is room for tweaking content and shifting of focus in some areas as Skeptrack evolves. What we DON’T need is drunken panels of people yelling at the audience to “Shut the fuck up” whilst making crass jokes. I agree, I’d rather attend a robot panel than witness that again. If that’s how you’re going to draw interest and get people to step inside, I’ll pass, thanks.

  • Jenna, I couldn’t agree more.

    What Ben did was make suggestions for refinements and his suggestions were based on experience – based on what has worked by the measures we have.

    BTW, I love his suggestions for more investigation and volunteered to put on a workshop or two like the one he did. There are many possible workshop topics, such as research methods (e.g., experimental) used to investigate other types of claims or classes on related topics like human errors in reasoning, memory, and perception.

    I didn’t hear about anyone yelling “STFU”, but I suppose there’s a place for that if it’s done in jest. I do, however, wonder if those types of panels are attended solely by self-described skeptics. It’s fine if they are; I think there should be some of that programming.

    It just seems to me that those complaining that “we” are preaching only to the choir… Perhaps it’s summed up in “Speak for yourself.”

  • DocNick

    I posted this on the Skeptical Inquirer Facebook page, but registered here in hopes of reaching Ms. Drescher:

    ‘I hope Barbara Drescher goes back and reads Rebecca Watson’s delightful, positive review of Skeptrack at DragonCon. I just re-read it, and I think Drescher must have misread the piece. I enjoyed DragonCon, especially Skeptrack. I also enjoyed Watson’s review after the fact. I saw no reason for Drescher’s rather acerbic response.’

    • In order to ensure that my details were accurate, I had no choice but to read the piece several times. I am more offended each time.

      As Animefan noted, the fact that you enjoyed Skeptrack at Dragon*Con is testimony to its success. It clearly wasn’t boring to you, me, or hundreds of attendees.

  • Animefan

    DocNick – I hope you go back and reread Rebecca Watson’s badly supported, uninsightful and frankly, sour-grape-like complaint about how she did not apply on time this year to be a Guest and didn’t take up opportunities that were offered her – and then turned around and disrespected the SkepTrack on the CSI site.
    If there was any reason that YOU enjoyed Dragon*Con and SkepTrack, THEN it is in denial of the aspects that Watson wrote about! She should have considered that unless people put up facts and figures (as Drescher has done), people will most definitely call her on it. That’s part of skepticism. Surprised you didn’t spot that.

    BTW: Good to hear you enjoyed SkepTrack – why don’t you also write appreciatively to Derek and Swoopy and Dragon*Con, the people who were NOT cited in Watson’s artice as behind all the hard work that made it happen in the first place (unlike Watson) instead? 😉

  • DocNick

    Honestly and truthfully, I’m not trying to provoke an argument. I would very much like to see everyone “kiss and make-up”. It pains me as an enthusiastic attendee to see respected members of the community argue over what I feel to be a misunderstanding.

    Watson described “Skeptrack’s dedicated volunteers” and I saw no complaints regarding not applying on time in her piece. Perhaps there was some backstage drama of which those of us reading as attendees were unaware? Because that hardly seems like disrespect.

    Watson concluded with “the SkepTrack room is a great place to meet fellow skeptics.” which is a compliment, and continued “I just hope that next year it’s an even better place to meet the people who previously walked past.” which I read as her hope that Skeptrack improves what she takes to be an already good program.

    • DocNick, this is not a misunderstanding and your characterization of this as a some kind of personal cat fight is insulting. There is no need to “kiss and make up” and there is no “backstage drama” because Rebecca and I are not friends and there is no backstage.

      Please do not ignore the issues or suggest that I am talking about something other than what I have discussed.

      Cherry-picking positive statements and ignoring my points does not advance your argument. Whether her statements are compliments or criticisms is irrelevant in a discussion of how accurate they are.

  • Seantheblogonaut

    Thanks Barb for an eloquent and evenhanded treatment of the issue. I think you make an excellent point that evidence needs to be provided to make an argument for change. It seems to be a continuing problem though that when it comes to being skeptical (ie evidence based, critical, analytical) in regards to outreach some seem to give their own opinions a pass.

  • DocNick

    Please, no offense intended.

    Once again, I (along with others in the SI Facebook thread) didn’t read the Watson piece as negative. After reading your response(s) I assumed I was missing the big picture. I am pleased to hear there was no missing context, and chagrined that I phrased things so as to suggest a “catfight”, which I assure you was not my intention.

    You assert there is no misunderstanding. As a skeptic, may I suggest an experiment? Rather than mining the Watson piece for evidence as to its intentions, why not ask her if your interpretation was her intention?

    At the very least, it would eliminate any doubt of malice, and at best might avoid conflict between philosophical allies.

    This debate has introduced me to your blog, which I have found very pleasurable. I assure you I have no animosity towards you, despite how my previous post may have seemed. Watson may be in a similar situation.

    • Once again, whether her review is positive or negative is not relevant. Rational evaluation doesn’t rely on whether we want something to be true or not.

      You continue to discuss this as if there is a personal relationship and even suggest that I create one. I have no interest in that. I did not accuse Rebecca of malice or “mine” her piece for anything. I called attention to harmful criticisms she made that were baseless. It’s not about her; it’s about what she said.

      If you disagree with my criticisms, state your case by showing the flaws in my argument. That can’t be done without discussing what I wrote here specifically because that, and only that, is my argument.

      I hope that puts to rest any further discussions of personal relationships and MY intentions.

      I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the blog and I hope you continue to enjoy it and contribute.

  • DocNick

    Ah, well if your main desire is to debate whether Skeptrack is successful and/or entertaining, I could only take the opposite side as an intellectual exercise.

    Skeptrack is the reason I started coming to DragonCon, and the source of the majority of panels I attend. Thank you for your part in creating that.

    As to outreach, I am reminded of one panel I attended (Sunday at 10am) “Diversity and Freethought” which focused on the Skeptic movement being predominantly populated by old, white men. As a middle-aged, white man, I found the talk uncomfortable, but I had to agree with the concern.

    Doing what we can to appeal to a younger, more diverse crowd would seem to me to be a positive development. As to whether Ms. Watson’s suggestions would be superior to the current offerings, I couldn’t say.

    You make the point yourself that we have no reliable data on whether we are preaching to the choir, or making new converts.

    Skeptically, scientifically, I wonder how we could measure the demographics of the attendees at each panel. Perhaps a snapshot of the room at the beginning of each panel to be later tallied as to race, sex, and approximate age? There are other methods (questionnaires, etc), but until we’re measuring such things in SOME fashion, I don’t think we can productively debate whose vision for the future of DragonCon Skeptrack is more useful.

    • My “main desire” is not to debate anything. It is to set the record straight and ensure that not only do the track’s director and staff get the credit they deserve for a hugely successful operation and that they are not pushed to reverse course.

      There IS evidence of hugely successful outreach and no evidence that Rebecca’s suggestions would improve anything. Everything that I would write in response to the rest of your comment is clearly laid out in the initial post, so I will ask once again – if you see flaws in my argument, address those flaws. Otherwise, you’re just repeating the objections I have already addressed.

  • DocNick

    The semantic content of that last post is a bit low.

    There was no record to set straight. Watson’s piece was a lighthearted opinion piece, not a ‘record’. Implying a ‘reversal’ of Skeptrack’s course implies that at some time they embraced “ridiculousness” and have moved in a more “dry” direction, which isn’t true at all. In the analogy you have created, I would argue that steering a few points off a direct line might put you in a favorable current to get you to your goal faster.

    In your piece, you (unfairly I think) summarize Watson’s. I don’t want to create a straw man by summarizing your piece in a way that creates an argument where there is none.

    Everyone you site, including Watson, gives their OPINION that the big tent events were successful outreach (Adam Savage, James Randi, etc.) There is no controversy there, and there never was a dispute about this. Ms. Watson’s belief that we could do more to appeal to the younger, less serious crowd passing through the Hilton was not supported by a statistical analysis (nor need it be in a humorous opinion piece), but then your more serious rebuttal is not supported either.

    As you admit above “we do not have a systematic analysis of the audience to measure the level of familiarity each attendee has with “the movement”.

    Would you agree that the population of Skeptrack is overwhelmingly older white males? If not, would you agree to measuring this, and using it as a yardstick for success in outreach? If not, could you suggest other objective measurements to evaluate success at outreach?

    • The semantic content of that last post is a bit low.

      Agreed. It was low by design. I am tired of saying, over and over again, what is in the post itself.

      You have also misread my comment and my post. I stated, quite clearly, that there is much more convincing evidence that the track is successful than the “I was bored.” evidence presented by Watson and the other critic. One does not need to meet the “gold standard” of evidence to clearly see that one “theory” is far more plausible than another.

      Regardless, this is a futile discussion and I won’t respond further.