My Perfect Conference and What It Is NOT

Posted July 17, 2009

In the wake of TAM7, there has been a bit of discussion about what a skeptics conference should and should not be like. Given the diversity of the skeptic community in terms of convention-going experience and expectations, input into the structure and form of conferences varies a great deal. Some of the ideas I have seen pop up in discussions scare me.

First, there is some talk lately about how diverse the audience and the stage is at these conferences. The facebook group Women for More Women at TAM8 was formed by a concerned TAM-goer for this reason. Approximately 30% of the TAM7 audience was female and an even smaller proportion of those who graced the stage were women. Kylie Sturgess, PodBlack Cat asserts that this may be a nonissue, and I am inclined to agree with her. However, I also agree with her that concerned women should not keep quiet about it. Instead, they should be their own advocates and activists, calling for quality content.

What many have noticed, this year in particular, is the residue (or the beginnings) of an “old boys” mentality — a culture which is not compatible with skepticism, critical thinking, or quality in general. For example, the keynote speaker at TAM7 was Bill Prady, co-creator and producer of The Big Bang Theory. While I found Prady to be intelligent and entertaining, the only reason to invite him to deliver this speech is to uphold his show as a productive promotion of science. In my opinion, it is not. What’s more, the characters depicted in the clips he presented are stereotypical and poor role models for either sex. The following is a description of the show from its website:

Leonard and Sheldon are brilliant physicists, the kind of “beautiful minds” that understand how the universe works. But none of that genius helps them interact with people, especially women. All this begins to change when a free-spirited beauty named Penny moves in next door. Sheldon, Leonard’s roommate, is quite content spending his nights playing Klingon Boggle with their socially dysfunctional friends, fellow CalTech scientists Wolowitz and Koothrappali. However, Leonard sees in Penny a whole new universe of possibilities… including love.

Penny, whom Prady described as actually very smart, believes in all sorts of woo. She’s a beautiful blonde and all of the brilliant, socially inept basement-dwellers want to be her mate, regardless of the fact that she has no desire to use her brain for anything productive. A female scientist on the show is played by the less goddess-like Sara Gilbert and is a minor character to boot.

This is what skeptics really want to talk about? I do not think so.

The keynote speaker at TAM6, Neil deGrasse Tyson, kept the entire 900-strong audience in their seats for 2 hours and they begged for more. We want SCIENCE, people!

About half of the audience at TAM7 indicated that they were attending their first Amazing Meeting. Although I am sure that the presence of a keynote speaker like Bill Prady attracted new audience members, which is a good thing, popular scientists like Tyson and PZ Myers (whose blog is read by thousands) do, too. What kind of an audience are we looking for, anyway? I propose that we would benefit from an audience who is there to do more than have their picture taken with someone who has appeared on television.

Some women have expressed a level of discomfort at the conference this year, citing juvenile sexual innuendo and homophobic jokes. Although I did not experience this myself, it is apparent in forum chatter and in some comments made on the stage itself that the culture at TAM7 and other meetings could be alienating some valuable participants — people this movement needs. Unfortunately, Bill Prady gets to be my piñata because he so clearly illustrates my point in this part of his talk:

Personally, I was taken aback by some of the women in the audience. I can hardly be called a prude, but some of the outfits in that room were far beyond what is appropriate attire for any kind of conference. What’s more, they were very poor, naive attempts at sexual expression that left me wonder just what kind of delusion-producing mirror they were looking into each morning and where I could get one. Just as an example, one woman (I would guess her age at about 20yo) wore a dressy black blouse with extremely tight cut-off denim short-shorts, thigh-high fishnet stockings, and 2-inch patent leather strappy spike heels which were at least 2 sizes too small. No kidding.

So, the culture needs a little adjusting, no?

What I really do not want to see is TAM turn into a meeting like those held by Mensa. This is what I envision when I read suggestions like this one mentioned in the JREF forum:

We should have a brain war.

Of course, as is typical forum mentality, everyone jumped on the bandwagon without really thinking it through and began planning what they thought was a great fundraiser for JREF. Unfortunately, though, what they are proposing is exactly the kind of thing which dominates Mensa meetings, like the Annual Gathering and Mind Games®. While it may sound like fun, the culture which develops from it is competitive, arrogant, and void of substance. Skeptic organizations were formed to promote critical thinking, not to brag about it. We should not be crowning each other “the smartest skeptic” or “the skeptic with the most useless knowledge”. We should be forming bonds which empower us to be philanthropic and educational. We should be activists for change in the world outside our circle, not playing king-of-the-hill within it.

Nobody needs to attend meetings to be a skeptic, but many find the experience fulfilling and refreshing. We attend them as much to bond with like thinkers as we do to learn. But perhaps that is why we need to be careful about the kind of culture we create.

So far, I find most attendees are kindred spirits, but if TAM becomes no more interesting than a local bar or a Mensa meeting, count me out.


Podblack on July 17th, 2009 at 18:11:
Hmm, not too sure if it’s a non-issue — more that it’s something that may be ‘bigger than we realise’ and that to approach it… sideways?… might be the best way to tackle it.
I’d be sad to think that I’d discouraged people in general BECAUSE they weren’t a member of a minority group or they wanted to hear a great speaker who happened to be a white male, because ‘oh, we need more X, not more of you’.
However, I do think ascertaining how many people on the stage are minorities is difficult (thanks for telling me about the paper presentation!) — how many are good speakers is another thing — GAH about Bill Prady!! :/
As for speaking out, I have just discovered that one of the podcasters has a Mail Out system that reaches a lot of his listeners. I might suggest that for a feedback on his presentation, going to do that now! 
Podblack on July 17th, 2009 at 18:19:
I never thought of the ‘Brain War’ in that way! Some good points! I was thinking of helping out with a trivia competition at the next Australian convention… I’m now wondering if it’d be too divisive.
Does anyone have any alternative suggestions for a ‘fun event’ that could be done? I’m not too keen on a talent contest, simply because the numbers that attend the conference is not as packed as, say, a TAM…
Administrator on July 17th, 2009 at 19:03:
Podblack: “nonissue” was your language, but I worried that it wouldn’t be clear in this context. I think it’s a nonissue in the sense that the problem is not the proportion that are women/minority at skeptic conferences, but rather the proportion that are women/minority in science/skepticism.
The brain war: it really does sound like fun, but it immediately brought to mind images of Mensa. A few years back (about 8 or 9, I think) WPA had an evening of “Jeapordy” in which 3 famous psychologists answered questions from introductory psych courses. It was not pretty. I don’t think it was productive, either. I have not seen it since, thank FSM!
The first alternative I thought of was a Monte Carlo night. It wouldn’t work for TAM — kind of funny to fake gambling when the real thing is right downstairs! Competition would be okay IMO if winning involved more luck or physical prowess than brains. Bingo is boring, but there might be a way to make it fun.
Oh, I’ve got a terrible idea that I’d really like to share: Strip Bingo! O.O Argh.

Some activities I participated in at sales meetings in a previous life:
– volleyball tournament
– scavenger hunt
– “Quest” show (kind of like scavenger hunts, but you don’t leave the room — almost every cruise line does one)
– sight-seeing — depending on where you are, this can be as simple as a dinner cruise or as complicated as a hike. One year the company purchased windbreakers with the company logo for everyone to wear on a cruise of San Francisco Bay.
The Skeptic Society took attendees to an open house at JPL once. It was luck that it coincided with the conference, but if there is something related nearby?
I am looking forward to the “take over the aquarium” thing going on at Dragon*Con, too.
I wish I could get to Dragon*Con by Thursday Night because I think Phil had a terrific idea with the Stargazing party.

Judith Victorious on July 18th, 2009 at 06:54:
Wow. And here I was actually thinking about going to a TAM one of these days. If that Prady skidmark is the best they can do for speakers, though, I think I’d be happier if I stayed home.

Administrator on July 18th, 2009 at 08:12:
Judith, please don’t let that keep you from trying out a TAM. They are usually very good and relatively “skidmark-free”. Read the previous post for an overview of the rest of the conference and consider what I said about TAM6 before you make up your mind.
And keep in mind that the post is meant to help prevent a cultural shift. Truth be told, there are differences in attendee attitudes that I believe are very positive. For example, there have been fewer “pseudoskeptics” (people who think ghosts & psychics are silly, but lose their ability to reason when discussing other topics)and more academics since the conference was moved to summer.
Heidi Anderson on July 18th, 2009 at 08:27:
I agree with your assessment of Bill Prady’s speech, and wish for a return to the less Hollywood influenced speakers of the past.
That said, it boggles my mind that you would trash a woman, a very intelligent woman who I consider a friend, based on her choice of clothing. Women tearing other women down based on their appearance is never uplifting, and reinforces stereotypes of us as catty brats. As a skeptic, where is your “evidence” that men took this woman less seriously? Perhaps you are projecting, and YOU are taking her less seriously based on her appearance, which again, as a skeptic, you should know is faulty reasoning.
Every time I have reduced a woman to her “sexy” appearance, it was based in the jealousy of her getting more attention than me.

AndyD on July 18th, 2009 at 08:33:
I can see myself getting in trouble if I pursue this any further but something intrigued me with your fashion commentary. Maybe/hopefully I’m misreading you but it looks like you’re saying “we’d like more women at TAM — but not THOSE kinds of women”.

Andrew on July 18th, 2009 at 09:09:
How dare he make a joke about a woman’s intelligence-to-hotness ratio!
And how dare that woman try to dress sexy! Doesn’t she know that her sexuality undermines her own (probably low) intelligence and that she should expect wardrobe-snarking from other women?
Keeping women down: It’s not just for men anymore.
Pickle Pumpers on July 18th, 2009 at 09:10
Thanks for voicing your concern about the tone of TAM but I wonder if you aren’t doing the same thing you accuse other’s of.
You deride the speaker for making sexist remarks when they were merely sexual in nature. Ironically you then go on to make incredibly sexist remarks when you insult the young woman’s attire because it does not meet your standards of taste going so far as to strongly imply she is a slut.
Using your own bar I would say you were being pretty sexist to the woman by demanding she live up to your sexual moral code. Even implying her state of dress somehow makes her sexually active is pretty sexist. You are trying to control her sexuality because it makes YOU uncomfortable but you don’t own her body; she does.
Also you speak of it being an “Old Boys” network but you seem do a lot of complaining about all the new kids that don’t do stuff your way.
I don’t think you did any of that on purpose I’m just saying it’s pretty silly to complain about something you are doing yourself.
P.S. Why are women so bitchy about other women’s cloths? (See! Now THAT is a sexist comment!)

D on July 18th, 2009 at 09:17:
I wore a skirt, net stockings, and heels on Friday and leather pants on Saturday. Why? Because damn, if I don’t like the way my ass and legs look in those. I’m not putting a sign around my neck to add that I have a B.S. in math from UCLA. I’m there to enjoy myself, to kick back and relax. There’s no dress code, I’m surrounded by friends, and I get to listen to a lot of really awesome talks.
And if someone’s not taking me seriously because of my stockings, even after I’ve opened my mouth, then they’re probably not someone I’d want to deal with anyway.

Administrator on July 18th, 2009 at 10:52:
Wow. Okay, first let me say that, NO, I am not saying “we’d like more women at TAM – but not THOSE kinds of women”.
Second, I wasn’t commenting on her “sexy” appearance. You’ve missed the point. It wasn’t about what she was wearing. It was about WHERE SHE WAS WEARING IT. I was commenting on how appropriate that appearance was TO A SCIENCE-BASED CONFERENCE. It may be Vegas, but she wasn’t on her way to a show, people.
Why didn’t I talk about any of the men’s clothing? Because I don’t work backwards. I wasn’t making a point about how women dress. I was describing how WE create an environment, so when we complain about the consequences, we need to examine OUR contribution. Her clothing was an example of that contribution; the post wasn’t built around her clothing. There’s no double-standard in what I’m saying; the double-standard is in the comments here.
You all seem to think that you live in a world in which nothing matters except what people say, and that is simply not reality.
People are pattern-seeking, information-gathering, conclusion-forming creatures. When given no information other than appearance, we draw conclusions based on appearance. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves and any skeptic who doesn’t understand how first impressions last, should look up “confirmation bias” in any intro psych book.
So, you can criticize my cattiness, or you can look at the big picture and understand that the culture WE create is the one in which we have to live.
Heidi Anderson on July 18th, 2009 at 12:06:

What’s more, they were very poor, naive attempts at sexual expression that left me wonder just what kind of delusion-producing mirror they were looking into each morning and where I could get one. Just as an example, one woman (I would guess her age at about 20yo) wore a dressy black blouse with extremely tight cut-off denim short-shorts, thigh-high fishnet stockings, and 2-inch patent leather strappy spike heals which were at least 2 sizes too small. No kidding.

That’s pretty clearly an attack on several women’s sexual expression, IN ADDITION to saying it was inappropriate for the conference.

David Brewer on July 18th, 2009 at 13:46:
Seeing as how I have already addressed, in another venue, many of the comments being made here I thought I should contribute them to the conversation. This is a distillation of my FB posts in response to Barbara
Comments such as “some of the outfits in that room were far beyond what is appropriate attire for any kind of conference” and “they were very poor, naive attempts at sexual expression” immediately set of an alarm in my head which I imagine sounds similar to what a dumb blond joke must incite in the head of a “feminist”. Who has the right to define how other people express themselves sexually? Who gets to decide what is appropriate attire? If anyone gets to do that it should be the organizers of the event. Finally, we get to hear from the same skeptic “stars” all the time and I think that it would be refreshing to hear a different voice. Who knows it may incite someone who isn’t a skeptic, but who is a fan of the keynote speaker, to think a little and spread the word.
I am married so I couldn’t give a damn whether a woman chooses to dress sexy or not. I do think that she should have that choice though. I am torn as to whether it is a response to the expectations of a sexist society or just a mating strategy BUT, what I am not confused about in the least, is that I am not qualified to decide what choice is right for her and neither are you.
Sexy clothes leads to men treating women like meat. Hypothetically, If a man cared for his body and was proud of his appearance and wanted to show it off, this makes sense to me from an evolutionary POV, to prospective mates would this make him partly responsible if a woman decided to denigrate a geek who was all scrawny and wimpy? TOTAL NONSENSE. Different creatures have different strategies to attract mates. This assumes that that was her intention. Of course, we don’t know her intention but instead just ass u me it. Gawd, I am getting tired of my own argument. I would probably agree with the dreadfulness of her outfit. I have a very drab aesthetic which doesn’t tolerate any ostentatiousness well. However, I think that the comment contributes nothing to your argument and helps to confuse the issue.
I think you’ll find that the reason women are under-represented in the atheist movement is that historically they have been under-represented in the scientific community. Atheism draws a large proportion of its “adherents” from the scientific community. Additionally, there has been a double stereotype working against them. One is that women in general are expected, or taught to expect from themselves, to not be confrontational, or acerbic, and to epitomize “feminine” qualities; caring, submissiveness, etc. Naturally, I think this is all BS and try my best to teach my daughter to be as assertive as possible without being an ass. Secondly, their is the impression, probably due to Hitchens, that atheist have to be confrontational, aggressive, argumentative, etc. I don’t disagree necessarily that this quality exists, nor do I have much of a problem with it. As anyone can tell the role of the devils advocate has a special place in my heart. So, I think that the issue you are confronted with is an issue created by societal pressures at large and not by atheist/skeptical/freethought community specifically. I think that most people in this community are very sensitive to stereotyping, ad hominem attacks, and to the value of the contribution of all the members. I think that your assertion either assumes intention on the part of the organizers or insults the intelligence and sensitivity of them. I know you think that it was unintentional but you still assert that it was insensitive.
I agree with some of your points. I might have agreed with this one point specifically if you had parsed it correctly in the first place. As it stands, I again assert that it distracts from your argument rather than supporting it. I think that the clarification required by yourself illustrates this. I personally believe that a large amount of confrontation can be avoided if people pay very close attention to their use of language so that it cannot be misinterpreted.
David Brewer on July 18th, 2009 at 13:47:
I also don’t think that the proper way to address confirmation bias is to succumb to its influence.

Administrator on July 18th, 2009 at 13:55:
Heidi, you are right. The “what mirror was she looking in” comment, as well as the comment that it was a poor attempt at sexual expression were insensitive. I think there was little chance of her reading this & recognizing herself until it was picked up by Skepchick, but that’s no excuse.
I apologize for that and will do my best to be less catty in the future.
XXSkeptic on July 18th, 2009 at 16:56:
I think you took the “brain war” comment in a direction that was not intended. It was simply an open suggestion and most definitely not intended to try to split people up by crowning “smartest skeptic” or whatnot. The idea is under discussion and nothing has been decided. There has been suggestions to turn it into a question-and-answer session with skeptical and critical thinking questions which would be judged by a panel, so it may not just be based on “useless trivia”.
Another point is that it would not be part of the actual conference, so one would have the option of not attending of one objects to the idea. However, I think that most members of this community would recognize that something “useless” like a trivia night would be just for pure fun and bonus points for turning it into a great fundraiser for the JREF. Judging by my experiences at TAM, this community is one of the humblest groups of people I have ever met and I doubt that something trivial as trivia night would divide a community nor turn the skeptical movement into a contest.
As for your comments regarding female skeptics, what they choose to wear, etc, others have already brought up most of my issues with that so I’ll leave that alone.
Heidi Anderson on July 18th, 2009 at 17:06:
Barbara, thanks for responding. It really does mean alot to me. I hold myself to the exact same standard I was holding you to, and I fail as well.
It is something that we have to rise above, much like racism. I can be just as catty as anyone. Ask!

Administrator on July 18th, 2009 at 17:44:

Heidi — I REALLY appreciate that, needed to hear it, and will hold you up as an example that we do not need god to be forgiving (I’m assuming you’re an atheist, but the odds are in my favor ;P).
I know I can talk about stuff like this w/o being a total bitch.

Mitchell “Wowbagger” Lampert on July 18th, 2009 at 18:49:
See my response on the JREF Forum.
You are aware that this activity would only be one event, among many, at The Amazing Meeting, right?
Having a talent show contest hardly turned the entire conference into one long song-and-dance routine.
Forum members also set up a bowling tournament, a poker tournament, and a party in a villa.
Granted, those last three were not official JREF events. But, their occurrence hardly threatened to turn the entire conference into one massive strong-man competition, nor a back-room speakeasy, nor some clothing-optional fraternity rave, respectively.
The slope is not that slippery.
The attendees of TAM are among the smartest, most knowledgeable crowds of folks I have ever known. If we can come up with fun* ways to pit these great brains against each other, I think there are many who will appreciate the challenge, and even accept defeat with humility and admiration.
(* to the participants who actually enjoy such challenges)

We should be forming bonds which empower us to be philanthropic and educational.

We can gather as friendly strangers (forming bonds), raise money for the JREF and other organizations (philanthropy), and learn stuff through the trivia questions and/or puzzles provided (educational). I think a “Brain War” meets all of your requirements nicely.
And, we are not precluded from doing other activities that would actually help other folks outside our “circle”.

Podblack on July 18th, 2009 at 21:17:
Heidi — *hug* and Barbara — *hug* — I hope to see you both at Dragon*Con and further bridge gaps about what skepticism CAN be for people of all backgrounds.

AndyD on July 18th, 2009 at 21:58:
Phew, I didn’t get in too much trouble and wasn’t alone in my observation. Good on you for recognising your complaint might have been out of place. My real concern was that of everything you wrote, that was the part I felt I had to respond to. It did you no favours — when women pick on other women for not projecting women in a “good” way, it reinforces the “catty” stereotype — which is interesting when stereotyping is precisely what you’re trying to defeat. Women are as diverse as men and all attempts to make them fit to some new standard will fail every time. 30-plus years of feminism hasn’t achieved it yet — the streets are still filled with cleavage, young and old.

I’ve never been to a skeptical conference so can’t comment on TAM, and I agree that the garb you describe would likely “seem” out of place — but we have to decide whether it’s out of place for any reason beyond personal bias.
One thing that kept going through my mind while reading the responses is that Jenny McCarthy is on the world stage promoting an anti-vax agenda. Skeptics like to remind people of her centrefold heritage but what impact does it have? None — because it’s irrelevant to her massage today. The fishetted woman at TAM might have a brilliant mind, capable of putting McCarthy in her place, despite her fashion choices.
I guess one thing’s become clear, politics is as alive and well in the skeptical movement as it is everywhere else  But the recent discussion has made me decide to seek out some skeptical women’s blogs and sift through them to see if there are some I should be reading more regularly. Thanks for the discussion.

AndyD on July 19th, 2009 at 00:34:
Okay, so I’ve looked at the thread in skeptchick now too (told you I’d go looking) and, interestingly, I think you’ve clarified your position there better than here.
I don’t know what the “tone” of TAM is “intended” to be but it seems to me that anything involving Penn & Teller (have you watched their BS series?) is open to anyone and everyone, not just intellectuals, professionals or educators. Maybe this was your original point about he choice of speakers — I’m not sure any more.
For the record, as a white, middle-aged male, let me say that one of the few times I can think of two things at once is when an attractive woman is speaking. I can think of her as “attractive but dangerously insane” or I can think of her as both “attractive and well-worth listening to”. Of course, if she doesn’t speak then I’ve only one thing to focus on but that’s no reason for the rest of the her gender to assume they are all being judged as a result.
We can’t help what we find attractive and we can’t help noticing that which we notice and we’ll likely notice with or without fishnets.
You know, FWIW, us men suffer these same dilemmas — albeit without the cleavage and fishnets (usually). “Intelligent” but stumpy, middle-aged, average-looking guys have to sit back and watch as women drool over the brain-dead, bad boy sporting hero who they’d “gladly leave their husbands for”. It’s life. I doubt it’s about to change any time soon.
So, how do we get more women involved in skepticism — assuming that we even need to?

Administrator on July 19th, 2009 at 01:10:

I think you’ve clarified your position there better than here.

Well, I was beat up a little more there than here. Forming responses to criticism has a way of making you work out the language.
I appreciate that you went looking for it, though.

So, how do we get more women involved in skepticism – assuming that we even need to?

I think by making it comfortable for them/us and showing that women are accepted (and treated as equals). We’re all responsible for that, not just you evil men  .
I did not mean to imply that dress codes or exclusivity were the issue at all — quite the opposite. My point was that we create the culture. If what we want is a culture in which the message is important, then the message needs to be clear. In this case, the message is that science rules and it is serious business.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun and create bonds. It just means that we need to be cognizant of how our behavior, speaker choices (I’m all for Penn and Teller, btw, whose comments are not sexist, just full of sex), and even silence (about how we feel about these things) affect our ability to achieve our goals.
And I think I’m going to leave it there. The conversation (on skepchick, at least) went far afield from anything I said or meant and I am exhausted from it.
Heidi Anderson on July 19th, 2009 at 05:10:
AndyD, I have always hated the way that people bring up Jenny McCarthy’s sexuality as having ANYTHING to do with her position on vaccines. In fact, when people focus on her past and her looks, it turns into this really creepy love/hate thing with her on the part of skeptic men.
Jenny McCarthy’s lack of evidence are more than enough to trash her position. Slut baiting her does nothing to help our side.
Barbara, I do indeed look forward to meeting you at Dragon Con 

Podblack on July 19th, 2009 at 07:09:
On the ‘Stop Jenny McCarthy’ site, we turned away from making allusions to her Playboy ‘heritage’ and went for a simple band-aid across her mouth kind of image.
Yes, I know, the site needs updating — the person who runs it (not me, I just contribute) said they’ll get to it very soon. But certainly, avoiding the image-critique as you said, was a strong impetus in ‘what do we really want to say?’

Pickle Pumpers on July 19th, 2009 at 10:08:
I think this is an excellent illustration of the principles of positive communication. It demonstrates that we are rational, skeptical, and moral people able to use respectful dialog to communicate. It shows that the principles of rigorous skepticism is applied equally to ourselves not just external belief systems.
Now… I’d like to take a moment to bestow upon you the joyous story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…

Administrator on July 19th, 2009 at 10:23:

Now… I’d like to take a moment to bestow upon you the joyous story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…

*hovering over the “edit” button…*

Maria on July 20th, 2009 at 09:36:
I just want to say that I learned about this post via Skepchick and I agree entirely with YOU. When women dress like whores at serious professional gatherings, they make us ALL look bad. And Bill Prady was obviously a bad choice for keynote speaker.
Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Keep up the good work.

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