Top 7 Reasons Why SkeptiCamp Sucks
Now with 23 events under our belt, we’re gaining an idea of what works (and what does not) in mounting a skeptical unconference in one’s own town.
Expectations among skeptics are changing too, where we’re not merely exploring alternatives to traditional events, but we’re realizing the benefits of tapping into the often-neglected value that exists within our own local communities of skeptics.
As word continues to spread, we anticipate that skeptics in many other cities from around the world will take the leap, drawing upon their local talent in a day of interactive talks to share knowledge among themselves and sharpen their critical thinking skills.
But all is not well in SkeptiCampland. Misconceptions run rampant. This isn’t surprising with a new idea, especially one capable of disrupting what it means to be an engaged and growing skeptic.
It’s time we tackle those misconceptions. We’ll do so by exploring the many ways that SkeptiCamp sucks.
1. Open events lack the polish and professionalism of our traditional “world-class” lectures and conferences.
No doubt our traditional events can shine, but that polish doesn’t arrive for free. It typically requires experienced organizers willing to undertake substantial financial risk to offer attendees an engaging experience in exchange for their registration fees.
However, for those groups lacking such experience or financial wherewithal, an event in the traditional model is all but out of reach.
Open events by contrast challenge tradition. They ask what can we do to tear down the barriers to holding substantive events. Can we place them within reach of informal groups of skeptics anywhere around the world?
Casting aside the financial obstacles means that we won’t see celebrity speakers flown in from afar, but must all of our events do so to provide value? Our experience of open events suggests that by rethinking how we organize and participate in our events, we can provide a different sort of value — a value that is not merely more accessible, but perhaps even richer in ways that traditional events cannot offer.
2. SkeptiCamps suck because they’re short on amenities, such as not providing lunch, child care, etc.
Many events have provided lunch, paid for either by sponsors or through a fund raiser in the weeks prior to the event.
But in doing so, we must be careful, as we’re erecting a significant barrier to organizing. Many first-time organizers will find it easier to secure a venue near food vendors and allot an hour or so in the schedule for people to eat.
Child care stands as a more significant barrier, unfortunately. Lacking it, we deter some parents from participating. Organizers in Ohio have been innovating in this area by providing separate activities specifically targeted towards kids.
But we should be clear that amenities are obstacles to organizing and stand squarely in the way of having events and thus should be avoided by first-time organizers. But as we master the fundamentals in the coming years, we can take on bigger challenges.
3. I’m frustrated by the decisions of my fellow organizers.
Open events will reflect our ability to collaborate and work as teams, as well as to communicate and deliver on our commitments.
Traditional leadership-oriented approaches to organizing are feasible, provided that you’re lucky enough to have a competent and motivated manager step into the lead role. If not so lucky, they will drop the ball and your event will suffer for it, possibly leading to its cancellation.
As you might expect, open events depart from such top-down approaches that serve as obstacles to having events. Instead SkeptiCamp assumes we’re all amateurs, where we must compensate for our collective lack of experience through collaboration, learning from other open events and by communicating in a transparent manner.
But frustrations will nevertheless occur. Those in lead roles may dictate decisions rather than pursue consensus among fellow organizers. Some organizers won’t communicate in a timely or decisive fashion. Others will over-commit and be incapable of delivering on the simplest of tasks.
Routine progress meetings via audio/video conferencing looks to be the best remedy to such frustrations. Every two weeks leading up to the event, for example, dropped-balls can be detected sufficiently early that others can pick them up.
This is a recipe not only for a successful organizing effort, but also by spreading the ownership of the event, we ensure our open events can occur consistently from year to year.
4. Talks are not polished and presented by professional speakers.
Skilled talks by experienced pros can be wonderful, but before rejecting the rank amateurs as unworthy of our time, we might benefit by taking a step back and asking a couple of questions.
First, can something of value be gleaned from a talk that has a few problems? Not all mistakes are necessarily catastrophic.
Second, do we value new opportunities to grow as skeptics? Few learning opportunities compare to preparing to give even an informal, conversational talk to one’s peers. As a speaker, you’re motivated not only to be well-versed with the material, but also to motivate others to take interest in the topic.
So, either cut the newbies some slack, or be prepared to pay a hefty registration fee (travel costs, etc.) at a pro conference to see the polished talks you enjoy.
5. The topics covered at SkeptiCamps do not suit my tastes.
Meeting the idiosyncratic tastes of each participant is indeed a high bar to reach.
Not even our traditional events will offer universally-appealing content. The best of curators will deliberately program an event with speakers who can expand our minds, challenge our preconceptions and biases, push our comfort zones and provide a rich experience for the attendees.
Lacking curators, open events must necessarily take a different approach to providing that rich experience for attendees.
At open events, content emerges from one’s community, or rather those individuals willing to step up and share by giving a talk. In addition, organizers might cajole talks from those who might initially be reluctant to speak. Those from outside the community can be invited to offer talks, such as a local magician to speak on misdirection.
But this is not programming which we must passively accept. Participants at open events have a unique option at their disposal: we can interact with the speakers and our fellow participants during the talks themselves.
So given a talk that might otherwise be too introductory for our tastes, we don’t have to sit in the back row and grumble about how we already know this stuff. Rather, we can take on the role of mentor, drawing upon our own knowledge and experience to add color and depth to what might otherwise be a dull talk for us.
Open events can also offer a smaller, secondary room, not only for bashful speakers, but also to address niche and long-form topics that may only appeal to a small number of participants.
And finally, for the participant who insists that a certain topic MUST be addressed, the door is open to a talk offered by him or her.
6. What’s the value of an event that’s not focused on outreach? Without a constant influx of new blood, skepticism will die!
Outreach events are important, but not every event need focus on outreach.
While anyone with a desire to learn is welcome to participate in a SkeptiCamp event, the central goal is not attracting new members, but rather to distribute knowledge within our local communities and provide each of us rich opportunities to grow as skeptics.
Even without an outreach focus, the implicit message to outsiders should be clear: as a community we’re not insular and dogmatic, but rather that we’re an open and dynamic group of individuals who care deeply about education and the practical aspects of skepticism.
And finally, nothing stops any participant from seeking out speakers from outside the community, to increase diversity and to build bridges to other skeptic groups in the region.
7. Lacking proper curation, talks at open events risk spreading misinformation.
Deciding who speaks (and who does not) can reduce much of that risk, but it comes at a steep price.
First, curated events have a risk of their own — they risk reflecting the biases of their organizers. Experience and skill can compensate, providing balanced events, but inexperience can result in events that overemphasize topics and favor social cliques.
Second, the politics of curation can lead to perceived snubs, accusations of favoritism, hurt feelings from rejection, and can even ignite long-standing resentments and divisions within our communities.
But even if we have an experienced curator offering to accept that burden, there’s a good reason to decline — a reason that goes to the core of who we are as skeptics. By curating our events to protect ourselves from potential misinformation, we deprive ourselves of a rich opportunity to exercise our critical thinking skills among our peers.
This is no mere lip service paid to promote critical thinking. Open events represent a radical shift in responsibility — we shift the burden of quality control from the organizers to the participants themselves.
However, such opportunities for quality control are limited with conventional one-way lectures which relegate the Q&A to 5-10 minutes at the end of a talk. If even we get an opportunity to ask a question, such as to challenge an exceptional claim, its context is likely to be long lost. Worse yet, the misinformation may have already established itself in listener’s minds.
To overcome this limitation requires interaction at a level not seen at traditional events — open events require that speakers take questions during their talks, even if it risks their running out of time. This allows for potential misinformation to be addressed on the spot, ideally in a less confrontational and more conversational manner.
In short, open events are interactive to reduce a key barrier to organizing, to blunt the harm of misinformation, and to provide rich opportunities for exercising our skeptical skills.
Our traditional events can offer great value, but they are limited in where they can reach and what they can accomplish. If we’re serious about moving skepticism forward, we need innovative alternatives like open events which have a shot at overcoming those limitations.
However, this inevitably leads to the disruption of our expectations of what it means to be a skeptic. With open events at hand, it’s not enough to passively attend lectures from the back rows to demonstrate our skeptical cred. Rather it’s about taking the leap by offering a talk to actively educate both ourselves and our peers.
In this sense, SkeptiCamp can really suck because it challenges a comfortable status quo.
So why would we do it? What could possibly motivate us to stick our necks out?
If there can be said to be a fuel that drives most skeptics, it’s not necessarily doubt over specific extraordinary claims or a hatred of some scumbag, but rather a passion for the methodologies of skepticism and critical thinking. They not only help us appreciate science but they enrich many corners of our lives.
We do it — we organize open events where we can offer interactive talks — because it helps each of us become better skeptics and to stake a claim in the future growth of skepticism.
So, what’s going to be the topic of your talk?