Outside-the-Box Skepticism: Welcome to CSICon 2018

October 19, 2018

CSICon is always a big deal. We wouldn’t crow about it so much if it wasn’t. We call it things like “the premier skeptics’ event” and whatnot because it happens to be true! So even given the cascade of well-earned superlatives we (okay, I) use to describe CSICon year after year, it’s already obvious that this year’s conference is something else.

Watching the crush of folks heading down the corridors of the Westgate Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on their way into the opening night reception, squeezing one’s way through the room full of schmoozing skeptics, and crossing the threshold into the main ballroom for the first formal presentation, and something becomes very clear.

There are a lotta damn people here.

That’s encouraging! All these people, from remote locations across the country and around the globe, gathering to celebrate science and reason…and utterly immerse themselves in more. This is a good sign for the future. Nothing but blue skies from here, right?

Well, look, being realists and whatnot, there was no way to open a conference like this without acknowledging that those skies aren’t as blue as we’d like. At the opening of last year’s CSICon, it had been almost exactly a year since Donald Trump had been elected president, and we were all still sort of reeling from the fact that the guy in charge was a science-denying, conspiracy-mongering, enabler of theocrats.

This year, the shock has turned to more of a nauseous resignation that this is the new normal. It’s not just about Trump, of course. One need only remember that the UN’s climate change panel just gave us a couple of decades before the planet turns into a Hot Pocket to understand why things might feel grim for skeptic types.

But that’s not how CSICon 2018 got started. We were first welcomed by CSI Executive Director Barry Karr (pictured above), who paid special tribute to CFI’s Pat Beauchamp by begging her not to retire. Then he passed the mic to the boss.

Robyn Blumner, CFI’s president and CEO, said that science and skepticism seem to have been “reduced to flotsam and jetsam” in public discourse. But at the same time, it remains that “reason is the most powerful tool for human progress on Earth.” Right now, these truths coexist, so all the more reason to be glad for the people we have working on the side of science and reason. (Robyn made a point of thanking the CFI staff, referring to us as “the best team under the climate-change-enhanced sun.”)

You see, this is one of the cool things about being a skeptic: one can openly acknowledge unpleasant realities while also choosing to find hope and joy in the positive truths. Those are just as real. So the theme underlying the opening of CSICon 2018? Wow, there’s a lot of hard work to do. Good thing there’s us.

Also acknowledging our challenges, Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier spoke of the adaptability and universality of skepticism, casting skepticism as a way to empower people who might otherwise be disempowered by pseudoscience and misinformation. Rattling off a long list of subjects that the magazine has covered just over the past year, Ken illustrated how skepticism is applicable, and badly needed, in every realm of thought, in every subject. “You can’t fit what we do into a neat box – or any box!” Even if you could, why limit its power?

And that power, the power to think critically and use the tools of science and reason, are open to everyone. And it’s for everyone.

Eddie Tabash, CFI’s chair, made that point about the wider freethought movement, the community that encompasses skepticism, humanism, and secularism. The work we were doing wasn’t just for us, not just to be “right,” but to make sure that the rights and freedoms we seek are enjoyed by everyone equally, whether or not they think like we do. Just so, a person doesn’t have to be a “skeptic” or jazzed about critical thinking for our movement to want to keep that person from being harmed by pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and misinformation.

As though to prove Ken’s point about skepticism not fitting neatly into boxes, the headliner of the night was Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything, who used the idea of parasites in nature as a metaphor for some of the ways our critical brains are overcome without our ever knowing it.

Without going too deeply into Conover’s act and thereby ruining the jokes, I’ll just say that he proved that the algorithms of platforms like Facebook and YouTube are not too dissimilar from invasive fungi that control ants’ brains and make them either climb up blades of grass so they can be eaten by cows, or else clamp onto a tree before exploding.

Facebook and Twitter make us mad, YouTube keeps pushing crazier stuff on us, and corporate brands have made it so that we can’t think of literally anything without associating it with a product for purchase. We are the explosive zombie ants, unknowingly acting against our own interests.

Encapsulating what he sees as the foundation of his work, Conover said, “We as people are intelligent, have free will, and once we know the truth we can control our behavior for the better.” But the power of algorithms and advertising are designed to affect us subconsciously, so that “knowing the truth” becomes much hazier. “Understanding we don’t have all that control,” he said, “that gives us some power.”

In times like these, we’ll take it. We can work with that.