The Substance of CSICon

October 17, 2019

The opening reception of CSICon takes place tonight, Thursday night, but despite it being the “official opening” of the conference, much of the substance of CSICon will have already been well underway. Naturally, most of the splashy attention surrounding CSICon focuses on the big presentations and events in huge ballrooms, but for the folks who get to the year’s biggest skeptics’ event just a little early, CSICon is much more of a hands-on and interactive experience. The first Wednesday and Thursday of CSICon is when the workshops happen.

For my role at CSICon, I arrived around the middle of the day on Thursday, as I always have, but by that time an entire day’s worth of activity and activism had already taken place the day before in the form of the 2019 Skeptic’s Toolbox. That’s an all-day event where attendees really get to dig into a topic, working on cases of paranormal claims in teams, all with the guidance of veteran experts: James Alcock, Loren Pankratz, and the godfather of skeptical psychology, Skeptic’s Toolbox founder (and O.G. CSICOP founding member) Ray Hyman.

This morning I was able to get myself sufficiently presentable to other humans in time to poke my head into a couple of the Thursday workshops. I snuck into the “Skeptical Activism” session with Mark Edward and Susan Gerbic, and just a few minutes in, it was clear to me that way more people should be getting to Vegas a little earlier for these things. 

Susan stings psychics (with her third eye).

The session was ostensibly divided between Edward and Gerbic, with Edward discussing his experiences as a mentalist and his indignation at the false mediums who manipulate and deceive, and Gerbic recounting her gumshoe-sting operations on fake psychics. But it was all of a piece, of course, as the two work closely together as a matter of course, and both are dedicated to exposing the charlatans they refer to as “grief vampires,” the alleged psychics who prey on those for whom devotion to these faux spiritual mediums is, as Edward put it, “a cult-like experience.” 

After showing some of the tricks of the trade, Edward called our current moment “the golden age of the con,” but also offered a ray of hope. “The wind is changing,” he said. “The media is hungry for the truth. We need to take advantage of this while we can. It may get worse.” 

Speaking of the media being hungry for truth, Gerbic gave some of the highlights of her multi-year, mountain-moving effort to expose Thomas John, a.k.a. “The Seatbelt Psychic,” a.k.a. “The Manhattan Medium,” a.k.a. “The guy Susan Gerbic proved to be a total fraud by way of an ingenious, double-blind sting operation which got a huge feature in the New York Times.” 

Later, I slipped into the “Skeptical Investigations” session with Jim Underdown and Kenny Biddle. Jim should be very familiar if you’ve been around the CFI Skeptimatic Universe for any length of time, as he heads up CFI West, the newly-minted CFI Investigations Group, and co-hosts our podcast Point of Inquiry

Kenny, meanwhile, is a bit newer on the skeptics’ world, having once been a ghost hunter. No, not like Joe Nickell, but, as Kenny himself put it, “I was one of those jackasses,” the kind with the electromagnetic frequency detectors and the grainy videos. But reading the material of actual skeptical investigators turned him around, and now he’s one of the most diligent and passionate investigators on the scene.

Jim Underdown brought a UFO. On a stick.

Recounting some of their adventures in investigation, both of their presentations offered a kind of framework from which to do one’s own investigation of extraordinary claims, and I would say that there were three broad themes that both hit upon. First: It’s not enough to scoff from the safety of a browser window; you have to go and do the nitty-gritty research and get your hands dirty. 

Second: You need to ask for help, both from experts in relevant fields, but also from the claimants themselves. Kenny referred to this as “the gaps idea”; approach each witness or claimant in the spirit of asking them to fill the gaps in your knowledge. 

Kenny Biddle: “In the ghost hunting community, if you circle it, it’s a ghost.”

Third: Remember we’re all human, and being a jerk won’t get you anywhere. Look out for the people who have an obvious angle, but a lot of folks aren’t trying to fool you. Jim’s group offers a $250,000 prize to anyone who can prove their paranormal abilities under a controlled test, so there’s a pretty good incentive to try to cheat, but literally none of the people they have tested have ever done so. “Every one of those people sincerely believes they have an ability that is paranormal,” said Jim, “and they are surprised when they can’t do it.”

Plus, some things you won’t be able to explain. That doesn’t mean it’s paranormal, you just don’t have all the answers…which I know can be hard for skeptics to hear.