Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILs (part 2 of 2)

Here concludes the “Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILS”. If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1 from earlier this week.

#5 FAIL – “we can’t have person X speaking!”

An open invitation to give talks often comes as a shock to traditionalists in this domain. Superficially at least, it’s for good reason.

Allowing anyone to give a talk risks the spread of misinformation whether intentional or inadvertent on the part of the speaker. Who knows what kind of individual will sign up to speak, couching the topic of  their talk in skeptic or sciencey lingo to avail themselves a golden opportunity to grind their axe before a captive audience?

Admittedly such an open policy flies in the face of a strategy of careful messaging that has marked the traditional events of skepticism for decades.

But there’s a method to this madness.

SkeptiCamps are not messaging events. Nor are they outreach events, though anyone with a desire to share and learn in an open environment is welcome to participate.

Nor is there anything wrong with outreach events. The upcoming Skeptrack at Dragon*Con in Atlanta provides a valuable service of attracting new skeptics from outside the community. But not every event needs to serve this goal.

SkeptiCamp instead pursues a goal of building better skeptics from those of us who are already here. It does this in two ways. First, by lowering the barriers to giving talks to our peers, we can gain proficiency in the tools and knowledge of this domain. Second, without the safety net of a skilled curator, it’s up to us participants to meet questionable claims by raising our hands during talks. Taking ownership of this responsibility serves as an important skill building opportunity for us participants. (See related SkeptiCamp FAIL #7 from Part 1.)

But isn’t some level of curation necessary? Yes, but it’s very basic. We’ll want to ensure that talks don’t exceed the bounds of our venues or threaten the safety of participants. It’s bad form to allow sex-themed talks at a public library meeting room where kids might be within earshot, for example.

Apart from those basic limits, curation stands as a barrier to having events. It’s tricky to get right without creating the perception that politics and favoritism rule speaker selection. In addition, the fear of public speaking fuels excuses among participants eager to avoid giving that first talk to our peers. So it’s paramount we lower these barriers.

For those who do desire a curated outreach event, consider following the lead of skeptics in Edmonton and Atlanta which offer both curated and open events. We can benefit from both models, where they complement and build upon one another.

#4 FAIL – Can your promotion be more devoid of passion?

We’ve seen both great and miserable promotional efforts among our 51 events to date. In the latter case events have paid the price of poor attendance and mistaken expectations of what we’re trying to achieve with SkeptiCamp.

Promoting a SkeptiCamp as a traditional lecture event will unsurprisingly attract attendees who merely show up and passively listen to the talks. Such attendees often come away disappointed not realizing that the substance of the event will only emerge by actively engaging one’s fellow participants. Learning to ask questions during the talks is the first step towards engagement, but ideally we will be planting the seed to have every last one of us seriously considering giving that first talk to our peers.

To realize the benefits of these events, those promoting will need to articulate why we might choose to participate: in short, to become better skeptics. Reshaping such expectations is no trivial undertaking, but arguably the payoff of a more articulate and informed community is worth the effort.

To understand what makes for a great promotional effort for an open event, we skeptics can learn much from the hundreds of Barcamps. The best Barcamps will not have a single person beating the drum for the event, but rather will have the attendees themselves tweeting details of their participation and promoting their talks on social media. Great efforts will have a vibe of excitement around them as the event approaches, with anticipation of the talks to be given and a long list of interesting people with whom one will interact for the day.

Driving this promotional effort will ideally be a gregarious extrovert who understands the goals of open events and has mastered the tools of social media (Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, Meetup, etc.) They will beat the drum, not merely providing news from the organizers,  but more importantly encouraging all participants to plug their talks and advertise their participation in the weeks leading up to the event,  ensuring a strong turnout and high expectations among participants.

#3 FAIL – Tolerating shoutiness

Open skeptic events walk the edge of a knife blade,  attempting to strike a balance between the benefits of peer education and limiting the damage of real and perceived misinformation. Because of this tension, we’ve seen many events grow heated, often risking a descent into shouty chaos.

By adopting the right practices in developing the SkeptiCamp model, we can avoid the shouty chaos and instead keep things on a constructive and civil track.

We have an ace in the hole. A SkeptiCamp is not a blog comment thread with all the liabilities of online interaction. These are live events where we can benefit from the expectations of in-person social interaction.

Basic expectations that we can adopt as practices include raising our hands to ask a question rather than shouting impertinently from the back of the room. In exchange those of us giving talks cannot ignore raised hands, but instead must take questions during our talks. Nor can we evade questions material to claims being made.

(The SkeptiCamp Rule asks that those of us giving talks be prepared to provide sources on claims likely to be challenged.)

Where problems persist, our events can benefit from having volunteers with forceful personalities to serve as MCs and keep things on track.  They can insist that hands be raised and relevant questions not be evaded.

Good MCs can also benefit our events by articulating ground rules, reminding participants that questions are actually questions and not couched speeches that threaten to monopolize the time slot. And perhaps most importantly, MCs can ensure that speakers don’t go over their allotted time. Few things will erode confidence in our events more than underprepared speakers who drone on with no discernable end point.

#2 FAIL – “I can’t give a talk—I have nothing to offer!”

Because the domain of skepticism is both skill- and knowledge-based, it’s surprising to hear “I have nothing to offer” from those of us who consider ourselves to be experienced and knowledgable skeptics. On the other hand, such a declaration is not surprising because our subculture has traditionally failed to provide accessible and rich outlets for us to share what we know and to learn from our peers.

So how do we lower the barriers to sharing that knowledge? The approach offered by the SkeptiCamp event model is to expand such opportunities to giving informal talks to our peers—to make giving such talks a routine practice in pursuit of becoming better skeptics.

But for many of us, giving a talk can be a frightening prospect—one that can trigger any number of excuses, including “I have nothing to offer!” even when we might have much to offer to our peers.

Such is the bargain that SkeptiCamp offers to each of us as individual skeptics. Do the research on a topic and share it with our peers in an informal discussion-oriented event format. In exchange we stand to gain the respect of our peers and to become more knowledgable, skilled and articulate for having weathered the experience.

Skepticism is not a domain that starves for interesting subject matter. Browsing through the archives of Skeptical Inquirer magazine or under the pseudoscience category on Wikipedia, we’ll find literally hundreds of topics, many of which never fade away, but recur in different forms. Add to those topics of local interest, such as researching a local legend, or perhaps even mounting a careful investigation of an extraordinary claim.

But the most important topic for each of us to build a talk around is the one which drives our passion for science and skepticism. It’s a way for us to demonstrate to ourselves and our peers that we are more than skeptics in name only, but rather those who are intent on becoming proficient in the tools and knowledge of this domain.

And the number one SkeptiCamp FAIL is…

#1 FAIL – Not having an event

Hosting a flawed SkeptiCamp that suffers from numerous small failures risks depriving ourselves of the full benefits that these open events can offer, but it’s at least a foot in the door. It sends a signal to the fellow skeptics in our locale and region that we value rich opportunities for each of us to become better skeptics.

However, the decision to not host an event doesn’t even get us that far.

That decision may arise out of ignorance, such as thinking that SkeptiCamps are merely amateurish attempts to ape larger events perceived as more legitimate. Such people who hold this view may be unaware that this new event model is pursuing altogether different goals—goals that might ultimately prove relevant to their interests.

That decision may be born out of fear. The threat of misinformation from talks haunts every event and open events in particular. To see this threat not as a problem to be feared but as an opportunity for each of us to become better skeptics is high among the misperceptions that SkeptiCamp must overcome to be successful.

But more than likely the decision is born of a fear that organizing an event will prove to be too large an effort for too little a payoff.

Amateur organizers as ourselves don’t suffer from any shortage of hubris. When we hit upon a clever idea to make our event better (fancy websites, printed name tags, video recording, e.g.) we will more often than not add it to the list of tasks to track and accomplish in the weeks leading up to our event. That we soon find ourselves overwhelmed should come as little surprise.

SkeptiCamp is a model that lowers the barriers to placing substantive opportunities for peer education within the reach of amateur organizers. But it can best accomplish this when we stick to the basics—basics that have been developed through the hard-won experiences of SkeptiCamp organizers in the hundreds and Barcamp organizers in the thousands.

So we shouldn’t worry about having the perfect first event with all sorts of bells and whistles. Instead, we should give a shot at having a simple event that sticks to the basics of the model. Then later on when we get the experience of an event or two under our belts, we can add that bell or whistle.

Need more FAIL? Read the Top 7 Reasons Why SkeptiCamp Sucks at the IndieSkeptics blog. When you do host an event, please contribute to the What Went Right and What Went Wrong pages at the SkeptiCamp wiki to share your hard-won experiences with others.

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About Reed Esau
Reed Esau is a software architect in Denver who started thinking about BarCamp and skepticism shortly after attending TAM5, his first skeptic conference. Along with Rich Ludwig and Crystal Yates-White he organized the first Skepticamp event that occurred on August 4th, 2007.

4 Responses to Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILs (part 2 of 2)

  1. sgerbic says:

    Thanks Reed, all great tips from both posts. That’s why we are putting the links on the Wikipedia page for Skepticamp.

    • Reed Esau says:

      Thanks Susan! Hoping that any continued success that SkeptiCamp enjoys will spill over into the guerrilla Wikipedia editing project.

  2. Pingback: Top 10 SkeptiCamp FAILs (part 1 of 2) « Skeptical Software Tools

  3. Pingback: Content Roundup for August 2012 – Dragon*Con « Skeptical Software Tools

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