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Skepticon V Impressions

This past weekend, I was in Springfield, Missouri for Skepticon V ("the fifth most annual Skepticon yet"). I had such a fantastic time at Skepticon IV in 2011, it was a foregone conclusion that I'd go back this year, and I wasn't disappointed. Skepticon is one of the largest atheist conventions in the country (1500+ people this time around), while managing the remarkable feat of being completely free, and still draws a top-notch speaker slate.

And yes, I was on stage this year! I was privileged to take part in the only group panel: a rationalist view of dating and relationships, moderated by Jesse Galef of the SSA. Besides myself, the panelists were Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Community of Austin, Julia Galef of the Center for Applied Rationality, and Chana Messinger, president of the University of Chicago's SSA affiliate. We spoke about compatibility, consent, rational evaluation versus emotional intuition, monogamy and polygamy, the value of public vows, and lots of other stuff. I gave the best dating advice I have to offer, which is this: show your prospective partner Tim Minchin's "If I Didn't Have You", and if they don't find it funny, don't date them! (I'll post video of the panel when it's available.)

Here were some of my other favorite parts of the weekend:

The eclectic mix of topics. This was a theme carried over from last year, and it's one of the things I like best about Skepticon. If you wanted critiques of religion, we had those, but there was also a grab-bag of talks on random scientific topics. This guarantees that even the most jaded attendee will learn something new and interesting. Two of my favorites this year were Jennifer Ouellette on psychedelic drugs and Deborah Hyde on werewolf beliefs in medieval Europe. I also got a great deal out of James Croft's argument for building humanist communities, and Rebecca Watson's humorous talk on the sexist pseudoscience rampant in evolutionary psychology was immensely entertaining and got boisterous applause.

Above: Rebecca Watson lists the evo-psych benefits of the wares at her merch table.

Good company and conversation. The best part of every atheist convention is getting to meet the awesome people who make up this community, whether they're superstar bloggers or just ordinary people quietly but no less importantly living out secular values. The warmth and welcome always leaves me feeling like a charged battery, and the sheer wattage of brilliance unleashed by our pub conversations came dangerously close to overwhelming Springfield. (When I'm super-rich, I'm going to organize a convention with no scheduled speakers, just an open forum where cool and interesting people can mingle freely.)

There were a few friends whom I missed or didn't get to talk to as much as I would've liked, especially my friend Greta Christina, who was absent this year recovering from surgery. But I got to shake hands with some new people in compensation, like Stephanie Zvan and Brianne Bilyeu from FTB. I also spent a while hanging out with Rebecca Watson, and I can personally testify that she's smart, incredibly funny, and probably a lot friendlier and more good-natured than I would be if I'd gotten as much harassment as she has.

Above: James Croft explains what we can expect from humanist communities.

Laughing at the protesters. There was no Gelatogate this year, but there was a contingent of about a dozen Christian proselytizers who showed up to preach outside the convention center. Naturally, they were the objects of much mirth and scorn. I spoke to one of them for about five minutes, after which it became clear that I was wasting my time, but they got all the debate they could handle from other attendees. Generally, I think engaging with street preachers is a poor return on investment for time, but then again, you never know when you might plant a seed of doubt.

Safety equals good times. As Amanda Marcotte notes, Skepticon was one of the pioneers on implementing a strong harassment policy, and that paid dividends. It had a noticeably better gender balance than other conventions I've been to, and having witnessed some of the flirting that went on, I can testify that the policy didn't pose the slightest obstacle to people who were there to hook up and to have fun. This is a win-win situation, guys: women come out in greater numbers, and they're more flirty, when they feel safe!

Above: Skepticon attendees confront some Christian protesters outside the expo hall.

Now, as much as I enjoyed the weekend overall and don't want to dump on people who worked super-hard to organize it on a volunteer basis, there were a couple of places I felt things could be improved.

Here's the big one: more people of color as speakers. The gender balance among Skepticon speakers was fairly even, which again is something they've gotten right where so many other conventions have gone wrong. But as far as I could tell, there were only two speakers who weren't white. One was Hemant Mehta, always a good choice, who spoke about atheist high school students. The other was Anthony Pinn, who gave a much-needed talk on diversity in the secular movement and the unique challenges faced by non-white freethinkers. But his was the very last talk at the convention, at 5 PM on Sunday, when probably a majority of the attendees had already left to catch their flights home. His audience, I'd estimate, was just a remnant of 200 to 300 people, rather than the 1500 or so that attended some of the earlier talks.

There was no nefarious intent in this: from what I heard on Twitter, Pinn was originally scheduled to speak earlier, but had to be moved to a later slot because he had a scheduling conflict. But that just underscores the importance of seeking out and inviting more non-white speakers, so that missing one or two talks doesn't result in a racially uniform lineup.

Also: more short talks mixed with long talks, please! Several of the speakers this year had a half-hour slot rather than a full hour. I don't know if this was deliberate or if it was due to scheduling issues, but either way I thought it was a great idea, similar to the approach taken by the SSA at their conference in July, where every speaker had a 20-minute slot. That doesn't mean more is always less - there were some speakers whom I'd have gladly listened to for longer than their allotted hour. (In the interests of full disclosure, my panel was 90 minutes! I hope I was entertaining.) On the other hand, a whole day of hour-long talks can tax anyone's endurance.

But in spite of these quibbles, I had a blast. If you've never been to a major atheist convention like Skepticon, you owe it to yourself to go. And if you should run into me at one of them, come and say hi!

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