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11/3/12

SPECIAL REPORT: CSICon 2012 by DC-in-Detroit

DC is a longtime contributor to the MCB.
She can be reached at DC.in.Detroit [at] gmail.com

Special Report:
CSICon 2012
Presented by the Center for Skeptical Inquiry
24-28 October 2012
Nashville, Tennessee

Read DC's write-up of last year's CSICon here.

Last October, at CSICon 2011, I fell in love.

I fell in love with a city, with an organization, with a mindset... I stop short of saying with a movement; not because people don't consider "skepticism" exactly that, but because I've never really been an activist. The notion of skepticism is, for me, more of an internal revolution. And as many more people will tell you, it's a method, not a destination.

By the time the conference came to a close last year in New Orleans, I already knew I'd want to come again. When they announced the location to be Nashville, it was a done deal.

I'd never been to Nashville for more than a drive-by before. I know a lot of Detroiters who really love it there, so I felt like there was already a soft recommendation for me to visit. Google Maps told me it was about a 9-and-a-half hour drive, so I figured I could make it in 8, and have my car available during my stay. Oh, and not have to worry about over-packing, since everything I own will fit in my Volvo wagon. Win-win-win.

The plan was to get up at 6am on Wednesday 24 October, finish the last bits of packing, and be on the road by 8am at the latest, to make TN by dinner. Pulling out on to 8 Mile, I looked down to see it was 0645. No idea how I managed to make that happen. (I'm not exactly a fast mover in the mornings.)

To get to Nashville, you basically get on I-75 and go south for 600 miles. On a beautifully crisp fall day – my favorite time of year, and should be yours, too – it's an easy drive. If you can make it through Ohio without going mad (there's just something about Ohio, like going through some sort of time portal), you start to see the countryside changing by Cincinnati. Roadside signs we don't see in Michigan, like FALLING ROCK AREA and FOR CHRIST'S SAKE DON'T STAY IN THE PASSING LANE IF YOU'RE SLOWER THAN TRAFFIC, start to appear in Kentucky.

Ah, Kentucky; known for blue mountains, blue grass, and people who lock in on the speed limit in the left lane. Thirty minutes into the state, I already felt like a hyperactive northerner.

By 4pm, I'd found the Sheraton Music City, up on a hill near the airport. I pulled in to register behind Illinois plate SKPTIC1 – clearly in the right place. Walked in to find the legendary Ray Hyman waiting to check in just in front of me. "I assume that's your car I parked behind," I said. The man in front of him turned with a big grin, "No, that's me." I was already surrounded.

Having checked in and gained an hour, I found myself with time to kill until my first scheduled event. Perfect! I could drive into the city, meander a bit, grab a bite, and be back in time for the first pre-conference event of the weekend.
Checked in and ready! Monster, Monster, Monster...
Frugal MacDoogal liquor warehouse. "How much for the big black cock? I'm a collector."
 I don't know if it's Nashville or Apple Maps, but the town seemed to be all side streets. Part of being an old horse town, I suppose. The good news is that, even near rush hour, people were relatively well-behaved. (Yeah, you can tell I'm a Detroiter when one of my rating criteria for a city is how obnoxious the drivers are.) I drove aimlessly, following the wheel spokes of the city, until the sun had gone down, I still hadn't eaten (although I did manage to find the liquor warehouse), and it was about time for Ben Radford at the Adventure Science Center.
Nashville Science Cafe, Skeptical Society of Cincinnati, and Louisville Area Skeptics are teaming up for the first ever regional science cafe on Wednesday, October 24th. Our special guest for this Halloween-themed event will be world class skeptic Benjamin Radford, who will speak about his many years as a science-based paranormal investigator. There will also be door prizes from NOVA ScienceNOW and Skeptical Inquirer Magazine!

Adventure Science Center is located at 800 Fort Negley Boulevard, Nashville, TN. The event will begin at 7pm.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and a Research Fellow with the non-profit educational organization the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He has written hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics, including urban legends, the paranormal, critical thinking, and media literacy.

Hope to see you there!
BR did a standard BR talk (this time about the basics of investigation, with some classic case studies), which is always funny and engaging even when I've heard it six times already (at least). The guy is promiscuous. Wait. Prolific. No, the first one. There were about 40 people in the room, most of whom did not seem to know what CSI was, or that there was a conference happening. Also, Ben wouldn't call on me to answer trivia questions. Fair, I guess, since I'm obviously a ringer. Still, if I lived in the area, this Science Café is something I could see doing somewhat regularly.

Back at the hotel, I made it my mission to find a sandwich. As lovely as the Sheraton is, it's not in an area where one may walk to much of anything, and there was only one restaurant, which seemed to keep conservative hours. Luckily, they were still serving food in the lounge. One of the first people I had run into when I arrived was the shiny and adorable George Hrab, just as I was getting into the elevator. Looking like a slob who had just spent 10 hours in a car (hat and all) I said hello, just to acknowledge that he was recognized, whether he remembered me or not. Later, in the lounge, Hrab sat next to me at the bar where I awaited my chicken panini. "Hello again," I nerded. "This, uh, is what I usually look like. More human. At least I hope so." Then I awkwardly talked baseball to him, since the Tigers/Giants were on every TV in the world.

As more of the conference organizers and speakers started filling the lounge, I realized I just didn't have the energy to even attempt to converse with any of them, so I slunk up to my room and collapsed.
Thursday morning, I made it up for breakfast, rested and rarin' to go. The most convenient place to sit happened to be where Ben Radford was parked with another fella, so as I munched on bacon and checked the #CSICon hashtag on Twitter, I vaguely listened in, periodically inserting myself into the conversation. This is when an interesting thing happened. The man with whom Ben was chatting was, I have to say, somewhat shutting me out. This is something I see often at these events, and I don't think it's intentional. One of the major purposes of these voluntary conferences is the mingling aspect, the socializing. I recognize that socializing is a skill at which not everyone is especially adept. But to come with people you know, and stick only to people you know, is not only a wasted opportunity, but it misses out on the point. And to fail to acknowledge someone, even a stranger – maybe especially a stranger – who is trying to participate, is a party foul.

Had I wanted to be more assertive and really involve myself in the conversation, I'm positive I could have – and being in a common area of the event, it would have been a reasonable thing to do. Instead, I sat back more passively. Then the other gentleman mentioned something about Sedona, Arizona, a place where I have been. I heard Ben say, "I was in Sedona last year… with DC in fact," he nodded over to me. I smiled up over my iPad, cat-that-ate-the-canary-like.

Suddenly, I became visible, and was part of the conversation.

Now, one could chalk this up to many things. Owing to my general demeanor and tendency toward "benefit of the doubt," my assumption is that I was an unknown quantity until I had been "vetted" by a known agent. That's all. No malice, no prejudice, just a bad case of lack of attention.

It's something I want to bring up, though. I know people have a tendency to clump. We're often more comfortable with people we already know. It's important to remember, especially for the speakers at these sorts of events, that they are surrounded by people who have gone out of their way to be at this conference. Making yourself available is a huge part of the experience for everyone – and to be clear, for the most part, the speakers did exactly that. They were in the common areas, available to be approached, etc. Sometimes I think a little more active mingling would have been called for, however. For many people, it's intimidating enough to walk up and speak to someone he may regard as an intellectual hero. If that person sticks to one big cluster of people the entire weekend, the intimidation is exponential.

When we're dealing with something like skepticism, which, again, is a process and not an end result, the more people are involved, the better. The more conference attendees feel they can contribute to exposing nonsense, just like the people who are selected to speak to the room, the better. The shallower the gulf between the "pros" and the "amateurs," the better. And at a gathering where the speaker:attendee ratio is something like 1:6 (10% of the total being Novellas), it's a great opportunity for some real mentoring.
Nothing was happening at the conference until noon, so that gave me more time to go into the city and do a little daylight visiting. Man I'm happy I have my car!

On the recommendation of another design geek friend, I found my way to the famous Hatch Show Print on Broadway.



The thick smell of ink took me back to my first job at a print shop in 1897. I spent a good 30 minutes just looking up at the wall of posters, before watching the folks rock the presses for a while. Clearly, not an unusual thing for people to just stand and watch. My attention was only redirected by one friendly marmalade paw, there to make me feel even more at home.

Huey, one of the famous Hatch Show Print cats.
Having managed to miss lunch, again, I cruised back to the hotel for the noon pre-conference workshop from the Skepchicks: "Applied Skepticism: Everyday Nonsense and What You Can Do About It," featuring Elyse Anders, Amy Davis Roth, Debbie Goddard, Heina Dadabhoy, and Maria C. D'Souza Walters.

This was a workshop in the classic sense. After giving everyone a robust "Campaign Manual" and some opening remarks, the presenters broke us into groups to discuss methods of communicating skeptical messages in our personal lives, in public, and even in the media.
The "Campaign Manual" provided by the Skepchicks.
Immediately after was the second optional workshop, "Conducting Investigations," featuring Benjamin Radford, Joe Nickell, and Jim Underdown.

Our take-away from this one was Joe Nickell's "CSI Paranormal: Investigating Strange Mysteries," which I eventually got Joe to autograph. Not exactly a shrinking violet, that one. If you don't know who Joe Nickell is, you probably haven't watched much "paranormal" TV programming. Nickell has referred to himself as the "token skeptic," invited to give his POV on these shows, which is usually then edited down to 15 seconds at the end of the program. He's a fascinating man, and probably the only full-time "scientific paranormal investigator" in the world. Nickell, Radford, and Underdown operate in a "show-me" world, which is what makes listening to any one of them such a pleasure. They each emphasize real doing over virtual investigations or wholesale naysaying.
I don't collect autographs, but...
Underdown's group, the Independent Investigations Group (IIG), has a standing $50,000 challenge for anyone who can prove, under mutually agreed-upon test conditions, to have "paranormal" abilities. This is not "nah-nah ha-ha you can't prove it." The IIG puts a lot of time and effort into setting up fair conditions under which applicants – yes, these people come to IIG on their own – can prove their claims. And everyone involved takes it very seriously. According to Underdown, 100% of the applicants genuinely believe they can do as they claim, and none have tried to use any subterfuge.

And none have claimed the $50K.
Thursday night was the Opening Reception, which I was really looking forward to. At last year's reception, I met a couple of people who turned out to be my BFFs through the whole long weekend. Who knew what I could score this time! I even packed three different outfits, to accommodate whatever aims I may have found myself with come 7pm.

And so imagine my conflict when I saw, early in the day, the following tweet (courtesy of a retweet from @RiffTrax, whom I follow):
@imnotsatan
#NASHVILLE I AM GIVING AWAY THIS @RiffTrax LIVE TICKET. THIS ONE. http://twitpic.com/b7b5ep  Please someone take it. #birdemic #rifftraxlive
You must know who RiffTrax is. Must. No? Well, they are one of the two splinter groups to result from the cancellation of the holy-of-holies, "Mystery Science Theater 3000." (The other group being Cinematic Titanic, which I've written up for MCB previously.)

I knew before leaving for Tennessee that RiffTrax was doing a live show of the horrible movie "Birdemic," to be performed in Nashville and simulcast to theaters all over the country, one of the nights I was in TN. I thought for a moment about looking into tickets, but I knew it would have sold out instantly, and I was hesitant to take time away from the con. Seeing this "please take this ticket" tweet, how could I consider it anything other than a sign?

I responded to the tweeter, who turned out to be a big RiffTrax/MST3K/general nerdness fan who lived 5 minutes from the theater. After a quick couple of emails, it was decided that I'd meet her down by the Belcourt Theatre right by the Vanderbilt campus.

Without even knowing I was going to be seeing the show, I had somehow chosen to pack a dress with little birds all over it. Quick, someone call IIG!
Shock! And! Terror!
I was on campus and parked by about 5.30pm. Within a block, I found a neat-looking little restaurant with a big sign advertising stuffed burgers. Even if I had eaten more recently than 10 hours, it would have been more than I could have resisted. I texted Hayley to tell her where I was headed, and since it was one of the few places she hadn't tried, she agreed to meet me for a pre-show dinner.

Hayley, it turns out, was a fascinating person. It's not that I'm surprised that there are fascinating people in the world – couldn't swing a cat without hitting several Ph.D. candidates at the conference. But she and I had barely had much email interaction before meeting, so I had no idea what kind of conversation to expect. I explained the conference to her, and she was hep to the scene.

"There are two cons I try to go to every year," she told me, "Comic-Con and Dragon*Con."

I just gawped at her. Oh, she just happens to go to the two biggest conventions in the known universe every year. I've never been to either of them, but I know it will happen at some point before I die. Which is to say, I refuse to die until I've at least been to Dragon*Con.

Fully establishing that Hayley is My Kind of People, we enjoyed two enormous, juicy burgers (I think mine was stuffed with 8 different kinds of peppers…wow I started drooling just typing that) and a couple of drinks, on me. She told me from the start that she didn't want anything for the spare ticket, and I was intent on making this a positive experience for her. She suggested that if I find myself in town again, she can show me a few interesting places, which immediately flipped Nashville up a few notches in my estimation.

See, this is what you get for giving the benefit of the doubt… well, sometimes anyway. She took a risk by agreeing to meet with me, knowing nothing about me other than I was from Detroit and I drove down for this conference – oh and that I dig RiffTrax of course. The risk was less for me, and it was easier for me to decide to have dinner with someone who wasn't already treating me like a potential stalker freak.

The little Belcourt Theatre has hosted RiffTrax before, and this event sold out all 300+ seats in something like five minutes. The joint was all decked out, and the fans were out in force.
Infamous RiffTrax title cards.
Normally, this event would warrant a write-up all on its own, but I don't want to diverge too much from my path. I will briefly say that "Birdemic" is hilariously terrible, the riffers were in top form, and the audience was savvy to the dumb jokes, and dumber movie.
I was seated directly behind the Crow T. Robot section.
I separated from Hayley on the way in, knowing that I'd want to get a solo seat so I could dash out of there quickly and back to the conference, hopefully to catch at least the tail-end of the opening reception. That gamble did not pay off, and by the time I got back to the hotel, everyone had moved on to the next thing, which in this case was George Hrab (I've mentioned he's adorable, right?) doing a live recording of his Geologic podcast. I made it through about 6 minutes sitting still before I realized I was completely cashed and called it quits.

And this was supposed to be my light day.
Because I'm not a big fan of breakfast foods anyway, I got up a little later on Friday morning, skipping the morning alt.med session, and intending to grab another excellent panini at the lounge downstairs before PZ Myers at 11.15am. "There is no lunch anywhere in the hotel until 11." Dammit. I wound up paying $15 for what CSI was providing for free (had I been up 2 hours earlier…okay, worth it). And I skipped the alt.med panel. Honestly, if there was one panel that I thought was going to be over my head, it was that one. The #CSICon hashtag suggested it was a good one.

After my (stupiddamn) breakfast, I crept into the main room at 10.45am to find that people had arrived. It was easy to forget, having been there for two days already, that I was an early-arrival, and things had barely even gotten started yet.

At 11.15am, PZ Myers disclaimed his presentation as "a straight science and math talk." PZ has been known to be more than a little controversial, but for this audience, he modestly established his goal as "to make you all smarter than a creationist." That didn't take even close to 30 minutes.

11.50am saw the return of our friend Joe Nickell to talk about "The Science of Ghosts," and his book of the same name. Or, you know, "science." Needs more spooky-scare-quotes.

Nickell regaled us with on-site spooky tales, which culminated in such skin-tingling frights as a desk clerk flicking light switches. He's got thousands of stories, and is a great story-teller. Which is just as well because you aren't going to get a word in edgewise with him. Nickell is the real-deal though, not just as an inspiration, but in actually bringing charges against frauds.

After Joe's talk, I went back to my room to start preparing my costume for the party that night. I had worked up this whole gimmick involving glow sticks and little plastic vials as Miracle Tears. I didn't know how long it was going to take, so I spent my lunch break prepping my little bit of mad science. I need an assistant for these things. Turns out, I never even used them. I always go overboard!
Miracle Virgin Tears™
*Statements not evaluated by the FDA. Will not cure any ailments. VirginCorp is not responsible for any loss or damages arising from faith placed in this product. Do not consume, release, touch, or taunt Miracle Virgin Tears.
Things resumed at 1.30pm on the dot. Now is a good time to mention our intrepid emcee, Richard Wiseman, the brilliant author of ":59 Seconds" among many others. The man talks like a machine gun, but he runs a tight ship! Leave it to an experimental psychologist to not only keep the speakers on time, but to herd the attendees like a pro.

He also ruined this song for me, forever.*



After so ruining, Wiseman introduced Ray Hyman to moderate the "Memory & Belief" panel, featuring James Alcock, Elizabeth Loftus, and Indre Viskontas.

James Alcock began with… Oh I can't even tell you what he spoke on, because I was so distracted by this.
Comic Sans? Really?
Elizabeth Loftus followed, on false memory. This is a topic near to me. It's something people struggle with greatly, as it's disconcerting to realize that you cannot trust your own experiences. This underlines much of why skepticism and psychology interest me to begin with, as someone with some rather specific false memory experiences. It is possible to clearly remember, and confidently retell, recollections of events that could never have happened. It's not even uncommon. Disturbing, but not uncommon. We can be so sure, and so wrong.

I was familiar with the final speaker on the panel, Indre Viskontas, from her work on a long-time favorite podcast of mine, Point of Inquiry.

What I did not know is that, in addition to hosting a rigorous podcast, Viskontas is a neuroscientist, educator, and opera singer. People with that sort of breadth so impress me. Many of the genius academic-types at the conference also have great artistic depths.

The panel was excellent and thought-provoking, as the relative silence on the #CSICon hashtag proved: We were all too busy listening.

After a short break, Massimo Polidoro** presented us with one of the more curious topics of the weekend: "The Walrus Was Paul: The Psychology of the 'Paul is Dead' Hoax."

Strictly speaking, the Beatles had broken up by the time I was born, but I was raised by the generation that created them. In fact, I was given a scrapbook filled with clippings and rabid fangirl obsessings by one of my aunts. So I was pretty familiar with the whole Paul is Dead thing, and I thought most people raised by Baby Boomers would be. Once again, my presumptions about what other people know was way off.

Polidoro's breakdown of the hoax (if indeed it was a hoax and not just a naturally-occuring conspiracy theory) was thorough and entertaining. By the end, I certainly didn't believe Paul was dead, but I did believe he was an egomaniac. Think about how many pictures of them there are where he's facing a different way or otherwise differentiated from his bandmates. Better still was when Polidoro introduced another theory: Maybe it was Ringo who was replaced. Once you have the theory, you can go back and find "evidence" to back up that theory. And that's how these things spread.

Next was an informal discussion of the CSI "Paranormal" Road Trip, featuring Rebecca Watson, Richard Wiseman, and Jon Ronson. As you can guess, there wasn't much "paranormal" to be found, try as they may. What we ultimately got was more of a CSI Roadside America Trip, which is just fine.

Jon Ronson is a relatively recent "discovery" of mine, after making the podcast rounds supporting his "The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry," which is on my very-short-list to read. He also provided a portion of the narration for my own road trip, having bought his self-narrated "Lost At Sea" before heading south.

Between Wiseman's excited boy-genius, Ronson's deceptively sweet lilt, and Watson's sharp wit, there's no doubt the three of them could turn any silly thing into an adventure. The camaraderie – or mutual hatred – was spelled out at the start when Ronson offered, "Please feel free to ask us about other work we've done; in my case psychopaths, in Richard's psychology, and in Rebecca's hating men." Loved him before; loved him even more after.

Watson, Ronson, Wiseman.
The more lighthearted afternoon set was capped off by another that people might not anticipate for such a gathering: "Mangaka" Sara Mayhew on "Science Fandom: Creating Skeptical Heroes."

I'm not very familiar with manga (comics), but I know there is a lot of depth to the topic. Mayhew brought us some specifics that were quite fascinating, including the fact that "up to70% of manga fans are girls and young women." This is a big deal. In the States, comics culture is dominated by male-ness. In Japan – and wider manga culture – the stories and art are much broader, which allows for greater varieties of storytelling and characters. As Mayhew explained, in manga a girlie-girl can absolutely be a hero; she's not limited to being either "sexy" or "Amazonian."

In addition to more variety of story and character available in manga as a genre, Mayhew pointed out that the sizable percentage of female manga artists/authors really makes the male artists/authors better in perhaps unexpected way. An artist can create a typical action bang-pow book, and then follow with a sweet coming of age book, with no expectations to conform to gender stereotypes.

Needless to say, Mayhew also had one of the cutest PowerPoints of the weekend, with no Comic Sans to be found.
Mayhew illustration including "the One and True Captain."
At 6.30pm, I rushed upstairs to prepare myself for the Halloween Costume Party, which I'd been preparing for for weeks. I gave myself about 3 hours to get ready, which was quite an overestimation. Still, always good to have time. Also good to have? Dinner, before being confronted with a literal pickup truck full of moonshine.

I got painted up, lighted up, and lit up, and got myself downstairs to the ballroom, where I found Ben Radford and Jim Underdown. After buying us a round a drinks, I found the moonshine "tasting" table. I'm not sure I really…tasted much after that point. I did have the opportunity to tease Ron Lindsay (I had predicted he was going to dress as a Boy Scout: "I had a vision of you in shorts!" I insisted) and have a few pictures taken with Joe Nickell. Debunked once again!

My costume was designed specifically for this event. After Blake Smith's win last year for Occam's Shaving Cream, I really wanted to do something skeptically-appropriate. Weeping Virgin Mary statue was just the thing. As I tend to do, I made every part of the costume, including repurposing some Halloween decorations as big juicy bloody tears. This was the tie-in for my science experiment upstairs – little vials of Miracle Tears to be given out as healing aids. My concern, when it came time, was that I was either going to become hopelessly tangled up in the cords, or something might accidentally open and stain some hapless pilgrim. So that portion of the costume was scrapped.

Reigning Skeptical Costume champeen of 2011, Blake Smith, as Occam's Shaving Cream.
The skeptics got the joke from a mile away anyway. There were a lot of really fun costumes, but my pick for the best skeptical costume would have been Tim Farley as "No True Scotsman," which made me laugh out loud.
Rebecca Watson and Tim Farley as "No True Scotsman." Photo by Brian Engler.
The self-selected contestants marched dutifully across the stage for the judges, and then I, of course, went back to the moonshine table. Right next to the food, and yet I didn't manage to touch any of that. Go figure. As I clumsily chatted up the moonshine sommelier – who was from NEW JERSEY, for crying out loud – I heard a voice in the distance announcing, "Weeping Virgin Mary!"

"Oh," I said suavely, "I guess I won."

Woohoo, "Best Skeptical" cash prize! I can afford to drive home!
The Virgin Mary ("that's my story and I'm stickin' to it!") debunked by Zombie Joe Nickell. Photo by Brian Engler.
It had been a really long few days, and I had hit my limit. Many pictures were taken, apologies made where appropriate, and I vanished into the evening mist (or the elevator, if you must). It took an hour to get back out of costume, and I woke up with makeup still in my ears.
The big weiner! Photo by Ben Radford.
To my everlasting regret, there was no Saturday morning for me. As covered: Don't like breakfast, tired, moonshine. I slept until 11am, missing "Gender Issues and Science" featuring Ronald A. Lindsay, Elisabeth Cornwell, and Richard Lippa.

Twitter reports that the session was awesomestupendous. Why do I miss the awesomestupendous talks? Better question, why are the awesomestupendous talks first thing in the morning?

As I was having lunch and trying to recongeal my brain into some semblance of usefulness, I considered the distance between Nashville and Atlanta. A couple of people I'd spoken to had driven up to the conference from ATL. It's a city I've long been wanting to visit (aquarium!), but haven't had sufficient excuse. Nashville put me 600 miles closer… I could take another couple of days down south before making the drive home. An appealing thought, but you know what was even more appealing? Just going home. Especially right at that moment. Moonshine. Seriously. I could blame traveling for monkeying with my constitution, but that lie does a disservice to us all.

As I was getting myself back up to speed out in the common areas, I chatted with a few of the CFI staff members, all of whom had been very friendly. It could be that they were getting used to seeing me around, and so figured they may as well talk to me. But rather, I think they genuinely like what they're doing, and were happy to speak to new people who were excited by the same topics. One of the campus organizers told me, "I think atheists and skeptics are particularly wacky." I have found that every group believes that of themselves. And every group is correct.

At 1.30pm, I found my way into my first session of the day, "Science and Public Policy," featuring Kendrick Frazier, Chris Mooney, Ronald A. Lindsay, and Daniel Kahan. It was a very information-dense and political group of talks, and by the second (of 3) speakers, I'd completely lost the plot.

What stood out about this panel, in spite of my drowning, is that the speakers disagreed on several points. I'd like to see more of this (and I understand it was also the case in the Gender Issues panel). While obviously gatherings of like-minded people can result in a lot of preaching to the choir, when one goes deeper into even agreed-upon topics, there will always be disagreements. Recognizing the risk of dividing an already small pool of proponents, I nonetheless find it a welcome exercise in growth. If it can be done politely, respectfully, and in a scholarly fashion. Which this panel certainly did.

Who's up next? Oh look, it's Ben Radford!*** If my math is correct, this was the third time I'd seen him speak that weekend. He spoke on "Mass Hysteria," pimping his latest book, "The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes," which – full disclosure! – I have read. Even so, it was a fun talk, and the only one, to my recollection, that included meowing.

At 4.30pm, skeptical superstar Steven Novella took to the lectern to tell us about placebos, or at least to give us a simulation of a talk about placebos. (There is a law requiring placebo jokes. It's not my fault.) It's not exactly controversial to say that Novella is an excellent speaker/communicator. Even in my diminished state, I absorbed much information.

The last speaker for Saturday was Anthony Pratkanis to talk to us about "The Weapons of Fraud." Once again, this is the kind of talk that I devour. Pratkanis addressed the myths about telephone/email fraud victims, how they are thought to be greedy or stupid. It's much more complicated than that, and the con artists are much more psychologically savvy than we realize. Senior citizens get a bad rap about being naïve and falling for a lot of these cons, when the truth is, they are simply targeted more often, as they're the ones with the money onhand. Pratkanis's excellent training video was requested by audience members to be able to share with their own friends and families to help protect them against these predators.

This was another of my favorite presentations, as the real-world value is obvious. This isn't simply about theories and philosophies, but ways to help and protect people on an individual basis, to say nothing of taking down the frauds.

Do yourself a favor and download the presentation here.

Uplifted by this talk, 2 gallons of water, and dognose how much caffeine, I was looking forward to hopping on the con-provided shuttle downtown to check out some nightlife with my fellow conference-goers. And yes, I brought 2, or maybe 3, possible outfits for the occasion. But on the way to the elevator, I stopped to chat with Ben Radford, and he invited me to have dinner with him, in the hotel.

Now, one thing one never does is say no to dinner with BR, because the very least one gets is dinner with BR. But what may also happen is this: In the midst of discussing getting a table, we were met by Ray Hyman, Anthony Pratkanis, Scott O. Lilienfeld, James Alcock, and Armadeo Sarma, who asked us to join them. This was a major score for someone like me, who lives for being a fly on the wall. Sure enough, the very first thing that happened when we were seated was one of our companions announced, "He was wrong, he got that wrong," about another of the speakers. I had intentionally set myself at the far end of the table, where I could see and hear everyone. Ben leaned to me and said, "I hope you don't mind shop talk."

"Are you kidding? This is what I'm here for," I told him.

(For the record, it was actually a relatively minor point that was being discussed, clarified really, about the other speaker. More of a playful intellectual ribbing than a real criticism.)

Ray Hyman ran the table, as he should have. The man is a trove of knowledge, stories, insider information, and an overall genial likability. That he's in his 80s is hard to believe, he's so full of energy. Hyman told us how, at the age of 7, he became a "skeptic" as his interest in performing stage magic led him to Houdini, and Houdini was a skeptic, so obviously that's what he was supposed to be. What he didn't know was that, in fact, organized skepticism wasn't a thing at all yet. And so, knowingly or not, Hyman became one of the founding fathers of some of the most important related groups.

It wasn't always debunking, of course, and he told us some of the "tricks" of cold reading, etc., that he'd both used and taught. As he was sharing a story about palm-reading, and how easy it is to accidentally be correct, Scott Lilienfeld moved his water glass aside, and stuck both hands out. "Okay, okay, let's see what you've got."

Hyman went straight into character, getting something like 15 correct hits in a row. It wasn't until he said, "This line here suggests that you aren't very open with your emotions –" that Lilienfeld interrupted to say, "Actually, I think I'm pretty open –"

Without the slightest pause, Hyman continued, "Except for this little branch here, which shows me that you go against that instinct." Uproarious laughter from the table.

Scott Lilienfeld has his life laid bare by Ray Hyman. Photo by Ben Radford.
Had we not already gone so late into the night, I'd have tried my best to get in on a Ray Hyman reading. But it was late, and there was a séance to prepare for, so we went our separate ways.
For the past 16 years, Joe Nickell has held the annual Houdini Séance for CFI, right around Halloween. Anyone with any interest in magic, spiritualism, skepticism, debunking, escape artists, showmanship, Halloween, Hungarians, OR Detroit should have more than a working knowledge of Harry Houdini. Even though Houdini's widow officially called off the hunt for his ghost in 1936, those in on the "joke" have continued the tradition ever since.

Nickell laid out on a table several instruments by which Houdini's spirit could show its presence: A candle, a lock, a Joe Nickell brand Wooden Nickel™ (face up), a pad of paper, a pair of handcuffs, and on this particular night, a glass of single-malt whiskey.

Joe Nickell, bell, book, and candle.
After giving time to James Alcock and Ray Hyman to entertain us with a couple of classic magic tricks, and allowing for one very drunk convention-goer behind me to innocently heckle everyone in the room, there was, alas, no sign of spiritual intervention. The lock remained locked, the wooden nickel was untouched, the pad was blank, and the handcuffs closed. After ringing the bell to signal the close of the séance, Nickell snuffed the candle, and then the whiskey.
Sunday morning, I was determined to get up for some breakfast. The talk of the room was all about how the budding Sandy was interfering with travel plans. Flights were already canceled, rental cars were all booked, and a lot of people were worried about returning to their "normal" lives by Monday. I had my car, of course, all 5,000 AWD pounds of it, so I didn't have a concern in the world. At the breakfast table, I dipped into my iPad to check some flights and maps for the people there with me, and discovered that two of the people at my table were from Michigan. This made at least 6 or 8 Michiganders I'd met by happenstance at the conference.

"I'm surprised by how many people there are here from Michigan!" I said.

"Yes, but I think this is all of us. Everyone in Michigan who would come to a thing like this is here," someone suggested.

Then began the bittersweet final speakers of the conference, beginning with David Morrison at 9am, speaking on end-of-the-world hysteria in "Will Christmas Come This Year?" (SPOILER: Probably.)

Would you believe that 10% of Americans are "concerned" that the world is going to end this year, 2012? I would say, "based on a non-prophesy by the Mayans, who didn't even think so," but I suspect that 10% of Americans, or more, every year, think the world is going to end that year. If I've learned anything from the Michigan Militia, it's that 10% actually seems a little low.

Morrison presented some horrifying reports of mothers preparing to kill their children so they wouldn't have to "suffer" the catastrophic end of the world, and other overly-fantasy-prone people suiciding to beat the rush. It's really distressing, and another example of why critical thinking is so important. Critical thinking means, among other things, not just believing what you see on the news; check it out for yourself. Find out the information beyond the headlines, because headlines are not meant to be informative. They are intended to elicit some emotional response. Look further, do the work, don't like the scare-mongering win.

After Morrison was the ever-awesome Sharon Hill, from doubtfulnews.com, to give us a rundown of some of the best and brightest Weird News covered on the site over the past year. Hill does a remarkable amount of work, aggregating, curating, and commenting on the "did that really happen?" variety of news story. More importantly, she makes an effort to follow up on those stories as more information becomes available, something mainstream media tends to overlook. The giant mystery eyeball that washed up in Florida? You saw that, right? Did you know it was identified as a swordfish? Well, now you do. Thank Sharon.

Extra funny, Hill revealed the primary search terms that brought visitors to her site over the past year. Was it the Montauk Monster? No… Any one of the dozens of "mystery lights" constantly reported worldwide? No… It was chicks, man. Specifically, models Fukkacumi and Valeria Lukyanova. Some things never change.

Finally, finally, at 10.30am, was the last speaker, Scott O. Lilienfeld, on "The Great Myths of Popular Psychology." This is a talk I was excited about since experiencing the tsunami that is Scott Lilienfeld at dinner the night before. Of the list of books I'm chomping at the bit to read as a direct result of this conference, Lilienfeld's "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior" is right at the top. He wasn't just speaking on the wrong ideas of laypeople, but rather myths about psychology that are perpetuated by the pop psychology industry, ranging from frivolous to potentially dangerous. Some of which might surprise you. For example:
• A survey of psychology undergrads showed 77% believed "opposites attract" in romantic relationships. Not so, they repel.
• 66% of psych undergrads believed that expressing pent-up anger reduces aggression. No, it tends to fan the flames of aggression, rather than reduce it.
And an especially tasty one:
• 45% of students in one survey believed that "weird behaviors" tended to occur more during full moons. This is a case of confirmation bias, unproven by data.

And no, it's not true that we only use 10% of our brains. "While this may be true of Homer Simpson, it's not true for the rest of us. We know from functional brain imaging studies that there are no silent areas of the brain. All areas of the brain are working at all times."

If Lilienfeld hadn't already long since won me over, he'd have done so by consistently using "data" in the plural. I know it's awkward, and some would even say pedantic, but a strict but casual adherence to grammar's little peccadilloes just makes me all warm inside.
The conference officially over, I was packed and checked out of the hotel by noon. My idea about driving to Atlanta dashed by my lack of sleep, and excess of superstorms working up the east coast, I pointed north and homeward.

Next, 600 miles of this.
Whenever I take a road trip, there's always a point on the return trip that feels like I'm home. It's not actually home, not my city or even my county; it varies depending on the direction, and sometimes even the length of the trip. This time I remember it so clearly.

Construction had taken me by surprise and threw off my rhythm, so the drive straight through had become challenging. Knowing myself as I do, I knew when it was time to take a break and let the weariness catch up with me. Proving my personal motto "I can sleep anywhere," I curled up for an hour in my back seat, under a bright light between a buzzy McDonalds drive-through and the interstate at the KY/OH border.

Thus revived, about 10 miles over the Michigan border, Pandora confirmed that I'd made it by serving me up the sweetest tune: "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.



At CSICon 2011, I fell in love.

CSICon 2012 felt more like coming home.

The thrill of Firsts had been mitigated by a year of reading, listening to podcasts, etc., by the speakers who a year earlier I didn't know at all. But like all good love affairs, that giddiness was replaced by a deeper understanding and connectedness.

This may make me sound like a fangirl. So be it. I've never been one much to hide my opinions or my philosophies. I want to share what makes me excited, what I believe deserves support and attention, and most importantly, what I think you will enjoy.

As a thinking person, engaged in a long-term-relationship with Reality – and who is engaged with Reality more than a Detroiter? – critical thinking is something we each benefit from greatly and immediately. People who think skeptics are buzzkills are full of shit, and just don't understand the concept at all. The world, and our brains, are both amazing places to live. How could it possibly be a detriment to understand it all more fully, and truthfully?

Every person involved in CFI and CSI shares that kind of passion for rationality. Every one of the speakers brought a particular kind of light. Whether you want to look at what it illuminates or not is up to you.

Me? I can never see too much.

*Also ruined by CSICon: Cinnamon buns, moonshine, sea slugs, "O Fortuna," Ringo Starr.
**I resist mentioning how handsome and charming is Massimo Polidoro, because, for one thing, it's amply obvious. For another, I don't want to be accused of objectifying our cast by continuing to point out how handsome/adorable/shiny they are. Believe me, it's difficult to resist.
***See above.