Don Riefler is a co-founder of both the Purdue Skeptics Society and the Lafayette Skeptics in Lafayette, Indiana. Last year he and some friends gave a skeptical panel discussion at Gen Con Indianapolis, and it went well enough that they’re expanding the program this year.
I’m a big dork/nerd/geek; take your pick. I’ve always favored “geek.” I’ve been a member of that extra-lame category of people called “tabletop gamers” for years and years, and there’s no better place for a tabletop gamer than Gen Con. It’s like geek nirvana.
I’ve been attending with friends annually since Gen Con moved to Indianapolis in 2003. It’s always been a blast from a geeky perspective: pen-and-paper games, video games, comics, toys, anime, awesome costumes; the list goes on. Even though most of us are too busy as adults to do much gaming anymore, we still attend Gen Con and lust after dice, alpha builds of Starcraft II, and booth babes.
In 2008, unfortunately, Gen Con was infiltrated by woo.
That year I was attending with my friends Sean, Rob, and Tom. While perusing the event catalogue, we noticed that a group called the Indiana Ghost Trackers was delivering a panel titled “The Science of EVP.” We were immediately intrigued and decided it might be a hoot to go see the show. It was free, after all.
Suffice to say it wasn’t worth the price. The panelists seemed to have only a tenuous grasp of their own pseudoscience, let alone a good understanding of real science, and yet they took themselves and their investigations quite seriously. At the end, during the Q&A, we each asked a polite but pointed question: we wanted to see how they responded to direct questioning and whether or not they could justify their beliefs. They could not. As an example, when asked how they defined “theory,” given its proper scientific use, the head of the Ghost Trackers said that, to them, a “theory” was essentially anything they made up.
We resolved forthwith to plan our own skeptical panel for 2009, to counter the pseudoscience of the Indiana Ghost Trackers. Over the next 12 months, we cobbled together a panel called “Skepticism, Critical Thinking, and Pop Culture,” which covered everything from basic logical fallacies to financial scams. We hoped for maybe ten or twenty people in the audience; we ended up with more than forty. Most of them really enjoyed the panel, even though it ran long and we had to cut out a lot of material. People said they were surprised and glad to see skeptical programming at Gen Con, especially since the Indiana Ghost Trackers had run three events in 2009 instead of just the one. We had a lot of fun doing it, the audience had a lot of fun watching it, so why not do it again?
These days the convention circuit seems ripe for skepticism. There’s the huge success of Skeptrack at Dragon*Con, which (rumor has it) might have inspired official spinoffs at other conventions. There’s Skepchicon, the new annual convention in Minnesota; Skepticon; the NECSS con; the Skepticamp phenomenon; and TAM just keeps getting bigger every year.
Of course, the last few are dedicated skeptical conventions, which by their nature tend to attract only people who are already interested in the twin methods of science and critical thinking. They thus do little to offer educational outreach to the public at large. I don’t mean that as a criticism, mind you; skeptic-focused conventions are awesome in their own way, but effective outreach requires skeptics to mix with the rest of the world.
This is why events like Dragon*Con’s Skeptrack are important. Skeptrack occurs in a pop-culture milieu, a convention packed with people from all walks of life who might never have been exposed to critical thinking, but who sure would like to hear a talk about astronomy. Skeptrack can appeal not only to self-identified skeptics, but it can introduce science and critical thought to new people. That is the model we’re attempting to emulate at Gen Con.
Of course, we’re going about it in an entirely grassroots manner. Skeptrack was done from the top down, a co-op between Derek Colanduno from Skepticality and Mike Stackpole, well-known author and founder of the Phoenix Skeptics. They already had some pop-culture momentum behind them, and thus were able to organize a skeptical track almost from the get-go. They got big names interested, which pulled in all the average joes.
We, on the other hand, have to take the opposite approach. We are the average joes, and we have to build our guerilla Skeptical Symposium from the ground up. Luckily, our single panel gained us a recruit, who is helping in 2010. We also generated some interest at an event held by CFI Indy. We are none of us famous in skeptical circles; we’re simply workaday skeptics with something to say, and the guts to get up there and say it to a crowd. We have no official recognition from Gen Con, and I was, in fact, asked to change the name of our group on official documents to “Gen Con Skeptics” to something that didn’t imply we were working officially with Gen Con.
We have, rather, organized an unofficial battery of panels, presentations, and programming to populate Gen Con Indy with as much solid scientific thinking as possible. With luck, and some hard work, we hope that in years to come we may become officially recognized, and we small fries might, in the end, attract some of the big names to our little grassroots effort.
Our work thus far has shown promise. “The Skeptical Gamers” (our new name after “Gen Con Skeptics”) are hosting ten presentations at present: a streamlined version of last year’s panel, talks on everything from ancient astronauts to financial scams, and two iterations of a very important presentation on the power of vaccination. I say “very important,” because that presentation is a companion to the part I’m most excited about: our fundraiser to benefit the Indiana Immunization Coalition.
Gen Con has given us a free booth in their Family Fun Pavilion to use as a base for the dissemination of educational materials on vaccination and the collection of donations, 100% of which will go to the Indiana Immunization Coalition to be used to help fund new educational initiatives. Indiana has abysmal vaccination rates, due not to a lack of direct funds but rather to antivaccine misinformation. Our fundraiser will help the IIC counter that misinformation, and get kids the shots they need.
Of course, our work is never done. This kind of outreach requires human resources, and we can always use more of them. Want to add your presentation to our programming? Want to volunteer at our fundraising booth and help get kids vaccinated? Have a totally awesome idea I haven’t even thought of? Stop by our website at http://skepticalgamers.com to read up on more detailed information and drop me a line with the contact form. Together, we can make this a Gen Con to remember.