On the first weekend in April, I flew to Minneapolis to participate in Skep Tech, a brand new skeptic conference organized by several student groups at three universities in that area. This first year event, which was free to all attendees, was a great success from my perspective. The talks were well attended, interesting topics were discussed and many new skeptical connections were made.
If you've been paying attention to the conference scene, you may have noticed a huge increase in the number of skepticism oriented conferences in the last few years. This increase is very real, and may well be evidence of skepticism's continued growth. It's getting to the point that some weekends there is more than one choice of event to attend - Skep Tech itself was held the same weekend as NECSS in New York City.
I was interested in this growth in the skeptical conference scene, so as a research project (and public service) I built a publicly accessible database of recent skeptic conferences at the site Lanyrd.com. (Note: this is still a work-in-progress, and comments are welcome). Just in 2012 alone I found over 45 events in 10 different countries, including at least 20 participant-run Skepticamps. More than half of these events were created in the last five years.
In compiling this data, I've noticed an increasing variety in the nature and scope of these events. Some are just one-day affairs with a handful of speakers, others (like JREF's own Amazing Meeting, coming up in July) span four days and many, many diverse sessions. Some are quite regional, drawing their attendees only from their local area. Others can draw attendees from around the world. Some are heavily curated and programmed, and others (notably Skepticamps) are organized much more loosely.
Skep Tech was a curated weekend conference that had a mix of speakers from the local area as well as nationally known speakers. What made Skep Tech stand out for me was its topic focus on the relationship between skepticism and technology and innovation. This is a new (and welcome) idea - conferences that narrow their focus so they can dive deep into particular issues of interest to skeptics.
From the very first talk I gave at a skeptic conference (at TAM6), I've always recommended that skeptics specialize as much as possible. There are simply too many topic areas in skepticism for any part-time skeptic to be an expert on all of them. So I think it is only natural that skeptic conferences will also specialize. Skep Tech is one great example of this. Another example is the recent one-day event Tricks of the Mind (sponsored last month by CFI UK at London's Conway Hall). It focused on ways human perception can be fooled.
My plenary session at Skep Tech was titled The Ninjutsu of the Internet-Savvy Skeptic, and in it I focused on how skeptics need to develop their internet skills to better battle the sometimes well-funded opponents we face. Video of my talk as well as slides and links from my presentation are available at the above link on my blog. I think it was well received, and I plan to hone this talk so you may see it again at another event.
There were many other great sessions at Skep Tech, including a number of terrific panel discussions (several of which included me as well). But I would like to call attention to one presentation in particular - that was the one by Hemant Mehta of the "Friendly Atheist" blog.
His talk was titled "Post First, Ask Questions Later" and it focused on recent lapses among online skeptics and atheists to actually follow up and fact-check the information they are passing along in social media or blog posts. He draws parallels with the recent fact-checking scandals involving Jonah Lehrer and Mike Daisey. He points out that most times when he attempts to fact check and follow up on stories on his own blog, he finds a more fascinating story waiting to be discovered and reported upon.
It is a very good talk, and I think it is intended as a wake-up call to the skeptic blogging community. I hope it will be heard. There is video and audio from two different times he has given this talk available at the Lanyrd site, and recommend you give it a look.
By all accounts Skep Tech was a success. I counted over 130 attendees at the best-attended talk, and well over 70 at most others. I believe the intent is to repeat it next year.
I hope to be able to attend again, and I hope to see more specialization in the conference scene. I believe it points to continued health and growth in the skeptic movement.
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow. He is the creator of the website What's the Harm, blogs at Skeptical Software Tools and contributes to the Skepticality podcast and the Virtual Skeptics webcast. He researched the content in JREF's Today in Skeptic History iPhone app and has presented at five Amazing Meetings. You can follow him on Twitter here.