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Fostering Communication Outside the Conference Box

by Kirsten Sanford, Jul 17 2009

I didn’t go to TAM this year. In fact, I’ve never been. Not that I didn’t want to attend, but I’ve recently made it a rule to only attend conferences where I have been invited to speak. Makes it much easier on my pocketbook, and I don’t end up regretting my decisions to not attend any of the bazillion conferences I could attend each year. But, why do I bring this up… the conference?

Conferences are a brilliant way to bring people together in order to foster communication. Certainly, if you are attending a conference, you are most likely interested in the topics to be covered. But, there is always the session that you didn’t expect to be interesting that turns out to be thought-provoking. Not to mention the mixers where you most certainly bump into people of all types, and have conversations you could never expect. The environment (or, it might be the alcohol) pushes people out of their shells, making them more social than normal, more interested than normal, and allowing maximum information transfer to take place.

How can the conference vibe be transferred elsewhere? How can we get people out of their mental caves and interested in communication… or, even learning, dare I say it?

First, the environment needs to have ease of entry. People need to find what they are interested in easily. The minute search takes too long, people lose patience and move on to something else. The internet is a great place to foster mass communication and information transfer, and social and new media are getting to a point that the barrier to entry into any conversation topic is incredibly low.

Second, the content needs to be engaging. Just like college lectures, the less interesting a video, blog, or slide-show are, the less people connect to the material. People judge novel content just like they judge people… subconsciously. Whether they are aware of it or not, they have decided their level of interest within 2 seconds. If the approach to getting information across is not able to make a good first impression, the opportunity for engagement is already lost.

Third and finally, the environment needs to allow free exchange of ideas and responses. This is crucial to the basic idea of communication as communication can never be one-sided.

The social web is getting closer and closer to putting all of these pieces together, and I am constantly on the lookout for interesting projects that are on the verge of making science communication better. In my recent web jaunts I came across the Imagine Science Film Festival, which will take place in New York in October. I think this festival is starting in the right place.

The festival is organized by Imagine Science Films and sponsored by AAAS and Science Magazine. But, rather than just getting film-makers to submit films and holding a physical festival, the organizers have partnered with the well-known video sharing site, Vimeo. In doing so, they have enabled the submission process to become a social one. People can upload and comment on each others videos. And, the hope is that the films run the gamut from artistic to educational to fun. This brings together film-makers from all different backgrounds into one conversation about what science in film actually is or even what it can be.

Also, Vimeo is featuring a different video each week from the group of submissions, which has the effect of bringing people from outside the circle of science enthusiasts or interested film-makers into the conversation. The barrier to entry is low due to Vimeo’s involvement. Add to this the fact that the content is video, which can be quite engaging if done well. And, the forum allows for the exchange of ideas through the video format and comment system.

In all, this has all the pieces to enable the successful fostering of communication about science in a much broader forum than that offered by a conference setting.

Oh, and if you’d like to submit a video, the contest entry ends July 31. So, get on it.

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18 Responses to “Fostering Communication Outside the Conference Box”

  1. Chris says:

    I feel happy in my shell, it is warm in here.
    So i refuse to comunicate:)

  2. ReedE says:

    The quality of online communication is improving, certainly, and can serve as a key component of knowledge sharing.

    However, effective knowledge sharing is much more than posting a video, listening to a podcast or twittering. It’s about learning to communicate as well, being able to share ideas both at a cocktail party or presenting in front of a large audience. It’s about thinking on your feet, interacting with others, and knowing what to say and how to say it in real-time.

    Will that sort of intimate interaction ever reach online? Perhaps, but until then we skeptics need to extract as much as possible from the means presently at our disposal.

    That’s what the ‘SkeptiCamp’ effort is all about, an open conference format built on the wildly successful BarCamp format.

    And big thanks to Mark Edward for buying one of our shirts. :^)

  3. Ranson says:

    This is just a way of saying “Invite me to speak at the next TAM”, isn’t it? ;)

  4. I think that ya’ll in the physical sciences are much better-suited to this project of openness and conciliation between disciplines and those outside the disciplines than those of us languishing in the post-modernist-ruled humanities.

    At least in science, if you get something wrong, your colleagues will bring you down, and everyone wins. Here in the humanities (or my own field of Political Studies), if you get something wrong, you will inevitably find your own cadre of like-minded people who will go down fighting on your behalf, and foster an incredible culture of hostility to those who don’t share your particular theories.

    I had a miserable experience at a conference (not the first time), recently, and aside from Skeptic conferences (which are much less academic than my Labor Studies torture-sessions), I don’t think I’ll ever go to one again.

    http://somecanadianskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/03/in-which-our-hero-looses-faith.html

    I’m actually envious at the very real possibility of forming a positive conference culture that is inclusive, progressive and more importantly, instructive! Sadly, it’s not going to come from my side of the aisle.

  5. Carl says:

    Kirsten, any way you could give a URL for the festival?

  6. Mark Edward says:

    Kirsten, I totally agree with you about attending if you are booked. I had a blast at TAM 7, but in all honesty I felt somewhat bummed when a panel was held on magic and mentalism where Penn & Teller basically trashed all mentalists and anyone who doesn’t play to the tune of completely disclaiming. I knew that mentalist Luke Jermay had been scheduled to be on the panel but had bowed out due to illness (?). I found the panel’s diatribes (except perhaps for Ray Hyman’s welcome comments)biased and sat listening defenseless in the audience. I knew going in that this was my first TAM and that skeptics in general still are not sure where I stand and don’t trust me yet as a confirmed member of their group. Several people were openly antagonistic about why I was there and what my stand was on psychics. I was dumbstruck. Apparently some of those folks hadn’t seen anything I had done on television or read my books or reviews of them for the last ten years! It bugged me that supposedly fellow magicians like Penn, Teller and Jamy Ian Swiss all went out of their way to present mentalism routines throughout the weekend, but when it came time to talk the talk about individual choice, attitude and the direction such performances might take or not take depending on the situations involved, they all descended into a dogmatic approach that left little room for discussion for any performers who might work outside the narrow confines of the standard magiclan. Issues like television production, radio and film representations of the paranormal or what exactly mentalists might or might not be expected to do given the state of the media were completely left out of the mix. That part of TAM unfortunately only brought back uneasy memories of the many years I had to personally witness the never-ending schism that exists between magicians and mentalists. I know D. J. Grothe felt the same way I did and was ready for me to jump in, but it never happened. The lecture ran out of time. It was a sorry moment for mentalists or performers in genreral who might like to “push the envelope” a bit (not unlike P & T themselves) and I wondered where Banachek was that day. I’m a entertainer, this was a free country the last time I looked and I can say and do whatever I damn well please. What I do is perform. It’s not my intention or job to educate, pontificate or get on a bully pulpit when people hire me to read minds! I do what I’m paid to do and unlike P & T who have made it to millionaire status by creating their Bad Boys of Magic image, I can’t always afford to politicize what I do. They have taken plenty of heat from magicians over the years and their success has happened largely by treading a very thin line in challenging the status quo. I hate hypocrisy. If I’m playing to a group of skeptics, I will tailor what I say to that group. If I’m playing to a group of Goth teens, it may be a different show. That’s show biz. These kinds of issues are important and I found them sorely lacking in the conference hall at TAM7. Many people at TAM7 who had seen The Skeptologists or other skeptical programming I had done in the past were warm and welcoming, asking to be in pictures with me and even asking for my autograph! For them I was happy to be there. But for the main folks involved who I had hoped to have so much in common with and from whom I was given a deciedly cold shoulder, it was a depressing and disappointing experience.

    There I said it. That’s my rant. I’m stuck with the same feeling I have had about magic conventions and seminars at large: If I’m invited to talk or perform, I’m glad to be there. If not, I may be better off staying home and writing anothet book. It’s not an ego thing, it’s just a matter of appreciation.

  7. “It’s not my intention or job to educate, pontificate or get on a bully pulpit when people hire me to read minds!”

    Can you read minds, and if not, do your customers who pay for that service know this?

  8. Mark Edward says:

    Devil:
    That’s the whole point. When I go and see Robert De Niro put a bullet into Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver,” do the “customers” know that De Niro is playing a part in a film? I think so. There’s no disclaimer when Penn & Teller load up their Magnums for their bullet test either.

    • I’ll try again, since you didn’t answer.

      De Niro performs on a two dimensional flat screen at the movies or on TV. P & T advertise themselves as magicians and skeptics and no one believes magicians actually perform magic.

      You’ve mentioned doing private sittings for people.

      Can you read minds, and if not, do your customers who pay for that service know you can’t read minds?

  9. Jim Lippard says:

    SkeptiCamp (http://www.skepticamp.com/) is one attempt to create conferences with a low barrier to entry.

    Ignite Phoenix (http://www.ignite-phoenix.org/) uses an interesting conference format–topics are submitted in advance, participants vote on the best ones, and then the selected presenters each get 5 minutes and 25 slides which proceed at a fixed pace. There are also a couple of timeslots between presentations for everyone to mingle and talk.

  10. Mark Edward says:

    Please. If I could read minds I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, I’d likely be in some cell at Gitmo or in CIA custody. Private “sittings” or doing a tarot, palm or handwriting analysis sessions have nothing to do with “reading minds” any more than a session with a psychiatrist or therapist does. When I’m contracted to do my mentalism show, it’s in some form of procenium or staged situation, it may not be on a “two dimensional flat screen”, but unless you are woefully undereducated (a situation that I must admit is the crux of this issue)it’s clearly A SHOW. Once again, I’m not paid to explain how I do what I do or the resaons why I put on that show. In fact, to do so seriously takes the edge off the entertainment value of what I’m selling. Like my good friend Doc Hilford told once me:
    “Doing a disclaimer is like sitting down to a meal at a fancy French restaurant, and right before the food is served, the chef comes out and says it came out of a can.”
    This being said, for me it all depends on the venue, audience and agreement I have with the contractor, agent or party host. I’m not paid to educate and when I do a seance, I go for the jugular. I hope this clears this up and doen’t sound too dodgey. These issues are what I felt needed to be addressed not only at TAM7, but way back at TAM1, when I proposed a paper on the subject. Not surprisingly, it was rejected. I like controversial issues, and this one won’t go away until we confront it head on.

  11. “Private “sittings” or doing a tarot, palm or handwriting analysis sessions have nothing to do with “reading minds” any more than a session with a psychiatrist or therapist does.”

    Do you do anything on a private basis that involves you pretending to do something in the ‘mentalism’ category that you cannot actually do, only using techniques to make it seem so, wherein a paying customer believes they’ve received a genuine service that is actually fake?

    I apologize for the legalize-sounding question, made necessary by the absence of a direct answer so far, but basically I want to know if you take people’s money for private sittings and trick them into believing you can do something you cannot. If so, it might help to explain why you don’t receive invites and/or billing at skeptical events, you know?

  12. Mark Edward says:

    And my final answer is : No, I don’t use mentalism, trickery or even big dollops of the ever-popular “cold reading” most skeptics are so fond of recoiling from. The fact is, it’s totally unnecessary. I merely talk to people about their problems and give them my intuitive reactions to those issues just as I would a person who wanted to talk to a bartender (I have done that too.) The woo is on them, so to speak. I hold no claims up to being “psychic” or more than normally gifted with anything, and I think that’s why what I do seems to work so well when I do it. I don’t wear a turban, newage garb or play any of that game. Why bother. I learned long ago that putting any magic trick into a reading situation is a total waste of time and energy becuase 90% of the people who sit down for what has become accepted as a “reading” already are believers and to levitate a rose or use a mentalist’s techniques for gaining information is useless and more work than it’s worth. It gilds a very healthy lily.The other 10% are just looking for a lark. It’s all much simpler this way and I have found that it attracts more people beacuse I don’t look or act like a loony. Most of what is is generally considered “taking people’s money for private sittings and tricking them into believing you can do something you cannot” is totally irrelevant in my case. This however may not be true with thousands of other counselors, readers, psychologists and book-trained therapists. Their sitters may also believe they too can accomplish something they can’t. My point has always been that as a civilization, we have lost the ability to just sit down and talk to each other about what’s really bugging us unless we pay for it. That’s a real pity, but there you have it. Bear in mind that with many people, when you are able to “level” with them and get down to real nitty-gritty issues in a matter of a few minutes, then provide some positive feedback that makes them go away feeling better, it can feel and appear magical. What’s a person to do? I actually like to make people feel better. That’s about it really. The problem is; since this is so rare an occurrance in our society, it now requires some sort of label: “psychic,” “intuitive,” “sensitive.”and on and on. If I’m not invited or billed at skeptical events, I would counter that those who shun me are only missing a great opportunity to understand the psychology of what we now are forced to call “psychics” out of a loss for any other label and their “sitters.”

  13. Well, I’ve learned that despite never presenting yourself to private sitters as being psychic or otherwise paranormally gifted, your customers are all woo believers. How odd. Coincidence? Is there a chance they think you’re a psychic (or whatever paranormally gifted label they prefer)and, though you do not profess any paranormal powers, you also do nothing to disavow them of this errant assumption of theirs?

    It disconcerts me a bit that your reason for not employing magic tricks as part of your sittings (‘levitate a rose’)is because it isn’t necessary – they walk in already believing – rather than because it would be a decidedly immoral thing to do. I understand your post wasn’t meant to be all-inclusive of your every motive, but…

    ” This however may not be true with thousands of other counselors, readers, psychologists and book-trained therapists. Their sitters may also believe they too can accomplish something they can’t.”

    That’s not at all how it works with professionals. The professional therapist, psychologist, counselor, etc., will very early in therapy discuss with the client what the client’s expectations are, and will immediately address any unrealistic expectations. This is for the benefit of the client and to separate what a therapist can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t do, from what unlicensed and unprofessional pretend therapists do.

    “My point has always been that as a civilization, we have lost the ability to just sit down and talk to each other about what’s really bugging us unless we pay for it. That’s a real pity, but there you have it.”

    Forgive me, but this sounds like a grand justification for making your customers pay for it. After all, you’re not responsible for what the entirety of civilization has lost the ability to do. To do this effectively and without causing harm takes education, training, and experience, and that takes time and money, so I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that professionals charge fees for it. I also know that most people do sit down and talk to each other about what’s really bugging us, to friends, family, etc. I’m not sure where that assertion comes from, unless it’s part and parcel of the aforementioned justification.

    “…when you are able to ‘level’ with them and get down to real nitty-gritty issues in a matter of a few minutes, then provide some positive feedback that makes them go away feeling better, it can feel and appear magical.”

    If this is occurring in a matter of a few minutes, I strongly suspect you are exaggerating or overstating its ‘magical’ aspects. Isn’t it more of a case of you letting them or getting them to vent current issues and problems, then tossing off some feel-good verbal salve and sending them off less a few dollars? This hardly sounds magical, but then, I’ve never been there to witness it.

    “What’s a person to do? I actually like to make people feel better. That’s about it really. The problem is; since this is so rare an occurrance in our society, it now requires some sort of label: “psychic,” “intuitive,” “sensitive.”and on and on.”

    Hmm, sounds like more justification, that you are able to provide such a rarity – and it also sounds a wee bit egotistical. It is also untrue. It is not unusual, happens every day in society, and does not constitute a ‘rarity’ because you happen to be unaware of it.

    “If I’m not invited or billed at skeptical events, I would counter that those who shun me are only missing a great opportunity to understand the psychology of what we now are forced to call “psychics” out of a loss for any other label and their “sitters.”

    Oh, I’ll grant you they are missing an opportunity to understand some psychology, but not in the way you think. More to the point, I suspect they already understand the psychology of you. You seem to be just another mutation of the psychic-type who’s trying to play both sides of the skeptic/believer dichotomy.

  14. Mark Edward says:

    Trying to defend my “mutation” is not why I’m here. Check my creds.

  15. Oh, I think we have your measure.

  16. Susan Gerbic says:

    Devil & Mark, I hate to see you fighting. I understand Devil that it appears that Mark is on the fence and does not state his side clearly. See his new video that clearly shows what side he is on. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asA2jqmPgVY

    Having Mark on OUR side is invaluable, his knowledge of the psychic world is extensive. For the skeptic community not to embrace him as the skeptic he is is just ridiculous. Many magicians, mentalists and other skeptics totally support and understand where he is coming from. As Penn Jillette says on Bullshit episode I, “Mark is on our side”.

    Has Mark Edward not been writing over and over in his blog about bringing down the psychic world? Had you heard the term “guerrilla skepticism” before, I hadn’t.

    Mark has done far more than most of us skeptics (I’m top of this list) have done to educate. Just watch the Bullshit episode I referred to earlier. Imagine if someone had exposed Sylvia Browne years ago at a critical point in her career before she started on the tours, the books and the millions. This is what Mark Edward did to Rosemary Altea on that show. This woman had the act down, that sweet British accent would have made her millions and gotten her the spot on Montel. But after Mark Edward got through with exposing her she skulked back into near obscurity. The producer of that show took total direction from Mark, that was his take-down.

    The problem is that with the psychics it is like a wack-a-mole game. As soon as you knock one down another one pops up. We need to be supporting each other and not fighting and bickering amongst ourselves. This is going to be a hard won war, and we will need talented intelligent people like yourselves working together to get ahead.

    Now play nice, or you both will have to put your noses in the corner until you can get along.

  17. And when he takes off his skeptical hero’s cape, he goes right back to sittings with psychic believers, clearly letting them believe he’s got paranormal powers, working magic in minutes. He’s either working them as a psychic or as an unlicensed and unprofessional therapist, a losing proposition either way.

    As for hard won wars, the battle will not be won by skeptics exposing psychics on stage. That tactic has gone on since the late 1800s to little avail. The way to win the war is with basic education in science and critical thinking, a grassroots effort, not a grandstand effort.

    He works both sides of the ‘war’. No thanks.