I wrote last time about an “Ode to Joy” moment I experienced 17 years ago, when I first walked into my university library and discovered the full depth of the skeptical literature. Since then, I’ve had many other wonderful moments in my life as a skeptic: the day I discovered Skeptic magazine (in a café in Sherbrooke, Quebec in 1995); the first time I saw hundreds of skeptics in one room (at “The Amazing Meeting 2″ conference in 2004); or, the day last year when the Skeptics Society announced the release of a free full-color Junior Skeptic-based evolution book to thousands of Portuguese school children.
Today I’m writing about another Ode to Joy moment — one of the greatest of my career. It’s a moment I’ve long hoped for, and never expected to see: last week’s announcement that The Amazing Meeting 8 conference (July 8 – 11, 2010, in Las Vegas) will be co-sponsored by all three U.S. national skeptics organizations:
In keeping with recent trends for national US skeptical organizations to work more closely together to advance shared aims, the James Randi Educational Foundation is very pleased to announce that…both the Skeptics Society, as well as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP), will officially be co-sponsors of the event, providing both financial and promotional support to the JREF for the meeting.
Long-time skeptics are aware that skepticism, like other intellectual movements, has seen its share of schisms and factions. This isn’t remotely unusual. Think of the many finely graded camps within, for example, atheism, feminism or animal welfare activism. Nor is it unusual for like-minded organizations to compete for resources or duplicate efforts.
Factionalism isn’t unique to skepticism, but it can be a bummer. When natural allies miss opportunities for mutual support, it reminds me of something a member of a colony-based anabaptist denomination once told me. I asked him to describe the key differences between his group and closely-related group they held very much at arm’s length. He told me, “Mostly the hats.”
Now, this is not to downplay the truth that skeptical groups do differ in emphasis and approach. Each of the big U.S. groups has its own strengths and specializations, as do national groups overseas and regional groups worldwide. It’s been argued that this vigorous variety is itself a strength, and I think this is often the case. A variety of groups and mandates covers more ground in more ways.
Still, skepticism and science advocacy are projects built on optimism — a “yes we can” sort of feeling. In skepticism as in other activist traditions, grassroots support lives and breathes on the hope that together we can make the world a bit better than it would have been. Optimism is a precious thing, and delicate. It flourishes best in an atmosphere of civility and cooperation.
A Long Hope
In the Spring of 2001, the Center For Inquiry’s then-Director of Education, Austin Dacey, asked me to write a proposal for a hypothetical print magazine to promote skepticism and humanism on college campuses. (That print project never went past the proposal stage, but the Center for Inquiry On Campus brought it to life as the online Campus Inquirer newsletter). Much of that proposal concerned production matters, but I also included some more general thoughts about promoting skepticism. In particular, I emphasized the practical and symbolic value (and public service benefit) of “close cooperative ties” between skeptical organizations.
I even went so far as to suggest a then-utopian example: why not “skeptical summits,” or skeptical conferences co-sponsored by like-minded national skeptics groups “under a joint banner”?
In the years since, I’ve often thought what a wonderful symbol that would be. And, in the skepticism 2.0 context, it began to seem possible. Buoyed by the enthusiasm of the new grassroots skepticism, fueled by the success of podcasting and online outreach, cooperation and collaboration between skeptical organizations has risen dramatically in recent years. I’ve been pleased to be a small part of that process, working with colleagues at many other groups, and helping to promote not only JREF projects (like TAM, which we have long supported through eSkeptic, Skeptic magazine, and Skepticality) but projects from CSI and other organizations as well. Cross-promotion and mutual assistance are emerging as the new normal for skeptical organizations. Early last year, D.J. Grothe and I even discussed the possibility of a hypothetical three-way conference — and reflected again how powerfully that would symbolize skepticism’s renaissance.
Ode to Joy All Over Again
I hasten to add that I had no part in arranging the three-way co-sponsorship of The Amazing Meeting 8. When the JREF’s announcement popped up on Twitter last week, I was as astonished as anyone else. But, I think you’d have to go a long way to find someone more pleased to hear the news than I.
Not that I needed any more reason to be excited. TAM is widely acknowledged as skepticism’s premier multi-day event — truly the summit meeting for North American skepticism. Every year, the contacts made there spin off into unexpected ideas and important new grassroots outreach projects. (For example, Canada’s influential Skeptic North blog site is a TAM7 spin-off. What a difference a year makes!)
Even before the co-sponsorship announcement, it was clear that TAM8 would be more representative of the wider skeptical landscape than any previous year. Never before have so many of skepticism’s pioneers been scheduled to participate in a single event: not only giants like James Randi, Michael Shermer, and Steven Novella, but also CSI legends Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell, Kendrick Frazier, and Barry Karr. Even Martin Gardner is due to appear by video. Martin Gardner! (And that’s to say nothing of folks like Richard Dawkins and Adam Savage. Honestly, I’ve never seen a speaker list quite like this one.)
The Amazing Meeting 8 was already going to be something special. And then came the announcement of the co-sponsorship. The Skeptics Society, The James Randi Educational Foundation, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry — all working together.
I had nothing to do with it, and yet I feel personally involved. I don’t quite know how to describe my feelings about this watershed moment.
Skepticism is my life’s work. It matters to me. And this announcement changes skepticism. Changes it for the better.