I spent this past weekend at NECSS 2012 – the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism. I won’t bore you with details you can get from looking at the NECSS website. I just want to give some random observations of what I think these conferences tell us about the state of the skeptical movement.
This is the fourth year of NECSS, and overall it was a very successful conference. We pretty much sold out our 400 seat venue. At the end of the conference Jamy Ian Swiss, our MC, polled the audience, asking if it was their first NECSS and also if it was their first skeptical conference. I was a bit surprised to see that most of the audience raised their hands to both questions. This is definitely a good thing – we appear to be bringing new people into the movement, as self-identified skeptics, and they are coming to our conferences. NECSS is also very much a science conference, and we market it that way, so it’s possible many of the attendees were there primarily for the science.
In my conversations with those attending, however, the prevailing sentiment was that NECSS was more than a science conference, but a cultural event for them. For those attending such a conference for the first time they felt it was almost a transformational experience. Many people have expressed this to me over the years of producing the SGU – they feel isolated in their family, their social circle, and their community. They feel they are the only one who thinks as they do – meaning skeptically. Being surrounded by 400 people who share a similar world view, all enjoying a shared experience of listening to presenters talk about science and celebrate rationalism was a new and profound experience for them.
We are all human and humans are intensely social creatures. Conferences such as NECSS are social events, and so they nurture this part of our human needs in addition to our intellectual curiosity.
A similar theme I hear from attendees is that, even as self-identified skeptics, nerds, and science enthusiasts, the conference reminds them of how much they have to learn. One attendee said to me that after the weekend he now knows less than he did at the beginning – meaning, of course, that he is now more aware of how much knowledge and information there is out there. His universe just became much bigger, and therefore his relative knowledge has shrunk. He said it with a smile and an excited tone in his voice.
That is perhaps a good way to view skepticism itself. Science is learning about the universe. Skepticism is learning how much you don’t know about the universe. The two things together are an intellectually potent combination – and that’s NECSS.
Walking around NECSS and talking to attendees also gives us a snapshot of the demographics of the skeptical movement. The age range of attendees is broad, from teens to retirees. The average age of attendees of skeptical conference has been decreasing over the last 5 or so years, and NECSS reflected that as well – while the range was broad, it definitely skewed young. Conventional wisdom among skeptical activists is that this this a result of social media. Much of our advertising for NECSS was through blogs, podcasts, Twitter and Facebook. The young age of attendees should therefore not come as a surprise.
The possible downside to this is that we are missing older skeptics and science enthusiasts who would love to attend such a conference but simply aren’t plugged into the new social media. This is a dilemma for a relatively new and small conference. NECSS is run by two small non-profit organizations (New York City Skeptics and the New England Skeptical Society). While the conference is financially self-sustaining, we have to be frugal with our funds. We can get a lot of free advertising from social media – advertising that reaches hundreds of thousands of people in the sweet spot of our target demographic. We simply cannot afford traditional advertising that even approaches this reach.
I assume that many other organizations and events face the same choices – pick the low-hanging fruit, the cheap and easy networking and advertising vs time-consuming and expensive traditional media. Obviously big corporations and events can afford to do both, but even then it seems the return on investment is steadily shifting to the new media. I wonder if this reality is leaving behind those who are not keeping up with social media.
Ultimately I think this is a good thing. The internet and social media are great instruments of democracy. They level the playing field for smaller groups. It’s now possible for a small non-profit to run a conference on a shoestring budget and get the word out through existing and largely free social networks. As we grow and have more resources we will probably reach into more traditional media. This means that the services offered by the internet can serve as a stepping stone to bigger things. They can help kick-start projects that would otherwise never get off the ground. (In fact, you may be aware of the site Kickstarter that literally does that.)
Getting back to demographics – I also noticed, as with past conferences, that women are about at parity with men. Twenty years ago skeptical conferences were mainly attended by men and occasionally their wives. Today the mix appears to be even. This, I think, is one great success of the movement. I attribute this to several factors – social media (again), a general trend in our culture to make science more open and welcoming to women, and groups dedicated to women in skepticism (like Skepchick). This progress has not always been smooth and frictionless, but overall has been positive.
I was also happy to see more minorities at NECSS than I think I have seen at any previous skeptical conference. This may be an artifact of the conference being held in New York City, which is very diverse, but hopefully is a more general trend.
Overall it was a great weekend. The speakers were wonderful, the attendees were enthusiastic, there were few technical glitches and the feedback has already been greatly positive. I always feel that my batteries are recharged at such conferences – it’s good to actually meet and speak with people who are at the other end of the intertubes. I even met a frequent commenter on this blog (CCbowers) but they had to tell me their commenter nym in order for me to recognize them. It is just one representation of the fact that, while social media is great, it can be a bit anonymous. Getting together in person still meets a basic social human need that the internet may facilitate but doesn’t fill by itself.