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Report from NECSS 2012

by Steven Novella, Apr 23 2012

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.

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5 Responses to “Report from NECSS 2012”

  1. Michael Sabino says:

    As a New Yorker myself, I too attributed the racial diversity to the locale, but (from my own humble observation) it still appeared to be significantly more diverse than last year’s meeting. So, that was refreshing.

    PS – I’m compelled to mention that I was at the Private SGU Taping, and I had a total blast. Thanks (to you and your crew) for the hospitality and for arranging such a memorable evening.

    -michael

  2. Phea says:

    As far as getting the message out through the established, conventional, media, there has always been a fine line separating news from advertising. A press release about an upcoming event is generally considered news. Of course a lot depends on your relationship with the media, (and whether or not you spend ANY advertising $$ with them).

  3. BillG says:

    “…he now knows less than he did at the beginning…”

    Often, more of us should quote Sgt.Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes:
    “I know nothing!”

  4. MadScientist says:

    Re. “Social media” and advertising, even the large ad firms take advantage of twitter/facebook/etc to push products – cheap, works well, and in many cases the sheeple happily bleat the ads without even realizing they’re being manipulated into promoting Product X. This seems especially true of celebrity endorsements.

  5. NECSS Attendee says:

    I attended my first NECSS and I’ve been searching around the Internet for some fresh blog coverage.

    I was skeptical (ha, ha) that I would enjoy it as much as I did so I only signed up for the Sunday program to test the waters. I also balked at the $125 price tag, and somehow thought that I could justify $85.

    I will definitely go back next year and most likely do the full package. I now realize what a value it is. Hopefully I’ll bring someone else along. I was considering bringing my wife this first round, but she’s not really plugged into the blogo-podcast-sphere as I am, though she is a natural atheist and realist. When I described the program she was a little puzzled about the topics and their coherence, but I thought the Sunday program was a great mix.

    I’m in my thirties, though people tend to think I look younger than I do, like I’m a college student or something. I’m also a minority, though I don’t really think of myself as such or even get to wrapped up in racial identity, but I’m “black” like Obama. If you recall a youngish, lighter skinned Obama-looking guy milling around on Sunday, that was me.

    Not to get to politically correct, but perhaps a better phrasing would be “I was also happy to see more ethnic (or racial) diversity at NECSS…” The word “minorities” sounds dated or something, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but no harm, no fowl, I get what you mean.

    I’m also a local New Yorker, so it’s not like travel will hold me back from attending in the future.

    I was exposed to NECSS’s existence through the Rationally Speaking podcast and I’m a fan of Julia and Massimo’s so that’s another reason I choose Sunday to go since they were doing their live podcast and as a bonus they were involved in the futurism discussion (which I didn’t know that they were until it started).

    The couple of attendees I spoke to also seem plugged into podcasts, and I did think that was interesting the probably most of the attendees were there through the universe of podcasts and blogs. Also, someone like my wife who doesn’t follow the sphere of Internet influence would have been a little lost at times. To a certain extent, you have to be “in the know” to enjoy certain aspects of the conference, but I think she would have gotten something positive out of it if she had attended.

    That is just a mild reminder to speakers not to “dumb down” their talks, but to be sure that they don’t assume their audience knows everything they know. Quick example, not everyone knows what the acronym LHC refers to and even though Brain Wecht briefly explained what it was, he never called it the Large Hadron Collider at any point, which is how it is commonly referred to. I did notice that Massimo and Julia we attempting to be cognizant of explaining jargon as they went along since they have had discussions on the issue of audience accessibility on a past podcast.

    I thought that the conference was kind of small. I don’t mean that to be disparaging, but somehow I imagined a larger auditorium and crowd. It’s encouraging that events like NECSS even exist, but it’s smallish size is also a reminder how much more potential there is to grow and that yes, it really does need to grow, and I think it can, there are plenty more people like me out there who just haven’t been exposed yet.

    As for reasons for attending. I’m not much of a group person either (I’m responding to comments made on on the same blog post on NeuroLogica, http://goo.gl/N8t2q) though I probably have to admit some impulse to want to be in a group. But my conscious reasons were first of all curiosity of such an event.

    Next, it was a chance to meet some of the voices of skepticism in person, or at least be in the same room. My shyness emerged and I never did introduce myself to any of the speakers, but seeing them up close was enough.

    Also, I’m a bit bored. I live in New York City and hardly take advantage of the abundance of cultural events. I feel like I don’t do anything, which would be one thing if I lived in the boonies, but I live in NYC. However, I don’t want to just go to bars or be entertained at shows, and I quickly reach a limit on how much art I can view. I figured, I’m interested in science and skepticism, why not go to a science and skepticism event?

    I want to support such endeavors, and by that, I mean with my person, perhaps even as a mild form of activism. I want to support what I believe is important.

    Finally, when I think of some of the great thinkers in history, men and women I admire, I notice that they attended such intellectual events and commiserated with like-minded people in their own time. Great men and women tended to know each other, or at least have occasion to meet while attending similar venues. I’d like to think that by attending an event like NECSS I’m more apart of history than just consuming media and sitting behind a keyboard.

    By attending NECSS, I was actually ”THERE.”