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by Mark Edward, Jun 02 2011

Casting My Spell at SkepticCalCon 2011


SkeptiCalCon 2 is now history and I arrived home last night exhausted but energized. It has been a busy two weeks of GUERRILLA SKEPTICISM. The crowd at SkeptiCalCon was a healthy one and I was delighted to meet many new faces. Lots of younger people are picking up the skeptical ball and running with it.



Although SkeptiCalCon is a newer event (this was the second “annual”) as skeptical events go, it’s a potent mix in its Bay Area reach. I saw more grassroots involvement and less bickering and in-fighting than other groups I have recently been involved with. I’m sure Shane Trimmer will have lots of reports on what went on over at soon, so I won’t go into too many details. What became most apparent and the general consensus with people about the state of skepticism is that our scared cow JREF is falling apart through mismanagement and the skeptical movement is in serious need of approachable leaders who are media savvy and who can agree on global issues, prioritize and pick those important battles and then get those challenges in the faces of bigger audiences. I heard lots of gossip that interested newcomers are turned off by the same people and stories being told over and over through the roadshow mentality of “educational outreach” and many are fed up with all the dissension and back-biting that goes on between this organization and that other one. So when are we going to get together? And what was that talk we heard a few years back about greater cooperation?

United we stand, divided we are losing ground.

Yau Man Chan

On the up-side, It was nice to meet up with my pal from the Skeptologists days, Yau Man Chan, who held the room in awe with his tales of reality television.  

My room was packed with eager folks excited with the idea of getting out on the street and DOING SOMETHING.  A more activist stance is clearly catching the eye of the younger folks out there who are sick and tired of the what is perceived by many as  cliques that have taken the shape of elitist non-inclusive social forums in recent years. I’m hearing more about action and less about education.

Susan Gerbic: The Wikimaster

Susan Gerbic’s breakout session on how to get skeptical messages out through actively editing bullshit subject material on Wikipedia pages was a packed room of people chomping at the bit to get more active. This way of spreading the skeptical word is gaining momentum by letting people know that even if you might not be the sort of person who likes to get in the faces of frauds and con artists, you can still stay at home and use some ambush skepticism right in front of your home computer.

Anthony Pratkanis

Another stand-out session was Anthony Pratkanis, Professor of Psychology at U.C. Santa Cruz and author of  “Weapons of Fraud: A Source Book for Fraud Fighters.”  This was a hilarious and very moving lecture on social influence how to sell your own flim-flam.  Absolutely brilliant

The train has left the station and the old guard is getting left behind.

Chasing Out the Woo


The IIG was out in force at SkeptiCalCon with our own table of literature, running IIG Promos, $50,000 Challenge Videos and making sure attendees saw with their own eyes how we are actively DOING SOMETHING through tests like our Power Balance Video, Anita Ikonen 50K Challenge and California Nurses Initiative. There’s a bunch of new info at the IIG site at that tells the story of committed people who are not only talking the talk through careful protocol negotiations, but walking the walk with tests and interactive live streaming events that bring people together on common ground rather than separating them into camps of commercial enterprise. 

As an IIG Steering member, I’ll be focusing on some really powerful projects in the next few months. One in particular involves methods and protocol that (as far as we know) has never been utilized before in the history of parapsychology. If all goes well, this be a watershed investigation that will blow the lid off the psychic business once and for all. I can’t talk much more about it here, but it’s going to be absolutely HUGE.

On May 21st, several local Hollywood IIGer’s set up a street performance at the corner of Hollywood and Highland next door to Grauman’s Chinese Theater to give L.A. our take on the rapture nonsense. With placards stating things like “Come the Rapture, Can I Have Your Car?” we took over the street for about two hours, climaxing in a loud countdown to the rapture that had a crowd of about 1oo people chanting along with us and generally razing hell. All this went on right next to a Scientology table that took a lot of heat as well from the rowdy crowd. We hammered home our point with old clothes and shoes laying on the sidewalk representing raptured souls. While tourists stopped to get pictures taken with Bruce Lee’s star on the fabled “Walk of Fame,”they got a heaping helping of skepticism to take back home with them as well. It was a bonding experience for everyone involved and IIG’s new “Stealth Cards” are soon to be seen in such events as teasers to get applicants as well as new members to our group. More on this event next time.

I can almost predict the negative comments to this blog well before thay are even written, but you know what?

I don’t care any more. 

You can whine about the efficacy of standing on street corners shouting down the wind and what a useless waste of time it is testing nutty people who have claims of paranormal powers all you want; I know I’m working with like minds and getting something done.

I also know from the comments I’m getting from people like Karla McClaren (who I finally met in person at SkeptiCalCon) that what I’m doing is making a big difference to a lot of people. You can read about Karla here in my blog archive from last year (Feb, 20, 201.) Karla was once a well-published new-age woo priestess. After watching an epsidode of “Exploring the Unknown”  that described my techniques of  cold-reading, she realized that was what she had been doing for years but hadn’t realized it until that moment. She’s now involved in the skeptical movement and spreading the word through her own blogs and writings. Bingo.

Get active.

You will feel much better.

A Happy Pigasus and Yau Man



And Once Again:  Thanks to Susan “Bunky” Gerbic for the fine photography!

20 Responses to “SkeptiCalCon”

  1. sgerbic says:

    Well I don’t know about people “chomping at the bit” during my workshop but I am hoping that I start getting contacted letting me know they plan on trying my avenue.

    I don’t think you sound snarky at all Mark, the discussions about the behind the scenes activities have been hustling everywhere for months and your the first person who is willing to publicly say there is a problem.

    Randi and I have talked about the divisions between JREF and CFI for years, he kept telling me that he was seeing them grow closer. And they did, things did improve. But now they seem to have been stalled again.

    Division is the problem, we are wayyyyy too small a group to allow us to be competing for skeptical “souls”. We need to unite and become inclusive and only then will be become stronger. We have enough to fight against we don’t need to be fighting each other.

    The easiest way to do this is to build trust. When you say you are going to do something then Do It! Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you make a mistake then admit it and move on.

    BTW SkeptiCalCon was awesome. Thank you Shane Trimmer and all the volunteers that made everything run so smoothly. Truly talented and interesting people all. And a special thank you to Dr. Eugene Scott, that woman is pure wonderfulness.

  2. Kitty says:

    Well I think that over the years small grass roots groups are really gaining power. THe internet has allowed skeptics to meet and get together and really take local action. Getting out from behind the computer long enough to have something to WRITE about is old school Joe Nickell…that is now a new school of skeptics are following.

    JREF has it’s place, if just as a “feel good” event that really gets people energized. It has it’s place and hope it will have it’s definition of what kind of group they are and will be clear soon.

    There are other “emperors” out there with no clothes are that are really in need of being told “hey you are naked!” (or dare I say “Emperesses”?).

    Joe Nickell also has an interesting take I heard in a podcast of his. What seems to be missing is the “hey this is fun” part of investigation and getting out there and doing something. Yeah, fun. THe ghost hunters Ive talked with are frankly having fun, I see no reason skeptic ghost hunter exposers can’t also have some fun.

    I give kudos to the JREF for the educational lesson plans that are coming out. As a teacher, I feel I’ve been winging it too long. I give them credit for having the power and money to get some of the big speakers to come and talk to skeptics that are wanting to meet their heroes. It takes deep pockets to throw a TAM, and we need our heroes and chance to meet Adam Savage and Dr.Tyson.

    Our own local group has some interesting events planned, which will probably make the local paper. We’re all pretty pumped up and even a little scared about it. But we have a feeling we are really doing something…back to the day when Randi and his gang would dress up and take on Pophoff….

  3. Paula says:

    Nice piece.

    I wish your break-out session was longer. I was hoping for questions or some talk back and forth about ideas other people had for guerrilla skepticism as well.

    Also, there are a few links of pics from the May 21 “rapture” thing in Hollywood. But here’s mine ;)

    Also, while some people may feel that these methods don’t promote skepticism…that might be their opinion. But it certainly helps keeps skeptics involved in the movement as these events are fun, from planning to execution.

  4. Bob Carroll says:

    I had a great time at SkeptiCal 2011 and enjoyed Mark’s lecture immensely. I guess you’d call me part of the “Old Guard,” but I support everything you’re doing and don’t see why everyone else interested in making the world a more rational place wouldn’t agree. I wanted to attend Susan’s session but mine was scheduled at the same time. I’ve posted my “review” of the conference in the latest Skeptic’s Dictionary Newsletter and have nothing but good things to say about Mark’s presentation. I also loved your sealed envelope trick. Well done. As far as the division among skeptics go, thougjh, I think the JREF and CSI are not as far apart as you indicate. The CSI conference in New Orleans will feature Randi, Phil Plait, Ben Radford, and D.J. Grothe–pretty core JREF people. The real division is between Shermer and CSI. I don’t say it’s his fault, but the division is pretty obvious. Frankly, I don’t think that division hurts anything. I like the way Shermer does things and I like the was CSI does things.They’re not the same things I do, but I think they both serve the cause of making the world a more rational place.

  5. MadScientist says:

    A little correction on the link to ‘’ (misspelled ‘iigewst’)

    It would be great is Yau Man Chan could write a few more articles on this blog.

  6. Karla McLaren says:

    Hi Mark!

    It was great to meet you finally, but I do have a note of caution. If the approach I had seen was confrontational, or if anyone had called me a woo anything, there’s very little chance I would have listened in any way.

    Skeptical outreach is often emotionally unwise, even if its information is correct. We all know about cognitive bias and motivated reasoning, and if I hadn’t been strongly motivated to get to the bottom of questions I had about the New Age, I could have very easily shined anything you had to say.

    So, your compassion and understanding are the things that really shone out from that show. I saw you as a kind and caring person, and I could listen to you. Many other skeptical pranksters? Not so much. In fact, not so much at all.

    And the cold-reading I was doing wasn’t a form of fishing, but rather a way to lean away from the things people were so clearly transmitting through their behavior. So I’d pose things I strongly felt as a question, because I didn’t want it to seem that what I was saying was coming from above or something.

    The power differential in a psychic reading is so extreme that I practically bent sideways to try to remain at a peer level with people. But what happened, inadvertently, was that my approach allowed me to get closer, quicker, than if I had said things outright!

    Human nature and social psychology are very intricate things!

    • sgerbic says:

      Karla you are so correct. Phil Plait says not to be a dick as people won’t change their opinions with someone shouting at you. The amount of “in-your-face” depends on the situation.

      The May 23rd rapture event was a blast, most people were loving it. We were trying to be ridiculous and make a point which we did pretty loudly.

      When Mark punked Sylvia Browne during the Hollywood show with Montel Williams he wasn’t trying to convince the audience. He was sending Sylvia a message (which worked BTW) that skeptics were active and capable getting close and punking her and she would never know when it would happen again.

      I do Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, this is a non-confrontational way to get our message across.

      There are many approaches, and we need to use our social skills to determine what will probably work in the situation.

      Mark isn’t condoning going the Fred Phelps route.

      So you are exactly right Karla.

      • Max says:

        I hope that Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia doesn’t involve vandalism, NPOV, or other violations of Wikipedia principles.

      • Max says:

        I mean non-NPOV

      • sgerbic says:

        Absolutely not Max. I’m almost insulted that you might think that. But then again you don’t know me.

      • This relates a bit to Daniel’s blog post of a while back re Camping and scorn. I think a horse laugh at a Camping or Browne is different than one at their followers.

      • I definitely agree that Wikipedia is a shining opportunity for grassroots skeptics to make important contributions to public knowledge. I offered a few notes about that in this eSkeptic feature a couple years back, following Tim Farley’s lead.

        Skeptics who look to Wikipedia should definitely know and follow Wikipedia’s rules (NPoV, etc) but in my experience it’s satisfying — and a lot of fun.

      • sgerbic says:

        Tim Farley is the one who inspired me to do this with his Skepticamp talk on one of the JREF cruises.

      • sgerbic says:

        Thanks Daniel! Nicely done article on Wikipedia. The first time I have seen that.

  7. gwen says:

    I have to disagree with Mark’s assessment of SkeptiCal. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.It was great to speak freely with such a skeptical crowd. I was only disappointed to find that Wendy Northcutt (The Darwin Awards) is a complete loon.

    • sgerbic says:

      Gwen you thought Mark didn’t like SkeptiCal? I must reread his blog…

      And I heard from many people that Northcutt is a nutter.

      • Mark Edward says:

        Gwen, you must have misunderstood me: I had a blast too! I’m just bemoaning the state of affairs with all the in-fighting and bickering I heard is going on. I’m ready for more if and when it happens.

      • gwen says:

        I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you there! I guess I have been lucky enough to miss much of the bickering, but still, I bicker all the time with my family, I still love them…mostly! ;).