Skepticon 9: The Mourning After

This post was written by Diogenes.

Skepticon (subtitle: The Ninth) was November 11th-13th. Thus it was pretty obvious that the election would be a subject of discussion and, one thought, of excitement, hope, maybe some cynicism, etc. After November eighth, however, it was clear that it would be more. With apologies to Karl Marx, there was a spectre haunting Skepticon: the spectre of Trump.

This was my first Skepticon, and first such conference in general, so I can’t say personally how it differs from others. I spoke to others who can, however. As one with much experience summarized it, the social justice is strong at Skepticon. This is apparent in the line-up: there were as many, maybe more, talks on issues in sexuality, gender, race, and similar topics (including panels on polyamory, sex change, racism, Black Lives Matter, and more) as on science or activism. It wasn’t that way in early Skepticons, I was told, but Skepticon has consciously moved to become an inclusive conference that represents groups not otherwise given a vocal hearing.

This has led Skepticon to the fore in, for example, harassment policies that protect women, and including diverse speakers that might not otherwise get a large audience. It also shapes the character of the conference, who goes and the atmosphere. The atmosphere was incredibly friendly, welcoming and thoughtful throughout, and that was perhaps the best feature of the conference. On the other hand, if one was expecting lots of hard-hitting skepticism, strong atheism, and heavy science, though they were present one might be left expecting more.

Another result is having, in one place three days after the election, many of those most devastated by the election. Greta Christina’s talk functionally served as the keynote—it was dark, impassioned, highly personal, and made no pretense of moderation. Christina read the election as a direct attack on those who were present. She received a standing ovation.

Christina’s talk was the darkest, but she was hardly alone in referencing the election. Rebecca Hensler discussed how students in her Diversity Club processed the results (apparently with gleefully foul language); Rebecca Watson, whose talk on skeptical advocacy in social media I found the best among presentations I saw, interspersed cat pictures into her slides–in this case, she said, to distract us from other things.

Darkness was an overtone, but there was also much good to be found. Casual drinks with new friends. Talks that were sometimes funny and frequently heartfelt. Skeptiprom, where geeks and nerds danced put on their best or worst and the bar had a drink called the red (or was it purple?) stegosaurus. The unique community that’s formed around Skepticon provides its strength, though perhaps that has come with less focus on standard pillars of the ‘movement’. How Skepticon will continue to develop this dual role, and what place it will have under the shadow of a Trump presidency, are questions yet to be answered.

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