Big Plans for Gen Con Indy 2010

Akusai from Action Skeptics here, folks. Well, ladies and gentlemen, plans for a symposium of reality-based programming at Gen Con Indy 2010 are coming together faster than I could have imagined. Some of you may remember that back in September Les was kind enough to allow me to post A Call to Skeptical Action, wherein I detailed my preliminary hopes and plans for Gen Con (i.e. trying to get a Dragon*Con style Skeptic Track going), and I’m back to beg your indulgence again for an update on those plans.

First off, we have a dedicated blog: Gen Con Skeptics. Everything I’m about to tell you here is covered in greater detail there, so it’s worth stopping by. I’m constantly adding new material, so click early and often.

Our plans, as of now, include half a dozen presentations covering various skeptical topics and delivered by a bunch of different people. We’ll be educating the Gen Con population on archaeology, evolution, and cargo cults, and we’re staging two different iterations of a four-man panel called “Skepticism, Critical Thinking, and Pop Culture,” for which we’re prepping basic information on almost twenty different woo-woo and pseudoscientific topics and letting the audience decide what we talk about.

Perhaps the biggest deal of all, however, is the fundraiser we’ll be running to benefit the Indiana Immunization Coalition. I spoke last week with the director of the IIC, and she’s very excited that we’re offering to raise money for them. They plan to put all proceeds toward new educational and informational programs in an effort to counter misinformation about vaccines spread by the antivaccination movement.

I don’t have the details finalized with Gen Con yet, but I have a scheduled phone call to make tomorrow afternoon with their Marketing Director to do just that. She, too, loves the idea, and it looks like we’re going to have a table situated in the Kids and Family section of the exhibit hall, which is almost perfect for our plans. What we’re going to do is trade our amateur magician skills (there are two of us with those skills) for donations based on a “menu” of card tricks, simple close-up magic, and amazing feats of mentalism and cold reading. While we’re doing that, we’re going to distribute information about vaccines and about the Indiana Immunization Coalition, basically what they do and why it’s important. We’re going to back up the fundraiser with a couple of pro-vax presentations that will combine good immunization information, counters to common antivax claims, and PR for the IIC and their mission.

We don’t have any so-called “Big Name” skeptics coming to the event, but hopefully with a good showing this year, we can attract people in the future. I do have a proposal into the fine ladies at Skepchick, but I’m not promising anything. I also have an e-mail out to Mike Stackpole, bestselling sci-fi author and founder of the Phoenix Skeptics, who was kind enough to meet with us last year and offer advice. Who knows? He might want to give a talk, too.

All in all, this year’s Gen Con Indy is shaping up to be a big win for grassroots skepticism. We have educational outreach, audience involvement, and a fantastic opportunity to help raise vaccine awareness and bolster Indiana’s pathetic immunization rates. If anybody is going to be in the Indianapolis area on August 5-8, we’d love to have you drop by. If anyone’s interested in joining our little dog-and-pony show, we’d love to have you. Event submission for Gen Con doesn’t end until mid-March, so we have until then to add programming to our schedule.

If you don’t want to talk or run an event, we still do need volunteers to help out with the fundraiser. The rest of us can’t man the table all day and still do our own presentations, and we’d like to enjoy the con at some point, too. If we get a decent rotating roster of people haranguing the masses for donations while supplying them with accurate information about vaccines, we can all take part in what I’ve just now decided to call “Vaccination Win 2010” and have a good time at the con, too.

And, though I did note his (perhaps conspicuous) silence on this note when last I posted here, I still think that Mine Host Mr. Les Jenkins hisownself should come down to Gen Con for the festivities. Join me in bothering him until he says yes, would you kindly?

As before, you can visit the planning forum, leave a comment at the blog, use the contact form, or just drop me an e-mail at causticbox[at]gmail[dot]com. Hope to see some people there!

A Call to Skeptical Action

Good morning, afternoon, or evening, everybody. As a new Guest Bastard, I would like to turn your attention to an important topic: skeptical activism. The world of critical thinking seems to be getting a little wider every day as more people stand, like candles in the dark, to ward off superstition and nonsense in the name of science and reason. I aim to expand that bubble of light, in my own small way.

I’ve been doing that small-time for a little over three years now at my blog Action Skeptics, but I recently decided it was time for me to do more than that. I moved from the corner stickball lot to the minors (or at least to a somewhat larger stickball lot) when I was one of the lucky few chosen to give one of the Sunday presentations at The Amaz!ing Meeting 7. Before I ever even wrote the abstract for my TAM submission, though, three friends and I (my erstwhile blogging partner Magus, close friend Wikinite, and internet-friend-turned-meatspace-friend Tom Foss) were planning our own grassroots contribution to skepticism.

We had all attended Gen Con Indianapolis 2008 together, and among the costumes, vendors, and 30,000+ attendees, we found a well-hidden little event hosted by the Indiana Ghost Trackers: a panel on the “science” of “Electronic Voice Phenomenon,” known among the cool kids as “EVP.” Armed guards couldn’t keep us out of that one. We attended, and it was bad. Like really bad. They were all clearly almost entirely ignorant of the scientific method and were simply parroting the methods handed down to them through decades of ghost hunting lore. We decided, leaving the panel, that 2009 would see a skeptical panel at Gen Con.

So we did it. We put together and presented a panel called “Skepticism, Critical Thinking, and Pop Culture.” I won’t belabor the point, because you can read my in-depth summary here, but our panel had an audience of at least 40 people (we had set the max at 100 and expected somewhere between 0 and 1, so we were pleasantly surprised) and pretty much everyone seemed to enjoy it. We had people approach us afterward and share compliments and e-mail. It all encouraged us to attempt expansion next year and try for a large battery of quality skeptical programming that will attract audiences, which will hopefully attract some Big Names, which will then create a positive feedback loop between the two.

And why not? SkepTrack was huge at Dragon*Con in 2008 and even huger this year. The Skepchicks ran SkepchickCon out of Convergence in Minneapolis this past summer. Derek Colanduno, co-host (with Swoopy) of the podcast Skepticality and producer of Dragon*Con’s SkepticTrack, told me that he’s been approached by a convention in New York to design and produce a skeptical track for them entirely from scratch. The NECSS con last weekend was, by all accounts, also a huge success. It’s clear that there is a place in the convention circuit for science and skepticism.

What we have is motivation and, between the four of us, a pretty deep well of knowledge and creativity. But what we need is more. The four of us can’t possibly hope to create a respectable skeptical presence at Gen Con by ourselves. We need more skeptics, more ideas, more events, more web-presence, more publicity…just more.

That’s why I’m putting out an APB for any Midwestern skeptics to toss their ideas and knowledge and creativity into the mix. Anyone have ideas for a panel discussion? Anyone have a topic they’ve just been dying to speak about in front of an audience? Anyone good at up-close magic or simple mentalism? Anyone own and operate video or audio equipment? Anyone have any contacts among the larger skeptical community who might be interested in helping?

Basically, if you’ve got it, we want it. You don’t even have to plan on coming to Gen Con; if all you want to do is toss ideas around and help refine our programming to be the best it can be, we want and need that, too. The more people we have, the better our program will be.

“Akusai,” I hear you saying, “I want to help, but how can I do that? Don’t we need some kind of central location from which to organize a Gen Con skeptical program?” Why, yes, sir or ma’am, I believe we do, and that’s why I’ve thrown up a no-frills messageboard: the Gen Con Skeptics forum. It’s a place to brainstorm, hone and refine ideas through discussion, and organize into workgroups to take on the different projects and presentations we decide to give at Gen Con Indy 2010. Stuff that we’ve already pretty much decided on (and are working on already, because you can’t start too early) are as follows:

  • A modified, streamlined version of 2009’s panel as a general introduction to scientific skepticism and critical thinking
  • A panel on financial scams
  • A panel on street cons
  • A presentation by myownself and probably Tom Foss called “Cargo Cult Science”
  • Another presentation by myownself called “Culture and the Paranormal”
  • A panel moderated by our first raw recruit, a fellow who loved our 2009 presentation, called “Evolution, Creationism, and Gaming”
  • A vaccination drive, since the one at TAM7 worked extremely well and helped a lot of kids get their shots

I’m going to list, briefly, some things we need (from the “Things We Need” post on the board). If you can help out with any of these, we’d love to have you on board.

  • Panel speakers on various skeptical topics
  • Individual presentations on various skeptical topics
  • Publicity, publicity, publicity!
  • Volunteers to help manage things at the con itself
  • People willing to man a table (if we get one)
  • Camera equipment and people to run it (so we can put all of our material on YouTube)
  • Audio equipment (so we can put all of our material out as podcasts)
  • Creative new ideas for working skepticism into the convention

Finally, the big one, and perhaps the most difficult: attention from “big name” skeptics (e.g. Phil Plait The Bad Astronomer, James Randi, the Skeptical Rogues from the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Michael Shermer and the Skeptics Society…The list goes on). If you can hook the humble Gen Con Skeptics program up with serious attention from these folks or anyone else not listed, you will have our eternal gratitude. Having even one of the Big Names come to Gen Con will make the program that much more awesome. Righ now we have two allies: Derek from Skepticality, who has offered his advice at length, and author and skeptic Mike Stackpole, who attends Gen Con every year (and seriously helped Derek get SkepticTrack started at Dragon*Con) and met with us over lunch this year to give us pointers and advice. I’m working on convincing him to give a talk about his Pulling Report, which debunked Christian fundamentalist myths about Dungeons and Dragons in the 80s.

(I’m also working on our kind host Les Jenkins, so if anyone thinks they can convince him to join up and maybe give a talk, have at it…)

So stop by the forum. Say “hi” and toss an idea or two out there. Tell your friends. We aim for a Skeptics Symposium at Gen Con no later than 2011, and we need your help to do it. Together, we can light a skeptical bonfire in Indianapolis, and perhaps, like the Torch of Gondor, it will be seen from afar and move yet others to greater action.

For science!