Monday, July 18, 2011

Thoughts on TAM9 - Advancing Skepticism Online

I attended my first TAM this year, and I have to say it was a blast.  I will plan to do several posts on it over the course of this week.  Day 1 is mostly optional workshops on a whole array of subjects such as Defending Evolution in the Classroom (mostly NCSE panelists), Problems in Paranormal Investigations, Skepticism in the Classroom, and Advancing Skepticism Online.  The workshops were an additional fee and based on my flight schedule and my blog, I signed up for the latter.  The panel consisted of Brian Dunning who does the Skeptoid podcast.  Tim Farley who blogs on technical matters at Skeptical Software Tools.   Robynn "Swoopy"  McCarthy & Dered Colanduno of the Skepticality podcast.  Cristina Rad of OMGZitsCriss YouTube Channel, and Maria Myrback, who is the JREF Blog coordinator.

In all fairness, I have been up to my eyeballs in the more science driven blogs and atheist blogs and have not really paid a lot of attention to the skeptic blogosphere, so the only one on the panel I had heard about was Cristina, and only because there was a donation drive to fly her in from Romania.  Good thing to, because she was probably the most authentic and sincere one in the bunch.

Dunning turned me off right away.  He basically whined about how much work a podcast is, how he has less time with the family, and if he had it to do over, he might not do it.  he also blatantly said not to start a blog.  Wonderfully supportive!  He was also adamant that you should be on a regular schedule.  Jen McCreight had a good tweet in response to that,
A slightly unpredictable schedule keeps people interested, because they're waiting for something to show up. Basic learning theory.
Dunning also said that it shouldn't be hobby or something to that effect.  I'm not sure because I already tuned him out.  I won't be checking out Skeptoid anytime soon.

Swoopy made a comment that if you want your blog to be really popular, you should strive for G-rated, or maybe just PG rated.  Hearing that, and noting that PZ Myers was in the audience, I couldn't help but wonder what his opinion on that comment was.  I tweeted something in response to Jen about what PZ would think of that.  Sure enough, no more than 5 seconds after hitting send, PZ stood up, made a comment about something else, then said, "As for the G-rated thing.  Fuck that!"  Nice!  PZ only has one of the most popular blogs around.  You don't need to be clean to be popular.  I think Cristina nailed it though when said that it was important to just be authentic and also that your goal should not be to become popular.  It certainly wasn't hers.  Your passion and authenticity will attract viewers and readers, and from that, you will gain popularity.  Swoopy echoed that sentiment as well.  Well said!  I relayed this part to Cheesehead who felt the need to blog about her blogging experience and she is absolutely right with respect to authenticity and self-censorship when you feel it is necessary, but ultimately, that is the writer's choice.

This is not to say that NO blogs or podcasts should be G-rated.  If that is your style, great.  Also, there were some teachers in the room and they said they use those podcasts sometimes in lessons.  That is great!  The point is, don't try to be someone who you are not.

There was some Q&A.  What can we do online besides blogging, podcasting etc.?  Another swing and a miss here.  They said commenting was good on stories that may lack a skeptical viewpoint, but the panel was convinced that it the author won't change the article or update it.  I don't think that is true.  From my experience, the comment section on most newspaper sites is a heaping pile of shitheads (no G-rating) who sit around all day and just wait to call people names.  However, this does not mean that you can't respond to the journalist directly and provide them a skeptical viewpoint and avoid the mosh pit of the comments.  This was never said and it should have been.  Also, from a later panel, if you comment to the same journalist many times in this manner, they may just contact you back for a skeptical viewpoint before the publish an article.  You can also write editorials to the paper with the skeptical view.  If you belong to a skeptical organization, get your organization's name in front of those journalists and be the go to voice for them with an opposing viewpoint.

The rest of the panel was basically a disappointment to me.  Yes, having some dissension on the panel is a good thing, but they really didn't argue it on the panel, they just let the contradictions hang in the room.


  1. It's too bad you won't bother to even listen to Skeptoid after a single panel with Dunning. I find his short, 15-minute podcasts to be great introductions to skepticism for people who otherwise refuse to listen to podcasts ... or skeptics. I don't always agree with him, but he has a unique format that I can count on for a particular niche audience, and it often spurs me into doing further research into topics I didn't know much about previously.

  2. Re Brian Dunning, I think you have to judge somebody by their body of work, rather than perhaps judging them on one session in which they might have been cranky/tired or come across as overly negative.

    Take a listen to a few Skeptoid's or read his transcripts - you might like them or not. Personally I find the shorter, researched podcasts on Skeptoid a great complement to the longer, chatty and fun (but less focused) SGU.

    Brian does have a very dry sense of humour, but does cut loose with a couple of episodes - i.e. the musical number or 'the Most Effective Homeopathy Podcast Ever'.

    The fact that they are always there on a Thursday morning like clockwork works for me. I am not a biologist, but from what I remember of operant conditioning, regular/consistent rewards are a positive to my mind. :-)

    The point about a panel, is I guess you get a range of opinions e.g. G-rated or not. Personally I swear a lot, but then when introducing kids to Skepticism having clean options like SGU 5x5 or Skeptoid is better. Whatever works for the people who make these things out of a passion for the subject rather than pay.

    Point being - from the panel, you draw what you want from them and the contrasting approaches.

    Oh, and I like the Skepticality people.. but stopped listening to the podcast.. too long and just not interesting enough and/or fun. Your mileage may vary.

  3. Just wanted to throw my two cents in to say that I may very well not be a skeptic, an athiest, or reading this blog post had I not come across Dunning's Skeptoid. Call it my gateway drug, I guess, but I've enjoyed nearly every episode I've listened to since discovering it, and would happily and freely recommend it to anyone I could, including you.

  4. You aren't missing much with avoiding Skeptoid. Dunning has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of wire fraud and criminal forfeiture for a cookie stuffing scheme that defrauded eBay (

    Every time he complains about how much time he spends on the podcast, or begs for donations, just remember the guy has been swimming in gravy for years.

  5. Thanks for the link and the kind words.

  6. @Anonymous: How does a person's personal life affect their ability to discuss issues? The podcast is free and you don't have to give him any money.

  7. I'm not surprised that Anonymous' post is anonymous. He sure seems to have an amazing insight into things that aren't public. Here is some info for those who want to know: