…to make a first impression.

Typically we find this “gem” of advice applying to an individual’s approach to an important meeting of some sort or even daily life. However, as a “First TAMmer”, I had the opportunity to do a little role reversal and get a true first impression from the active skeptic community at TAM2012.

I’ve been a skeptic for a long while, but never really considered seeking out or joining any skeptic community. It never even crossed my mind. However, I had found myself in a position to help out at the CosmoQuest booth this year, which allowed me to jump into the skeptic scene head first. I had heard many different things about the tumultuous situation happening online, but made a conscious choice to avoid reading it. I wanted to walk into this situation with as little personal bias as possible, and I’m really glad I did.

My three-hour drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas brought me to the South Point Hotel at about 7:45 AM on Friday. After sending out emails to the team that I had arrived, I went to the registration booth, snagged my badge, shirt and booklet, then sat at our booth for a few minutes. People had slowly started to make their way up the escalator and quickly the hallway had become buzzing with excited energy. With coffee in hand and smiles on their faces, TAMmers of nearly every age group, from different areas of the world, working various careers and having very unique personalities all met together to celebrate skepticism and its importance in society. What an amazing sight to see!

As the day went along, I went back and forth from the booth to the Grand Ballroom for different talks, stopping by the various booths along the way. My focus at the booth was to interact and engage with the attendees, but when I was walking on my own, I was just another face in the crowd, observing and listening in an attempt to glean anything I could from the truly diverse crowd. Upbeat conversations in the hallway met with the roar of applause from inside the ballroom filled the air as people both meandered from place to place or were seen scurrying about, focused on some unknown task.

6:00 PM comes around much more quickly than I had anticipated. A group of us met up for dinner, had some awesome conversation and then split up to see what others were up to on the floor of the South Point Casino. A group of phenomenal women and a few of us men gather at a few tables, chit-chatting over drinks about the day’s happenings and catching up with one another.

And then it happens. I’m told a first-hand account of harassment that occurred at and after last year’s TAM event. This young woman related her story that could easily be described as “stalking”; A man was constantly trying to contact her via social media, informing her about photos he has of where she lives, etc. My heart sunk. “Does this sort of thing really happen in a community that’s centered around rationality and reason?”, I asked myself. The rest of the evening I heard different accounts of harassment from different people of both gender. Rape threats, name calling, slanderous events online, all resulting in a huge rift in a community that needs solidarity more than ever.

After migrating to the party put on by Penn Jillette, eating a donut and some bacon (Thanks Penn), a few of us decided to step out into the hallway to rescue our ears (The music was pretty awful, ask anybody who was there!). A great conversation was struck up with a new group of people I’d never met before. The importance of skepticism and scientific passion in young people was the topic, and it made me very happy! I love hearing stories about primary and secondary school children getting excited about science and actively pursuing it. I was able to go back to my room and contemplate the day’s ups and downs before passing out in order to start a new day.

Saturday had come and I felt much more energy on the floor of the convention center hallway. There was a lot of buzz about the previous day’s talks, along with the musical quality of the band the night before, and being grateful for donuts and bacon. The talks have started and Dr. Pamela Gay is in and out of our booth, preparing for her talk. I had the amazing opportunity to watch the talk live in the Grand Ballroom the way it was meant to be received.

Disclaimer: I volunteer my time and some money along side Dr. Pamela Gay for Astronomy Education and Public Outreach that is featured in her talk. If you feel my opinions of her or her talk that I’m about to give are biased, feel free to read the transcript here and form your own opinion.

Dr. Pamela Gay bravely stared down a dragon that many of us only whisper about in the privacy of our small circle of friends. Censorship. Bigotry. Verbal and physical harassment. Hate. The parts of society that affect us all, yet we often feel are too large to tackle. She didn’t stop there, however. Dr. Gay shed light on the truly wonderful things happening, the people who do remarkable things, simply because they can. We all have the power to do remarkable things and it’s up to us to choose to do so.

Multiple standing ovations were met with tear-filled eyes as Pamela shared her experience being groped after professional conferences while having to fight an uphill battle in a field dominated by an “old boys’ club”. She relates the mental acrobatics needed to even attempt approaching a subject which most find utterly unbelievable– being accosted in academia– and have people believe her.

“It pisses me off to know that as strong as I am, I know I’m not powerful enough to name names and be confident that I’ll still have a career.”
— Dr. Pamela Gay

For many of us, this talk was a pivotal point of this convention. The rest of the evening, and into the next day people were talking about how strong Pamela is for vocally exposing what the majority of us to know to be true, but find a way to ignore or avoid. To feign ignorance about the continued disenfranchising of a group of people based on their gender is, to say the least, appalling. We all do it, though, consciously or not. It’s been ingrained in our culture from very young ages. And though it’s difficult to make a conscious effort to change the way we think from years of subtle programming, we must do so. We must do amazing things simply because we can. We have the ability to catch ourselves when we do wrong, apologize to those we have hurt, and actively put forth the energy to be better humans from that point on.

After a month of reflection on TAM, and having now read a bit of what’s being said in “both camps”, it’s painfully apparent how fissured our community is. We truly do have an important role to play in the world. Advocating for reason and rationality is no small feat in an overwhelmingly irrational world.

I don’t think it needs to be said from me about what we shouldn’t do, but I will let it be said what I think we should do. Do wonderful things, simply because you can. Each one of us individuals shine as examples in this multifaceted community of skeptics. Instead of making videos of attacking other members of the community, arguing who is or isn’t right, let’s focus on working together despite our character differences to make this world a better place for everyone who lives in it. Let’s hurl around uplifting words as easily as the hurtful ones have been tossed about. Let’s work to make one another smile, make it easier for fledgling members in a wonderful community feel like they are accepted and have something to contribute.

They are eager to contribute, by the way. They, like myself, were also tentative about approaching the community because of venomous words and antagonistic verbiage. We can’t grow if we look like big, scary monsters, waiting to eat the weak and destroy our foes. We can grow if we choose to embrace one another, even if we disagree on issues.

I also want to take the time to thank the absolutely amazing people I’ve met in person and online as a result of TAM. You’re truly remarkable and look forward to working with all of you in the future. As for those whom I have not spoken or chatted with, leave a comment and introduce yourself! I’m eager to get to know all of you and see what we can do to make this planet a little more rational.






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