Pharyngula

Post-conference wrap-up

I just got back from the American Atheists conference, so here’s my summary of the weekend.

  • Best talk of the conference: Lawrence Krauss wins hands-down. It was a meaty, informative, and lively lecture that summarized what we know about dark matter and dark energy so that even a non-physicist could follow it. Just that one talk alone made the whole weekend worthwhile.

  • Dawkins gave a good talk, but to be honest, it got a little unfocused in a few places — he tried to include some of the recent events at the last minute, and it lost some of its coherence as a result. Still a good lecture, though, and also worth the effort of attending the whole event.

  • The family and I got to go out to dinner with Richard Dawkins twice (and once with Lawrence Krauss), which isn’t something the average attendee got to do, so I shouldn’t brag too much.

  • The Pharyngu-Fest organized by Mike Haubrich was fun, even if I got there late and the bar was so noisy you could only hear the person immediately next to you. Maybe a coffee shop is more my style, rather than the mindlessness encouraged by a bar that puts a jackhammer in your ear. But what I did hear was engrossing.

  • Ellen Johnson’s talk was very good at inciting atheist activism, and she was very effective at getting across the message that we could be an effective voting bloc if we’d collaborate and act more. She made a little dig at blogs, though, that I (unsurprisingly) found inappropriate — online networks are absolutely essential in building up communities of activists, particularly among the younger members. Don’t disparage those, they are our future.

  • I got into a wrangle with two creationists, which was very entertaining. These guys, who did not have badges for the conference, apparently thought they could troll the halls, capturing souls for Christ with their brilliant argumentation. They could not; it’s hard to imagine a more pathetic pair. I got the usual litany of lies: there are no transitional fossils, we ought to have cat-dog intermediates (among millions of others), evolution is just a theory, the big bang is proof of genesis, they believe in microevolution but not macroevoluton, and their big one, every chance event must have a cause. They were very confused and very trite. I hammered on them for a while, and told them plainly that they were ignorant clowns who were going to get laughed at by everyone; it was extremely amusing to watch them try to keep the glazed-eyed smiles on their faces while they spluttered indignantly that I had just insulted them. Hell, yeah, I’d just insulted them. They were idiots.

    They did disappear afterwards, and I didn’t see any more of them at the conference. Maybe they were off praying for me.

  • As usual, I have a major complaint about the organization of atheist conferences. I call it Big Ballroom Syndrome. What do they do? They rent one gigantic hall for the meeting, and then what we get is a parade of speakers who lecture at us in one hour blocks, while everyone sits and listens. This is bad for conferences. Break it up more; get 4 smaller rooms instead of one big one, and schedule concurrent events. Don’t complain that that means you’d need four times as many speakers to fill them up…that’s not a problem if you actually take advantage of the talents of your membership and get them to present on their areas of expertise. Maybe you need a big room for someone like Dawkins or Krauss, but smaller venues are more congenial for less notorious speakers, who will get a smaller but more appreciative audience. It will also increase participation from the audience.

    The worst example of this problem was a session in the Big Ballroom called “Ask the Experts,” in which 6 very diverse people were seated at a panel and a moderator read submitted questions to them. One person would answer that question for 10 minutes while the other five experts twiddled their thumbs. Now if they had 6 rooms, one for each expert, and had more open questions, nobody would have been bored, more people would have been engaged, and it would have been a far more interesting set of sessions.

Still, despite my complaint at the end, it was an eminently worthwhile weekend, and I’d go again. Just please, please, please get some 20+ year olds who are familiar with science fiction conventions on the organizing committee and spiff up the format.