QEDCon, the annual UK conference for science and skepticism, is over for another year. It was another terrific event. They must be doing something right, as people from all across the world have become regular attendees. The following is a personal recap of the conference.
Our venue was the Palace Hotel, close to the Manchester university district. Outside, it looks like an over-designed relic of a bygone era. Inside it’s a confusing warren of corridors, staircases and, eventually, rooms. Quite how all of the attendees managed to make their way out alive is anyone’s guess.
Paul Zenon started proceedings with a hilarious video that managed to combine, in 5 minutes, as many woo beliefs as possible – including the drinking of a certain bodily fluid – an image I’ll find difficult to forget for a while. He then went onstage and acted the part of a false medium. Very, very funny.
Elizabeth Pisani then gave a talk on AIDS. People with HIV can now expect to have long, high quality lives; however this means that viral load continues over a much longer term, and along with it an increased risk of transmittance. The net effect is that more and more people getting are getting HIV. Higher rates of HIV lead to huge financial pressures within the medical system, as well as creating a risk of resistance in the longer term. Her conclusion is that, unless a cure is found, HIV must be reduced by addressing the riskiest of lifestyle behaviours. This is incredibly difficult to do.
Next up was Richard Wiseman, with an entertaining talk on his research career. He started the talk with a few photographic illusions, then moving on to ghost photos and pareidolia. He spoke about the attentional spotlight difference between lucky and unlucky people. He showed a video of a fire walking experiment proving – painfully for the participants – that physics trumps faith. He talked about an experiment where he and his team left wallets around the UK, and waited to see which ones got returned. He then talked about sleep, and what we can do to improve it. This is the subject of his latest book, Night School.
Beauty by the Geeks, Brigitte West and Rose Brown, then presented a talk on woo within the cosmetics industry. Both speakers had great material and great energy – evoking a bit of shock from the audience when they showed photos of people spreading sheep placentas all over their faces. I had a small problem with the talk in that it spent much too long on introductions. It would have been better to have devoted more time on the controversies and nonsense within the industry, and discussing what the science actually says. It’s clearly a hugely interesting area with a lot more to discover.
I then went to a panel discussion on The Internet – the best and worst. Angela Saini had some very coherent thoughts (“What is the worst? I think it’s people”). Unfortunately, the subject was far too wide and the discussion was all over the place. I didn’t learn much from it. It should have been more focused – internet trolling and harassment would have evoked a better discussion, I think.
I then attended a panel talk on Medical Myths and the Media. Again, this is such a huge area it was difficult to come to any conclusions or to have a particularly coherent discussion. Nevertheless, it was interesting listening to how doctors coped with the huge deluge of research papers in their area. It’s not easy to distinguish the good research from the bad stuff.
Dr. Sheena Cruickshank
After the break we had Dr. Sheena Cruickshank talking about worms. No, not earthworms, instead the ones that live inside of people: hookworms, tapeworms, ringworms and their ilk. There is a negative relationship, geographically, between worm infections and allergies. In areas where worms are prevalent, there are few allergies, and vice versa in the more developed world. Worm treatment may make syndromes such as Crohn’s Disease a bit more manageable, but such treatments are not easy to implement as worms bring their own health issues. And, yes, there are people out there self-medicating on worms in the mistaken belief that it’s making them better. It was an absolutely fascinating talk.
Mark Crislip, the presenter of QuackCast, then gave a furiously detailed presentation about Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). “Integrated Medicine is where you mix cow pie with Apple pie, so that the Apple pie tastes worse”. His view is that the Placebo effect is overblown and is equal to non-treatment if there is an objective end-point. If it’s an open or subjective end point, it’s a small effect. People who say they get better, often don’t get better objectively. It just makes them feel better about themselves. Crislip is also concerned about the lack of quality standards in CAM and the many reports of direct harm.
The Evening activities kicked off with Richard Wiseman going through some of the worst scientific cover songs ever written. Geologists should never be allowed within an ass’s roar of rock anthems.
The Ockham Awards – the skeptical Oscars – were announced.
- Kylie Sturgess won the best video award – a TEDx presentation where she talks about superstitious beliefs and practices, such as drinking urine. As she was not there (using the poor excuse that she has to make her living on a continent on the other side of the world), her acceptance speech was given by a cute kitten. She knows how we tick.
- “Leaving Fundamentalism” won the best blog. This was given to Jonny Scaramanga from Nate Phelps, of which more later.
- The best podcast was Skepticality. This was received by Susan Gerbic on behalf of Derek and Swoopy.
- The Editor’s Choice award was then given to the QED organisers themselves. It was well deserved for all the work these guys put into creating a brilliant experience for all the attendees. For the last 3 years, QED has been one of the big highlights of my year.
QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award
The comedy sections were all very different, and all excellent. Gemma Arrowsmith won over the audience with an astounding Miss World acceptance speech where she talked about how she got where she is by starting at the Big Bang and moving on from there. There was a touch of genius to John Luke Roberts’s piece. He spoke in aphorisms “Jazz to me sounds like a German saying yes, then falling asleep”, “There is nothing sadder than a slinky taking a lift”. After a few gratuitous insults, he finished with a hilarious visual sketch involving a long beard and a set of false teeth on a stick. We were crying laughing. You had to be there. Andy Zaltzman combined skepticism with religion and politics, with hilarious results. “Sperm are basically Stalinists” and “John Logie Baird invented the television in order to give the aged a reason to keep on living”. It was great stuff.
Paul Zenon started proceedings with a tale of mischevious hoaxing in Southampton – issuing public divorce proceedings using a pair of curtains. Local media picked it up, then world media, and finally came the psychological analyses. All the while, Zenon and his fellow hoaxers were sitting back, laughing, seeking new ways to stoke the story further.
The first talk of the day had Deborah Hyde talking about vampires. She traced the history of vampire stories, from Eastern Europe to the present day. Many legends are linked to disease epidemics and reports of corpses failing to rot properly. She talked about the multiple ways to (allegedly) stop a vampire, and how these legends originated. At the end she discussed a recent story where a guy died after swallowing a garlic clove out of a fear of vampirism. Deborah is an outstanding public speaker, interspersing her presentation with spot quizzes and guests being asked to come to the stage to drink blood and ashes.
Next up was Coralie Colmez, talking about the use of maths and stats in criminal trials. The probability of two events occurring equals the product of probabilities of them happening separately ONLY if both events are truly independent. A number of trials in recent history failed to establish independence sufficiently, ending up in gross miscarriages of justice. Coralie talked about the cot death story of Sally Clark and Roy Meadow, who as an expert witness, assessed the likelihood of two cot deaths to be almost impossible, without foul play taking place. Sally was jailed and was released only after a huge public outcry. Coralie also talked about the Birthday Problem and the Bayes Theorem. She got a lively discussion going in the questions afterwards.
Skeptics in the Pub Forum
As an organiser with Cork Skeptics, I went to the Skeptics In the Pub Forum in the breakout room. A few useful takeaways: 1) Never forget to treat your speaker as a VIP; 2) musicians are a very good resource for venue finding; 3) all venues should have disabled access if possible; 4) be wary of people wanting to do talks, as there are a few crackpots out there; 5) Meetup.com is becoming a popular online destination for meetings, at least in the UK; 6) It’s helpful to get the word out by doing a gig for other groups in the area; 7) Publicity is crucial – you still need to trawl through all the media routes. An intriguing thing for me was the use of “Interesting Talks” as a branding item.
Samantha Stein then gave a talk about Camp Quest UK. Camp Quest is a bit like the Scouts, but focused primarily on secular interests and values. There were some great activities mentioned, including talks by well known speakers, and Philosophy for Children (P4C), where kids are encouraged to think through issues and come to their own conclusions. If only there was something like that for me when I was a kid. She talked about the nasty press reception to Camp Quest, portraying atheists “grooming young children”. In the Q&A afterwards, she touched on the difficulty of government recognition as a charity because they were non-religious and they discussed “controversial” topics such as evolution. This is a travesty.
The last talk of the day was probably the most shocking of all (remember we had already had speeches on internal worms, vampire exhumations and AIDS). Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, talked about life within the Westboro Baptist Church, a group so hateful, the Ku Klux Klan issued a disclaimer about them on their website. He began by listing from memory all the books of the bible, as it was something demanded by his father when he was still a young child. His father was incredibly abusive – using violent beatings and psychological bullying to counteract any sense of independent thinking in his children. “You learned to stop trusting that instinctive nature that we have to distinguish right from wrong”, said Nate. As soon as Nate was 18 years of age, he left home, never to return. This wasn’t the end of the story, as Nate spent decades fighting the hobgoblins that his father had implanted in his mind. He was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is now a vigorous campaigner against fundamentalism, calling blind faith one of the most dangerous things in society today, because it is unaccountable and not receptive to challenge. To paraphrase Nate, we live in a world of ideas, but ideas have no value unless they have been tested, vetted and subjected to the harsh light of reality. We must strive to love, and not to hate.
Throughout the talk, you couldn’t have heard a pin drop from the audience. We all got to our feet and loudly applauded when he finished. Nate’s story is at the core of why we do all this.
That concluded QED 2014. In my impression, it was as good as ever, both for the quality of the speakers, the interesting discussions, and the people I bumped into along the way. QED has a grassroots focus that makes you feel like you own a share in its success. Financial considerations aside, I’m hoping I can attend the 2015 event.
On #QEDCon, Manchester April 2014 – @Gwendes
Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism – @HayleyStevens