Right now, Mowgli is like Schrödinger’s Cat. In my mind, he is alive and dead at the same time. I have to face both realities simultaneously, both of which are not encouraging.

He disappeared yesterday morning; possibly one of the most engaging and delightful little creatures you could imagine. He could literally walk on walls. I called him “a dog of a cat”, such was/is his playfulness. It’s unlike him to be away for so long. 

I don’t know whether I should use the past or present tense. Alive and dead at the same time. 

Here’s a photo I took yesterday.

Here’s a playlist (Apple Music) that I’ve fallen in love with:

DD Dumbo / Hot Chip / Daughter / Warpaint / Dam Mantle / Beck / Austra / Cash + David / Pale Honey / Glass Animals / Banks / OMD / Django Django / Sweat / Franz Ferdinand 

https://itunes.apple.com/ie/playlist/2016-11-november/idpl.7623ad79491e4f3992be48bd5cabb778

Here’s a great book that I’m reading:

The Silk Roads (Peter Francopan)


And, I got a good proportion of my Christmas shopping done yesterday.

So there’s that.

No army. No coherent foreign policy. Breaking apart at the seams. A population in thrall to anti-immigration right wing nationalists. A war on our border that we can do nothing to influence. Likely to be spat out by an isolationist America. Getting older and angrier.

Europe is the new Austro-Hungary.

I put so much investment of thought and emotion into what was going on in the US. Over the last few months, the upcoming election – and to a smaller extent, Brexit – simply dominated my waking thoughts. There was an satisfaction in such thinking, believing that I had it all worked out, that the arguments were sound and that, come the day, our side would win out.

We all know now what happened. 

I now feel gutted. Hollow inside. As if, as if there’s been a death. And metaphorically there has been one. A feeling of loss, dressed with a topping of mortal worry for what lies ahead. 

I think I now have a better understanding of how many in the middle classes of Russia felt when the Winter Palace was stormed. At the time, I’m sure plenty of people reassured themselves that it would all be alright, that these Bolsheviks would be just a flash in the pan. I’m sure they joked about their incompetence too.

Clearly, with Brexit and Trump both following the same script, there’s been a societal shift taking place that’s quite fundamental. The approaches that served politicians so well in the past don’t appear to be working anymore. Revolutions happen when the populations bifurcate into haves and have-nots, but somehow this feels different. Sure, there are enough Wall Street bankers and overpaid CEOs to cause real concerns, but I don’t think this is enough to explain it. Trump, after all, is technically one of them. Maybe the “haves” this time around, are the internet savvy, the educated, the socially mobile, the progressives. Without understanding it, they became the new elite; those for whom the world was their oyster. The “have-nots” are everyone else. As old norms declined, as their jobs and values rapidly became less relevant, they stewed; jokes and offhand insults only intensifying their anger. 

If the Internet was a revolution, we are now experiencing a kind of counter-revolution. Because we were all living in our own social media bubbles, we didn’t realise what a danger those on the other side of the digital divide might pose.

Had there been a chance, or had we been listening, perhaps there could have been a conversation to be had: how to keep society together in the light of the greatest technological change in history. The question is, with Trump and what comes after, will there be a chance? Racism, homophobia, sectarianism and sexism have been given a new voice. Democracy itself is under threat. Four years of Republican rule in the US could be shockingly brutal for us all.

But, something to remember, 

Is it because liberalism is feminine?
 
Is that what it is?
 
Not enough red meat? Not enough guns and bar room brawls? Not enough “telling people like it is”? Not enough Page 3, dog whistles and giving them one?
 
Too much namby pamby “talking”? Too much pussy talk about looking out for other people? Too much acceptance of difference? Of sharing feelings? Of giving people a chance in life? Of praising facts and expert views? Of a fucking education?
 
Is that what it’s all about?
 
Is it?

Clearly, I was wrong.

I underestimated the strength of Trump and his supporters.

We’re into new territory now. Heavens help us all.

This election has been the most amazing one in my lifetime. From day one, the Trump campaign has been extraordinary, with regular candidates tossed aside like bowling pegs, one after the other. I do not yet know the outcome of today’s election, but I’m hoping fervently that Hillary makes it across the finish line today – finally stopping this runaway dumpster truck from seizing the highest office in America.

Normally, the dissection of a political battle involves picking through what the winning candidate did right and what the losing candidate did wrong. Should Clinton win, the story should be about how she fought an effective media battle, how she decisively won the debates, how she courted celebrities and rock stars, fought a well-financed ground war and made effective use of analytics. It should be about the long succession of Trump scandals, fiascos and unforced errors, from the Khans to Pussygate, to his atrocious debate performances; his alienation of Latinos, African Americans, women and Muslims; his unedifying spats with his fellow Republican politicians. In ordinary times, you could write a story of these last few months in terms of what was done right by Hillary and wrong by Trump. But these are not ordinary times. The real story of this campaign is how, despite all the errors and disasters, Trump remained in contention and how seemingly smaller setbacks and mistakes sent Clinton’s campaign into a nosedive. Trump survived a video laying his misogyny bare for all to see. He survived a leak which suggested that he paid no tax for decades.  He survived, despite being called out on lie, after lie, after lie. Any one of these should have been enough to put paid to his political aspirations. And yet, when Clinton suffered a bout of pneumonia, or called his supporters ‘deplorable’, or had the FBI resurrect the email investigation, she quickly found herself on the back foot, fighting a desperate battle to maintain her lead.

The story of this election was how, among a large number of supporters, Trump was treated like a demigod, while Clinton was treated with extreme scepticism, bordering on disgust. Trump effectively used hatred, anger and his charisma to marshall powerful forces in his favour, sending out a clear signal that America is extremely vulnerable to demagoguery. How the country recovers from this frightening state of affairs will be a whole other story.

This is the fifth and last part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2,  Part 3 and Part 4.

This is my final write-up from QED 2016. I know I’ve left out a ton of stuff – inevitable given that there were so many simultaneous tracks. I also realise I haven’t written much about the awards or the Saturday evening activities, but as I wasn’t taking any notes, my writings would be purely from memory, which is highly dodgy at the best of times. I will note however that the QED Award to Crispian Jago was thoroughly well deserved. Crispian has been a force of nature over the past years, bringing satire to a whole new level and crystallising how so many of us felt about pseudoscience. This has not been an easy time, as he has been afflicted by cancer in the last year. He was inundated by well-wishers throughout the conference. I wish him the very best in the months ahead.

Of Mousetraps and Men

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The penultimate speaker on the main stage was broadcaster Michael Blastland, with a talk about how seemingly trivial things may form the most important part of life for all of us. We are brought up to believe in simple stories, that A causes B, and so if we implement seemingly simple solutions to complex problems, the outcome will be predictable. Of course this is not what happens. Life is more like a Heath Robinson machine with things constantly going wrong and taking different paths. Just because A happens, B might not.

We are lazy storytelling machines.

He talked about great artists and great achievers – Darwin and Lennon for example – who might not have achieved greatness were it not for serendipity. He looked at chain smokers and red meat eaters who lived to a hundred years old, despite the odds. He discussed studies where teenage delinquents from similar backgrounds had massively different life outcomes.

Science is all about the average, the aggregate, the loss of individuality. But what if it’s the particular that drive the cause?

He talked then about prescription drugs, such as statins and heartburn medications, where the lifetime benefit to people on the medications vs those not taking additional medications, while scientifically significant, is somewhat marginal. What we know at a global level may often tell us little at a local level.

Some big effects will almost certainly never affect you. But some little fuckers almost certainly will.

So what? Well, apart from some suggestions on getting into the details, adapting and experimenting, we are left with far more questions than answers. We all know that life is hugely complex and that chaos and complexity dominate our lives. We all know that we cannot predict our individual futures, but we can extrapolate some general trends, and these trends are important, no matter how chaotic the raw data. The fact that some people will beat the smoking lottery is not an argument for telling people to keep smoking. The fact that some unvaccinated kids will be mildly affected by measles if they get it, is not an argument for telling everyone not to get immunised. The fact that we can’t predict next week’s weather over Slough or Cleethorpes is not an argument against climate change. Is his argument that science is shit just because it cannot predict individual outcomes in every situation? But then again, when did science ever make such claims?

Here’s Michael Blastland talking to the RSA on a related topic.

The Deadly Dowsing Rod

If you were asked what the most dangerous pseudoscience is, the answer is unlikely to be water divining. It’s first cousin, however, is certainly way up there. When the art of water divining is extended to bomb detection the cost in human lives is enormous, as the people of Iraq unfortunately discovered.

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Meirion Jones is an investigative journalist who reported this incredible story to the world.  He handed us a small, cheaply made dowsing rod that looks eerily similar to a retractable antenna on old TV sets attached to a hand-grip. During the Iraq War, this device  – the ADE 651 – got approved by armies around the world without a shred of evidence that it actually worked. The mastermind behind the device was Jim McCormick, a small time crook who became fabulously wealthy as the devices, costing up to 40,000 dollars each, sold in staggeringly large quantities.

It does exactly what it’s designed to do. It makes money.

Jim McCormick

Meirion asked around, and eventually found a whistleblower who was able to provide parts for the device. The device was tested by scientists and was shown to be completely inert, unable to detect anything. It turned out that the British military had a role in facilitating its distribution, so they were disinclined to help the BBC investigation.

Speaking as a professional, I would say that’s an empty plastic case.

Sydney Alford, engineer who tested the device.

McCormick and his accomplices were arrested and tried. McCormick was convicted of fraud in 2013 and is currently serving a 10 year sentence. The device has been withdrawn from most militaries, but clones and similar devices that claim to detect HIV and other diseases continue to pop up on a regular basis.

 

And that was it!

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All that was left were the many thanks to everyone involved – the organisers, speakers, volunteers and panelists who did such a good job over the weekend. Hopefully see you all again next year.

Further Reading

David Gamble discusses Susan Blackmore’s talk on Out of Body Experiences. 

Dr Marieanne reviews QED

Clairewitchfiles review of QED

Britt Hermes recaps some of the best moments of the conference

Hayley shares her thoughts on the conference

Caroline Watt’s recap of the conference. 

Some further notes from David Gamble. 

 
 

 

 

 

This is the fourth part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

The March of Unreason

Taking a break from the formal talks (and I am sorry I could not see Paul Zenon), I went to a panel discussion discussing the forthcoming British exit from the EU and the “post factual” age we are now apparently in.

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The discussion featured NHS Campaigner Emma Runswick,  journalist Hugo Dixon, Max Goldman from Sense About Science, broadcaster Michael Blastland and law professor Michael Dougan. The panel was chaired by Geoff Whelan of Manchester Skeptics.

“A lie can run around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boot on.”

Emma observed that on complex political issues people tend to follow the advice of friends over experts.

People are more likely to trust their friends over experts, because they think that experts don’t have their interests at heart.

Michael Dougan broke the Brexit lies down into four parts –

  1. Telling lies about the here and now: According to the media now, the referendum was won by the working class of northern England. This is not true. The southern English middle class vote was by far the most important.
  2. Fantasies about the future: Boris Johnson is still being dishonest about “special deals” that Britain will get upon exit.
  3. Rubbishing anybody who disagrees. The message being put out at the moment is that anyone who disagrees is anti democratic.
  4. Debasement of parliamentary democracy. A referendum only used when you can’t get what you want in parliament.

Max observed that fact-checking was relatively new to UK politics.

Are we in a “post truth society”?

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Hugo Dixon made the point that demagoguery was a direct result of the financial crisis. When politicians don’t seem to be up to the job, voters start looking elsewhere.

In the land of the liars, the authentic liar is king.

Michael Dougan expressed a concern that once people find a way to get their views accepted in the mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before they seek a new target. What next? Global warming? Women’s rights?

Michael Blastland felt that a lot of the post factual talk was a direct result of scandals within the expert community.

There is nothing so damaging to the domain of evidence than the preacher who sins.

 

The conversation could easily have gone on for a few more hours. It was a packed room and at one stage, about thirty hands went up when the moderator asked for question from the floor. As was clearly evident from the panel discussion, Brexit is causing considerable anxiety to skeptics, scientists and rationalists in Britain and everywhere. This story has a long way to run yet.

Last piece coming up.

This is the third part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1 and Part 2.

This post covers some of the talks on Sunday. Matt Parker did a fantastic job as MC for the QED conference. Matt, who did a talk on maths some years ago, was uncannily witty and able to manage any situation effortlessly. Who knew that a maths training could lead to such important skills?

That video

Hot off the presses is the video of the event. It was shown for a second time on Sunday morning with a very subtle modification for the second day.

Mermaids and Crappy Science TV

The headline speaker on Sunday Morning was Cara Santa Maria. Cara is known to many in the skeptical movement as a new co-host on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. She talked about her upbringing into a Mormon family, and her mental health challenges during her early career in media.

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It’s clear from her presentation that she is passionate about science and science communication. She has huge experience negotiating the American media landscape and  has a few thoughts on it’s merits and downsides.

The Discovery Channel has really shit the bed recently.

The American science media landscape is very different to Europe. There is a strong culture of anti-intellectualism and there are few incentives from government to provide quality, honest programming. In the past, news programs and factual programs, though not profitable in themselves, were funded from game-shows. Nowadays everything has to show a profit. This has lead to a race to the bottom: and lowest common denominator programming is the result with ratings beating truth each time. Recent examples include speculations about the continued existence of mermaids and megalodons on popular science channels.

Would you be opposed to dinosaurs still being alive in the Amazon?

Unnamed Discovery Channel executive after pitching a science show.

There are no easy answers to the problem, but Cara believes that it can be tackled through strong science role models such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, fighting back against the worst excesses of bad programming, creating popular DIY content, financial supports for good content and demanding change in the industry. It will be a long war.

Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart.

Cara has some thoughts on good science communication:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience, but always underestimate their vocabulary.
  3. A big effort in communicating science should be put into the process of thinking, not the spouting of facts. Teach people to think critically for themselves.
  4. Be yourself. If you are pretending to be someone you’re not, people will disengage.
  5. Meet people where they are. We need to understand the cultural background and unchallenged assumptions that people have before we can talk to them meaningfully.
  6. Stop trying to sound so goddamn smart. The best science communicators talk to people in their language.

Here’s Cara talking about GMOs on the Dave Rubin show.

Duck Vaginas? Yes. Duck Vaginas.

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You had to be there. Sally LePage’s presentation was mind-blowing. Sally is an evolutionary biologist doing a PhD in sexual selection in Oxford. In a marvellously entertaining talk, she talked about the history of study into animal sex organs, noting that Darwin was really the first person in two millennia to take an academic interest in the field.

When a male has lots of sex it’s called sex. When females have sex, it’s called promiscuity.

She contrasted the research done on male animal genitalia to female animal genitalia, noting that the former category had been studied much more than the latter. Which is a pity, because without understanding the female reproductive organs, it’s difficult to come to conclusions on the variety of male sex organs. The duck is a case in point. Everyone knows that the duck has a corkscrew penis, but far less people (at least until this weekend) would have been aware that the duck vagina is even more elaborately shaped, allowing the female to decide which of the prospective males will become the father.

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A beetle’s penis. Just in case you were asking.

Even eggs are much less passive than sperms. Where conventional wisdom has the active sperm penetrating the egg, recent research shows that chemicals in on the surface of the egg actively collude in accepting the male DNA inside.

Sally delivered a master-class presentation here. She is a clear, entertaining presenter with a marvellous sense of humour and timing. Great work.

Here’s Sally talking about the Tragedy of the Commons.

Not done yet…

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