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
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.
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.
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!
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.