Last weekend, I returned to Manchester to attend QED Con 2013. This is the biggest event in the UK and Ireland for folks interested in skepticism. It didn’t disappoint. The talks and discussions were superb.

QED: Audience at the Robin Ince / Brendan O'Neill debate

QED: Audience at the Robin Ince / Brendan O’Neill debate

First up was Stevyn Colgan, who gave a great talk about questioning assumptions in urban policing. Stevyn talked about how crime prevention needed to focus on more than just the perpetrator: the victim and the environment need to be considered too. Innovative solutions such as fake vomit, pink lighting and dog shows have their place in preventing anti-social behaviour, it seems. His talk was a discussion of how lateral thinking had produced measurable, sustainable results in preventing crime and reducing antisocial behaviour.

Next up was Helen Czerski, who struggled for the first part of her talk to get the presentation software to behave. Her talk focused on how interesting physics is all around us in everyday life and how science is for everyone, not just scientists. The talk was packed with fascinating anecdotes about bumblebees, eggs and coccolithospores (i.e. chalk).

Brooke Maganti spoke about sex, dodgy statistics and challenging assumptions about male and female inclinations in society. Her work has revealed big problems in claims of newspapers and advocacy organisations. Oh, and we’re all sex addicts.

I then attended the Skeptics in the Pub forum. As an SITP organiser in Cork, I’m scratching my head for new ideas as I look to change the format of our meetings and events. The ideas were there in abundance – storytelling events, science walks, topical subjects, civility policies, and engagement with the press and radio.

QED: Is Science the New Religion

Robin Ince lays into Brendan O’Neill during the “Is Science a New Religion?” debate.

The next meeting was “Is Science a New Religion?”, featuring Robin Ince, Brendan O’Neill and Helen Czerski. Brendan O’Neill took the view that scientists had far too much influence in the political process and that they were assuming the mantle of high priest within the power structures of society. The perspective from many there was that the reverse was the case: politics was all the poorer because of inadequate attention to evidence, except when it suited the politicians. Parliament and Government is also vastly under-represented by scientists. O’Neill got a hard time at the meeting, but I will say that differing views are important at gatherings like this. Challenging assumptions is what scepticism is about, after all.

Dr. Rachel Dunlop then spoke about the anti-vaccination movement in Australia. It’s quite a case study. The anti-vaxxers, who disingenuously call themselves the “Australian Vaccination Network” are good examples of unsinkable rubber ducks – no matter how hard you prove them wrong and challenge them in the media, they keep coming back for more. The Australian skeptics have been effective in countering false balance in their media organisations, with some measurable success.

Richard Dawkins then did an interview with Robin Ince, talking mainly about his books and ideas over the last 40 years of writing. He spoke of how Newton managed a far greater feat of understanding compared to Darwin, and yet preceded Darwin by 200 years, and how talking about Santa can be a teaching moment for kids when they eventually begin to question his existence. He had no easy answer for the human propensity for self-deception, but he did point to innovations such as the double-blind trial as tools to help people move away from dodgy thinking and poor conclusions. He also made the point that religion is not necessarily the enemy – that dogma is. Dogmas do not have to be religious to be enormously destructive.

That night we were treated to an awards ceremony and the enormous comic talents of Chris Cochrane, Michael Legge and Mitch Benn. It was hugely enjoyable.

On day 2, Carrie Poppy started proceedings by talking about how skeptics should engage more with proponents of woo by eating their dog-food, as it were. She has spent the last few years going on cleansing diets, attending a UFO cult, becoming a Mormon and submitting to acupuncture so that we don’t have to. She encourages us to try it ourselves, so we can understand more where the other side is coming from and so we can better use our anecdotes as a means of public communication.

QED: The God Panel

Mitch Benn, Laurence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Carrie Poppy talk about God.

We then had a “God Panel” featuring Richard Dawkins, Mitch Benn, Carrie Poppie, Mike Hall and Laurence Krauss. Dawkins said that it was understandable that kids believe in God given that it is so beautiful, complicated and apparently ordered. Laurence Krauss says its more amazing that we have outgrown this simplest belief. Mitch Benn challenged Atheism Plus as people trying to turn “not a thing” into “a thing”, thereby giving critics ammunition to throw in our direction. It was an energetic and fast paced discussion all round.

There was a discussion on legal issues and defamation, appropriate in the light of the defamation bill in the UK. Ian Rushton, a member of the Crown Prosecution Service was there as were Simon Singh and Helen Dale, a solicitor based in Scotland. They talked about social media and how even retweets could be seen as libellous in certain jurisdictions.

QED: The Tree of Life

You Are Here in the Tree of Life.

Up next was Adam Rutherford, who gave a very good, accessible talk about the origins of life. Starting with the Hapsburgs and their weird family tree, he brought us through the many ideas throughout history, from creation myths to primeval soup. The second bit of his talk, on genetic modification, was just as interesting.

Finally we had Laurence Krauss, who gave a fascinating talk about the origin of the universe and how it’s stranger than we can possibly imagine. It was a great talk that brought in dark matter, dark energy and the disappearance of all the galaxies in the sky, many billions years in the distant future. “You are far more insignificant than you could ever imagine”. Don’t we know, Laurence. Don’t we know.

All in all a terrific bunch of speakers and entertainers. The pity is that I missed out on so many other great talks, such as Richard Saunders, Natalie Haynes, Mark Lynas and Rose Shapiro. Maybe next year.