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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…

This is the second part of my overview of QED 2016. The first part is here.

The Future, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Mark Stevenson is a futurologist, a term he himself is not particularly happy with.

The only qualification for futurologist is to write something with future in the title.

Mark runs a network of thinkers and gives talks and insights to different people and corporations around the world. While none of us can predict the future, it’s likely to be an interesting place. Mark’s presentation was furious, frenetic and content heavy, presenting about one new idea every 3 minutes. Every idea could have been a whole topic in itself. It was almost impossible to keep up with what was a massive stream of possibilities and directions, many of which may not come to pass, others of which might happen in an unexpected way, and others that might literally change the world.

He quoted Douglas Adams, who himself was massively future-orientated.

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Douglas Adams

We were shown a car, rushing around an obstacle course, with a screaming passenger inside. The passenger was screaming because the car had no driver. The technology  maturing rapidly.

Here’s the video, by the way

He talked about the 3 million truck drivers who’s livelihoods might be at stake and the insurance companies who might need to rethink their business models.

He talked about bionic limbs and Olympic games. He talked about genome sequencing advances outstripping Moore’s law. He talked about cells that never die, and how ageing might be reversed.

If people say to me “ban all GMOs”, then what do we say to diabetics?

He talked about genetically modified products that eat crude oil. He talked about extracting carbon directly from the air. He talked about the end of the oil age, the solar power revolution and a “complete solar” economy in twenty five years time. Even today, Saudi Arabia is turning its attention to solar power as the wealth generator of the future.

The Stone Age did not end for the lack of stones.

Sheikh Zaki Yamani

He talked about blockchain: an “unhackable currency”and questioned the purpose of banks.

He talked about 3-D printing at a macro and nano level and forecasted the first 3-D printed 3-D printers.

He talked about the changing definition of wealth and the extreme wastefulness of current methods of farming and food management.

The environment is starting to send back invoices.

He talked about an “Enernet”, like an internet for Energy. He talked about open-sourced drug discovery. He talked about trucks being driven on liquid air.

Then he ran out of time.

Whew!

Where do you even start? The only thing he left out was the Singularity. The future might well be a scary place because of the inadequacy of our institutions and governments to keep pace with technology. He is optimistic, but there are real dangers, particularly where new technologies drive more and more wealth into fewer hands, while potentially rendering millions of unskilled workers redundant. This has been a refrain for two hundred years, but I wonder if we are moving into new realms here.

Here’s a video in the same vein featuring Mark Stevenson.

Paleo-diet eating climate deniers with chickenpox!

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Next up was Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, or just Dr. Karl, one of Australia’s best known science personalities. Dr Karl gave a talk on some of science’s greatest achievements starting off with some videos and pictures of his trips to the Antarctic and the Australian Outback. (Ireland and the UK look teeny tiny compared to the Australian continent – don’t rub it in, please).

The talk was wide-ranging to say the least, covering everything from vaccines to global warming to science illiteracy to the paleo-diet.

On vaccines, he had a lot to say. Australia seems to have a comprehensive program against chickenpox, whereas we are still in the dark ages on this side of the globe. While adverse effects of chickenpox are rare, they can be very serious. Stroke is a side effect, as are congenital defects when it hits pregnant women. I also didn’t realise how many people contract shingles in their lifetime – a result of chickenpox in childhood. Our governments should be doing more.

Everything, no matter how boring, always looks better under an electron microscope.

He did a great job dismissing the claims of the paleo-diet people. Some people believe that all the ills of our world, the cancer, the diabetes, the heart problems, all stem from a change in our diets around 10,000 years ago, when our species started to move away from hunter-gatherer type diets to more wheat-based diets. He discussed how this is such a simplification – different hunter gatherer groups have wildly different diets even today, and when most hunter gatherers were dead before 40 anyway, diseases of ageing would have been something of a minor problem to them. Dietitians, he says, have voted the Paleo-diet the joint worst diet of them all.

He also spoke about global warming deniers – a crafty lot indeed. They’ll take a warming curve, then select a piece of data from a larger data set that seems to suggest that warming is going down, then clap themselves on their backs for their cleverness.

Dr Karl also spoke about how IQ is getting higher each year (and no-one knows why). He also briefly discussed Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, where civilised behaviour seems to be on an upward curve. Long may it continue.

For many in the audience, we would have come these topics before, but nevertheless these are really interesting areas of discussion and activism, very well recounted by Dr. Karl.

Here’s Dr. Karl’s YouTube video “Great Moments in Science”.

Now on to Part 3

QED is the UK’s largest conference on science and scepticism. It’s a get together for people who are passionate about science and evidence in contemporary culture and current affairs. It takes place yearly in Manchester and it’s now in its sixth year. This is my fifth year attending. As ever, it was a wonderful conference. We were really spoiled for choice this year with many tracks taking place simultaneously, so until I am able to master bilocation or out-of-body travelling, this is my account of just a small sliver of events happening over the weekend.

YouTube Debunkery!

The intro video this year was really superb, with production values in the stratosphere. It became clear how this was done when the speaker for the conference, Alan Melikdjanian aka Captain Disillusion, gave us an insight into how he makes debunking videos for YouTube. It was an incredible presentation, complete with audience polls, interpretive dance, hater comments, bad 90’s Powerpoint, arguing with himself on video, all done flawlessly with maximum comedic effect. The slides looked beautiful too.

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In terms of technical presentation skills and using the different types of media to communicate a message, this was one of the best I have ever seen. Really, truly excellent.

Here’s one of his videos.

Good Advice, Bad Advice!

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The next speaker was Petra Boynton, an advice columnist with the Telegraph. She showed how advice columns are a very old and venerable part of print media for over 300 years, and in many ways, they have not changed that much. It was interesting to hear how careful columnists needed to be, as context is everything. She very much sees this as a kind of public service, particularly when access to professional help has been cut back in recent years.

Naturoquackery

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The next speaker was Britt Hermes. Britt had a very unusual story to tell. She thought she was a doctor, then found out she wasn’t. Britt studied naturopathy in Bastyr University in California, where she was indoctrinated in alternative medicine. Even though there was a small amount of medicine taught, everything was solidly encased in new age woo.

I’m taking down these notes and I’m thinking “Wow. These doctors are so stupid.”

During her studies, Britt went to Ghana. She learned to give intravenous injections of ineffective medicines to people who were very sick. She then went to Nicaragua where she dispensed homeopathic products to treat cardiovascular disease.

When she graduated, she started teaching in Bastyr. She moved to Arizona under Michael Uzick, which was where the wool was pulled from her eyes. Uzick appeared to be involved in a dangerous, so-called cancer drug called ukrain. She reported him to the authorities, with predictable consequences. She ended up leaving naturopathy, a profession which, by this time, she had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

I realised I was a fraud.

Britt found help and support from within the global skeptic community. She has since set up a blog to expose the practices of naturopathy to the rest of the world. It’s hard not to see naturopathy as a kind of twenty-first century cult, despite it’s veneer of medicine.

Naturopaths can basically say and do what they want. There is no standard of care.

Britt is adamant that naturopaths should under no circumstances be given the title of doctor. They should not be treating children as they get only 10% the training of paediatricians.

There is no doubt that many naturopaths have good hearts. But without a medical degree, they are nothing more than good hearted charlatans.

Britt has stared a petition “Naturopaths are not doctors” to raise awareness of the inadequacy of naturopathic care, and to stop naturopaths being licensed as doctors in America.

You have to fool patients and you have to fool yourself. So I am glad to say, I am one of the most unsuccessful naturopaths on the planet.

Britt has shown incredible bravery in admitting her mistake and then challenging the fundamental basis of naturopathy to a world audience. Britt got a well deserved standing ovation from the audience for her talk.

We’re not done (not by a long shot)…

I attended my 4th QED Conference this year, making me a regular at this stage, I guess. The previous conferences have all been great, and this one met the the high standard we have become accustomed to. The folks in the Merseyside Skeptical Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics do a terrific job. They deserve all the praise they get for organising these events.

Skeptical Trousers

Skeptical Trousers

The difference for me this year was that I was speaking. At the very last minute (i.e. 4 days before) I decided to enter Skepticamp with a 10 minute talk. My presentation was about ways to communicate critical thinking to a general audience, while at the same time giving the audience an idea of the main skeptical issues in Ireland. Ireland is commonly thought to be a very religious country, but it’s not as devout as many people think. Even paying lip-service to the Catholic Church is on the wane. Instead the issues are more familiar: cancer quackery, anti-vaccine, anti-fluoridation, secularism. I did recount the “Holy Stump of Rathkeale” story though, as my mind is still boggling over that one.

Wifi was not good in the main hall, so instead I took copious notes. I won’t burden you with all these, but there were some real high points over the weekend.

Insects! 

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Marcel Dicke, professor of entomology from Wagenigen University in the Netherlands, spoke about eating insects and their role in future food security. The statistics are worrying to say the least. With a projected population of 10 billion by 2050 and the availability of land on the decline, we may need many more options to keep everyone fed. And besides, mealworms taste GOOD. Roasted crickets taste GOOD. I know. I ate some samples…

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Acupuncture!

Acupuncture is one of those things. It’s a bit crazy, but because it’s not the worst type of crazy out there, it’s largely given an easy ride by the skeptical community. Dr. Harriet Hall was there to point out some real problems with acupuncture techniques – how it’s a lot more recent than people think, how you run a high risk of infection and how its role in anaesthesia is thoroughly undeserved.

Satanism!

Rosie Waterhouse gave a lecture on the satanic abuse scares of the 1990s. Heavy stuff. The story in brief is that vulnerable children under the influence of over-eager therapists began to accuse their parents of having abused them in horrific rituals. On the basis of these allegations, children were wrongly removed from their families by social workers. Rosie was one of a small, brave number of people who questioned the veracity of the claims. It brought False Memory Syndrome and Multiple Personality Disorder strongly into the spotlight. Worryingly, such allegations still persist today.

Classical Greece!

Natalie Haynes spoke to us about the Greek classics and how they still influence the storylines of soaps in the modern age. You could listen to Natalie forever – she has an engaging style with lots of laughs spread through her talk. And it is true – whom amongst us, it times of trouble, have not been consoled by sheep? Anyone? Anyone?

Our Stupid Brains!

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Bruce Hood explained how our brains really weren’t cut out for rational thinking. We learned how magical thought is an innate part of how we view the world from early childhood and that things like “mind-body dualism” and “essentialism” give us an insight into how we come to believe stupid things. These deep seated notions can survive long into adulthood.

Dawkins Clones!

Matt Dillahunty talked about debating with theists and how there was no one sure way to change peoples minds. We don’t all have to be clones of Richard Dawkins. (I know, we can all breath a sigh of relief now).  He had a few words of advice for skeptics – “Have a good reason for engaging in the conversation in the first place. Not so that you can look superior or cool.” Well said.

Homeopathy!

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Where Michael Marshall gets his energy, I do not know. What with his involvement in QED and his podcasts and debates with true believers, he’s off now trying to stop the UK government funding homeopathy – and he’s making good progress too. Marsh is a pleasure to listen to – he’s VERY funny, although the story content almost writes itself. Homeopathic Owl, anyone?

Nuclear Bloody Reactors!

Dame Sue Ion showed us that the UK seems to be getting somewhere with its energy strategy these days. In the next few years, traditional fossil fuels in our houses and cars will decline, to be replaced by electricity – and for that there will need to be a very diverse set of energy sources and management systems. Nuclear Power is part of that equation, which is more than can be said for Ireland, with it’s blanket opposition to nuclear from almost everyone.

Ancient Doubters!

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The wonderfully eloquent Jennifer Hecht did a terrific job of explaining how atheism and doubt has always been with us. There have always been doubters and people who opted out of cosy religious consensuses, sometimes at great risk to their lives. They did this because they got frustrated with the bullshit and the lack of proper explanation for tragedy. With phrases like “the meat in our heads wrote the Ode to Joy and Hamlet” I could have listened to Jennifer forever. Poetry and language are powerful and underused tools to communicate our viewpoints.

Skeptical tribes!

AC Grayling spoke about the many different skeptical traditions, and how there was such a thing as “good scepticism” and “bad scepticism”. It was an academic lecture going way back to the time of ancient Greece and explaining how thinking has evolved over the centuries. This is an important story that everyone should learn about.

And then it was over…

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

Some of the Irish attendees at QEDCon

I just missed two “big” talks – an evangelical preacher who lost his religion and the story of our sun. It’s a pity as they seemed to be well worth attending.  It was great once again to meet my friends from the different parts of the UK and Ireland and it barely needs to be said that I’m already looking forward to 2016.

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.

Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel

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.

Day 1

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.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

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

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

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.

Day 2

hangovers

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.

Deborah Hyde

Deborah Hyde

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

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.

Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps

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.

 

Further reading:

On #QEDCon, Manchester April 2014@Gwendes

Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism@HayleyStevens

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