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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…

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

Picture 29This last weekend found me in the UK, attending a very unique conference – the TAM London event. TAM (“The Amazing Meeting”) is the brainchild of James Randi, a well known US based magician who is best known for his dogged debunking of the claims of mystics, frauds and charlatans such as Uri Geller, Sylvia Brown and Peter Popoff. TAM is a meeting of skeptics – people who tend to see the world (nay, the Universe) as fundamentally rational and who cast doubt on the extraordinary and often wacky claims of supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and those who believe in different forms of reality.

It’s pretty interesting stuff, because there are myriads of strange, weird and wonderful ideas out there that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some claims are relatively benign (fairies, chakras and fortune telling, perhaps), but other claims are positively dangerous (vaccine denial, AIDS denial, and the rejection of modern medicine for curable complaints). There is just so much material to discuss and investigate, it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. Where do you start? Going to TAM is as good a place as any.

The attendees at TAM were a motley crew of science enthusiasts, magicians, writers, atheists and agnostics, comedians and every shade in between. The speakers were similarly diverse, ranging from bloggers to musicians to scientists to famous authors – each of them passionate about getting the skeptical message across to the general public.

There were a few real highlights.

Brian Cox, for instance, is the public face of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the biggest machines every created by human beings, whose purpose is nothing less than discovering the fundamental nature of the Universe. He gave a wonderful talk on the potential discoveries in the offing, from dark matter to the “god particle” (aka. the Higgs Boson) to the nature of gravity. Brian can be credited with one of the more memorable quotes of the meeting: “Anyone who believes the LHC will destroy the Earth is a twat”.

Then there was Adam Savage. Yes, the Mythbusters guy. Adam, a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm (if you don’t believe me, watch his TED speech), has done more than almost anyone to make science and scepticism relevant and interesting for TV viewers the world over. His talk was all about the efforts the Adam / Jamie team went to in testing the difficulty of swimming through syrup (busted). Adam raised a big laugh when he described libertarianism as “anarchy for rich people”.

Another highlight was the incomparable Jon Ronson, author of “The Men who Stare at Goats”, and who self-describes himself as being “to humorous journalism what Brian Cox is to science”. Jon introduced us to some of the craziest people on the planet. His talk was brilliant – featuring group sex, murderous pieces of plastic, and the (in)ability of American generals to walk through walls. I can’t wait to see the movie, (where Ewan McGregor plays Ronson – huh?).

Not forgetting Tim Minchin, musician, comedian, precise commenter on the follies of modern life – fantastic! If you have never heard his poem Storm, stop now and listen to it on YouTube. He also sang us a wonderful song about looking forward to Christmas. For his efforts he got a well deserved standing ovation.

I was particularly keen to listen to Simon Singh, who wrote an article about chiropractors in the Guardian and has ended up in court because he, um, told the truth. The ridiculousness of the British libel system was devastatingly exposed for all to see. Simon won an award in the meeting for outstanding contributions to skepticism.

I could wax on about Ben Goldacre taking journalists to task; George Hrab singing about the candiru (nasty little blighter – look it up on Wikipedia); Ariane Sherine on receiving hate mail as a result of her atheist bus campaign; James Randi live over Skype from Florida, Phil Plait metaphorically blowing apart the movie “Armageddon”, and Richard Wiseman doing a truly wonderful job as host for the proceedings, but damn it, I need to get some sleep now.

Suffice to say that TAM London was worth every penny spent – it was truly amazing and wild horses won’t drag me away from going to future meetings.

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