April 12th and 13th saw the 4th QED Conference in Manchester. I missed the first one but the previous two years have been great so it was with much anticipation I headed north and west from my country retreat in Suffolk to the big city of Manchester. This year saw a new venue, The Palace Hotel. Like the previous two years John and I stayed at the venue of the conference and I thought the hotel was good. I did hear some people complaining about their rooms but ours was fine. The ‘New Scientist’ room where the panels were held was better than previous years. My two issues were the intermittent WIFI availability (did someone underestimate the amount of connections a conference full of skeptics need???) and the bar. I didn’t think the bar was as conducive to mixing as the previous venue. However, these are minor gripes. On to the more important stuff, the speakers.
First up was Elizabeth Pisani who is an epidemiologist who works with HIV & AIDS. She asked searching questions that had the whole audience questioning what they knew about HIV, AIDS and the way to tackle it. I was under the impression that we pretty much had HIV under control in the developed world. Not true. With the drugs we have a available know it is possible to live an almost normal live with AIDS. Maybe because of this we don’t follow HIV as much. HIV cases are increasing, and at a quite dramatic rate. Have a look at her blog, The Wisdom Of Whores, for more information.
Next up was Richard Wiseman. I am a huge fan of his books and it was a treat to see him whiz through his studies and books in talk called ‘Psychobabble’. An enjoyable talk. Go to his website to find links to videos, puzzles and all sorts of interesting stuff. You can also buy his books there.
First choice of the day. In ‘The Grand Room’ we had a talk from ‘Beauty By The Geeks‘ called ‘Sham-poo and Con-itioner’. I choose to see the first panel of the day ‘Magic and Skepticism’ with Paul Zenon (more on him later), Mark Edward (more on him later as well) and Richard Wiseman with Deborah Hyde chairing. It was an interesting discussion, but as in previous years, I regretted not staying for the main talk. For me I get more from them than the panels. More information on Beauty By The Geeks can found here.
‘Assault With Batteries’ from Robert Llewellyn was the next talk. Robert spoke with such enthusiasm on the subject you couldn’t help but get carried along with the talk. He has often spoken on electric cars but for QED he focussed on how we could store all the renewable energy we could produce if we put our minds to it. The next revolution in energy is coming from computer geeks who understand battery storage, not from continued burning of irreplaceable, polluting, fossil fuels. I loved this talk. Robert’s blog is here. On at the same time was a panel called ‘The Internet: Civilisation’s Downfall, or Saviour?’ with James O’Malley, Liz Lutgendorff, Loz Kaye and Angela Saini.
Following up my decision to watch talks rather than panels I missed ‘Medical Myths and the Media’ with Elizabeth Pisani, Mark Crislip and Sheena Cruickshank, chaired by Rick Owen. Instead I watched ‘Skeptical Activism – Beyond The Choir’ from Susan Gerbic. Susan talked about her ‘Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia’ project which is about co-ordinated updating of skeptics pages and pages of interest to skeptics on Wikipedia. An interesting talk that showed the more effort you put into a Wiki page the more effective it is. Guerrilla Skepticism On Wikipedia can be found here.
‘Is Cleanliness A Bad Thing? Dr Sheena Cruickshank took us through the set of slides that had most people going urgghgh of the weekend. Sheena lectures in Immunology in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. Her work involves the relationship between cleanliness and allergies or auto-immune diseases. My wife has Multiple Sclerosis and my mother-in-law has Myasthenia Gravis (both auto-immune diseases) so this talk was really interesting for me. I have yet to convince my wife that having some parasitic worms inside her might help the MS though! A lot of Sheena’s slides had pictures of parasitic worms and she also showed a video of some inside someone. John and I decided noodles were out for that evenings meal. More information on Sheena’s work can be found here. In the ‘New Scientist’ room was a live recording of ‘Inkredulous’ the brilliant podcast from The Merseyside Skeptics Society. Well worth listening to, find information here.
Onto the last talk of Saturday. Mark Crislip spoke on ‘Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (SCAM) Myths’. Mark is a practicing infectious disease specialist and anyone who has read his posts on Science Based Medicine or listened to his podcast , Quackcast will know his style, enthusiasm and undoubted knowledge. He did speak very quickly trying to cram as much in as possible so at times it was difficult to follow, still was very interesting. From there is was to bar, a quick nap, back to the bar, The Ockham Awards, more entertainment, chatting and then bed. Is there a better thing to start Sunday morning with than vampires? Deborah Hyde‘s talk ‘Interview With A Vampire Expert’ was as interesting as her Werewolf talk 2 years ago at QED. Deborah took us back before Hammer and Hollywood to the original descriptions and legends to try and find out where the stories came from. Included in the talk were sweetie fang prizes, vampire blood drinking and vampire ash eating. If Deborah (or Jourdemayne as she goes by online) is talking in your area go and see her. A great start to Sunday morning.
A different subject matter next. Coralie Colmez and ‘Maths On Trial’. At the moment I am studying Maths as part of my OU degree so I was particularly interesting in this. Coralie went through various examples of court cases that statistics or probability were a major part of the case. She showed how a lack of understanding of the statistics, even from someone considered an expert witness (in another subject) can help result in an unsound of incorrect verdict in a case. The Maths On Trial blog from Coralie and her mother, Leila, is found here. The panel on at the same time was ‘Religious Persecution: Oppressed, or Oppressors?’ with Nate Phelps, Geoff Whelan and Jonny Scaramanga. I hope QED put this one onto You Tube as I would love to watch it.
Onto Mark Edward and maybe the most controversial talk of the weekend, ‘Psychic Blues – Using Guerilla Skepticism to Fight Psychic Fraud. Mark spoke with a lot of passion about how we should get off our backsides and do something, anything, to promote skepticism. While this hit a note with me, and maybe with many others in the audience his tactics and the way he went about discussing it alienated a lot of people. Giving out information outside Sylvia Browne’s show, fine. The banner (pointing out Sylvia Browne is a convicted felon, true, but maybe not important in this context) not needed. I thought something we tried to educate about as skeptics was not to attack the person but to counter the beliefs and arguments. So what if she is a convicted felon? I may choose what advice I would listen to from a someone convicted of a crime but that does not mean all their advice is bad. The one thing Mark’s talk did do was to get me thinking of what else I could do to promote science and critical thinking. I am currently reading his book and that is making me feel uncomfortable as well. In the panel room was the ‘Skeptics In The Pub Forum’ with Ben Makin, Paddy Redmond and Michael Marshall.
With the headline speaker not clashing with anyone this was the last choice today. In the New Scientist panel room we had ‘Psychology and Parapsychology: In Crisis?’ with Chris French, Chris Roe and Richard Wiseman. I stayed in the main room for ‘Camp Quest UK. Growing a Community Of Young Freethinkers’ with Samantha Stein. I won’t say too much on this as I will be doing a blog post dedicated to Camp Quest UK however if Mark Edward got me thinking maybe I should do more to promote skepticism and critical thinking, Sam showed what could be done with the right drive and enthusiasm.
The last talk. Nate Phelps and ‘Leaving Hate Behind’. For those of you that do not know Nate is the son of Fred Phelps who lead the Westboro Baptist Church, those people who had the ‘God Hate Fags’ banner and picketed soldiers funerals. This is the first QED talk to make me cry, you could hear a pin drop when we were not gasping at what Nate said. Please watch this, http://youtu.be/OlaUtl-yKcs, it has been posted with his permission. I can’t sum up the talk, so just watch it, please.
So that rounded up the weekend. It was superbly hosted by Paul Zenon and was brilliantly organised. A really enjoyable weekend. See you next year!