Saturday 5 February 2011

QED day one — your brain lies to you

First day of #QEDcon has been intense. This is my brief adumbration of events, to be expanded (with links) in later posts. (I know I said that about TAM London 2010, but that's an ongoing blogging project, for which your patient indulgence is required. As for this also.)

For QEDcon I thought the biggest problem was going to be deciding when to break out to the breakout room, but at least for today I found my preferences were all for the main room — on the basis that much of what was going on in the breakout room was likely to be accessible at a later date (at least in audio podcast form). The main room is apparently being video-recorded — not just for the projection screens.

Bruce Hood was first up (after George Hrab's introduction) with Hugging Murderers and Stabbing Teddy Bears in which he presented some of the ideas about essentialism that he covered in his book (which I've read, and of which more later). An onerous task — opening the show, as it were — but well handled, and we were soon into the intricacies of evolved cognition. All of us have built-in (not necessarily accurate) ways of interpreting our surroundings, which we never fully grow out of. This cognitive unreliability proved to be a theme of the day.

Professor Hood's talk was a tricky one to follow, but Kat Akingbade gave us her take on the value of faith (a slightly different topic from that scheduled). She also explained that though the target audience of the web series Science of Scams was teenagers, the show garnered a wide demographic, illustrating the critical need for training people to use critical thought.

She described how she elected to adopt a religious faith for one week, in an attempt to enter and perhaps understand the mindset of a believer. This was no doubt useful for experiencing and illuminating the rules and rituals of a particular religion, but since (as she admitted) she didn't actually become a believer — even for a week — I felt this was an exercise of limited merit. It's not the rituals that are the problem with faith — it's the dogma, and those without faith can easily circumvent the most damaging aspects of the dogma because they don't feel bound by it.

Next came the panel Ghost Investigations Today, with Chris French, Hayley Stevens and Trystan Swayle. Some brief exposition on their respective experiences in investigating paranormal activity — whether or not of ghostly origin — and their current methods, yielded insights into what it's actually like ghost-hunting (and why that's not what it should be called). Unlike for the previous two speakers, the panel audio was weak and I missed some of what was being said, including most of the questions from the floor.

The break for lunch wasn't long enough for anyone going farther afield than the hotel bar (as I did, along with others from Winchester Skeptics in the Pub). Which meant that we were late back and missed the beginning (about 20 minutes) of Jim Al-Khalili's talk on time travel. But what I did hear was fascination stuff. He maintains that travelling backwards in time is possible in principle (if not in practice), according to the modern theory of Quantum Gravity — grandfather paradox notwithstanding. (Incidentally I conferred with neighbours and established that I had missed only introductory laying of time-travel groundwork. The tricky bits — like how to to configure your double-wormhole space-time tunnel — came later, which I heard.) Mind-bending though this all is, the science apparently supports it, which goes to show that we can't trust our intuitive conclusions on such abstruse matters.

In a lively talk Chris Atkins demonstrated the blatant perfidy of the British tabloid (and some not so tabloid) press, and included selected clips from the films he's made. If you had any vestige of credulity left regarding the integrity of tabloid journalism in the UK, this talk would have dispelled it.

Chris French's The Psychology of Ghosts and Haunting expanded on some of the topics he touched on in his earlier panel, talking about ghost-hunting kit, predilections and biases. He made the point that the TV show he was on (as the "token skeptic") did not fake any ghostly activity, which explains why nothing much happened, and why the show didn't get renewed. When modern TV ghost-hunters report ghostly activity, they're doing it because they've already convinced themselves that ghosts exist — in spite of the lack of sound objective evidence to support such a conviction.

Last of the afternoon talks was by Steven Novella, who was soon into his stride regaling us with the difference between how the brain subjectively seems to operate, and how the same brain-functions appear to a neuroscientist such as himself. Once again the brain is playing tricks, making us think it works in a particular way, when in fact the science says it simply can't. (This whole discussion is weird anyway; the brain trying to examine itself is almost certainly not party to all the information it needs to do such a thing. If our brains were simple enough that we could understand them, they would be too simple for us to be able to do it.)

Then came a break before the Gala Dinner at 6 pm. This was a sit-down affair with people randomly allocated to tables, each with one of the QED speakers. I found myself seated next to the aforementioned Professor Bruce Hood, who proved to be excellent "value" — keeping us fascinated and entertained with stories from his field of study. I was pleased to say that I'd read his book Supersense, but as it was the Kindle edition I regretted not being able to bring a copy for him to sign.

Dinner was followed by a prolonged sound-check, as the audio set-up seemed to be misbehaving, but it was eventually fixed and Matt Parker introduced Helen Keene standing in for Robin Ince who'd had to pull out at short notice. Helen Keene's interactive history of the space race (including shadow puppets!) was smart, hilarious and incredibly geeky. Matt Parker followed with a freestyle routine on skepticism with a numerical bent (much of which seemed to be a mix-and-match made up as he went along), and George Hrab finished off with a typically polished performance of some of his best-loved songs.

A great day of skeptical infusion. Exhausting too. More tomorrow.