Sunday 6 February 2011

QED day two — science-based skepticism

It turns out that during the entire two days I didn't go to any of the events in the breakout room. I don't know what this says about me, or about the main QED speakers, or about the concept of having things going on other than in the main room.

First thing, in the main room, was Michael Marshall on stage to update us on the global #ten23 campaign: Homeopathy — there's nothing in it! He mentioned that earlier in the day (after only two hours sleep) he took part in a brief radio discussion about the campaign, opposite a homeopath who didn't seem to get it (surprise!), and having since heard the piece I'm amazed how Marsh managed to stay cool in the face of the homeopath's same old same old.

As 10:23 am approached, Marsh showed some examples of his "homeopathy hate mail" — to which he always replies politely — and then it was time for the overdose. The pilules provided in unmarked vials to every attendant were apparently homeopathic Belladonna, and on the given signal over three hundred people downed enough "medicine" to ... well, to do nothing at all. And that was the point (a point that, as mentioned above, was entirely lost on Marsh's homeopathic radio opponent).

Wendy Grossman was the first speaker of the day. She's the founding editor of The Skeptic magazine in the UK, and her wide-ranging talk on Policy-Based Evidence emphasised the need to base policy on evidence rather than seeking evidence for policies adopted for other reasons. She touched on copyright, Big Pharma, public relations, ghost-writing of scientific papers and even UFOs — amongst many other matters. I hope there'll be a QED DVD, because Wendy Grossman's talk was one of those content-rich presentations (despite having only one slide) that would repay another hearing.

Simon Singh talked about the Big Bang — which is the title of one of his many books — and he seemed happy to be expounding on something other than libel-reform, homeopathy and chiropractic. I was particularly interested in his take on the Paul Nurse/James Delingpole BBC Horizon clash, as he talked about how non-experts can be expected to come to rational decisions about complex matters such as climate change, which is something I blogged about recently.

Having learned from my experience yesterday, I bought my lunch in the hotel bar and was therefore not late for Jon Ronson's typically idiosyncratic talk, The Psychopath Test, which is also the title of his forthcoming book from which he read some brief extracts. He identified certain characteristics of psychopaths and in the process unwittingly indicted at least half his audience. He also showed some video clips, including from his film about the Bilderberg Group (based on his book Them), and the Insane Clown Posse "Miracles" rap-music video (paused often, to intersperse comments) that he previously showed at TAM London 2010.

Colin Wright demonstrated the maths of juggling, including the idea of a negative juggling ball that goes back in time (to be fair, he also demonstrated how the maths worked for this concept, and showed how it's not actually nonsense). He did make the juggling itself look easy, though it clearly isn't. But the core point of his talk was that maths enables you to make predictions about physical systems (something Simon Singh also touched on). In Colin Wright's case, this enabled him to extrapolate the maths to produce a completely new juggling pattern, which he was able to show to attendees at a juggling conference. (A juggling conference is probably a bit like a skeptic conference, but with more balls.)

Final speaker was Eugenie Scott, director of the US National Center for Science Education. She gave us a run-down of the problems associated with the teaching of evolution in American schools, and how creationists have attempted to insinuate creationism into the school curriculum by various means. The creationists' methods have become more sophisticated over the years, from "scientific creationism" through "teaching the controversy" to "academic freedom". These are lessons we in Britain must learn and take to heart, because the creationists are hard at work in the UK. The Scotland-based UK Centre for Intelligent Design is busy amassing its forces, and will be attempting to inveigle its way into Scottish schools, using the same tactics the Discovery Institute has been adapting for years. Vigilance is essential if we are to prevent children's scientific education being stunted by ID/creationist nonsense.

The closing ceremony consisted of Mike Hall thanking a whole load of people who had contributed in many different ways to the success of QED — and it has been a resounding success — followed by a general exodus to the bar, where it was pleasant to relax off schedule. Eight of us went for a meal at a nearby Indian restaurant, after which we spent the rest of the evening back in the bar. I would welcome the opportunity to do it all again next year.

Note: due to failure of my netbook during Saturday night, this post was written Monday evening and backdated.