From Manchester to Antarctica: Protesting Online and Worldwide
March 24, 2011
An Interview with Paul Willis
According to the tally announced at the QED conference, the 2011 10:23 campaign was conducted in seventy cities in about thirty countries by more than a thousand participants. Although there were a surprising number of events worldwide, a few unique elements of Michael Marshall’s campaign certainly stood out at the not-so-magical time of 10:23am on February, 6, 2011: A 10:23 t-shirt was placed on a statue of Samuel Hahnemann in Zaragoza, Spain. Two people in Puerto Galera, Philippines, who “overdosed” on their homeopathic solutions were surrounded by puzzled homeopaths. For my own part, being the Australian coordinator of the campaign, the contribution of my good friend (and energetic science communicator and paleontologist) Paul Willis was my personal favorite—and it’s all thanks to the social network of Twitter.
as the charismatic paleontologist was about
to leave Australia to film in Antarctica for the popular
Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) science show
Catalyst, I zipped him a tweet requesting that he get in touch with
the U.K. coordinators for details on the campaign.
Those who remember Paul’s vibrant
master of ceremonies duties at TAMOz will not be surprised to see a
similar sprightly attitude in the video
of his 10:23 contribution,
despite the sub-zero temperatures.
After Paul Willis returned from his travels, I caught up with him for
a brief interview.
Kylie Sturgess: Your
appearance as a protester for the 10:23 Campaign has hundreds of views
on YouTube and even made a starring appearance at the recent QED convention
in Manchester. How was your protest received by your fellow travelers
on the boat in Antarctica?
Paul Willis: Thousands of views in fact, which surprised me! All the other passengers onboard were somewhat bemused when they heard what I was going to do, and the ship’s doctor, Giles, was right up for it!
One interesting comment was from one of the passengers who lamented that to become a medical doctor you have to have high scores in high school and study for four years at University in very tough courses [and] then [spend] years as an intern and so on.
[this passenger] knew of a girl who failed to get the high school points
[needed] to get into hairdressing so she did a course in homeopathy
and within three months was telling the world how conventional medicine
had it all wrong. That has to be dangerous.
Sturgess: As a science communicator, what do
you think can be done beyond raising awareness and actually initiating
change when it comes to pseudoscientific claims? Is it as easy as a
Willis: I think I know how many homeopaths had shut up shop as a result of the 10:23 challenge. It’s all about leading a horse to water, in this case the general public, and only then can they make the decision about what to do about homeopathy or any other pseudoscience.
in a perfect world, there would be much tighter regulation of what they
can say and do, the reality is governments do not see this as a major
issue and there probably [aren’t]
any votes in it. All we can do is educate and let the public make it
a politically actionable issue.
Sturgess: We last spoke at the Amazing Meeting
Australia, where you were a much-lauded master of ceremonies, but still
little is known about skeptics and skeptical activism in popular media.
Do you think this is changing? And what do you suggest could be done
further to encourage a more skeptical mindset?
Willis: Keep doing great things and the media will take notice. I was blown away at the Amazing Meeting when the whole campaign against the anti-vaccination lobby was explained. What a brilliant and noble achievement! That should get more press than it has and I know that there are some efforts to do exactly that.
importantly, it’s selling
skepticism as a positive force for good being perpetuated by a mostly
young group with lots of women in it. That’s a big change from the
old image of skeptics being old men with beards who said “no” to
Sturgess: At the time
of the 10:23 campaign, you were clearly working on other projects in
Antarctica and other locations. What can we look forward to seeing you
do in the future?
Willis: Yes, we shot
a couple of bits and pieces in the south and they will be on the [ABC
Catalyst] program later this year. I won’t say when so that everyone
will keep tuning in each week. We need the ratings!
Sturgess: My last question
is from a commentator about the video: What’s with the fish-fin hat?
Willis: It’s a dragon
hat. And what’s with it? It keeps my head warm!
Paul Willis, who has a PhD in paleontology, can be seen later this year on Australia’s ABC television show Catalyst (www.abc.net.au/catalyst/).