More Options

From Manchester to Antarctica: Protesting Online and Worldwide

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

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.

Just 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.

Meanwhile [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 homeopathic overdose?

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.

While, 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.

Most 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 everything.

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/).

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.