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The Little QEDCon That Can—Question, Explore, Discover In Manchester

Special Report

Kylie Sturgess

May 4, 2011

It's not often that a convention is cheerfully preoccupied by the sound of crunching.

Three hundred people in the Ramada Manchester Piccadilly joined in the world-wide phenomenon of the 10:23 Campaign via a symbolic overdose on homeopathic “Belladonna” at the Question, Explore, Discover Convention (QEDCon), held over the weekend of the 5th and 6th of February. It was one of many memorable elements that made for an inspirational and thought-provoking weekend.

While the weather outside was astonishingly chilly (I was a little disappointed that it didn't actually snow, having travelled from a sweltering Australian summer), the warm congeniality and lively banter within the convention rooms was unequalled by any other convention I’ve attended. Presenters happily mingled with the crowd, discussing philosophy and illusions, science and communication skillsusually while posing for photos next to the Dalek that was wheeled into prime place to watch all the action on the main stage.

From the very beginning, when MC George Hrab requested that the audience come up with alternatives for what “QED” could stand for, the audience was challenged to think and reflect. Even now, debate rages over “how kind is too kind” when it comes to ethical behavior when investigating ghosts, as discussed in a measured panel discussion featuring experts Christopher French, Hayley Stevens and Trystan Swale.

Professor Bruce Hood’s presentation on the psychology of superstitious behavior, from the galvanic response when watching a beloved teddy bear explode to juggling a grenade for demonstrative purposes of “bomb dowsing,” was both brilliant and soberingespecially in the light of continuing investigations into how such beliefs can cost lives.

In a similar vein, Professor French’s lecture was a very welcome addition to the convention, extending upon the psychology of belief in hauntings. While his excellent presentations as a part of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College are available online, this was my first opportunity to see him present as a headliner at a major convention; I hope it’s not the last. With the addition of a lively lecture by international podcasting and neuroscience celebrity Steven Novella, they made for a scientific triumvirate that was second to none on the first day of the convention.

During the first “breakout room” session, I was asked to contribute to a panel along with NCSE’s Eugenie Scott, Sense About Science’s Sile Lane, and science communication lecturer David Kirby on the topic of “Reaching Out Reasonably.” Confidently led by Janis Bennion of the “Ladies Who Do Skepticism,” we debated the merits of discussing with colleagues and peers some of the trickier aspects of believing in “weird things.” While encouraging critical thinking is something that everyone can do, doing it well and doing it with consultation and reflection is vital.

It was followed by a hilarious and rollicking live show of the InKredulous podcast which had host Andy Wilson showing how little Jon Ronson knows his Dungeon and Dragons manual (unsurprisingly, Novella was on hand to give tips for that one). Jim Al-Khalili gave a mind-boggling talk on the possibilities of time travel, determinism and relativity, with excellent questions from the audience. Slightly less scientific but just as intriguing, UK TV celebrity Kat Akingbade gave insights into not only her own family’s experience with religion but a personal experiment comparing different faiths. Unfortunately I couldn't attend Chris Atkin’s presentation on media hoaxes and the gullibility of journalists, but the breakout room alternative featured the popular live show of “the Pod Delusion,” which demonstrated the eagerness of skeptics to contribute their voices and ideas for the benefit of podcast listeners.

The Saturday evening was slightly marred by an unfortunate cancellation due to emergency by Robin Ince, but after a delay due to technical hitches, the night fired off with the topic of space exploration given by an energetic replacement, Helen Keen. Her stand-up routine based on the Space Race was followed by a hilariously creative skewering of Conservapedia by Matt Parker.

As George Hrab concluded the night with a number of songs off his new album “Trebuchet,” I was entertained by Milton Mermikides discussing audio illusions with Bruce Hood. If a evening can include an equally enjoyable amount of science, wine and laughter, it’s a fairly good bet that skeptics from the UK are involved somehow.

Sunday began with Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics leading the homeopathic overdose, with a slide show acknowledging the protesters worldwide (including my friend Paul Willis in Antarctica!). While I was familiar with the writings of Wendy Grossman, her decisive presentation on unfortunately widespread policy-based evidence proved her to be another example of a speaker who should be profiled more often. Simon Singh’s popular talk on big bang cosmology even included a cheeky suggestion that “climate numpties” be used to refer to people like James Dellingpole and Lord Mockton.

The closing sessions included several hundred people chanting the lines about “magnets and how they work” from Insane Clown Posse’s ludicrous song “Miracles,” as Jon Ronson explored his recent journalistic investigations and his forthcoming book “The Psychopath Test.” For my own part, getting a lesson in improving juggling skills from Colin Wright after his clever talk on the mathematics and number theory was a delightful bonus.

Eugenie Scott’s lecture was the last featured on the stage and although her presentation focused on American perspectives on the problem of creationism, she included a few relevant references to international issues that scientists and educators face. The standing ovation at the conclusion confirmed the high regard that she has across the globe for her continued efforts to prevail when pseudoscience masquerades as education.

The organisers of QEDCon didn't need to proclaim the success of their convention from the stageit was evident from the beginning to the end. What made this more astonishing was that this is the very first convention that the Merseyside Skeptics and Greater Manchester Skeptics have organized, and on the basis of this, many will return and should return as both presenters and audience for another.

(Note: All photos courtesy of the Hampshire Skeptics Society)

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.