Reflections on QEDcon

Well, what on Earth can I say to convey my thoughts on QEDcon? It was an amazing weekend for so many reasons. The speakers, the events, the organisation, the venue, everything contributed to an experience that all who were there will never forget. I’d like to sincerely thank everyone involved for such a great time!

The Friday night mixer was a real eye-opener, everyone was so friendly and it was great to put lots of names to faces that were previously just words preceeded by ‘@’ symbols! Immediately the atmosphere was jovial, warm and friendly. It gave me a certain energy, which I think can definitely be heard in the first iPadio ‘phlog’ I recorded at the conference. That carried on throughout the night, I even got to have a chat with one of my scientific heroes Eugenie Scott of the NCSE, before finally retiring to the hostel with 7 other skeptics who I’d met an hour beforehand!

So after a fair amount of alcohol and little sleep, I approached the first day of QEDcon on a haze of adrenaline and enforced insomnia. After a viewing of the collaborative intro video and a hearty welcome for host George Hrab, the first talk of the day was given by Professor Bruce Hood. Entitled “Hugging Murderers and Stabbing Teddy Bears”, it gave a fascinating insight into certain aspects of psychology. I don’t want to give too much away, but Bruce equally enthralled and surprised the audience by dropping a hand grenade as part of a demonstration! I was so impressed by the talk that I bought a copy of his book Supersense from the stall. I wasn’t the only one, as the book was sold out by day 2!

Up next in the main hall was Kat Akingbade, who told us about her families experience with religion, while a panel discussed skeptical outreach in the breakout room. I was torn between the two (always a good sign at a conference) and plumped for Kat’s talk, but I was kept updated with the panel’s activity thanks to constant tweets on the #qedcon hash tag. Following Kat was a panel on ghost hunting. I’ve never got the skeptical ghost hunting thing (ghosts don’t exist, move on), so I popped upstairs to watch a little bit of The God Who Wasn’t There, a documentary on the historicity of Jesus.

After lunch I was once again forced to choose between two excellent events: Jim Al-Khalili talking about time travel or a live recording of InKredulous. I figured that I could listen to InKreduolous when it comes out (hopefully not in 4 months this time Andy!) so I watched Jim Al-Khalili take us through some complex but fascinating physics of spacetime, focusing on the problem of paradoxes. He came up with my favourite quote from the weekend: “Why does everyone say ‘what would happen if you went back in time and killed your grandfather?’, why not kill your mother and have done with it!”.

He was followed by Chris Atkins of Starsuckers, Taking Liberties and the “Urban Fox Hunters” hoax fame. His talk focused on his most recent film Starsuckers, where we were treated to some behind the scenes footage, but he also talked about his analysis of Bob Geldof’s role in subduing coverage of the Edinburgh ‘Make Poverty History’ march, and showed us unseen footage of the ‘Urban Fox Hunters’. It turned out to be made in a hilariously amateurish way, which included faking footage of a ‘fox’ by strapping a rug to a dog!

After that I had to man the stall for an hour so I missed Chris French, but it was a joy to see Steve Novella (speaking in the UK for the first time I believe) take to the stage afterwards to talk about brain development and behaviour. He was very eloquent and concise, a great talk and an excellent way to wrap up the first day.

In between the talks and dinner, I experienced my personal highlight of the weekend. I’d charged myself with the duty of ‘phlogging’ (I’m still really not sure about that term) using iPadio, recording semi-live interviews. In the crowd I spotted Jon Ronson. He signed my copy of ‘Them‘, we had a chat and he agreed to do an on-the-spot interview! I was as nervous as Gillian McKeith before a bush tucker trial, but Jon was incredibly kind and couldn’t have been a nicer interviewee. I sat next to him at the gala dinner too, where he regaled us with tails of his experiences with Insane Clown Posse, eccentric American generals and the like.

As the evening’s entertainment kicked off, we sadly learned that Robin Ince had to cancel for family reasons. However, in his stead was Helen Keen, one of the great surprises of the weekend. I don’t want to give too much away, but she gave a great stand up set based on the Space Race, splitting the room up into Americans and Russians. We even got a unique John F. Kennedy ‘impression’ from MSS treasurer Andrew Johnston! Matt Parker followed up with a set that included an impromptu recreation of the Dr Who title sequence, and a great dismantling of wingnut website conservapedia.com. He revealed that some Christians are so anti-science as to come up with moral objections to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which almost gives credence to the Family Guy quote “Christians don’t believe in gravity”. The final act for the night was compare George Hrab, who entertained us with his skeptical songs before John Tatlock hit the decks. I retired to the bar and managed to recording a very rambly phlog before ending the day in a very tired but happy state!

Day two started with this year’s 10:23 campaign against homeopathy, Michael Marshall updating us with events from around the world. I was amazed to find out that someone in Antarctica had taken up the challenge, but my favourite photo came from a group who had managed to put a 10:23 cap and tshirt on a statue of the founder of homeopathy Sam Hahnemann! Geo counted down to 10:23am, and with much crunching we downed our 31C bella donna with no ill consequences.

Following the conclusion of 10:23, Wendy Grossman took to the platform to talk about unfortunately widespread policy-based evidence, before Simon Singh gave his talk on big bang cosmology. He also addressed the tricky problem of what to call people like James Dellingpole. ‘Climate change denier’ seemed too strong, whereas ‘climate change sceptic’ was just completely wrong, so Simon Singh suggested that we refer to Dellingpole and his ilk as being ‘climate numpties’, a fairly trivial and mocking term with I think fits rather well. It was happily refreshing to see Simon talk about something other than libel reform!

After lunch it was the turn of the aforementioned Jon Ronson to take to the stage. He gave us a few slightly worrying (in a good way) glimpses into his forthcoming book, entitled ‘The Psychopath Test’. Geo was accused of meeting the criteria, which he took with good humour! Jon inevitably played the video for Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles“, and it was great to hear several hundred people chant the tagline “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” in unison!

After Jon came another great surprise in juggler Colin Wright. Again, I don’t want to give much away, but his appliance of number theory to juggling gave results which were both enthralling and extraordinarily clever! The closing lecture was given by Eugenie Scott, who gave a summary of the global state of the anti-science of creationism. She was kind enough to sign my copy of her book “Evolution versus Creationism: An Introduction” which left me one happy skeptic!

The weekend was bought to a close by Mike Hall, one of the tireless organisers of QEDcon. I think he got the biggest cheer when he thanked his girlfriend for dumping him a few months ago, giving him time for some serious organising! As the organisers got together for a photo-op, they received a well deserved round of applause from the audience for a job well done!

Although QEDcon may be over for now, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. As I type, the #qedcon hashtag on Twitter is still active, and there are lots of podcasts to look forward to, including InKredulous, the Pod Delusion and Strange Quarks, which will feature an interview with Eugenie Scott. As QEDcon was an immense event, hugely important for UK skepticism, I’m already looking forward to QEDcon 2!

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