The Skeptic Canary

The blog of Dr Tom Williamson, atheist, humanist, skeptic and Norwich City fan!

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QEDcon episode of The Skeptic Canary Show now available

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Well, what can I say about QED? As expected, it was absolutely superb. The talks were varied and fascinating, the panels were engaging and at times unintentionally hilarious, and it was wonderful to meet up with so many great members of the skeptic community (apologies if I didn’t get the chance to talk to you, there were just so many people there)! Huge thanks to the organisers and everyone involved.

In the latest episode of The Skeptic Canary Show, myself and fellow QEDcon attendee David James discussed the event with Paul Hopwood, who sadly for him didn’t get a ticket in time (hopefully next year Paul!). Keir Liddle from the Edinburgh Skeptics was kind enough to call in, as was Rob McDermott who made history by being the first person to swear on the show! Don’t worry though, the recorded version has some hasty censorship applied. Go and have a listen at the link below.

The Skeptic Canary Show Episode 3 – QEDcon

Incidentally, I couldn’t resist posting this pic of myself at Richard Dawkin’s table at dinner. Cheers to Richard Cooper for taking it!

Written by Tom

April 18th, 2013 at 1:11 pm

QEDCon Retrospective Part 2

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Myself, Lee Christie, Tannice Pendegrass, Trish Hann, Alex Gabriel and Rhys Morgan discuss day two of QEDCon 2012, a weekend conference of science and skepticism. Highlights included talks by Edzard Ernst, Ian Ridpath, D.J. Grothe, Maryam Namazie and Joe Nickell. Looking forward to QEDCon 2013! The QEDCon theme is copyright Miltion Mermikides and is used with permission.

Written by Tom

March 31st, 2012 at 10:51 pm

QEDCon Retrospective Part 1

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Myself, Lee Christie, Tannice Pendegrass, Trish Hann, Alex Gabriel and Rhys Morgan discuss QEDCon 2012, a weekend conference of science and skepticism. Day one highlights included talks by Steve Jones, David Aaronovitch, Ophelia Benson, Sarah Angliss, Massimo Polidoro and Richard Saunders. The evenings entertainment featured the first ever Skeptic Magazine awards, as well as stand up sets from Alun Cochrane, Robin Ince and Paul Zenon. The evening concluded with an embarrassing incident involving trousers. Stay tuned for part two! The QEDCon theme is copyright Miltion Mermikides and is used with permission.

Written by Tom

March 29th, 2012 at 9:22 pm

A Brief Write Up of QEDCon 2012

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The second Question Explore Discover Conference (QEDCon) concluded yesterday. It was a packed and exhilarating two days of skepticism and I had an absolute blast! I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks to all the organisers for their very hard work in putting the conference on, and I’m sure many will agree when I state that it was a roaring success. I thought I’d write a very brief overview while it’s all still fresh in my head.

I rolled into Manchester on Friday evening, and found the mixer in the bar to already be in full swing. I had a great time chatting with lots of people who I’d previously only known through Twitter (although I didn’t get round to seeing everyone, sorry about that!) and I plucked up enough courage to make an iPadio recording, having a natter with a few attendees. Highlights for me included watching one of my copies of the Giant Book of Fantastic Facts being worshipped by an Australian (Hi Keiran!) and the one and only Joe Nickell inspecting my trilobite (not a euphamism). In fact, the general consensus on my Moroccan trilobite was that it’s real, which just made me even more smug!

The Saturday started with Deborah Hyde talking about werewolves. She was followed by the legend Professor Steve Jones, whose talk I had been particularly looking forward to. He didn’t disappoint, giving a confident and sometimes controversial (especialy if you are a psychologist) talk on evolution. I’d brought my copy of “The Language of the Genes”, a book of his which I purchased about 12 years ago before I went to study biochemistry and he was kind enough to sign it, which really made my day! I then had to make my first tough decision: see the excellent David Aaronovitch talk about his book Voodoo Histories or go the the British Humanist Association room and see the “science versus skepticism” panel. I’d done a little bit of blogging for the panel so I plumped for that. To my surprise, Steve Jones had agreed to be on the panel at the last minute, and we spent a fascinating hour discussing various matters pertaining to science. My only criticism was that it could have gone on for another couple of hours!

After lunch, I took in Ophelia Benson‘s thought-provoking talk on religion, where I embarrassed myself in the Q and A over my ignorance over the US constitution. I then did my shift on the book store which meant I missed Sarah Angliss (whose talk on ‘Voices of the Dead’ received high plaudits from everyone I spoke to), before going back to the BHA room for the Pod Delusion recording, where yours truly opened with a piece on the Planet Vulcan. You should be able to hear that in the not-too-distant future! That session featured what I thought was the most controversial opinion of the weekend, I didn’t think I’d hear a gay man arguing against gay marriage! Certainly food for thought. The afternoon was rounded up with the wonderful Richard Saunders from the Skeptic Zone podcast regaling us with his many tales from Australia, including his role on “The One” show and the inevitable demise of Power Balance bracelets.

I was a member of the elite who had paid for the gala dinner, so after a nice meal we were in a prime location for the evening’s entertainment. An early highlight for myself was seeing the Pod Delusion win a Skeptic award for best podcast, it was very richly deserved and a huge endorsement for James, Liz and everyone else involved in putting the show together. Richard Wiseman was effortlessly entertaining as compère, and all the comedy acts were side-splittingly funny! After partying late into the night, I went to bed very happy and contented with an excellent first day.

Some sore heads were pretty clear to see on Sunday morning, which started with Edzard Ernst telling us about his career researching alternative medicine, and his many battles with woo-pusher extraordinaire Prince Charles. Ernst received a huge round of applause for his tireless work, and the crowd were even prepared to forgive his use of Comic Sans! Ian Ridpath followed with a talk on UFOs, which included some sage advice on how to fake them (which I might try to do at some point). After lunch JREF president DJ Grothe gave a very clever and introspective talk on skepticism which dismissed the myth that Americans don’t get irony! Maryam Namazie followed with a talk on secularism and religious freedom. She repeatedly had to stop for applause, and I got quite riled when I heard that Unite Against Facism sided with an islamist group rather than her secularist group at a recent rally. After an unexpected bonus of Colin Wright, Joe Nickell gave the last talk of the weekend, telling us about his many adventures in the world of paranormal investigation.

Overall, a fantastic weekend and a great opportunity for the skeptic community to get together. I’m already looking forward to QEDCon 2013, assuming the world doesn’t end this year of course.

Written by Tom

March 12th, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Posted in events,qedcon

When scientists go woo – in preparation for the “Science versus Skepticism” panel at QED

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The Question Explore Discover conference (QEDcon) is merely days away. Last year’s was a fantastic spectacle of science, skepticism and having a laugh with friends old and new. If you want, you can hear some recordings I made, where I’m mostly jumping around like an excitable puppy. This year should provide more of the same (except I’ve calmed down a bit), but there was one panel in the schedule which particularly caught my eye: the “Science versus Skepticism” panel.

I read the title and straight away thought “Hang on, science VERSUS skepticism? Surely skepticism is based on the application of the scientific method?”. Then, I read the blurb and realised that throughout history, many scientists have and do hold views that are in contradiction of scientific evidence. In preparation for the panel, I thought I’d go over some of these historical figures and where they venture into the realm of woo.

Luc Montagnier

Luc Montagnier

Luc Montagnier

In 2008 Luc Montagnier (along with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Harald zur Hausen) received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of HIV. His role in our understanding of the virus was pivotal, and helped greatly in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

However, in 2009 Montagnier produced a couple of very controversial research papers which reported the detection of electromagnetic signals in highly diluted and agitated solutions of DNA. Of course, homeopathy sympathisers like Dana Ullman jumped all over this, even though it offered no support for homeopathy. Critics such as PZ Myers pointed out the many flaws and suspicious circumstances of the research, including the fact that there were just between 72 hours between submission and publication and that the chairman of the editorial board of the journal in question was Montagnier himself!

Kary Mullis

Kary Mullis

Kary Mullis

Pretty much every biologist who has worked in a lab for the last 20 years should know who Kary Mullis is. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Michael Smith (I’ve worked in a building bearing his name) for the development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Through this technique, it is possible to amplify specific DNA sequences. This ability has made a myriad of techniques possible, such as DNA fingerprinting, and PCR machines are ubiquitous throughout labs around the world.

Outside of the lab, Mullis has dabbled in various pieces of pseudoscience, from his belief in astrology to climate change denialism and AIDS denialism. He even wrote the foreword to “What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong?” by Christine Maggiore, a very tragic case.

Baroness Greenfield

Baroness Greenfield

Baroness Greenfield

Susan Greenfield is a scientist who specialises in brain physiology, researching diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. She sits in the House of Lords as a cross bencher, and was director of the Royal Society from 1998 to 2010. She has done much for the public understanding of science, and has presented the Royal Society’s Christmas Lectures.

Recently, Greenfield claimed that social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter were bad for children’s brains. Ben Goldacre quickly pointed out that it’s wrong to make that kind of claim without evidence and submitting to peer review, especially when the claims are on such a grand scale.

Brian Josephson

Brian Josephson

Brian Josephson

Hopefully you’ll have seen a pattern by now! Brian Josephson is a Nobel laureate, receiving the Nobel prize in physics in 1973 for predicting an effect that now bears his name.

Yet, when he was asked to write for the Royal Mail about a set of stamps to commemorate the centenary of the Nobel prize, he took the opportunity to mention that physics may one day explain telepathy. He has also leant his support to the ‘E-cat’ machine, which is supposedly a thermonuclear reaction that fits on a coffee table.

Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling Book

The cover of the book in which Linus Pauling endorses Vitamin C megadoses

Linus Pauling is perhaps the most famous case of a high-profile scientist turning to the dark side of woo. There’s no way I can do his achievements justice in a few short paragraphs, but hopefully you’ll get an idea of his greatness when I say that he’s the only person to have received two unshared Nobel Prizes. His contributions to chemistry are too numerous to list, and he was also a great peace activist, winning the Nobel Prize for a study that showed the damage overground atomic weapons tests were causing.

Sadly, as he got older he fell for the woo of megadosing on Vitamin C. This involves ingesting huge quantities of Vitamin C in the belief that it can ward off colds and even treat cancer. Although Pauling published papers to support his ideas, clinical trials conducted by the Mayo Clinic provided evidence that Vitamin C was in fact no better than placebo at treating cancer. Despite this, Pauling continued to research and promote the use of megadoses of Vitamin C, starting the quackery of orthomolecular medicine.

What causes respectable scientists do delve into quackery? I’m looking forward to this and other questions being discussed at QEDcon!

Written by Tom

March 7th, 2012 at 7:56 pm

QEDcon announces lower prices for next year!

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Not only will the fantastic QED conference be back in Manchester next March, but the QED team today revealed that ticket prices will actually be lower than they were this year! A full ticket for the weekend will cost just £89 (cheaper for students) compared to £99 this year. I think that this is amazingly good value (TAM London take note) for what was a cracking weekend this year, just another reason why next year’s event is not to be missed! Tickets will be available to buy on the 29th of August, appropriately enough at 10:23am.

There is also a special rate for the hotel, with rooms available for £85 for a single and £95 for a double. I’m assuming that’s per night, and although it’s a pretty good rate for a top-quality hotel I’ll see if I can go for the hostel again. I really enjoyed the community atmosphere, but I think I’ll need to remember the ear plugs this time! Hope to see you all at QEDcon!

Written by Tom

August 10th, 2011 at 8:43 pm

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ipadio: A Talk With Professor Gareth Williams

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Written by Tom

February 17th, 2011 at 11:51 pm

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Reflections on QEDcon

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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!

Written by Tom

February 9th, 2011 at 9:04 pm

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ipadio: 10:23 At QEDcon

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Written by Tom

February 6th, 2011 at 10:29 am

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ipadio: Late Night QEDcon

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Written by Tom

February 6th, 2011 at 1:06 am

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