ESC in Gent – The European Skeptics Congress including Skeptics and a lot of Skeptical Fun

Annika Merkelbach

Cover Image: The European Skeptics Congress, here with a talk by Ovidiu Covaciu from Romania.

The European Skeptics Congress is a biannual event happening in another European city every time. In 2019, it was organized in Belgium. I spoke with skeptical activist András Pinter to find out more about the event.

 


Annika Merkelbach: Thank you, András, for taking the time to do this interview with me. You’re a quite prolific skeptical activist, but would you please quickly introduce yourself to those who don’t know you yet?

András Pinter: Thanks for taking the time to interview me, Annika! Well, I am from Hungary and have been a skeptic for a long time. I realized more than twenty years ago that UFOs were probably not a thing and that they most likely weren’t alien visitors from outer space, which led me to skepticism. I am deeply moved and inspired by how science works and very disturbed by the distortion of it. Pseudoscientific nonsense is gaining more and more ground, which is horrifying. That’s why I joined the movement and was there when the Hungarian Skeptic Society was brought to life in 2006. Now I act as vice president of the organization. I was also the initiator, long-time producer, and still am one of the cohosts of The European Skeptics Podcast. This is a show with a European focus on what’s going on in the skeptic movement and what the latest news is from European countries that might interest other skeptics. Plus, I am one of the board members of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO). In my everyday life, I am a professional tour leader and guide. As such, my latest pet project is pointing out how overloaded tourism is with bullshit and that a skeptical attitude in this business can and should be applied.

Merkelbach: Thank you! We met each other in person at ESC 2017 and at QED in 2018. Last weekend you were in Belgium for ESC 2019. What can you tell me about the conference in general?

Pinter: The European Skeptics Congress is an important event that gives skeptics from all across Europe an opportunity to come together. They can get up to speed about what the others are busy with or what the latest craze is in a certain country. They can find out how they can tackle these problems. It’s held every other year, always in a different European city, and organized by local skeptics of this area. The groups are always in cooperation with the European Council of Skeptical Organisations (ECSO). This time there were four different organizations in Belgium and the Netherlands that made it happen in a joint effort. I particularly liked the title of this congress, which was “The Joy of Skepticism.” And it was really joyful indeed to meet all the known and new faces of fellow skeptics and have things to discuss with or learn from each other. And even though it was not the largest number of attendees we’ve ever seen at a congress—I think there were about seventy of us—it was really well organized and very smoothly run.

Merkelbach: What were the panels and talks about? Were there classic topics and new insights?

Pinter: Oh yeah, a bit of both. We heard talks about investigating psychics and ongoing research into how and why people believe in stuff; there were talks on how the anti-vaccination movement operates; there were people talking about GMOs and the future of agriculture; but we also heard nuclear power discussed from a skeptical point of view. All really amazing stuff.

Merkelbach: I also saw some beach balls flying on a photo—what was that about? 

Pinter: You did? I bet that was not the first time you saw those. That’s because they were a cool example of how skeptics can use marketing tools as well. They were decorated with the logo and the slogan of Homeopathy Information Network (Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie), a German group of doctors and educators such as Natalie Grams and Norbert Aust. They are educating the public about homeopathy and thus fighting the madness of it across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. They do a fantastic job and their work really paves the way for others to do the same. Norbert Aust gave a great talk about their actions and as a demonstration, they released a bunch of beach balls upon us. It was a genuinely funny moment. Sugar granules? No thanks!

Flying (and hovering) beach balls of Information Network Homeopathy (INH) as an example on how to use marketing as skeptics.

 

Merkelbach: ESC 2019 is just over, so what did you like most? What were your highlights?

Pinter: Oh, that’s a tough one. I enjoyed all the talks. Professor Edzard Ernst’s talk gave us a pretty good overview of where we are right now and how optimistic we can be about the future. Also, Norbert Aust’s talk on their brilliant project and its success was absolutely energizing. And when talking about energy, one of the best moves by the organizers was bringing in the topic of nuclear power. I now have the feeling that this should be discussed more often and more openly by skeptics. Energy policies should be driven by science and as skeptics that’s what we advocate, after all.

A panel about “Green Skepticism” with (left to right) Matthijs Beckers (Netherlands), André Fougeroux (France, AFIS), Iida Ruishalme (Finland, Switzerland), and Kavin Senapathy (USA, Science Moms).

 

Merkelbach: Who organized the conference?

Pinter: It was organized by the Belgian skeptical organisations SKEPP and Comité Para in cooperation with two Dutch groups, Vereniging tegen de Kwakzalverij and Stichting Skepsis. They all do amazing skeptical and educational work, and they pulled this congress off very nicely, too.

Merkelbach: How did you like Belgium?

Pinter: Belgium is a gorgeous country with lovely people. And I had a feeling that somehow this country simply works. I’ve learned to appreciate that very much.

Merkelbach: You’re part of the board of ECSO together with one of your cohosts, Pontus. Who else is part of the board and who is ECSO’s president?

Pinter: At every congress, ECSO also has a board meeting where future actions are decided, possible future locations are discussed for the next congress and the new board is elected. Now, after the latest board meeting, we still have Czech skeptic Claire Klingenberg in the driver’s seat as president. There is also a new board member, Jean-Paul Krivine from France, representing AFIS, the French Association on Scientific Information.

Board member Pontus Böckman and President Claire Klingenberg enjoying the Congress.

Merkelbach: What’s your take-home message of the conference?

Pinter: That no matter how many different languages we speak and what country we are from, when it comes to tackling pseudoscience and issues that it generates for our society and humanity as a whole, we are all in this together. And we need to join our efforts if we’re really out to make a change.

Merkelbach: Do you already know when and where the next ESC will be?

Professor Edzard Ernst talking about the status quo of skepticism.

Pinter: Not yet. We know that it’s going to happen in 2021. But regarding the actual date and location, there are ideas on the table, but nothing has been decided yet. That being said, when we have anything new to announce, it’ll be done right away through different channels, one of them being the website of ECSO, ecso.org, its Facebook page, and of course we’ll spread the news on the European Skeptics Podcast as well.

 

 


All photos were taken by András Pintér.

 

Annika Merkelbach

Annika Merkelbach is a member of Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) and of Gesellschaft für wissenschaftliche Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP; the German Skeptics organization). She enjoys interviewing European and other skeptics, but also writing and improving Wikipedia pages.