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

Kylie Sturgess

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.