QEDcon 2016

Part of this year’s goodie bag – a QED sticker to adorn whatever you fancy

After about 13 hours of sleep post-QED, I started to write some words about it!

6 years in a row. A strange feeling walking back into a hotel room like one I stayed in 3 years ago, but quickly settling into familiarity, largely because of all the friendly faces to see and hugs to give/receive.

I haven’t been to many conventions in my time, but of those few, this skeptical event has to be the best by a long way.

Not just because the organisers are very talented and kind people I’m proud to call friends, or the consistently excellent, approachable and affable speakers, or because fellow attendees are a joy to be around (in all states of sobriety and so far from it). All of that and more.

This is the first time I donned a volunteer t-shirt, too – I’ve volunteered at other stuff, but again the organisers make sure it’s as rewarding an experience for us as everyone else; putting us in rooms we want to be in, having a solid support network – so many people do it now, chances are you’ll have very little to do beyond being visible (hard to avoid in bright orange!). I fancied a slightly different experience, and can recommend going for it.

See links at the end for more details, photos and reviews of events I didn’t get to!


Another first this year was going up to Manchester early enough to attend Greater Manchester Skeptics in the Pub. A great talk from Professor Caroline Watt about the work of the Edinburgh Koestler Parapsychology Unit.

Amusements that Thursday evening included impromptu singalongs before the talk, a trip to a trendy basement bar afterwards and me saying “Oh it’s fine if I get to bed around 1” then a friend pointing out it’s 00:50 as we’re only just leaving. Oops.

Friday featured the QED quiz, which we didn’t do brilliantly in but hey, it’s how you play the game. For us, that’s with wine, which also turned out to be my dinner.

I couldn’t bear to drag myself away from all the people I hadn’t seen for ages arriving at the Mixer, and of course our volunteers’ induction. The bar staff didn’t cope well with us, but for as yet unknown reasons they were expecting far fewer, far less enthusiastic drinkers. They learned their lesson!

Saturday kicked off with the traditionally brilliant opening video – very self-referential this year so some of the humour would’ve been lost on newbies, but still amusing I hope.

The first talk was given by the highly entertaining YouTuber featured above, Captain Disillusion (or rather, his assistant, Alan) – a style perhaps particularly appealing to young viewers. A lot of us are also too quick to accept video ‘evidence’, thinking it’s harder to fake than photos. His film-making knowledge is a valuable addition to online skepticism.

Update: you can now watch Alan’s talk here!

I also heard a great talk on advice columns from the wonderful Dr Petra, and some of us had a lovely catch-up later at lunch. I’m always drawn to the live Skeptics with a K recording, as it’s one of the handful of podcasts I do occasionally listen to! Mark Stevenson‘s “The Future and What to do About it” was a dose of some much-needed optimism in the current climate.

It was a joy to hear Sue Blackmore discuss out-of-body experiences (OBE) and how our brains work to cause them. Continuing the theme of utterly lovely people I wish I were related to telling fascinating stories, closing Saturday was Sci-Comm superstar Dr Karl Kruszelniki.

At times I was surprised by how we’d ended up on another, disparate topic, but he delivered everything with such energy and humour, it was a perfect primer for the evening to come. Not least because I happened to end up next to him at dinner!

Dr Karl in the strawberry shirt his wife made him, our Gala table (Photo: Andy Wilson)

Confirming initial impressions of his awesomely wide expertise, the table had some bizarre medical-themed conversations, hearing more of Karl’s wild Australian adventures and jet lag-beating tactics.

The Ockham Awards this year will remain particularly memorable (despite more shit tea towel tricks and playing cards everywhere…). I’ll just include a few tweets here, as suffice to say some of us got a bit teary.

Entertainment included protest singer Grace Petrie, magician Dave Alnwick and comedian Tiernan Douieb, followed  by merriment until… early. Being with “the tribe” will always be a highlight. 6+ years of these brilliant peeps!

Sunday is always a challenge given so little sleep has been had by so many. But Cara Santa Maria‘s opening talk on science in American media was still impressively packed – even after a few apparently stomping out because god forbid a woman talking about sexism in the workplace be absorbed and some kind of problem admitted, but we’ll leave that there. She had the most amazing retinal neurones (I think?) dress!

For my other standard podcast recording, Inkredulous – the comedic, infrequent, scathing skeptical ‘gameshow’. Featuring lots of loud American guests this episode, look out for it on the website and twitter.

I then marched my way to the March of Unreason panel where the Brexit situation was discussed in context, and a focus on whether the kind of anti-intellectualism we’re experiencing is really anything new.

The penultimate event was a panel on the Freemen of the Land, who put up these billboards, which you may have seen depending on where you’re based:

This was a tour of this baffling campaign that, while so ridiculous as to be funny, is actually quite distressing in that its real-world effects are plunging people already in significant difficulty into further trouble. Law experts sat on the panel to help unravel this mess, including QED organiser and criminal barrister, Geoff Whelan.

Basically, these people have invented a conspiracy theory that involves a ‘legal fiction‘ around your birth certificate and think that saying some magic words can get people out of fines, other payments, co-operating in court and more. It can’t. Of course, people with already complicated relationships with reality are being duped by it, and people in the legal system are seeing more and more of them because of this successful (due to its weirdness) ad campaign.

Finally (at least, before more merriment and tired goodbyes the following day), investigative journalist Meirion Jones told us about their invaluable work exposing fake bomb detectors, which cost ~2000 lives in Baghdad.

This was a harrowing tale of the worst outcomes of failed skepticism and corruption in government. An accomplished fraudster used millions of dollars in bribes to get his useless plastic dowsing box into defense organisations. They, believing it to work, then let numerous explosives into the city, killing hundreds. In the process the fraudster McCormick made tens of millions, not all of which has been recovered – and he will likely be out of prison in just a few years. But would he have been convicted at all without the work of Meirion and his colleagues?

Our own government departments and other authorities allowed this to happen because it was apparently more important to avoid the embarrassment of taking some responsibility. The device has since popped up in other forms, including as ivory detectors, HIV/Hepatitis screening tech and more – they’re all just useless empty boxes.

The fraudster sold them with cards “programmed to detect a substance” – when in reality those cards just contained security circuits, completely unprogrammable (verified by the Cambridge Computer Science centre). Why did so few people ask the right, basic questions? So much life lost.

Meirion is fantastic speaker and clearly excellent journalist with more integrity in one foot than most in their whole person. A stark reminder of the value of critical thinking and scientific expertise.



3 thoughts on “QEDcon 2016

  1. Pingback: QED – Part 5 | Passive Impressions

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