QEDcon 2017

Rhys boyo and me! Ah, old now.

My 7th QED in a row came around in October 2017. The usual mess of train snacks and a bit of celebratory boozing on the train up, a different (bizarre) hotel – thanks, The Britannia! – and straight into catching up with old friends.

Volunteering last year was enjoyable, but there is always a great team managed by organiser Nicola so I felt OK giving someone else a go this time around.

Another brilliant event with lovely people and if I don’t make it in 2018 (due to being on another continent – more on that later!) – have a great 8th!

I only took quick notes on one event, so I reproduce them for you here, along with some assorted recollections.

With a ‘quack quack’ here… Veterinary Pseudoscience Panel

Terry Ogdin, Alison Price, Alex Young, & Danny Chambers

The panel of practicing vets discussed pseudoscience (and tackling it) in their field; how it’s affecting animals and people, and how people’s beliefs are harming animals.

The panel agreed they were seeing issues arising from alternative medicine if not every day then at least once a week, especially in small animal practice.

As to why that might be, they discussed how social media is relaying a lot of poor information now. Anti-vaccination ideas are proliferating at an alarming rate, not just for people and their children.


An example was given of a woman who brought in dog with profuse nose bleeding. It turned out they were feeding it a huge amount of turmeric, which caused an unrecoverable clotting issue meaning that the dog had to be put to sleep (euthanized). Turmeric is an oft-touted miracle spice on the internet, with people claiming it cures cancer and all sorts – sadly in this case, an animal died due to people believing these claims.

Veterinary Pseudoscience Panel

Another event featured a horse owner who was upset that they’d have to sell him because he’d become unridable. The vet immediately noticed signs of painful gastric ulcers, but the owner had spent thousands of pounds on a chiropractor. They assumed it was a back issue, to the owners’ agreement, and instead of responsibly checking their diagnosis, instead they were just happy to be paid. That’s how quacks work – they call their wares miraculous, but all they’re there for is people’s money, and repeat installments where possible. Chiropractic especially, which doesn’t work for people, let alone animals.

A couple of stories from friends to accompany this:

“When [our dog] Atti was getting on he needed daily painkillers for his hip. Our otherwise excellent vet practice had one vet who really pushed to give him acupuncture.
We refused.
A 12 year old, very large dog is going to have sore hips. In fact he had remarkably good joints given his age and size. In x-ray everything looked great. He limped and was very obviously hurting if he walked too far or slipped though.
So we gave him painkillers, massaged his leg muscle, and shortened his walks. He stopped limping.”

“This makes me so mad. My parents just had their fourth dog die from cancer.
This time they took the dog to a “holistic vet” and she died within weeks of her diagnoses. She was in a lot of pain at the end. Modern veterinary medicine could have helped prolong her life and ease her pain, but my parents wanted none of that because vets didn’t save their other three dogs from cancer so why should they be trusted?”


The motivations for owners choosing alt med for animals are often the same as they are for people:

  • mistrust of the medical establishment
  • misinformed about alt med and available treatments
  • desperate to help /find answers when the expert opinion is bleak
  • refusal to think of themselves doing harm when the intentions are purely loving.

The difference here being that animals have no say, similar to young children.

They will also be wishing for a particular answer (which quacks will coincidentally always have, and charge for it), and sometimes alt med offers cheaper solutions than costly medicines, but this can be more of an impression than reality (as per the horse).

People choose alt med especially for chronic conditions that naturally cycle though good and bad times, such as arthritis. So people may use homeopathy on the worst days, see improvement, and ascribe it to intervention instead of normal cycling.

Caregiver effects are similar to the placebo idea. If people have a belief that doing something will make a difference, they may see it even if it’s not there (there’s no control for comparison – you have no idea if the intervention worked, if there’s an improvement, or what caused it if there is).

The naturalistic fallacy is also rife here. People are shunning health practices for dangerous things e.g. barefoot trimming for horses, or raw feeding for animals like dogs that cannot survive on certain dietary restrictions (your cat is an obligate carnivore, so if you can’t feed it meat, don’t own one).

These practices become part of people’s identity, they grow very invested in it, defensive, and resistant to challenge or new evidence.

I don’t know what the solution is for this, but if you’re not already, do follow panelist Danny Chambers, who’s done excellent work organising against the use of homeopathy in veterinary medicine in the UK and is currently campaigning against cruel dog training devices.

Thanks to all the panelists for sharing their experiences, answering our questions and giving expert opinions.

Other highlights

I am and was so very glad to see the wonderful Crispian Jago win an Ockham Award for his Rational Cancer blog, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Death“. You could do a lot worse than spend some hours reading this – you could also buy it in book form soon!

Congratulations of course to all the winners.

This year the excellent Scriberia Ltd. was in attendance making visually striking summaries of the talks. Matt created these wonderful pieces over the weekend:

Matt at @scriberian’s work


Not being someone directly affected by this tragic UK event, I had much to learn going into this talk. I had no idea how powerful it would be, how upsetting, how infuriating – hearing of the top-to-bottom collusion between politicians, the police force and the media, to scapegoat a group of innocent people and subvert justice.

The absolutely amazing exposé work done by Professor of Criminology Phil Scraton received one of the most deserved standing ovations I have ever seen. Given QED is Manchester-based, many in attendance were and are personally affected, and I know lots of those people found time to thank him if they were able – some were not – and this keynote was again an extremely moving, educational and life-affirming experience.

Do watch the documentary and/or read his book for more – one does not have to be interested in football or personally affected to appreciate the incredible work Phil has done for all of the families and for justice itself.


Emma McClure gave a shocking talk about the near-total uselessness of many forensic practices and how these have contributed to many deaths, and exonerations that came too late. Catch her on the SitP circuit.

Emma McClure

Crime & Punishment

This panel focused on our prison system, its systematic failings, and how we are going to have to work on the problems in society that people are simply going back into; prisons are not fit for purpose, do not do the job they were meant to, and are now underfunded and understaffed inhumane levels. Professor Phil Scraton read harrowing testimonies from women who had been abused to the point of suicide.

They are not rehabilitative, and unfortunately with little knowledge of how they work most of the populace are happy they are there on the pretenses of deterrence, punishment and population safety – outcomes it actually doesn’t deliver. Privatisation has been a driver but not the only problem, and Phil’s arguments for abolition were extremely convincing, coupled with some retributive vitriol from listeners. Convicted criminals don’t stop having human rights, and in protecting theirs, we protect our own. “Criminal” is also not a one size fits all box, and many in prisons are there through suffering, illness, and are more a danger to themselves than others, deserving of help rather than abandonment.

While some were disappointed with the general agreement between panel members, the fact that criminologists and lawyers shared views was a valuable point in itself. Reform is long overdue.

Dietary Fat

Having recently found The Angry Chef, Anthony Warner, through friends’ recommendations, I was intrigued by this talk from a former Biochemist (like me!) who’s easily irritated by fad diets, food fibs and health misinformation.

You can follow him on Twitter or via his blog – and he’s got a book out.

I also caught him at London skeptics in the pub, tweets from that follow below (follow this link to more tweets from the talk).

All together, yet another brilliant weekend with fantastic people – many laughs and hugs and interesting things – if you haven’t been yet, please consider this and all my other ramblings a glowing endorsement. The organizers are a great team, and they really want you to enjoy QED – and you will.



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