I WENT TO CHURCH AND I LIKED IT

“I went to church and I liked it;
hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”

Is what I’ve had going round in my head for the last 24 hours (thanks, OCD!).  But at least it helped me to remember to write this post.  I’m pretty sure that Mr. Science Gentleman will be concerned about my Skeptical Muscle after I confided in him by text that I actually felt really positive about attending a church service.

The occasion was a family funeral, and I felt strongly that the local church was the right place to hold it. My relative had been a regular attendee, and part of the “family” in the church community. Their funeral was well-attended by people from many parts of the community – turns out that my relative was something of a social butterfly (amongst the pious, at least). The service was conducted by the old vicar who was brought out of retirement for this funeral. They knew each other well, and the vicar’s family was almost like a distant branch of ours (I may be the first instance of an atheist being on first-name terms with the local clergy). And I felt it was totally appropriate for him to conduct a traditional Church of England ceremony in a church that I’d not set foot in for almost 20 years.

The experience really reinforced the attraction to religion for both those who are strong believers, and those who are not.  The church back home has over 1000 years of history (I grew up in a place that was pivotal to British history in almost every era – it’s kinda cool, here‘s a good starting point if you’d like to find out more), and that history is a part of what made me who I am.  Even though my relative’s funeral was a religious one, it was highly personalised and because the minister knew them well, he relayed some anecdotes about them in the sermon – some of the stories were things that I didn’t even know about them.  Even though I have a lot of anxieties about churches and religious figures (again, thanks for that, OCD) being inside The Abbey felt comforting and safe.  It was a known quantity, and a place of familiarity after so many years away.

So what now?  Am I going to convert back to Christianity?  Not likely.  I still feel strongly that a church is not a place for me, and not only do I not want any of my milestones celebrated in a church ceremony, I also feel that I would be a hypocrite if I did.  The experience has alerted me to the role that humanism can play in meeting the needs that religion often caters for.  A need to celebrate and affirm life events, a sense of togetherness, something to identify with.  I don’t buy into the idea of a humanist congregation, or feel that my humanism is part of a faith group, but I like the fact that humanism is flexible enough to accept everyone without forcing a set of rules on those it serves.  For me, losing religion was about leaving behind the shackles that chained me to a limited life.  As a result, I don’t like the ideas of the “humanist community”, or “sceptical community”, even though I participate in both.  I am a humanist, and a skeptic, but that’s not all I am.  Defining me only as that would do an injustice to the exciting, varied, and unrestricted life I have chosen.  You don’t gain freedom by choosing a new captor.

I would strongly recommend a humanist ceremony to anyone who wants the experience of a formal ceremony, but without the “God” bit. I’ve not attended any humanist funerals yet, but I have been to a few humanist weddings. These were a far better reflection of the couples’ aspirations and beliefs about marriage than a rigid, religion-based ceremony could ever be. My relative’s funeral was a perfect send-off because it shared with humanism so many of the aspects that made the ceremony appropriate and memorable; not because it was in a church.

NEUROBOLLOCKS AND FALSE POSITIVES

Remember way back when I posted about how there’s no such thing as a “male brain” or a “female brain”?  Well, today I was sent an article that:

a) Illustrates one of the ways in which brain scans can mislead if not viewed in context, and with full information of the stated assumptions;

b) Is flippin’ hilarious.

It’s this one: What a dead fish can teach you about neuroscience and statistics, sent to me via my friend Claire Witch File.

That’s right, they put a dead salmon in an MRI scanner! But all in the name of science. This has got to be the most creative way of proving a point about statistics that I have ever seen (and this is coming from the person who did their ‘A’ Level stats project on Smarties in order to prove that you can both demonstrate intellectual rigour, and fill your face with chocolate at the same time. I got an A on that coursework, and the world’s biggest sugar crash. Joke’s on you, Mr. P!).

As silly as it sounds, it demonstrated the care that must be taken in such experiments to set the appropriate significance level, and to be sure you’re interpreting the results correctly.

Three things I learnt as a result of reading this:

      1. I knew that these scans show blood flow to regions of the brain, but I didn’t know that what you’re seeing on the scan is the blood flow resulting from what happened up to 6 seconds ago.
      2. The images from an fMRI scan show a statistic – which must be viewed in context and measured against specific criteria with robust controls.  Basically, it shows which brain regions are likely to have activity – but it tells us nothing about that activity – yet.  There’s a lot about the brain and the mind that we don’t know, but we’re amassing new knowledge quickly.  We may one day be able to discern that sort of information with brain scans; we already know quite broad information on what’s going on in there – we need to refine it.
      3. Studies that sound really outrageous will get you a lot of media exposure.  They even won an Ig Nobel for their work!

SKEPTICAL SOAPBOX 11th AUGUST 2016

Once a year, the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society (GMSS) holds a Soapbox event, in which members of the society are invited to give a short (15-minutes-ish + Q&A) talk. On the night there are usually 3 or 4 speakers. Ordinarily, more prominent speakers are invited for GMSS”s monthly event; once a year the attendees are given their chance to shine! It’s great presentation experience (which I need way more of than I get in my professional life currently) and exposure (yes, yes, I know – your landlord doesn’t accept exposure as currency).

On the night there was an audience of about 30, not enough to pack out the venue, but a respectable amount. There were three speakers (including me!), and we were in the theatre above the Kings Arms (which has a professional A/V setup), so all the attention was squarely on the speaker.

Here’s the event listing; all of GMSS’s events are put on the Facebook page (click here to Like, Follow, etc)

First up was Claire Elliot, speaking on Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), a thing I sort-of knew about, but never knew the name of it.  And I’d not thought about it too much as it wasn’t something I believed in, and until joining GMSS, I’d not really wondered about why people believe some of the odd things that they do.

But Claire has done an MSc on this, so she has actually studied it in great depth.  I like it when skeptics study esoteric subjects, especially ones that are a bit controversial (another post coming soon on this one!).  And this topic is important, because it tells us things about ourselves, be we believers or not.

Here’s an excerpt from the event teaser:

“Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) are the anomalous speech-like sounds found on some electronic recordings. For believers, EVP represents communication with paranormal entities and evidence of the afterlife. For skeptics, it is a product of the recording methods and top-down processing of the listener. Whilst we all experience auditory illusions, research suggests some groups may be more susceptible than others.

My MSc research at MMU has explored this area and I will be discussing my results. The debate surrounding EVP tells us much about the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in random data (apophenia) and desire to believe (existentialism). However, without scientific evidence of their paranormal origin are we merely communicating with ourselves?”

I managed to film part of Claire’s talk, which you can view below, but due to technical issues, I missed some of it at the start.  My device’s memory was also full by the end of her talk, so this is the only one I managed to capture on film (I was really sad about this, as I wanted to get my own talk online).

Next up was me, giving a talk called “Are We Mental?” – read more about it in my next post.

“As skeptics, we are always on the lookout for weird beliefs and bizarre behaviours. But how do we categorise them? The phrase “mentally ill” gets bandied around a lot, with no evidence to back up this claim in most cases.

What behaviours might be attributable to genuine mental illness, and what is just a consequence of having an imperfect brain? Does a sick mind create baloney, or does bunkum make our minds sick?”

And finally, Iain Hilton talking about the Modern Flat Earth Movement.  His talk was a synopsis of the history of flat-earth beliefs and arguments, and what the resurgence is made up of.  It was an analysis of the community, rather than a debunking of their theories; because:

  1. It’s unnecessary;
  2. There’s about a lifetime’s worth of YouTube videos devoted to this, so you can go and look at them

“The modern flat earth movement – Who are they, where do they come from and why the sudden surge in believers?

As a debunker of the movement since the turn of the decade, i have taken a journey to find out what the movement can tell us, and about the diverse beliefs within it – as well as challenging some of the myths used to debunk it.”

Iain’s talk was especially cosy, with no slides and him sat in a comfy chair and encouraging us to gather round while he told his story. I love talks without notes; they seem to flow better, and seem better rehearsed. Just like a lecture.

The Q&As were as good as the talks (I’ve noticed this a lot at Skeptics generally; it’s a consequence of having many curious minds in the audience), and against everyone’s expectations (skeptics have a rep for enjoying the sound of their own voices) the event kept to time.  As with all our formal talks, we went down to the bar after to continue the conversation.

QUESTION YOURSELF – THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE PART 2

One of my friends wrote an eloquent and meaningful poem on Facebook, and it captures not only the beauty of words, but also the problem of being too sure about oneself in debate, and the need to examine one’s own biases. [Skeptic friends, take heed]

(Check our her Twitter & YouTube, she posts some interesting, controversial and original stuff)

Debates can get heated, doesn’t feel nice to be questioned,
Our own mind’s picture, of a situation, seems threatened,
The instinct is to scramble, for a support to our position,
We don’t always step back and consider thought-omission.

We like to be right, it feels good to have knowledge,
If a view seems absurd, they must have missed college!?
They can’t be right, it doesn’t fit my agenda,
Must be time for ridicule “Oi, go play with your double ender!”.

But wait, step back, question everything, remember?!
That means your own axioms, too, that’s no surrender.
Combine the positions and question each angle,
Hopefully your opponent will follow your example.

It’s unlikely you’ll agree within a short conversation
But the discourse is important for further investigation.
Without common ground, you won’t find a solution
To the issue you see as a societal pollution.

So, stay calm and controlled, keep your words ever relevant,
Your discussion may be fruitful, if you stay in your element.
And remember, end of discourse, is not the end of introspection,
Plant a seed of encouragement, for personal reflection.

 

She also wrote another one, here, on a somewhat different subject. The wit is still as strong, and the tone is a little more cutting – but sometimes you have to be bold to get your point across.

9/11 CONSPIRACIST DEBATE

Recently I attended the type of event that I wouldn’t usually go to – but I heard about it from a friend of a friend, and it sounded interesting (more on this shortly), and it got me out of the house on a Sunday afternoon.  I’m not really sure how to best describe it, as it wasn’t a debate in the sense that I am used to, in which there is a statement that the house does or does not believe and then two sides to argue for or against it.  The format of this event was a short presentation followed by what began as a Q&A and then proceeded into a heavily-moderated discussion.  Apologies if this post is a bit rambling, but it follows the format of the debate, which was equally disjointed.

I went to this event because I am acutely aware that I do surround myself with people who think like me and have similar political leanings, and I wanted to leave the echo-chamber.  Going to this talk faced me with someone whose opinions are far removed from mine, and we would normally never choose to associate in ordinary life.  And while neither the presentation, nor the arguments brought forward, convinced me that any of the official evidence was wrong, I did learn a lot of things about opinions, beliefs, and other humans.  That’s what made it so interesting – understanding why people form opinions that seem to be so obviously wrong to many people, and to understand what sort of reactions these opinions generate.  Maybe it was a bit of a spectacle, but I have no qualms about that.

I also want to emphasise that I do have respect for the person who has worked on this project.  I do not respect the opinions put forward, for logical reasons, but they probably knew full well that they were going to be met with a strong opposition – and they handled it well.  Just because someone can be mistaken or misguided, it does not mean that the individual is not worthy of respect.  While 90% of people in the room did not agree with the host, 100% of them were respectful and questioned them appropriately.  It’s the first rule of debating for me, and one that can be applied to everyday life: once you resort to ad hominem attacks, you’ve lost the argument.

To discuss such a controversial subject, knowing that you’re on the side that the majority see as wrong, is a pretty brave thing to do.

It still doesn’t make you any less wrong, though.The person who was doing the presenting does believe that 9/11 was an inside job, and they discussed the reasons why they think this. Much of the information they presented was old arguments that have been debunked several times over, which was pretty tiresome (at this point I was wondering if it was actually a good idea to engage with the event and its host, as I don’t think that going over the same ground over and over gets us anywhere). There were a few times when I was watching the videos in the presentation and listening to descriptions of conditions within the buildings, and I thought “oh, that’s because of [this or that obvious thing]”, which was kinda cool and engaging, until I heard the presenter explain why they thought it was explosives, or why the building couldn’t possibly have deformed or collapsed in the way it did. Then it was madly infuriating, and I did bring up a number of these points in the Q&A.

I am wondering if the speaker twigged that I am an engineer – it’s not like I concealed the fact.  And beginning sentences with “When we design buildings…” may have been a giveaway.

There was a lot of focus on WTC7, which was an adjacent building that was not hit by a plane, but did collapse.  Why?  Excessive Fire Load (yeah, that link’s from the Daily Mail – they’re not wrong all the time).  The building’s structure came under a level of strain that caused it to fail.  I find this one especially ridiculous – the speaker claimed this fell due to a controlled demolition, yet those responsible just randomly set the building on fire 6 hours prior to detonation.  Because, like, 6 hours of continual burning wouldn’t maybe cause a bit of structural damage?  Yeah, seems totally legit. <headdesk>

But this is only part of the dispute.  A number of other (cherry-picked) issues were raised, namely:

The freefall thing, and why did it collapse in on itself, explained neatly in this video.

There was a man in a basement level, far from the initial impact, who got burnt in an explosion – probably caused by immense heat and pressure in the structure building up and firing out of confined spaces into circulation areas – maybe fire spreading through service voids and travelling from one part of the building to another, in seemingly unpredictable ways – which not only explains why WTC7 fell without any external impact, but also why fires and explosions were occurring in parts of the other buildings remote from the planes’ impact.  Or it could have been as simple as burning jet fuel descending through the building.  There’s no reason to not go for the most obvious explanation – but that seemed to be the way a lot of the conversations went.  I’ve heard a lot about disenfranchised people clinging onto conspiracy theories because they “know” the secret that the rest of the “sheeple” just can’t see.  It makes them feel superior & special.  And I did see that on this occasion.  It made me feel quite sad, as this person had deluded themselves and chose to remain ignorant; they seemed to have invested so much into their project that there was no backing down now.

The “explosions” further down the towers from the impact.  One of the truthers’ theories is that these were planned detonations, but a basic understanding of engineering will tell you that these are the result of heat and deformation generated by fire spreading to the levels below.

And there were plenty of seemingly obvious responses to these and other topics, like:

If it was actually a controlled demolition, why did no-one in, or around, these enormous, 24-hour buildings notice explosives and charges being brought in and installed in the structure?  This would actually be a massive undertaking,and you’d need to pay off all the security team, everyone who worked in the buildings or in the neighbourhood who might have seen it, anyone working for the government or air traffic control (who would have been “in on it”), huge sectors of the media, and anyone with any connections at all to any of these institutions.  If you take six degrees of separation into account, that’s roughly the whole world’s population.  If you had a secret as huge as this, the amount of expenditure and connections necessary to maintain it would be astronomical.  The concept is nicely illustrated by the Mitchell and Webb sketch about the reality of faking the Moon landings.

We were told that approximately 2200 architects and engineers dispute the accepted version of events, and based on an extremely conservative estimate, in 2005 there are about 1,086,498 architects globally.  The number of building engineers is more difficult to quantify (seriously, it’s really difficult to find data on this!), but lets just say that we are only considering structural engineers – that would be about 27,000 registered structural engineers with the IStructE.  So if we add these two numbers together (which are from different time periods and incomplete – so it’s likely the figure is an underestimate), and add on a margin to include practitioners who are registered through alternative professional bodies, or in a country not included in the stats, we could call it 1.2 million.  Compared to other estimates of up to 2.5 million+, this is still a very low figure.  But divide the little number by the big number, and you get 2200 / 1200000 = 0.18%.  That’s considerably lower than the number of scientists who disagree with the consensus on global warming, and most who do disagree are less well-respected and credible scientists (and we can even demonstrate that scientifically).

Consensus within the scientific community is an important tenet of how the scientific method works.  Data is produced, peer-reviewed, adjusted based on criticism, refined, republished, and all in the name of accuracy and better understanding.  When a large number of scientists agree, it’s not based on opinion, it’s based on an assessment of the facts.  So it’s not an appeal to popularity by any means, consensus is based on scientific findings, not individual preferences.  An important point about scientific consensus is that it can change.  Usually over time, and not in large leaps, seeing as the way that we develop our understanding these days is by people contributing one study at a time to the whole.  Most of the big ideas have already been discovered.  Maybe there are big ideas that we haven’t yet uncovered, and perhaps one person will make a mind-blowing discovery in their field, but this is the exception.

A common argument in favour of the “inside job theory” is that melted steel was found at the site, which was criticised from two angles: steel structures do not need to melt in order for them to collapse, they just need to weaken enough to become unsupportable – which happens at increased temperatures that still fall below the melting point. Secondly, many people believe that the molten material is actually aluminium, which would melt at the high temperatures of the fire (its melting point is 660.3C), especially if it came from, say, a burning aircraft…. (wonder where we could find one of those?)

An interesting point raised was that structural engineers over-design buildings so they never fall down. Well, that’s not quite true. When buildings are designed there is a margin of “error” built in, so that a building is unlikely to fall down unexpectedly. This is a safety margin to ensure that our buildings are fit for purpose and that engineers don’t get sued for producing under-specified buildings. But it doesn’t mean that we design all (or even any) buildings to withstand every possible condition. If that was true, demolition would be impossible. Which kinda conflicts with the idea that it was a controlled demolition. Oops.

Another one that I’d not heard before: Fire is unpredictable so a collapse by fire shouldn’t look similar to a controlled demolition – false. We know how fire is likely to behave (there’s a whole industry devoted to modelling the effects of fire within buildings, and I’m pretty sure they’re not just making shit up). Additionally, demolition by fire is a recognised method that was used in the UK until very recently – check out some of Fred Dibnah’s old stuff.

The people who know all this aren’t wasting their time on petty squabbles about the  minutiae of the truthers’ arguments because they know that their own evidence is so strong and there’s nothing more to be said.  That was an interesting thing to note about the presentation, and many of the truther arguments generally – that they concentrate on tiny details, rather than looking at the obvious – hellooooo – buildings do not perform very well when planes fly into the side of them.

I guess that was a kind of strange thing for me to hear – I am one of those who knows what they are talking about, and yet I decided to engage with the host’s odd viewpoint. It really reinforced a lot of what I already knew about arguing with idiots, and I guess I’ve learnt all I need to about this type of “debate” – it’s only going to go in one direction, and none of the participants will benefit from it.  If the authorities did get involved with this sort of thing they’d look foolish. And so they don’t. There’s nothing more to add. As I noted above, the 9/11 truthers have no new arguments, and they just reproduce all those that have already been debunked – as if repeating the same old tripe over and over will make it somehow more believable.

But aside from listening to the actual arguments, be they truth or “truth”, the best part of the afternoon was engaging in the discussion.  I would classify many of the people in attendance as skeptics (this kind, not this kind), but there were also some people who probably wouldn’t align with that definition, and they seemed to have a very diverse set of views.  Some of them might have been convinced by the speaker’s arguments, but they were also listening to reason and asking plenty of intelligent questions – although not all thinking entirely critically.  But it does show that the people who lie in the  middle of two polarised views are often an astute bunch, even if they don’t play by the rules of formal science or debate.

It was interesting to hear the speaker’s responses to the arguments put forward by even the toughest skeptic.  They maintained their composure at all times, even if they didn’t give satisfactory answers.  But they did have an answer for everything – this was surely a lesson in the internal machinations of a 9/11 truther.

There were a couple of things that bothered me, aside from the glaringly obvious fact that they were just plain wrong.  The speaker claimed to disagree with the scientific method, yet cherry-picked papers that supported their theory.  So the scientific method is ok if it backs up your own viewpoint but not when it supports the 99.8% of experts who disagree. Hmmmmm.

More worrying than this was that when asked what evidence would make them change their mind, they said that nothing would.  While I’m often analysing my thoughts, beliefs and actions, not everyone is as skeptically-minded as me.  And yet – that’s a pretty bold statement to make.  That literally nothing would make you change your mind – no amount of evidence, no wavering in your beliefs, no concept of doubt.  That’s about dogma, not the truth.

I also objected to the chair criticising a group member for saying the presenter’s ideas were “bullshit”.  They focused on the use of ‘bad language’ as a means to quell dissent – which totally did not work.  The person who said it kindly clarified by saying that they respected the speaker, and the were treating the idea with exactly the amount of respect it deserved.

Something that the speaker did have right is that the Internet is an incredibly effective communication tool.  They use it to spread what they see as the truth.  This is why it’s so important to engage at some level with this type of discussion to refute it for the benefit of those not really on one ‘side’ of the argument, but who are interested in curiosities like this, for whatever reason.  If a bad idea is presented, it will proliferate if left unchallenged.  Or the whole thing will backfire and their belief will become stronger.  But either way, I do feel there’s a moral obligation to publicly to rail against bad ideas, policies, and institutions – but that we need to make sure we do it properly and effectively.

On the whole, it’s got to be one of the oddest Sunday afternoons I have ever enjoyed.  It was a great day out, meeting a bunch of strangers who actually wanted to have a conversation, and to spend time in an engaging activity with my partner and friends.  And it’s all thanks to my marvellous friends who I can always trust to get me into the most bizarre and exciting scrapes.  Well done, chaps!  But if I was looking to change minds or educate, well, it was something of a pointless exercise.  The speaker themselves acknowledged that this was nothing to do with facts or evidence.  Their work on this theory is all to do with bolstering their pre-existing beliefs.  Their ideas are testable – but they’re not interested in the results.

ASIDE: I think it’s really important to talk about something that often gets forgotten in discussions of the World Trade Centre attacks.  Those buildings were designed to 1960s codes, which fall below more modern standards.  Someone else in the group noted that the buildings had failed a fire safety check in the 1990s.  And yet – despite this, those buildings remained standing for 90 minutes after a plane flew into the side of them.  The skill and ingenuity of those who designed and built those structures is recognised in the thousands of lives that WERE saved by the integrity of those structures.  Even built with technology from 50 years ago, those buildings were still tough enough to have prevented an even greater tragedy.  We should recognise their contribution and not tarnish it by asking ludicrous questions about whether it was an inside job, or if it was some conspiracy related to the Bush family or insurance fraud (no, really!) or any of the other peculiarities I’ve encountered.

ETHICAL PURCHASE DECISION

It was my lovely boy’s birthday at QED, and I demonstrated my usual organisational prowess by sneaking out to buy him a card on the day, and then leaving it on my sofa, only realising I’d forgotten it when I was halfway into town.  The card did make it’s way to him in the end (post-QED, only 5 days late or so), but there’s an even better story behind this.

The key to my man’s heart is found in riddles, puns, and crap jokes. This made the card aisle at my local Tesco a brilliant choice. I found him a hilarious card with a cheese-based pun, and knew, just knew, that this was the card for him. And as I always do, I looked in the card, and on the back, to see what pre-composed message lay inside. The manufacturer’s name caught my eye, as it sounded a bit “churchy”. If you know me, then you’ll know my thoughts on religion. So I thought “hmmm, better Google this”. Turns out the company is indeed grounded in religion. And they produce materials for use in primary schools. I think we should keep religion out of schools, except in the context of learning ABOUT religions in an analytical and historical context. I’m especially opposed to the requirement for schools to provide the forum for a daily act of worship, and so I just couldn’t support this company.

Not sure how much of a loss to them my £1.20’s worth of business was, but a clean(ish) conscience doesn’t have a price.

WOMEN ASKING QUESTIONS

I attend a lot of public talks (usually of a scientific and skeptical nature), and frequently most of the audience questions come from men.  It’s been noted that more women attend the talks in the first place over time (good), but it’s still the men that are the most vocal.  So there are two different parts to this problem:

  1. It used to be a male-dominated environment, but now it isn’t.
  2. Women still don’t ask as many questions as men, regardless of audience make-up.

So, regarding the first point, there are many reasons that the gender balance is closer to parity. Maybe it’s because there are more female speakers (solving the visibility problem), but I’d be tempted to hypothesise that it’s because there are more speakers and topics generally, thus reaching out to a wider and more varied audience. So it is an issue of accessibility, but only because the range of topics is not so narrow. Unfortunately I don’t have any data on the groups I attend, so I can’t actually test the theory. Dammit.

However, this article in The Guardian does cover this notion, that “the fault lies with past generations of [atheist] leaders who didn’t address the issues that matter most to women and minorities“.  Note that I’m not a fan of the term ‘leader’ when applied to atheist groups, as it has connotations of religious ‘leadership’, and I don’t think we should be putting rational thinkers on a pedestal.

So now that many atheists have moved with the times and looked beyond their own experience, matters that affect people who might not necessarily be like them are brought up.  And it’s a good thing.  And it’s been done silently and with relatively little fuss.  Which brings me on to the next part of the problem.

There is an argument that the newcomers to the group might still be finding their feet and less likely to speak up.  Well, ok, seems plausible.  But also there’s the issue of what has been studied, measured and reproduced in many psychology and sociology papers.  That when women speak up it’s received differently to if a man was talking.  Unfortunately it’s not just in the workplace that this happens, and if you see a pattern occurring every time you dare to open your mouth, then the safest thing might be to keep quiet.

One way is for the speaker to pick more questions from women audience members.  And I think the success of this lies in the execution.  If it’s done subtly (i.e. so that it’s not obvious what’s going on  – I didn’t say imperceptible, mind), then it can work, and builds a foundation for a more balanced mix of questioners at future events.  I attended one talk where the speaker specifically asked for questions from women because they feel women are often under-represented in this respect.  This gets a mixed reception – it just so happened that at this event it worked out well, no-one objected, and we got a good mix of questions from male and female audience members.  Maybe that would have been the case anyway, but there’s no way of knowing.  It was important in some ways that the speaker highlighted this problem because people do feel a bit uneasy about addressing feminist issues – like it’s a dirty word or it might upset the men – and we need to get over that.  However, some people complain that it seems patronising (or even a form of benevolent sexism), and that’s always a risk you run, especially to an audience containing women who already feel empowered.

I think the best way is to encourage women to speak, but in more subtle ways, and ensure that we give them the airtime without interruptions, without some oaf ignoring what they’d said and repeating the same idea and claiming it as their own; without explaining things to them that they already know.  Basically to demonstrate that it’s a respectful environment for anyone to ask questions.  And yes, I know that in the majority of cases, this is so – but it’s the exceptions that stand out in people’s minds and have a more damaging effect.

VOLUNTEERING AT QED 2015

There’s been loads of really informative and complimentary blogs about QED generally (there’s some links to them at the end of this post), but none so far (as of this moment!) about what it’s like to volunteer there.  So, let’s put that right:

I signed up months ago, and got my orders a few weeks before the event.  I’d been to QED before, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I still had to attend a briefing session where they gave us the rota and our sexy uniforms (an orange T-shirt, which went with literally nothing.  Hey, at least we were easy to spot).  I wasn’t needed until the Saturday, but for me, the fun began on Friday at Skepticamp (clicky).  I also got to stay over in the hotel on the Friday night, because Mr. Science Gentleman is one of the organisers.  This was a mixed blessing – we got to be there to support each other, but I was basically ignored for most of the time as he was too busy making sure things were going smoothly, and I was running around all over the place herding, advising and being visible.  But it was kind of nice not being in each other’s pockets; I’m independent anyway, and otherwise we would have driven each other insane / got nothing done.

Being a volunteer, you have three main duties:

  • Get people in and out of the rooms where the talks are
  • Direct people to where they need to be, and help with queries and other needs
  • Look after the bookstall

As well as that, you have to be nice and approachable, but I’m sure you know what a great reputation we skeptics have so that’s definitely not a problem.

Each volunteer was given a specific set of times to be in certain places, and there seemed to be a slight surplus of people in orange shirts, so there was more than adequate cover – which was great.  The bookstall got a bit crowded at times, but you can’t flog too many books, right?

One of the super-fun things about the weekend was finding and remembering all the different routes between places in the hotel.  This is important because the “accessible route” took you through numerous winding corridors and ran between three floors (I’m pretty sure someone is having a laugh here).  The hotel is a beautiful, old, rambling building, and as such it has more mezzanines, galleries, half-levels, secret passages, and doors to Narnia than more modern structures.  I found at least seven different routes back to my room and I still can’t remember where it was.  Fortunately someone put together a handy map of the hotel:

Enter, Stranger!
Artwork courtesy of @PencilBloke.

Attendees were used to seeing crew and volunteers popping in and out of the halls, so it was fairly easy to catch most of a talk and then discreetly make it to my place of duty.  The only time I’d miss a whole talk is if I was assigned bookstore duty for an hour. This was great as I got to see pretty much everything I wanted to (barring clashes in the schedule – choices, choices) and still make myself useful.

Being a volunteer this time, I felt more a part of it than I did at my first QEDcon, and having to be disciplined (no oversleeping, no drinking so much that I’d get a crippling hangover), probably did me some good (yaaaaawn).

I also got to see a load of people I’d not seen in person for over a year, which was wonderful.  Sure, this would have happened whether I was volunteering or not, but it’s still worth mentioning how important this event is for bringing like-minded people together and creating a sense of companionship (I’m not a fan of the word community, I feel it gets overused.  Plus, I don’t need to belong to a “community” – but I acknowledge that some people do).  I do speak with many of them online throughout the year, but it’s always cool to meet up with them face-to-face, and feel like we’ve only been apart for a matter of days or weeks.

I spent much of my spare time at the bar or enjoying posh dinners in Manchester’s finest establishments (nothing to do with being a volunteer; it’s just what I did), and this year I spent a lot of time conversing with the speakers.  I’m going to be honest here, last year I was a bit of a shrinking violet and felt overwhelmed in the presence of greatness.  Well, none of that crap this time.  I was talking with anyone and everyone, and that is the coolest thing for me.  Between lectures, or at the end of the day, just chatting about intellectual matters (and a ton of totally non-smart stuff, let’s not big ourselves up too much here) with similar people is so rewarding, and the reason I started going to skeptics events in the first place.

Loads of other people have written about QED, and on the talks and other activities, so I won’t add much more.  But there are some really excellent accounts here, so you should check out these great blogs, and read some of their other posts too.  There are people who have far more time to devote to this than I do, and as a result they write some incredibly interesting and well-constructed stuff.  I recommend:

QEDcon 2015 | Purely a figment of your imagination

I Am A QEDcon Fan, Here’s Why | Hayley M. Stevens

QED Con, Trigger Warnings, Dillahunting and an Ockham Award) | Godless Spellchecker’s Blog

QED 2015 Roundup | Sunny Spells

QEDcon happens next in October 2016 – if this post and the above blogs haven’t convinced you, you still have 18 months to do your homework (may I suggest some regular SitP followed by a course of Be Reasonable).

SKEPTICAMP 2015

The Friday before QED is a free day, in which the Skepticamp event is run.  This is a full day of short talks by skeptical activists to showcase their project or speak on a subject that they are passionate about.

I’m involved in running the PubhD project in Manchester, and I’m keen to find opportunities to speak in public as it’s something that’s necessary for my career development.  I also want to be more active generally within the skeptical community, and I want to build my talk portfolio (is that a thing?) so that I’ll get better at it / be less terrified, and so that people will take me seriously as a presenter.  It’s also something that I can put on my academic CV.  So I signed up for Skepticamp and I took part in the event yesterday.

Here's me talking before I completely dispensed with the notes. Picture taken by @Your_FunnyUncle
Here’s me talking before I completely dispensed with the notes. Picture taken by @Your_FunnyUncle

There were 17 available speaking slots, and I was number 8, which was the one just before lunch.  So I was able to see how other people did and get myself psyched up for my own talk.  The talks were each 10 minutes long with 5 minutes afterwards for Q&A.  Each presentation was to use the Ignite format, which uses a slide change every 20 seconds, so the talks must be written to match the timings of the slide.  This got a mixed reaction from the speakers and audience, summarised as follows:

Pros:

  • It keeps the presentation to time.  You can’t waffle on for hours if the slides are running away from you.
  • There was consistency in the format of the presentations, even though they were all completely different talks presented in different styles.
  • As a speaker, it gives you a good structure for your talk and pushes you to speak about the thing on the slide -because it will move on to the next thing!
  • Even if you’ve rehearsed and made notes, the format will push you to speak more naturally.  What if your carefully crafted speech doesn’t line up with the slide change on the day?  You’d better come up with something to say quickly!

Cons:

  • The slide changeover was actually a bit clunky for some speakers.  This detracted from otherwise excellent talks because the transition wasn’t perfectly polished (yes, mine was one of these).
  • One piece of advice I’ve been given about presentations is that if you’re panicking / forget what to say / otherwise inept, you should take a few seconds to pause and regain composure.  This also allows the audience time to digest what you’re saying.  But there is absolutely no room for this with the Ignite format.
  • I would have like to have control over the slide transition myself.  If I’d been given 10 minutes to speak, formatted how I like, I’d have produced slides of varying length and might have even brought some props.  It would have been a completely different talk, but hey, maybe that’s not what the Ignite format is about.

I spent about a week preparing for the talk.  I knew what I wanted to say, and it was easy to create slides to fit with this message.  I was really keen to avoid Death By PowerPoint, so I summarised briefly on each slide and prepared a more detailed and related thing to say while the slide was on.  I was extremely careful to not just read off the slides.  I’m not a pro yet, but I do have standards.

On the day, I did have notes with me, but I ended up not using them.  I’d practised lots, and these were more of a comfort blanket than a necessity.  Anyway, I put the notes down about halfway through and just carried on talking.  I wasn’t paying attention to them anyway.

Before my talk, I spoke with the crew and received some sage advice from @InKredulousi with apologies to Kenny Rogers: You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table.  i.e. get up there, say what you’ve got to say, and then sh!t yourself afterwards (yes, he actually said that too – not Kenny Rogers, the other guy).

So there were no involuntary bowel movements, but I was pretty scared.  Mr. Science Gentleman had told me to expect 20 – 30 attendees.  I turned up and there were over 200 people in the audience (thanks, babe).  But I sort of fed off of it.  I had to do this thing, I knew it’d all be over in 15 minutes, and this was an opportunity to shine, not shy away.  I loved the feeling of having all those people listening to what I had to say, and it was great to get a laugh out of them as well.  It made me want to do more talks, and I’ve already got a couple of ideas lined up.

But in terms of getting my message out there, it went well too.  Lots of people came up to me not just to congratulate me on a good talk, but to ask more questions about PubhD and how they can get involved.  Being able to present to an interested audience is a wonderful opportunity to further your aims, and to meet people doing similar things.  I also got to hear 16 other talks on skeptical & science topics.  There’s a summary at www.skeptical-science.com, and here, below, with a few of my thoughts on some of them:

Emma McClure Peter Popoff – My Persistent Penpal (this was about a sort of mail order televangelism, with examples of “literature” that were both shocking and intriguing)
Michael Hales Don’t put your daughter into STEM, Mrs. Worthington (I’ll be writing a separate post on this topic – the speaker made some interesting observations on current recruitment drives in the sciences)
Michelle Ashworth The Birth of the New Horsemen (an online community for education and fostering understanding of skepticism & science)
Andras G. Pinter The Authority Problem (relating to reliable sources of information, and how skeptics can get involved)
Jessica Rose Cognitive Biases and Competence (this covered the problems of Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect: two sides of the same coin)
Pontius Bockman The Swedish Skeptical Movement (how they do things in Sweden – the skeptical movement is smaller in Sweden but they do some very cool things like going to schools to give workshops on critical thinking)
David Gamble Why do humans ignore facts and embrace myths as truth?
Kat Gray PubhD (about setting up and growing a pub-based presentation series for postgraduate researchers of all disciplines)
Ben Makin Not just Tommies in France – Indians on the Western Front
Brad Levin Skeptival – the camping festival for the skeptic community
Tom Williamson Skeptic’s Guide to Vexillology
Diana Barbosa COMCEPT – a skeptical adventure in Portugal
Heather Pentler How alt med tried to kill me (the adventures of a chronically ill person in the peculiar world of alternative medicine)
Diane Waugh The Fringe of Reason – Edinburgh Skeptics at the Edinburgh PBH Free Fringe
Myles Power AIDS Denialism………yep that’s a thing (Myles produces YouTube videos on many topics, and this is one of them – view his channel here)
Paul Fitzgerald Cartoons as a weapon (Paul spoke about the power of controversial cartoons; he also has a new book out soon)
Jon Stewart Inside AA: Can God Cure Alcoholism? (a view of the 12-step program from someone who’s been through it)

That was a whole day of wonderful and enlightening talks, and for free! The next day, QED began properly, and I’ll be blogging about that in a new post.

OMG

When I was living with my parents, saying things like “oh my god!” or “Jesus Christ!” were forbidden, because it was blasphemous. My parents had a bit of a thing (i.e. a major neurosis) about swearing generally, but Taking The Lord’s Name In Vain was a biggie of theirs. In some ways, it gave lesser swears more impact (huge thanks to my friend Tim for introducing me to the concept of Grade 1 and Grade 2 swears. Grade 3 are reserved for exceptional circumstances). It did, however, add to my weighty list of religion-based insecurities (body-shaming, friend-shaming, homophobia, to name just a few popular choices).

And then, as an atheist adult, I sort of have the opposite thing, weirdly. I say “oh my god!”, “Jesus Christ!”, “Holy Sh!t!” and so many more beautifully expressive expletives All The Time. It feels strange because saying “oh my god”, when there isn’t one, just seems counter-intuitive.

I think it’s a hangover from my youth, in that these innocuous words still hold such power due to the meaning projected on to them by my parents, teachers and people from the church. But then I also feel silly using a concept that has no meaning for me to express pain and indignation.

Maybe I need to get more creative with my use of language (that was another favourite of my teachers, that if you swore you were ignorant and unimaginative for not being able to use a non-sweary word instead). Or maybe I should just Let Swears Be Swears.

OMG!!
Blaspheme to your heart’s content with these OMG!! products from my CafePress store.