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.

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