A look back at QED: a science and skepticism conference

First things first: QED was great fun, entertaining and fascinating. It was a great event and the organisers deserve a big pat on the back. I would definitely try to go if it’s on again next year.

However, as a relatively new follower of the Skeptic movement – I always held back because the way “sceptic” is used in relation to climate change – I thought it might be worth noting down a few of my impressions from the conference.

A bit more context…

I realise it was relatively short event but I felt that a trick was missed by not having a longer introduction about what Skepticism is, what it’s for and what its big challenges are. These issues sort of came up at various points during the event but it might’ve been nice to have a reference point for everything that followed.

A little bit too ghosty…

Of the 12 1 hour sessions in the main hall, 2 were about ghosts (maybe 2.25 if you count the bits in Bruce Hood’s talk). I guess ghosts are quite fun and there are some serious issues related to them (e.g. exploitation of vulnerable people) but it felt like a bit too much. Surely there are other issues we should be thinking about?

A couple of odd quotes…

…and, oddly enough, both from Eugenie Scott. These were just a couple of things that were tweeted quite a bit by attendees and made me think. First up:

“Science is organised common sense”

I think I understand the point Eugenie was trying to make here – that science isn’t some distant, abstract thing that non-scientist can’t get to grips with – but this description just didn’t work for me. How does this describe quantum mechanics, Avogadro’s law or even evolution? It just makes science sound so… boring. Science is usually beautiful and unexpected – nothing even close to common sense.

“Evolution is the history of the Universe”

So this was a phrase that Eugenie re-used from a talk that she had previously given where she had to sum up her discipline in 7 words. Assuming that she was talking about evolutionary biology, then at face value this description massively overstates the scope of that field. I’m sure physics and chemistry play some role in the universe too! If inspiration was the order of the day, then surely being the “…history of life” is pretty important too. I’m probably being far too literal but I was really surprised at how well it was received by the audience, which is more the reason that I thought I should make this point than criticising Eugenie.

Numpties…

Simon Singh tried to tackle what I would consider one of the big issues facing Skepticism – that the word “skeptic” is beginning to be understood more widely as “contrarian” rather than someone who simply ask questions. In climate circles, some people use “denier”, “septic” or worse to refer to those who do not accept the IPCC-based consensus on climate change but I’m not that keen on being offensive. All the same, it’s often useful to have term to refer to that community. I’m not sure I agree with Simon that numpty should be that term but at least it got raised!

Again, just to sum up, I thought the event was brilliant. Simon Singh and Jim Al-Khalili gave brilliant physics talks. Helen Keen was wonderful and Jon Ronson and Chris Atkins gave insights into worlds that I knew little about.

Just thought I’d make a few points.

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15 Responses to “A look back at QED: a science and skepticism conference”

  1. Tim McGregor Says:

    totally with you on the “organised common-sense” line, although as a massive fan of Eugenie it pains me to say it. As Einstein said “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” If it were common, more people would be scientifically literate.

  2. SkepticCanary Says:

    A good summing up. I think it was a ‘preaching to the choir’ type of event, so not sure if a definition of sckepticism was really needed.

    I agree with the excess ghostiness though. Although people do get exploited, it’s hardly in league with antivaxxers, alt meds or climate change denialists. Hayley Stephens wasn’t too impressed with my summing up of “ghosts don’t exist, move on”!

    Also, I think ‘common sense’ has a slightly different interpretation here than in the states. I remember DJ Grothe saying that skepticism was ‘common sense’ at TAM last year, which wasn’t too impressive. It might be because they didn’t live through William Hague’s proposed ‘common sense revolution’.

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  4. Daniel Pope Says:

    I would have found it a bit more boring and a lot more depressing if the speakers covered only quackery and denialism. Ghosts are a lighthearted topic that gets to the heart of skepticism, and I am fascinated that people really believe it, and by the lore that they weave out of pure anecdote.

    For me there was a bit too much psychology. There were what, three talks on psychology/neurology just on Saturday? They were all very different angles but there was an overlap and I have heard a lot of it before.

    I agree largely about Genie Scott’s comments but I interpreted the “Science is organised common sense” as referring to scientific methods rather than theories.

    • andyrussell Says:

      I wondered if she meant something like “the scientific method is just organising (controlled?) observations” but it seemed like a bit too distant from the actual quote.

  5. environmentaleducationuk Says:

    Interesting how the ‘skeptical’ means or implies different things eg. one could be thinking deeply and be skeptical …. !? Love your quotes – “Evolution is the history of the Universe” and “Science is organised common sense”… how true! You are welcome to check out my own blog on the environment – at
    http://environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com/.
    Regards, Henricus Peters (twitter/LearnFromNature)

  6. PaulJ Says:

    A “skeptic” conference is always going to have a slant. It depends on which speakers are available, for one thing. I was happy with the preponderance of ghosts, just as I was happy with the pronounced godlessness of TAM London 2010.

    I agree that some if those definitions (evolution, science) seem a bit strange.

  7. Steve L Says:

    Not sure I can agree that science is beautiful and unexpected. Beautiful yes, but unexpected? Predictions are made and then shown to be true (or otherwise) often years or even decades later. If science were unexpected then space travel nuclear power and medicine would not be possible.
    Also, I took Eugenie’s quote regarding evolution to refer to how everything evolved, from the moment of the big bang right up to now. This is what made it a lovely, lovely quote for me and to limit its scope is to miss the point, I feel.

    • andyrussell Says:

      My point was that common sense would never deliver theories like wave-particle duality or the placebo effect. In that sense, they’re unexpected relative to how we perceive things. But I agree, once a theory is well established then the process of testing and using it becomes a lot more workmanlike. Maybe you could argue that it becomes enginnering at that stage? But before that, there are many big discoveries that happened by accident, like CMB, Michelson-Morley, the ozone “hole” or Viagra (which I think was being trialed as an angina drug before all the participants reported the same side effect!) I’m sure that there are more.

  8. Sinead Says:

    The classical sciences would have been based on common sense. Sitting around thinking, comparing with reality.

    Modern science is not based on common sense. A lot of it is far from common sense. =/
    http://quantummechanics.ucsd.edu/ph130a/130_notes/img1215.png < would you expect particles to be scattered when following the green line?

    • andyrussell Says:

      Doesn’t common sense tell you that the Earth is flat? Once you’ve worked out it’s a sphere, is the next assumption is that things revolve around it? I guess it depends how you define common sense!

      I think even classical science requires an objectivity that “common sense” interferes with. I am out of my depth here though – I’m no science historian.

  9. Sinead Says:

    No, I don’t think common sense would lead you to believe the Earth was flat. Why would we have an horizon? > the 4th century BC the Greeks had figured the Earth was a sphere.
    I think objectivity is only important when you have to defend already set prejudges.

    (Whispers: things do revolve around the Earth) [oops, I meant “all things” – AR]

    If you want to believe the Earth is the centre of the Universe, it’ll take more to convince you than me simply explaining how one model makes more sense than another.
    That’s a fault of faith, fear etc, not a lacking in common sense.

  10. Steve L Says:

    I think there is a danger of moving too far away from Eugenie’s original quote. Clearly science does not simply equal common sense, otherwise it would not need to be studied and investigated, just thought about for a bit. “Organised common sense”, to me, is finding the logic to the world and working out the rules, with scientific laws then becoming accepted and built upon. I believe that this is what was meant by organised.

    • andyrussell Says:

      Ok, maybe I understand.

      So the first step would be to do something, maybe take a temperature in one place. It’s cold. You knew it was cold anyway. Common sense.

      Then you’d collect more temperature readings for that same time all over the planet. Organise them. You might find that, overall, Earth is warmish. Common sense might not have told you that but by organising all the different bits of “common sense” you get some “science”. (And then you’d have to think of a hypothesis that describes that pattern and then test it but I’m not sure that fits the analogy.)

      Hmm, maybe it works for the scientific method (which I think I might’ve said in another comment) but I’m still not sure I like it as a description of science.

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