There is a lot to be said for people who will pay to visit the beautiful city of Zurich and spend most of their time sitting in a darkened hall geeking out on science – however one word would be sufficient to sum them up, and that word is diverse.
It took me a while to think of that word; a word that would do the last four days justice, as what I experienced at Denkfest in Zurich was beyond anything I’ve really experienced before. I could have said awesome, fun, interesting, friendly… but ‘diverse’ works. Perhaps, before I continue I should start at the beginning so that you can understand. I write words inspired by the world around me. I write them on this blog and I also speak them on the podcast I co-host. When it comes to the promotion of critical thinking, science, education and skepticism I consider myself very low down on the impact scale.
Yet, somehow the organisers of the conference (who deserve a huge pat on the back) felt that the words I write and speak meant I was worthy of being on the science/skepticism blogging panel that opened Denkfest on Thursday evening. When I was asked to, I was a bit confused but Andreas Kyriacou convinced me they had invited me on purpose and so I went.
Then, on the days that followed the blogging panel I sat and listened to some of the most inspirational people I have ever had the pleasure to be in the same room with – let alone on the same speakers bill as.
I didn’t take notes during the talks as I saw many other people were doing so (I will link to any summaries of the conference I find here on my blog). However, the talks that stood out the most for me were those by Max Coltheart (whose discussion of delusions had my chin practically on the floor), Kathryn Schulz (whose talk about being wrong made me feel less stupid and more normal), Michael Schmidt-Salomon, Samantha Stein and Lawrence Krauss (who blew my mind, as well as everybody else’s, with his easy-to-follow-yet-not-dumbed-down talk on the universe.)
There were also other memorable talks, like the one on Chi (by Holm Gero Hummler) and Brain Gym (Barbro Walker) that were insightful and interesting. Not to mention the fact that Luigi Garlaschelli and his unveiling of his Turin Shroud was a great start to Saturday (especially when followed by Sanal Edamaruku whose work I’m sure we all know of – but if not, watch here).
Actually, I could just list all the speakers whose talks on various topics made the conference what it was. Sure, there were talks I couldn’t follow that well like Ueli Straumann’s talk about the LHC, and Melody Swartz’s talk about immunobioengineering – both of which made me a bit crossed eyed with all the technical terms. However, there is nothing wrong with a bit of heavy online pharmacy no prescriptions science, and I know there were those who understood those talks, and making such science accessible to the audience was important.
As a speaker I stayed in one of the two hotels reserved for speakers (there were over 40 of us…) and there was a tram ride to and from the hotel. The hotel was situated in the old city and right on one of the main streets that was always bustling with tourists and locals checking out the variety of shops, restaurants and bars which really brought to life the social aspect of the conference.
The Gala dinner also rocked, especially Science Slam (which is basically science communication in the form of a poetry slam, without poetry) that was hosted by Julia Offe; four researchers took to the stage to do a ten minute presentation each, to convince us that their research was the most interesting. Each table then had to rate them to see who scored highest.
Although two spoke German it was still enjoyable. Good food, good wine, good company and science. It was the best Saturday I’ve had in a long time.
I have returned from Zurich with friendships I didn’t have when I left for Zurich. The social aspect of the conference was really wonderful. It was great to see all of the speakers (from amateur bloggers all the way up to arse-kicking science communicators and scientists) rubbing shoulders with everyone and each other.
It’s not every day you can say “I was discussing astrology over breakfast with Eugenie Scott, Chris French and Rose Shapiro”, whilst also being as equally excited about the fact that you met two Romanian skeptics who host a podcast and do admirable work in their country for rational thinking and deserve applause for it.
The important lesson I took from Denkfest is this – we are human and it is okay to make mistakes. Eugenie Scott told us ‘being wrong does not mean you are unscientific’, telling people they’re delusional might make them hostile and (with my fellow panelists) we agreed that it’s important to make correct information available even if not everyone agrees with it. I realised from numerous talks that there are things that even the most intelligent people do not know – and that’s okay. Progress is always being made in the way we (the human race) learn about the world and universe around us.
I also realised that skepticism has never looked so diverse.
I was very proud to be a part of Denkfest and if there should be another then I will happily be purchasing a ticket. See you there!
p.s. thanks to all of those I met at Denkfest for being so lovely and nice. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I’m sorry if my German was terrible.