I feel as though QEDcon and the organisation team behind it does not get enough credit. Sure, they won an award last year for their brilliance, sure there are thousands of adoring tweets and Facebook messages telling them how amazing they and their events are, sure they sell every ticket and pack out the large venue in Manchester, sure over 500 people applaud for them as hard as they can without breaking their fingers, sure people get emotional when they have to leave – as though they’re leaving behind someone that they love dearly, sure people have- in just five years- become fiercely loyal to QEDcon despite not being personally involved or invested, and sure people who leave the 2015 conference have already planned their trip to the 2016 conference, and most of the people who attended the 2015 conference bought their tickets as soon as they went on sale in 2014… but I feel as though QEDcon does not get enough credit.
There is nothing like it and it’s created entirely by a small group of unpaid volunteers who live in the Liverpool and Manchester area in the time around their actual careers and families. It is created entirely by a small group of unpaid volunteers in the time around their actual careers and families! Let that sink in for a moment.
Skeptics like us are often told that we’re guilty of creating an echo-chamber and people looking in at QEDcon from outside might scoff and think that this is exactly what happens. A bunch of people who don’t believe in x, y and z talking about how x, y and z are nonsense and confirming their own biases about how smart they are… but that’s not the reality. It seemed, to me anyway, that throughout the weekend of QEDcon 2015 we were all examining ourselves, our places in the world around us and the cause and effect that our skepticism and our skeptic activism has. And not just the good effects either. My personal highlights of the weekend (other than being on a panel about skepticism, pseudo-science and youtube) included the panel discussion about freedom of speech and offence and the consequences many face for voicing unpopular opinions – from being harassed, no-platformed and censored to being imprisoned or murdered.
Another panel discussed alternative medicine and how people offer it as a cure or treatment for cancer and I sat in the audience and felt so angry to hear some of the claims of this nature that people make. I’ve encountered other claims of this nature and done my best to bring them to the attention of the right authorities and I left that panel discussion certain that I would continue to do so with the new information the panellists had provided us. I also really enjoyed the discussion between Deborah Hyde, Chris French, Martin Poulter, Victoria Stiles and Rosie Waterhouse about groupthink, cults and satanic panics and witch-trials, and I think that Stiles would make an incredible main stage speaker at some point.
Matt Dillahunty closed the Saturday afternoon sessions with a thoughtful and honest talk about communicating non-belief, and I felt proud to part of the the UK skeptic scene when Michael Marshall spoke, on Sunday, about the work that the Good Thinking Society are doing around the obscene amounts of public funding that homeopathic “medicine” receives on the National Health Service (and I was quick to dig into my purse and donate towards their cause here.)
I really enjoyed the Saturday evening entertainment too. Jay Foreman made me cry with laughter, as did Mitch Benn (even though he didn’t perform Quantum Mechanics as I’d hoped) and after seeing Kate Smurthwaite perform comedy I am now a huge fan. I was also shocked to be awarded the Blog award in The Ockham’s Award ceremony by The Skeptic Magazine as I was certain that Johnny Scaramanga would win it for the second year in a row. My(!) Ockham was awarded to me by Professor Bruce Hood but I only know this because my brother told me as I don’t have any memory of being on stage at all which is really, really weird. Thank you to all of those of you who nominated me, and those who came to speak to me on Saturday evening about my blog!
…and it filled me with joy when The Skeptic Magazine awarded Mark Tilbrook with the Editors Choice award because of the abuse he had received from relatives of so-called psychic Sally Morgan while handing out educational leaflets outside of some of her performances. You can watch some of the abuse in a video here but be warned that it contains homophobic and racist language and is quite unsettling to watch. This was a strong show of solidarity and I joined the standing ovation as Tilbrook took to the stage…
…which brings me nicely to my next point.
The QEDcon organisers don’t just create an incredible, entertaining, challenging, educational and fun event, they create an event that is all of those things for all people. The accessibility of the event spaces for those with disabilities is top notch and it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside when I read that if you had mobility issues a volunteer would get you a drink and bring it to you in the event space to ensure you didn’t have to make the decision to either miss out on a drink when you’re thirsty or miss the beginning of the talk (something that able-bodied me had never considered might be an issue), and the blue chairs at the front of each space and the induction loop system were such a simple solution to a tricky problem that many face.
And at QEDcon the hot topic of harassment is dealt with frankly and openly. In the opening speech MC Mitch Benn made it clear that If you feel unsafe- if you experience “…icky stuff – you know what we’re talking about” you come and tell these people (photos, names and phone numbers were provided in the event guide) and they will sort it out for you confidentially. There was no skirting around the subject and by being open about this QEDcon didn’t present itself as a conference that has a problem with harassment (which it does not), it didn’t make people feel unsafe as many claim introducing harassment policies at events would… it left people reassured that everyone was welcome and safe at the event.
It was no surprise then that the harassing voices were in the very small minority throughout the weekend, and as much as I’d like to make no mention of them I feel that we’ve got the be realistic.
I’ve been a skeptic blogger, podcaster, speaker and activist in one way or another since 2007 and I have experienced both the good side and bad side of the community. In fact, the harassment I have received from some people led me to conclude that I don’t really identify with the wider skeptic community at all despite still existing within it whether I like it or not. So it was no surprise to me to see certain individuals present at the event making snide comments on the Twitter hashtag during the set by Kate Smurthwaite. There was a comment made along the lines of ‘are we allowed to be skeptical of feminism?’ from a man who, in the past, has been pretty nasty to women feminists and skeptics who speak out about harassment they experience. This individual, who I will not name, has even gone as far as to gaslight me when I spoke out about online harassment I have personally dealt with in the past.
The answer to the question posed is: yes you can be skeptical of feminism and claims feminists make until the evidence presents itself which is when you then accept it or become closed minded. If you had paid attention in any of the talks or panels this weekend you would know this, but treating claims about the systematic oppression of women as equal to claims about alien visitation is pretty incredible.
But Instead of engaging with this person, (which I decided a long time ago not to ever do) I instead made a comment on my Facebook page about how a man was sulking on Twitter about the feminist comic, and his friend not winning the blog award (as he felt they wrote about actual important things, unlike me I guess.) It was a throwaway comment about something I had seen that amused me because of the previous behaviour I have seen from this guy. Others had seen it too and were equally amused, and yet somehow this comment of mine has been used to create a mountain out of a molehill and this man is now victim playing.
This annoyed me at first but then it made me realise something quite incredible. The man who criticises women skeptics and feminists for “playing the victim card” was now playing the victim which was quite ironic. I’m not a fan of the Blockbot and I think that people have a right to criticise others and say what they like, but that only works if everyone has that right which means that you can criticise other people but they can criticise you right back.
But not only that, I realised too that these negative voices are now in a small minority because the skeptic community in the UK has grown up and this is, I believe, a direct result of the open discussions and talks at QEDcon that make us reflect on ourselves, our behaviour, our community and how we interact with not only each other but those that we come into contact with that we disagree with and that’s why I am a QEDcon fan.
I’m not sad that QEDcon is over for this year but instead I am excited about what the next 18 months will bring through skeptic activism in the UK and from around the world. I will end this post with a quote from Matt Dillahunty that I think sums up a theme present through QEDcon 2015 that we all need to be mindful of.
“I don’t do work I do because I’m a skeptic or atheist but because I’m a humanist: I care about the world we’re creating” – Matt Dillahunty