In the past, I have questioned whether I belong to the skeptic movement or skeptic community. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure what they actually are, but after spending four days in Manchester at the 6th QEDcon I am certain that I am part of the skeptic movement and a member of the community, too. There seemed to be a theme in the discussions on and off stage throughout the weekend: the governments of the world are making decisions that see irrationality thrive, and education and taking an evidence-based approach to life is dismissed as elitist. This answered a question that many talks and discussions touched upon: are we wasting our time with skeptic outreach and activism?
Well, there are many examples of why we are not and they were highlighted throughout the weekend, but a number of talks in particular really hit a nerve for me and I’m going to focus on those in this examination.
Sunday at QEDcon closed with Meirion Jones (pictured) who took us through the timeline of the investigation into the ADE651 – a bomb detector that it was revealed didn’t detect bombs. It was essentially a dowsing device built to look as though it had functions that it simply didn’t have.
Jones had two of these devices with him – one priced at $10,000 and the other at $40,000. We audience members got to each hold one of these as they were passed back through the room and, frankly, the ADE651 that I held wasn’t that much more sophisticated than my £3 dowsing rods.
Holding the device filled me with a sense of horror. Hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of people died as these devices were used to secure checkpoints into and out of conflict zones. Bombs were allowed through as a result and people died so that others could profit from the purchase contracts.
That’s why we bother with skepticism. Not because we personally stop hoax bomb detectors, but because unchallenged nonsense kills people. The idea that asking for evidence is elitist kills people. It is dangerous and deadly and it rips people off. It gives people false hope and it lies.
There were two talks in particular that were rather moving – those delivered by Petra Boynton and Paul Zenon. I think this is because in this past year I’ve left behind a career in arts marketing so that I can study for a degree which will allow me to (hopefully) then train to become a grief counsellor. You see, over a decade of paranormal research has taught me two important lessons (among others):
- humans are strange creatures
- grief can make you vulnerable to harm
I’ve made the switch to part-time work and living at home for the foreseeable future to make this happen and I’ve had doubts that I’ve done the right thing. Massive doubts.
Then Dr Petra Boynton took to the stage at QEDcon and introduced us to the complexities of the world of advice columns and the role they continue to play. She told us that more people turn to advice columns because of an 18-month wait for counselling on the NHS and because they have nowhere else to go, and what this can mean for those in need.
Paul Zenon spoke to us about psychics and the techniques often employed by stage performers. I know this information already (I’ve even played stooge for a skeptic educational psychic show) but I feel it’s important to remind ourselves that this knowledge is still ignored by the hoards of people who pay upwards of £25 to see touring artists claiming to have paranormal abilities. There was no mistaking the passion with which Paul spoke as he shared his observations from countless performances by such people which brought home the relevance of skeptic outreach in this area.
The opening presentation by Alan Melikdjanian on behalf of Captain Disillusion was spectacular and gave many tips on how to produce good quality outreach media. He also explained how our first impressions of how a video was created can be wrong and that gut instinct isn’t always correct. A little later in the weekend Cara Santa Maria gave an absolutely kick-ass talk on her experiences working as a science communicator through various forms of media and the successes and challenges she has faced doing so.
I came away from QEDcon with all of this (and more) in my head feeling re-energised, motivated, and inspired. On the train home, I filled a notebook with ideas and thoughts and I hope to put these into practice in the future. If you’re particularly interested in activism related to psychic fraud and you have a couple of hours spare over the next few months please get in touch.
Prior to QEDcon 2016, there were some suggesting the event was an exercise in back-patting. Although there is an element of celebration of successes and achievements during the weekend QEDcon is a vital event in the skeptic community. It’s educational, self-reflective, fun, and important. The team from the Greater Manchester and Merseyside Skeptics should be very proud.
I’m thankful to meet with like-minded people from across the globe each year and cannot put into words what it means to have the opportunity to participate in panels with people I’ve long admired such as Prof. Chris French, Joe Nickell, Deborah Hyde, Prof. Caroline Watt, Prof. Richard Wiseman, and Prof. Sue Blackmore to name just a few. I know that I have developed personally as a direct result of attending these yearly conferences and that’s invaluable.
I haven’t even touched upon half of what happened and neither shall I, but I’ll end with a warning:
Skeptics from across the world were in Manchester this weekend organising, communicating, networking and encouraging one another. If you profit from selling snake oil or nonsense to people you can be sure they’re coming for you.
Featured image: Rob McDermott