People who follow my personal blog would know, the QED conference, held annually in Manchester, England is my favorite skeptical event in any given year. In April, we returned to the UK to attend QED for the third year in a row and, as with the previous two years, we enjoyed it immensely.
Both for professional purposes and for enjoyment, I attend about a half dozen conferences in any given year. Including events related specifically to disability and technology, QED stands alone at the top of the accessibility mountain. Fundamentally, QED is the most accessible event I will attend this year so, if, due to disability, you’ve been made uncomfortable or or felt unwelcome at an event as my friend Mia and I did at an event I wrote about here, I can promise you that attending QED will be a profoundly more enjoyable experience.
I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank Mike Hall for the amazing accessibility at QED. You may know Mike from the excellent “Skeptics With A K” (SWAK) podcast or his activism in the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) but, in my mind, Mike is a nearly anonymous hero of my personal accessibility experience. Prior to attending QED 2013, I sent the MSS guys an email asking if they could ensure that the conference handouts, those which most attendees read in print, be done in a fashion that the PDF files and HTML also follow proper accessibility standards. I send an email like this one to the organizers of virtually every conference I attend and, typically, I receive a “thank you for your note but, regarding accessibility, you can forget about it” note in return; Mike Hall, a rare exception, wrote to me asking for pointers to the standards and guidelines published online and made everything associated with QED and MSS perfectly accessible. For a gauge of how impressive this feat is, the MSS and QED information is more accessible than that of the guide dog school I attended last autumn. At a guide dog school, 100% of the customers are blind people; at QED, for three consecutive years, there was exactly 1 blind person (me) in attendance so, all of the effort Mike put in, was to make a single individual feel welcome. So, here’s a huge Skeptability shout of gratitude to Mike for his dedication to being inclusive.
The QED Culture
While each year the QED list of individuals speaking at the conference or sitting on panels is always impressive (see below for my favorites from this year), it’s the QED “culture” (for lack of a better word) that I find most impressive. Largely personalized by Michael Marshall and his “being reasonable” philosophy, QED, without pulling a punch, is a very friendly and welcoming environment. We all have our pet issues and definitely do not all agree on everything but, rather than arguments and bitterness, QED conversations tend more in the direction of learning how one came to hold different beliefs and why they continue to believe such things. The time one might spend at the bar or hanging out informally around QED is time that I can promise you will meet terrific people and make new friends.
Demonstrating the “being reasonable” approach most obviously this year was Andy Wilson, host of the tremendously entertaining “Inkredulous podcast. The event was in April in northern England and, on one of the days, it got pretty cold and started to rain. As QED is identified as an atheist event and most attendees self-identify as such, fundamentalist Christian protestors are always present outside the conference hotel. This year, Andy and some others, when it got cold and wet, invited the protestors out for tea and allowed them to place their creationist literature on the table beside all of the pamphlets advertising things more likely to be a hit with this audience. Inviting the protestors inside is about as loud a statement one can make about being dedicated to the marketplace of ideas.
I’m not a terribly outgoing individual most of the time and I’ve few friends. I find it difficult to get to know new people and, even more so, to allow others to get to know me. At QED, however, I feel as if among my own tribe and new friendships have been coming into my life far more frequently than ever before in my adult life. I won’t list names here as you people know who you are and you all make my life more rich and rewarding even though we only see each other in person for one weekend per year.
The QED Speakers
It’s nearly impossible for me to pick favorite speakers after each QED I attend. in 2013, I might say it was Lawrence Krauss but only because I’m forcing myself to select a favorite. Using the same criteria, Nate Phelps was my top pick for QED 2014. Having attended three QED, I’ve now spent a collective 40 hours or so in the audience at lectures and panels and can honestly say that only one of the presentations in all of them left me feeling as though I wish I had not attended. As I wasn’t especially impressed with my own panel at a conference where I presented during March in San Diego, my standards are pretty high and QED manages to exceed such on an annual basis.
The following were my favorites this year. Once again, it’s hard to decide which to include as so many were so terrific.
Jennifer Michael Hecht
If forced to pick a favorite hour from QED 2015, I will say that the presentation given by Jennifer Michael Hecht was my favorite. If you don’t know of Jennifer or her work, I can highly recommend two of her books, the first of which is “Doubt: A History,” an excellent philosophical history of atheism.
It was, however, her discussion of her most recent book, “Stay,” a history of suicide and the arguments against such that completely blew me out of my chair. In addition to being blind, I struggle with some mental health issues and suicidal ideation has been a frequent companion of mine. After returning from the UK, I read the audio version of the book (it’s read by Hecht herself and she does a great job of narration) and it literally changed the way I think about myself and the nature of suicide. “Stay” gave me a new voice in the constant debate going on in my mind, a voice that debates and defeats the suicidal thoughts more rapidly and effectively than any therapy or medication has ever been able to do. Hecht’s book may have been the reason I will choose to remain at some point in the future.
After QED had ended, I ran into a friend we made at our first one in 2013. This fellow, a former professional rugby player is, beyond doubt, a tough guy. He told me that, like me, he found himself choking up and approaching tears a few times during Jennifer’s amazing talk.
If you haven’t read her work, do so; if you get the opportunity to hear her talk, do so as well.
I have a substance abuse problem related to alcohol and opiates. For years, I attended Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and for a long time, it helped keep me sober. Jonathan Stewart gave a talk at the Skepticamp portion of QED, an event open to the public at no charge on the Friday prior to QED itself, called “Leaving AA, Staying Sober.” Jonathan and I share a similar story. When we needed help with our recovery, AA was, for all intents and purposes, the only program available. We are both deeply grateful to the fellowship we enjoyed in AA and to the many people who helped us in the early days of our recovery.
Both Jonathan and I came to another conclusion as well, AA is based in the psychology of 1935 and is immutable. If the original AA text written more than a half century says something, AA fiercely defends it no matter what the science of the past 80 years might demonstrate. In truth, AA works for a mere 8-12% of the individuals who give it a try and there are vastly more effective treatments for substance abuse available today.
I asked and Jonathan agreed to write an article entirely about this subject for Skeptability so I won’t go further other than saying that I had written an article on my own blog called “An Atheist In A 12 Step Program” that describes my experience shortly before I left AA entirely and includes links to alternate programs. For many people, though, AA will be the only self-help recovery program available to them and, hopefully, my article and Jonathan’s web site will provide them with enough of the tips and tricks we were able to use to work around the religious and non-scientific aspects of the program.
The first speaker at the conference was also one of my favorites of the conference. It was made by a fellow named Marcel Dick. He talked about how using insects as food may solve much of the world’s hunger problem. His talk made some people queasy but, as I’ve enjoyed deep fried locusts as a snack in Mexico City and that some San Francisco restaurants are now offering grasshopper burritos, my being a very American American, didn’t cause any culture related disgust about eating such. At the end of his talk, fried meal worms were given out in little cups to anyone who wanted some. I didn’t just eat all of mine but finished my friends’ worms as I enjoyed them.
The truth is, the population of humans continues to grow and we’ve now more than 7 billion mouths to feed. Insects are a terrific source of food and can be cultivated with less of a negative environmental impact than all other sources of protein.
What happens when a person raised in a fundamentalist household grows up to become an ordained minister and have a congregation of his own when he first questions many of his beliefs and tries to live a year without god? Ryan Bell did exactly that and came out an atheist at e end. His talk was compelling and demonstrates clearly that it is possible to make such a difficult change in one’s life from one of mythology to one based in critical thinking and rational thought.
The most remarkable thing about this talk was how radically different it was from that which Nate Phelps gave at QED 2014. In the Phelps presentation, we heard horror stories of abuse and horribly hurtful actions taken by his father; Bell, however, described growing up in a loving family with whom he remains part of. Bell wasn’t chased away from religion by a domineering Fred Phelps but, rather, found his way to our worldview through contact and engagement with an increasingly diverse group of friends and congregants in his Las Angeles church. Bell embodies “being reasonable” and learning from others in a very QED way of speaking.
Although I mention Marsh in the introductory portion of this piece as an organizer of QED and as most of the “Be Reasonable” podcast, his day job, working for Simon Singh’s Good Thinking Society and his efforts there were the subject of his talk. While skeptics all around the world spend a hot of time talking about homeopathy, Marsh’s activism, both professionally as part of his job and as one of the leaders of the 1023 Campaign before he became a skeptic for hire. Marsh’s talk was compelling on its data alone but that his work is causing the UK National Health System to reconsider covering homeopathy is a very real outcome that will effect the lives of very real people for the better.
One of my frustrations with the skeptic movement in the US is that it seems mostly if not entirely driven by doing a lot of talking, writing blogs and more talking; in UK, largely led by Marsh and the MSS guys, skepticism moves from a purely intellectual pursuit to one of actual activism and it’s rewarding to, albeit from across an ocean, see the progress Marsh and his ilk are making over there.
Saturday Night At QED
Every year, there are two events on Saturday night. The first and earlier one is their fundraising banquet which comes with an extra ticket price. We’ve never attended the banquet not because of the extra cost but, rather, because it sells out before we get out of bed in the US every year.
After the banquet, everyone is invited back into the room for the Occam Awards which are given out for excellence in a variety of categories. This year, I was absolutely ecstatic when my dear friend Hayley Stevens, after being nominated for the past four years, finally brought home the trophy for her excellent blog. Hayley and her terrific younger brother Charlie were seated at our table and we all let out the loudest cheers we could muster.
Following the awards ceremony, the QED comedy show begins. As always, it was hosted by Richard Wiseman, a talented magician and very funny guy. All three of this year’s comics had me in hysterics and I enjoyed each immensely.
If you’re a regular QED attendee, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section describing what you enjoyed most as well. If you’ve never attended a QED, please, for your own sake do so and, for my sake, if you see me there (I’m easy to spot, I’m the guy with the dog) please introduce yourself.