Science & Skepticism Fest

I apologise for the long delay in posting. I have not been blogging lately due to the ridiculous sunny weather which London and myself are currently enjoying. However, now that the initial shock of seeing the sun for such extended periods has begun to wear off a little I’m going to try and get back to my regular blogging schedule (which in case anyone is wondering is supposed to be a post every 3-5 days).

Now although I have been enjoying the sun, I have not been completely slacking off as I have also been attending a couple of sciencey/skeptical events in particular ‘The Night of 400 Billion stars (and maybe some string theory)‘ at Bloomsbury Theatre and the Skeptics in the Pub/Ben Goldacre ‘Troublemakers Fringe‘ alternative to the ‘World Conference of Science Journalists’ at the Penderel Oak.

So I thought it might be a good way to get back into the blogging swing to give a ‘short’ roundup/review of both events. Here goes…

The Night of 400 Billion Stars (and maybe some string theory)

This was an evening of short performances based loosely around a celebration of physics, rationalism, science and all that good stuff. Hosted by the comedian Robin Ince and supported by New Humanist magazine and the Rationalist Association the night involved performances from a wide variety of folk including comedians, science journalists, scientists and musicians. Anyone who attended the larger ’9 carols and lessons for godless people’ event just before Christmas also hosted (and largely organised by) Robin Ince would have been familiar with the format, most of the faces and some of the content. However, despite a less ‘star studded’ lineup compared to the larger event it actually felt to me like the content in this smaller event was of a more consistent quality or at least went over better in the more intimate venue.

In particular Chris Addison and Josie Long’s performances seemed to be much improved over the offerings at 9 Carols which (at least to me) had suffered from feeling a bit pretentious. Josie Long’s performance at the larger event had been based on a rather long and tedious tale about David Hume which lacked much of a punchline and as a result not suprisingly did not go down very well. She acknowledged this at the opening of her act and seemed to have learnt from her previous experience as this time her foray into alien themed films she would like to see (e.g. aliens come down and no-one is particularly bothered) was much shorter and much funnier. I think it also neatly illustrates that you don’t only get a laugh from skeptics if you make jokes about Scottish philosophers. Chris Addison also, in his typical epiletic style, gave a great performance covering a whole variety of topics but with about 50% less smugness than his 9 Carols offering.

Robin Ince acting as the host and despite suffering from a lack of sleep after Glastonbury also gave an excellent performance and provided one of the funniest moments of the evening when he referred to Simon Singh being sued by the ‘Spine Wizards’- complete with a dancing hunched back impression of a Spine Wizard at work curing veruccas by touching people’s backs.

As for the other acts there are too many to mention and my memory is somewhat foggy as I’m writing this a number of days after the event, that said, I think there where a few standout performances that deserve special mention.

Science writer and populariser Marcus Chown gave a fantastic talk on the 5 things which most amaze him about the universe. Really interesting material and suprisingly good comic delivery for a science writer!  Peter Buckley Hill looking like an aged professor whose gone off the deep end, also delivered a superb skit based on Schroedinger’s cat. The material was a bit hit and miss but Peter’s enthusiasm barrelled through the misses. Lucy Porter’s ‘romance’ poem name checking all the elements also went down well, as did Gavin Osborn’s quirky songs. And finally and somewhat predictably, Simon Singh’s talk was very enjoyable and somewhat suprisingly steered completely clear of his recent legal problems and instead focused on the kind of science promotion for which he is justly famous. His glowing gherkin experiment did not go exactly as planned but it did result in an amusing (and rather unsafe looking) demonstration aided by one brave Robin Ince to finish the evening off.

All of the acts suffered from time constraints and as such had a rather relentess and breathless quality to them but that always seems to be the case with Robin Ince’s events which seem locked in a never ending battle of content against time.

Overall, it was a great evening and as with all the Robin Ince/New Humanist events was a poignant reminder that skepticism and science isn’t all about po faced debunking and dealing with frauds and indeed especially in light of the Singh trial it was a welcome relief to have a chance to just have a laugh about all the nonsense and appreciate some of the wonders revealed by proper science…

Skeptics at the Pub/Ben Goldacre’s ‘Troublemaker’s fringe’ version of the ‘World Conference of Science Journalists’

In the basement bar of the increasingly familiar Penderel Oak bar in London over 200 individuals were crammed in on a beautiful sunny day to listen to science journalists talk about the problems with science journalism. Now, that is commitment and despite the description it was also the recipe for a very enjoyable night.

The three speakers at the event were Vaughan Bell from mindhacks, Petra Boynton from her excellent untitled blog and Ben Goldacre of Bad Science and since all three happen to have blogs which I check regularly I was certainly very happy with the lineup.

Unfortunately I missed the first talk by Vaughan Bell as I arrived late and while he was giving his talk the bar was simply too cramped to get close or hear much of what was going on so I retired upstairs and had a drink while waiting for things to clear out a bit.  As a result I have no idea what his talk was like but given the material he has to draw from on the excellent mindhacks I have no doubt I missed a very amusing and very interesting discussion. Nevermind.

The second speaker was Petra Boynton who discussed eight problems with science/health journalism with particular emphasis and a number of depressing, but amusing, examples drawn from her specialty field of sex and relationships. There’s too much material to give an adequate roundup of all she covered but fortunately she has kindly posted up a detailed blog entry covering the points she raised in her talk complete with links!

A point she made that particularly registered with me was how it was ethically very dubious for a psychologist or other mental health professional to offer comments on celebrity cases like Michael Jackson whom they likely know nothing about aside from what can be gleaned from media reporting. It’s true that one could offer general speculations as a qualified expert but I cannot think of many of the medias more prominent psychological experts who regularly make the limitations of their perspective (and for some their very qualifications) clear.

Anyway, an excellent talk and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the image of a qualified psychologist specialising in sex and relationships reacting to the following extracts from Zoo magazine:

Zoo recently launched a sex supplement with glamour model “Dr” Jodie Marsh at the helm. “No seven years at medical college for our resident sexpert,” read the introduction. “Jodie got her expertise burning the midnight oil at the University of Dirty Sex.” Jodie concurred: “I haven’t exactly got a degree in psychology, but I just love sex, don’t I?”

Finally there was Ben Goldacre whose talk would have been very familiar to anyone who read his excellent ‘Bad Science’ book but was still a typically intriguing trawl through the horrendous ‘Bad Science’ stories that haunt all newspapers and news shows (online and offline). Ben’s a polished speaker and is certainly not lacking in confidence or opinions but his less than kind comments on the ‘World Conference of Science Journalists’ are hard to fault when considered alongside the copious examples of terrible science reporting that he illustrated his talk with. He might be amused to know that some of his digs at the conference also received some tuts and eye rolling from a journalist holding a WCSJ card who was standing just beside me.

Similarly, after returning from the pub (and recovering from my hangover the next day) I had a look at some of his tweets from the WCSJ conference and I got an even greater appreciation for why he felt that the WCSJ event deserved criticism. Many of the comments from journalists he discussed clearly indicated that they had spent very little time looking at quality science blogs and here I do not refer to my blog but more things like mindhacks, science based medicine, all of the bad science bloggers, improbable science, neurologica and so on and so on. Suggesting that science bloggers don’t properly source their material was a particularly remarkable claim as providing links to sources is one of the most common features of almost all science blogs whereas the opposite is true of most printed science stories!

Anyhow, in summary Ben’s talk was good and provided an appropriate finale to a succesful impromptu event!

As a final thought, a friend of mine who was visiting the Penderel Oak and it’s skeptical meetings for the first time felt that there was a danger of such events being a somewhat futile exercise as they involve alot of preaching to the choir. However, while I can see his point I think he is somewhat missing the fact that a) this was an alternative FREE event in contrast to the expensive conference, b) this event and others like it give the skeptical and science (and geek and nerd) communities a chance to meet up socially (and put faces to blogs!) and c) it provides an excellent chance to meet with and engage with prominent writers, journalists, scientists and academics who are often more than happy to have a drink and a chat afterwards.

I certainly had a good time (maybe slightly too good- certainly had a heck of a hangover the next day!) and I enjoyed getting the chance to catch up with fine folks like Zeno, Jack-of-Kent, Sid the man behind Skeptics in the Pub and to meet Ben, Petra and the very patient Neil from the Little Atoms podcast. Bring on the next event (though maybe with slightly less Guinness this time!).

3 comments

  1. Realise this might be old hat. Your Kelvin book is brilliant [second only to …e=mc^2 [Brian Cox] but Chap 10 (p186) which critically needs your 1000 sugar cube math to be correct is outrageously wrong. 2^1000 is not a billion; in fact it is about 1 with 301 zeroes following it. I hope I’ve misunderstood this because it may be a NS biggest error candidate!
    Anyway great book – still puzzling over your new interpretation of Oblers paradox – not fully convinced yet but it seems novel at least.
    Regards

    Like

  2. Osborne Reynolds Explained how the universe works a century ago, he was and is right. The world needs to look seriously at his Sub-Mechanics of the Universe and On an Inversion of Ideas as to the Structure of the Universe.
    Bruce Lamar Rosenberg

    Like

  3. Pingback: Charlie Chaplin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s