Science with a special K

Jamie Kenny on the conference that celebrates rationalism, scientific evidence and skepticism

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All-star naysayers are coming to Manchester on the weekend of 5 February. Their mission? To tell it how it actually is.

The Greater Manchester Skeptics society is bringing some of the major names in popular science and critical thinking together in the two day QED – “Question, Explore, Discover” – conference, the first major event of its kind in the north of England.

Attractions include author and physicist Simon Singh on the big bang theory and science historian Jim al-Khalili on time travel.

Mathematician Colin Wright will look at the science of juggling, author Jon Ronson will offer a guide to spotting psychopaths and filmmaker Chris Atkins will explain why it’s often easier to sell a bogus story to the media than a truthful one.

An expert panel will smoke out the ghost hunters. And psychologist Bruce Hood will explain why people believe the unbelievable.

Ideas tested

At £99 for the weekend, attendees will pay a hefty price for a grand tribal gathering of the sceptical. But that’s the message: you only know that it’s worth it if you go and assess the evidence for yourself.

The conference covers a range of subjects that reflect the interests of the UK’s growing Skeptic movement, which critics in the superstition community like to portray as a clique of smart alecky science-oriented geeks.

“People have this idea that sceptics are just closed minded, nitpicking cynics,” said Greater Manchester Skeptics member and conference organiser Dr Janis Bennion. “That’s exactly wrong. It’s scepticism that makes me willing to change my mind open to evidence. If you’re curious, if you like to test your ideas against the evidence, if you like to discuss things and argue them out, then you’re a skeptic.”

Changing minds

Singh agreed. “The mark of a skeptic is, precisely, the willingness to change your mind,” he said. “It’s fashionable to call yourself a sceptic these days, but if you take someone who calls himself a global warming sceptic and present that person with the scientific evidence that it is happening, that a great deal of it is caused by human action, and that something needs to be done about it, then nothing happens. It’s almost a religious belief with them.”

Organised sceptics go so far as to use the US spelling of the word to distinguish themselves from garden variety disbelievers in this or that. “The ‘k’ is used to distance the movement from the word ‘sceptical’ and its connotations, and to show that it is the movement relating to scientific skepticism, rather than connecting it to, for example, climate change scepticism,” said Bennion.

Enemy within

British Skeptics oppose a whole range of contemporary phenomena, from homeopathy to young earth creationism. And while religion and the religious worldview provide the skeptics with formal opposition, much of their time is spent fighting the enemy within, pseudoscience.

It can be a powerful enemy. Singh was sued for unfriendly remarks about chiropractors made in an article for the Guardian in 2008, leading to a protracted legal struggle which Singh finally won on appeal last year. That brought him and the Skeptic movement into a wider battle for libel law reform and awakened a general interest in the political process.

“We’re not opposed to people having any belief they choose,” he said. “What we want is evidence-based policy. When the NHS puts money into so-called alternative therapies, that means that there are operations not being done, doctors not being employed, proven therapies not being carried out.

Scientific achievements

“I think there’s a general problem out there in that people just don’t realise how much better their lives are because of what science has achieved. You have people in a position of remarkable privilege historically speaking who decide that vaccinations are dangerous, or that it’s good for children to have diseases so their immune system develops and so on. And it causes tremendous suffering. Have you ever heard a child with whooping cough? We need to remember how far we’ve come and the way of thinking that got us here.”

QEDcon is on 5-6 February at the Piccadilly Hotel, Manchester. More details at

Photo: Dr Janis Bennion

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