Q.E.D: The Glastonbury of Thinking

This weekend saw the third annual Q.E.D – the massive end-of-level-boss version of Skeptics in the Pub. A place where scientists, critical thinkers, atheists and other assorted eccentrics assemble in Manchester and sacrifice orphans to the reanimated husk of Darwin. Given this, protester turnout for was lacklustre, composed of a small choir and a couple of chaps with a giant metal cross that had to be trundled about on a tiny bicycle wheel. I’m not entirely sure what they intended to do with it.

The first event I attended was by bubble scientist Helen Czerski; The World of Science Toys. Teaching us, amongst other things, that your blood is green when you cut yourself in deep water because of the red light being absorbed by the upper layers of water. Her experiment on how to demonstrate fluid physics with an egg is definitely going on my repertoire of party pieces. One theme of this talk, echoed later that weekend in Carrie Poppy’s talk on her sleuthing adventures, was that of how skeptics should anecdote. Being a bubble scientist, Helen was commissioned to try and design the ideal champagne flute. The design she proposed was almost identical to the one proposed by champagne expert Philippe Jamesse based solely on experience. Her message was not that we should be credulous, but rather think twice before demanding a peer reviewed study every time someone offers an opinion based on experience.

Afterwards, Dr Brooke Magnanti gave us a talk on her new book The Sex Myth. I knew of Brooke solely through the osmosis of culture. Things like furious Daily Mail headlines and Billie Piper’s depiction of her in The Secret Diary of a Call Girl. With these scant facts to go on, I didn’t know what to expect. To put it simply, her mind is like a laserbeam cutting through taboos, preconceptions and bullshit. She began the talk by diagnosing if any of the audience were sex addicts, based on the criteria of the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals. The checklist, which had questions such as “are you preoccupied with sexual thoughts” had a ring of L-Ron’s Auditing to it; either that or the bulk of the attendees were sexual degenerates.

In the afternoon, the Is Science the New Religion Panel proved to be quite the circus. You could tell there was a bunfight brewing when Telegraph journalist Brendan O’Neill warned of the dangers of “evidence driven policy” and the tyranny of experts. Had this been a discussion on how useful experts are relative to their fields, an interesting discussion could have been had. We could look to Philip Tetlock’s long term studies of expert predictions, and how economists especially may as well be digging through sheep giblets for all the use they are. Tetlock also showed that expert predictions were better the closer the fields were to measurable, empirical, hard sciences and when predictions were tentative, caveat studded, and open to change in light of new data. But Brendan didn’t seem to be arguing for more or better data, but was rather nostalgic for a time when leadership and government was based on moral certainties and vision, unconstrained by the need for, well, evidence to back it up.

He seemed to inhabit a mirror-world where scientists are on par with the swaggering, power drunk trade unions of the 1970s. An increasingly frustrated Robin Ince tried to explain that if politics is informed by bad science, it is due to fact-foraging career politicians trying to find something to justify their policies to a scientifically naive public. That many politicians are themselves ignorant when it comes to discerning facts from hokum does not help this situation. Unfortunately O’Neill seemed to fall into the same trap, thinking scientists were at fault for the lack of new nuclear reactors, rather than sciency-sounding populist scaremongering from Green and Leftist groups.

To be fair to Brendan it takes some cojones to get on a panel and defend such wooly thinking when your audience’s hobby is picking apart bad arguments. After the audience had facepalmed their way through this strange worldview, no less than Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins both lined up to rubbish his arguments during the Q&A. I was expecting him to throw down a smoke grenade and escape through the window. But no, he soldiered on in spite of evidence to the contrary, which does at least make him consistent.

Another panel featuring Dawkins and Krauss – The God Panel – was cranked up to lulz factor 11 due to inclusion of musician and comedian Mitch Benn. Benn’s attitude on atheist proselytising is that he wouldn’t be going door to door saying “Have you heard the bad news” but wouldn’t sit back and nod politely if the topic of religion cropped up in conversation. Dawkins on the other hand felt that as long as religions had their fingers in the education system and were tormenting children with visions of eternal suffering he couldn’t just let them be.

At one point, Carrie Poppy asked the panel if they thought the Atheist community has taken any missteps. A hush descended on the room as Mitch Benn went there and offered up Atheism Plus. One person clapped but it slowly faded out into awkward chair shuffling silence. It felt as if we were recalling an embarrassing drunken Best Man’s speech that nobody talks about and just try to forget happened. Dawkins added mournefully this was a bit of a blunder, while Lawrence Krauss spoke of US groups smuggling ideological orthodoxy into skepticism. “You’re branded, which is the opposite of what open mined skepticism does, and I think its self destructive”. Mike Hall expressed ambivalence about A+, but mentioned that there is a problem with Atheists thinking they’re the smartest person in the room. The most negative thing – in this reporter’s opinion – that Atheism Plus has done with all this demagoguery, is to make discussions about making the movement more inclusive like walking across a football field of eggshells, and I’d eat my own hat if a single person in attendance was opposed to such ambitions.

On Sunday afternoon, the dashing Adam Rutherford – fresh from a wedding party himself – gave a hungover version of his Creation: The Origin and Future of Life talk. It was nevertheless wonderful, and he discussed a range of life’s origin stories, from pooh-poohing panspermia to new theories on hydrothermal vents. He finished off going into genetic engineering and synthetic biology, showing us a couple of applications that wowed even this nerdy audience. Things like cress that turns purple if it grows above landmines, and blueprints for hypothetical micro-organisms that can assassinate cancer cells. This is sci-fi stuff, and made me want to run into the streets of Manchester and shake people by the shoulders ranting about how amazing science is.

Sunday evening saw Lawrence Krauss headline with his talk A Universe from Nothing. This was epic stuff. The concept of nothing as it relates to physics. Disappearing galaxies in the deep future. That everywhere and nowhere is simultaneously the centre of the universe. The fact that we’re cosmic pollution in a universe that largely is nothing. Even with Lawrence’s accessible and entertaining delivery, it was a message that had to be parsed through the numbed cognitive faculties of people who had indulged in a weekend of partying and late night karaoke. I suppose the brain cells created and destroyed over the course of this weekend will balance out. Nevertheless it was awesome, in the truest sense of the term.

As excellent as all of the above was – not to mention all the other stuff I’ve not got time to mention – Robin Ince’s interview with Dawkins was for me the highlight of the weekend. In the intimate chat he spoke of his love of philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man, and how his own early writing was greatly influenced by the Jesuit’s strange ideas and obtuse writing style. He then spoke of the his devastation when reading a review of the book that rubbished it as pretentious nonsense, and how this made him feel like a damned fool. Ultimately however, this evisceration forced him to reassess his position, and ultimately led him to his similarly combative method of engagement with believers.

Towards the end of the interview came an unexpectedly tender moment. It began by discussing the work of evolutionary biologist W.D Hamilton, and his characteristically radical theory of clouds being the extended phenotypes of microorganisms. Afterwards, he started talking about Hamilton’s death and intended funeral arrangements, paraphrasing his wishes to be buried in the Amazon rainforest and consumed by the Coprophanaeus beetle;

“I will leave a sum in my last will for my body to be carried to Brazil and to these forests. It will be laid out in a manner secure against the possums and the vultures just as we make our chickens secure; and this great Coprophanaeus beetle will bury me. They will enter, will bury, will live on my flesh; and in the shape of their children and mine, I will escape death. No worm for me nor sordid fly, I will buzz in the dusk like a huge bumble bee. I will be many, buzz even as a swarm of motorbikes, be borne, body by flying body out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars, lofted under those beautiful and un-fused elytra which we will all hold over our backs. So finally I too will shine like a violet ground beetle under a stone.”

Ultimately, Dawkins continued, it was not possible to fulfil these wishes and he was buried in Wytham Woods in Oxford. However, in allusion to his beloved Coprophanaeus beetles and his raincloud theory, his partner Luisa Bozzi said at his funeral;

Bill. Now your body is lying in the Wytham Woods, but from here you will reach again your beloved forests. You will live not only in a beetle, but in billions of spores of fungi and algae brought by the wind higher up into the troposphere, all of you will form the clouds and wandering across the oceans, will fall down and fly up again and again, till eventually a drop of rain will join you to the water of the flooded forest of the Amazon.

Dawkins was visibly emotional as he spoke, and we were collectively moved at such a beautiful and poetic vision of nature as unveiled through the lens of science. And that, at heart, is what Q.E.D is a celebration of.