Tuesday 15 February 2011

QED Blogpost and Podcast

A Blogpost by Patrick Redmond

I’m writing this blog piece about the QED conference a week after the event has finished. Although this means it lacks the immediacy of penning something straight away, it’s allowed me to reflect on the experience. During the opening speech we were invited by George Hrab to come up with suitable and amusing versions of what the acronym QED could stand for. Mine would be Quality Exceeded Dreams, not particularly funny but hey, sue me.

I’ve never been on a skeptical/science based conference before so I have no point of reference for comparison. The closest I can come up with from my own experience is that of the Skeptics in the Pub group I go to in Birmingham, as it happens though this isn’t too bad a starting point. QED was in many ways a Skeptics in the Pub but on a huge scale. This is in no way a denigration of the event; on the contrary I’m saying that the organisers managed to pull off something very special, an international quality happening that felt well organised but still grassroots.

There was an air of a “meeting of the clans” as people identified each other by their local sitp group and or Twitter name. There were no factions though as everyone mixed easily with each other, speakers and organisers included. There were talks of the highest quality from people already established on the sitp circuit, such as Chris French, Simon Singh, Jon Ronson and Bruce Hood, with some new faces with talks that surprised and entertained. Chris Atkins, the film maker whose credits include “Star Suckers “ and “Taking Liberties “ did a great main stage talk and then another brilliant break out room session.

I loved the break out room sessions. These were chance to be part of a smaller more intimate audience for a podcast recording or discussion group. I took a lot from the discussion on science outreach chaired by Janis Bennion as Síle Lane, Kylie Sturgess and Eugenie Scott amongst others lent their valuable insight and experience to the topic. The break out on formation and support of Skeptics in the Pub groups, hosted by Michael Marshall and Simon Perry was staggering for the sheer number of people there that were either running groups or interested in starting them. There were so many words of advice and offers of concrete support between people from all over the UK and even beyond that you couldn’t help coming away positive and energised.

I’ve got a podcast here that might give you a bit of the flavour of the event. Highlights for me were meeting some of my heroes, Steve Novella and Eugenie Scott rating high amongst them. I got to do a small interview with several people there but was conscious that they were all so busy, we were all tired and here was me shoving a Dictaphone under their nose and asking them to speak. Still everyone was very gracious. (Though I think Steve Novella thought I was trying to kiss him as I came over all fanboy.) By the end of the event I’d had so little sleep I was running on adrenalin so don’t expect too much sense on my part as the podcast goes on. Fortunately the interviewees were much more coherent.

I covered a lot of people in this Podcast, Eugenie Scott, Kate Akingbade, Steve Novella, Jim Al-Kalili, Michael Marshall, Kylie Sturgess, Simon Perry, a great bloke called Coby, Mike Hall, George Hrab, Matt Parker and Hayley Stevens. Many of those chats only last a couple of minutes though as I grabbed them in passing, so don’t be put off thinking it’ll go on too long. It will however give you a flavour of the weekend, the people there and the air of commotion and goodwill that they generated. The final interview with Hayley is a bit of a cheat as it actually happened on the Wednesday after QED when she’d just delivered a brilliant talk for the Birmingham SitP. It was a good chance to get her perspective on things though so I took it.

Should you want a fuller account of all the speakers and happenings at QED I would fully recommend the blog of @SkepticCanary, Dr Tom Williamson. He gives a great account of the event along with even more interviews for you to listen to.

I tried really hard to find people that were disgruntled about some feature or other (to add some of that media style balance that isn’t really balance), but couldn’t find anyone. There was the odd whinge but all my conversations and careful monitoring of the qedcon hash tag on Twitter could only discern a deluge of positive feeling for the event and those behind it. 

The evening of entertainment on the Saturday could have been a problem. Robin Ince was forced to pull out the night before and on the evening itself the sound system wouldn’t work for a while. However they got the fantastic Helen Keen to stand in for Robin at short notice and nobody seemed to mind the delay as Matt Parker, George Hrab and the aforementioned Helen Keen entertained and enlightened us with their own special brand of geek centric comedy and music.

I’ve got a few blogs in draft based on some of the inspirational talks I listened to and conversations I had there, so this will be far from my last reference to QED. I’ll leave at this point with a massive thank you to the organisers of the Greater Manchester Skeptics and the Mersey Side Skeptics who dreamed up this mad scheme. Also a huge thanks to all the speakers and the fantastic people I met that helped to make it such a memorable and rewarding weekend.

Patrick Redmond was Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub and presents the Birmingham Skeptics podcast.

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