Guest post by Al Lee.
The long and fascinating history of Manchester is punctuated by moments of important scientific, technological and industrial advance, as well as radical socialist thought and revolutionary action. Engels wrote about the “grim future of capitalism and the industrial age” when viewing the dark slums and working class conditions in the city. But without those bleak and hard days of the textile-driven, inchoate Industrial Revolution, we would not have the vibrant and independent city that we know today. The grim, mill-strewn, industrial landscapes of the city’s environs were depicted by L. S. Lowry and later mirrored in the sparse, hard-edged music of Manchester band Joy Division, and the Northern sardonic wit and desolate ordinariness of the people reflected in the words of Stephen Patrick Morrissey, all artists in many ways, being true to their own working class origins.
The city and its denizens have their own unique sense of irresponsible style and language, in a similar way, as does its great rival from 38 miles away, Liverpool. A reluctance or downright refusal to conform to the ideals and ideas of the rest of the country, London notably, have driven the city and its peoples to purposefully think and act differently to the rest of society throughout recent history. The important figure of Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) was born in Moss Side, Manchester. She was an English political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote. There is a history here, for sure.
The more clued-up and cool supporters of the red side of the football-supporting community renamed the place, only in half-jest, ‘The Republic of Mancunia’. A working class nod and a wink, no doubt, to the history of independent, socialist thought and perhaps even the early Northern Co-operative workers’ movements.
With true genius comes real pain and anguish. Inseparable and clashing bedfellows, the two extremes have helped to drive the great minds of troubled, technological titans such as Alan Turing, who worked for many years at the University of Manchester, and was instrumental in birthing the nascent functions of the modern programmable computer, without which I would not be able to type this piece… or you to read it for that matter.
Stretch Out And Wait
A short protest march away from the University of Manchester, is the Palace Hotel. This famous, grand Victorian building was formerly the Refuge Assurance Building, a striking red-bricked landmark on Oxford Road. On the weekend of April 24-26, inside it’s gloriously labyrinthine and cavernous, green and white tiled interiors, the fifth QED Conference was held, and 400 absorbed and interested attendees saw and heard a superb range of talks and panel discussions on a wide range of subject matters. Question – Explore – Discover, implores the uber-cool blue event logotype. And we did just that. Admittedly, most of the ‘exploring’ was done during our initial, somewhat pathetically embarrassing attempt to find our way off our particular floor, through long corridors, past many rooms, down to the vast reception area, more than once passing the same ‘Private’ door sign in our increasingly confused state! (Next time: May we have a room right next to the lift please?)
At the opening ceremony, this wonderful video was shown, parodying the ludicrous ‘Left behind’ film, starring the increasingly bizarre Mr. Nicholas Cage. It combines the unique wit of Manchester with the humorous ridicule that the Skeptic community, when at its best, wields as a weapon against religion and uncritical thinking.
This Night Has Opened My Eyes
As the reputation of QEDcon increases world wide, so does the apparent ease of attracting ‘marquee’ speakers from the UK and the rest of the world. Time and space restricts me from a compiling a comprehensive list, but I’d like to share very brief details of several of my preferred talks.
Ending proceedings on Saturday was the unflappable and unfailingly interesting Matt Dillahunty, (‘The Atheist Experience’),
a former fundamentalist Baptist preacher, who spoke well on his recent personal history of debating with theists of all sorts. There is surely no more daunting debating opponent for current Christian apologists than a former Christian apologist.
Another speaker who has made the journey from theism to the ‘dark side’ (Come on in, the water’s lovely…) is Ryan Bell, another former American pastor who spoke about his recent life-changing project, ‘A year without god’. This likeable man spoke clearly and enthusiastically about his ‘experiment’ with a godless life, and his coming round to a way of reason and science, and his eventual transmogrification into an a rational non-believer.
A born-again atheist perhaps.
This Charming Man
The English philosopher, writer and public speaker A. C. Grayling (books include ‘Against All Gods’, ‘The God Argument’) spoke last of all on the Sunday afternoon, typically the highlight talk of the weekend for many. In 2013 we had Lawrence Krauss’ brilliant ‘A Universe From Nothing’ presentation (my own personal favourite from the three QED events I have attended so far), and last year the headliner was the wonderful gentle giant, the courageous Nathan Phelps. Grayling spoke about ‘The Varieties of Skepticism’, and whilst for some it was possibly hard to follow due to Professor Grayling’s occasionally grandiloquent and intensely-worded style, it was however a masterpiece of intelligent and thoughtful presentation: a very interesting, philosophical 55 minute talk… without notes!
Earlier in the day, the engaging Dr. Lucie Green, English physicist and science broadcaster on BBC’s ‘The Sky at Night’ and ‘Stargazing Live’ programmes gave a superbly informative talk called ‘What has the sun ever done for us?’. Thankfully she was referring to our very own luminous stellar object, and not the British tabloid newspaper-rag. The subject matter incorporated facts and videos of sun spot activity, solar flares, and what the dangers of these solar events have been, and possibly will be in the future.
That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
Two of the highlights for many were deconstructions of both homeopathy and acupuncture. For the first of these pseudo-sciences, Michael Marshall (the Project Director for the Good Thinking Society and Vice President of the Merseyside Skeptics Society) thoroughly diluted the pointless and empty ‘discipline’ of homeopathy. He showed, to much appreciation from the audience, how the use and official prescription of homeopathy is in rapid decline the UK, and in no small part to the excellent investigative work of the charity that he represents – The Good Thinking Society. (Alongside Simon Singh) The biggest laughs were for the list of elements or substances that are currently listed as ‘ingredients’ of certain homeopathic ‘remedies’. Red light, blue light… spectral light! Owls… Look, not the complete owl you idiot, that would be silly, just a feather or two….
The American Dr. Harriet Hall also launched into the pseudo-treatment of acupuncture. She managed to spectacularly and satisfyingly skewer the subject by simply informing us of the various outlandish methods and techniques and yes, even the animal subjects upon which it is practised… Acupuncture on horses and wombats anyone? No, really.
Interestingly enough, both of these pseudo-sciences were essentially brought down by their own intrinsic, ridiculous characteristics… Hoisted by their own petards, so to speak!
Bigmouth Strikes Again
One of the regular treats from QED is the variety of informal panel discussions. For example, In 2013 we had Robin Ince, Jeff Forshaw, Helen Czerski and Brendan O’Neill discussing the subject, ‘Is Science the New Religion?’ Despite the fact that we can simply answer this question with a resounding ‘No’, and despite idiot-for-hire and real-life troll Brendan O’Neill jumping through hoops, and running through flames trying NOT to answer the question at hand and even making the remotest bit of sense, the hour-long show was brilliant to watch and hear, crackling with palpable tension – especially as UK comedian Robin Ince (A very science-savvy comedian I’m pleased to say) almost self-combusted in a puff of godless smoke while attempting to unravel O’Neill’s increasingly convoluted points. I’m sure no-one understood him. I certainly didn’t.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Ince last year at his stand up gig at Manchester’s Lowry Theatre, and asked him about this…
‘I just can’t bring myself to watch the video!’, he said.
The above infamous talk was referenced in what was, in my view, and from my perspective, the best moment of QED 2015. It was a four-member discussion chaired by Mike Hall (Merseyside Skeptics) and featuring Matt Dillahunty, Aron Ra, Michael Marshall and Mitch Benn, the MC of the weekend. The subject was “Daring to Disagree: How should we go about engaging with people we disagree with?”. All four spoke with intelligence, and each had different approaches to disagreeing with people: In the main religious apologists, preachers, etc. Mitch Benn was humorously aggressive and unapologetic in his impassioned approach, which contrasted drastically but pleasingly with the calm and friendly attitude of ‘Marsh’. He wants to change minds and inform by polite, reasoned engagement, and asking questions and engaging. The two American guests had similar, intellectually considered perspectives on the matter in hand. But essentially, all wanted a similar outcome in their arguments and discussions: To respectfully change the minds and helpfully educate and inform others who are less inclined to follow reason.
This concept of polite engagement, was encapsulated by Mike Hall on the above panel when he explained that each year there are several evangelical Christians proselytising at the front of the hotel, for the duration of the event. This year was no exception, as they spoke with attendees and handed out literature. (If one can call it that) Aron Ra engaged with them he told us, as he does wherever he goes it would seem. The man can’t get enough clearly… But this time, the good folk at QED decided to take out drinks and cakes for them, as they had put aside some funds specifically for this. How’s that for ‘engaging the enemy’?
To educate and inform are surely two key goals of QED. The event is Quality, Entertaining and Diverse. And I’ll be there at QED 2016.
Come on in… the water’s lovely.
April 27 2015
(With apologies to The Smiths)
mole at the counter