I Attended the Woodstock of Skeptic Conventions

When you forget what you learned at a conference, you’re still left with impressions. The essence of QED 2018, wafting in my mind like perfume, is felicity, an intense happiness now tinged with nostalgia.

To call QED a labour of love would be an understatement. Its organizers go to fanatical lengths to make the experience unique, like parking a police box (not a TARDIS!) to the side of the stage and creating a fully functional skeptical card game to give to each attendee. Why? Because.

IMG_2338 - Card Game
Co-organizer Michael Marshall shows us how to play the skeptical card game

In a previous year, they created a mini-magazine poking fun of the quack industry, complete with ads for HISbals (a herbal remedy for men to help with “equilibriosity”) and trinoculars (to help clairvoyants make better use of their third eye). Also, an ad for a commemorative plate for English medium Derek Acorah proved so popular, they actually had it printed on disposable plates.

The United Kingdom has a clear advantage over North America when it comes to skeptical congregation: train rides to Manchester are affordable and relatively short. To see 700 skeptically minded people in attendance is nothing short of impressive. To see an honest-to-goodness demographic mixture when it comes to age and sex is even more surprising.

IMG_2356 - Queue
Queues were not unusual, especially in front of the “Podcast” room, such as this line-up before InKredulous, the Tasmanian tiger of podcasts

There were 30-minute queues to get into certain sessions (“putting the ‘queue’ in QED”, as I remarked at the time, wah wah wah), because there was a genuine excitement at seeing your favourite podcasters up on stage. But while some skeptic conferences seem to emphasize the gap between audience and micro-celebrities, QED made us all one big melting pot. When a session ended, you knew there was a sizeable bar in the building where everyone hung out, fans, podcasters, scientists, and organizers alike. And there was no green room.

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Live recording of God Awful Movies, featuring a genuine NASA space helmet

I found myself marvelling at the attention to detail (often the product of co-organizer Mike Hall’s brain). The program and badge were one and the same, and when it hung from your neck from its pierced corner, your first name (in bold, legible letters) was at just the right angle. There was a quiet room, in case the salmon migration of 700 people got to be too overpowering. And in wide rooms where free-standing microphones for Q&As would be impractical, there was a bouncy microphone cube the panel moderator threw at the audience member who had a question. Everything was engineered to provide a polished experience without sacrificing the human aspect.

Speaking of, QED is not a one-way street. The crèche (or daycare) was paid for by an anonymous donor, as was the ice bucket of bubbly that made its way to the organizers after the closing ceremony. And I got to meet Matt Kemp from Scriberia, who sketched out a visual summary of every session, including cartoon caricatures of every speaker. When I asked him why he did it, he told me he volunteered to do it because he wanted to give back to the community that had provided so much for him. 

There is a contingent of skeptics and atheists currently revelling in triggering and owning people online, in cherry-picking facts over acknowledging feelings, in constantly walking on either side of the irony line. I didn’t see these individuals at QED. I didn’t hear their gleeful, adolescent self-satisfaction.

What I saw instead were so many people interested in making skepticism a more compassionate state of mind. I witnessed humility, camaraderie, and empathy.

QED is not a conference; it’s a convention.

And when I left it, I felt inexplicably melancholy.

I realized it was because I had been given a taste of what can be accomplished and was going back home, where I didn’t know if that same experience could ever truly be replicated.

3 comments

    1. It’s not about feelings trumping facts. If we want to persuade people that they are wrong on issues that are emotional, not acknowledging their feelings is often a recipe for disaster. These feelings are part of our core identity and we need to do a better job of acknowledging them before providing facts instead of simply throwing facts at people and telling them they don’t care about their feelings.

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