Monday, 19 January 2009

Weird Science

As some of you will have noticed, my usual e-mail sig includes the description "Gamer and Skeptic". This blog has been largely about gaming until now, because, let's face it, to the extent hat anyone is interested in what I'm doing, its probably because of my gaming books. (Well, aside from my relatives, presumably...) But, for today, let's talk about the second half of that, and the wonderful world of Doubt!

Of course, what I mean by this isn't the extreme philosophical skepticism of doubting everything. Granted, I can't prove (by the nature of the claim) that I don't live in The Matrix, with everything I'm experiencing being an illusion, but it seems pretty freaking unlikely. Skepticism is really about testing claims to see whether they stand up to scrutiny, and changing ideas as available evidence comes in - which is pretty much the basis of science. Or, at least, it is in an ideal world, because scientists are as fallible as anyone else.

At any rate, I mention this because of the Centre for Inquiry, a skeptical think tank which opened its London branch early last year. I was able to attend the opening event, which was quite interesting, but was followed by what was pretty much silence. Well, they finally got around to organising their first proper post-opening event on Saturday, and I went along. This was an all-day event, with four speakers holding forth on the general topic of "Weird Science", and very enjoyable it was, too.

First we had Richard Wiseman, describing his work in the weirder realms of psychology, performing simple magic tricks to illustrate perceptual illusions and so on. It's pretty much the same talk he always give at these sort of events, and its probably as well that it has been several years since I last saw it (since it has evolved in that time, as he's done more new things), but it is very well presented. And, of course, it included the Colour Changing Card Trick - and, if you haven't seen this, you really should.

Next up, Chris French, talking about his work at the Anomalous Psychology Research Unit. Unfortunately, there were a number of technical hiccups during this presentation, but as always, it was interesting and informative. Who would have thought Haunted Homes would present a mysterious sound as being unexplained (and implying it was made by a ghost) when they knew perfectly well what it actually was? It's almost enough to make you distrust what you see on TV...

After lunch, we had philosopher Stephen Law on the verifiability of Creation Science. I've only seen him once before, but he was an effective speaker on that occasion, too, and certainly somewhat provocative! And, lastly, Ben Goldacre gave a talk called (and I'm paraphrasing from memory) something like "The Lies That the Media Tell About Science and Which are So Fucking Incredibly Wrong that they Just Make Me Want to Slam My Cock in the Door and Revolving Especially Around Instances When They Had an Opportunity to Teach Something About Real Science But Didn't Because They Would Rather Just Tell Lies I Mean Why Would Anyone Want to Do That, Why?". Which was pretty much what it sounds like, and both passionate and entertaining.

After which, we all went down the pub, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Skeptics in the Pub. I attended the very first of these, way back when they were on Fridays, making returning home after 1 am not so unreasonable. I haven't been for a long time, and this was just a pub meeting, rather than including a talk as they usually are (which would have been a bit redundant on this occasion, obviously...) A good evening, giving me the opportunity to talk a bit about evolutionary theory, as well as lots of other things, and to meet (albeit briefly) Rebecca Watson, one of the presenters of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, the only weekly podcast that I never miss.

All of which goes to show that Doubting Stuff can be fun! Especially when there's beer involved.

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