Thursday, 29 October 2009

TAM London - pt 3

This will be the final part of this report. However, I am going to a talk about sea monsters next week, so there's very chance I'll waffle on about that before getting round to reporting on the next HeroQuest publication. It also looks highly likely that my predictions that LotW1 won't be out by the end of 2009 will be proven correct! Maybe early 2010?

We'll begin this last stretch with Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science. When it comes to UFOs, or ghosts, or things of that sort, it doesn't, it seems to me, matter a great deal that it isn't true. It's a bit sad that some people spend their time chasing around after things that don't actually exist, but it doesn't, by and large, do a lot of harm. The same cannot be said for quack medical advice. Even if it doesn't do direct harm (which it might or might not, depending on what the advice is) there is always the danger that it might persuade people that it's not really necessary to do something genuinely helpful. A pill that contains nothing but sugar probably won't harm you very much, but if you think that it's working, you might not take the pills that really do work until it's too late.

In short, I believe that quack medicine has very great potential to do harm. Sure, evidence-based medicine can also, at times, do harm, but at least there's a countervailing benefit. And this is why I'm crap at debating this sort of thing - it makes me really angry, and once you get angry, you've lost the argument, no matter how good your case. I work in healthcare; I don't want to see people harmed any more than they have to be, thank you very much, and the excuse that someone is honestly deluded rather than a deliberate fraud isn't always enough.

Goldacre began his talk with a discussion of the anti-vaccination movement, and its portrayal in the press. When he mentioned Andrew Wakefield, the name drew boos from some corners of the audience (although not, I have to say, from me), but Goldacre disagreed, arguing that Wakefield wasn't truly the one to blame. I'm a little less inclined to be generous, but it's a valid point - most of the fuss in the press about the supposed dangers of the MMR vaccine was apparently a few year's later than you might think. Without the press inflating non-stories, the public might well be better informed (or, at least, not so ill-informed).

From there, we moved on to those equations you sometimes see in newspapers where "scientists have discovered the formula" for the perfect body, or the happiest day of the year, or whatever it might be. Well, surprise, surprise, but scientists have, most likely, discovered bugger all. 99% of the time, what's actually happened is that some company or other has decided that a scientific looking equation will help sell their product, and have paid someone a few quid to write something down on the back of a fag packet that "proves" whatever it is they want it to prove. Who'd have thought, eh?

And back to the press over-hyping non-stories. Goldacre discussed the claim that valiant newspaper reporters had discovered deadly MRSA lurking everywhere, including a swab they'd taken from the front door handle of the Department of Health. Quite worrying, especially when you consider that MRSA, while it can get into a number of nasty places, shouldn't be able to grow on doorknobs (too dry, you see). Or, indeed, on most of the other places the "laboratory of a world-renowned MRSA expert" had found them.

Only it turns out that (presumably unbeknownst to the journalists) he wasn't a world-renowned MRSA expert. He was, in fact, some bloke with a microscope in his garden shed and no qualifications in microbiology at all. The papers had, it seems, unwittingly fostered his delusions, and that's rather a tragedy. Blimey, you can't even trust a newspaper these days.

Oh, hang on... I said in the last blog that I'd get down of my high horse for this one, didn't I? Hmm... OK, so how about:

And now we come to what The Londonist described as the high point of the two-day event. I refer, of course, to Tim Minchin.

Last year, round about Christmas time, I attended a sold-out event at the Bloomsbury Theatre entitled "Lessons and Carols for Godless People". It comprised a number of scientists, stand-up comics, and musicians doing short pieces that were very loosely on the subject of either science or Christmas without Christianity. There were a lot of very good acts, some of whom also made brief performances on the Saturday evening after the main TAM event. But one in particular stood out in my memory, even though I'd never heard of him before.

Minchin does stand-up comedy as part of his act, but it's for his songs, accompanied on the grand piano, that he's probably best known. He very much appeals to my sense of humour, with what one can only describe as a mixture of vulgarity and nerdishness. And it probably helps that we seem to agree on a lot of things.

Yet, good as his songs are, he didn't sing one back at that event at the Bloomsbury last year. No, what he did was read a ten minute beat poem. And it blew me away. I'm not normally one for poetry, but... wow. It turns out that I was listening to either the first or second public performance of "Storm", which subsequently, as they say on the interwebz, "went viral" in the pro-science community.

At TAM, he performed a number of his best songs: The Good Book ("I tried to read some other books, but I soon gave up on that / The paragraphs ain't numbered, and they complicate the facts"), the love song If I Didn't Have You (" Your love is one in a million, you couldn't buy it at any price / But of the 9.999 hundred thousand other loves, statistically, some of them would be equally nice"), Confessions, and, of course, Storm. The latter included a clip of an animated version of the poem currently being made, which looks pretty cool.

His final piece was the song White Wine in the Sun. I can't say that this was one that particularly impressed me on the album... but it turns out that hearing it live is a whole different story. It's a serious song (for once), and beautifully emotional.

So, yeah, the Londonist is right: he was the highlight of the event. Which actually makes one glad that they got him on the bill at the last minute when Richard Dawkins had to pull out. But, hopefully, they'll hold TAM London again next year, and maybe we'll get both? Here's hoping...

Sunday, 18 October 2009

TAM London - pt 2

Yes, we're back on this again, so those still waiting for HeroQuest news will have to wait just a little longer, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I said last time that there were four sessions in particular of TAM London that I wanted to focus on here. I'll start with Ariane Sherine, who talked about how an off-hand comment spiralled into an intercontinental Atheist Bus Campaign. This is, in many ways, an inspiring story, because it's about giving atheism (or even non-religion in general) a voice that it rarely seems to have. That's partly, no doubt, because, by its very nature, it doesn't have organisations on the scale of organised Churches. And, while British society is a lot less religious than, say, the USA - let alone places like Iran - it does still pervade our society. Not, I think, in an oppressive way, but still in a way that's quite unnecessary. Britain, after all, still has constitutional union of Church and State, and there's really no good reason for that in the modern world that I can see.

A bus campaign, of course, isn't going to convince anyone much. I rather doubt that the much better funded religious campaigns one sees on public transport do much better, either - although those for, say, the Alpha Course presumably have at least some success rate. But conversion isn't really the point. I think it's more about presenting a positive message, and demonstrating that the community is out there, and if you have doubts, you're not alone. The American versions actually seem to be better at the latter, perhaps because that side of things is more important over there.

What's really interesting is the response to this. I'm sure the great majority of Christians either aren't that bothered, or at least support the right of people to disagree with them, but there's clearly a minority whose responses have been decidedly, well... un-Christian. People that, perhaps, feel frightened and threatened by the thought that not everyone agrees with them, and feel a need to lash out in response. There were a number of examples of this in the talk, some of which did verge on the alarming - I may not agree with many parts of the Christian message, but I'm fairly confident it's not supposed to be about bile and hatred!

The very fact that there have been arguments about this, and about the wording that's allowed (hence the "Probably") just goes to show that this has been a worthwhile exercise, and that there is an imbalance here to be addressed. After all, the same restrictions don't seem to apply to the other side...

So that was one uplifting and good-humoured talk that I actually enjoyed more than I expected to. But now I'm going to turn to somebody who has put a lot on the line for the cause of skepticism, and of science in general. I refer, of course, to science writer Simon Singh, who I've mentioned before. The previous times I've seen him give talks, they have been on the subject of the Big Bang, and other directly science-related matters. Naturally, that wasn't the case this time. And that's because of the huge and likely to be long-running libel action that now takes up his time.

I won't go into the details, because it will only be repeating what is available in more detail elsewhere. I will note, however, that there has been a positive development in the last couple of weeks, in that Singh's appeal against the refusal of the right to appeal against the outcome of the pre-trial hearing (don't you just love the law?) has been upheld. Which may yet turn out to make no difference in the long run, but is at least a start.

The specific issue is related to the right to raise scientific questions of public interest, but it seems to me that it's even broader than that. There really is a serious problem with libel law in the UK, and it extends beyond just science reporting. Those in the UK will presumably already be aware of the related issue this week of the Guardian newspaper being prevented from reporting certain proceedings in Parliament, an absolutely astonishing course of events. (This latter incident does not, as I understand it, stem directly from libel law, but the same underlying legal principles seem to be at the source). Britain does not have the same rights to free speech as, for example, the USA, and it may yet be for the European Court of Human Rights to make a ruling on this.

That Singh is continuing to fight this case, despite the risk of financial ruin (he'll be several thousand pounds out of pocket, even if he wins a complete victory) is enormously to his credit. He rightly received two standing ovations, and an award for his contributions to skepticism over the last year. I can't imagine anyone else was even in the frame for that.

Well, that seems to be a long enough post; looks like there will have to be a part three. In which I can, hopefully, get down at least little way from my high horse...

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Amaz!ing Meeting

You may know (if only because I've mentioned it before) that my other main interest, besides gaming, is skepticism. If you don't give a monkey's about this, you probably want to ignore the rest of this post, and most likely, the ones that will follow it. You should find it safe to come back once Kingdom of Heroes is released, and I've had time to read and review it.

Still here? If so, you may well have wondered to yourself, what is the big gathering of the skeptical tribe? What, in short, is to skepticism what Continuum or Tentacles are to Glorantha?

Well, OK, you probably haven't actually wondered that. Especially if you're reading this blog for some reason other than being a Glorantha fan. (Hi, Mum). But let's imagine that you did: the answer is The Amaz!ing Meeting, held for the last several years in Las Vegas. Where, let's face it, I'm not very likely to go. But - and this is the important bit - this year, for the first time, there was an additional meeting held outside the USofA. That was TAM London, and I was lucky enough to attend.

I should probably explain why I say I was lucky, and why I haven't mentioned this at all before. That's because the convention was massively over-subscribed. Based on the figures in the US, the organisers figured the tickets would sell out in a few months; they actually sold it out in less than an hour. By the time I logged on to make my purchase - as soon as I got home from work - they were already long gone. So, I figured, I ain't going - and things suck, but there you go sometimes. They made some efforts to get further tickets out, but no luck there, either. Then, last week, they put out a few tickets that had been returned for refunds, and I just happened to be online when they announced it, being able to snag one on the spot!

And now I've just returned. A very, very good weekend, and hats off to the organisers. I most certainly hope there's one again next year, or, heck, even biennial like Continuum (the organisers have promised a bigger venue if it happens again in the UK, which would hopefully help with the ticket problem). The massive interest that this must have had to sell out so quickly is, I think, something of a testament to the growing popularity of skepticism in recent years, and by gosh, it feels good to be part of a tribe that's expanding for once.

Frankly, there was just so much good stuff that I can't really describe it all in detail. I know that Jack of Kent is covering it in his blog (which is probably a thousand times more popular than mine), so maybe there'll be more there, if you're interested. However, there are four presenters at the con who I'd particularly like to talk about, for very different reasons. But that's absolutely not to diminish in any way the contributions of the other six - as I say, the entire weekend was fantastic, and I was really impressed by the quality of the lineup.

Less so by the food on the Saturday night incidentally - memo to organisers: there's nothing wrong with serving sausages, but it's a bugger to eat them without a knife or a table. Just sayin'. (The food for the rest of the weekend was fine, incidentally, as was the quality of the cooking).

Anyway, I do think it behoves me to give at least a run down of the six presentations that I won't be discussing in much detail:

Brian Cox, presenter of various documentaries for the BBC's Horizon strand, started us off with a talk about the importance of the Large Hadron Collider, and of curiosity-driven science in general. This was a lot more fun than it might sound, and I have to say it takes real talent to talk about particle physics for an hour, and make it sound not just exciting, but easily understandable, without really dumbing it down. And the message was clear: curiosity-driven science is, in and of itself, important, and a fitting use of (at least some) public funds.

Jon Ronson followed up with an entertaining talk about his book about CIA psychics, The Men Who Stare At Goats, including clips of the upcoming film based on the book.

James Randi, who surely needs no introduction, and is the figurehead of the JREF - the organisation that runs TAM - gave a video call from America, answering questions, and seeming remarkably chipper, given his recent health problems.

Phil Plait, who actually runs the JREF, gave an fascinating talk about how asteroids could wipe out human civilisation, and other such hilarities, managing to balance the seriousness with a lot of fun. He's a good speaker, if apparently a little puzzled by the British at times (ha! as if we're the strange ones...)

Glen Hill, who I'd not heard of before, gave a talk on the Cottingley Fairies, photographed by his mother. He drew some rather strained parallels with recent conflict in the Middle East, making him perhaps the most clearly anti-religious speaker. Not that that would worry me in the slightest, of course...

George Hrab provided musical entertainment, and came across as a really cool bloke. I'll have to get an album of his music!

Adam Savage is, of course, one of the presenters of Mythbusters, and discussed some of the making of the show, primarily based around trying to see how well someone can swim in a pool full of syrup. Serious science, as I'm sure you'll agree!

So much for the summary... on to more serious discussion. And less serious, too...