QED – a great excuse to do even more

If you follow either me or #qedcon on twitter, you may have noticed that I was at a big geeky conference this weekend.

First up, a quick review:

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Great speakers, a range of interesting and challenging subjects, well organised, and a wonderful crowd. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone with an interest in interesting things.

If I ever get round to it there are a load of different subjects that I saw talks on that I could write about, but I doubt I will.

One thing really strikes me though: we should do this more.

The Skeptics in the Pub network has grown hugely over the last few years, and there are groups all over the UK. These vary hugely, both in the scale of the events and the resources available. I have been at both ends of this, setting up and running Lancaster Skeptics as a one man band while working full time at the other end of the country, before moving south and getting involved in the original London Skeptics and the new Soho Skeptics, both of which have several people involved, an established audience, and enough resources to be able to aim high.

QED was all that is good about the Skeptics in the Pub network writ large, not least because it is a collaborative effort between two of the countries most active groups, the Merseyside Skeptical Society and the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society. I think over 400 people attended, and tickets sold out well in advance, and I believe there was a waiting list.

The impression I got was that there was plenty of enthusiasm amongst all the attendees for more events, and everyone is already complaining that there is 13 months to go.

So why don’t we take all that great work, and copy it or build on it elsewhere? I think the community is big enough, and growing enough, to sustain another equivalent event elsewhere, probably at a different time of year. Edinburgh puts on the Skeptics on the Fringe, which is a brilliant piece of work, rightly recognised at the Ockham’s this year, but I think that is specific to the area and time. London did have The Amazing Meeting a few years ago, which was an import from the James Randi Educational Foundation, and I think London is probably the natural place to go next.

I don’t know how this would work really – the QED team have clearly done an excellent job, but there is only so much they can do for free while still having time to sleep (and I get the impression organising QED takes a huge amount of effort), and they are all based in the North West. There are 5 Skeptics in the Pub groups in London alone, many more in the South East, and a wide range of other related organisations. However, the QED team have demonstrated their own value too well to be left out.

I think the important bit, if there are to be more events on this scale, is that they co-ordinate and work together. I think I’m being pulled into thinking that there should be a single organising body that supports two (or more) big events a year, and supports grassroots skepticism throughout the rest of the year. At a guess, I would imagine two successful events a year could fund a massive increase in quality skeptical activism, but there would need to be a way of channelling this in a way that made some strategic sense.

So, I guess I think British skepticism should be thinking about a way to organise itself a bit to achieve three ends – put on more events of this scale, co-ordinate better between local groups, and share resources out better.

I don’t know if there is any remnant politics from the last TAM or between different groups that I am not aware of, and I have no intention at all of stepping on anyone’s toes, and I don’t care. I just think we should use the inspiration and example of a wonderful weekend to push on.


  1. Regarding “Skeptics on the Fringe” as being very specific to an area and time. In one sense it is yes. It’s specific to the worlds largest international festival which is always held in Edinburgh in August.

    As I mentioned on twitter I think you have to be careful as regards saturating the market. We are in the middle of a recession and there will always be a lot of skeptics who can’t afford to attend even one large scale event (of which we currently have two in the UK: one three week festival that grows in size and scale year on year and one flagship conference).

    I don’t think more and bigger events is the way forward. I think more locally focused events and the like would be favourable.

    Though here is a thought: how about a SitP conference? Hosted by the bigger SitP around the country (by attendance) with sessions broadcast between groups and online?

  2. Yeah, that’s what I was referring to – it would be difficult for anyone else to replicate your model, because we don’t have the tie-ins.

    I think you’re right about being careful saturating the market, and it would need to be price controlled as much as possible.

    But I really don’t think bigger events and local activism are mutually exclusive. I’m suggesting that well produced large events could sustain a lot more activism, which otherwise we couldn’t afford to put on. That’s speculation at this point, but seems plausible.

    Your suggestion looks interesting – How would you feel about setting up say five venues, all streamed online, so people can take part from eg London, Manchester, Edinburgh or their own front room? Was that what you meant? Sounds interesting to me.

    Any thoughts on having a more formal structure to support British skeptical groups, and move resources between groups?

    • Cardinal Fang
    • April 15th, 2013

    The QED organisers deserve the biggest of medals. I don’t know when they get to sleep over the year!

    I believe London skeptics are beginning to coordinate some central resources for the Skeptics in the Pub network, although I get the impression this is still in it’s infancy (can a London Skeptic correct me if I’m wrong on this)

    It might be good to have a QED South, perhaps towards the end of the year, as Manchester is a long way for many people – BUT I don’t think it should be in London (it’s too easy for things in the south of England to become too London-centric). Somewhere like Oxford, Winchester or Reading for example (Reading might be a boring town, but it is a major railway hub, so transport wise it’s easy to get to, whilst Winchester/ Oxford are nice places to visit).

    Alternatively, who about an event similar to Oxfam’s “Oxjam”, where local groups put on their own smaller events under the umbrella title – have a a national “skeptical festival” where groups around the country are encouraged to hold events for the public to raise awareness, under an overall banner, and with centralised publicity.

    Edinburgh’s “Skeptics on the Fringe” has been very successful. I find myself wondering whether it would be possible to try and extend the format to getting into music festivals – have “Skeptics in the field” events. The Uncaged Monkeys have done a couple, and Skeptics on the Fringe has shown that if these sorts of events are held, people will come (plus many music festivals are a bastion of woo. It’s time to redress the balance).

  3. The South East Skeptics are assembling currently and looking to do a large event (not in London). We’ve spoken with the QED team and are hoping to coordinate so our events and advertising don’t clash. Hopefully we’ll end up pulling something off, with the QED team’s help!

  4. I must admit, while it would be a pleasure to be at an event like QED without having to organise it, the thing that would excite me more would be if people used the energy and excitement – not to mention the contacts – they seem to get from QED to then go on and do other things. There are so many potential projects out there, so many worthwhile causes, so many ‘targets’ and people exploiting those who haven’t yet had access to the information which makes us skeptical about a topic. I’d love to see people taking their QED energy and becoming active against pseudoscience, or taking a skeptical message to the wider world. But then again, I’m a mischief-monger, so I would think that way… 🙂

    Either way, it’s been humbling and rewarding and self-affirming to see such a great response to our event. It’s an honour to be able to do this for the community.

  5. Conference-wise, we had TAM London and the first QED within a few months of each other with no real problems. They’re not particularly massive conferences, and I suspect you could do two or three of a similar size each a year with no real conflicts.

    That said, I’d be opposed to a ‘QED-South’ because like Marsh I think it’d be boring. QED is aimed very much at a traditional skeptic audience; I’d like to see an event that reaches out to other groups.

  6. I think there is room for a skeptic conference down south, and I think QED provides a great template for making it community minded. Low cost, ease of access, encouraging networking, I feel QED does all these things very well indeed!

  7. I think I’d tend to agree with Marsh; the amount of time and effort that goes into an event on the scale of QEDcon is not at all trivial, and if everyone who had enthusiasm put that towards some projects with skepticism-compatible outcomes (or whatever you want to call ‘results’ in this case), that would probably be a better goal than ‘more of the same’.

    While we love QED because it’s fun and inspiring and a big party, it’s more of a regroup, a pat on the back and a boost to keep going through the rest of the year.

    I don’t think we need more of those. Although obviously not everyone can attend and if there’s only one per year people will miss out… I’m not sure it’s the best use of resources to start them in other parts of the country.

    I think it’s better to focus on diverse things; unique projects like the Fringe, science festivals (I would say that, go WinSciFest, woo!), and supporting local skeptical activities in the various regions.

    I don’t think things-too-close-to-London would work in the way QED does, because there’s so much going on here already.

    Improving accessibility was something that came up a good few times over the weekend, and I think that’s a really important goal to focus on as well. Widening the audience, making people feel welcome.

    That’s my 2p.

  8. The South East Skeptics Society has formed with the intention of putting on larger events than our own SITPs down here.

    I would be interested in getting involved in a QED 3.5 somewhere. Once a year is not enough! 🙂

    • I Thought I Saw It Move
    • April 16th, 2013

    Remember from QED 2012 – during the questions after D.J. Grothe’s talk, was mentioned that many people often seem skepticism as something that you need to be smart or have a science basis to take part in. ,

    Reply was that good outreach for such would would be to emphasise that it can effectively save you money, by not wasting it on quack therapies.

    Maybe a nationally coordinated campaign about that – maybe taking ShutUpInfinity’s spoof ad as an inspiration (http://shutupinfinity.com/).

    Have anyone (groups or individuals) who wants to do their own events in the same week, but have the resources and publicity materials available for them to do it. Have some info on how to weigh up claims made by quacks etc, plus maybe one or two silly stunts.

    Maybe get as many skeptic groups to have stalls in their town and the like in that week

  9. Of course, we’re not thinking of a QED clone – we want to do something a little bit more different and we’re focusing on activism too. Watch this space!

  10. QED was wonderful and the guys are awesome. I don’t know if it was better this year, or if I was just more comfortable because I’d been before, but it was like coming home.

    The thing about Skeptics on the Fringe is we work with what we’ve got in Edinburgh, and what we’ve got is the Arts Festival August, and the Science Festival in the spring.

    What we’ve found is that we benefit hugely from the festivals’ existing infrastructures. Plus we reach audiences who might not come to a SitP talk.

    So my advice is “start where you are”. Look around for events you can participate in.

    It strikes me that a way to go might be to do something at the Literary Festival in Hay, for example (I assume that Brum SitP is the nearest group).

    I saw that Hayley Stevens was looking for contacts at Glastonbury, and I know the folks in Cheltenham did stuff at the Cheltenham Science Festival.

    Just my 2 cents. (Other currencies are avalable)

  1. April 15th, 2013

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