By Alex Moshakis
One rainy Saturday morning in October, several hundred people gathered at a Manchester hotel for QED, the UK’s largest convention of science and skepticism (they prefer the American spelling). Pitched towards rationalists, the event is an opportunity to hear popular science communicators discuss the issues that concern skeptics the most: the rising tide of misinformation, the peril of credulity and the urgency of evidence-based facts. The event had sold out in July and those lucky enough to nab a ticket swarmed the hotel, roving the three floors across which it was held. In the convention’s main hall there were glitzy chandeliers and mirrors, and a stage backed by large screens, in the TED talks mould. Over coffee, some guests traded tales of pseudoscience. Others denounced quackery. In her opening address the convention’s MC, Helen Arney, a ukulele player and former physicist, expressed sympathy for hotel guests unconnected to the convention, as if they had unwittingly stumbled into a lion’s den of critical thinking. “I’ve already heard some amazing conversations in lifts,” she said, “between people who have no idea what is going on.”
On the event’s website, QED, which stands for “Question, Explore, Discover”, is described as “a weekend of science, reason and critical thinking”, though it might justifiably be advertised as a get-together for the skeptical community. Lately their ranks have grown. In October, QED bagged its biggest crowd yet – in recent years, delegates have begun flying in from around the world, and turnouts have been steadily increasing at smaller events: panel discussions, pub meets, village hall gatherings.
At QED, speakers gave presentations on topics with which most skeptics are familiar:the fallacies of the wellness industry, the history of poltergeists. But the underlining message related more to the skeptical process: how to become a more effective critical thinker, how to use that skill to better discern whether information is true or false, and how to share that information with a wider audience. “Skepticism isn’t just about saying Bigfoot isn’t real,” one skeptic told me during a break between talks. “It’s a tool set!”
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