As I wrote in my previous piece, I spent the weekend of 4/12-13 at the QED conference in Manchester, England. This event is run by the terrific people at the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) who did an incredible job of lining up speakers, arranging panels and delivering all of it in an entirely accessible manner. If you are interested in science, humanism, skepticism, and related subjects, do attend QED in the future, you will not be disappointed.
I’d like to start by thanking the amazing team at MSS for doing such an incredible job organizing and delivering my favorite conference every year. These guys, Mike Hall, Michael Marshall, Andy Wilson and the rest of the gang did an amazing job of making this a tremendously welcoming event for all, including we people with disabilities. They are a terrific bunch of people whom, if you get the opportunity, you should meet and befriend as they are simply awesome.
I’d also like to specifically thank a few friends for hanging out and making my time there so special. These include Hayley and Charlie Stevens, James and Liz from Pod Delusion, Adam and his terrific mom Jeanie and many more. Part of what makes QED so special is having the opportunity to socialize with so many other really smart and interesting people. If you attend a QED in the future, you will find that you already have friends there, you just haven’t met them yet.
The QED Speakers
I enjoyed virtually every presentation and panel I attended at QED. Most special, however, was the keynote speaker, Nate Phelps, formerly of the hateful Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps described, in harrowing detail, his life growing up as son of the violent Fred Phelps. What made Nate’s talk so compelling is that it was delivered entirely without anger, bitterness or the “hate” one might assume that one who escaped from the hell of his early life would maintain. Phelps spoke with kindness and I don’t think a single person of the 550 or so in the room didn’t feel tremendously moved by his talk.
A large part of QED is the notion of “being reasonable.” In fact, Michael Marshall, a QED organizer and my dear friend Hayley Stevens do a terrific podcast called “Be Reasonable” in which they interview people with beliefs radically different from heir own. I asked Hayley, “How do you remain so patient? How don’t you lose your shit talking to these people?” Hayley said, “We, Marsh and me, we just want to learn so we’ve learned to be good at listening.”
At one point in the conference, I had the opportunity to enjoy a hallway chat with James O’Malley, editor of the awesome Pod Delusion podcast to which I make an occasional contribution. James asked me the simple question, “How can we enforce accessibility regulations, standards and such on web sites that get fewer than 20 hits per month?” James’ query interested me, I’m terrific at telling people that the accessibility of their technology (web site, app, whatever) is shit but, when I do, I have, in the past, only had solutions for remediation in hand for the wealthiest of organizations out there, big companies, government agencies, universities and the kinds of institutions who can afford to pay high priced consulting dollars for experts while offering nothing for all of the important skeptical sites out there run by individuals and groups altogether too small to pay anyone, let alone a contractor to do accessibility remediation.
During one panel, I asked a question that was really more of a statement on accessibility, the right to read, literacy rights, discrimination and other fundamental issues regarding disability. I became very aggressive, I was a dick. The reality of the situation is that everyone on the stage wanted to be accessible, they didn’t know how. Thus, I’m launching into a new project associated with Skeptability, a disability centric sister site to Skepchick, that will gather accessibility resources in a manner that they an be used by non-engineers to do their own remediation. Overwhelmingly, new web sites in this community are based in WordPress and those that aren’t tend to use either Drupal or Joomla, systems on which an author can make their work very accessible with very little time or effort involved. I’m going to try to make it all as simple as possible and will try to write the prose using as little jargon as I can. I hope having such a resource will help make the world of skepticism more welcoming to all.
If I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem. Around this community, I’ve been a good critic but a terrible fixer.
Of the more than a dozen presentations and panels I attended in Manchester, including the terrific Skepticamp organized by the Pod Delusion gang on Friday, there was only one that I didn’t enjoy too much. this was the “Guerrilla Skeptics” talk given by Las Vegas magician and mentalist Mark Edward.
First, Edward, a performer of tremendous talent told us that he wouldn’t do a demonstration of cole reading or mentalism as the audience would already know about that stuff. The audience has all previously seen Richard Wiseman turn a tea towel into a rubber chicken but the audience always enjoys seeing the trick again, even if Wiseman had long previously bored with doing the gag. Perhaps, if Edward and warmed up the audience with a bit of humor and “magic,” he would have seemed less angry and would have been a more effective presenter.
During his talk, Edward showed a slide containing a picture of a banner stating, “Sylvia Brown is a Convicted Felon.” This is true, the late pseudo-psychic, Sylvia Brown was convicted of a felony in her past. When I heard him mention this, I muttered to the person sitting beside me, “Convicted felon? You mean people like Nelson Mandela, Mohandus Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Brian Dunning?” and he snickered.
Ad hominem, last I checked, was a logical fallacy. That Brown had been convicted of a felony is orthogonal to whether or not she had actual psychic abilities.
If we explore the case of skeptical celebrity, Brian Dunning, we may have a different perspective on using such logical fallacies in our arguments. Dunning pled guilty to fraud charges and admitted that he had stolen more than a million US dollars using illegal and fraudulent techniques. Dunning has, thus far, refused to apologize for the crimes for which he was convicted, instead, saying, “It wasn’t really very much money.” Having had a drug addict friend of mine spend six months in a Florida County Jail for stealing $200 worth of crap from a discount store while seeing Dunning steal more than 5000 times as much and get no time certainly annoys me but that’s a function of the general inequities of the American legal system – steal a little, go to jail; steal a lot, get a fine and continue with your safe suburban life.
Do Dunning’s criminal behavior cast doubt on the value of his Skeptoid podcast? I would say “no,” hacking crimes of which he was convicted say nothing about the quality of the research, presentation or anything else about Skeptoid, one of my most favorite podcasts. Dunning’s work product is outstanding and it’s one of the very few podcasts that never backs up in my pod catcher, when I see a Skeptoid episode has dropped, I listen almost immediately. Dunning’s work in the skeptical movement is undoubtedly excellent but, indeed, he is not just a convicted felon, he’s a convicted fraud. Thus, the ad hominem statement that Sylvia Brown had been a felon says as much about her as the same statement does about Dunning. If you’re going to use logical fallacies to combat those with whom we disagree, you need, to avoid hypocrisy, to use the same fallacious statements about our friends.
When Edward said that Phil Plate’s notion of, “don’t be a dick,” was a bad idea for behavior towards all but “friends and family,” I started hearing “under the breath” mutterings from others sitting near me. In short, it came down to, “this is what is wrong with skepticism in America.” I felt a bit of shame for my fellow US skeptics and, more so, started questioning my own tactics regarding accessibility and the skeptical movement.
I’m happy that I sat through Edward’s talk as, in many ways, it’s helped me formalize my approach to “be reasonable” while trying to affect change regarding accessibility. Edward caused me to ask, “am I that guy?” and, when the answer was, “well, shit Chris, you are…” I decided to make some changes in how I approach people regarding the issue I personally find most important.
The 20 Is Plenty Campaign
One of the most interesting conversations I had at QED was over breakfast with a lovely woman named Anna Semlyen. Anna is the leader of the “20 Is Plenty” campaign to have speed limits in residential areas reduced to twenty miles per hour. Her core issue is the rights of individuals to walk and ride bicycles more safely. Her Skepticamp presentation was loaded with highly compelling data for why this is a really good idea and, of course, pedestrian issues are also at teh core of the movement for independence for people with disabilities. It was absolutely terrific to have the opportunity to discuss the intersection of her issues with those on which I work and I look forward to helping try to promote this issue in the US in the future.
As I say at the top of this piece, if you haven’t attended QED before, come next year; if you’ve come in the past, please return as I’d enjoy meeting you again. To all of the organizers, speakers and attendees, here’s a big Gonz thank you for making the even so incredible.