#QEDcon – Day1 – Live blog


This will be my humble attempt at a live-blog. But I’m not the BBC, its just wordpress, so if you want updates, you will need to press “refresh” … oh and if I stop doing updates, then assume my laptop power ran out.

08:47 Just had breakfast and great chat with Chris French, now sitting in the at the front, Room is starting to fill up.

08:53 Looking at the tweets … a few hangovers … I see tweets such as …

  • I had so little sleep I think it could be classed as Homeopathic. Alas I didn’t get succussed first.
  • xcessive rain + room full of nerds = wet dog smell. Mmm… my hangover will love this.
  • Dear acetaldehyde, Kindly vacate my bloodstream. Love and kisses, Dan

09:02 Room full … not started yet … we appear to have a Dalek in the room (no kidding), wrong convention perhaps!!

09:06 Yep its confirmed now, QED time not in same time-zone as GMT :-)

09:12 Its started …Teaser video now playing … cool music, followed by George H introducing himself, wants us all to tweet (like thats going to happen at a nerdfest)

09:16 Bruce Hood takes the stage as the first speaker. Tells us who he is and what he does (interested in the mind and how it works). Has shown us a video of a really cool illusion, we all know its a trick, yet don’t know how it was done.Why do we still have supernatural beliefs, especially in the context of the rise of science? Science has succeeded in bringing new knowledge, but the public resist, why? Perhaps because science is not seen in the best light. Often folks believe in the supernatural because they have had an experience. Shows us a visual illusion, uses it to explain that we create a model of reality in our brains, follows up with an audio illusion. Now we have songs of praise (no kidding) uses subtitles so that what we hear is quite clearly an illusion.

Now talking about Childrens Intuitive theories, video to illustrate how early reasoning leads to the wrong conclusion … and proposes that this is why we end up with supernatural beliefs. Children look for patterns and forces, believe in essences. By age 5, assume Mind and body are different, also assume a creationist belief and believe in essential energies.

Patterns: the mind is designed to see faces (illustrates with a famous picture). Your belief system will cause you to seek out patterns that confirm it. This explains things such as sympathetic magic, it was the basis for herbal medicine and voodoo.

Would you stab a picture of a loved one through the eye. He tested this and measured the stress and also how the brain reacted when sentimental objects were crushed and axed. Shows us a video used to create the stress. They are still working on crunching the data.

Moves on to talk about anthropomorphism (viewing objects as having a life force) [Illustrates with Faulty Towers].

Now talking about essentialism. the idea that there is something unique … dogs are a dog type, and cats are a cat type …Children go beyond surface appearance. This appears to underpin supernatural beliefs. It explains why objects cannot be replaced. This is what is beind religious relics.

The Macbeth effect, when people have done something bad, they feel unclean. religion has a lot of cleansing rituals. Talks about how they test this and measure how people respond.

Now talking about cellular memories and how transplant folks feel that take on aspects of those they receive organs from.

Key question: Why do some believe and others don’t. uses some visual illusions. Suggests that beliefs never really go away, we all operate as supers and brights. But don’t give up, we can control … people need to be protected (MMR, Homeopathy), we need to expose the frauds. Talks about how he was involved in the bomb dowsing fraud last year. He discovers a company selling the ADE651 bomb detector, challenged it and used the press to help expose it.

has just picked somebody out to illustrate what is really going on …(he has a grenade!!) … he just dropped it (oops). He just finished (but no bang).

10:02 On a break now.

10:10 George takes the floor, mentions the breakout session and then introduces Kat Akingbade.

As an artist she has an interest in the science world. Works with educators in Nigeria (which is where she is from), does art projects. Today will talk to us about faith and skeptics, very interested in both sides. What does the faith based world think about science.

Is talking about feedback from her Channel 4 series.

Skepticism is not about doubting or attacking; it is “applying reason and critical thinking” to things. She also says, “can’t remember who Michael Shermer is, but I know he’s important”

Some stats … 98% of the planet have a faith of some description (does that imply only 2% are into science?). Makes the observation that multiple faiths co-exist in her family without any problem.

We now have a video of believers telling us what they think about their beliefs (yawn). (video still running, double yawn, wish I had gone to the breakout session instead).

OK, she is now suggestion that when a religious nutter does something bad, don’t blame the religion. But is suggesting that religious dogma is the real problem. Often faith leads to conflict or harm, not just good. Religious fanatics, dogma may lead to intolerance.

Now giving examples of positive aspects of faith.

(Sigh! … this is not the most exciting talk I’ve ever been to. I’ve stuck it out in the hope that it actually goes anywhere … but I guess thats not going to happen now, she is about to timeout)

She just said, “I don’t want to bore you, but .. ” … Nope too late, I hit that point 2 mins into this talk. Perhaps somebody else liked it, its just not been my cup of tea.

She is done now … phew!.

10:55 We now have the QED Vodka stunt … they made some Homeopathy vodka :-) … cool.

Apparently we all have a free supply of Homeopathy vodka via the tap in our hotel bathrooms.

11:05 on another 8 min break now.

11:36 Apologies folks, I lost my network connection and needed to re-boot, but am back now. We have a ghost panel in full flight. They are doing Q&A

Chris French – professor of the psychology of weird shit, on his tv shows. “We didn’t fake anything. That’s why nothing happened. Why no series 3.”.

Good question – what is normal? If belief in paranormal is ‘normal’, that makes the skeptics the weird ones <nervous laughter>

Talking about the risks of paranormal beliefs now – very sad

12:01 OK, 1 hour break for lunch now.

13:05 Right, we are rolling again (yep still in QEDcon time) next up we have Jim Al-Khaalili (Uni of Surrey Dept of Physics) talking about … “Is Time Travel Possible? determinism, Relativity and Arrows of Time”

Time goes by at the rate of 1 sec for every second :-)

He is giving us some background first …yes its a techi talk, but very interesting. We are up to 1905 with Einstein now .. E=Mc2 is boring, the exciting part was the new view of space and time it gave us. It leads to the notion of the Block Universe, we need to think of 4 dimensions. Its a very useful way of solving problems in physics, so does this mean that the future is fixed and deterministic (Einstein held that very, but its very extreme and not the entire store)

What Einstein discovered (in 1905) is that as you get closer to the speed of light, time gets slower. Its not an illusion, it really does run at different rates. This leads to the twins paradox (Alice and Bob – A + B) A zooms off for 1 year, B stays home, so in one sense, this is time travel because it allows us to travel into the future, but it does not mean that the future is out there already. We know this is real, it has been observed (for example using atomic clocks, one travelling and stationary).

In 1915, we got the general theory of relativity. Einstein explains gravity, not as a force, but because space-time is curved. But what it also does is slow time down. Hold you watch up and further away from the earth and time runs slower.

He is talking about stars becoming black holes … they provide a means of time travel.

Determinism got a wake-up call in the 1920s with the arrival of Quantum mechanics. He is not going into QM details, just using it to point out that it rescues us from determinism, so our future is not decided, because down at the basic building blocks, nature has not decided what she will do next. (Its not yet a done deal, some would argue against this conclusion.

Real time travel is if we could go back to the past, so can we do this?

According to the maths, it should be possible, but most physicists would say no because of all the paradoxes. He is using “The Terminator” to illustrate a paradox.

So, even with these paradoxes, there are serious physicists who look for a way out because they trust the maths … do we get back to determinism again? Perhaps not. In his mind the only way out is to recognise that there are parallel universes.

The Mona Lisa paradox. Leonardo builds a time machine sends a copy of the Mona-lot picture back to himself, this gives us two paradoxes, then later he will once again send it back. So at no point did he ever actually create it. Only a parallel universe resolves this.

So, how would we go about building a time machine. Carl Sagan’s Contact introduces the idea of a wormhole. Link two black holes using a wormhole and so we have a shortcut in space. But this also gives us a shortcut in time.

It looks like we need a new theory, Quantum mechanics + general relativity = Quantum Gravity. But how the heck can we even test it if we do this.

So for the moment, we can enjoy the stories, but no idea if practical time-travel will be possible.

On to Q&A now.

13:57 We are on a break again.

14:05 Its Chris Atkins now with “So long and thanks for all the truth”

Going to talk about his “Star suckers” film, and the reaction of the media to what he did. (The media reaction to it is far more interesting than the film itself).

He is showing us clips from his movie now … its the bit where we see then planting fake stories in newspapers by just ringing up and telling them. They simply did not check the facts.

Apparently once one paper runs a (fake) story, the others assume its true and simply copy it, but also often add a few made-up details. They gave the story to the Guardian of what they did. The tabloids tried to doorstep him, but they went to the wrong house.

They pay you to give them news stories, the dull ones don’t pay well, so this encourages people to embellish and make up weird stuff.

Its not just a few bad apples, most of the big names start out on the gossip desks, and if the do well, they rise to the top.

We watched 2nd video, they sold fake medical records to the papers. News of the World were annoyed and complained about invasion of privacy.

Next step … they went after Max Clifford …we see him on camera, and then what he really says when he thinks the camera is off (some bombshell stuff in there).

(You really really must go find and watch this film, it lifts the lid on what is really going on in the media).

The next section is all about how celebrity can really screw up politics … we are watching a clip with Geldof … what we see explains that live-aid was a political tool to stamp on make-poverty-history.

He isĀ  showing us now the 12 page rant letter he received from Geldof in reply.

Now we have the “fox” story … about the fox hunting scam they pulled off on the press to illustrate how they will buy up any old fiction. They created a fake urban fox-hunting video … the BBC ran it, as did all the tabloids.

We are done … 10 min break now.

15:02 Its Chris French now with “The psychology of Ghosts and Haunting”

Chris is giving us the roadmap for him talk … lots of stuff coming up.

Some stats … 37% believe in haunted houses, yet only 32% believe in ghosts (what the frack do the 5% in that gap think is happening)

Asks the question, “Are ghosts spirits?” … lots of words to explain the asnwer, quick summary is “no”.

Its interesting that ghostly encounters change from culture to culture. There are of course deliberate hoaxes as well, poltergeists often focus around a troubled teens who are seeking attention, for example the fox sisters. Another explanation is that people often misinterpret natural events, for example sleep paralysis, then mundane occurrences are soon added in, and deemed to be the ghost. Other things happen, water pipe hammering, rats etc… talks about the Lange & Houran who studied what happens when you set expectations. Also talked about Richard Wiseman’s 2002 study that collected data from folks walking around Hampton Court Palace.

ASP (Awareness during sleep paralysis). Typically 40% experience this, and 5% sense a presence or have difficulty breathing. What is interesting is that different cultures interpret this in different ways.

Top-Down processing – Pareidolia seeing faces in toast for example … Chris takes us through a few examples, nun bun, mary on toast, etc… Then shows us a Video of the ball players (with the gorilla) and explains that about 40% don’t see it. This is explained by what is known as inattentional blindness (IB), then tells us about some IB studies.

It calls into question eyewitness testimony for reported events. On a clock is the 4 an IIII or IV … most will say IV because its logical, but in reality 9for some odd reason), its IIII.

Memory for anomalous events. Believers tend to buy into this a lot more easily. One eyewitness testimony can influence another eyewitness. he talks about studies done that demonstrate this. Now talking about false memories for news coverage. They did a survey asking how many could remember seeing the 1st Bali bombing footage, 36% could. No such footage exists, these same folks were also found to be more prone to supernatural beliefs.

Persinger can artificially induceĀ  firing patterns in temporal lobes.

EMF or Infrasound (too low for human hearing) causing hauntings. They built a haunted room and found that it did cause the effect.

Plays us some EVP voices, then the backwards satanic messages. Shows us that you cannot hear the message that is apparently there until somebody tells you what it is supposed to be.

The role of the media. In the ghost hunting program, nothing ever happened. He shows a video diary, there are two instances of something apparently happening, a sneeze is heard … later it turned out to be an automatic air-freshener in the bathroom, but they never broadcast that.

another 5 min break.

16:02 Its Steven (Skeptics Guide to the Universe) Novella now …(our last talk of the day, but folks are still with us, including the Dalek at the back).

What is the greatest threat that the skeptical movement faces … the human brain. Steve is telling us how the brain is structured … lizard brain, primitive cortex, Neocortex. talks to us about each of these.

The human brain is a flawed tool, but understanding this can enpower you. Humans are emotional, not rational, we have imperfect perception, we are self-aware of only a small percentage of ouw own processing.

A lot of our decision making is sub-conscious for evolved reasons. We rationalize to resolve cognitive dissonance and results in reward.

Perception. Visual processing results in optical illusions, change blindness, attentional blindness. hallucinations. We have an inability to judge distance and speed. We have pattern recognition, but we suffer paredolia and see things that are not there.

(proceeds to talk us through a couple of visual illusions)

Our perception works well-enough, but it can fail a lot of the time, but most accept it as an illusion and move on, but folks looking for supernatural will embrace it as that.

Memory – you also cannot rely on this. There is false memory syndrome. Confidence does not predict accuracy. Memory is thematic and not detail-based. details will morph to fit the theme. We are highly suggestible (Hypnosis). We can be very selective about what we remember. Our brain creates a narrative.

Altered States – sleep deprivation (well that will bugger most of us here at QED), Seizures, Intoxication, Anoxia, Hypnosis.

Bias – pattern recognition (we see patterns and conclude there is a conspiracy), Agency detection (belief in God, angels, demons), ego gratification, attribution error, confirmation (we just confirm what we believe and ignore what conflicts with that), negative bias.

We are descended from folks we heard the wind in the grass and assumed Tiger. those who assumed wind got eaten by the tiger.

Emotion – we dislike uncertainty. We desire a sense of control and so we create rituals to take control. We desire to be liked, to be perceived as good.

Heuristics – these are mental short-cuts, but they often get us into trouble. We anchor to round numbers.

Optimism – science works, skepticism can mitigate the frailties of human thinking, our metacognition. Knowledge of statistics trumps probability heuristics.

We are into Q&A now.

OK, thats a wrap for the day

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