The David Meade Project – Tonight at 22:45 on BBC1

You may remember that David Meade gave us our first wonderful talk last year, in which he bent spoons, read minds and made many people laugh. You can read some reactions in the comment section of this blog post. This evening, we’re delighted and excited to be able to watch the first in a series of the David Meade Project. The Facebook page for this is here and I would strongly suggest that you watch this video from this morning’s Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Northern Ireland’s radio. It’s on tonight at 22:45 on BBC1 Northern Ireland. There are four episodes, this first one is about intelligence. So go on! Watch!

More information soon about QED and our next guest.

Overview of our #PICamp Session

On Saturday, in the delightful NICVA building in North Belfast, Phil, Patrick and I (Conor) attended the Slugger O’Toole‘s Political Innovation Unconference. Before getting in to the content of our session, I feel obliged to mention how great the facilities were. Not only was there free wifi, there was also food (mmm breakfast and lunch), tea and coffee – even some beverages after the event! That really made my day, given that it was a weekend morning. The aim of PICamp was to:

“…use the distributed intelligence of the blogosphere to help sharpen some great ideas about how politics can change”

(Source, retrieved 22nd November 2010)

Nice, eh? The first event of the day was a brief introduction to the organisers and to the concept of an unconference. I’d never been to an unconference before, so this was a good way to learn about it. Various people in the room suggested ideas and I also suggested the talk that we’d mentioned before, that of how to promote critical thinking and reason-based decision making in politics – on national and local levels. This seemed to go down fairly well among the group, which was nice. The talks were scheduled on the timetable-board thingy and we all headed to our first session – our session was one of the first so we took our seats and got started.

I first gave an overview of why I’d suggested the topic and a few examples of what I considered illogical and unreasonable laws; the Digital Economy Bill, existing drug legislation and libel laws. Then I shut up and let the conversation flow, only interjecting a few times. What follows is taken from the notes I wrote about the session, formed into my experience of the session. For obvious reasons, this is just my subjective interpretation of the session and if anyone can correct me, please do so in the comments.

Having outlined my opinion, I put the following question out there: What is it about politics that leads people to make poor decisions? The response to that was the notion that democracy, at its very core, can tend to be illogical. Instead of making decisions that are rational and evidence-based, elected representatives are lead to make decisions that are people-pleasing and populist. If you make a decision that the people you represent do not like, for whatever reason, the odds are you will not be re-elected once your term is up. The pressure then, is on keeping your job and making decisions that your voters will like and support. Politicians have to be populists, especially during an election year. There was a very specific point made that it would be nice to see one debate in Northern Ireland without religion and sectarian issues being brought up.

This issue being identified, there were some key suggestions in combatting the problem is populism in politics. These related to participation, open data and separation of local and national politics. Participation was mostly about citizens actually taking their role in society seriously and participating in the democratic process at all stages, not just when their niche interests are involved. This can potentially involve participatory budgeting and decision-making, whereby local councils and government branches involve citizens in the allocation of budgets and other issues. This is of course a two-way process; it involves the politicians taking the risk of involving people and the people being willing to take the time to get involved and make rational, reasonable decions. It always risks falling prey to the powerful influence that interest groups may have, as well as being clearly against the idea of a representative democracy and leaning more towards a direct democracy. It also assumes another thing that is currently dearly lacking: data.

Data on the political process and political issues is something that I think has to be key in decision-making. Without having access to data, citizens cannot possibly make their choices in a reasonable manner. The data need to be easily-digestible though, in other words the data need to be clear and concise. It also helps if the data are not just bloody PDFs. This kind of data will help politicians to show citizens that the decisions they are making are sound and based in reason and evidence. Well, in theory anyway.

Finally, the suggestion was made that there needs to be a much stronger separation of local politics from national politics. National representatives shouldn’t be bothered by local issues like fixing the bloody pothole on your road. That’s a local issue and as such should be dealt with by your local representative. This would leave national representatives with more time to focus on national issues and leave them less concerned with dealing with local problems.

So, I suppose that’s my two pence on how the session went. If you have additional ideas leave them in the comments.

Do you want to be a speaker at Belfast Skeptics in the Pub?

We’re always looking for people to speak to Belfast Skeptics in the Pub. Our events happen once a month, usually in the first week of the month. If you or someone you know if well-informed about and/ or passionate about something that relates to science, critical thinking or skepticism, we would probably be interested in hearing you speak! So, if you know a lot about astronomy and want to show us some pretty pictures of galaxies far, far away, or you have an acute understanding of how the journalism of science works, or are fascinated by how politics in influences by particular social groups, please let us know. Either Tweet us, leave a comment with your email address below, or email us directly at hello@belfastkseptics.com

We look forward to hearing from you!

We Want your Feedback

So we’ve had two events so far and have learned a lot from them. What we know so far is that people like structure and guest speakers. What we need now is more concrete feedback from everyone who has been to Belfast Skeptics in the Pub, as well as anyone who wasn’t able to go because of timing or location issues. We’ve created a feedback form here that we’d be delighted to get your comments on. There’s an option to put in your email address to get clarification of feedback and a further option to add that email address to the mailing list, but it’s all optional and opt-in.

So go forth and give us your feedback! We’d love to hear how you think we can improve.

Why I am a Skeptic, by Conor

To be honest, the question of why I am a skeptic doesn’t come up very frequently. I suppose I don’t really define myself too rigidly as a skeptic. For me, it’s more of a case of applying skepticism to various areas of my life. My first introduction to the idea of organised groups of skeptics was only around a year ago, when at a UCD (Dublin) Humanist Society talk, one of the founders of the Irish Skeptics Society spoke to us. While I had already been interested and had applied skepticism to my own life, I didn’t really have a name for it at that point (other than critical thinking, I suppose). So, listening to the Irish Skeptics Society was really interesting and got me a little keen on the ideas. I dug around and found a load of podcasts, starting with science and moving on to specific skepticism podcasts (Little Atoms and Skeptics Guide to the Universe were perfect introductions to the topic).That was what first hinted to me about the Skeptics in the Pub groups nationwide. This being around April, I knew I would be moving to Belfast and was keen to find any similar groups. To my surprise, there were no skeptics groups in Queen’s University, in Belfast or even in Northern Ireland at all! I had emailed the two founders of the Irish Skeptics Society and they suggested setting up a group of our own. Speaking with Phil and Alana about this, we all realised that it was probably an excellent idea. So we set up the group.

But why am I a skeptic? I’m a skeptic because I prefer, and try to avoid, accepting ideas without evidence of validity. If we are to progress as a species, we need to weed out ideas that are baseless and encourage those that have support from reason and proof. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it’s constantly being improved.

Should you be a skeptics? I don’t know. I think people ought to apply critical reasoning to as much of their life as possible. But is it necessary to define yourself as a skeptic? Is the term skeptic even necessary? At the moment, I think it’s pretty important. It’s a good way of promoting the ideas of skepticism among people who have yet to hear about it. I hope one day that it won’t be needed any more and that people will, by default, not accept ideas without first question their validity. It’s a long-term goal, but it’s achievable.

I was keen on starting Belfast Skeptics in the Pub Question the Answersboth for myself and for other people. For myself, I wanted a group to chat with who would attempt to discuss concepts without reference to tradition, popularity or any of the many logical fallacies (which I’m sure we’ll cover in more detail in the future). For other people, I think a forum in which you can question your own ideas is hugely important. People need to feel free to challenge ideas that are clearly (as they say on Skeptics with a K) bat-shit crazy, as well as ideas that are more generally accepted. Like millions of animals rafting across the oceans (from here). Think that’s not very important? Well, people still believe that MMR causes autism. Which it doesn’t. And yet it still gets air time.

Question your ideas and questions other people’s ideas. That’s why I’m a skeptic.

What is Skepticism?

skep·ti·cism
[skep-tuh-siz-uhm]
–noun
1. skeptical attitude or temper; doubt.
2. doubt or unbelief with regard to a religion, esp. Christianity.
3. ( initial capital letter ) the doctrines or opinions of philosophical Skeptics; universal doubt.
[dictionary.com]

n.
1. A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety. See synonyms at uncertainty.
2. Philosophy.
1. The ancient school of Pyrrho of Elis that stressed the uncertainty of our beliefs in order to oppose dogmatism.
2. The doctrine that absolute knowledge is impossible, either in a particular domain or in general.
3. A methodology based on an assumption of doubt with the aim of acquiring approximate or relative certainty.
3. Doubt or disbelief of religious tenets.
[Answers.com]

“Contemporary skepticism (or scepticism) is loosely used to denote any questioning attitude, or some degree of doubt regarding claims that are elsewhere taken for granted.” [wikipedia]

Skeptics groups, having adopted the American spelling, have sprung up across the world, bringing together people who are interested in discussing the issues which surround blind faith, dubious claims, and ideas of reality versus that which we are told to believe. Simply put, the Skeptics in the Pub group is a gathering of critical thinkers, those with an interest in science, who think logically, don’t take anything at face-value, and generally prefer “facts” being backed up with reputable evidence without dubious claims purporting to be so.

The premise of the group is to meet like-minded individuals and discuss these ideas and prevalent issues in current news and media, as well as a range of general topics and commonly accepted ideas and norms.

Skepticism is a state of mind, relating to having a questioning and doubtful mind; looking at evidence before deciding.

Skeptics are not simply debunkers, automatically ruling out the existence of the paranormal, the extraterrestrial, or the supernatural. Instead, a skeptic reserves judgment until the evidence is gathered. If the clues points to a mundane explanation, skeptics will accept that conclusion. If the available evidence suggests an extraordinary phenomenon, skeptics will accept that conclusion as well. The difference is in the strength of the evidence required. The more unusual a claim is, the more challenging to accepted science, the more skeptics will demand that the supporting evidence be extensive, thoroughly documented, and objectively verifiable. — K.O. Myers.

Further definitions will be discussed in future posts.

Skepticism covers a range of topics including: [list after the fold] Continue reading “What is Skepticism?”

Welcome

questionSkeptics in the Pub is an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and social networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and other like-minded individuals. It provides an opportunity for skeptics and rationalists to talk, share ideas in a casual, relaxed atmosphere, and discuss whatever topical issues come to mind, as well as having fun while promoting skepticism, science, and rationality. [Wikipedia]

Belfast Skeptics in the Pub aims to be the springboard for a group of people looking to further the cause of skepticism in Belfast. Drawing inspiration from groups in Dublin, America and Britain we aim to be an informal forum for the dissemination of science based evidence to fight the tide of misinformation in our society today. As well as the pub-based discussions, we may have other events. Plus we’ll hang out and have some fun at the same time!

Join the Facebook Group, and follow us on Twitter.

We’re currently planning our first meeting, leave any comments and suggestions you may have.