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!

Belfast Skeptics in the Pub – Event 3

I don’t think any of us could have predicted how well the last event could have gone. David Meade, the mindreader, spoke to us for hours about psychic “powers”, magic tricks and the art of deception. He demonstrated how to bend spoons, how to read minds and how to predict the lottery numbers. Ok, so I made the last part up, but he was pretty amazing overall. The bar has been set very high.

However, we must proceed and introduce our next speaker! We have the pleasure of hosting a talk by Dr. Lesley Storey of Queen’s University, Belfast. Lesley is a lecturer in psychology and she will be talking to us about myths in popular psychology. This talk will be especially interesting as hopefully it will shed some light on why we believe things that are not true.

Check here for the Eventbrite page to register for the event. It’s free and will give us an idea of the numbers of people intending to attend.

Date: Thursday 2nd December 2010

Time: 6pm

Location: The Club Room (up the stairs and around to the left) in The Parlour, 2-4 Elmwood Avenue, Belfast, BT9 6AY [map – although the front looks considerably different now!].

Political Innovation Camp

Political Innovatin logoSlugger O’Toole Political Innovation unconference takes place this Saturday in Belfast.

Firstly, an unconference is participant-driven conference centred around a theme or purpose. In short, anyone can talk about any topic. In this case, the focus is Northern Ireland politics.

Our talk will be based on “Rational thought in politics and media in Northern Ireland”, and we hope to encourage discussion through this.
The event is free to attend and anyone interested should definitely come along and engage in what will likely be a great event. Also; free lunch.

The current proposed talks are listed here.
Register to attend here.

All info is on the website: PoliticalInnovation.org.

Follow Political Innovation on Twitter: PIcamp.

Use the hashtag #picamp.

Join the Facebook Group

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.

Join the Mailing List

We’d like to take this time to mention our mailing list which we will be using to notify everyone of our events, or anything special that comes up. Naturally, we will keep these to a minimum and of course nothing spammy, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

We’re currently planning a few things at the minute: details of our next event will be posted here in the next few days, we will be talking at the Political Innovation event on 20th November in Belfast (it’s free, get your tickets) — More info to follow.

If you have any suggestions for future speakers please do let us know by email or as a comment below.

If you would like to write for the blog on any topics of Skepticism then just us know and we’d be happy to chat with you and have you on board.

Stay tuned.


We’ve created a place over on Tumblr to archive various bits of news, humour and other points of view that we find — Facebook/Twitter are all very well, but (Facebook in particular) is difficult to archive — and I do like the idea of posterity. These things we do and say on the internet are profound and our kids must see them etc.

And so I bring you the Belfast Skeptics Scrapbook. All things are to be taken seriously and lightheartedly. These are simply a collection of ideas. A myriad of thoughts.

Please offer any quotes, comics, sketches, videos, articles or anything else completely rediculous — just use the “submit” button at the top of the page.

score one for jesus

tim minchin quote

burden of proof ricky gervais

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.