Sunday, 17 October 2010

TAM London Blog: No. 5 – Black-Dawk down.

(8.50 AM, 16th October, TAM venue, Edgeware Road, London )

Right, so, the event kicked off. We piled into the massive auditorium-type place. Well, we queued in an orderly fashion and politely sat down, as this was an early-morning talk about science, rationalism etc., not a Friday night football match between two rival teams with particularly enthusiastic but idiotic fans.

It was well good to find that the Amateur Transplants were providing some warm-up entertainment. I’m a big fan of these guys, and they returned throughout the day to provide sweary medical-based songs as entertainment. At one point I said they were like the TAM equivalent of the MS Office paperclip, only very welcome instead of annoying (It was evening and, more importantly, I was drunk when I tweeted that, so may have come across as me being a prick, but then I don’t need the filter of technology to achieve that).

So, after a few ditties from the AT’s (a lot of acronyms going on here, sorry about that but I have a lot to get through), the event proper began. I won’t be trying to explain or describe the songs, partly because I don’t really have the linguistic skills required to effectively describe music, partly because I’d prefer you to go out and investigate the AT’s yourself, and partly because that even if I was willing to hum or sing a few of their numbers to you, this would be meaningless in text.

Host for the event was Richard Wiseman, who is a professor of psychology. This is worth bearing in mind, as he kept repeating it during and after many of his frankly quite hilarious set pieces and joke bits. I imagine this was said to make the fact that he was clowning around even more intrinsically ridiculous, and for everyone else it no doubt did. But as someone who has worked very closely with high-ranking psychology professors, I’m aware that sanity on their part is a bonus at the best of times. No matter, he was one of the best and most ridiculously over-qualified MC’s I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen loads, you know.

We got a brief welcome talk from James Randi, who I think is a gnome. Granted, he is super-rational, founder of the JREF which was the organisation responsible for TAM, and has dedicated his life to the fighting of pseudoscience and other abuses of rationality and logic.

I don’t care, I still think he’s a gnome. He’s short, alarmingly spry despite his advanced age (82) has an amazing white beard, and does magic tricks; that’s a gnome by anyone’s definition, surely? I didn’t see a pointy hat, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one. If I was trying to hide the fact that I was a gnome, I’d probably hide my hat and try to convince the human race to be rational and scientific too.

Not saying it’s a bad thing; if anything it’s awesome.

The first speaker proper was Susan Blackmore. I’d not heard much about her before, but the name rang a bell. Turns out she’s that psychologist woman with the mad hair. A very interesting talk was given by her, all about her previous days as an enthusiastic paranormal researcher, hell bent on obtaining empirical proof of the existence of ESP. It’s an interesting tale, not really mine to tell, but I did love the irony of the fact that her persistence and almost fanatical devotion to her goals meant she ended up doing dozens of well thought out and well designed experiments (of many variations), which, despite intense analysis, failed to produce any significant or useful results.

In short, her extreme desire to provide support for the pseudoscientific gave her the exact same experiences as any good scientist (and me) ends up having. See, it is a process, not a ‘belief’. Like respiration. Or cheese.

And she was followed by none other than Professor Richard Dawkins. A lot of people just say ‘Richard Dawkins’. I always include the ‘professor’ because it seems weird without it, especially having seen him in person now.

I learned a lot from Prof. Richard Dawkins, the militant atheist. For a start, I learned that militant actually means softly spoken and polite and reasonable and well-thought out and ever so slightly exasperated. You know, like a terrorist or something. He may have had an AK47 slung over his shoulder, but I think that would have spoiled the lining of his tweed jacket, so I doubt it.

His contention was that evolution as a subject should be taught as a new ‘classic’, as Latin and Greek were taught, under the argument that they gave you a well-rounded and useful set of skills with which to function in the real world. He said that the study of evolution offers this in a much more comprehensive (and genuinely useful) manner.

People say that Dawkins is a one-trick pony when it comes to evolution (Well, they’ve tweeted it to me, so I think that counts). In his defence, it does seem to be his area of interest/expertise, so I’m inclined to let him off on that one. He did make some mocking jokes about those educated in the classics. This could be seen as elitist, and maybe it is. It’s also fun, sorry to say. I’m sure it works both ways.

It was interested to find that there are two types of evolution, Neutral evolution, where most of the changes that occur on the molecular level are of little or no consequence (a controversial theory), and punctuated equilibrium, which believes that most of evolution occurs in small groups while the bulk of a species remains constant (also a controversial theory). Anything evolution-based is controversial, it seems.

He also used phrases like ‘if you mate with an animal’. It’s probably a holdover from enduring too many Welsh stereotypes, but that phrase caught my worried attention. I tried to figure out if it was a subtle dig at me, but I think that was just me being egomaniacally paranoid.

I think everyone thoroughly enjoyed Dawkins’ talk, a lot of people were clearly there to see him. I think that’s one of the alarming ironies about Dawkins; he engenders this unrelenting devotion to his views and people are often very unwilling to hear him criticised, which is much more akin to religious leaders and their kind. I don’t think he would like that, even if it did mean more book sales for him...

E-mail: humourology (at)

Twitter: @garwboy


Anonymous said...

If he was looking right at you when he mentioned mating with an animal, then, yeah, you weren't being paranoid.
Would have loved to be there but still stuck in the colonies for now.
Thanks for the updates!


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