Last night we held the first evening of the Oxford branch of Skeptics in the Pub. Come 6.15 and the bar we had booked was already filling up. By Seven o’clock it was packed and unfortunately not everyone could see or hear. And what had people come to hear? A talk by Ben Goldacre about medical statistics.
Yes. Let’s be clear. Over a hundred people, sat through several hours of discussion about funnel plots and publication bias, baseline manipulation, subgroup analyses and inappropriate controls – and it was huge fun. Ben was describing how pharmaceutical companies manipulate trial data in order to make their products look better than they are. It was a lecture he normally gives to medical students in London and we had the pleasure of it whilst drinking Speckled Hen.
I was one of the organisers, along with up-and-coming comedian Iszi Lawrence, keen sceptic Justin and comedy promoter, Andi Currie, and the size of crowd and response surprised us – so apologies to those who could not get in. We are working on it. When I was a student, we went to evenings in a small room above a pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham, to sit through a crappy little comedy club run by an unknown Frank Skinner and hear jokes about rubbing the breasts of the Madame Tusauds waxwork of Prince Anne. Now people are coming out to pubs to hear talks about rational thought, sceptical enquiry, quackery, pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Scepticism is the new comedy is the new rock and roll.
Oxford is not the first group like this. London has been going for a number of years now and is used to huge crowds. In the UK, there are now groups in Edinburgh, Leeds, Birmingham and Leicester, with new groups being set up in other cities as we speak. Across the world, similar groups are cropping up in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the USA.
Why should this be so? There are perhaps many reasons. One simple explanation may be that comedy and scepticism appear to be good bedfellows. There are now many entertainers and comedians who take a distinct sceptical line, including Tim Minchin, Derren Brown, Mark Thomas, and Dara Ó Briain. Indeed, comedy king Robin Ince organised a phenomenally successful Christmas show, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: A Rational Celebration for Christmas which seamlessly combined the scathing sceptical wit of Ricky Gervais with the arch rationalism of Richard Dawkins. Yesterday, James Randi’s first London TAM meeting sold out its hundreds of tickets in just a few hours, taking the organisers by complete surprise. So, one simple explanation is that laughing at quacks and cranks might just be good honest fun.
But I think there might be more than that. Remember, Ben’s talk was about the abuse of statistics by drug companies. It was serious stuff and shocking. The numbers trotted out of the deaths caused by vitamin pill pushing quacks and deceitful pharmaceutical company marketing departments were extraordinary. Ben made the point of highlighting how immune we are to feeling shocked by such figures – but torture a kitten and we are up in arms. And yet, there was a real sense of engagement and humour. The feedback was that people were thoroughly enjoying it. And I think this is because that organisations like Skeptics in the Pub create shared experiences of thoughtful dialogue in a way that is hard to find in today’s media-led environment. If you have been trained in science and enjoy reading popular science books and no longer work in a University environment, for example, there are few opportunities to discuss these ideas. (Interestingly, there were only three Oxford undergraduate students there after a head count). Television contains close to zero science content. Newspapers appear to deliberately misrepresent science in order to create sensational or politically loaded stories. And our celebrity obsessed culture has our friends down the pub talking about the split up of some bird with big tits with some bloke with big pecs. And we are used to biting our lips at dinner parties, weddings and at work, where friends and colleagues appear unashamed to tell us how much they believe in homeopathy, star signs and ‘spiritual’ things. These pub chats supply a huge and welcome antidote – there really are people in the world who are not completely batshit – lots of them.
Skeptics in the Pub Oxford began with a meeting between the four organisers in the Eagle and Child, an Oxford pub more famous for earlier drinkers, the Inklings, where Tolkien and C S Lewis would read to the group from their latest writings, drink heavily, and then argue about who was the hardest, Aslan or Gandalf. (I am personally waiting for the film franchise fusion to take place, in the style of Aliens vs. Predator, to see on onscreen resolution of this ultimate fantasy question.) So, maybe we are seeing a revival of talking about interesting things in pubs. If you want to to, go along to your nearest sceptics talking and drinking club and have a rational pint, I am sure they will be pleased to see you.
Our next meeting in Oxford is with Simon Singh (Monday, June 8 at 6:30PM). This should be another crowd puller – get there early. Simon is also the subject of a special Skeptics In the Pub meeting in London on Monday (The Penderel’s Oak) where Nick Cohen, and other prominent sceptics, will be holding a Public Support meeting to help Simon in his recent troubles with the British Chiropractic Association.
I understand that Simon Singh will announce whether he will appeal on Monday 18 May 2009 at a public support meeting to take place in London at 6.30pm.
The venue will be the Penderels Oak, the usual meeting place of London Skeptics in the Pub.
As well as Simon Singh, the leading UK journalist Nick Cohen will be speaking. Other speakers are currently being confirmed.