Skeptics in the Field

So, a few days back from the Glastonbury festival, showered and variously recovered from vicious sun, torrential thunderstorms, lack of sleep and the magical outpourings of the cider bus.

I had planned to twitter loads from the festival – I think I managed one – the festival is now many things, but a ‘connected festival’ it is not. Five days without any significant bandwidth was pretty tough on me. Even my text messages took up to two days to get through – not much good for meeting friends ‘by the tree, at the top of the pyramid stage’ when they are ‘next to the bongos in the stone circle‘.

But then, iPhones and Twitter would have been indistinguishable from magic when I first went to Glastonbury in the (coughs) mid eighties. Many things are different now: fewer blackboards with today’s chalked up drug prices, but much more multichannel live BBC coverage of the hundreds of acts performing. But this connected festival is in the hands of a few – the ordinary festival goer is cut off both from the outside world and their wife when she decides to get lost at 2am and cannot find the tent and her mobile battery has finally given up the ghost – and a thunderstorm is starting. Luckily, we all saw the funny side.

A connected festival would a new experience – where a virtualisation can take place – a joining up of experiences and ideas. Glastonbury is about much more than the music – it is also a festival of ideas with much of the profit going to ‘worthy’ causes from Worthy Farm. Now one of the many uncomfortable things about Glastonbury, leaving aside the deep mud, long drop toilets, slop for food, beer in paper cups and thousands-of-seaguls-circling-the-site-like-it-is-one-huge-municipal-tip, is that these ‘worthy’ causes tend to focus on Greenpeace – a charity I have a few problems with.
Now an environmentalist agenda in politics is very important for me. But what pervades much of the ‘Green Futures’ area of the festival is dogma – not debate. Before Mark Thomas started his talk in the speakers’ tent, a ‘warm up’ act was getting the assembled throng to echo the chant of ‘no nuclear power’, ‘no GM’. Now, when Glastonbury started, the nuclear discussion revolved around nuclear non-proliferation – but this rather sensible green policy has now become dogma. The festival now exists in a different world with different concerns. I see little attempt to re-appraise the nuclear question in light of current climate changing concerns. Nuclear Debate? Nein Danke.
But there were sceptical green shoots in this area – although easily missed. Ben Goldacre showed up for an away match in the healing fields. Or at least, that is how the angry homeopaths at the back saw it. Ben talked about the evils of pharmaceutical company manipulation and their medicalisation of every day life. It confused the hell out of them. Naturally, he got a very impassioned dig into them about their refusal to condemn the worst of the alternative medicine world – like Matthias Rath – but their responses were rather befuddled by the fact that the thrust of his talk was critical of the very organisations they conspiratorially assume him to be a part of. The best effort was from one homeopath who told us that homeopathy works because it can cure dogs of skin disease.
The effects of the sceptical community were felt in other rather more subtle ways. In the healing field, there were no sign of any chiropractors. A few tents (one picture above) offered ‘spinal therapy’ (was that for the effects of being at the front of the Spinal Tap gig after the volume was turned to 11?). I asked them if they were chiropractors and I got a shrill “don’t mention the ‘C’ word” which was surprising as I had not called them anything yet. I was told “it would be unethical to practice in a field” and that “we did not want to be sued”. All rather funny.
So, next year we need a new stage – a new tent – “Skeptics in the Field”. Given the huge success of the Skeptics in the Pub movement, this looks like it could a sure fire winner. We would want to introduce a wider appreciation of evidence, critical thought and scepticism into the green movement. The green movement has been successful in highlighting the need to do something about human induced climate change – but this has been done because it was backed by scientists creating an evidence base and consensus that is almost unassailable. If the green movement wants to repeat that success in other areas, it needs to abandon dogma, nutty associated beliefs (like alternative medicine) and engage in meaningful and full debate about the many important issues facing us.
I’m up this new tent and I intend to pursue it. Any one want to sell tea and biscuits in the Skeptics’ tent next year?

15 Comments on Skeptics in the Field

  1. I'd be more than happy to pitch in (ah ha ha) and help with tea-serving, chiropractor-spotting or other activities. One suggestion I have is that I reckon some sort of bad science themed activity would go down well…

  2. I'll be working at the Secret Garden Party with Guerilla Science, who run a Science Tent at festivals – it's always very well received.
    SITF sounds great – where do I sign up?

  3. I'd be up for this, count me in if you need someone for tea and cake duties!

    How about calling it The Field Trip? We could bring a few quadrants and pooters… maybe not but it would be fun to do some actual science over there. Would the punters let Richard Wiseman mess with their heads, or would that just backfire horribly?

  4. SITF sound like a great idea, the one thing that always put me off glastonbury was all the new age bollocks associated with it

  5. You wont take the 'new age bollocks' out of Glastonbury.Thats half the fun.
    I am still waiting for you all to form the 'atheists evidence based party'- unless of course you can fit it in to the Labour or Liberal party.
    No chance with the Greens

  6. I think that is fair enough. I doubt anyone believes the world can be ridden of daftness. However, introducing a tad more debate and challenge cannot be a bad thing.

  7. It's not so much that there is bollocks at Glastonbury, more that until this year I never actually saw evidence of anything else.

  8. Not sure I'd want a connected glasto. It was nice in a way this year to find the mobile networks had choked back to 1st class stamp mode for SMS (ie getting a long stream of yesterdays progress first thing in the morning). It forced me to go back to 80's tactics of arranging meeting points and spending a lot of time with the people I was camping with. I think I had a more special time because of that. I'm a massive netnerd but I still find it amusing that mobiles are marketed as bringing people together, then you look around and see whole groups of people who have come together only to focus on their screens and talk to people somewhere else.

    A sceptics tent (tank?) in the GF would be great. I think the time is right – BenG's talk went down far better than expected, and the Angry Homeopath seemed to be perceived as a rather silly person (though not by Ben who was carefully adopting a passive-aggressive non-confrontational position; you don't want to get into an argument with a psychiatrist I reckon, they really know how to press the buttons). I got back to work (UCL) and a colleague who'd been was talking about a science tent next year too. I wonder though if the people who control the GFs would accept any of this. I hope so, I'd love to do something for it – either in organising or workshops perhaps. Something on the nature of evidence would be good – I have a feeling the CAM lot don't have a clue how much work goes into evidence-based health care these days, or even what it means.

  9. Arse. Tried to comment twice now, once by mobile, then got the comment blatted after signing in (though perhaps it gone for moderation). Briefly:

    A disconnected Glasto was nice for a change, spent a lot of time with one posse and that was lovely.

    Yes to sceptics tent, would love to help, the time is right (but the Green Fields may be run by an antirational mafia who will block it, in which case a trojan horse approach would be fun – "Exploring the evidence in favour of complementary therapies").

  10. I'm in – I've got a track record of upsetting the Greenpeace people there every year by answering the question "Do you have five minutes to help save the Earth?" with "I don't know, do you still have your bullshit policies on nuclear power and GM?".

  11. I was at Glasto feeding Vegan Slop to the litter-pickers – was at the Mark Thomas talk, but missed Ben as on shift there. Anyway, I'd def be up for making you all coffee & flapjack 🙂

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