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?