The 10th QEDcon took place over the weekend of the 23rd of September 2023. QED is the UKʼs largest skepticism and pop-science conference and takes place in Manchester and this year’s conference was the 8th QEDcon that I’ve attended.
As always, the paranormal was featured during the event schedule. I personally chaired a panel on ‘Folklore and Forteana’ with panelists Dr David Clarke, Deborah Hyde, and Claire Klingenberg. As chair, I was tasked with leading a conversation that explored how these subjects are used across time and place to bring order to our lives and make sense of the world around us. It’s difficult to fit such a complex discussion into an hour but the panelists, with their combined knowledge and expertise, shone a light on how we’re all creatures of habit, and those of us living in contemporary society aren’t much different in this regard than our ancestors.
Deborah, for example, pointed out that it’s quite acceptable in the West (though still stigmatised) to declare yourself a witch today, when just a few hundred years ago the very idea of doing so would have been a death sentence. Claire revealed in detail how some traditions still practiced today can have sinister undertones, like wedding traditions that involve hitting the Bride with sticks. David also made an interesting point that QED itself is a folkloric calendar custom. A skeptic one. It happens on a scheduled basis each year, people “migrate” from around the world to Manchester to take part in the same activities year after year. Some aspects have become symbolic; a special video is played at the start of the ceremony, attendees turning a napkin into a chicken (if you know, you know), attend the Friday Night mixer, and so on. It’s tradition for people to wear nerdy t-shirts, pin badges, and jewellery, some which is specially designed for the event (I saw QEDcon apparel, Ten23 t-shirts, and Skeptics in the Pub Online badges and t-shirts, for example.)
I have always respected QED for the way it promotes a compassionate critical thinking through the carefully curated talks, panels, and workshops that are put on during the event. Audiences are made to consider things they’d not normally consider (like testing the paranormal, body farms, or menopause), while being constantly reminded that it’s good to be skeptical as long as you turn those critical analysis tools inwards, too. As one speaker, Dr Daniel Jolley explained during his talk on the Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, we’re all capable of conspiracy thinking even though we think that we’re immune from it. You just need the right ingredients for a (bad) recipe cooked up in the Conspiracy Kitchen.
This is not the skepticism you see on TV or hear on the radio, for sure. It’s nuanced, kind, engaged, and human. It’s not the villain telling you that you’re wrong or stupid, it’s people hoping to achieve something good from a rational perspective while remembering they’re human, too. I’ve missed QED. I didn’t attend the last 2 events for personal reasons and in that time I became involved in various projects which I now realise treated my skeptical input as a something of a gimmick. I’ve written before about the issues around false balance and skeptic input on paranormal media projects, and although I have been told that my contribution to such projects was meaningful and valued, I honestly feel that I was just involved for the sake of “balance”. Especially when I consider the way in which my skeptical perspective is often edited to fit an overall paranormal narrative.
When I am involved in QED though, or when I write for The Skeptic, or get involved in a grassroots skeptic project, I know that although the paranormal is a fringe subject (often described as a gateway to skepticism), my knowledge and perspective is genuinely valued for what it brings to the table. I have attended paranormal conferences where I am always the token skeptic, but at QED 2023, the paranormal was mainstream. There was a workshop with Professor Chris French held numerous times across the whole weekend which introduced people to testing paranormal claims. Claire Klingenberg delivered a main stage talk about the importance of examining the paranormal. I chaired the Folklore and Forteana panel, and there was a panel with Dr David Clarke and Andrew Robinson (both of The Centre for Contemporary Legend) on UFOs and UAPs. Chaired by Rick Owen, this panel explored, in depth, the Calvine UFO photo.
It’s skepticism, but not as you know it.
Folklore Panel: Andrew Robinson (left) and Paul Perry (right) used with kind permission
Featured image:Photo of Kirsty Sedgman taken by Rob McDermott and used with kind permission