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Written by Gerard Phillips. Published by The Skeptic online on 25th October 2011.
Gerard is Vice President of the National Secular Society.
What do the following have in common: Joseph Lister, Robert Adam, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton, Charles Darwin...well you’ve probably got the answer already - Edinburgh. (Hutton by the way is credited as the founder of modern geology.) James Buchan lauded the city’s contribution to Enlightenment thought: “In just 50 years Edinburgh had more impact on our ideas than any town of its size since the Athens of Socrates.” (Capital of the Mind, 2004.) More surprising then, given this heritage, that “Skeptics on the Fringe” has only been put on at the Edinburgh Festival since 2010.
Visiting Edinburgh for the Festival the culture-hungry skeptic has two problems to solve: first, finding somewhere to stay in a city where, over a three week period, an extra one million visitors squeeze into a city with a population of just under 480,000 [As at 2009, Wiki.] people. The second problem is deciding what to see: it was reported that around 370 (official) venues put on 2,542 events totalling an (unbelievably precise) figure of 41,689 performances. The Fringe Programme, at 359 pages, doesn’t really help you decide what to see either. There are really only two strategies to cope with what is known to festival goers as ‘Fringe fomo’ (fear of missing out). The first is to ask someone next to you in any queue (no shortage of these) ‘what’s the best thing you’ve seen?’ The second is to cut the Gordian knot and go see the shows put on by Skeptics on the Fringe.
Skeptics on the Fringe promoted a series of quizzes, talks and shows this year united by a theme of “skepticism, science and critical thinking”. The programme was sponsored by Paranormality, the new book from Richard Wiseman (hence this ‘plug’). As chance had it, for the period I was in town, I was able to see a quiz, a talk and a show.
The quiz show, Devil’s Advocate, was shamelessly modelled on ‘Have I Got News For You’ with two teams of two people working their way through a number rounds such as odd-one out, the video round, ‘science fiction or science fact?’ and the like. Devil’s Advocate was a series of 22 quizzes held over three weeks on a range of themes from alternative medicine to UFOs. The day my partner and I saw it the subject was ‘Evolution’. The quiz was really a delightful, self-indulgent, dig at the absurdities of creationism / intelligent design which we enjoyed shamelessly. The general creationist approach to understanding the complexities of life was, as one panelist put it, ‘if you have to think about it too much, then the answer must be God’. Not that all panelists were particularly well informed on all matters themselves - as one of them said shortly after arriving “I didn’t realise we actually had to know stuff for this show”.
Almost as funny as the gags was the shambolic use of technology: the introductory theme tune wouldn’t play so the stand-in compere (we never learned what happened to the usual one) decided to hum the tune instead; the odd-one-out picture round only ever showed three of the four pictures on the projector screen, so our host had to remember to tell everyone else in the room what he alone could see on his computer - “It’s a jar of peanut butter!”, “It’s the fossil record!”... At the end of the game the panelists rushed to the exits to pass out fliers to the departing audience to promote other shows they were appearing in; something I’ve not seen Paul Merton or Ian Hislop doing on the BBC. Devil’s Advocate is a really good idea that deserved a wider audience. It would work well on YouTube, assuming someone could actually record it first, with sound, then upload it...
At the Fringe of Reason was a series of 21 talks on matters as diverse as ‘The Science of Porn’ to ‘How Bugs Travel’. The day I attended Peter Harrison was giving a lecture on ‘The Science of Lucid Dreaming’. Like many in the audience I was, I learned, an oneironaut or lucid dreamer. That is “someone who can deliberately remain consciously awake during a dream and is completely aware of the situation.” Peter Harrison’s talk toyed with skeptical preconceptions of the use and misuse of dreams in psychobabble and supernaturalism and quickly moved into a review of what science and experimentation had established as fact about lucid dreaming. He then described how he used the technique as a kind of ‘virtual laboratory’ to test, while asleep, ideas he was developing in his day job as a magician. And it was fascinating. Peter Harrison spoke at the Glasgow Skeptics on Tuesday, November 9 also.
I had to see Declan Dineen Lies for Money, not least because I found the title of his show refreshingly honest in a festival where every show is, it seems, ‘five stars’, ‘unmissable’ or just ‘brilliant’. Declan describes himself as ‘a magician, writer and all around good guy’ and I spoke with him before his show. When you learn his early inspirations were James Randi, the American mathematician and science writer Martin Gardiner and cult magic de-bunkers Penn & Teller you understand where his show gets it edge from. Declan first performs then deconstructs a series of card and other tricks, alongside a narrative demonstrating how easy it can be to get taken in by charlatans. Part of Declan Dineen’s charm for me was the recognition that, intelligent as we all might like to think ourselves, few of us are truly immune from some sense of wonder or mystery at the seemingly inexplicable. The other part of his charm is that, having explained the trick, you still can’t help but admire the skill with which he performed it.
One point in the show involves writing compliments on pieces of card and putting them in a jar. I won’t spoil the fun and explain why. After the show, Declan stands by the exit and holds the jar, offering to exchange a compliment card for some of your cash. Even if you think you’re being fleeced, you still leave the show feeling good about yourself.
Betjeman praised Edinburgh as “the most beautiful of all the capitals of Europe”. If you can arrange to be there next August support Skeptics on the Fringe; it’s not only interesting and stimulating, it’s fun and it’s free.