9 Lessons – Skepticism Goes Pop

As a marketing expert, I’m often asked ‘how can we bring skepticism to the mainstream?’. I generally say “spend as much money as the Creationists”, in the hope that one day someone finally will, but there’s another answer which is simply “don’t”. Skepticism as a label, a methodology, is never going to be mainstream. It’s a lot of work to critically appraise every claim you come across, and most people simply can’t be bothered. There are benefits, particularly when assessing medical or financial claims, but on the whole the general public doesn’t really care whether psychics are cold reading, and doesn’t get angry about The Secret.

I think, though, that it would be fair to say many people don’t care because they aren’t aware they’re being scammed, and to what degree. Homeopathy is the best example of that. Ever hear “well if it was bogus then it would be illegal”? Some people find out they’re being scammed and still indulge (see this video), and those people might never learn and don’t want to. Or, as Tim Minchin  said this Sunday, “we might as well be ten minutes back in time for all the chance you’ll change your mind”.

If I mangled Tim’s quote, forgive me, but the sentiment stands, and more importantly that lengthy intro segues messily into my review of 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People, a comedy, music and science event at which the aforequoted Minchin performed his nine-minute beat poem ‘Storm’, by far the wittiest and most charming assault on alternative medicine and other woo I’ve ever seen. Given it was perfect, I shan’t harp on about it, as there’s more fun to be had in praising the unique moments and slagging off the flaws.

The event itself was held on Thurs and Fri at a 400-seater theatre in London and then on Sunday at the massive Hammersmith Apollo for 3500 people, which is where we rejoin my intro and discuss bringing skepticism to the mainstream. This event was stealth education, conceived by comedian Robin Ince  as a secular celebration, proving that atheists have not declared war on Christmas and like a good pull as much as the next man (I mean Christmas crackers, but am fully aware that they don’t exist in the USA so really the innuendo is just plain old ‘rude’).

Gaining momentum, the original idea was expanded to include a second night, and then the massive Apollo date which is probably the largest secular-Christmas-themed-gathering-featuring-Richard-Dawkins-and-also-some-guy-with-a-guitar of its kind. Probably. And this is where the real celebration comes in. Nothing is worse than those ham-fisted attempts at “hey kidz, science is kewl!” projects, which miss their mark (because real science is mostly sitting at a desk with a pencil and paper, and not as full of explosions and custard as science communicators want kidz to believe), and I was relieved to see that there was no attempt to patronise. Yes, the lineup included some of Britain’s biggest ‘celebrity’ comedians (Ricky Gervais, Dara O’Brien, Tim Minchin et al), but there wasn’t a hint of ‘ooh look what we’ve done, we’ve put cool people in with scientists, isn’t that funky?’. In fact, the comedians turned out to be the biggest geeks of the night, skeptics and atheists and science fans one and all. Math, evolution and physics jokes abounded, which was delightful to hear.

Josie LongMy favourite moment in that vein was when Josie Long, a 26-year-old comedienne and Oxford graduate, bounded onstage, told a joke about fractions, told another joke about philosophy of which the punchline was mostly swearing, then bounded off again. As you know, I’m not really into the whole Oprah ‘vagina-owners are all sisters’ thing, but I wanted to grab Josie Long and give her the geek girl hug of my life. Or as one Skepchick commenter said recently “where were you when I was alone at school?!”.

I won’t talk too much about the other speakers, as many of the names will be meaningless to you and others are old friends of Skepchick with whom you are already familiar (Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh). This review is more a seasonal warm fuzzy than a post-mortem, hence:

The other ‘best’ moment was one not available to those who went to the small gigs. Jarvis Cocker, former singer with indie band Pulp (did you have them in the USA?) has both a mainstream AND a cult following here, which is quite an achievement. He came onstage to rapturous applause, performed one of his own songs then a really touching-but-ironic cover of Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas (you know the one, it has war in it. No, not that one, that’s the Lennon thing). It was an inspired choice of song, originally being a protest at commercialisation but becoming a hit anyway, and Mr Cocker performed it beautifully. That’s not the ‘best’ moment though. The ‘best’ moment was the well-deserved thunderous cheering and clapping as he left the stage, which I thought would surely be the biggest cheer of the night, only to hear it increase when the next act, Richard Dawkins, was announced to the stage. Yep, Dawkins is a bigger rock star than a rock star. Science truly was cool at that moment, with no custard involved. The lights dimmed, the stage illuminated by a starry backdrop, he gave three readings in what a cliché would insist are dulcet tones (I prefer to think of it as ‘The Attenborough Effect’), and the audience was captivated.Richard D

Indeed, it was the joining of scientists with comedians and musicians that must have been the cause of an interesting phenomenon: students were at the gig with their parents. I saw this several times, lads with their middle-class schoolteacher-type moms, goth chicks with their Oxford-scarf wearing dads. Where else does this happen? Something for everyone, which is surely the true spirit of Christmas and, along with ‘stealth education’, the greatest achievement of 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People.

I did say that I’d slag off the flaws, but that seems a bit bah humbug, so instead I’ll leave you with the Greg Lake’s awesome song

Merry Christmas everyone!

Related Articles


  1. Fantastic overview, Teek, thanks! I wish I could have been there, but since I wasn’t, I’m going to have to insist on more similar events here in the States.

    I had never heard of Josie Long before this event, but nearly every review I’ve heard or read has included her in the list of highlights. I can’t wait to hear more from her.

  2. I went and saw Nine lessons at the Apollo on Sunday and was really blown away by the entire experience.

    The venue, crowd and atmosphere really made it a very unique and memorable night. Sitting in a cavernous venue usually associated with packed rock gigs and stand-up, I couldn’t help but think “wow, my geeky (even quirky to some) passions of science, skepticism and common sense are now almost mainstream!”

    Perfect closing from Tim Minchin. Had us all in hysterics and was my favourite act of the night.

    Kudos to Dawkins too on his choice of passages from Unweaving the Rainbow. While I am sure that many would have liked to have heard from Delusion, the tenor and themes from Rainbow were more appropriate to the occasion in their celebration of the wonders of the natural world and the breathtaking beauty that a scientific perspective can deliver.


  3. Am gutted to have missed it. Hopefully someone will upload a recording of it, so we can all enjoy it.

    Otherwise I’m going to have to settle with the Royal Society Xmas lectures

  4. Yeah I was gonna say, did they record it? Are they planning to release it on DVD or make it available somewhere?

    I wanted to go, but couldn’t make it.

  5. They definitely filmed the Thursday, I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have filmed the Sunday too. Will find out what the DVD plans are and post an update in the future.

  6. Update to my previous, Trinoc on the UKS forum says “Apparently they could not film at Hammersmith because the management asked for an exorbitant fee.”

    Third hand information is better than none! No idea if it’s true but that doesn’t stop me gossiping. The Bloomsbury gigs were definitely filmed though.

  7. Hmph, that’s a big shame. Guess we can only hope that someone snuck a camera in. Thanks for finding out though.

  8. Aw wow, it sounds like it was fabulous!

    And for the record, real scientists DO get to explode things… we just wait til our advisor isn’t looking ;-)

  9. I never could bring myself to agree with Dawkins on his militant anti-exploding-custard stance. Your mind is simply blown once you put shaving cream in a vacuum chamber. I <3 gas pressure laws.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button