As a marketing expert, Iâ€™m often asked â€˜how can we bring skepticism to the mainstream?â€™. I generally say â€œspend as much money as the Creationistsâ€, in the hope that one day someone finally will, but thereâ€™s another answer which is simply â€œdonâ€™tâ€. Skepticism as a label, a methodology, is never going to be mainstream. Itâ€™s a lot of work to critically appraise every claim you come across, and most people simply canâ€™t be bothered. There are benefits, particularly when assessing medical or financial claims, but on the whole the general public doesnâ€™t really care whether psychics are cold reading, and doesnâ€™t get angry about The Secret.
I think, though, that it would be fair to say many people donâ€™t care because they arenâ€™t aware theyâ€™re being scammed, and to what degree. Homeopathy is the best example of that. Ever hear â€œwell if it was bogus then it would be illegalâ€? Some people find out theyâ€™re being scammed and still indulge (see this video), and those people might never learn and donâ€™t want to. Or, as Tim MinchinÂ Â said this Sunday, â€œwe might as well be ten minutes back in time for all the chance youâ€™ll change your mindâ€.
If I mangled Timâ€™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 â€˜Stormâ€™, by far the wittiest and most charming assault on alternative medicine and other woo Iâ€™ve ever seen. Given it was perfect, I shanâ€™t harp on about it, as thereâ€™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 InceÂ Â 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 donâ€™t exist in the USA so really the innuendo is just plain old â€˜rudeâ€™).
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 â€œhey kidz, science is kewl!â€ 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 Britainâ€™s biggest â€˜celebrityâ€™ comedians (Ricky Gervais, Dara Oâ€™Brien, Tim Minchin et al), but there wasnâ€™t a hint of â€˜ooh look what weâ€™ve done, weâ€™ve put cool people in with scientists, isnâ€™t that funky?â€™. 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.
My 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, Iâ€™m not really into the whole Oprah â€˜vagina-owners are all sistersâ€™ 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 â€œwhere were you when I was alone at school?!â€.
I wonâ€™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 â€˜bestâ€™ moment was one not available to those who went to the small gigs. Jarvis Cocker, former singer with indie band PulpÂ (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 Lakeâ€™s I Believe in Father Christmas (you know the one, it has war in it. No, not that one, thatâ€™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. Thatâ€™s not the â€˜bestâ€™ moment though. The â€˜bestâ€™ 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 clichÃ© would insist are dulcet tones (I prefer to think of it as â€˜The Attenborough Effectâ€™), and the audience was captivated.
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 â€˜stealth educationâ€™, the greatest achievement of 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People.
I did say that Iâ€™d slag off the flaws, but that seems a bit bah humbug, so instead Iâ€™ll leave you with the Greg Lakeâ€™s awesome song http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=gq54OSEmJ44
Merry Christmas everyone!