T + 634 Enquiry Conference Part Three

Continuing my write up and review of the talks given at the 2010 Enquiry Conference.

Norman Ralph

Norman was the founding president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies and the topic of his talk was "Is Atheism Past it Sell By Date?"

Norman now works in the marketing and customer relations department for O2 and his talk focused on the image that atheism and humanism has and how it might be better "branded" and "sold".

He stated that according to various polls and studies done the typical atheist or humanist is a while male with a good education and probably over 60. However with various studies claiming that well over 60% of the adult UK population have none or no really strong religious views there should clearly be a much wider representation of ages and backgrounds within the atheist/humanist movement.

Andrew Copson commented that membership of the BHA has two real spikes in the age demographic, the under 30s and the over 50s but between 30 and 50 they had many fewer members. Half joking I suggested that people between 30 and 50 were too busy concentrating on paying off their mortgages.

He also spoke about the established practice in marketing of developing fans rather than customers. Fans are much more loyal and enthusiastic about a brand than mere customers and are more likely to tell other people about the service or products from the brand and more forgiving of mistakes the brand might make.

The example he used was Coca Cola but as was pointed out by members of audience the apotheosis of the cultivation of fans is of course Apple, manufacturer of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and the latest holy tablet, the iPad.

This led to an entertaining little discursion into the analogy of the religious and non-religious with the PC v Mac debate. One suggestion was that the religious zealots were akin to the Mac users where as most people without strong views just used PCs because it was obviously easier. Norm countered this by saying that the religious zealots were in fact Linux users and they were passionate, would admit no other operating system could be better and yet it basically didn't really work.

I would take issue with that of course as a former Linux proselytiser though I did eventually convert to the church of Apple.

Overall Norman's talk didn't have any real answers and was more a pointing out of the issues and a general call to say "something must be done."

I pointed out that one of the problems could be that atheism in particular is just seen as being against something rather than being for something and it is harder to sell a negative in that way. Humanism probably has a more positive message.

The other point I thought of later and discussed with Andrew Copson at lunch was that Norman's approach and analogies were all with brands and companies that were related to products and the natural analogue would be to other successful movements like the environmental movement. Andrew pointed out that as little as 20 years ago if you were a "green" then there was a stereotype of being a sandal wearing hippy type whereas today people gladly and even proudly say of course they are green and do their bit for the environment. If the same point could be reached with Humanism we would have come a very long way indeed.


Chris Worfolk

The topic of Chris's talk was "Inside the Evangelists Lair: Encounters with the Christian Union" it gave some background to the Christian Union and its current day activities on University campuses today where it is often the largest and most active of student societies.

The Leeds Atheist society was founded by Chris in part in response to the activities of the Christian Union.

Apart from providing a lot of autobiographical information about Chris's involvement with atheism and humanism the talk didn't really come to any hard conclusions about the Christian Union.

Professor Chris French

Professor French is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London and co-editor of "The Skeptic (UK)" magazine.

His talk was on the psychology of anomalous experiences. These he defined as being encounters with bizarre and unusual phenomena which includes but is not limited to things often called paranormal experiences such as ESP, psychokenesis etc. and also including things like near death experiences and claims of alien abduction.

He was a very polished and entertaining speaker and clearly knew his subject very well. He looked at some of the possible psychological causes of why people might believe in the paranormal as well as describing some of the problems of doing research in these areas when often there are only eye witness accounts of what happened.

He gave some simple practical demonstrations of what were in essence psychological or straight conjuring/mentalist tricks where you could easily ascribe psychic causes to them but actually had simple mundane explanations.

In the area of the problems of eye witnesses he explained a very interesting experiment he conducted. Before describing this I would ask you to think of a clock with Roman Numerals on it, if possible think of an actual clock you are familiar with such as one in your house or on a public building you know well. Without looking at the clock, if it is nearby, think about how the numbers 3, 4 and 5 are represented.

Like most people, myself included, I suspect you think the 3, 4 and 5 are represented by III, IV and V however next time you are in the presence of a clock with Roman Numerals the chances are very high that the 4 is actually shown as IIII .

The experiment that Professor French conducted was to take three groups of people A, B and C. Group A was shown a kitchen clock with Roman Numerals and where the 4 was shown as IIII and asked to look at it for 60 seconds without being told why. The clock was then taken away and the group was asked to draw the clock from memory as accurately as they could.

The same was done with Group B but they were told at the outset that after the 60 seconds they would be asked to draw the clock.

Group C were presented with the clock and told to draw it whilst it was in front of them.

The results showed that the majority of people in groups A and B drew the 4 incorrectly as IV and with little difference between the results of the two groups it shows that even when people know they will have to recall something from memory later the extra attention they might therefore pay actually makes little difference to the accuracy of their recollections.

As expected the vast majority of group C drew the clock accurately. However if after drawing the clock you took it away and the drawings people had done and then asked them how the 4 was represented, even though they had just drawn it as IIII a couple of moments ago many people said it was shown as IV.

This goes someway to show the difficulties with relying on eye witness testimony where people can only tell you what they think they saw or what they believe they saw and as this experiment shows that can often be clouded by what people expect to see.

I could write at even greater length about some of the other topics and experiments Professor French packed in to his one hour talk but I think I have gone on long enough. Suffice it to say there are lots of rational reasons why people may believe they have seen something anomalous or paranormal when in fact they haven't at all.

Far better to come and hear him speak for yourself. He is due to give a talk to the
Birmingham branch of the The Skeptics in the Pub on the 14th July at 19:30 in the Victoria Pub in central Birmingham. I'll be going along for sure even though I suspect the talk will be the same as the one I have just reported it is well worth a second viewing.

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