Sunday, September 18th saw several hundred rationalists, free thinkers, skeptics and atheists attend the inaugural Think Inc conference at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.
The first speaker of the day was Australian of the Year and Climate Change Commissioner Tim Flannery. Flannery took the audience on a journey through computer modelling, evolution by natural selection and the ubiquity of society and civilisations amongst species in the animal kingdom.
The content, although interesting, was perhaps not the best way to kick off and get the audience excited about the day and I think it would’ve been better to begin with Cristina Rad.
Rad was a self-deprecating and endearing speaker, and confided in the audience that Think Inc was in fact her first invited speaking engagement. It was her assertion that the reason why it is so taboo to question religion, is that religion is so inexplicably intertwined with culture. While I am not so sure I agree with this, it was an interesting perspective nonetheless and possibly more relevant in Eastern Europe.
For the second half of her talk, Rad focused on the decriminalisation of drugs and prostitution. While this is something I’ve never spent a lot of time thinking about, or have strong feelings for, my guard was up straight away as she started off this section with a leading question, asking the audience to raise their hands if they didn’t think drugs should be illegal. This type of question of course biases the responses, as everyone who is too embarrassed/lazy/apathetic to raise their hand is counted along with those who genuinely have. A minor gripe, I know.
I am aware that anecdotally, the Portugal experiment has been a success and even if this is true, I am not sure about her assertion that if it worked there, why not adopt it in all countries. I think this is a logical fallacy but I am not yet experienced enough in all the logical fallacies to name which one.
Following Cristina Rad was a Skype link up with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in The States. I have huge admiration for Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I when she visitedAustralialast year, touring her book Infidel, I thought she was so amazing and inspiring. However, I felt the ‘3 world futures’ scenario her talk was based was a bit lazy and derivative. The Q&A section was so much better than the talk itself.
I’ll award poet Shane Koyczan the prize for second best one-liner of the day, with the line from one of his poems – ‘Heisenberg says nothing is fo shizzle’. I’ve never seen a poet live before, and I often get teased for not being emotionally affected by ‘the arts’ (I never cry in movies) but I was surprised at how moved I was by some of Koyczan’s performance. It was quite an experience.
I was extremely fortunate to win a ticket to Think Inc, and I would like to thank the organisers for this. Possibly down to the fact that I didn’t shell out money for a ticket, I didn’t read the fine print and was completely oblivious to the fact that delegates were expected to buy their own lunch within the MCEC/South Wharf precint. I’m willing to accept that this was my fault and don’t expect any sympathy that it was a pain in the arse, but one of the key things about these types of events is the socialising/networking component and where the experience of shared meals/snack time is taken aqway, socialisng is made that much harder. As someone who went on my own, and didn’t know anyone going, this was an important point for me. Next year organisers, chuck an extra 40 bucks on the ticket price and give the punters a bite to eat.
First up after lunch was the speaker I was most looking forward to, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It was clear from the conversations around me and the number of cameras and recording devices that come out during his talk that I was not the only one. I was really surprised with how funny he was, what a fantastic speaker! His talk focused on the importance of science literacy and numeracy in the general public and examples of specific failures in the media. Tyson also placed a lot of emphasis on his use of twitter as an outreach tool. Tyson consistently used the word ‘data’ in its correct plural form which always gives me a little warm and fuzzy feeling.
Tyson devoted a significant portion of his talk to atheist themed issues, and said that he was throwing us a bone by doing so, and that he usually reluctant to talk about such things. A few minutes into this part I remember thinking, ‘gee, for someone who doesn’t talk about this stuff very much, he’s doing a stellar job’ (pun intended). When Michael Shermer followed, he outed Tyson as a frequent speaker about atheism!
Michael Shermer gave the audience something of a Skepticism 101 type talk. Trained as a psychologist, and on the plug for his new book, he talked about how the brain is evolved to recognize patterns, and how illusions can help us to understand how the brain works. I found it quite funny that he ended his slot with some evangelical style preaching for the cause of skepticism. For Science! For Reason! Praise the Lord!
Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to appear via video link, but did not show up and the organizers are yet to hear from him or his management. This is a shame, and I know everyone hopes he is OK.
The final part of the day was a discussion panel consisting of all the live speakers as well as Father Bob, who I think was scheduled to give his own talk at one point so I’m not sure what happened there. Possibly the best one liner of the day came from Cristina Rad during this time who stated that ‘religion is philosophy’s retarded cousin’. Microphone wranglers amongst the crowd made the mistake of not holding on to the mike several times, allowing questioners to crap on unnecessarily but overall the standard of questioning was high and added a lot of value to the discussions. All in all this was an interesting and varied discussion but it dragged on for too long, extending the day more than half an hour over the scheduled finish time.
So, that’s my wrap up of Think Inc 2011, see you at Think Inc 2012! (As long as the world doesn’t end before then…)