The London BAHfest

You might well wonder what this was. BAH stands for Bad Ad Hoc Hypothesis and the fest had both aspiring and established scientists presenting their hypotheses on either “evolution” or “big science”. Both events were live-streamed on YouTube:

I only attended the first “evolution” evening, which was highly entertaining. Basically it worked like this: three judges – Steve Mould, a science presenter, Zoe Margolis, a writer, and Ed Yong, a science writer – and the audience listened to six presenters who gave short talks on a non-canonical theory of evolution that they had come up with.

The first talk was by Kat Arney who did her PhD at Cambridge but eventually left academia to write and communicate science. Her talk was entitled Hemingway’s Cats and her theory states that polydactyl cats will eventually infiltrate our labs, start using CRISPR and take over the world. Seems plausible to me. And anyone who can eloquently talk about literature and CRISPR in one talk wins my vote. She has also just published a popular science book that tries to explain how our genes work:

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The winner of the evening’s competition was Ed Elcock who talked about the “Evolutionary Morphology of Social Animals”. He proposed that humans became upright in order to maximise their packing efficiency. Among some of the evidence he uses to back up his hypothesis was the symbiosis of the first eukaryotes with other single-celled organisms (his slide is copied directly from the YouTube video):

eukaryotic formation

His talk was convincing, to the point and funny. He deserved to win. The other presenters talked about forgetfulness being socially advantageous, the belief in creationism being beneficial because it makes intelligent extra-terrestrials avoid us, parasites controlling our behaviour, and omniscience draining from us from the day we are born.

Of the three judges my favourite was Ed Yong: he asked clever questions without being obnoxious. Sadly, my main criticism of the event relates to one of the only two female participants, the judge Zoe Margolis. Her comments and questions were uninspired. But this is not in any way her fault and this is not an attack on her as a person or writer. She couldn’t really have asked more scientific questions because, as far as I can find out, she has no formal science training. When introduced by the host in the very beginning she was described as a “feminist and author”, which are both admirable accolades, but what exactly was she doing as a judge at a nerdy – probably over 65% over attendees were wearing glasses – science fest? When the organisers of the festival were looking for a female judge could they not find a witty woman with a biology degree? Or, as a friend of mine pointed out, could all those witty scientist women not attend because they have to work so much harder than their male counterparts in academia so that they do not have time for these, more frivolous, events? And why were five of the six presenters men? Is it because women aren’t as funny as men…?

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3 thoughts on “The London BAHfest

  1. Harsh, but probably fair Victoria. As you say, why are 5/6 of the judges male? I doubt it has anything to do with their intrinsic wit…… Incidentally, I wear glasses too these days – not (I hope) because I’m nerdy, but more because I’m old and decrepit. Loved the comment about creationism. I take it that you’ll not be arranging a Crick Institute day trip to the museum of creationism in Portsmouth…… Look it up online.

    Hope all is well,
    Best,
    martin

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  2. Hi there! Thanks for your thoughts on the show – glad that you enjoyed it! I just wanted to address your concern about the event – I’d hate for people to think that we asked Zoe to be on the panel because we could “not find a witty woman with a biology degree.” Rather, we aim to have one ‘non-scientist’ on the judging panel, as they quite often ask funnier questions for not having a detailed knowledge of the subject. She was highly recommended to us, and regardless of how you felt about her questions, we certainly didn’t ask her to be on the panel because we couldn’t find a suitable female scientist.

    On the other matter, we’re as disappointed as you about the lack of female presenters. Unfortunately, we received very few submissions from women, despite actively trying to encourage women to submit. If we run the event again here next year, we’d really appreciate any efforts by scientists and science students to encourage their female colleagues to submit.

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    • Hi Lloyd – thanks for your response and the clarification! Having a non-specialist certainly makes a lot of sense. In this instance it must have been an unfortunate coincidence that made the panel seem a bit unbalanced. As I said before there was certainly no harm or malice intended!

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