Robin Ince’s ‘Happiness through Science’, Northern Ballet Leeds, 18 April 2012

Interesting event this. Not quite a comedy show (though funny), not a lecture (though informative) – more a fairly informal and friendly event. Robin Ince is mainly known to me through his podcasts Infinite Monkey Cage (with Professor Brian Cox) and Utter Shambles (with Josie Long) so I’m not completely unfamiliar with his style, though this is the first of his live shows I’ve seen.

Like the Lee and Herring Shows I’ve seen, this was a comic investigation around a theme – in this case, how science informs and improves our lives. Unlike them, it was not tightly structured, with a tendency to ramble and run down blind alleys, only to be pulled back to the main theme when he’d taken it too far away (a few times getting a bit ranty, a confusion I presume, with his other recent ‘Angry’ show). This should be taken as an observation rather than a criticism as these diversions were generally pretty interesting and funny and the whole event had a relaxed and friendly vibe to it that worked well.

Ince gets accused of being ‘smug’, mostly I presume, because he is a pro-science atheist and being unapologetically so is almost always knee-jerk dismissed as so but he was here reasonable and accommodating – not by pretending to believe, but simply by a recognition that most atheists and theists alike can live and let live perfectly well, and that we are all liable to hold unjustifiable beliefs on occasion. The talk covered some of the skeptical community’s heros – Richard Feynman, Bertrand Russell, with a little gentle mockery of Dawkins and Cox – and some more spirited (and deserved) mockery of its chief villains, Delingpole and Phillips, with telling quotes to illustrate the wider theme. His chief gripe was with the way science is reported in the media, and how the media in general tries to foster controversy in all fields, even when no such dissension genuinely exists, and how this confuses the public and leads to misinformation being given equal weight to solid fact.

I’m pretty well-versed in skeptical arguments but Ince still managed to find some arguments and slants that were new to me, and which I’ll integrate into my own. I’m not entirely sure that he would have managed to convince any doubters that scientific skepticism makes people happier but, here, he was ‘preaching to the converted’ and it was a thoroughly enjoyable sermon.

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