The greatest threat to rational thinking and scientific progress is Heather Stevens.

6 Nov

I didn’t even know Jimmy Savile was dead.

BOOM! SATIRE! I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT IS!

On Saturday I spent more time than time itself writing an email for the Oxford Skeptics in the Pub mailing list and then hit send and when I looked at the email that it had sent out to 500 people it was definitely not the email I wanted it to send out to 500 people. It was the antithesis of the email I wanted it to send out to 500 people. It was the email that I wanted it to send out to precisely no people. And so, having realised that 500 people had been emailed with something that I didn’t want them to be emailed with, I decided that I should write a blog post about how I’ve taken over the running of Oxford Skeptics in the Pub and I have no idea what I’m doing and I’ll probably have accidentally annihilated atheism within the year because OH MY GOSH YOU GUYS I AM SUCH A KLUTZ WHAT AM I LIKE?

Like most things that happen, I don’t really understand how this happened. Last year nerd-hero Andy Lewis, co-founder of Oxford Skeptics in the Pub, said that he was looking for people to help out with the group. And I figured that it would be cool to be one of those people that does something in their spare time other than Internet and crying, so I said I’d be up for helping. I don’t really know how I thought I’d be able to help, aside from “in a really minor, undemanding and inconsequential way”. Looking pensive and drinking beer in a more authoritative manner than usual or something. But then I got a message from Andy being all like “Hi I’m about to have a baby organise the next meeting please thanks” and so I was all like “well this is unexpected” and now 12 months on I spend one day per month on the verge of mental collapse and heart failure for the good of science and reason.

Ahead of the first meeting that I ran, Andy had been pretty firm about the fact that I ought to do the MC duties myself. “Put your stamp on it,” he said. Turns out my stamp looks a lot like an ageing child cowering in a corner a long way from the microphone and trying not to have a seizure, 1990 issue. I’d started out with good intentions. Alex Gabriel got in touch when he heard that Oxford Skeptics in the Pub was going to be relaunched, and I’d asked him to come along in case I bottled it because I knew that he’d put on similar events in the past, but I was pretty keen on not bottling it. I’d written some jokes on the train to Oxford that I was going to do at people and everything. I was feeling pretty good about the meeting. I mean, I felt sick and hadn’t been able to eat anything that day because of how disproportionately nervous I was, I was in a weird, numb funk because my grandmother had just died and it hadn’t really sunk in, and I was inordinately tired because I’d spent the previous weekend attempting to be helpful at the inaugural Winchester Science Festival and all available hours since at work to deflect my thoughts from familial death, but apart from all of that I was feeling pretty goddamn excellent. I got a text from Alex saying he’d managed to pick up the new PA system that my friend Philip had taken delivery of because the organiser of Oxford Skeptics in the Pub lives 90 miles away from Oxford and didn’t really think very hard before taking on such a geographically-specific role, and felt at least marginally reassured that everything was on track.

When I got to Oxford, it was about half an hour before shops were due to close. This was important. I didn’t realise this was important until 25 minutes later when Alex and I opened the box of the brand new PA system and found that it wasn’t designed for UK plug sockets. I responded by shutting down all thought processes except for the one necessary to set Marche Funèbre as my new internal soundtrack, but Alex responded by suggesting that I go to the shops to buy an adaptor so I went to the shops to buy an adaptor. The first two shops that I tried were closed, and a shop assistant at the third was locking the door but let me in to buy an adaptor out of pity because I had the look of someone that had shut down all thought processes except for the one necessary to set Marche Funèbre as their internal soundtrack. I took it back to the venue and Alex finished setting up the PA system whilst I paced uselessly and looked agitated and decided that all of my jokes were terrible and Alex should do the MC duties whilst I sat at the back of the room and tried not to break anything.

And it went really well. Mark Henderson, the speaker, was fantastic and extraordinarily forgiving, the room was packed, people bought a bunch of books and I wasn’t sick on anyone. And the unnecessarily kind Chris Richardson, who’d driven down from Tamworth, gave me a lift 90 miles home to South Derbyshire at the end of the night so that I could go to my grandmother’s funeral the next day, where I was also not sick on anyone.

There have been two events since that first one, and in both cases I started with similarly good intentions that predictably evaporated. I’m just not sure that I’m capable of standing in front of a room full of people and talking at them. I’m so meek. I’m so meek I’m not sure people even realise I run the group. Last month I was walking up to the room where we hold our talks and I saw a couple of people approaching some way behind me, so I stopped to hold the door open for them – in “Look at the Birdie”, a collection of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut, there’s a guy who’s described as “standing on the edge of the mainstream of life, smiling and saying, “Pardon me,” “After you,” and “No, thank you”” and that character is totally me apart from the bit where he kills his wife with a tiny spaceship – and when they caught up they thanked me and asked if I was new to Oxford Skeptics in the Pub as they’d not seen me before and I’m not sure what I said in reply because my voice can only be detected by hyperacutic dogs.

It’s going all right. I think it’s going all right. All of the speakers have been fantastic, and if you get chance to see any of them – Mark Henderson, Alom Shaha and Liz Lutgendorff – then frickin’ do. Our next talk is tomorrow and it is Professor Stephen Curry and it will be great and you should come so that you can learn about viruses and stuff and then watch an unemployed 22-year-old that used to have prospects trip over wires and accidentally set fire to things.

Andy, I am so sorry.

9 Responses to “The greatest threat to rational thinking and scientific progress is Heather Stevens.”

  1. Giles November 6, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    This is still how I feel Heather. I like to think I’m getting better at the nerves but truth is that my MC skills leave a huge amount to be desired. I’m sure we’re just better at different things :-)

    • Abrasive Shrub November 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm #

      Ah thank you Giles! I’d say I’m just slightly less bad at different things. I’m gonna have to come down to Kingston one day to watch you rock it. Hx

  2. Giles November 6, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    Love the last tag btw!

  3. PaulJ November 6, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Brilliant blogpost.

    (And who cares if you sent out the wrong email, if it was written like this…)

  4. sillypunk (@sillypunk) December 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    You are not alone. Every time I am in front of people I think I’m rubbish! But we persevere and all that jazz and eventually don’t feel like we will ruin ALL THE THINGS. I used to not be able to eat for an entire day before talking in front of people :p

    • Abrasive Shrub December 12, 2012 at 3:09 am #

      For real. I can’t eat on SitP days and I don’t even have to talk at anyone. But you are incapable of being rubbish. Hx

  5. kyliesturgess March 14, 2014 at 2:50 am #

    I think you’re doing very well. The worst that happened to me was being kidnapped by the people I was meant to introduce and nearly getting shot by the freaked-out bodyguards of one presenter because they thought *I* stole them rather than the other way around.

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