Speakezee.org was conceived and created by Bruce Hood, former Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer 2011 ("Meet Your Brain") and currently Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society at the University of Bristol.
Oxford's first (and sell-out) Speakezee evening was hosted by the founder himself, who spoke engagingly, with wit and humour, about one of his favourite research topics: why people believe in the supernatural. Do you count yourself among them? If you answered "no", don't be so sure ... Bruce Hood uses the term "super-natural" to encompass beliefs in things for which there is no evidence and which do not obey the normal laws of nature. So even if you don't believe in ghosts, witches, reincarnation or extra-sensory perception, you may still be prey to the sort of superstitions which cause a spike in Chinese and Japanese deaths on the 4th of the month (4 being an unlucky number for them) or which may cost over $800m in terms of lost business from people who fear flying, travelling, organising events etc on a Friday 13th.
Hood set out to explain the psychological rationale for irrational beliefs. He illustrated how, in the face of danger, rituals develop amongst even the most scientific of men, invented in an attempt to change or control a risky environment – for instance, apparently Yuri Gagarin needed to take a leak on the back wheel of the bus on the way to the launchpad, and thereafter subsequent astronauts followed his example: he did this and came back to earth safely, therefore they did the same. The brain continually seeks explanatory patterns.
He took us on a whirlwind journey through Mind-Body Dualism – experiments show that by the age of five or six, a child believes that the mind is separate from the body ; therefore, why shouldn't they believe the mind (or soul) could leave the body? He explored "Sympathetic Magic", the voodoo style belief that physical things are imbued with special properties beyond their physical make-up. If you think you don't believe in voodoo ... how would you feel if you were given a pair of scissors and asked to cut through a photo of your father's face? He discussed Platonic Essentialism, why we are so disturbed by what we regard as the essential violation of nature (such as growing a human ear on the back of a mouse) and the "Ship of Theseus" problem – if you replaced each part of a ship one at a time, would it become a different ship and if so at what point?
Questions from the audience came thick and fast and the talk was followed by lively discussion of a host of issues such as OCD, magic, compartmentalisation, education, IQ, and the increase in superstition in times of economic uncertainty.
The Speakezee website is a valuable new resource for a wide range of event organisers. It lists experts across the UK and even from overseas who are keen to communicate their specialism to a wider audience. Speakezee events can take place in any location, including cafes, pubs and schools, as well as specialist academic groups. They aim to showcase a variety of topics, formats and presenters, from graduate students delivering their PhD thesis against the clock to professors talking about their research, giving audiences a memorable learning experience with the opportunity to ask questions and discuss topics with experts in the field. We are fortunate in Oxford that we already have both Science Oxford to organise accessible science talks and events for the general public, and to maintain the directory of active local STEM Ambassadors; and also Oxford Sparks, which lists several dozen Oxford scientists, from penguinologist to particle physicist, who are willing to engage in outreach activities. Speakezee takes this a step further, including Arts and Humanities speakers, as well, and organising them in an easy-to-use website, allowing the user to search by location and specialism and to view specimen video-clips of the speakers in action.