Limits to public engagement

Surprise! Or surprise?

This week I’m at the PSA annual conference in Cardiff. Aside from getting to catch up with colleagues, there have also been some good discussions in sessions.

One of these was a plenary roundtable on “Bursting Filter Bubbles and Opening Up Echo Chambers: The Role of the Academic in Public Debate”, with speakers talking about how much progress British academics have made – more than in other countries – and all the potential that there is to be utilised: here are my live-tweets.

For me, as someone who spends a lot of time doing this kind of thing, it was great to see this becoming more of a mainstream activity.

However, as the session continued, a niggling doubt crept into the back of my head: is public engagement an unreserved good?

I’d be thinking about how to phrase this, when up popped a more specific instance on my timeline. To be clear, I know neither Leighton nor Morgan, but that’s not really relevant to my niggle.

In the end, I asked if there were any limits to public engagement; things that we shouldn’t be doing. As you’ll see from my thread, we ended up with a bunch of practical tips, rather philosophical considerations. Add to that my desire not to be that guy who ‘asks’ a ‘question’ that turns into a long statement (also it meant I’d get to save it for here), and the matter slid.

My concern is that while it’s wrong that expertise should be seen as irrelevant, that shouldn’t mean that everything ‘experts’ say should be taken as The Truth.

As a simple test of this, think of your academic colleagues and ask yourself whether they’ve ever talked bullshit. I know I have, and so too has pretty much everyone I’ve ever worked with, at some point or other.

That’s not a criticism by the way, just an observation that experts are experts in something.

This came up in an online discussion the other day, when someone complained about a famous TV physicist not understanding the difference between a customs union and the EEA: As I responded: expert in something not expert in something else. You don’t expect me to be able to explain the niceties of Hawking radiation, to flip this around.

But as we reassert the importance of experts there will always be a danger of mission-creep, especially in an area like politics. It’s all too easy to end talking about stuff we don’t really get. It’s easy for me to say no to offers to talk about American politics, when I get them, but less easy to do the same when invited to opine on aspects of British politics beyond Brexit (and sometimes even within Brexit).

And this is the second issue: opinion.

In my current role, I’m bound to be impartial and evidence-led. But I know colleagues with very strong normative positions on the things they research, and media channels that favour stylised clashes of opinion. Both those things make it easy to end up with partisan readings that don’t serve an agenda of expertise as being able interpretation.

You’ll cry foul at this point, because all research is interpretation: and you’d be right. But there are ways and means of communicating that in a transparent manner, most of them not very ‘media-friendly’.

If experts are to make the most of their opportunities then it needs to be done with a degree of self-awareness and self-effacement, separating clearly to those they talk with the split between evidence and interpretation.

That’s a tough ask, and one that I’ve not always got right, but in an age where it’s become all too easy to criticise experts as ‘establishment voices’ and reject them because of who they are, rather than what they say, we have to respond and react. Otherwise our marginalisation will continue and worsen.