Thursday, April 18, 2013

I went to Manchester and all I got you is this blog post

In which I sum up my QED conference experience, and also rant about the lack of social science experts on the panel about experts.

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I am back from the QED conference in Manchester. Awesome, awesome conference, enjoyed every speaker, out of superlatives for the Saturday evening entertainment. The panels I found especially interesting, as they were more about the community. Some of them had to do with community and grassroots activity, but also simply because they work more like real-life conversation.

The organization was meticulous. I don’t think I had ever been in an event of this size where everything started and ended on time… Being on the volunteer team got me a mention in the back of the program and a blue T-shirt, but no work to do, with everything so well planned and organized.

On a personal level, I was having a harder time than I would have liked in terms of meeting people. I should have anticipated that, not being generally good when thrown into a crowd of strangers. I guess I thought this being “my crowd” it would be easier. It didn’t help that English becomes all but unintelligible in a very noisy ambient (there must be something here for a good research about brain processing of foreign languages).

I do have one rant about the content, which is what the rest of this post is about.

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There was the “is science the new religion” debate, which turned out to be about science and politics. It was really the only panel with someone from “the outside”, journalist Brendan O’Neill. He debated with physicists Jeff Forshaw and Helen Czerski, and comedian Robin Ince. As Vicky puts it, “it quite quickly deteriorated into an exasperated and highly entertaining bun-fight between” O’Neill and Ince. Ince blogged about the exchange, O’Neill published his “speech” and allegedly said that “QEDcon was like a crazy cult”.

So, there was a contrarian journalist, whose politics in almost any question are reversed to that of almost any other person in the room. It was a good show. O’neill was the ultimate bad guy, Ince was fantastically enraged. The QED crowd got to be called consensus zealots on Twitter, which is utterly satisfying. 

Ironically though, for a panel about expertise, there was no expert on science and policy. The whole thing crowd-pleasing, but not thought-provoking.

The place of experts in a democracy is a balance act, as I think any sensible person would agree. Ince writes that it is a good thing that “heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity”. Obviously. But surgeons are generally thought of as being keener than other doctors on opening people up. So people are advised to also consult a cardiologist. And ultimately in our modern enlightened medicine, the decision remains with the patient.

The question is then who gets to decide the jurisdiction of the experts. Since this is a social question, social science experts should be the ones deciding!

Yeah, that was a circular argument. In practice there’s constant negotiation in society over who gets to influence decisions. I think it would be safe to assume that most groups of people tend to prefer to be as influential as they can. Sometimes because they are Bond-style villains aspiring for world domination for its own sake, but more often because they sincerely believe they know how to do things best. The heart surgeon really does think a scalpel is the right solution for your heart problem.

Now, I am not an expert on these things and I can only provide swiping generalizations. But there are people who study how this works, sociologists of science, science and society scholars and so on. For a serious conversation about these questions you should talk to them.

Unlike Brendan O’Neill, these are people who care about evidence. They think hard and systematically about these questions. I think people in QED would value that.

(BTW, the little I know about the subject comes mostly from Alice Bell’s blog “through the looking glass”. Follow her. The Guardian’s new Political Science blog is probably also good, but I haven’t been following it closely enough)

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