Author: Alastair Marsh -
In Part One of this entry, I argued how more pretentiousness could lead to better engagement between scientists and non-scientists. In Part Two, I’ll use myself as a guinea pig to give an example of how this might work in practice.
After the initial sense of satisfaction at completing "The importance of being pretentious - Part One", I had a fearful realisation. It’s all very well firing out these hypotheses from behind my keyboard and mug of tea, but, I am a scientist – I need to test this out! Before revealing how I got on, I’ll explain what I think appropriate pretentiousness sounds like in actual conversation.
In my opinion, pretentiousness partly arises from the difference between informing and engaging. In the latter, we not only give someone information but we ALSO force that person to form their own opinion on those facts, by posing a question. And if that question is about something bigger - bigger than us, bigger than our own niche – which people can care about, then that is when we reach pretentiousness.
inform, v. = “Give (someone) facts or information”
engage, v. = “Establish a meaningful contact or connection with”
Most people aren’t equipped to form critical opinions on technical matters. This is a recognition that beyond a certain level of detail, it requires a certain amount of specific technical knowledge to fully comprehend matters. This includes technical experts, such as scientists, on areas outside their expertise. Such technical engagement is the realm of the journal’s editorial team, the departmental seminar etc. However, what everyone is equipped with is a personal set of values. Perhaps because they’re something intrinsic to our sense of self, it’s hard not to let these values make themselves heard when given the chance. So, to force people to make an opinion on a technical matter, we need to:
a) inform them to a certain basic level about what the technical matter is, then;
b) pose a question which forces people to consider how they would use that technology, based on their personal set of values.
This kind of pretentious engagement is visibly successful in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). Not only are we curious about the technical wonders of what AI will be able to do, we are forced to make values-based choices about what we want an AI world to look like. How will the risk of mass unemployment alter our human societies? Who will be legally responsible for crashes involving self-driving cars? Armed with only a small base of technical knowledge, it’s hard not to get drawn into such questions as they ask a lot of our personal set of values. Opinions will differ drastically between people, and through engagement with these philosophical questions, perhaps even reveal hitherto hidden parts of our characters.
I found myself partaking in an excellent example of opinion-forming engagement during Emma Sackville’s talk for the Public Engagement Awards last month. She explained the chemical bonding in a water molecule using two very different analogies – and then asked us to choose which we preferred. I wasn’t just informed how the bonding in a water molecule worked – I was engaged through forming my own personal opinion on the matter. Pretentiousness was then in the room, through the bigger underlying questions posed - how does each of us best learn? And how does this vary between people?
As an experiment, I have applied this idea to my own research field of low-carbon construction materials. As luck would have it, the week after I started writing this blog entry, I realised I was scheduled to give a joint talk (with Caroline Hughes, also of dCarb) at BRLSI about my research. The perfect opportunity! Using the two-part tactics I introduced above, here’s how how I made my talk pretentious:
a) The basic information
The world’s population is expected to grow by an extra billion people by 2050. Most of this growth will be in urban areas in economically poor countries in Africa and Asia. The combination of these countries’ anticipated population growth and increasing wealth will create a large demand for affordable, decent quality, aesthetically pleasing housing. In addition, this housing will have to have sufficiently low environmental impact given the sheer scale involved. My research is investigating the feasibility of ‘geopolymer’ stabilised soil materials (GSSM) to meet this housing demand.
b) Introducing pretentiousness through questions
The pretentiousness I sought to introduce was around the bigger questions of homes and housing. What makes for a pleasant home? What are expectations? Are we ever completely rational in our personal decisions about housing?
To begin the evening, I gave each person a pen and paper and asked them to describe/draw their ideal home. I did this to get people thinking about housing from a personal, subjective perspective, rather than in the abstract, removed air of a newspaper debate on housing policy.
After describing the housing experiences of a poor family in peri-urban Accra, Ghana (based on an ethnographic study, but which I read out as a story), l posed a first question: “How do your experiences of buying, building and living in homes in the UK, compare with the family in Accra?”. Correctly, people responded that security of land tenure is a huge difference.
Moving on to choosing materials for a house, my second question was “What materials did you choose for your ideal home?”. The general consensus in the audience was not for a specific material, but something that was sustainable and sourced locally.
I sought to extend this talk of subjective priorities, by introducing the audience to the large influence that social status has in people’s choice of housing materials in LEDCs. My third question was to ask people, “Have you ever made a housing decision on an emotional reason (e.g. social status) rather than a ‘rational’ reason (e.g. location, energy efficiency, affordability)”. However, in the moment I simply forgot to ask this.
It was an enjoyable talk/ discussion with a small but engaged audience. By purposefully introducing pretentiousness into my talk, and in doing so making it more interactive, I reckon the audience had a more engaging and memorable evening compared to my ‘baseline’ non-pretentious public talk.
I must confess it wasn’t easy to follow my own advice to “pose a question which forces people to consider how they would use that technology” - and to be honest I don’t think I did. But, I am convinced that the audience did question how they go about making housing decisions about housing in general. Which, in the context of introducing research about a new construction material, does achieve pretentiousness.
This has been the first time I’ve done this kind of experiment on myself – it’s been a little nerve-wracking, but fun! As a result, I have more confidence in the starting hypothesis – that more pretentiousness leads to better engagement between scientists and non-scientists. Until the next time, I wish you a pretentious and prosperous June…
P.S. I add the disclaimer that all these arguments are based on my own experiences on both the giving and receiving sides of public engagement, in addition to my general curiosity about technology and society. I have no doubt that those highly experienced in the practice and theory of public engagement could debunk and/or improve much of what I’ve written – but, it’s been a highly entertaining experiment nonetheless.