The Battle of Ideas happened at the weekend, and I was all primed to scoff at it. I'd already taken a weak pot-shot. The controversy-chasing aspect of it seems stale, and when one of the first speakers opened by saying "I love this conference because it's the only place where anyone can say whatever they like", I was tempted to start screaming my head off with gibberish, a la the moment in Waiting for Godot where Lucky is implored to think:
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the etc etc
Surely 'say anything you want' must be a disastrous norm for any intelligent debate, especially one organised by a think tank that claims to be holding the mantle of Francis Bacon and every Enlightenment rationalist that came in his wake. I did, however, at least exploit the 'freedom' to check my blackberry whenever the whim struck me, even during my panel, on the basis that a) I could do whatever I like and b) to refuse the temptation of technology would be a form of anti-Enlightenment irrationalism, possibly akin to Islamo-fascism.
And yet there is something quite marvellous about the whole occasion, which got me wondering what academia might learn from it. Firstly, and somewhat prosaically, academic conferences are not really chaired. They have chairpersons, but they rarely do anything except sit there and occasionally make bad jokes about technology while one of the speakers is on all-fours behind a computer, struggling to locate the USB port.
Why is this? Why is it that when a speaker is already 15 minutes over time, and seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are other papers still to come, the chair is usually to be found sitting at the side of the stage trying to get the speakers attention by chewing nervously on a biro? Why is it that when a windbag questioner (who tends to announce themselves by standing up, immediately turning their backs to the panel, and facing the audience) has concluded a 10 minute 'comment-not-a-question', with the horrifying words "so that's my first point", the chair responds by adopting the apologetically expectant facial expression of a polite grandmother standing next to the 'Please Wait Here to be Seated' sign in a restaurant?
The first thing that the Battle of Ideas guarantees is that the nutters and the windbags will have their say, but then be ruthlessly silenced. This includes panellists. The chairing is pre-meditated and mindful of the paying audience.
Secondly, academia has too rarely found a good language or set of norms with which to address the power of science and reason in society, in ways that engage the public intelligently. There are positivist science writers in the media (peer reviewed journals are right, and everyone else is wrong) who effectively act to close down public debate. And then there are constructivist sociologists, in the tradition of Latour and Foucault, who are too easily mis-read (either as believing that 'reality doesn't exist', or as just too theoretically dense). I would recommend this book by Bent Flyvbjerg as a way of analysing expertise and power, in ways that is political but not anarchistic or surrealistic. But it is hard to do and to communicate.
Maybe pitching things as 'battles' for truth, reason and Enlightenment isn't such a bad thing, if it engages and energises. I've never seen such a diverse audience cram into so many rooms, with so much note-taking and questioning. Maybe framing discussions as controversies can be productive, as long as one of the possible outcomes is that there is in fact a consensus, and not a controversy at all. Certainly it is better to seek out controversy and find none, than to affirm consensus for fear of controversy.
Standard think tank speak about 'leading the public conversation' implies a certain amount of closure and control. It smacks of lethargy. If the only way to frame the basic Enlightenment idea of the public sphere - equality of access, presumption of rationality as an innate human capacity, judgement of argument not social status - is to pose this as radically inclusive, as radically sceptical, then so be it.
If a debate is pitched as 'Technology' versus 'Fundamentalism, it appears that only two options are on the table or, even more absurdly, as if these are in fact the only ideal types or essences of all more moderate positions (and thereby suggesting that the critique of scientistic reason is theocratic). Maybe, instead, we should view these as the boundary positions, the limits to which it is acceptable to go, but also acceptable not to go anywhere near.