February 14, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making Thoughts Public
After writing my first blog post a week or so ago, I was sitting on the bus chatting to the daughter of a very old acquaintance of mine, a now retired lecturer in French, for whom I did a module once a long time ago after I had arrived in Nottingham at the beginning of the 1990s. She asked me what I was doing and I explained to her that I was no longer teaching/researching French, but was now moving around in fields related to the sociology of science and science communication. She said, wow that must be strange. This made me think about the long trajectory that my academic career has taken – from writing my PhD on the history of 19th-century French linguistics on an old Olivetti type writer (during the last year I advanced to an electric one, which was at one time inhabited by a mouse, but that’s another story), to writing blogs and tweets.
Over the last 30 years or so not only has technology changed (I really only started to use a computer around 1985), but so have my ways of thinking, especially the gathering up and weaving together of information: from rummaging around in the dusty corners of the Bibliothèque Nationale and slicing open book pages that had never been touched before by human hand, to googling… But while I adapted to new technologies relatively quickly (despite being an inveterate technophobe), what changed much more slowly was my way of writing or my way of thinking about writing.
For me writing was, and still is, something like cathedral building: you make a plan, you gather the material, you chisel away (and chisel away and chisel away), you buttress your arguments with solid pillars of scholarship and adorn the whole edifice with a profusion of scholarly footnotes. You expect the outcome of that process to stand there for a long time, be admired or scorned by visitors, and, if you are lucky to become a bit of a tourist attraction, that is, become part of the canon of texts used in your discipline (whatever that may be; working in an interdisciplinary way poses problems which are, again, a different story).
This meant that, for a long time, when people asked me to express an opinion about anything, I tried to run away, read ten books, and start the process just described. It took me a while (and I am still not there yet) to change from canon to cannon, i.e. to just think, shoot and leave. This is what writing blogs feels like for me and it still makes feel uneasy. I look back over my shoulder and think: shouldn’t I rather be using my time to build cathedrals?
In the future blogs specifically related to our new research programme ‘Making Science Public’ will be posted by members of the programme team. The programme of research starts officially in May 2012. Stay tuned!
I rather admire John Maynard Keynes who took an alternative view to you and expressed an opinion with great certainty at the drop of a hat until such time as he became convinced of the opposite view in which case he then argued that with the same force. Keynes would have loved Twitter!
Yes, I sometimes wish I could do that. Exude certainty above all else. But I will never achieve that! (That’s why I am partially interested in anything to do with ‘uncertainty’, ‘doubt’ and so on in science and beyond!)
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