You know how it is with buses, you wait for ages and then 3 come along at once. Well that seems to be what has happened with me with debates. Not that I was consciously waiting for them, but certainly three have come along this week. The first – with Willetts – formed the basis of my last post. Then over the weekend I was involved in two in quick succession at the Hay Philosophy Festival, as I mentioned before. I don’t know what I had expected from a Philosophy Festival, but I don’t think it was what I got. As a scientist I have – irony of unconscious bias perhaps, stereotyping philosophers without thinking – imbibed the notion that philosophers are way smarter and naturally better at arguing/debating than me. I was therefore expecting to be challenged about every view I expressed, with the nuances minutely dissected. Well, no, that wasn’t what happened, and I came away feeling slightly cheated.
The first debate, chaired by Bryan Appleyard involved John Harris, Aubrey de Grey and Mary Warnock, the first two supporting the idea that increased longevity of life, and ‘human enhancement’ were desirable whenever possible; Mary and I opposed this view. The format of the debate meant that we each set out our positions for a few minutes and then got into the ‘debate’ proper. Having spoken second after Harris, I was delighted when Baroness Warnock started her own intro with ‘well I could just say ditto to everything Athene has just said’; at that point I realised not only was I talking comprehensibly, but my arguments carried weight and were philosophically and ethically logical (from which you will deduce that, up to that point, I hadn’t been entirely sure this would be so). However, as the debate proper got going there was very little actual engagement, in my view, with the concerns Mary and I expressed that everlasting life on earth did have its down side – for society as well as for the individual. The others seemed to believe implicitly that longer life was a good thing without question, and – as Harris put it – enhancement wasn’t enhancement if it didn’t make us better. But then didn’t seem to want to discuss what therefore did or didn’t count as enhancement, better for whom, or what the practicalities are.
I didn’t have time after the debate to follow up with any of them in more detail as I was instantly rushed off to the other debate I was involved with. Entitled ‘A Paradigm of Health’ this was meant to look at Western medicine in comparison with so-called Alternative Medicine. I had only agreed to do this if the debate wasn’t going to be about homeopathy, and had been assured that it would be much broader than that. In all honesty, it wasn’t. Two supporters of homeopathy versus Dylan Evans – author of Placebo which I would thoroughly recommend as a thought-provoking book – and myself. This debate I felt was even less satisfactory, with the chair choosing to steer us along her set list of questions regardless of how views were or weren’t developing. I guess in the end there was general agreement that the placebo effect was important and that the average NHS GP didn’t always have enough time to spend with patients to get a holistic picture of the problems presenting, but otherwise we didn’t really get anywhere. I was anticipating a defence of how people think homeopathy works – which I was ready to debunk – but the position didn’t seem to progress beyond ‘lots of people feel better after visiting a homeopath’, and citing unspecified clinical trials to demonstrate this ‘fact’.
So, I come away rather frustrated. When offered the opportunity to hit the festival trail I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some science ‘out there’, as well as to challenge myself to participate in things I thought would stretch me. Not having done anything remotely similar before, I wasn’t entirely convinced I was up to the task of the cut and thrust of debate, particularly when it came to questions of a philosophical bent. Instead of this, I think the kinds of discussion I frequently have with students or colleagues to thrash out some knotty issue are much more satisfying and valuable than set piece debates. Then one does get true engagement, and a desire to get to the bottom of things rather than a restating of positions. At least for me. Of course, what I don’t know is whether the audience’s reactions were the same. Perhaps I did achieve in my aim of convincing the greater public that physicists can be articulate, for instance; perhaps they enjoyed just hearing different sides of an argument being discussed, even if no one shifted position or any sort of consensus was reached. Maybe the debates I was in weren’t the best examples. I attended another one in the evening about mental health where things got much more lively – but then it turned out the two key people had been debating these same issues for at least the last 15 years, referring back to some meeting when X had said something with which Y disagreed and did X still hold that same position. Possibly old adversaries make better spectacles for debate.
I’m glad I went to Hay. I am glad I have ticked another mental box, maybe put behind me the idea that debating is one of those things you have to have practiced from your school days on – at least for these sorts of debates if not for the House of Commons. I have reminded myself of the wise words I wrote on this blog earlier in the year, to the effect that you should give things a try because you never know how they’ll pan out. But I do regret that the discussions I got involved with were in essence superficial and I didn’t in the end find out if I have the mental agility to cope with the cut and thrust I thought went into debates. For me, a bit of homework (and I’d done a lot) was sufficient to get by with on this occasion. But who knows for next time.
I’ll write up the notes on my solo talk on unconscious bias for the next post, a talk misleadingly called by the organisers ‘Saving Science’.