On Monday evening researchers from the National Core for Neuroethics decamped to The Railway Club in downtown Vancouver for the inaugural event of our new public engagement venture; ‘Café Neuroéthique’. Amongst the velvet drapes, smell of real ale, gig posters, and wooden carousel horses of one of the city’s oldest bars, a lively audience gathered to watch two short films exploring the experiences of a young man with psychopathy. The films were part of a series called Interior Traces (interiortraces.com), which explores how new ways of looking at the brain might change how we see ourselves – from brain scans that claim to ‘read the mind’, to genetic tests that predict future mental illness. As one of the writers of Interior Traces, and a visiting researcher at the Core, I was very excited to see how these British dramas would be received in Canada, and to hear the discussion that followed.
Café Neuroéthique is a new offshoot (or perhaps an adopted sibling) of the Café Scientifique movement. Café Sci groups exist all over the world, and aim to bring experts into informal discussion with the public; in Cafés, bars, theatres, or any other venue where we might find people putting the world to rights over a drink. In this sense, Café Scientifique can be thought of as part of a growing move to encourage public ‘engagement’ with science and technology, rather than trying simply to improve levels of understanding, or garner support for science funding. So Café Scientifique isn’t a lecture – invited experts sit amongst the audience, and after briefly describing their research or perspective, take a deep breath and wait for the conversation to begin. If all goes to plan, the attendees are able to elicit the information they want, and question its implications – often learning from each other as well as from the speaker.
So why another new Café on the high street of public engagement events? As regular readers will know, ‘Neuroethics’ refers to interdisciplinary research that explores the ethical, legal, and social implications of neuroscience, and also to research on the neuroscience of moral and ethical reasoning. As such, talking to people about brain research – which often touches on fundamental questions about human nature, wellness, and identity – is a crucial part of the endeavour. And as a newly christened discipline with diverse and rowdy relatives, discussing Neuroethics is one way of testing the boundaries of the field, and exploring new branches in the family tree. It’s also a fertile ground for experimenting with different Café formats, such as using dramatic narratives as a stimulus for discussion, and debating the role and remit of experimental research.
Elite coffee club or social revolution?
Monday’s event suggested that there is a serious appetite for the intellectual fodder of neuroethics, and also got me thinking about the challenges we might face in achieving the kind of ‘engaged’ dialogue the movement aspires to. The Café movement often claims roots in the Salons of 17th-18th century France; gatherings of like-minded people who invited speakers to come to their soirées to exchange ideas, entertain, or educate. The history of the Salon is long and complex, and scholars still argue about whether they were simply an extension of elite courtly activities, or a critical part of a more democratic ‘public sphere’ that emerged during the Enlightenment.
There’s an important resonance here for contemporary science communication events – who they for, and who comes? Are we preaching to the converted? To some degree, of course we are; though converts to an interest in science is very different from finding only science fans in the audience. But unlike a traditional Salon, everyone is invited, and the choice of venue, format, topic, and advertising can help attract diverse audiences by building Cafés in more prominent, easily accessible spots in the cultural landscape. With such goals in mind, it’s important to assess who your audience is and what the Café offers them. Informal observations and qualitative discourse analysis are important sources of insight, but I would argue that the dreaded feedback survey is also a useful tool – and can help to avoid biased ‘history making’ of the kind scholars of the Salon get exercised about.
The colour of your stockings
The origin of the term ‘bluestocking’ to refer to educated women is also shrouded in historical controversy, but one of the most popular stories tells of impoverished Botanist Benjamin Stillingfleet being welcome at an English Salon despite his informal blue hosiery; black would have been far more appropriate. Informality seems to be key to generating Café-style dialogue, and audience research suggests that removing markers of power such as lecterns and microphones can encourage a move away from simple ‘Q&A’. But even then, analysis of audience speech patterns has indicated that they still tend to label the participants in terms of their qualifications, defer to experts who ‘know more’, and often describe their contributions as ‘just a comment’.
At Monday’s Café, we were indeed asked halfway through if we could say more about our research and qualifications, and what neuroethicists actually do. For me this was a nice illustration of the tightrope this dynamic treads between the desire to learn from people with ‘trusted’ expertise – even if on one’s own terms – and the desire to weaken the barriers such deference can erect. For neuroethics, which at its heart is interested in what people think about science, there’s an additional question about how to choose experts, and how to frame their expertise. Do we invite neuroscientists to speak about their research and encourage discussion about its ethical implications? Or do we present research in neuroethics for discussion? Is it a Café or a ‘meta-Café’? Thoughts on a bar napkin please…
Café Scientifique Canada lives here – we’ll have our own page soon, and they will be listing future Café Neuroéthique events.
The UK-based worldwide Café Scientifique page is here; click on ‘find a cafe’ to get the North American map and find our little purple blob just next to Vancouver’s Café Scientifique. There’s also some interesting info on history and aims of the movement on the site.
Check out this paper and article on public engagement and dialogue, and the research on conversation patterns mentioned above was originally reported in Dr Sarah Davies’ PhD: “ Scientists and the public: Studies in discourse and dialogue”.