Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Simon Schaffer: Communicating Knowledge is Also Always Making It

Simon Schaffer (Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University):

"[The main theme of my professional life since arriving back in Cambridge] has been working out all the consequences I can think of of the idea that communicating knowledge is also always making it. So there's a very common idea which has initial plausibility but which is in fact completely false that what one is at as a scholar or researcher or whatever is working solidly backstage making knowledge, finding out new truths, making connections, and then subsequently somewhere else in a completely different way, all of this is going to be communicated. Its going to be communicated by publication, in teaching, in broadcasting, in exhibitions and so on.

"And I guess my experience over the last quarter of a century is that that's exactly the wrong picture of what happens. And on the contrary almost all the good ideas that I've ever had (there aren't very many of them) have happened in the process of deliberating, communicating, exchanging and so on, working with students (especially PhD students), and working with teams to organise and put on and interpret and plan and discuss exhibitions, and work in museums, working with groups around broadcasting on radio and television and so on. All of that has provided me with the places and opportunities to actually find out new stuff. And on the contrary the arrow almost points in the oposite direction (counter intuitively); it points from the museum to the study, it points from the [student] supervision to the article, it points from the televison programme to the book... not the other way round. And in retrospect that's really what I spent the last 25 years doing: television."

Mostly I'm posting the video here for the section I have transcribed above. You might want to move on the talk by Steven Johnson after the first couple of minutes. He is discussing a very similar idea but from a less academic standpoint.

There is a rough transcript of this video here: Transcript of 2008 interview with Simon Schaffer - starting from the section titled "Third session". (The transcript also has notes from the previous sections of the interview.) However above is a much more accurate transcript of just this very short section from the beginning of this video.

As well as being on YouTube, the whole interview from 2008 can be downloaded : here, although I would say that for the general viewer far the most interesting section is the final part.

I was reminded of this interview by watching this TED video which is kind of a presentation of a similar idea but from a less academically oriented sphere:

Steven Johnson - discusses: Where good ideas come from?

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