One of the nice surprises of the conference was an evening session (8:30pm on a Sunday) on “Comics and Philosophy,” featuring a talk by Christopher Belanger, of the Institute for the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology at the University of Toronto. The talk specifically focused on “Counterfactual Cognition and Ethical Dilemmas: Lessons from Duncan The Wonder Dog,” and just in case you are wondering who Duncan The Wonder Dog is, I’ll spare you the google search.
Christopher entertained an audience of more than a hundred young people (some tattooed, some dressed in shall we say highly imaginative and unconventional ways) while trying to explain that comic books can function like thought experiments to explore the implications of counterfactual conditionals.
Christopher was exploiting a growing movement sometimes referred to as “... and Philosophy” in which academic philosophers write for the general public using pop culture as a vehicle. I have contributed to a few of these myself, particularly The Daily Show and Philosophy (on the Socratic method), and the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy (on logic and inference) and The Philosophy of the Big Bang Theory (on scientism). (Also check my student Leonard Finkelman’s contribution to Green Lantern and Philosophy. He also has one coming up on the complexities of the relationship between Superman and Lex Luthor.)
The point of events like the one at DragonCon and of the “...and Philosophy” books (there are several other series by other publishers, by the way) is to bring philosophy to the general public using a palatable and yet informative platform. And that’s where the trouble starts. It seems like most of my colleagues cannot be bothered to hide their contempt for such lowly degradations of their cherished discipline. Never mind that if philosophers (and other academics) insist in not talking to the public because they are too busy analyzing (for the thousandth time) every single phrase of every one of Kant’s minor works, very soon there won’t be an academic discipline of philosophy at all. That’s because academic departments do not exist to do scholarship, but to serve students. The scholarship is a perk one gets in exchange for the grueling career path that goes through an endless PhD, one or more postdocs, and seven years of tenure track. But make no mistake about it: it’s a perk, not a right, and most certainly not the raison d'être of academia.
This is true also for the sciences, though to a lesser extent because scientists typically bring in the other currency that administrators care about: hard cash from grants. Even so, when I was running a lab it was the same story: writing for a blog, organizing “Darwin Day,” writing books for the public and so on were activities looked upon with a mixture of amusement and disgust. Clearly, if someone spends time doing that sort of thing s/he cannot be that good a researcher, otherwise s/he would care much more about another grant proposal or published paper (never mind that about a third of papers published in primary science journals are never cited once, and that most of the rest are read only by a handful of the author’s close colleagues and friends).
Michael Shermer told the story of how Carl Sagan didn’t make it into the National Academy of Sciences because of the perception that he wasn’t a sufficiently productive scientist — even though the record shows that he was as or more productive than plenty of others who were in fact admitted into that august body. Things have surely improved a bit since, as shown for instance by the fact that Stephen Jay Gould was later welcomed into the NAS, despite a Sagan-like perception of him shared by many of his colleagues. It is also now the case that the NAS, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the Society for the Study of Evolution and a number of other organizations have moved beyond just paying lip service to the idea of talking to the public and have actually started to take the concept seriously. The NAS publishes position papers and organizes workshops on issues such as climate change and evolution, the AIBS hosts regular workshops for teachers, and the SSE has instituted a permanent education committee that bestows an annual prize to scientists who make a contribution to the public understanding of evolution — it’s called the Stephen Jay Gould prize, and has so far been awarded to Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, Sean Carroll, and most recently Ken Miller.
Philosophers have been a bit more slow to pick up on the idea that they need to talk to the public, but there are at least three good reasons to do it: a) it is the public that pays for most academic positions in university departments; b) the continued existence of philosophy as a professional academic discipline depends on people giving a damn about it; c) it is one of the goals of a field whose etymology traces back to the Greek term for “love of wisdom” to expand the circle of people capable of thinking philosophically.
Of course, the problem here may in large part be yet another consequence of American anti-intellectualism (other examples include the election of George W. and the popularity of Jersey Shore). I first noticed this when I realized that all three magazines of philosophy for the general public of which I am aware (Philosophy Now, The Philosopher’s Magazine, and Think) are published in England, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of practicing philosophers is to be found in the US. And let’s not even get started on the fact that philosophers are regular guests (and sometimes hosts) of radio and TV programs throughout Europe, particularly in France and the UK (take that, Oprah!).
I keep being told that philosophy is a stuffy old field that cannot possibly interest the public, and yet my own regular philosophy meetup in New York is almost a thousand members strong — and we are neither the only nor the largest such group in the city! Events that I help organize with the Center for Inquiry and other local groups belonging to the Reasonable New York coalition, for instance on the nature of consciousness, on ethics for secular humanists, and an upcoming one on free will, regularly draw hundreds of paying participants, filling up whatever venue we set aside for them. And the Rationally Speaking podcast — which often deals with philosophical issues or at any rate adds a philosophical flavor to whatever Julia and I talk about — gets downloaded between 10 and 30 thousands times per episode. Other philosophy podcasts, like Philosophy Talk or Philosophy Bites, do even better.
So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at seeing more than a hundred young people huddled in a hotel conference room to listen to the connection between comics, counterfactuals and possible world scenarios. But it surely was a hell of a validating and entertaining way to spend an evening.