Jul 16, 2013

Terence’s Stuff: Meeting the Public

Giving public lectures is a part of the job for senior academics. Terry Speed reflects on his recent experience of addressing a more general audience.

I’ve given a few public lectures over the years, but almost all have been in a lecture theater on a university campus. Often an academic program or research project has public outreach as one its secondary goals, and so they run some public lectures on their campus. In my experience with such talks, “the public” usually means people from departments other than statistics, and perhaps some high-school students who have unusually dedicated teachers. I have rarely talked to groups that include people with no link at all to any educational or research institution.

All this changed for me a few weeks ago, when I did a lecture tour of a small, English-speaking country. In this case the target audience really was the broader public, and not just academics or students, although everyone was welcome to attend.

I discovered that venues do matter. Some of my lectures were in city museums, and one in a high-school auditorium. I think this made a world of difference to the kind of person who turned up. Such locations signal possibly accessible, meant to be non-academic, to the audience, and I was instructed to be accessible to non-scientists. My sponsor was a society devoted to the advancement and promotion of science and technology, and I was part of their promotion activities.

How did I find it? For a start it was quite different from my previous efforts at meeting the public—they came! So did journalists, some of whom interviewed me, while others reported on my talk. Not too surprising, as my sponsors had strong links with both radio and the print press. Talking to journalists before or after a lecture is a particular form of meeting the public. Some caught on to my message quickly, while others took longer, and I wasn’t sure of my success in communicating with them. But my audience wasn’t just them, it was their audiences too, and one or two had wide audiences. Overall, I was very happy with my interaction with the media, and grateful that they viewed me positively as a statistician, without feeling obliged to mention lies and damned lies. I hope it counted a little towards the success of the International Year of Statistics—though I deliberately didn’t mention this event, because I wasn’t speaking as a statistician but as a scientist who happens to be a statistician, and my primary message was about science, not statistics. This may have been a bad call on my part, but I thought I could get better publicity for statistics by not focussing on statistics as an end in itself, but as a means to scientific ends. That this is really how I see statistics is hardly an accident.

Talking to locals during the day, giving my lecture early in the evening, having dinner afterwards with other locals, and then going to bed to get up in the morning to fly to another city to repeat the sequence, was usually enjoyable and interesting, but it did get tiring. We were plunged into darkness during one lecture, but I kept talking! I started to sympathize with politicians on the campaign trail, as I moved from city to city. They give their campaign speech several times each day, whereas I gave mine once a day, but in many respects my experience must have been similar to theirs. I spent more time in airports than I would have liked, I endured flight delays and cancellations due to bad weather, and I don’t think anyone can say they enjoy sleeping in that many different beds, no matter how comfortable the hotels.

I was happy with the responses of my audiences. I encouraged people to ask questions during my talks, and this largely worked. Given that I really didn’t know the background of my audiences—something we take for granted in academic talks—their questions and answers helped ground me. In one lecture a man asked me “What is a gene?” After I gave him a thumbnail explanation, he came back with “How do you know they exist?” I gave a succinct answer to that question. He then launched into a third question, at which point some of the audience shouted “Shut up! We came to hear him [i.e., me], not you!” and he did shut up. I got many positive reactions from people coming to me afterwards to ask questions, or seek guidance for further information. One email was from someone working in IT in a bank, who saw the “potential to contribute to interesting ventures” (like mine) with his scientific and mathematical background. Another wrote, “You stretched my understanding without leaving me behind!” I felt exactly the same about my meetings with the public.

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