Superstitions in Bristol

Posted on September 21, 2009


On Thursday, I gave my “Superstitions, ideologies, and religions, too” talk at the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre. There was a good crowd, with a couple of familiar faces in the crowd. Apart from the BCDC people, some of whom I’d met in Cambridge in the spring, there were a couple of graduate students whom I’d met at various conferences and who are working on related topics. I was happy with how the talk went, although I did become a bit concerned when I realised that I’d managed to fly through the whole thing in under thirty minutes. This turned out to be a good thing, however, as there were a lot of very good questions that people wanted to ask. The questions ranged widely, both in topic and in depth, with some “please explain…” questions and a lot of “what about…” ones. A number of very good points were raised. Unfortunately, I was unsatisfied with my answers. On the one hand, I did not think my answers were as tight as they could have been in a number of cases. I had thought about many of the issues the questions dealt with but often failed to express clearly, or even recall at the time, what my conclusions were on the matter. On the other hand, I have been somewhat worried that the way I answer questions is becoming a little mannered. At times, I feel like I take a stance in response to the questioner instead of engaging with the issue. Such mannerisms make responding much easier, indeed automatic, but kill the intellectual exchange. I wonder how often other people who have given many talks have the same problem. I know that there are some who have succumbed, of course, parrying questions without really thinking about what was said. So I guess there must, therefore, be many others who struggle against the temptation. The way that I have been trying to do it is to see how, if at all, I can take the questioner’s suggestions on board and include them in my own account. This forces me to think about the issue but, it seems to me, it can also become a mannerism of the very bland “we’re a broad church and these are complex things” variety.

In the days since the talk I’ve had a number of people come up to me and say how much they liked it. Of course, the people who did not like it aren’t likely to come up and say so, which means that I’m not dealing with a fair sample of responses. Still, I do think that I have managed to whittle the basic ideas down to the core and am now definitely ready to write this up. One thing that my dissatisfaction with my answers leads me to conclude is that I have to be extremely careful how I express my ideas, making it very clear what my claims are.