Thinking in public

Jon Sutton reports on a talk at the Society's Annual Conference from Tom Stafford and Vaughan Bell, to mark their Public Engagement and Media Award.

This is the first time the Society’s Public Engagement Award has been given to a blog,, and despite Dr Tom Stafford and Dr Vaughan Bell’s modest reflections that this is the ‘Award for People with Short Attention Spans who like Writing Things on the Internet’, the unanimous feeling around the conference was that the recognition was richly deserved.

Tom began with how the pair came to write together. I was touched to get a nod – Tom started writing about research in our pages – particularly as I like to think The Psychologist / Research Digest and Mind Hacks have gone on to enjoy a Messi / Ronaldo type relationship, pushing each other to ever-greater heights. Maybe that’s just in my head, but at the very least two contributors to the original Mind Hacks book and to the blog in its early days – Dr Christian Jarrett and Dr Alex Fradera – have gone on to success with our Research Digest blog.

It was interesting to hear how that book and the blog were borne out of tech culture: hackers like to take things apart, understand a system, use that understanding to do ingenious things. And it is a sharing culture – you find something out, you share it. ‘The internet was exciting then, not the bane of our lives or a distraction,’ Tom said. ‘“Thinking in public”’ interested me.’

The original focus was things you could try in the comfort of your own house, to understand and repurpose. ‘Everything that we say about psychology should be able to be turned into a demo,’ Tom said. ‘That’s the great gift of psychology to us as communicators.’ And what communicators they are, embellishing a simple demonstration of the brain’s blind spot with a description of the eye as ‘a bit of your brain which protrudes so people can see it – a machine, made of meat, that runs on blood.’

A decade on, and has had its 5000th post. ‘It’s been amazing fun,’ admitted Tom: ‘taking this specialist interest and trying to reveal the magician’s tricks of the discipline.’ Both are keen to remind the audience that in 2002 there were no psychology blogs: now there are a host of them. ‘To see that grow up, to be part of a collection of people,’ is an obvious source of pride for Tom.

Talking the audience through some of the ‘greatest hits’, Vaughan demonstrated the different roles of a blog. For example, the history of ‘New Southgate’ as an area in London was almost investigative reporting, a fascinating look how mental illness and stigma has changed the geography of London. Some posts might be serving a simpler role of curation: ‘I’ve seen this, you might like it’ (memorably so in the case of a ‘telenovela’ called La Mujer Perfecta, featuring a character with autism, which Vaughan said sounded like it would be horrendous but ended up being lauded by Latin American autism advocacy groups). ‘Finding a good curator on the internet is a wonderful thing,’ Vaughan said, and his many Twitter followers would no doubt agree.

As the illuminating and amusing anecdotes come thick and fast (Professor Peter Redgrave and the ferret racing springs to mind), Vaughan and Tom both make important points about the use of blogging as a platform for ‘thinking in public’. Blogging allows different voices and levels of nuance not commonly found in most media reporting: it’s a valuable conversation we can be part of.

Vaughan admitted that a lot of people, including former employers, have questioned the value of his efforts. But I think this may be changing rapidly, as there is increasing emphasis in the REF on the fairly nebulous concept of impact, and as writing on personal blogs now tends to lead to opportunities in more mainstream media. As Vaughan pointed out, it’s also the case that debate and theoretical advances in psychology and science in general are increasingly happening online.

The pair ended with an empowering take home message: ‘Each one of you has probably got those 5000 posts inside you. Make use of the resources on the internet, but put your own thoughts online too.’

- See also our report of the Mind Hacks birthday event. 

More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on this site over the coming days and weeks, with extras in the July print edition. Find out more about next year's event


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