Bringing Logic (and Philosophy, CS) to the Masses

At this year’s Vienna Summer of Logic the organizers did something I haven’t seen done before, and which I think should be emulated: over the course of the two weeks that 2,400 logicians were gathered in Vienna, they organized a Logic Lounge in seven instalments.  For an hour each, one or more conference participants engaged in a moderated conversation in front of a general audience in a café near the conference venue. The moderators were well-prepared, and the discussants all had interesting things to say: about what logicians “do,” about important results and why they were important, about connections between logic and other areas.  There was a session with Georg Gottlob about how logic regained a foothold in Austrian intellectual discourse and in Vienna’s universities in the 1980s (due in large part to people like Peter Weibel, a high-profile Austrian media artist), one on Gödel’s theorems, a conversation with Christos Papadimitriou (among other things about Logicomix), one with Moshe Vardi on the ethics of AI, and one on women in logic with Ruzica Piskac and Magdalena Ortiz .  (I unfortunately had two miss the events featuring Roderick Bloem and Byron Cook.) These, I thought, were very successful and engaging ways to bridge the gap between the rarefied and technical academic program of the conferences making up the VSL and the public.

It was a rewarding experience for me: both as a member of the audience, and as the guy that got to explain what the incompleteness theorems are about.  It wasn’t something teaching prepares you for: in the classroom, you have audiovisual materials, you can rely on a textbook, you can expect your students to have some background.  In the Logic Lounge, it was basically like explaining Gödel to someone you just met in a bar.  You can’t presume anything, you can’t use any jargon or formulas, and you have to make sure you give the “big picture” and explain why anyone should care.  I hope I did a decent job.

The organizers put a lot of effort into the events and the “public” aspect of the VSL in general, and I find that very laudable. Logic isn’t something you learn about in high school or even in university unless you take a course in it.  It’s something the general public only has pretty vague ideas about – but something the specialists think (with good reason) is important and should attract more interest, students, and funding.  The same can be said for philosophy and probably at least for some areas of computer science (theory) and (pure) mathematics.  So why don’t more conferences do that sort of thing?

Organizing a conference is a lot of work.  But it’s also a valuable opportunity to publicize the value of what we do in academia to the “outside” world.  You’ll have a number of able and hopefully willing eminent people available to participate, you don’t have to worry about attendance (since at least some of the conference goers will be curious), and you have a chance to raise the profile of your discipline and perhaps the local university department to the public.  Topics aren’t hard to find. The ASL could have a keynote speaker chat about infinity or hypercomputation. The PSA could have a philosopher of science talk about scientific evidence and climate change. At LICS you can have someone talk about security and verification of programs, at PLoS about why the language in which you code is important.  And at the APA: any neat topic that would wow students in intro courses: philosophy of travel, existence of god, paradoxes, justice, science and free will  — but don’t just do it like an intro course: have your participants also talk about what they’re writing on.  

You need a venue willing to cooperate: since the people attending will all order at least a drink and you’re probably running the event before dinner, that should be easy to find.  And you need someone to moderate and ask questions, and that person should probably be someone who isn’t an expert – else you run the risk of the conversation ending up at too high a level.  Ask a local journalist, or someone who already has some experience running events like these, e.g., a local Science Café. And then get some publicity: send out a press release (or have the local University send out one).

Thanks to the organizers of the VSL Logic Lounge, Oliver Lehmann and Helmut Veith, to Thomas Kramar (Die Presse) for the keeping us on track, and everyone who came and asked questions!

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