Curiosity vs The Post-Truth World

Among my weekend reads was Tim Harford’s Financial Times piece “The Problem with Facts“.

We’re big Harford fans around these parts, not just for his podcast More or Less but also his book Messy, which I’ve been inflicting on various colleagues and friends around Australia.

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 21.19.28

In the FT piece, Harford takes us back from the fake news and false claims of political debate in the age of Trump and Brexit to the history of “doubt manufacture” in the 20th century, and the tobacco industry’s attempts to blur the links between smoking and cancer.

He examines the limits of fact-checking as a response or a rebuke to those who cloud public discourse with lies.

He tells us that scientific literacy is not necessarily the answer, that it “can actually widen the gap between different political tribes on issues such as climate change — that is, well-informed liberals and well-informed conservatives are further apart in their views than liberals and conservatives who know little about the science.”

Rather, he points to a paper “Scientific Curiosity and Political Information Processing” by Dan Kahan, Asheley Landrum, Katie Carpenter, Laura Helft and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Those authors argue that it is worth exploring further whether a person’s curiosity about science can counteract our tendency to view the world through the lens of political bias.

Their initial findings prompt them to explore whether

individuals who have an appetite to be surprised by scientific information—who find it pleasurable to discover that the world does not work as they expected—do not turn this feature of their personality off when they engage political information but rather indulge it in that setting as well, exposing themselves more readily to information that defies their expectations about facts on contested issues. The result is that these citizens, unlike their less curious counterparts, react more open mindedly and respond more uniformly across the political spectrum to the best available evidence.

As Harford puts it, “Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.”

All of this is great news for those of us working at the odd intersection of knowledge and culture, where communities meet institutions like galleries, museums, libraries, universities, and healthcare providers.

I’ve been worrying for a while now, even with events as warm and cuddly as the annual Fun Palace celebrations of art and science, about the times we choose to take scientific claims on faith.

I worry too about what part libraries have to play in the battle against fake news and egregiously false claims in the media. Is the library a trusted dispenser of facts and information? A repository of the truth? Or, rather, a safe place for you to indulge your curiosity, to wander as you see fit through all the contested claims and different visions of human knowledge and culture?

Harford’s take on that research paper returns us to the notion of each individual’s curiosity and exploration as the basis of scientific endeavour and the quest for truth. It returns us not to blind faith in science or reliance on fact checkers, but a sense that we must always actively challenge and revise our beliefs.

It reminds me why, in the last few years, we’ve allowed kids to sketch time-travelling creepy crawlies from a steampunk world to encourage scientific observation; why we spent last week in the Aussie town of Bundaberg to help rural writers speculate  about the future of society; why we’ve been training health professionals using far-fetched and fantastic case studies like the Immortal Sock Monkey. It’s because these activities each became a matter of curiosity and wonder, rather than a mere transfer of facts from a person in authority. Curiosity and wonder might just be the best antiseptic for the spread of fake news.

If the formal research into scientific curiosity proves fruitful, it could guide and nuance our attempts to encourage  a world where people are free to learn, explore, create, and play as they wish to, not just in accordance with curriculums and constraints.

It wouldn’t just be about science, either. For isn’t art, too, a matter of curiosity about materials, expression, and representation? And don’t those of us who find ourselves on colonised lands need, as Columbia anthropologist Beth Povinelli has been arguing, to become more curious, too, about Indigenous ways of knowing and understanding the world?

This is a difficult moment for those of us who value the truth in public life and wish to push back against those who maliciously sow doubt and deliberate misinformation. But Tim Harford’s article reminds us that there are ways forward for those of us unwilling to embrace a post-truth world  – and that, wonderfully, those ways might even be incredibly exciting, incredibly adventurous, and incredibly good fun.

Losing control in digital space: Liberact 2016

Last month I spoke at the Liberact conference of digital interactive experiences.

My paper was ‘Play, Chance, and Comics: Losing Control In Digital Space’.

Annotated whiteboard at a Brisbane gym

We explored comics, creativity…and what digital designers could learn from the noticeboard at a gym.

You can see an annotated PDF download of my presentation here.

Hope and Holodecks

i.

Like anyone, I worry about the future.

Right now we’re on the cusp of Trumpocalypse. Even if Donald J. doesn’t get to power, the US – and the world – will have to face the consequences of his campaign. The US election is the second scary vote in the English-speaking world this year, after Brexit – and look at how riven that’s left British culture and society.

And yet – I feel hopeful.

I’ve just been reading Digital Identity 3.0 (PDF download), a report from the Chair of Digital Economy at Queensland University of Technology.

Read more

Queensland Fun Palaces 1-2 October

The long-awaited Fun Palaces weekend has arrived.

Fun Palaces illustration

After months of planning and preparation, communities across Queensland are gearing up to celebrate the arts and sciences in all their forms, partnered with a range of libraries and other institutions.

From the islands of the Torres Strait to the cotton fields of the Darling Downs, plus every library in the city of Brisbane, and of course our own State Library on the city’s South Bank, the first weekend in October will see a swathe of venues open their doors for community-led events celebrating the Fun Palace motto “everyone an artist, everyone a scientist.”

We’ve come along way since Parkes Library hosted Australia’s first ever Fun Palace back in 2014.

I’ll be with the State Library team on Saturday, supporting events including our Scrub Turkey Sessions devised with urban ecologist Professor Darryl Jones of Griffith University.

Wherever you are in the world, check the Fun Palaces website for your nearest event, or join in online with the Comic Maker built for Fun Palaces by the State Library. (We’ve also put the code behind the site online, if you feel like a bit of digital tinkering).

Comic Makers at Brisbane Parking Day

Yesterday I took a team of staff from the State Library of Queensland to run a pop-up comic making stand in Brisbane’s West End.

Brisbane Parking Day - Comic Maker Stall

Drawing on previous experiences with comic book dice at Bermondsey Street Festival, we took over a car parking space to let Brisbane locals tell their own sidewalk stories using simple three-dimensional cartoons. Read more

Interview with ABC Capricornia: Adventure, experience, participation

Rockhampton riverside, Central Queensland
On my last trip to Rockhampton in Central Queensland, I was interviewed by Chrissy Arthur of ABC Capricornia. We talked about some of my projects in Australia and New Zealand, the role of public libraries in 2016, and this year’s upcoming Fun Palaces across Queensland and worldwide.

The best part was talking about how creativity isn’t determined by your pay grade – anyone can have a bright idea, and a role like mine is as much about listening to organisations and their communities as it is ‘thinking up cool stuff to do’.

You can hear ‘Zombies, Burlesque, Cardboard, and Coffee’ on ABC Capricornia’s Soundcloud account here.

Brisbane Writers Festival

Brisbane Writers Festival Logo

I’m appearing twice at the Brisbane Writers Festival this September.

The program is out today in papers across the city and you can see it online at the website of organisers UPLIT.

On Saturday 10th September from 4-5pm, I’ll be at Queensland Art Gallery speaking on “The Rules of Engagement“, a panel with Kate Pullinger and Caroline Keins exploring the changing ways that artists, institutions, and communities interact.

Then on Sunday 11th September, I’ll help a panel of scientists and science-fiction writers to explore science, imagination, and identity. Join Dr Maggie Hardy, Prof Tamara Davis, Ellen van Neerven, and Dr Maree Kimberley for “Science and Belonging“, which I’ll be moderating from 11.30am-12.30pm at The Parlour in the State Library of Queensland.

Find out more at the UPLIT / Brisbane Writers Festival website.

Queensland Fun Palaces 2016

“We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better.

We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a Fun Palace.”

– Fun Palaces Manifesto

October might seem far off, but plans are underway for Fun Palaces across the Sunshine State in 2016.

What’s a Fun Palace? It’s the opportunity for a community to come together and explore the arts and sciences for free.

From fancy inner-city venues to radio stations, theatres, websites, suburban parks, swimming pools, remote tropical islands, people’s back gardens, and, yes, libraries, Fun Palaces are a way for people to get together with friends, family, neighbours, workmates, and strangers in their community, to celebrate the artist and scientist in all of us.

Theatre director Joan Littlewood and architect Cedric Price came up with the idea of Fun Palaces back in the 1960s. They imagined “a laboratory of fun” that would serve as a pop-up community venue for both art and science.

Today, Fun Palaces take place all over the world on the first weekend in October, allowing communities to be part of something bigger, setting off sparks of inspiration and connection which lead to lasting benefits for the people involved.

Fun Palaces illustration

Fun Palaces are for all ages and all members of a community; they can be big or small, low-tech or high-tech, dramatic or domestic. In the small country town of Parkes, New South Wales, we devised a 2014 Fun Palace that let kids and adults join forces to create superhero games from recycled materials.

In 2015, I was co-producer to 11 simultaneous Fun Palaces across a 13-mile stretch of South London. Football clubs and firefighters, jewellers and businesspeople, comic stores and kickboxers, university students and lecturers, plus many more all joined forces to celebrate the arts and sciences in the London Borough of Lambeth. London’s 2015 Fun Palaces also included an online comic maker built for us by the State Library of Queensland, where I’m currently based.

If you’re a Queenslander who’d like to get involved with Fun Palaces this year, our team at the State Library can give advice and support, or connect you to venues which are already running Fun Palaces across the state – including every single public library in the city of Brisbane. We’re also equally excited if you just want to make a tiny Fun Palace in your office or your garden or your kitchen, with your mates or your neighbours or your family.

We all have something to offer, we all have something we’d like to learn or explore. If you’d like to join the adventure in Queensland, either contributing to a Fun Palace on the weekend of 1-2 October, or helping Fun Palace organisers in the run-up to their event, contact the State Library’s Signature Team.

Chalked Fun Palace sign from Brockwell, London
Image by Shelley Silas