Researchers as ‘interested amateurs’

By Peter George Johnson

Fun American Philosophy

I have always struggled to understand or enjoy ‘serious’ philosophy. As such, I was long-ago pleased to hear American philosophers, though ‘serious’, have a reputation for being accessible and hands-on. Thus, when I chanced upon Daniel Dennett’s (he’s American!) 2013 book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, I decided to give it a go. Dennett did not disappoint – walking the reader through many common, but tricky, pitfalls in our thinking and argumentation – in an easy and appealing style. I recommend it.

One of the most interesting and potentially useful ideas Dennett discusses is that of using lay audiences as decoys. That is, decoys in a discussion between experts, to aid and improve understanding on all sides in that discussion. Dennett suggests that including lay audiences (which he calls ‘curious nonexperts’) in discussions can ensure that experts err on the side of over-explaining their thoughts and positions. When experts are talking only to other experts, Dennett suggests they err on the side of under-explaining, not wanting to insult others by going over basic assumptions, and can thus talk past each other. This means they can fail to reach consensus, understanding, or conclusions that may be constructive. This idea struck a chord with me. For Dennett, the ‘curious nonexperts’ are undergraduate philosophy students, who are included in debates between professors. For me, the book sparked the idea that researchers could be the ‘curious nonexperts’ in policy debates.

At this point I should admit, I prefer and use the term ‘interested amateurs’ over ‘curious nonexperts’. I thought Dennett had used this term, but on re-reading his book, it appears he does not. I can only conclude I have subconsciously invented and preferred the term – particularly the word ‘amateur’ – as it seems slightly more insulting!

Yet more experts

The ever-increasing pressure for researchers and universities to have real-world impact coming from their research has troubled many. For others, whose research was already aimed at informing the real world, or more specifically, policy decisions, the move has been less disconcerting. We are used to seeing these sorts of researchers as talking heads on the news and elsewhere, dispensing their findings and wisdom on their policy issue of interest. They become another expert in the policy debate, alongside experts such as politicians, civil servants, charities, think-tanks and other associations and interest groups.

But did the debate need another expert? With the addition of a researcher the list of ‘policy stakeholders’ just got longer. Did the well-funded and long running research inform the debate of anything that was not already intuitively known by those involved? How did other policy stakeholders use the research and findings?

In many cases the researcher and research – the additional expert – have helped directly inform others’ thinking.  However, this is not the only way in which a researcher can have an impact on policy and the real world.

Research(er) as ‘interested amateur’

Researchers could also be, or play the role of, ‘interested amateurs’. In this case, they are no longer providing concrete answers to policy makers’ questions, or prescribing changes that should be made, but rather, are aiming to help policy makers improve their interaction and discussion with other experts in their field, as well as their own thinking. Poor interaction and lack of genuine discussions between government and other policy stakeholders (particularly charities and other special-interest groups) is often cited as a common problem in policy making.

There is a risk that it sounds as if I am suggesting researchers add to the extensive self-improvement literature on ‘how to listen’, or management literature on ‘how to make better decisions’. I am not. Rather, I am suggesting it may be fruitful to re-frame the way in which researchers’ skills and analysis could be useful in the policy debate. We may want to view our findings, not as truth for policy makers to accept and take on board, but as objects for policy makers to consider and ‘wrestle’ with. If policy makers can ‘wrestle’ with research findings in front of other policy stakeholders, or experts, then we may begin to see how researchers, and their research, can become ‘interested amateurs’.

An example, a model

In the Centre for Research in Social Simulation here at the University of Surrey, we typically work with computer models. Computer models of social processes, which are sometimes processes that policy makers have an interest in (think ‘SimCity’). But what is a model?

One of my colleagues, Dr Jen Badham, recently gave a preview of an excellent talk she was preparing for the recent British Science Festival in Birmingham. In this talk she directly addressed this question of what a model is. She concluded that a model is: (i) ‘of’ something, the model is intended to represent some process or thing in the real world; (ii) a simplification of reality, something that captures the key features of the process or thing, but is not a full reproduction; and (iii) described in some language, such as text, diagrams, mathematics, computer code, which is external to the person making the model, and is not just a ‘mental model’ inside our head(s).

I like this definition. The third element, which states that a model is external and communicable, is vital to my final assertion: that a model can be an ‘interested amateur’. A model can be an object that policy makers and other experts can attack and critique, with other stakeholders, without fear of offending others (except perhaps the modeller!). Through this process of critique of the model, experts may reveal some of their beliefs and assumptions that otherwise may have remained obscured.

A computer model, with its relative level of detail (in the computer code), can make an excellent ‘interested amateur’; giving policy stakeholders a focus for discussion and critique, but also focussing that discussion in a detailed way. This has been one of the focuses of my PhD research. I have explored the potential for a computer model of farmers’ behaviour (specifically an agent-based model of soil conservation adoption) to be used as an ‘interested amateur’ by policy stakeholders working on soil conservation and natural resource management in Ethiopia. I found that my model, as an object to be critiqued and ‘wrestled’ with, created lively debate; my role as a researcher went from trying to encourage discussion, to trying to reduce the tension in a heated debate! However, the policy stakeholders were also keen to suggest that it was others in the policy process – typically ‘lower down’ that process (i.e., more local actors) – that would benefit from such an ‘interested amateur’, rather than themselves. Perhaps this is what Dennett forgot to mention; how interested are the experts in having an amateur in their discussions!?

More details of Peter’s work can be found at Peter is on Twitter @bapeterj. More information about an upcoming Policy Modelling workshop Peter and his colleagues are organising can be found at


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