— Cultural Sources of Newness

First Science Slam at WZB

“You learn something new every day” is an age-old expression, and it was certainly true today: I had the time of my life learning about and from my first science slam at the WZB.  Instead of going to lunch, we had an hour’s worth of stimulating brain food from four political scientists who rose courageously to the challenge of presenting their new research ideas “in an entertaining and understandable way” in max 10 minutes, as the showmaster from SO36 strictly instructed. Until a week ago, I had not even heard the concept “science slam”, so I was very curious. The WZB’s main conference room filled fast with equally curious colleagues from all departments.

Standing room only at first WZB Science slam January 23 2013

When the lights dimmed to focus on the stage, there was standing room only. We learned that Jutta Allmendinger had experienced her first science slam this month in SO36 because she had been invited to slam there in March and wanted to check it out first. The discovery of this mode of communicating science was so “cool” that she decided to try to introduce it to the WZB.

The first candidate, John Keane, had considered remaining silent for his allotted time, because he is studying democracy and silence. Fortunately, he changed his strategy after recruiting younger colleagues to share the stage with him. From him I learned about the “promiscuous, inclusive, and capacious word ‘slam’”. He listed some of its diverse meanings that the international audience might not yet have encountered: hit, strike, speak out aggressively; from his daughter he learned that slam also has sexual connotations (see the eponymous novel by Nick Hornby; furthermore, researchers who sometimes feel locked in to their work will beneift from knowing that the word also refers to prison; and in robotics it is an abbreviation for Simultaneous Localization And Mapping. John probably could have extended this list but he turned to his research on democracy to persuade us that it is time for another paradigm shift. The third speaker returned to this challenge–but we experienced an artistic change in gears before that step.


Political science rap from Christian Rauh

The next speaker, Christian Rauh  started by warning his WZB colleagues to be careful what they write in their CVs: his included the fact that he was/is a poetry slammer, which Jutta Allmendinger had read, leading to the sudden phone call yesterday entreating him to contribute to the event today. He pointed out a key difference: his poetry slams entailed dark halls, beer—and no academic colleagues. Then he proceeded to rap in German about his doctoral research on “Politicization, issue salience and the consumer policies of the European Commission,” starting with how he developed his question and methods, through data collection to analysis. When he got to his findings he admitted:

Ich muss zugeben, dass mich ein mögliches Scheitern schon stresste,

denn veröffentlichungstechnisch sind falsifizierte Hypothesen nicht gerade das Beste,

doch glücklicherweise zeigten sich Muster der Prozesse

über und in den meisten der 17 untersuchten Gesetze.

Christian’s performance was punctuated by sudden bursts of clapping and laughter—maybe the first such audience response ever in the hallowed wood-panelled hall.

Thamy Pogrebinschi from Rio de Janeiro animatedly took up John Keane’s call for a paradigm shift in democracy by presenting the concept of “pragmatic democracy”. Her research confirms that there is a “misalignment between citizens’ demands for participation and the capacities of political institutions to match those demands.” She introduced us to experiments with new forms of governance in Latin America, suggesting that Europe can learn from those creative ways to “deliver better representation (and improve inclusion and equality) through (non-electoral) participation.” Thamy closed by proposing that pragmatic democracy could help bridge the gap between data and theory from which political science has suffered ever since Fichte responded to a student “so much the worse for the facts” that did not fit his theory.


Thamy Pogrebinschi animatedly advocating Pragmatic Democracy


The last contribution was by Johannes Gerschewski whose research investigates the phenomenon of North Korea: Why has the regime remained stable against all odds over so many decades? He used a sculpture that used to stand in front of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie to introduce us to his “configurational approach” to analysing the situation. The metal sculpture is composed of two elements: a tall column that narrows down to a point and balances on the tip of a pyramid. The structure appears impossibly fragile but it has withstood the test of time, proving itself to be a stable configuration. Johannes compared the pressure exerted by external forces (e.g., the United States) on North Korea to the upper column, and the pyramid aptly represents the internal architecture of the leadership’s control of the strategic elite and the underlying masses in North Korea. He considered the likelihood of change if any of the factors in the upper or lower part of the sculpture/the regime were to threaten the delicate balance between them.  Johannes reached beyond the world of science and of the arts into the world of sports to elucidate the dynamics that lie ahead for North Korea and its critics. He quoted the trainer of the national soccer team, Berti Vogts “Die Breite an der Spitze ist dichter geworden” and suggested that such a change in the configuration could become a tipping point.

A delicate but stable configuration

The event closed with a final round of applauses, whose decibel level was measured by an expert from SO36 using an “audiometer”. Jutta Allmendinger presented the prizes and announced the dates for the next WZB Science Slams: May 8 and June 17 2013 (13:30-14:30).

For those of you who cannot wait until May to experience a science slam in Berlin, they are held at SO36 every first Monday of the month, ie February 4 and March 4.  And for German readers who want to know more about the history and practice of science slams, the wikipedia site in German is much more informative than the English one–it seems to be a German invention. Imagine what German universities would be like if more professors developed this skill!