Claptrap 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre

(This is the third in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voicesand the televising of Claptrap, which you can watch HERE

Part 2: EUREKA! is HERE).

The first time I spoke in public about the clapping research was at a conference in Cambridge, where there must have been someone from (or with a hotline to) New Scientist magazine in the audience.

Hardly a mass-market publication, but, as I learnt when the BBC phoned a few days later, it’s one that the rest of the media regularly scour through for stories that might be or wider interest. What they’d picked up that Thursday was a short report on the findings I’d just presented in my talk on ‘Some Techiques for Inviting Applause’.

Could I come to London to appear on Nationwide, their (then) early evening news programme, to be interviewed about it by Sue Lawley?

Well, yes I could, except that I had two children to pick up from school that day – a problem quickly solved by allocating some BBC licence payers’ money to pay for a taxi.

When I got to the studio, I was surprised to discover that they’d abandoned their normal coverage of the final day of the Labour Party conference in favour of interviewing me about political speeches.

But, as has so often happened in similar brushes with the media since then, they’d already picked out some clips from the week’s speeches without any consultation with me. And this was live TV, so the ‘expert’ would just have to hope for the best and busk it.

Luckily, the findings about what triggers applause were so robust that there was a very good chance of there being some nice examples before any of the bursts of applause they’d chosen. And so there were, which made busking rather easier than I’d feared.

Talking to other guests who were waiting in the hospitality room to be interviewed that evening, I learnt something else that surprised me: everyone else there had just published a book that they were there to be given a few minutes to plug in front of an audience of millions, whereas all I’d done was to have given a lecture to a few dozen academics at a fairly obscure conference (for more on BBC book plugging shows, see also HERE ).

That was the moment when the idea of writing a book first entered my head, as too did a quiet vow to myself not to go on television again until I’d finished it.

And, as there seemed to be so much interest from a wider public, maybe I should try to write a book aimed at a much general readership than had been the case with my previous academic ones.

Back in Oxford, there were plenty of regular New Scientist readers, one of whom invited me for dinner at his college a week or two later.

He was a zoologist interested in human-animal interaction and was thinking of doing some work how people talk to their cats and dogs. The problem was that, if they were going to be able to make any sensible observations or comparisons, they’d first have to know something about how humans talk to each other. Before reading the piece in the New Scientist he hadn’t been aware that there was a field of research called ‘conversation analysis’, so he’d invited me to dinner to learn more.

While drinking the regulation glasses of pre-dinner sherry, my host introduced me to one of his colleagues, a physicist who also read the New Scientist.

“Ah,” he said “I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but, until I read about what you’re doing, I’d never realised that sociologists ever did anything as scientific as that.”

I didn’t mind him saying that at all.

He probably didn't have much idea at all about what most sociologists actually do. But after nearly 20 years of doing pretty much nothing else, I did. I also knew that many, and probably most, professional sociologists would have been grossly offended by what he said.

But I found his reaction thoroughly agreeable and very comforting. After all, what had drawn me into conversation analysis in the first place was that it’s approach to observing human interaction was so much more rigorous than all the other methodologies on offer.

So to hear a natural scientist recognising anything at all from the social sciences as ‘scientific’ was recognition indeed – and I decided to conveniently ignore the fact that a proper scientist ought really to have observed more than one example before coming to such a momentous conclusion!

• CLAPTRAP 1: Claptrap - the movie
• CLAPTRAP 2: Eureka!

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