Sunday, April 13, 2008

Scientific Apathy at Seminars and Lab Meetings

Some great discussion going on regarding Speaking Up in Seminars and Grad Student Solidarity, courtesy of PhysioProf (@Drugmonkey) and A Lady Scientist. Lady Scientist's first remark was interesting:

"Students don't tend to ask questions at these Journal Clubs. In fact, I think that the prevailing sentiment is that we're supposed to go easy on the students, because if we were up there wouldn't we want the same consideration? So, easy questions (eg. Can you define that negative control?) are ok, but the hard ones (eg. Those controls are very off. Can you still interpret the data?) are not."

As was the response from PhysioProf:

"The issue under discussion is whether there should be a principle of "solidarity" among trainees--grad students and post-docs--in public venues such as seminars and journal clubs, pursuant to which trainees do not challenge one another publicly, so as not to show each other up, or embarrass one another. The answer is a resounding, "Fuck no!"...

This kind of attitude is completely insane. The entire essence of science--what defines it as a profession--is that scientists ask all questions that present themselves, either of themselves or of others...

I gave a research seminar at another institution this week during which the audience absolutely hammered me with really good perceptive critical questions. I fucking loved it. It meant they were interested and engaged. What could be more boring than standing in front of a room blathering on in the face of polite indifference

When you fail to ask a question, or raise a criticism, based on some misguided sense of "loyalty" or "solidarity", you are actively harming the scientist you think you are protecting. Because someone somewhere will eventually ask the question--a paper reviewer, a grant reviewer, a thesis committee member, a job search committee member, a job seminar audience member--and the sooner the issue gets raised, the sooner the scientist can address it."

These are just excerpts but there's lots more interesting discussion over at their sites and in the comments.

I don't have much to add (I think PhysioProf is bang on, but I'm sure many students share Lady scientist's concerns) but I can certainly relate to the observations - Audience Apathy at lab meetings, journal clubs and seminars has long perplexed me. Even harder to understand is Speaker Apathy. Why do so many students and post-docs (sometimes even the ones giving the talk) bother to show up to group exchanges week after week if not to participate and interact?


The Key Question said...

That's an easy one. The audience in question simply have not mastered the art of Diplomatic Disagreement (TM). As such they'd rather err on the side of tumbleweed silence.

Heck, if you criticize a fellow sciencefolk in the wrong way during a seminar, what's gonna happen the next time you need 5ul of pColourscript-Whatever-EyeRest-PurpleFluorescentDinosaur?

A PhysioProf-style critique is generally reserved only for best friends and the blogosphere.

Anonymous said...

I freaking hate it when an audience member asks a question when its obvious to everyone else in the room that the presenter is not going to have a clue.
While the presenter maybe should know the answer, the questioner looks just as stupid to the audience who is obviously more perceptive of the limits of the presenters knowledge.

Kamel said...

This came up in the comments on one of those threads: "a side conversation afterwards is considered more appropriate." I don't consider it more appropriate, but that's usually the way I approach it. Of course, as PhysioProf points out, in that case the rest of the audience is being robbed of my wisdom (or ignorance!)

We work on an open concept floor, with people from different groups intermingling in labspace. You would think this would encourage questions since we should all be more comfortable/familiar with one another but maybe it has the opposite effect and many people get their questions out of the way before the presentation happens, during the course of every day lab conversations. For example, I've discussed some journal club papers with the presenters before the actual talk.

I'd be willing to bet, also, that a part of the phenomenon isn't some unspoken grad student code that some of the commenters in the original posts suggested. Instead it may be a case of the bystander effect where students are expecting someone else to ask the same question. Not that that makes it any better.

Bayman said...

in that case the rest of the audience is being robbed of my wisdom (or ignorance!)

Exactly! Not only that, but both you and the speaker are robbed of benefiting from further wisdom that might be contributed in subsequent follow-up from the many other people at the talk.

I've always thought that getting a group of scientists, from various levels of the career ladder, out of the lab and into a room together is a tremendously valuable opportunity to have an open and interactive scientific discussion, the main benefit of which is the diversity of viewpoints that can contribute.

I find it unbelievable how often that opportunity seems to be thrown away simply because people are afraid they'll rock the boat by opening their mouths, afraid they don't have the "right" question/answer or afraid they won't get the "right" answer.

Bayman said...

I freaking hate it when an audience member asks a question when its obvious to everyone else in the room that the presenter is not going to have a clue.

In my view the point of scientific discussion is not to have the "right" answer. It is not a quiz show or trivia night. A question from an audience member serves to open discussion. There may well not be a "right" answer, but this is no reason for the speaker not to respond with interesting or intelligent discussion brought up by the question asked.

So, I think the real annoyance is when the questioner repeats the line of inquiry and it's obvious that the presenter is not even going to bother trying to discuss it. The problem here is that the speaker is apathetic, not that the questioner is trying to get a discussion started.

Where speaker apathy comes from I don't know, but maybe it stems in part from a false perception on the speaker's part that the point of Q&A is to win some sort of trivia contest by getting all the "right" answers. So if they don't know the answer they just don't bother.

It happens though - I've even seen apathetic speakers walk out of the seminar room while a questioner is mid-sentence...