Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Investigation or Argumentation?

Lately I've noticed a disturbing trend of seminars sounding more like the opening arguments of a court case than a scientific discussion.

These seminars often contain a phrase like "I hope to convince you that..." at the beginning.

Usually there is a lot of background and heavy-handed explanation of the significance. An almost evangelistic proclamation of why we should care. How important and wonderful it would be if this model were correct.

The message is:Don't you want it to be correct? Wouldn't you feel bad about poking holes in it? You don't want to think critically, you want to be charmed!

Then there is a list of evidence supporting this model. When questions are raised about "Did you check whether [this other thing might be going on]?" the answer is invariably "I didn't check, but I think not because...."

Sometimes this is fine. Sometimes it really is just a way to present the evidence in a structured format so it's not too confusing.

But more often lately I'm noticing that alternative explanations are avoided, as are including things like references to other people's work (my favorite phrase is "Another group showed that..." when used in the absence of a reference on the slide) or details of methods (that might influence interpretation).

This worries me most when I see it among a subset of younger scientists who are clearly trying to please older scientists in their field. There is so much pressure to perform, to be the favorite, and I have to sit there and watch them start down the slippery slope to ethically muddy areas.

What it they say about old white guys and suckers?

Oh yeah, there's another one born every day.

It's this kind of thing that makes me think the type of research I want to do might be a dying beast.

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At 2:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What it they say about old white guys and suckers?"

Again, the focus on race. WTF?

At 3:36 PM, Anonymous CC said...

The message is:Don't you want it to be correct? Wouldn't you feel bad about poking holes in it? You don't want to think critically, you want to be charmed!

I don't care for that trope either, but I've always interpreted it the opposite of how you do: "You're such a thoughtful, critical crowd -- I really hope I can manage to satisfy you!"

Incidentally, those wrinkled, bald, short people who are born every day are babies, not emeritus professors. I can understand your confusion, though. Hint: if they constantly talk about how they used to have to isolate restriction enzymes by hand, that's an old person.

At 4:43 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

It drives me nutty when slides aren't properly referenced. When speakers come to LargeU and then try to back out of questions, the faculty pounce on 'em. Kinda scary/funny to witness.

At 5:49 AM, Anonymous JaneB said...

It's an irritating trend - I don't tend to interpret it as generously as CC's comment. The impression is given that every piece of work must be groundbreaking, and that counter-arguments must be dismissed, in order for the work to have any value - very sad. But I can kind of see why people feel driven to do that in what is at present an insanely competitive system. It's NOT universal though; maybe more of us need to take care to model the alternatives to our own students and to wider audiences?

At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I read your blog I feel hated. Don't hate me because of my gender. These lyric come to mind whenever I read some of your man-hating lyrics:
People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully
People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully

So were different colours
And were different creeds
And different people
Have different needs
Its obvious you hate me
Though Ive done nothing wrong
Ive never even met you
So what could I have done
I cant understand
What makes a man
Hate another man
Help me understand
People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully

-Depeche Mode

At 5:20 PM, Blogger Lou said...

These scientists are actually "selling" you their brilliant ideas. So they are pitching to you, so you "buy" their ideas.
Basically, they are sales reps.

They are pitching not just to you, but to grant funders. They do it all the time, because they have been pitching for so long, and they have forgotten how to actually give a decent seminar.

At 8:02 PM, Anonymous JR said...

Seminars are just soft-shoe charades. Its not science. Its theater.

At 5:19 AM, Blogger Jean said...

Same irritating trend in France in the Polymer Chemistry world. Publishing something rising questions about older big shot's work is out of the question for my boss, especially if the big fish is his close friend...

Interesting blog for a French PhD student discovering Chemistry in other cultures. Thx

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree with JR. a seminar is the sound-byte/commercial version of science. usually it's just an excuse to get the speaker to come visit, so that PI's can talk to them personally later. the only way to really get science out of it is to go read the papers.

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

I guess I'd argue that lots of information can be left out of papers, especially 'unusual' results. And sometimes these things are presented but the publication falls by the wayside (e.g. if the first author quits research and the PI doesn't follow through).

Of course then you can't easily cite them.

That's the main thing I get out of talks - data that may or may not ever make it into the paper because it conflicts with other publications. Unfortunately the useful tidbits are such a small percentage of the total, it's hard to decide sometimes whether it's a good use of my time to attend.

At 7:31 AM, Anonymous bsci said...

I don't see a big problem with a seminar talk as sales pitch. The best talks tell a story about what the hoped to find, why they expected to find it, and what they found. The real problem is the ignoring or understating contradictory evidence.

The talks you mention do sound like they were designed to mimic grant proposals, but if they proposals exclude references and alternate ideas, they won't survive for a second in a committee containing the people who proposed the other ideas.

I have seen talks like those you mentioned and, at least where I am, the questions are friendly, but very pointed.


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