Thursday, 13 June 2013

This Seems Like a Good Time to Mention That I Hate Your Work

Have you ever been attacked in a rather impolite way while giving a professional talk?

OK, so "attacked" is a bit of hyperbole. Let's say instead "severely criticized" or perhaps even "insulted". A few notches down would be "asked a question that may have been intended to humiliate you."

I have! Recently! In this case, the question/comment was of the "Your work is totally worthless and a waste of your government's money" sort.

But first, let's go back in time. Not long before I gave my very first talk at a conference as a graduate student, a certain scientist asked me an informal question in conversation. I said I did not know the answer. An hour or so later, he asked me the exact same question at the end of my talk, in front of a few hundred people.

I thought: What a jerk. I did not know him very well, although I had read some of his papers, so I didn't know what his motivation was in asking me a question he knew I could not answer. It could be that he wanted to humiliate me, although that is not my preferred explanation. My favored hypothesis is that he thought it was such a great question, he didn't actually care whether I knew the answer or not, he just wanted to get points for asking it in public. I don't know for sure, but I must say that I was never able to summon much enthusiasm for conversing with him, much less working with him, after that episode.

Since then, it has been my general impression that some people who attempt to ask "take-down" kinds of questions or who make vague derogatory comments ("Your science is completely worthless") aren't actually concerned that Science is being harmed by a misguided or ignorant person. Instead, they are seeking attention and just enjoying the sound of their own brilliance. That is: Enough about you, person who just gave a talk! Now listen to what I have to say even though I don't actually have much to say that is interesting, relevant, or possibly even sane!

But I could be wrong about that. And I don't really want to spend any more time discussing why some people are jerks in this particular way. (And I don't mean to imply that everyone who asks an aggressive question or makes a negative comment is an unreasonable jerk. In some cases these questions and comments are well deserved and useful.)

Anyway, when a very outspoken rude person attempted a take-down kind of question/comment during a talk I gave at a conference recently, I totally did not care. I responded with basic explanations and opinions to his "concerns", and that was that. What surprised me was the number of people who came up to me afterwards to tell me that I shouldn't let it bother me, I shouldn't be upset, I shouldn't worry etc. In fact, I was not bothered, upset, or worried at all.

I appreciated the concern, but then I started to worry that I might have seemed upset when this is not at all what I felt. I don't think I said or did anything that could be interpreted as my being upset when I was up on the stage dealing with the obnoxious comments. I felt quite calm, perhaps a bit impatient, but mostly I thought the whole thing was absurd. It was not a big deal. It upset me to think that people might have thought I was upset when I wasn't. Does that make any sense?

Perhaps people were projecting? That is, they would have felt upset if the Big Guy had gone after them like that?

And maybe these aggressive people serve a useful purpose? Perhaps it actually helped me in the long run that I was "vaccinated" against aggressive questions at my very first professional talk -- after that, I expect it. There will be jerks. They are just part of the landscape. Water off a duck etc. etc.?

Have you ever been experienced what you considered an inappropriate question or comment -- either in content or tone -- during a professional talk? Were you upset?

Have you ever experienced a rude question or comment during a talk?
  
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