Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Firing Squad Science

When I was at my last place of employment someone recommended a book to me, "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman." I can't remember a single bit of advice from it, other than to be bold and always sit at the main meeting table, because you are taken more seriously that way.

But one thing I seem to remember from it is, perhaps incorrectly, is that when a man walks into a room he quickly assesses who is in charge. He is trained to do this, either by his social upbringing or it's wired into his genes hailing back to alpha-male primate days. In contrast, women do not usually assess workplace/social situations with the same sort of hiearchical eye by default. Thus, I try to look at these situations from multiple perspectives when I am in them, just to try to get a handle on what might be going on.

Recently I attended a talk where I watched what looked like a monumental power struggle play out, and was really not sure what to make of it. A male grad student was giving a talk. Another male person (grad student? postdoc?) kept interrupting Every. Single. Slide. to nitpick one thing or another. About halfway through the talk, Senior Professor (advisor to the student, I think) started interrupting with clarification questions, which started out nice and then got progressively more aggressive as the talk went on. He and others also snickered from time to time at several of the slides, which as far as I could tell just had equations on them.

Toward the end of the talk, Outsider Postdoc starts asking questions and eggs on the first interrupter guy, while still trying to occasionally include the speaker in the discourse. A few other men start chiming in with their two cents, some reasonable, some insulting, and eventually the entire thing dissolves into a rapid-fire bloodbath with the speaker left lying on the ground twitching, croaking, "This work is preliminary...just a first step..."

After a very long and uncomfortable time, my colleague and I managed to escape the seminar room and as we were walking back to our department felt extremely unsure about what had just happened in there. My colleague remarked that they actually weren't sure who the speaker was, because the audience members talked so much.

The funny thing is, of all the things those audience members said, I think only about 10% of the points were really about the research. The other 90% were "Look how smart I am" and "My slide rule is bigger than yours."

In science, I think there is a difference between precision and nit-picking. You can help someone in their research to find the clarity necessary to be strong as scientists without publicly humiliating them. You can ask useful questions politely while still demonstrating your intelligence to whomever it is you're trying to impress.

Having been executed this way before, sometimes I just want to stand up and call out for a cease fire.


  1. How often do you see something like this happen, either at a conference or departmental talk? I ask because I am in a supposedly "nice" field and computer science is frequently given an an example of a "mean" field. I can only think of 3 or 4 times this has happened.

    Though not 3 weeks ago I witnessed an attempted firing squad. Just constant interruptions that made it clear that folks didn't buy anything the speaker was saying. Only thing was, the audience questioners didn't actually know much about the research area. So their "gotcha" questions were all easily answered by the speaker, frequently on the next slide.

  2. At proper conferences, at least the ones I go to, it is extremely rare to interrupt someone during their talk. The only exception is when the speaker pauses to ask if something is clear, and invites questions. To interrupt is generally seen as quite rude and informal.

    However, I do see it quite frequently at departmental seminars. But I don't think it's unique to CS - I've seen this occur during talks in Math, Physics, Engineering, Philosophy, and Psychology. But I'm not sure if that's more a reflection of the institutions I've been at or of the fields themselves.

  3. Sounds like a pretty typical theoretical physics seminar!

  4. Ah, so we have the physicists to blame. Woo hoo, scapegoat! :-)

  5. This doesn't sound all that different from the situation in your "macho students" post.

    I remember hearing a couple of senior FSPs remark amusedly on how entertaining a room full of men in dominance-display mode can be to watch if you're willing to consider it as an exercise in anthropological observation. This was before the series "Bones" came out, but the Temperance Brennan character does what they were describing. They talked about unspoken cues for decoding the dominance ranking order and seemed get a good chuckle out of telling younger women to try out the observation-and-decode perspective when we expressed disbelief that rational science-y men would spend so much effort on silliness.

    Figuring out the actual message rather than the surface message is always tricky, but it helps when you can do it. Your macho students weren't talking about science at all; they were having a pure dominance contest, and in such a setting that's a completely invalid undertaking and deserves to be called out as such and dealt with firmly.

    This seminar doesn't sound any different, really.

    Sometimes, though, similar behavior can serve a valid purpose. While I was still an undergrad, I had an industry job that put me in a position of being wooed by sales engineers. I quickly learned that some of them knew enough to understand the subtleties of what I was looking for, and some didn't have anything like the necessary education and "engineer" was just a cosmetic title. To save time, I came up with some questions used to prod new ones to find out whether they were the real deal or just some guy with a title. I didn't have time to waste explaining complex material to someone who wasn't going to be able to do anything useful with it anyway.

    A few years later, I found myself on the reverse side of that situation: I was in a position where I was billed as an authority, but people in similar positions sometimes are real authorities on the subject but all too often aren't but are being sold that way. So I was pretty amused when I found myself getting the prodding. The most determined were a couple of senior guys from a Big Huge Company who had undoubtedly had their time wasted by too many impostors in the past, and here they were confronted with someone who pretty much looked the opposite of what they expected to see, so they fired away. I fielded everything they threw at me with an extra dose of one-upping, and then topped it all off with a 'good-humored' pure dominance move during a coffee break. After that we were able to get along under the assumption that we were all a bunch of grumpy but equal experts.

    So it's not always easy to figure out the question being asked, but it saves a lot of effort if you can answer that question rather than addressing the surface dressing. "Are you really an expert?" --Yup, let me show you, and then tell you that we're done with that question now because I've answered it. "Can I use this setting for childish dominance displays?" --No, and if you're going to act like a toddler you're going to get treated as one. "I really do have a purely technical and on-topic question; will you help me?" --Of course!

  6. I just had a bizarre experience with the comment submission -- if multiples of my last show up, I apologize.