What the Seminar Speaker Really Means

7 February 2011 at 12:48 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

A useful guide. Written primarily for natural scientists, but applies more-or-less across the curriculum. Updates Stigler’s famous “Conference Handbook.” Sample:

When the speaker says: I’m pleased to give you this talk this morning because I always enjoy sharing my research with young scientists.

The speaker really means: I was promised a small honorarium.

When the speaker says: First, a little background.

The speaker really means: I am about to show you the only slide in which I have any confidence.

When the speaker says: This has been an incredibly exciting field for us to research.

The speaker really means: Five or six labs in the world care about this. You don’t.

When the speaker says: To be fair, there has been some debate in the scientific community about this point.

The speaker really means: We have a laboratory of mortal enemies at another institution, and they are so very wrong.

When the speaker says: This led us to ask a different question.

The speaker really means: Our grant ran out.

When the speaker says: I’ll just talk briefly about this.

The speaker really means: I will talk about this for at least an hour. I am unaware that time is finite. I am your overlord.

When the speaker says: This result was completely unexpected.

The speaker really means: This result pissed us off. Two postdocs cried.

When the speaker says: At this point, I went back to the literature.

The speaker means: At this point, I instructed my graduate student to go back to the literature.

Although, actually, the speaker really means: At this point, I instructed my graduate student to go back to the literature, but he just used Wikipedia, so I went back to the literature.

Read the whole thing. As the author explains,

In the idyllic vision of the uninitiated, a seminar tells a story, starting with a clear description of a problem, then outlining a series of steps taken to address that problem, and ending with a special reward: a glistening kernel of new knowledge. The speaker tells the story using vocabulary accessible to anyone with a similar breadth, though not necessarily depth, of scientific knowledge so that all in attendance can bask in the final, glorious revelation.

In reality, scientific seminars usually consist of quasi-related PowerPoint slides cobbled together from prior seminars and lab meetings, thoroughly and precariously dependent on an impossible quantity of specialized terms, assembled in a hotel room at 2:00 a.m. or covertly in the back of the lecture hall during the previous seminar.

Bonus guide for students: What the Professor Really Means.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Randy  |  7 February 2011 at 9:35 am

    “The result was completely unexpected.” ==> We will try 37 mediating variables, in 126 combinations of interaction terms, and a few log-linear equations until we get something akin to the expected result. Then we will send the manuscript to a journal.

  • 2. Peter Klein  |  7 February 2011 at 12:24 pm

    As Coase famously remarked, if you torture the data long enough, nature will confess. (Was Coase the first to say this?)

  • 3. srp  |  8 February 2011 at 3:39 am

    Solos said it, too, but I make no claim for his priority. His delivery, on the other hand, was excellent.

  • 4. Roundup 9 February at Catallaxy Files  |  9 February 2011 at 5:56 am

    […] One of the stories in a book about billionaires.  ”Well into her nineties, Rose Blumkin worked 10- or 12-hours days, seven days a week, and listed her hobby as driving around to spy on competitors. If she ran out of stock, she would sell furniture out of her own home. At the age of 95, unhappy that her grandsons were cutting her out of key decisions, Blumkin retired. Just three months later, she launched a competing store, Mrs. B’s Clearance and Factory Outlet, directly across the street from the Nebraska Furniture Mart. Within two years, the new venture had become Omaha’s third largest carpet outlet.” The site of the Bartley Institute. Not a lot there yet, more of his work can be found here. Stunning collection of  economics links from Michael “Lorenzo” Warby. Hooray! Peter Klein on the language of architects and the things that seminar speakers say. […]

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