Questions for general use
Foreign Dispatches relays this amusing item on how to conceal your complete lack of understanding of a talk when the speaker says, "Any questions?"
Recently, I attended a mathematical lecture given by a guest speaker where absolutely nobody, except possibly the speaker, had the remotest idea what was going on. Normally, one can absorb at least some of the preliminary definitions and follow, say, the first blackboard full of development of the theory, but on this occasion everyone was completely lost after the first definition. After the speaker had finished over an hour later to an enthusiastic round of applause, the chairman asked for questions, and, of course, there was a deathly and highly embarrassing silence. Then and there I resolved to put together a collection of universal questions for use in such situations. Such questions must sound sensible, but they are designed to cover up the total ignorance of the questioner rather than to elicit information from the speaker. The following is the list I came up with.This technique could also be applied to biology talks:
- Can you produce a series of counterexamples to show that if any of the conditions of the main theorem are dropped or weakened, then the theorem no longer holds?
[The speaker can almost always do so - if not you may have presented him with a stronger theorem!]
- Isn't the constant 4.15 in Theorem 2 suspiciously close to 3/4 pi?
[This question can clearly be generalized for any constant k - "Isn't k suspiciously close to p/q pi (for suitable integers p and q)?"]
- Why not get a graduate student to perform the horrendous calculations mentioned in Theorem 1 in the case n = 4?
[The answer is always "I've a student doing just that at the moment."]
- Does this phenomenon have any clinical relevance?
[The answer is always yes, since any basic scientist in biology will have some explanation of clinical relevance to please NIH study sections.]
- Has your hypothesis been tested in other model organisms?
[Make sure you understood enough of the talk to get what organism the speaker studied.]
- Why not get a graduate student to carry out the incredibly time-consuming and tedious biochemical prepration needed to answer question X?
[Answer is probably that an undergraduate has been assigned the task.]
etc.This also reminds me of this list of mathematical proof techniques:
Proof by example:
The author gives only the case n = 2 and suggests that it contains most of the ideas of the general proof.
Proof by intimidation:
Proof by omission:
'The reader may easily supply the details.'
'The other 253 cases are analogous.'
Proof by reduction to the wrong problem:
' To see that infinite-dimensional colored cycle stripping is decidable, we reduce it to the halting problem.'
Proof by reference to inaccessible literature:
The author cites a simple corollary of a theorem to be found in a privately circulated memoir of the Slovenian Philological Society, 1883.