Thursday, February 10, 2005

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.
  1. 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!]

  2. 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)?"]

  3. 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."]
This technique could also be applied to biology talks:
  1. 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.]

  2. Has your hypothesis been tested in other model organisms?

    [Make sure you understood enough of the talk to get what organism the speaker studied.]

  3. 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.]
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.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have some great suggestions there, I would offer or ask for some medically relevant questions, but I have found through trial and error that in those situations, silence still works best for me.
I can offer one situation that might be helpful to the medically inclined. A wise internal medicine attending taught me this when I was a third year medical student, getting ready to start making hospital rounds with academic faculty and hoards of "doctors in training". When the attending asks for the differential diagnosis of a condition that you are seeing and you are completely stumped because all the obvious answers have been given by your mates, say 'Lupus' and you will probably be right. Lupus can do just about anything to a person and has often been called the great masquerader. If you use lupus 'out' too early, you may have some angry classmates who have tapped out earlier than you and then just have to stand there and look stupid because they have nothing left.
I can tell you from personal experience that this works very well in real practice as well as with academics. I have pulled myself out of a couple of deep holes remembering to test for Lupus and other autoimmune disorders. 

Posted by Henry

2/10/2005 05:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other occasion when you might need a catch-all response is when you are chairing a talk and someone from the audience asks something irrelevant, insane or inappropriate. I saw this happened at a conference in Oxford once, and I resolved to remember the elegant way the chair dealt with the problem.

During the conference one attendee had enthusiastically put his hand up at the end of every talk and proceeding to make a incoherant, and usually egotistical, point about general medical theory, history or culture (he was a retired doctor). He'd then try and engage the speaker in an extended debate and monopolise the discussion time. After one presentation his hand went up like a shot and I was surprised when the chair turned to him first of all. He made his point, or asked a question, I couldn't really tell which. The chair listened attentively and, turning to the speaker, said "That's a very interesting point, and it seems related to a question of my own I'd been wanting to ask..." 

Posted by tom

2/11/2005 09:04:00 AM  
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