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Experimental Error: Lies, Damned Lies, and Seminars

Experimental Error, Graduate

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

When I was in graduate school, my department hosted a seminar every Thursday at 4 p.m. The administrators put out a lovely spread of coffee and doughnuts at 3:30 p.m.

That, as it turned out, was a mistake.

Each week, my classmates and I made a pilgrimage to the main lobby, where we would gobble Krispy Kreme doughnuts until it become unexpectedly necessary -- darn it -- to return to the lab. One student even brought a lab timer, displayed conspicuously, set to sound an alarm just before 4:00 p.m., to complete the image of a scholar who really wanted to hear the week's speaker but just couldn't leave that important experiment unattended.

Granted, we were a bunch of little crap heads, and someone should have told us to knock it off. But we were what we were -- typical graduate students -- and we had sat through our share of seminars during our first year, before we learned the tricks of the grad-student trade. So we knew exactly what we were missing: obfuscation, incoherence, and acronyms, acronyms, acronyms (which a seminar speaker would probably label "OIA3" on an early slide without ever explaining what it stood for).

This column is intended for the edification of the uninitiated, those youngest science trainees who have not yet learned the truth about seminars and about so much else in scientific life -- those who still think earning a Ph.D. takes only 4 years, that being 17th author on a paper is exciting, and that an experiment will work tomorrow simply because it worked today.

Granted, we were a bunch of little crap heads, and someone should have told us to knock it off.

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. (At international meetings, I've often marveled at the number of speakers whose only audience members appear to be working on their own talks. It's like going to a restaurant and ordering lunch that you never eat because you're busy preparing dinner.)

One key to understanding seminars, should you fail to escape one before it begins, is realizing that seminar speakers couch their abundant jargon in half-truths. Euphemisms fly by so fast that inexperienced audience members may not be able to translate them in real time -- hence this handy guide.

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.

When the speaker says: I don't need the projector; I'm just going to give a "chalk talk."

The speaker really means: I am a caveman. When me done with seminar, me hunt mammoth.

When the speaker says: This was just a preliminary test.

The speaker really means: I don't believe these results. I didn't even intend to show them to you, but this slide was prepared by a graduate student who ignored my explicit instructions to leave this out.

When the speaker says: If we're right, this could be a significant finding.

The speaker really means: We're not right.

When the speaker says: I'd like to shift gears for a moment.

The speaker really means: I want to make sure you know that these crappy results aren't all we've got. No, we have multiple projects in the lab and multiple collections of crappy results.

When the speaker says: This is kind of a side project in our lab.

The speaker really means: This is what I wish we were working on full-time, but no one wants to fund it.

Or: I want to give you the impression that we're also doing more important work, though I'm not going to show it to you.

When the speaker says: I've even put together a little movie for you to watch.

The speaker really means: I'm about to click a button in PowerPoint, at which time nothing will happen. A room full of people who think they're smart -- including you -- will try to help, but no one will succeed. I will assure you that the movie was interesting and important and move on to the next slide.

When the speaker says: Thus, we have shown that tremendous promise exists in this field.

The speaker really means: My lab will now stop researching this field. We hereby release our findings to the winds in the hope that someone else will find them interesting enough to give us a citation or two.

When the speaker says: I'd like to thank a number of people.

The speaker really means: I will now take my time naming researchers you've never heard of while you stare at their group photo and think about which one's the hottest.

When the speaker says: I'll gladly take any questions you may have.

The speaker really means: Please, please don't ask anything difficult. I'm looking at you, 90-year-old, hypertenured Nobel laureate in the front row. If you raise your hand, I'll pretend I don't see you and call on the timid-looking undergraduate texting in back.

Yes, seminars are challenging to endure. But why? Who's at fault? Is it the audience of crap heads? The seminar speaker? Or is boringness a property of science itself?

Or is it all of the above?

True, we scientists want our science to tell clear stories, and goodness knows we predict that it will in our grant applications. But sometimes science doesn't cooperate. When a straightforward narrative presents itself, we rejoice, but when it doesn't -- or hasn't yet -- we have to present our results anyway. And what overworked scientist has the time to devote to crowd pleasing?

The grad students in the audience? They, too, are overworked. Most of them have stayed up all night working in the lab or tracking down plagiarism on dubious undergraduate lab reports. Decide for yourself whether they should be blamed for seeking stimulants -- sugar and caffeine -- instead of the sedative on offer: the seminar.

So consider this a plea to all parties to do better. Seminar speakers, please invest the time to make your presentations coherent and minimize the doublespeak. Graduate students, give the speakers a chance, since you never know when you might learn something. And, science, uh, ... be more straightforward. Especially the science that influences my own research.

Actually, there's a simple solution to this problem, and I'd love to tell you what it is -- but, darn it, my lab timer just went off.

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