Environment Magazine

Death of the Question

Posted on the 17 December 2015 by Bradshaw @conservbytes
Zombie apocalypse

Zombie apocalypse

It’s something I’ve noticed over the years going to scientific conferences and seminars — the number of questions, and more importantly their quality, have declined.

Sure, it’s anecdotal and it might just be that my perspective has changed, but I’d bet my left testicle that it’s true.

But why? There are possibly many contributing factors, such as increasingly jam-packed conferences with multiple concurrent sessions, a massive and increasing number of participants and less time for each of us to present our work. However, I think the main reason is that we’re now all glued to our electronic devices.

Yes, I’m talking about the Twitteratti, but also the tablet-tossers, laptop-layabouts and the iPhone-idiots. We have a saying in our family when we spot a smartphone zombie oblivious to oncoming traffic that she/he looks like a “… spastic fingering a sandwich” (not my quote, but I am particularly fond of using it).

I’m not trying to sound hypocritical, for I am an avid Twat (err, Twitter user), and I regularly use my devices at conferences. It is in fact from my own experience as well my observation of others that I have concluded that the demise of the question is mainly due to our fascination with devices.

I know that when I’m busy trying to write the cleverest tweet of the session that I’m not actually listening to all the words that come out of the presenter’s mouth. I know that I often miss key information that passes too quickly (only for those not paying attention) from slide to slide, such that by the end of the talk I’m less likely to ask a question because I might merely have missed something that was already clearly explained. No one wants to pose a question when the answer has already been given (i.e., you will look like a complete idiot).

Even in cases where there is sufficient time for questions, there appears to be fewer people willing (or able) to ask them, and even when someone does, they tend to be banal requests for clarification. Long-gone are the days that several attendees would rip into a presenter during question time, challenging their hypotheses, dissecting their methods, posing philosophical alternatives or contemplating the greater implications of their work. I’m sure few people want to be the focus of such examination, but like I’ve written before, it’s better to have negative comments than none at all.

It’s no longer the bastion of a few techno-geeks either — live-Tweeting is taking over conferences to a degree that perhaps few expected. As my colleague has suggested, perhaps there are better ways to do things, to which I add that maybe it’s time that only a few of us took up the challenge and we appointed dedicated Twitter chroniclers.

In something of an auto-therapeutic gesture, I therefore implore you to reconsider bringing your devices to conference sessions, or at least avoid excessive fingering of your sandwich during the talk itself. We might end up having a much more engaging, scientifically meaningful and fun experience at conferences as a result (the more important social aspects of the conference notwithstanding).

CJA Bradshaw

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