Against question and answer time

Here is a semi-serious suggestion: Let’s do away with questions and answers after talks.

I’ll preface with two examples:

First, a scientist I respect highly had just given a talk. As we were chatting away afterwards, I referred to someone who had asked a question during the talk. The answer: ”I didn’t pay attention. I don’t listen when people talk at me like that.”

Second, Swedish author Göran Hägg had this little joke about question and answer time. I paraphrase from memory: Question time is useless because no reasonable person who has a useful contribution will be socially uninhibited enough to ask a question in a public forum (at least not in Sweden). To phrase it more nicely: Having a useful contribution and feeling comfortable to speak up might not be that well correlated.

I have two intuitions about this. On the one hand, there’s the idea that science thrives on vigorous criticism. I have been at talks where people bounce questions at the speaker, even during the talk and even with pretty serious criticisms, and it works just fine. I presume it has to do both with respect, skill at asking and answering, and the power and knowledge differentials between interlocutors.

On the other hand, we would prefer to have a good conversation and productive arguments, and I’m sure everyone has been in seminar rooms where that wasn’t the case. It’s not a good conversation if, say, question and answers turn into old established guys (sic) shouting down students. In some cases, it seems the asker is not after a productive argument, nor indeed any honest attempt to answer the question. (You might be able to tell by them barking a new question before the respondent has finished.)

Personally, I’ve turned to asking fewer questions. If it’s something I’ve misunderstood, it’s unlikely that I will get the explanation I need without conversation and interaction. If I have a criticism, it’s unlikely that I will get the best possible answer from the speaker on the spot. If I didn’t like the seminar, am upset with the speaker’s advisor, hate it when people mangle the definition of ”epigenetics” or when someone shows a cartoon of left-handed DNA, it’s my problem and not something I need to share with the audience.

I think questions and answers is one of thing that actually has benefitted from a move to digital seminars on a distance, where questions are often written in chat. This might be because of a difference in tone between writing a question down or asking it verbally, or thanks to the filtering capabilities of moderators.