Mike the Mad Biologist

Too Many Grand Old Man Talks

Over the last two years, I’ve noticed that most of the meetings I’ve attended have had far too many ‘grand old man’ talks. These are talks where the speaker gives a broad overview of either the field or the speaker’s work, with very little or no detail paid to detail.

These sorts of talks do have their uses. If the audience is primarily composed of people who know very little about the subject, these talks can be a good background to that area (An aside: This is one reason why I think science journalists and scientists can hear the same talk, and come away with very different impressions). But, at least at the meetings I’ve attended, most of the people don’t need background.

Certainly, when I attend a talk about a topic with which I’m familiar, I know I don’t want a grand old man talk. I want to hear why certain methods were used (and not others), and maybe even something about those methods work. Instead, we get too many PIs–a fair number of whom I believe couldn’t explain the methods or the particulars of ‘their’ data even if there were time–or grand old men (to use a phrase) giving talks. Admittedly, I’m kinda weird (I think), since whenever I see a paper in my area, the first section I look at is the methods: I want to know how they did their analysis–and if it seems sound, then I want to implement those methods. As you might imagine, I love it when methods are stuck in supplemental methods, but I digress…

I’m not sure why I’ve heard so many grand old man talks recently, although concerns over giving an impressive talk versus communicating new data probably plays a role (these shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but they can be). Nonetheless, most of the talks I hear at meetings have been very disappointing, although I’ve heard rumors that ASM, at least, is trying to figure out how to combat this.

Does anyone else agree with my assessment? If so, why do you think this is happening.

Comments

  1. #1 ecologist
    September 5, 2010

    I disagree. Most of the talks I see at big meetings are 10-15 minutes in length. That is too short for critical evaluation of methods, analysis, etc. and it is a mistake to present a talk as if it could be evaluated. What I want to hear are ideas. Explain to me what question you were asking, what was cool about how you approached it, and what you found.

    Now, that’s not to say that there is no place in such a talk for presentation of methods, but only that it will be cursory. It has to be. The methods may involve a mathematical model, the collection of field, laboratory, or survey data, various kinds of secondary data collection (chemical analyses, genetic analyses), statistical methods (usually several different methods, for data summarization, parameter estimation, model selection, hypothesis testing, etc.)

    And it’s also not to say that there aren’t good and bad versions of what you call the grand old man talk. The challenge, and it is not an easy one, is to figure out how to convey what’s needed in a very short amount of time. Lots of people, grand or not, old or not, don’t do a good job of it. I don’t always do a good job of it. But, hey…

  2. #2 Big Blue
    September 5, 2010

    Do you think it has any relationship to cost & size of meeting? That is, when I go to smaller yet not-very-cheap local meetings, I tend to see lots of GOM talks, because it seems the organizers simply haul out the local celebrities to give talks and thereby boost attendance. At the enormous meetings of several thousand, the talks in general seem to be more focused with time spent on methods.

    I rather like the GOM talks, they are great for industry: often we have senior managers who come up with idiot ideas they think we should try. They personally haven’t been near a bench in 30-some years, and their specialty even then was organic synthesis, but they still feel entitled to tell the molecular bio folks how to design a vector, sort of thing. They won’t actually listen to the young whippersnappers tell them anything, but they can be convinced to go to these GOM talks on occasion. They return with half a clue and start making intelligent contributions to meetings.

  3. #3 lovenk
    October 11, 2010

    too many rubbish also. it’s hard to see the truth