I ran across a very interesting post and related discussion at A Lady Scientist, a nice blog written by a graduate student in biochemistry. The issue under discussion is whether there should be a principle of "solidarity" among trainees--grad students and post-docs--in public venues such as seminars and journal clubs, pursuant to which trainees do not challenge one another publicly, so as not to show each other up, or embarrass one another. The answer is a resounding, "Fuck no!"
Here's some of what A Lady Scientist had to say about this in relation to journal clubs:
Students don't tend to ask questions at these Journal Clubs. In fact, I think that the prevailing sentiment is that we're supposed to go easy on the students, because if we were up there wouldn't we want the same consideration? So, easy questions (eg. Can you define that negative control?) are ok, but the hard ones (eg. Those controls are very off. Can you still interpret the data?) are not. In other words, we, as grad students, should show some solidarity and help each other out in not looking stupid in front of the department. So, I feel like I've doubly hurt someone because not only did I ask a bothersome question, but it came from an unexpected source.
One of her commenters then elaborated this point beyond the context of journal club, and to a presentation of one's own data:
What I really think is breeching the graduate student code is asking them that kind of question about their own work in front of everyone else (a side conversation afterwards is considered more appropriate).
This kind of attitude is completely insane. The entire essence of science--what defines it as a profession--is that scientists ask all questions that present themselves, either of themselves or of others.
I gave a research seminar at another institution this week during which the audience absolutely hammered me with really good perceptive critical questions. I fucking loved it. It meant they were interested and engaged. What could be more boring than standing in front of a room blathering on in the face of polite indifference?
When you fail to ask a question, or raise a criticism, based on some misguided sense of "loyalty" or "solidarity", you are actively harming the scientist you think you are protecting. Because someone somewhere will eventually ask the question--a paper reviewer, a grant reviewer, a thesis committee member, a job search committee member, a job seminar audience member--and the sooner the issue gets raised, the sooner the scientist can address it.
Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde recently published a couple of awesome posts making this same point. Here are a few highlights:
Frankly, that's the most fun part of the seminar, for me, regardless of who asked the killer question. I know it sounds heartless, but the fact is that this back-and-forth is what makes science stronger, by letting everyone voice competing ideas in the marketplace (read: stuffy seminar room). It can clearly be unpleasant for the speaker. However, it's for the good of the science, assuming that everyone asks questions based on scientific evidence, rather than on personal vendettas.
For Chrissakes, ask questions in seminar, at least occasionally. I hate it when I talk to a friend post-seminar and she has a totally brilliant question that she left unasked, because she didn't want to pipe up. That's not just your loss--it's to the detriment of the whole audience, which loses your thoughtful perspective. Ask!!
Now there are limits to this kind of thing, and certain questioner behavior can simply be assholishness. Acmegirl recounted the following situation in which she had to deal with a persistent annoying fuckwit. Here's just a taste, but there's a lot more detail about the annoying persistent fuckwittery in her post:
All that was annoying, but not that unusual. People rush into discussions all the time, and often people misunderstand things when they are not as familiar with a field as they may think (you don't know what you don't know, and all that). But I nearly lost my composure in its entirety when this arrogant little prick told me that I should "really consider reading the literature to find out what other people were doing in the field". I took a deep breath, and, as calmly as possible, said that actually, I had done so. He asked me what I had read. I began to tell him about the theoretical work, both old and new, and that's as far as I got, because he cut me off, saying, "I don't think that new theory is worth reading at all." I quickly shot him down, by telling him what the work was focused on and how it was relevant to my work. He recanted, as if I had twisted his arm. I then mentioned that, since every system would likely display different behavior, there was no benefit to comparing measurements done on different systems. He kind of brushed that off. I mentioned a way that I plan to perturb my system to discover the function of one part, and he first made an ignorant comment that made clear that he did not know about the system at all, and how much research has been done on determining the role of that part, then told me that he didn't think that it would be interesting to study it in that way because it was not "natural". At this point, I'm starting to wonder if this guy has ever done an experiment in his life. I explain why it's necessary to perturb a system, sometimes drastically to figure out the function of all the parts. I also began to cross my arms and stare off into space whenever he spoke. Again, he grudgingly admitted that I may be right, but he just wouldn't leave.
Here's some advice about how to deal with this kind of socially inept persistent fuckwit questioner at any kind of presentation: poster or talk. The way to get rid of fucknozzles like this dude--either at a talk, poster, or group meeting--once a subtle approach is clearly not working is to simply say, "Ah, I see you are either unfamiliar with or misunderstanding some important background here. I'd be happy to help you with it if you contact me later, but this is not the appropriate context."
If he persists, you just keep repeating, "I'm sorry, but this is not an appropriate context for me to help you with that. Please feel free to contact me later."
By making use of your power as the presenter and characterizing it as you "helping" him with his "unfamiliarity" or "misunderstanding", you maintain the upper hand. And once the moment has passed, witnesses will almost certainly not remember the actual scientific content and who was correct; all they'll remember is that some douchehound was unfamiliar with or misunderstanding some important shit.