Wait until they hear about Flip cameras

3 minute read

So a bunch of physicists were at a conference, hearing about recent observations from the PAMELA satellite mission, when several of them pulled out cameras and started taking pictures of the results. And then some of those folks wrote up their own interpretations of the results and put them on the arXiv, the free repository for physics preprints. Nature has a story about it:

"We had our digital cameras ready," says Marco Cirelli, a theorist at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, and one of those who took pictures. The preprints fully acknowledge the source of the data and reference the presentation photographed.

Janet Stemwedel takes up this topic for discussion at her blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science:

From the point of view of a scientific community jointly engaged in trying to answer a certain constellation of questions, scientific communication is a good thing. And the scientists from the PAMELA team did present their results to members of their scientific community at various conferences.
But its sounds like, rather than lingering over the details of their data, they flashed a slide to show that there was some data forming the basis for their more general claims.

Everyone understands that scientific presentations are short and data-rich, but the “I’ve got data, and I’m not going to explain the details, nyah, nyah!” slide is bad form. This technique is precisely what hucksters do when they are trying to defraud or trick their audience. For scientists to resort to this, when they have multi-million-dollar public funding for their work, is not only disrespectful to the audience, it’s a breach of ethics.

If some people see your presentation and have a good idea you haven’t thought of, there is a sensible scientific response: Invite them to be coauthors. If you think those people are boorish goons who don’t deserve the time of day, well, tough. Suck it up. This is science, not grade school. If your own work is not affected by their ideas, then offer to collaborate on a paper covering theirs. If you’ve already thought of their ideas, then tell them, “We’ve thought of that, and discuss it in our manuscript. Here’s a copy.”

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of conference presentations where a fossil hominid was flashed on the screen for, literally, like 5 or 10 milliseconds. Like, one slide is there, then BOOM BOOM, and another slide is there and somehow in between there was a subliminal image of the fossil.

Fighter pilots used to train with a device called a “tachistoscope”. It would flash images of planes up on a screen for a very short time – the point was, you learned how to distinguish enemy planes at a quick glance, because that might be all you get. I’ve taken to calling these millisecond-slide routines “tachistoscopic” presentations, because, well mainly because they’re pretty tacky. And also because they induce a similar skill. Someone with sharp eyes can pick out the important features of a bone after just a few milliseconds’ exposure, especially with practice.

So there’s actually very little point in showing these quick flashes. Any sufficiently knowledgeable observer is going to get the information that these presentations are attempting to obscure.

The entire point of presenting your work is so that colleagues who are less knowledgeable in your specialty will understand your results. Conferences are about communication, but that communication mainly happens in the bar between people who already know each other well. Conference presentations are about education: letting a broader community know what your work is about, and how it impacts their own. Sometimes, voices come out of that community, telling you things you might never have considered. They educate you. That’s science.

That’s why I don’t generally report here on the presentations I see, except in general terms. People who present at conferences often develop their ideas further. I certainly do – I give presentations on things I think are interesting and exciting, and I want to share them with lots of people. I don’t see any benefit in keeping them secret, and I work on newsworthy topics. The scientific cost of not sharing and educating is a lot higher than any cost to my potential publicity after putting a paper into a prestige journal.

So giving a conference presentation where you flash your slides for 5 milliseconds is counterproductive. And increasingly ineffective, since if you’re really worried about it, somebody with a $100 Flip camera can take good video of the whole thing and put your 5 millisecond picture on the Internet.

So nyah, nyah to that!