That I can be fairly relied upon to put my foot in it was confirmed after a talk I gave at the Royal Society last week. The Q&A seemed to be going well enough, but then the RS staff said “Well, we’ll have to bring it to an end there.”
“Oh, there’s just one more”, I quickly interjected, pointing out the chap at the end of the row with his hand up. What I didn’t know was that this fellow is a regular at RS events, where he apparently makes a habit of getting bolshy. The attempt to end the proceedings before handing him the mike was not an oversight but a tactful intervention – which I’d now undermined.
As the question began, I thought I could see a way to create a valid question out of what seemed like his skepticism about the way science is used (“delinquent science” was the term). But as he went on (and on), it became clear that this wasn’t a question at all but a rant about how science wastes taxpayers’ money making things that no one wants or needs, regardless of the consequences, and how the person who switched on the LHC didn’t give a damn whether it would make a black hole that would swallow us all, and – OK, you get the point. One of the organizers had to step in to halt the bitter diatribe.
I try to make a point of turning any question into a reason to say something that I hope will be of interest, even if the connection with the question itself is slender. That’s to say, I will try to answer questions as directly as I can, but when they aren’t really questions at all, or when they are questions about fairies or telepathy, I’ll try to move the discussion in what I hope is a useful direction. I have no problem with disagreeing with a questioner (and if, say, I was confronting a climate sceptic then I’d feel obliged to do so). But I would feel uncomfortable making my answer a put-down. Speakers are in a position of relative power in these situations, and so it seems only fair to try to engage with the issues raised rather than to dismiss, far less ridicule, them. The number of times I have been approached after a talk by someone saying “I have a stupid question, so I didn’t want to ask it in public…” makes me realize how many people, probably because of experiences at school, are extremely nervous about putting up their hand, thinking everyone will laugh at them. (I’m not sure that the questions which follow such a disclaimer have ever been stupid in any event – in my experience, people whose questions are genuinely of dubious value, for example when they serve only to showcase the erudition of the questioner, are rarely averse to asking them.)
So what did I do on this occasion? I waffled something about how modest the aims of most science is, and about the common contrast between the way a piece of work is presented to the public and what its real goals are. I don’t know, it was something to say, but it wasn’t terribly insightful. But I came away troubled. Not because I’d been attacked by the questioner, but because I felt I hadn’t dealt with it in the best way. So I asked my wife later – she being far more generous, perceptive and sensitive than I am – if she thought that on this occasion I should have answered more firmly – not by getting into the vague and paranoid issues that the questioner was, after a fashion, raising, but to say explicitly that they were not relevant here. I realized that what he had said was in fact rather rude – not to me (or rather, that aspect doesn’t greatly bother me), but to the audience, who hadn’t come to hear some aimless angry diatribe against science in general. Was it really right to be so tolerant and irenic in this situation? No, she said, it wasn’t. I had every right to deal with such a “question” with firm curtness – to say, perhaps, that I had trouble discerning any kind of question at all in his comments, and that I wasn’t going to launch into a general defence of what science is all about and why it is done. That’s all it would have taken.
I think she is right. Speakers have a responsibility to treat an audience with respect, but the reverse applies too – at least, in a situation like this. I see no reason why questions should not be challenging, even angry, when controversial subjects are being aired (mine certainly wasn't one such), but even then they need to be brief and to the point.
I wonder how others deal with situations like this? The likelihood of getting flaky or strange or irrelevant questions after a public scientific talk (“Do you think drugs allow us to see other dimensions?”) is of course fairly high. One can perhaps try, as I heard Adam Rutherford do recently, anticipate that by asking at the outset “Please try not to be mad”. (It didn’t work though, did it Adam? – the question above is one of those that followed.) But mad questions aren’t so much the issue (though of course one has to try to be sensitive to genuine mental-health issues here, and I’m not being facetious). Rather, what’s the best way of dealing with folks whose determination to mount a hobby horse, or push a particular point of view, or show off, leads them into confrontational or boring rudeness? Should one treat them the way stand-ups treat hecklers, with an acerbic put-down? Or by politely declining to answer the question? (“You know, I don’t think I can say anything very intelligent about that.”) Or with a brusque and magisterial Dawkinsesque dismissal? With attempted humour? (“What have you been drinking?”) When do you hold back, and when do you let rip?
[Postscript: Incidentally, I was awed by how, at a talk last week at the Royal Institution, Frank Wilczek was able instantly to cut to the physics core of left-field questions. Like this:
Questioner: [apropos supersymmetry] Does this have anything to do with wave-particle duality?
Me: [thinks] Um yeah, does it? Or are you just mouthing a buzzword you’ve heard?
Wilczek: Wave-particle duality is what makes this possible, because [I paraphrase] it's the bosonic picture of quantum fields that we’re hoping to unify with the fermionic nature of matter.
Me: [thinks] Well yeah, I knew that.]