I’ve just finished a conference – in beautiful Wanaka. At least, they tell me that it’s beautiful, though it was hard to see through all the low cloud, drizzle, and general murk. The weather did at least clear on the morning of our departure.
As usual for a conference, there was a vast array of different presentations. Some exciting, some quite tedious, some controversial, some exhibiting powerpoint-overuse-syndrome, and some a little bit quirky. The most disappointing moment was the opening keynote speaker who started his talking with the sentence, "As we all know, the blah-de-blah connects with the thingame whotsit and controls the widget-selection process". Well, I for one didn’t know, and I’m afraid I was lost from that point on.
But a couple of the best talks, which I will dwell on, came in the very last session and were given by a two people more ‘senior’ in the field. What struck me was how honest they were. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to read a scientific paper, you’ll have noted how dry and robotic it sounds, as if the task were quite easy. It doesn’t usually report on mistakes, but these presentations did. One mistake was hurried planning, which resulted in a bad choice of method, and therefore rather dubious results, which the presenter to his credit clearly identified. I think such self-criticism, in front of an audience of experts, is a great sign in a scientific researcher. The other presenter was admitting a rather large slice of luck on his part – the experimental apparatus was dodgy – and he didn’t end up doing what he set out to do, but what he actually achieved turned out to be very interesting indeed.
Perhaps the older you are and the more established you are in the field the less you have to worry about exposing your short-comings to others. Making a mistake isn’t going to destroy their careers. But I think there is more to it than that – reflection is one skill that makes a good scientist, and the ability to share their mistakes rather than try to hide them is absolutely the way that science should be done. I speculate that this kind of attitude might have actually helped them to be in the well-respected position they now find themselves.
Overall, it was a great session by which to end a conference