Drive By Character Assassination

Ambivalent Academic put up a terrific post yesterday on witnessing a public character assassination at a recent meeting she attended. The scenario is basically this, after giving a presentation at a meeting a junior female speaker is called a liar in front of her entire field by an established senior man in the field.  You can dress it up any way you like it- but that’s the nuts and bolts of what happened. I apologize for the rather extensive quote- but you get the point.  Go on over to Ambivalent Academic and read the whole post…

The interaction starts with a reasonable question:

Greybeard: Have you considered that sub-population A of the field you are testing actually arises from a separate source, and that this may affect the implementation of Really Elegant Experiment and thus the effects of sub-population A on the master program of this system?

The speaker attempts a reasonable answer:

Speaker: Thank you for bringing that up! Yes, we have considered the effects of multiple sources…I didn’t have time to get into the data in this talk but we have ruled out that possibility, and I should also remind you that our experimental design included a global manipulation of the system so that it affects all sub-populations at their sources. As such, our conclusions remain that this effect is totally nuanced and novel and cool.

But here’s where things go drastically downhill:

Greybeard: No, I think that you have not considered sub-population A’s source because your results are clearly impossible!

Speaker: [!!!, recovers from shock, proceeds in a calm and collected manner] Well, let me see if I can explain this more clearly…[returns to experimental design slide]. As you can see, with our experimental design, we are implementing a global change in the system which includes all the sub-populations at each of their local sources. (with more extensive explanation that I have omitted for the sake of brevity….)….

Greybeard: No, no, no. Your results are just not possible. We can talk after the session so that I can explain to you why you are wrong.

First let me be clear that I’m perfectly fine with people (regardless of gender) being asked tough questions in front of an audience.  This is sometimes uncomfortable…. and that’s just how it is- if you want to be in this business, you better get used to that.

But as for the rest, WTF???  I’ve personally witnessed this little drive-by-shooting-of-credibility specifically of a junior woman at more than one meeting.  There are multiple dynamics at play- the whole junior scientist/respected senior scientist dynamic, a male/female dynamic- and then the whole singling someone out for purposeful humiliation in front of a group.  It has become so common for me to witness this- that I’ve given up hoping that this kind of thing happening is going to change or stop. At the heart I think these types of attacks are about the senior person making themselves feel important in front of the group.

But here’s the thing for me- I think of myself up there on that stage when I am watching these trainwrecks unfold- and I wonder what would I say, what COULD I say, that would:  a.  change the course of the interaction, b. stop the questioner dead in his/her tracks, and c. get myself of the stage with my dignity intact.

Thoughts?

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27 thoughts on “Drive By Character Assassination

  1. Thanks for reading my blog, and for considering this issue important enough to continue to talk about it.

    I also asked myself the same question after the talk — what would I do?

    I have to say that I was super impressed by the speaker’s poise – she stuck to her guns (solid data) and reiterated the response…even tried to clear up the point at which she thought Greybeard was misunderstanding. Things fella apart bc he wasn’t at all interested in the scientific outcome…he just wanted to point out to her that she was wrong. If he were interested in the science, he would have asked his original question, perhaps inquire about a specific experiment that might have addressed his concern, and then LISTENED to her answer, which of course is not what happened.

    If it were me up there, I would have answered his initial question politely, and my response to his second “question”, or rather statement that her results were impossible, would have gone something like this:

    –I’m sorry, I misheard you. Could you repeat your QUESTION?

    If he persisted with the “impossible results”:

    –Perhaps I am misunderstanding your QUESTION. Are you saying that you believe that these RESULTS are impossible? Because I can assure you that they were produced exactly as I have presented. If you’d like to continue to discuss my INTERPRETATION of the results I would be happy to meet with you during the break so that we can sort out this misunderstanding.

    This comes off as pretty snarky and kind of defensive, but he was being so inordinately condescending (he actually implied that she had never even heard that the sub-pop had a different source…any grad student who has ever taken a a class on this subject is aware of the 2-source model, so it seems unlikely that someone who built their career on this system would be so ignorant) that I think it deserves some snark in return…not to mention the fact that people who just get used to these kinds of hostile “questions” kind of tune out the message. I think it would have been great if she had kind of turned the tables on him by pointing out to the rest of the audience that he was calling her a liar. I don’t think that anyone in the room for one second entertained the idea that she was a fraud, so pointing out that that was precisely what he was suggesting would have made him, not her, look stupid.

    Then again, I’m really not sure how that would play out exactly. But I tend to be a bit of a hot-head and I can’t STAND it when people patronize me, so I tend to bite back a bit.

  2. –I’m sorry, I misheard you. Could you repeat your QUESTION?

    If he persisted with the “impossible results”:

    –Perhaps I am misunderstanding your QUESTION. Are you saying that you believe that these RESULTS are impossible? Because I can assure you that they were produced exactly as I have presented. If you’d like to continue to discuss my INTERPRETATION of the results I would be happy to meet with you during the break so that we can sort out this misunderstanding.

    I disagree with this approach, because it starts off way too defensive: “I’m sorry”; “perhaps I am misunderstanding”; “I can assure you”. *Never* say, “I’m sorry” when giving a presentation. And why pretend that *you* are misunderstanding, when you are not? By saying, “I can assure you…”, you are validating the premise of the attack by attempting to defend against it on the merits.

    Rather, when it becomes clear that a questioner is being an asshole, go on the *offensive*: “Clearly, you are misunderstanding the point. Feel free to approach me after the talk and we can try to figure out where you are going wrong.” ZING!

  3. CPP – That is a MUCH better response.

    Your approach is the one that my internal monologue would be using…along with a few choice expletives for the SOB.

    Taking the offensive without distracting people from your data is a VERY difficult balance to strike for young women – I know that you know this. I have noticed that when young females use this approach, other people’s reaction is generally, “wow, what an obstinate little bitch!” rather than “good for her for telling that geezer where to shove it”.

    I agree that women in general tend to adopt a more apologetic and “it must be my fault” rhetoric when dealing with this. It is often by necessity.

    When I go with my preferred internal monologue responses on these issues, GrAdvisor tells me to “tone it down” because I am being too offensive (which somehow becomes DEfensive…because I am defending my data?) and this will cause people to focus on my attitude rather than my data. Also, that taking the offensive (even when the geezer’s being a jerk) makes me appear disrespectful and we can’t have that! (Why is it disrespectful for female grad students to e like this, but not for young men?). In defense of GrAdvisor, he will be the first to acknowledge that it is just plain wrong for people to hold this double standard but offers his advice on this matter to keep me from “shooting myself in the foot”.

    Which is why I would tend to cloak my jabs in “apologetic” language…kill them with kindness and all that.

    But yeah, it stinks and I like your response much better…and I will practice your response so that I will have it on hand for my next talk.

  4. If you are confident in your work and confident that the Great Poobah is wrong, and confident that others in the field will know this sooner or later, you SHOULD go on the offensive, e.g., “You clearly did not understand my presentation. Perhaps it is outside your area of expertise and you are out of depth here, perhaps it went over your head, but for a price of a beer I am willing to give you a simple, watered-down tutorial after the session” Watch him blush and see his own authority in the field go down a few notches right then and there – you expose him for a jerk he is: a lesson other junior colleagues in the audience will never forget and this sill remain one of the legendary tales in your field – how a Big Jerk was put in his place by someone younger who actually knew what she was talking about.

  5. I have noticed that when young females use this approach, other people’s reaction is generally, “wow, what an obstinate little bitch!” rather than “good for her for telling that geezer where to shove it”.

    How do you know this? My impression is the opposite.

    People who act like the asshole you described tend to do that kind of shit regularly, and there are likely to be people in the audience who will be cheering inside at his comeuppance.

  6. I agree with CPP that being apologetic is not the right approach- and that going on the offensive is a better option. This doesn’t feel natural for me either- that’s why having a couple of lines prepared in your head in the event that this should happen is pretty freaking important.

    Also, when someone is calling you an idiot because they are an idiot and for no other reason- defending your data, and giving them more facts is unlikely to make any difference at all.

    And I too hear from various senior male colleagues that I should ‘tone it down’ – and sometimes for things that seem to me to be perfectly acceptable, without strident tone. Or I hear- ‘this is how guys do this’… and you might want to try it like guys do it.

    Then there’s that shooting yourself in the foot business- its the ‘do you want to get what you want, or do you want to make a point’… cause you are only making it harder for yourself if you are trying to make a point while trying to move forward. I feel like many times I’m stuck between pushing myself forward in my career as quickly as possible without changing a thing as I move along- or with advancing more slowly (or dealing with the fear that I might not advance at all) because I tried to make a difference and nudge the status quo.

  7. I advocate taking the CPP approach and go on the offensive when somebody is being a shitbag. So long as you are at the podium with the mic, you are in charge.

  8. “Tone it down” and “Why are you so angry?” are typical sleazy tactics used by a person in power over a person not in power. It was used against people of other races, against women, against gays, against atheists – this is the way to make their greivances silent and perpetuate the status quo, the power structure in which they are on the top of the pecking order. The entire formal, convoluted, Victorian-proper discourse one is supposed to use in science is geared towards protecting the current power structure and the system that perpetuates it. Keeping the dissenters down and out. Bur sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.

  9. Bora-

    ‘Bur sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.’

    It’s very difficult to do that when the people who vote on your tenure and provide your tenure letters, anonymously review your grants, anonymously review your papers…etc… are the established power structure- and are not at all interested in change. This leaves us not in power, walking a very fine line.

  10. Great points all! I am encouraged to hear so many opinions in opposition to the status quo (women, play nice!).

    @CPP – You are right, there are a lot of people silently cheering for the girls who can “tell him where to shove it”…but that’s the thing – so often it’s silent.

    I HAVE had occasion to get a little snarky and offensive once or twice. YEARS later another female colleague told me that she thought it was awesome that I did that. A lot of women I (and now some men too – thanks guys!) admire the ones who can do this, but are afraid to say so.

    In the meantime, I got a lot of coaching from several men (who I respect) on how to try to address this problem but at the same time “tone it down” so that the point of my presentation was not overshadowed by my “attitude”.

    And these are men who openly admit that the double standard is wrong. I honestly believe that they are offering me this advice bc they don’t want to watch my hang myself.

    It also gets back to DrDrA’s point – which is more important to me? That I promote my science? Or that I let people lose sight of the science in order to start chipping away at this double standard?

    It’s great to know that there are other people out here who want to see a woman with a spine up there at the podium and that not everyone is going to see that as “bitchy” or lose sight of the science in the meantime.

    It’s always nice to get the kind of advice that you wanted to give yourself in the first place. Thanks for not being silent about it!

  11. I’m on the same page as PP on this, although, as a female in a male-dominated arena, it can be a little confronting to stand up to a Grand Fuckwit Poobah (GFP) in a public setting. Some women DO come across as shrieking harpies when challenged because they get flustered and argumentative and unwittingly allow their voice to reach a shrill, fingernails-on-a-blackboard pitch.

    My grad advisor gave me a good piece of advice: if challenged (and assuming your hypotheses, data and conclusions are sound), just remember that you know your study better than ANYONE ELSE in the room so take a deep breath, collect your thoughts and calmly explain why you are right and GFP is wrong.

    Whenever there’s a GFP grandstanding and making a scene, rest assured that the majority of the audience wants him/her to shut the fuck up and sit down. A calm, concise and definitive takedown of the GFP by the speaker is ALWAYS welcomed and showing that you aren’t a pushover will gain you respect from your peers.

    One of my postdoc mentor’s collaborators is a GFP of the highest order and used to take great delight in questioning and attacking my work each and every time I gave a seminar. It used to piss me off enormously but when I was nearing the end of my postdoc, GFP told me that he greatly admired the fact that I stood up to him as nobody else had the balls to do so.

  12. One further point, which might not go down easy: The vast majority of the audience at any given talk is gonna remember a metric fuckload more about the social dynamics–she kicked his fucking ass sideways, or he made her look foolish, or she seemed really on top of her game–than they are about the scientific content of the talk.

    Comrade PhysioProf has frequently had conversations as follows: “Were you at Dr. So-and-So’s seminar? Yep, it was outstanding! Oh, what was it about? Something to do with something or other, but it was great! I don’t remember what it was exactly about, but it was a very convincing presentation of very important science.”

    The non-scientific shit–like whether the speaker dominated the room or, to the contrary, was dominated–has a much bigger influence on those lasting perceptions than the actual content of the science.

  13. When replying to these situations, definitely don’t start with an apology. But as a female it’s particularly important HOW you say things – open, relaxed body language, a calm voice in a low pitch, that sort of thing – if you know you get ‘squeaky and defensive-sounding’ – practice, practice, and take a deep breath before you reply. These sorts of situations are a performance, and if you know this is an area where you struggle, some voice training might not be a bad investment (I’ve had some singing training – it definitely helps me to speak to the back of the room in a confident voice without tensing up and going squeaky or shouty. My approach to these sorts of questions, which are indeed DAMN insulting and more commonly, sadly, thrown at younger females (at least based on observation over conferences in my field), is to aim to be slightly amused by the “misunderstanding” – I would usually step to the side of the lectern (if I was still behind it), lean on it a little, then say something like ‘My study was designed to eliminate that problem – I’d be happy to explain it to you in more detail during the next break’ and SMILE. The combination of unworried, open body language and a pleasant, calm voice can really wind up GFPs (which is fun) and it conveys the necessary message (I am cool, I am confident, GFP is being a bit of an ass) to everyone else in the audience without there being anything rude about it at all.

    And I might well have a word with the session chair, later, in private, about how this sort of question could give the impression that the GFP was accusing a speaker of lying, and that it might be a good idea if the session chair intervened if this sort of thing happened again and an inexperienced speaker was getting flustered, after all, the chair also wants people to get a good impression of the session! But that second step has something to do with the fact that I have sort-of-tenure… if I was a grad student or younger scientist, I probably wouldn’t do it.

  14. ‘The vast majority of the audience at any given talk is gonna remember a metric fuckload more about the social dynamics–she kicked his fucking ass sideways, or he made her look foolish, or she seemed really on top of her game–than they are about the scientific content of the talk.’

    This is completely, 100% right on target- and is one of the reasons why it is hideously important to go into these situations understanding this point, and knowing how you are going to control the situation should it occur.

    JaneB- Also several very key points. I am especially glad that you mention the session chair- because I have seen session chairs moderating these sessions basically react in two ways. First, they either participate in the pile-on- which is totally unacceptable. Or second, they stand by flustered watching it all unfold but not knowing how to stop it.

    So, for all you session chairs- it might be a good idea for you to prep for this too- because you might have to be ‘that guy‘ in such a situation…. or ‘that girl’ if you are a woman!

  15. Getting into a pissing contest is exactly what GFP wants. Once it’s clear that GFP wants a confrontation rather than an answer, I’d just say, “I’m sorry you don’t like it. Does anyone else have a question?” Repeat this until he shuts up.

    As an aside, the session chair is *never* going to intervene, and it’s not weak to apologize for GFP being an idiot.

  16. This is a tough situation. PP’s approach is good partly because it should bring the exchange to an end. That’s practical.

    Being witty is dangerous because it can always backfire. Just think of George (the part I’m thinking of is at the end, but watch the whole thing for the full effect):

    That’s how I see it ending for me if I try too hard to zing someone.

    This doesn’t help if you’re the speaker, but I’ve seen people be saved from aggressive questioners by the next questioner. I’m having trouble putting it in general terms, but basically the idea is that the second questioner asks a question that addresses the same point and then shows satisfaction with the response, thus lending their support to the speaker’s interpretation. It has no bearing on the value of the data, but it can help undercut the aggressive questioner’s position.

  17. As an aside, the session chair is *never* going to intervene, and it’s not weak to apologize for GFP being an idiot.

    A speaker should never say the words, “I’m sorry”. Ever. Period.

  18. Whimple-

    Why not?

    I mean- are you just saying this in the ‘hundreds of bystanders watch a woman get raped in central park and do nothing about it’ sense – that is, the general tendency of people to do absolutely nothing to help when they see an untoward event happening right before their very eyes- or for some other reason?

  19. Let me rephrase: In my experience, the session chair does not intervene. The only version of chair intervention I’ve heard is where the chair interrupts with something like: “We need to move on. This would be better discussed in the bar afterwards.”

    I have never heard any version of, “You’re totally out of line GFP. Sit down and shut up!” from the chair (or from anyone else either).

  20. Whimple-

    Now I understand what you mean. I too- have never witnessed a session chair telling a questioner that they are clearly out of line… and they should sit down and shut up.

    But- ending the attack can be done more subtly I think, and I’ve not heard a session chair intervene even in the way you describe until the attack has clearly gone on for way too long.

  21. I disagree with the apologists and the offensive folks. The best thing to do is stick to the science. Go step by step through the contamination controls, and invite the greybeard to show exactly where he thinks the experiment goes awry. The net result of this is that:
    a. The speaker gets to show off how awesome she is at experimental design.
    b. The grey beard is trapped in a position where he has to back down or take an anti-scientific stance.
    c. the speak impresses everyone with her poise and ability to turn a potentially dreary confrontation into a cool science lesson.

    Nobody who is pre-senile drops eight hundred bucks and a week of their time to sit through dick measuring contests. They go to conferences to hear about cool science, and meet promising potential colleagues. So let the old geezer turn into an involuntary argument against lifetime tenure. But do it in a way that educates the rest of us who actually want to learn. And if a heckler wants to talk past you, reframe the discussion so that he appears to be attacking the practice of good science, and not the speaker.

  22. Lab Lemming-

    Thanks for your comment- I would love to agree with you- but I know that when someone is being an ass just to be an ass – restating the facts doesn’t do squat to turn the situation around- although I would love it if it were true. Plus- in the situation described in this post- the speaker pretty much did what you suggest- and was unsuccessful in stopping the GFP…

  23. Pingback: The Shock Value of Science Blogs [A Blog Around The Clock]

  24. A tangent point: Comments such as “Tone it down” and “Why are you so angry?” are often part of real-world “concern trolling” — basically, trying to get your to abandon your winning strategy. If they’re coming from an attacker, change “often” to “always”.

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