Extract from the musical “The Little Prince”, based on the book written by French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery.
“Good morning Mr Switchman. What do you do here?”, asks the little prince.
“I sort out travelers in bundles of a thousand. I send out the trains that carry them, now to the right, and now to the left.”
“They are in a great hurry. What are they looking for?”
“Not even a locomotive engineer knows that!”
Not even a man closer to the passengers such as the locomotive engineer is able to answer the question of the little prince. The switchman was right to decline an answer. But have you noticed that when you are under the gun, when a question is directly pointing at your chest, you feel you have to answer something – or lose face! Better give a wrong or an imprecise answer than no answer at all, some think. This is a trap.
To the question, “What is the number of genes in the human genome?”, are many answers.
The man who knows latin abbreviations writes ” ca. 23,000 genes” (ca stands for circa, a latin word meaning about).
The man who reads newspapers and loves maths writes: 20,000+ genes.
The scientist who wrote the Wikipedia entry on the human genome writes: “There is an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 human protein-coding genes. This estimation has been revised down as genome sequence quality and gene finding methods improved.”
The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, reporting its findings in October 2004, writes: “Consortium researchers have confirmed the existence of 19,599 protein coding genes in the human genome and identified another 2,188 DNA segments that are predicted to be protein-coding genes.”
My grandmother thinks there are many. When pushed to say how many, she says: a few hundreds, I think… less when you get older.”
“IThink” , Therefore I am…. not an Expert!
When asked a question during the Q&A, if the first words that come to your lips are “I think…” STOP RIGHT THERE. You are about to answer an irrelevant question. Experts don’t think they know. Experts know. If you do not recall the exact number, or if the number keeps changing, give a range and explain why the exact number is not available. People will know you are still the expert.
What is the danger of giving the wrong answer? The expert in the audience (there is always one) knows the answer and either publicly shames you by telling the audience what the right answer is, or the expert keeps quiet and writes you off from his or her list of interesting people.
The expert answer contains precise words. Experts do not answer “the number of genes is…”, they say “The number of protein-coding genes is…”.
Experts are up-to-date with their knowledge. They can say “as of today, 19,599 protein-encoding genes have been confirmed.”
The moral of this story is not about my darling grandmother who tries to keep up with the times but has problem remembering what she hears on television. The moral of this story is about the presenter scientist taking Q&A after his oral presentation. The most important thing the presenter has to do after being asked a question that is clearly understood by all (scientist and audience), is to identify whether that question is relevant in the context of the talk. If it is not relevant, the presenter has the right to remain silent. It is a fifth amendment issue. Do not answer questions that might incriminate yourself and make the audience believe you are not an expert when , in fact, you are… but in your field!
Naturally, the “I do not know” answer is always available; It is not my favourite answer, however. The tactic I recommend is to acknowledge the question as an interesting one you wish you had the expertise to answer. But instead of ending there, I would relate that question to something inside your domain of expertise, and answer that other question. For example. If the question asks you to compare the efficiency between solar cells and hydrogen fuels cells, but you are an expert in hydrogen fuel cells only, indicate that you are not a solar cell expert, and offer to BRIEFLY give the increase in efficiency that hydrogen fuel cells have experienced over the last five years.
A last word of advice: there may be a gap between what you consider relevant and what the audience, for lack of knowledge about your field, considers relevant. Some of the questions may indeed become relevant in the next five year – for example questions on industrial availability of the product or technique presented in your proof-of-concept study. To answer such questions, simply encourage the questioner by stating that you are also eager to see your research benefit industry, but mention that the question arrives a little early because this and that (fill in the details) need to be done before.
I end with this quote attributed to Thomas Pynchon:
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers”
By Jean-luc Lebrun
Photo Flickr; Author: Andreas-photography.