By MERLIN CROSSLEY
Sometimes associations do reflect quality but sometimes it is just snobbery that is playing out – it can be hard to tell which.
One of the rituals in the research world is the introduction of guest speakers. There is a strict formula and it strikes me that the process is usually loaded with pre-judgements or prejudice, albeit positive prejudice.
We all try to combat prejudice that is negative, which arises when people are being mean. Today I think about the positive prejudice that occurs when people are being nice, and helpfully talking up their guest.
On a personal level I think I have benefited from a lot of positive prejudice in my life.
The pre-judgements and “respect by association” occur when seminars are introduced because of the need for brevity, and because of the importance of being kind and welcoming.
Most seminars begin with the host saying – “today’s speaker needs no introduction…” – and then, oddly, the host goes on to give an introduction.
Because actually most speakers do need an introduction. But saying they don’t gives those new to the field the impression that the speaker is very famous. And it implies they are famous because their work is so important. It may be true sometimes but certainly not always.
The next sentence is usually of the form – “our speaker today studied at famous university X, did their PhD and postdoc with famous researchers Y and Z, was awarded the ‘this or that’ famous prize for science last year, and now holds the ‘Sir something sounding grand’ Chair in biology, at famous university B.”
Like a series of fireworks each statement represents an explosion of praise by association – a sort of wow, wow, wow.
Little is actually said about the quality of the speaker and their science. Why not? Because there isn’t time and it is very hard to sum up quality – and it would only reflect the opinion of the host, who is probably a friend and is biased. But we get the idea by the associations.
Later in the introduction the host may actually talk about the achievements and scientific contributions of the speaker, but this will just be a sentence or two, for several reasons. First, it is important that the host doesn’t give away the seminar’s punchline, and secondly most of the audience won’t actually be able to appreciate all the details of the work, or its significance, unless they know the context and listen to the whole seminar. Conversely, those who know the context already, won’t need the details of the work. So there really is no point in the host saying much about the science.
Thus, we end up pre-judging the speaker, not by what they have done but by the people and places with which they are associated, or worse still by our guesses about how important these people and places sound.
Sometimes, of course, speaker X has not worked at any famous institutions, or worked with famous people, or won famous prizes. In these cases they must have done some recent good work to have been invited, so the host can talk about that work – except again the audience may not understand the significance of the work – so the host now says “Our speaker has done some important work in biology and published ground breaking papers in Nature, Science and Cell”.
Here we go again. Once more we are not talking about the science but about the status of the journals in which the work was published. To reiterate, this is because the few people who really understand the topic already know it all, and those who don’t can’t be expected to get it in a few sentences, but they will understand what a Nature paper entails. So, it is best for the host just to say they had a big paper and you’ll hear the details in the seminar.
The good news in all of this is that there will always be some positive associations the host can celebrate. Sometimes there will also be some personal connections – a former student returning to speak or someone who has collaborated with members of the department – and this can be very positive. But again, it represents an example of networks and associations and the “it’s not what you know but who you know” situation.
To conclude, in an ideal world everyone and everything would be carefully judged by its qualities, not by its associations, but this takes a lot of effort and it takes time, which is sometimes not available. So, universally recognised associations are used as short cuts. Happily, good associations are visible and negative ones, like being connected with an unknown institution, are just invisible, so there is little that is particularly sinister in the formulaic speaker introduction.
But, those who, quite rightly, make the point that we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on associations with prestige, metrics, league tables, impact factors, etc. should be aware that it is not as easy as it looks to operate without all these short cuts.
I have some mixed feelings about all this because one can also make the case that sometimes the associations do reflect real quality – those who stick it out at top institutions and those who repeatedly publish in top journals are, at the very least, highly adept at playing the game and these talented people are also often good at making very important research contributions. Sometimes associations do reflect quality but sometimes it is just snobbery that is playing out – it can be hard to tell which.
We need to be aware of the advantages that accumulate via associations with top brands and we have to work hard to try to look at the substance rather than relying too much on shortcuts. Relying on short cuts can be habit forming!
I guess ultimately it is a balance between trying to be brief and welcoming, and trying to be accurate, but next time you hear a seminar, do your best to make up your own mind based on the science and then reflect back to consider how that matched the introduction – and don’t be too harsh if this results in disappointment! Even when one is introducing a mediocre speaker, it is important to be polite about it and a good host really should talk their guest up not down.
Merlin Crossley Is DVC Academic at UNSW. The Crossley Lab appears in CMM Fridays.