Are You Aware?

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 2007

I was attending a talk describing the results of an important study. The auditorium was large, dark, cold, and sparsely populated. At the conclusion there was a call for questions, and as usual there was a substantial pause when it appeared that no questions would be forthcoming. I was looking forward to the warmth outside the doors when the first hand went up.

More questions followed this first one, and I noted with enough interest to write this column that the first four questions all started with the same four words: “Are you aware of ….?” In each case these four words were followed by obscure references to work done in unfamiliar places by people I didn’t know. I had been impressed with the study and with the expertise of the speaker, but after these questions I wasn’t so sure any longer.

In my experience this question about awareness is among the most common type of comment following a technical talk. The question goes something like this: “Are you aware of the work on this subject by Professor John Blutarsky at Faber College in 1962?”

Grammatically, this is a question calling for a simple yes or no answer. In reality it is neither a question nor does it call for a yes or no answer. In fact, I don’t think that I have ever heard a speaker simply say “no” and call for the next question.

When you’re the speaker and hear this question, the natural instinct is fear. You’re standing without clothes in front of a vast audience. You’ve never heard of Blutarsky, and you didn’t even know that there was a Faber College. But under penalty of death, you can’t just say no, that you’ve never heard of this work. Your brain goes into search mode, looking for a complicated way of evading the question without ever admitting to ignorance.

“Oh yes, that Blutarsky,” you say, playing for time. “It’s been some time since I studied his work, but I believe that his assumptions were quite different, and we all know how much technology has changed since then.” You give a slightly dismissive chuckle and a small shrug of your shoulders, indicative of the irrelevance of this unknown work. Seeing the frown on the face of the questioner, you turn your attention quickly to other hands in the audience. Your answer meets the test of plausible deniability – after all, you said that it has been some time since you saw Blutarsky’s work, you only referred to your belief, rather than the fact of its difference, and it is certainly true that technology has changed. You’ve covered yourself perfectly.

The person who asked the question is miffed. He never would have asked the question if he hadn’t been sure that the speaker could not possibly have heard of Blutarsky’s work. He feels cheated out of the triumph that he believes he deserved.

However, as far as the audience is concerned, the questioner has scored. No one in the audience has ever heard of Blutarsky either, but the immediate assumption is that whatever Blutarsky did, it must have invalidated the work of the speaker. Regardless of how adroitly the speaker has answered the question, the audience is left with a lurking suspicion. There is an uneasy stirring of the audience as people crane their heads to view the questioner. Who is this expert who is familiar with Blutarsky, whose obviously important work seems not to be known by the speaker?

Why do people ask such questions, I wonder? Many questions following technical talks are intended more to show the expertise of the questioner than to elicit information. This is such a normal part of our culture that we don’t even notice. However, the questions about whether a speaker is aware of this or that work are a particularly flagrant case where the object isn’t just to highlight the questioner’s knowledge, but to assert a knowledge that is superior to that of the speaker.

I’m sure that this instinct to showcase one’s own expertise is human nature, but perhaps it is accentuated in engineering, where our culture is to raise innovation and individual achievement to the highest level of accolade. The central question is sometimes not how good the solution is, but who gets the credit.

The next time you’re in an audience for a technical talk, listen to the questions critically. How many are real questions, and how many are primarily in the category of “I’m a better engineer than you”?

Robert Lucky