the future of conferences

The last issue of Nature for 2018 offers a stunning collection of science photographs, ten portraits of people who mattered (for the editorial board of Nature), and a collection of journalists’ entries on scientific conferences. The later point leading to interesting questioning on the future of conferences, some of which relate to earlier entries on this blog. Like attempts to make them having a lesser carbon footprint, by only attending focused conferences and workshops, warning about predatory ones, creating local hives on different continents that can partake of all talks but reduce travel and size and still allow for exchanges person to person, multiply the meetings and opportunities around a major conference to induce “only” one major trip (as in the past summer of British conferences, or the incoming geographical combination of BNP and O’Bayes 2019), cut the traditional dreary succession of short talks in parallel in favour of “unconferences” where participants set communally the themes and  structure of the meeting (but ware the dangers of bias brought by language, culture, seniority!). Of course, this move towards new formats will meet opposition from several corners, including administrators who too often see conferences as a pretense for paid vacations and refuse supporting costs without a “concrete” proof of work in the form of a presentation.Another aspect of conference was discussed there, namely the art of delivering great talks. Which is indeed more an art than a science, since the impact will not only depend on the speaker and the slides, but also on the audience and the circumstances. As years pile on, I am getting less stressed and probably too relaxed about giving talks, but still rarely feel I have reached toward enough of the audience. And still falling too easily for the infodump mistake… Which reminds me of a recent column in Significance (although I cannot link to it!), complaining about “finding it hard or impossible to follow many presentations, particularly those that involved a large number of equations.” Which sounds strange to me as on the opposite I quickly loose track in talks with no equations. And as mathematical statistics or probability issues seems to imply the use of maths symbols and equations. (This reminded me of a short course I gave once in a undisclosed location, where a portion of the audience left after the first morning, due to my use of “too many Greek letters”.) Actually, I am always annoyed at apologies for using proper maths notations, since they are the tools of our trade.Another entry of importance in this issue of Nature is an interview with Katherine Heller and Hal Daumé, as first chairs for diversity and inclusion at N[eur]IPS. Where they discuss the actions taken since the previous NIPS 2017 meeting to address the lack of inclusiveness and the harassment cases exposed there, first by Kristian Lum, Lead Statistician at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), whose blog denunciation set the wheels turning towards a safer and better environment (in stats as well as machine-learning). This included the [last minute] move towards renaming the conference as NeuroIPS to avoid sexual puns on the former acronym (which as a non-native speaker I missed until it was pointed out to me!). Judging from the feedback it seems that the wheels have indeed turned a significant amount and hopefully will continue its progress.

2 Responses to “the future of conferences”

  1. Tom Loredo Says:

    “Actually, I am always annoyed at apologies for using proper maths notations, since they are the tools of our trade.”

    Since around 2000, “Sorry for the equations; I promise this will be the only slide with them” has become a mantra of sorts for talks in astronomy (and to some degree in physics), and it drives me nuts. These are quantitative sciences, after all. I swear it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Right around the time I got my PhD, while still a student, I gave an astro seminar talk at a neighboring university, on inverse methods (I think it was at Northwestern). A colleague there complimented me on it, saying it was one of the clearest talks he’d ever heard (I’m not boasting; bear with me; there’s a point). It was almost *all* math—lots of linear algebra, some functional analysis. The point: I just cannot imagine getting such a compliment on such a talk today.

    There’s truth in the aphorism, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” To me, equations are pictures, and worth many words, in terms of communicating with precision, and clearly conveying abstraction.

    Something has happened in the last decade or so that has begun to make astronomers and physicists maths-averse. I consider it a very negative development. I’m sad to hear the disease is spreading to the statistics community!

    • This may threaten statistics talks as well, as I have heard recently a talk from a top statistician I admire where there was hardly any formula and definitely not enough detail for me to understand the proposed methodology, not to mention its validation. While the maths expertise of my students in Paris has decreased thanks to endless changes in the high school curriculum, they are still complaining that my stats lectures are not mathematical enough (despite me spending the first lecture on examples of the distinction between maths and stats!)

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