All purpose questions (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

While Michèle Lamont is visiting CT, and talking about cross-disciplinary comparisons and interactions, I thought I would raise a question about questions.

As background, my first “real” job was in a government research agency. Seminars were part of the process, and the norm was that senior staff would open the questions. In this context, it was almost invariably safe to ask “What are the policy implications”. That’s still true for some of the seminars I attend, but in others (economic theory, for example), such a question would be at best a faux pas, and the all-purpose question might be something like “Does this work in a monetary economy?”.

So, what are the all-purpose questions in different fields (or are there fields without such questions), and what, if anything does this reveal about those fields?

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13 thoughts on “All purpose questions (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

  1. The question never to ask at the end of a pure mathematics seminar: “Does this have applications?” In truth though,

    much of mathematics is classified as pure mathematics (as opposed to applied mathematics, presumably) when in fact

    the problems to be solved make no such distinction.

    Silvern Elhay, a computer science lecturer at Adelaide University in the 80’s, was giving a lecture on numerical

    analysis. Somewhere along the way during a proof, he digressed into telling us students a joke…IIRC, it goes like

    A professor is giving a lecture on mathematics and is in the middle of writing up a long and subtle proof; at

    some point he says to the class “…and it is simple to see that this follows from…”, at which point a

    student asks “Is it, sir?” The professor stops writing, and quietly leaves the class, presumably heading back to

    his office. After about 10 minutes, he returns to the class, says “Yes.”, and continues on with the proof.

  2. Medicine draws upon a huge array of disciplines, so a talk may be on physics or statistics yet still be very relevant. Unless already well flagged by the speaker someone will ask –
    “What are the clinical implications?”

  3. I know of a (hopefully temporary) ‘field of expertise’ where the term seminar was abandoned. Instead there were announcesments of “presentations”. No questions asked – in more than one sense.

  4. The version I heard has the professor saying “it is clear that..” as he writes a line on the blackboard, then when he isked if it is, he freezes for ten minutes before saying yes and continuing – clearly oblivious to the passage of time while he ruminated.

    Speaking of which, have you heard this illustration of parity error? “Pieces of seven, pieces of seven…”.

  5. I once did a short stint in NSW Treasury. I recall being astonished that the line of questioining often reverted to “what are the implications for superannuation?” Meaning what were the implications for the unfunded superannuation of Treasury employees? I realised, with a shock, it was ahead of all else in the NSW budget and almost universally departmentally supported (if one believes in subconscious objectives). It wasnt the trains, or health, or infrastructure…it was super first.

  6. Terje – not the State Government, no, no, no (put them out of their misery). Obama, yes, yes, yes. Rudd Government, yes, yes. Bligh Government, no. Mugabe – not even a mother should feed him.

  7. The same question arises in physics; “what is the application?”. For a theoretician it can be a difficult question but usually there is a “theoretical” application. For an applied physicist it is often an uncomfortable question since they know better than most that the application probably won’t work. Which brings us back to the old adage- Nobody believes a theoretician’s results, except him(her)self. Everybody believes an experimentalist’s results, except him(her)self. Or paraphrased; In theory, there is no difference between practise and theory. In practise there is.

  8. In the weekly seminar on Southeast Asian Studies at Monash, when students would report enthusiastically and myopically on the masses of data they had acquired in “their village”, the senior academics would invariably ask, “___, this is all very well, but WHAT IS YOUR THESIS?!”

  9. “What are the policy implications?”

    That’s still true for some of the seminars I attend, but in others (economic theory, for example), such a question would be at best a faux pas

    why so? is it because everyone takes for granted that most economic theory has no practical application, and no policy implications?

  10. gerard @11,

    I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to your rhetorical questions. But, for what its worth, I’d like to mention that the purpose of math econ theory seminars is often to get critical technical questions. Sometimes it is to get a preview of how a long standing question has been answered and at times it is to see the ‘big brains’ in action. Milton Friedman, on the other hand, had very different economic theory public seminars – all policy and ………

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