Hecklers And Twecklers At Technical Talks
Handling hecklers at technical talks
John F. Kennedy was not a theorist of course, but was the President of the United States. He was a great speaker and had the ability to handle the press, especially the Washington press who can be a rough audience.
Today I want to talk about talks, technical talks, but especially hecklers at technical talks.
We have all been at talks where someone interrupts the speaker, and asks a tough question. The definition of a heckler:
is someone who tries to embarrass you with gibes and questions and objections.
I have to admit that I have been both the heckler and the hecklee over the years—is “hecklee” a word? I sometimes have been the heckler without meaning to be, sometimes I simply have asked a question that turned out to be embarrassing. Sometimes I have been on the receiving end of a heckle.
Kennedy was brilliant in how he handled tough questions and heckles. I recall at one press conference a certain reporter was trying hard to get the President to call on him—waving his hand wildly. The President kept ignoring him and calling on others. Finally Kennedy did call on him, and the reporter asked a long, complex, and nasty question. Kennedy looked at him during the question, waited for it to end, and after a short pause pointed to another reporter and said:
What a great way to handle a tough question. Perhaps only the President can get away with this stratagem.
Here are some examples of heckles, organized by type. In some cases I have protected the identity of the people, since my intention is not to be mean. I just think it is important for all of us to know that we should be prepared for tough comments.
Heckled by a co-author: I have already talked about this here. The heckle was to Matt Geller from one of his co-authors Jeff Ullman, who was upset at something Matt said during the presentation of their joint paper:
That is a crock, and I want to completely disassociate myself from that.
That is pretty unusual heckle, and it came from a co-author.
Heckled on a job talk: This story is true, but I do have it second-hand from Rich DeMillo. Years ago Rich was on the faculty of the Computer Science Department at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. A friend of his was giving a job talk—many good heckles seem to involve job talks—in their math department. About half way through the talk a senior faculty interrupted with:
I believe that this is all known.
The senior person proceeded to give a precise citation to an article including the year and the journal where he claimed the previous work was. The job candidate was shocked, and tried to explain why his results were new.
The next day the candidate confronted the senior faculty after checking the citation, which had nothing to do with his work. The senior faculty said: “I fell asleep. I thought if I challenged you in this way, you would have to repeat the details that I had missed while I was asleep.” The candidate was speechless and ran to see his friend DeMillo for advice. Rich’s advice I think was optimal: basically forget it and get a job somewhere else. The candidate did just that.
Heckled in another language: Freeman Dyson relates this story in his article on “Birds and Frogs.” Apparently von Neumann was invited to give a keynote address at International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) in 1954. The organizers hoped that he would give a talk like Hilbert’s famous one in 1900. The title of his talk was: Unsolved Problems in Mathematics.
Freeman Dyson explains that the hall was packed on Thursday, September 2, 1954. It was abuzz with excitement—what did the great von Neumann have to say about the future? Unfortunately von Neumann had forgotten about the talk, and he had almost missed being there. So he pulled out an old talk on rings of operators, an old talk from the 1930’s. Nothing new.
As Dyson explains the audience soon became restless. Finally a voice from the hall said for all to hear:
Which means in German: warmed-over soup. The talk was just a replay of an old one, not the peek into the future they all had hoped to hear. The heckler was rude to von Neumann, who had no answer and ended the talk immediately. I think in a sense it was a tribute to him: they expected the great mathematician to help give them a view of the future. They were upset at the lost opportunity.
Heckled by a philosopher: The talk was on the structure of various languages, and especially on how they handle negation. The speaker, Oxford philosopher of language John Austin, was making the point that in almost all languages a double negative should be avoided. Sometimes a double negative can be positive and sometimes a weak negative. He then made the mistake of adding that in no language is a double positive negative. From the back of the room Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser replied instantly:
As an old chess-wise friend used to tell me: sac, sac, mate. By the way in some logics, such as Intuitionistic Logic, is not equivalent to .
Heckled by your talk host: This is an urban legend at Princeton. In the 1940’s an eminent professor of topology was visiting to give a talk on the his solution to the then open Poincaré Conjecture. He started with the opening remark that: “we know that the Poincaré Conjecture is equivalent to proving ” Unfortunately this is not true, and the host stood up and said:
Let’s thank our speaker and now let’s go have tea.
Game, set, and match. The talk was over. Apparently the visiting professor was an expert in point-set topology, but not an expert on the Poincaré Conjecture.
Heckled by Internet: If we just mean comments afterward in blog posts and other webpages, this kind of heckling is of course legion. A prime example is Doron Zeilberger’s Opinion 76, which is worded as a heckle of Avi Wigderson’s plenary talk on “, , and mathematics: a computational complexity perspective” at the 2006 ICM. However, true online heckling should be during the talk. I don’t know of a good example in our field, but according to this article the practice is taking off in other fields. It is called “tweckling.”
Heckled by audience—best response: Finally in my opinion the best answer to a heckle ever was delivered by Alan Perlis. He was giving a talk on a language he had designed and implemented at CMU, called Formula Algol. Roughly speaking, the language glued together Algol and the data type for symbolic formulas. This was way ahead of its time; today this is essentially what systems like Maple do, but of course not with Algol. The gluing together was messy and complex, making the resulting language not very usable.
During the talk Perlis got interrupted by an audience member, who stood up, and started to read a list of questions. They were all of the form: Why did you do X in Formula Algol? Each question hit right on an issue with the language—it was not a good mating between Algol and formulas. After listening to several questions Alan interrupted and said, “do you want me to answer?” But the questioner just keep reading more of his list. Finally Perlis could take it no longer and repeated “do you want me to answer?” The questioner reluctantly said “okay.” Perlis then said:
He then proceeded to finish his talk.
Please share your best stories. Please share your best heckles. Please be polite at technical talks.