Preposterous Universe

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Following up on my story about switching from a computer-projected talk to a blackboard talk at the last minute, Chad Orzel hashes out the pros and cons of blackboard vs. computer vs. overhead transparencies. (I talk about "computer" presentations rather than "PowerPoint" because I actually use StarOffice, which has a better equation editor and also is free.) Michael Nielsen and Doron Zeilberger give their takes as well.

This is the kind of thing scientists talk about when they're not uncovering the mysteries of the universe. Computer presentations have become the standard in many fields, although there is a substantial wailing about the attendant impersonality (and often incomprehensibility) of the result. Edward Tufte has written a celebrated anti-PowerPoint screed, even holding the conventions of that particular medium partially responsible for the Challenger disaster (apparently NASA engineers gave a PowerPoint presentation on the problems during the flight that served to camouflage rather than highlight the potential dangers). As Chad points out, it's one thing to stand at the blackboard and talk about theoretical ideas involving equations and some simplistic figures, but very different if you are trying to present data. Personally I will use the computer if I'm giving a colloquium or conference talk, and prefer the blackboard if I'm giving a more specialized seminar. This particular conference was small and specialized enough that using the blackboard made sense. It certainly slows down the presentation, which is almost always good. In principle a sufficiently talented speaker can go at the right pace and be perfectly understandable while using slides, but in practice the chalk tends to force you to go at a reasonable pace and leave out superfluous details that you're tempted to include on your slides.

What scientists will never understand is why folks in the humanities will literally read their papers -- just stand up there, manuscript in hand (or on podium), and read each word verbatim, even if everyone in the audience has a transcript right in front of them. What is the point of that? The first time I saw it I was baffled, and I still haven't quite figured it out. I tried it myself when I gave a talk at a humanities conference, but to be honest I just couldn't do it -- I kept extemporizing, so much so that none of my sentences appeared just as they were on the page.

It's good to be open-minded about the practices of different disciplines, and for a long time I excused this weird habit by figuring that humanities talks had to be extremely precise with their language, with every word chosen carefully after hours of late-night concentration. But I've come to believe that there's really no excuse. The quality of presentation of a talk that is directly read off the manuscript will just never be as good as one that is given from notes or an outline. Whether or not the precision of the writing seems to be of utmost importance, it's not as if the listeners are going to remember the talk word-for-word, so I think an engaging presentation of the general ideas will always be more effective than a stodgy reading of perfect precision. Can we scientists (who, more often than not, give awful talks, but for different reasons) somehow persuade our less quantitative colleagues to free themselves from the prison of the printed page?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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