Approaching Geezer-hood

Recently, at a small scientific meeting, a colleague and I be-moaned the loss of the good (bad?) old days of scientific conferences when questions from the floor were not quite as polite as today and would, at times, devolve into knock-down, drag’em out arguments. Knowing full well that any observation beginning with “remember…” marks you as a geezer we both were willing to admit that maybe it was we who had changed, not the meetings, and that perhaps the passage of time had altered our memories. Still, we couldn’t shake our beliefs that there was a time – we tried to create a chronology; definitely pre-1990′s – when questions from the floor were often pointed and sharp. As a student preparing to give a talk at conferences one would try to anticipate from what direction the questions would come and be ready. It was never possible. Inevitably someone always asked the question that would, no doubt about it, have you back at the bench and hard at it when you returned to the lab. We both could not remember in those days the softballing that is now commonplace. Particularly irksome is the typical remark after a rather mundane and artless presentation: “thank you for that interesting presentation…”.
So what’s our beef? It is not that we resent the kindler, gentler land conferences have become. It is that we miss the rigor of real scientific questioning. We regret the loss of standards and the new acceptance that all research is good research. We have lost something. Something important. Because rigor, and standards, and hard questions make science better.