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Alas, poor Yorick...

In the build-up to Conference Season, Media Monitor laments the passing of the conference jester - from August 2003 Geoscientist

We all know about Stegosaurus. It's big, chunky and let's face it, a bit of an embarrassment - the John Prescott of the dinosaur world. True, the BBC's Walking with dinosaurs tried its valiant best to recast this armoured personnel carrier of a dinosaur as an exciting character. But imagine their surprise when the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology in Norman, Oklahoma, received a paper posted by "TR Karbek" (claiming to be of the Steveville Academy of Paleontological Studies, Patricia, Alberta) who was offering to put the case for "Stegoaurus as an agile cursorial biped".

For the benefit of those whose palaeontology (or Latin) is a bit rusty, "cursorial" means "adapted to running". And even after the most recent phases of the seemingly perpetual re-evaluation of the Dinosauria, as far as palaeontology is concerned, Stegosaurus's image has stubbornly remained about as cursorial as a corporation dustcart.

New Scientist was rather more suspicious of this abstract than the seemingly uncritial compilers of the conference abstracts volume, and asked whether or not someone might be playing a trick - to see if the conference organisers were actually reading what they were receiving.

Now, as reported in the magazine's Feedback column, the poster submitted for this presentation hardly helped to convince them. Their reporter saw a couple of photocopied illustrations, tilted to suggest a Stegosaurus on two legs. So did other journalists, because this abstract's remarkable claim generated quite a few media inquiries that the conference organisers needed to push in the direction of the alleged author. Only at this point did said organisers discover the truth - that TR Karbek did not exist and the whole paper, with abstract, was a hoax.

This story struck a chord with MM. For, hard to believe though it may be today, this genial boulevardier of Piccadilly was once a cock-snooking smartass research student himself, and is now ready confess that he once performed a similar stunt. Ever the editor, he received an invitation to a conference at a university in an East Anglian market town on the River Cam that ended with the line "I will/not be presenting a paper entitled………………..". This was irresistible. Over the two dotted lines provided, he wrote: "Granulite metamorphism in NW Scotland".

It read quite correctly, for MM had not the least intention of presenting such a paper. For one thing, MM knew absolutely zip about any kind of metamorphism anywhere, let alone the granulite variety in the NW Highlands. For another, the conference was supposed to be about the carbonate sedimentology of reefs. MM posted it off with a chuckle, and thought no more if it.

Imagine his surprise when, some months later, a letter arrived asking politely for abstract. Better and better. An abstract on granulite metamorphism in NW Sotland was duly concocted and submitted, complete with bogus references to papers by Mouse, M, Duck, D. and all their co-workers at the Disney Institute.
Yorick You may think you know what is coming next, but as luck would have it, MM's long suffering supervisor happened to visit the conference convener in the weeks prior to the great event – to be greeted with "Ah, I see one of your students is giving a paper". Naturally the unwitting supervisor (used, as I fear he was, to being unforgivably kept in the dark) avowed no knowledge of this debut, and the conference programme - freshly cyclostyled on the departmental Gestetner, for those who like period detail - was consulted for verification.

Fortunately, there was time for them all to be pulped and replaced before the delegates started arriving.

When informed of the embarrassment he had caused his dear supervisor, MM (who then was not a complete stranger to human sympathy) suffered a momentary pang of remorse, but swiftly recovered. He defended himself with a line he still takes today: that this is exactly the sort of trap that people lay for themselves when they send out illiterate forms - while simultaneously abolishing the safeguards that might otherwise rescue them (i.e., dumping all the work upon little paid helpers who wouldn't recognise granulite metamorphism if it came served up on a plate with celery). 

Call me old fashioned, but students are supposed to make fun of their alleged teachers. It is their sacred duty – and alas it is being neglected. In an age when the competition among the products of academe for lowlier and lowlier positions has become ever more intense, we have reached a situation where almost everything - even an appearance at the tattiest conference - must count for something in the life or death struggle to land the most dismal demonstratorship at the most contemptible lavatory of learning. MM has received countless desperate job applications from PhD students in which conference abstracts have figured as though they were real publications. One would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

Such abstracts are now routinely listed on searchable databases like GeoRef. Journalists come across these in their tens while researching the background to stories - just as MM did while researching the feature in the April issue on the late Proterozoic fossils of Namibia. They are usually of no use, except to indicate who was working on what at a particular time - and hence serve as markers - places where scientists have left their scent on the lamppost in order to say "this is my territory, boy – back off".

Conferences have always been the preserve of the pretender - the person in a hurry to be noticed. There is an argument that says everything in life is just another form of showbiz, and conferences are where science comes to resemble it most closely - when the scientific world does indeed become a stage. This meant that – once upon a time - a certain amount of ragamuffinry was inevitable - and accepted. Indeed, it was part of the spirit of controversy whose apparent passing Joe Cann has bemoaned in a memorable leader to this magazine.

But alas, increasing solemnity afflicts science today - begat by increasing conformity in an age when the stakes have become perhaps so low they are hardly worth fighting over. This is arguably as bad for science as it is for its media coverage, which thrives on the same healthy diet of mockery, japes, merry jests, and good old slug-it-out controversy. Those whose first instinct is to thumb their noses rather than brown them, should perhaps be encouraged. Science needs them. The mob mentality needs counteracting, and it isn’t happening any more. Perhaps it is time that Yorick did a Lazarus.

[New Scientist 16 Nov 2002 p88]