Saturday 18 February 2017

The alt-right guide to fielding conference questions

After watching this interview between BBC Newsnight's Evan Davies and Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to Donald Trump, I realised I'd been handling conference questions all wrong. Gorka, who is a former editor of Breitbart News, gives a virtuoso performance that illustrates every trick in the book for coming out on top in an interview: smear the questioner, distract from the question, deny the premises, and question the motives behind a difficult question. Do everything, in fact, except give a straight answer. Here's what a conference Q and A session might look like if we all mastered these useful techniques.

ED: Dr Gorka, you claim that you can improve children's reading development using a set of motor exercises. But the data you showed on slide 3 don't seem to show that.

SG: That question is typical of the kind of bias from people working at British Universities. You seem hell-bent on discrediting any view that doesn't agree with your own preconceived position.

ED: Er, no. I just wondered about slide 3. Is the difference between those two numbers statistically significant?

SG: Why are people like you so obsessed with trivial details? Here we are showing marvellous improvements in children's reading, and all you can do is to pick away at a minor point.

ED: Well, you could answer the question? Are those numbers significantly different?

SG: It's not as if you and your colleagues have any expertise in statistics. The last talk by your colleague Dr Smith was full of mistakes. She actually did a parametric test in a situation that called for a nonparametric test.

ED: But can we get back to the question of whether your intervention had a significant effect.

SG: Of course it did. It's an enormous effect. And that's only part of the data. I've got lots of other numbers that I haven't shown here. And if we got to slide 3, just look at those bars: the red one is much higher than the blue one.

ED: But where are the error bars?

SG: That's just typical of you. Always on the attack. Look at the language you are using. I show you all the results in a nice bar chart, and all you can do is talk about error. Don't you ever think of anything else?

ED: Well, I can see we aren't going to get anywhere with that question, so let me try another one. Your co-author, Dr Trump, said that the children in your study all had dyslexia, whereas in your talk you said they covered the whole range of reading ability. That's rather confusing. Can you tell us which version is correct?

SG: There you go again. Always trying to pick holes in everything we do. Seems you're just jealous because your own reading programs don't have anything like this effect.

ED: But don't you think it discredits your study if you can't give a straight answer to a simple question?

SG: So this is what we get, ladies and gentleman. All the time. Fake challenges and attempts to discredit us.

ED: Well, it's a straightforward question. Were they dyslexic or not?

SG: Some of them were, and some of them weren't.

ED: How many? Dr Trump said all of them were dyslexic.

SG: You'll have to ask him. I've got parents falling over themselves to get their children enrolled, and I really don't have time for this kind of biased questioning.

Chair: Thank you Dr Gorka. We have no more time for questions.


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  3. This feels very much like the public criticism panels during Cultural Revolution (but coming from the questioned not the questioner).

    Still, it makes me feel very uncomfortable to simply describe these tactics as a trick. Denying the premise of a question and pointing out an inherent bias in a questioner are perfectly acceptable and often necessary hermeneutic techniques.

    They have been used by all sides in every debate ever. By the downtrodden and the downtredding alike. It was often not until the very basis of the legitimacy of an existing world iew was completely undermined that a change was possible. The problem here is that we (and I include myself) feel that the worldview being undermined is natural and self-evidently true.

    The question is how do you truly engage with someone when you have profoundly incompatible platforms. We have all sorts of platitudes about coming together and communicating but they are usually written by the victors about how they came to achieve their success.