What scientific questions do you get asked at parties? (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from fisheries grad student and longtime reader Megsie Siple.

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I get asked a lot of questions at parties about the ocean. I study fisheries, so often they’re fisheries-specific. But usually they’re just questions that people want to ask a scientist. For example, this winter the most popular party questions have been:

1) “Are we all doomed because of the radiation from Fukushima?”

2) “Are the microplastics [or insert any number of other human refuse like household chemicals, oil, etc] in the ocean going to travel up the food web and kill us?

3) Should I eat fish?

The list goes on, but these were by far the most popular questions. I am interested to know what questions other scientists (particularly ecologists) get at social events. I think the questions we get from non-scientists at social gatherings are interesting indicators of what topics people think are interesting and important. In 2013, what were some of the emerging questions that people asked you at parties? And, better yet, how did you answer them?

(Remark from Jeremy: Megsie focuses on questions you get asked because you’re a scientist, rather than questions about your own work specifically. But if you’re like me, many questions you get asked at social events are variations on “So, what do you do?” I encourage commenters to talk about both sorts of questions, since they’re related. I have an old post on how I answer the question, “So, what do you do?”)

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53 thoughts on “What scientific questions do you get asked at parties? (guest post)

  1. As I start explaining my work with alien species, I get two very common reactions:
    “That’s more or less similar to the immigration problem, right?” and
    “Oh, I know of this giant knotweed and stuff, horrible to get rid of if you have it in your garden!”

    • Kids are the best! I was holding a rat snake at an event where a 4-5 year old asked me what it ate. I told him that they often eat birds. He thought for a minute and turned back to me and asked incredulously – “Do you mean that snake can fly??”

    • This was a very hot topic this year. I would love to have a nice little speech prepared about GMO anything, what it means, and whether eating it will harm people.

  2. Entomologist here. I get a lot of ‘I have this bug in my backyard/kitchen/garden/garage’ what is it and how do I get rid of it?

    I do pest management, so I don’t mind. Most of the time it’s a simple solution (or less so, as Terry suggests) and it’s fun to help out.

    I can imagine it might get annoying if it happened all the time, kind of like MDs who get asked to do diagnoses at cocktail parties (Hey Doc, what’s this thing on my back?)

  3. At parties I usually get the “so what do you do” question and I answer ecology. Most people are rather gobstopped by this. I don’t think many people really know what ecology is. Some will just think environmentalism and say something about “yes we’re destroying the world aren’t we?” to which I will just nod my head and move on. The more conversationally skilled will ask me “so what area of ecology do you specialize in?” (trying to elucidate details without really knowing anything). To which I usually reply “i study the effects of climate change on nature, mostly trees and birds”

    At that point the conversation is a full go! A topic everybody has something to say on! Responses vary of course. A surprisingly common question, even from educated and/or politically liberal people (in the US politics matters more than education level in beliefs on climate change now!) is “How sure are we that it is caused by humans?”. A very vague and hopeless “How bad is it going to be?” is another common question. And then there are a minority (according to polls I must be selecting a subset of the US to hangout with for this to be a minority) will start asking me questions to try and trap me (e.g. “Hasn’t the climate varied over the entire history of the earth?” or “Hasn’t temperature been flat for the last decade?” or etc).

    It’s fun and feels like a good chance at public education to go beyond people’s vague knowledge of climate change (and I can do it without sounding like a hopeless nerd/party-killer, unlike in my computer programming days). Mostly what I realize from the questions is just how little people really understand climate change.

    • Yes, I’ve also had the experience of people thinking an “ecologist” is a professional environmentalist, though it’s more common for people who’ve just found out I’m an ecologist to ask me what I study more specifically.

      • I used to say that sometimes, but the follow-up question was always “What sort of biologist are you?” or “What exactly do you study?” So I always ended up having to be more specific in the end anyway.

  4. I’ve “perfected” my party talk. It goes from general (people are just being polite) to as detailed as the person wants. A typical conversation (in Auburn, AL):
    Me: I work on fish
    PartyGoer: Oh really? I know [names, names, names] in the Fisheries department at Auburn!
    M: Oh, no, I don’t do fisheries. I go out and find and name new species of fish
    PG: From where?
    M: Africa
    PG: Have you seen River Monsters? The Tigerfish? Is that real?

    And so forth

  5. Not a party goer, and only rarely asked what I do, which is fine because I rarely find it worthwhile to get into it frankly. I’ll sometimes use it as a way to talk about geography, like mountain ranges, or cool rivers I’ve been down or something. That got me explaining plate subduction, the 1964 Juneau earthquake, the Mt St Helens eruption and the Yellowstone caldera a couple weeks back, that was fun.

  6. As I am working with insects the first question I usually get is:
    What can we do to save our bees?
    My answer: well I do not work with bees but the hives collapse of domestic bees are usually due to a combination of factors (disease, neurotoxin, invasive hornets..).

  7. Probably half the questions I get asked aren’t really questions, but just statements of political affiliations. if I am hanging out with my liberal friends, I get some version of “how bad are we messing up the environment?”, but this is equally balanced during the holidays with extended family where I get questions from my relatives “you don’t believe that global warming crap do you?”

    Fortunately, I still get a lot of “so what do you do?” questions that turn into an in depth conversation about research. I typically give a 20-30 second laymen’s elevator speech, and then go into more detail if questions are asked, which surprisingly is not that uncommon (although decidedly less common at family gatherings than parties).

    • I think this is an excellent point. Many of the questions I have heard are political (for example, the GMO “question,” “What do you think about GMO foods? Are they bad for me?” is often a platform for people to start a political discussion. Do you ever try to redirect the political to a discussion about science, or do you jump ship?

      • That is tricky. In part because I still haven’t figured out what my role should be in advocating for policy. I personally am happier stick to the science. For example, my PhD work was on developing methods to predict population-level responses to pesticide exposure using data from individual level tests. As soon as someone found out I was doing research on pesticides, they had a lot of questions but most were political/policy questions. While I have an opinion on many of these policy related questions that are informed by science, these still reflect personal value judgments. Moreover, the issue (and most issues for that matter) itself is so complex, that although I am an expert in one aspect of the pesticide debate, there are many other factors to be considered (e.g. how much new land would be need to be converted to farm land if the world switched to organic farming practices?)

        So what I end up doing is saying something like, “my job as a scientist in an applied field isn’t to make the decisions about what should or should not be done, but rather to find out as accurately as possible what the consequences of those decisions will be.” If they are interested in the science then we can get more into that, otherwise we can have a policy debate, but I try to make it clear about where the science ends and my opinions begins. But I am still not sure if this is the right way to do it…

  8. Nis Sand Jacobsen (in Denmark, via Twitter) says, ‘so Nis what is it really that you do. In easy words please.’ European eel has also been a popular subject!”

    • Ha! Yes, when I was in grad school, the questions I got at parties back home were generally along the lines of “You’re still in school? Aren’t you smart?” and “You go out in a boat for work?” (the latter question asked incredulously)

  9. I suppose a side effect of having two young kids is that I can’t recall when I was last at a party (well, other than a defense party or that sort of thing) — perhaps I need to work on that!

    Related, though, is an anecdote related to my father. He was a NYC firefighter (and, later, after retiring, was my field assistant for two years). He loved to tell other firefighters that his daughter was a limnologist, because this was not something any of them had heard of before. When they’d ask him what a limnologist is, he’d say “You know marine biology? Well someone needs to do that in lakes.” which I think is a great way of putting it. (Obviously that doesn’t cover all of limnology, but it’s a good start.)

  10. Not a party, but last time at a random secondary customs inspection at the Detroit airport:

    Officer: So what do you do?
    Me: I’m a professor at MSU
    Officer: What area?
    Me: Biology
    Officer: What kind of biology?
    Me: Plant Biology
    Officer: [while riffling through my suitcase] What’s your favorite plant?

    Had to think carefully about that one; could be a trick question!

    Me: Actually I have to confess.
    Officer: [Very interested look]
    Me: I actually study algae. And I don’t even work on real ones, just mathematical models of them.

    Nice guy, we went on to discuss primary production in the ocean vs land. Good thing I didn’t have any Kinder Eggs!

    • Chris – reminds me of a border crossing between Maine and Canada – it was a real middle of nowhere station. The guy proceeded to give the car contents the most thorough examination its ever had at a crossing and then started questioning me.

      As soon as he found out I was an ecology professor, he decided I was a “liberal do-gooder” opposed to clearing of underbrush and started trying to pick an argument with me (turns out he was a volunteer wildlands fire fighter). But having just come from the West where the “don’t touch nature except to suppress fires” policy was clearly a disaster, I was on the same page. We had a length discussion about ecology and wildfire interactions and then got waved through.

      On the topic of customs, there’s probably a whole post in ecology specimens and equipment meets customs stories … I’ve got at least two myself and I’m not even a field biologist.

    • Funny, I had a very similar experience with a US Customs officer while he was searching through my bag.
      Officer: How long have you been out of the country?
      Me: Six months, I live in Germany, coming back for a visit
      Officer: Why are you living in Germany?
      Me: I am a PhD student there.
      Officer: What do you study?
      Me: Ecology
      Officer: You’re not one of those wacko environmentalists are you?
      Me: Awkward chuckle…
      *Silence*

      I actually ended missing my connection due to that inspection. But he never did find the secret compartment in my bag stuffed with wacko environmentalist propaganda.

  11. Depends. If I say I’m an ecologist, I get comments like, “That is *such* important work,” (said with great liberal earnestness), often accompanied by worries about climate change. Or something about recycling. If I say I’m a theoretical ecologist, I get blank looks, so I almost always follow that (without time for so much as a comma) by saying that “that means I use math to think about ecological questions.” “Oh, statistics?” If I want to move on to some other part of the party, I say, “No, more calculus really.” If I’m in the mood to educate, I talk about what it means to do mathematical modeling, to tell stories with math. If I’m feeling really brave, I talk about how you can do meaningful scientific work without data.

    Airplane tip: when I was a grad student, I was in a physics department but doing ecological work, so I had a choice of how to describe myself. If you want to talk to your seatmate, say you’re an ecologist. If you want them to leave you alone, say you’re a physicist.

  12. Guy at party: so what do you do?
    Me:im a science advisor to the government
    Him: did you have to go to school for that?
    Me: as opposed to what?
    Him: donno. Picking it up as you go
    Me: what do you do? Airplane pilot? I guess you just pick it up as you too…

  13. Actually the question I get most often is “So, what are you going to do on your summer off?”

    But I guess that’s not a scientific question.

    “Are amphibians really disappearing?”

    Jeff Houlahan

    • Yeah, I get questions about my summers off during summertime social gatherings. But it’s usually pretty easy to explain that that’s when I do research (which is true even for a lab ecologists like me).

  14. It largely depends on if I say ‘I work on bird migration’ or if I say ‘I work on birds and wetlands’

    I’ve learned that if I say bird migration I then get a full rundown of every bird they ever remember seeing, typically complete with imitations of any weird noises or behaviors. (I find this highly entertaining).

    If I say birds and wetlands I don’t get the same response though, the questions are often more directed at wind turbines or feral cats and their impacts on birds.

    Often though people more fixate on the fact that I’m getting a PhD and have all kinds of questions about how that works.

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