Seminars: Quotes and Comments for Similar Occasions

Nobel Laureate George Stigler has saved us the work of thinking of a comment to make at the end of a seminar. In a 1977 article in the Journal of Political Economy he provided a list of thirty-two generic comments, one of which is sure to serve well enough on almost any occasion.

You can even learn a little economics from Stigler's suggestions. It was here that I first heard of the Coase Theorem, which now I find to be ubiquitous. Incidentally, Stigler coined the term "Coase Theorem," so even many real economists also must have first learned the term from Stigler..

The topologist R. H. Bing once said: ‘‘When I was young, I would rather give a lecture on mathematics than listen to one. Now that I am older and more mature I would rather give two lectures on mathematics than listen to one.’’ (quoted by Hal Varian in "How to Build an Economic Model in Your Spare Time")

Igor Stravinsky once said "Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end."

By the way, the Stravinsky quotation must be handled with care. Using it too soon after a seminar, can create an enemy for life.

On Giving Good Talks

"People should leave your talks feeling happier and wiser than when they came in. So often it's the opposite. Be an exception. Your talks should be clear, concise, fun, exciting, and never ever run over time. For each extra minute your talk runs over, 10% more of the audience will decide you are a jerk and start fantasizing about you falling down a trap door." --- John Baez, from his forthright essay Advice for a Young Scientist.

Poetry and Science and Business

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite." --- Paul Dirac

As I note in another place, I like the variation on Dirac's line where one replaces in poetry with in Business Schools, or in Statistics, or in Cultural Studies.

Nevertheless, please don't tell anyone.

Experts and Competence

"Being a scientist means living on the borderline between your competence and your incompetence. If you always feel competent, you aren't doing your job." --- Carlos Bustamante (Molecular Biologist, UC-Berkeley)

"Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken." --- Bertrand Russell

"An expert is a person who avoids the small errors while sweeping on to the grand fallacy. " --- Steven Weinberg

"Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it." --- Robert Heinlein

Experts are often blamed for having all of the reason why something won't work. The damn thing is, they are often right. The fortunate thing is, they are not always right.

"Statisticians, like artists, have the bad habit of falling in love with their models." --- G.E.P. Box recently quoted by Dick DeVeaux in his talk "Math is music, Statistics is literature" Moral? There could be several but one is that it is both cheaper and safer for artists to work from photos!

Expectations and Extinctions

"That expectations color the progress of science is widely known and widely ignored." L.M. Van Valen. "Catastrophes, Expectations, and the Evidence," Paleobiology 10(1):121, 1984.

"If there's something that killed the dinosaurs, I'd like to know about it so that it doesn't happen to me." ---Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect (ABC, December 21, 1999)

These two snippets are motivated by the evolving view that it may not have been an asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs. Current thinking suggests that real culprit may have been a series of volcanic eruptions in Siberia.

Assumptions --- Mostly They Are Ignored

“At bottom, my critique is a pretty simple one. Nobody pays much attention to the assumptions, and the technology tends to overwhelm common sense.”

--- David Freedman quoted by Terry Speed in the IMS Bulletin (11/2008).

Our friend David was certainly right, yet sadly he never seemed refreshed by the miracles that occasionally attend the foolishness.

Consider the twin observations that all of the assumptions of the Black-Scholes model are dead wrong and still the formula created a trillion dollar industry.

Isn't that enough to make one sit back in awe --- or at least to chuckle?

Sticking to the Topic

Hubert Humphrey was not a great speaker, but the soundness of certain principles kept him from being worse. His favorite rule?

"Never talk about Father on Mother's day."


"Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind". --- Marston Bates

"A couple of months in the laboratory can frequently save a couple of hours in the library." --- Frank Westheimer

I am always amazed that so many people work so hard on things that are already so well understood. Certainly it pays to think for yourself, but there are plenty of places where you don't have the luxury of doing anything else.

You can move very fast through territory where the roads have already been built. The road comes to an end soon enough. You can then take out your machete and start hacking your way through the jungle.

Somebody somewhere may have done something useful by hacking an off-road path between points connected by fine road, but ... what a long shot.


There is a study of the 16 editions of Paul Samuelson's Economics. One reader commented that this piece provoked in him the kind of private guilt that one may feel after having looked at a highway accident.

"An author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children." --- Benjamin Disraeli, from comments at a banquet in Glasgow 19 November 1873 on the occasion of his installation as Lord Rector, as quoted in The Times 20 November 1873.

By the way, what do you think about Stochastic Calculus and Financial Applications? I hear there may be a second edition sometime. Just kidding...but seriously...oh, well... you know what I mean.



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