Have I seen this before?

Over at Uncertain Principles (one of my favourite of the ScienceBlogs), Chad Orzel writes about a question that resonates with me in a strong way:

So, a poll for those readers who are still around:

If somebody is explaining something, and says “You’ve seen this before, right?,” what do you say?

Do you say “No, explain it again,” even if you’ve seen it, or do you say “Sure, keep going,” even though you haven’t?

I feel this question keenly because I am routinely in over my head due to my special circumstances:  I’ve jumped fields several times in my academic career, and I am continually relying on my wits to get me through academic situations rather than a deep knowledge of the field I’m currently floundering about in.  Don’t get me wrong:  I believe that a deep knowledge of the field is absolutely essential to produce good science, but it’s something that I’m always chasing rather than something I can just assume without question.

My answer to his question would have to be more nuanced than a simple yes or no, though.  (Surprise!)  It depends heavily on context.  If the matter I’m discussing is trivial and something sails over my head, I’ll usually just nod and smile;  if I’m still interested in the matter, I’ll go look it up after the conversation is done. If the matter is a more serious affair, though, I will stop and ask every time, no matter how stupid I look doing so.  It can save a surprising amount of time to front-load your questions in situations of importance, rather than having to figure out how to go back later and ask the question you should have asked in the first place.

Of course, there’s also a difference between being asked if I know something and if I can do something.  In the latter case, I usually follow the words of Teddy Roosevelt:

When you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.

This policy has (many times) landed me in hot water and been responsible for my best achievements, usually simultaneously.


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