I had a chance to visit as an audience to an international conference in computer science. As usual, there were few keynotes before the scheduled paper presentation is carried out for the day.

During the presentation of one keynote speech, where the speaker (quite renowned in the field) made a very strong argument that the equation/method that he is using will solve a lot of problems. However, I could point that there was a mistake in the method (rather the equation) itself. The method did not obey the basic laws to solve any possible problems.

The discussion with the Professor continued for a while and he never agreed to what I was saying and I also never accepted those not-so-possible facts. This whole thing converted into an argument.

I understand that it happens during such process because of adrenaline rush. Now, after few days of wondering about it, I am thinking that I made a mistake. I am feeling bad. Could it hamper my future/present career prospectives? I am presently in my PhD research. I want to mail to the professor and say sorry for the incident. Not sure.

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    I am not clear about your question. First, you said "I could point that there was a mistake in the method", then you said "I am thinking that I made a mistake". What do you mean by "mistake"? He was right and you were wrong about his method? Or you think you made a mistake because your attitude was bad? Please clarify. – scaaahu Nov 29 '16 at 12:41
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    Could it hamper my future/present career prospectives? — Of course it could, but so could a bad haircut or your taste in music. Or it could help your career prospects, if the right people agree with you, or if the keynote speaker enjoys arguing. If you feel the need to apologize, then apologize—not because you think the apology will help your career, but because you believe your argument was inappropriate or hurtful. – JeffE Nov 29 '16 at 14:52
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    Oh, so YOU'RE the guy who gave me so much trouble a few days ago! (Just kidding!) – Dave L Renfro Nov 29 '16 at 15:00
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    I have a suggestion, Coder. Polemics can more easily become acrimonious, or at least uncomfortable, when communication isn't clear. It takes time to become good at debating in a non-native language. How about making a little pact with yourself to postpone engaging in polemical discussions, at least in public, until your English has gotten more comfortable and reliable? There are at least four spots in your question where I have to do a little mental conversion (this is what he wrote -> this is what I think he means), and I am concerned because usually a non-native's written English... – aparente001 Nov 29 '16 at 16:02
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    Also note that in general, letting a speaker know, during a talk, or in the Q&A portion at the end, is an extremely awkward time to point out a fundamental flaw in the work. Especially if it's an invited speaker or a keynote talk. This is akin to shouting, "But the emperor has no clothes on!" in the middle of the pomp and circumstance of the parade. – aparente001 Nov 29 '16 at 16:06

Academia is one of a few areas where it is still OK to have a discussion and even an argument. In fact, some research groups are involved in long-standing discussion / heated competition / argument. Academic discussion is considered a way to improve our joint understanding of the world and to further the scientific progress and knowledge.

However, as in any game, there are some rules to understand and follow.

  • It is OK to disagree with someone's argument, but you should listen and do your best to understand it first. If you don't understand something, ask politely. If you still don't understand, ask someone for a third opinion. If necessary, allow yourself time to think before you continue the discussion.
  • It is very important to be polite and not to become personal.
  • Seniority per se does not matter so much: professors do make mistakes sometimes, and they know it. However, it is important to remember that most of professors are called professors for a good reason, and they are indeed experts in their field. Their words are not always infallible, but usually quite well thought through. It is OK to ask a professor to explain his/her statement, but it is good to show that you generally respect and trust them as colleagues and experts.

As long as you followed these rules, I think you are fine and there should be no hard feelings. Otherwise, it could be a good idea to write back with a sort of apology. Professors are people first, and as all people, they have feelings, which should be respected. So if you fill you hurt their personal feelings, an apology would be nice.

  • Thank you very much for such a wonderful explanation. I had initially followed the pointed out disciplines. However, mistakes happen. I should better take some time before writing back. – Coder Nov 29 '16 at 12:22
  • While I generally agree, there are many exceptions where disagreement/competition affects scientific work and things turn ugly. – Bitwise Dec 4 '16 at 7:19

Unless you have convinced yourself that you were wrong or rude, there is not much point for an apology; in the first case, for insisting on a wrong point, in the second, for losing your temper, respectively.

If you are right, you should not apologise for making a point (again, unless you were rude, and then you should apologise for your manners, not for your statement).

In any case, writing an email will remind the prof of who you are, including name and affiliation.

Decide whether this is what you want.

  • But, let assume that he was wrong and I am right. Writing a mail to him might lead to a surprising new collaboration. I don't know. Just being greedy. I am not sure. – Coder Nov 29 '16 at 12:24
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    @Coder That would most likely involve continuing the argument via email (unless he's changed his mind since the conference). You should get it clear in your mind whether your main aim is to apologise or to continue the argument on a more polite basis, because it will make a difference to how you write the email, and probably to the advice you get here. – Ben Aaronson Nov 29 '16 at 14:54
  • @Coder And what if it is the other way round? Are you sure that there is not a hidden/implicit assumption that he doesn't see as necessary to state, but is hidden behind his ideas? Before embarking on an argument, make absolutely sure that you are right. And even then, be prepared for backlash. A frontal attack on a central tenet of someone's research needs to be prepared to encounter a well-founded fortress of arguments. – Captain Emacs Nov 29 '16 at 18:41

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