My Cultural Take on Alcohol at Scientific Conferences

A Personal Aside

So this perspective comes out of the numerous twitter conversations about the culture of the science online conference, particularly as pertaining to the focus on alcohol consumption Link. At the outset I need to make a few things clear: I am not a teetotaler. Few things in this world are better than a well aged Cabernet Sauvignon or a Rye Whiskey, as anyone that follows me on twitter already well knows. But I did grow up in Utah as part of the LDS culture. This shapes my perspective on the world and provides me an insight into a different way to view a range of topics. Also, I am not in favor of any blanket bans of alcohol at conferences or scientific meetings, I just think there is a nuance people miss at times.

Perception is Reality -Lee Atwater

So what I want to talk about in this post is how any emphasis on alcohol consumption at a scientific meeting or conference looks to someone like myself.

So to start off, in Utah we have a very sizable number of scientists that do not consume alcohol, we also have a fair number that eschew coffee in the morning. And yet they are functional people that are a lot of fun to be around at parties. Conveniently for them, the local Utah culture embraces each individual’s natural weirdness and kookiness, so they do not have any need to relax with alcohol to let down their guard, they tend to not be on guard in the first place. Additionally, these individuals tend to be top notch scientists that lots of people want to be around and have scientific conversations with. Usually these happen over dinner, or if one is at USU in Logan or BYU in Provo, you go to the local college creamery/ice cream shop and get “chip-faced” while talking about science.

One tendency I have picked up in my life growing up in Utah is that I actually am less likely to drink alcohol when I am in a larger group than when I am with a small group of my friends. This is 100% a control freak tendency as I gravely fear making an ass out of myself because I am impaired by spirits. Also, growing up I saw a number of extended family and friends lose control with drink. This shapes my perception of large groups when I feel like alcohol is the point of, rather than something that is just available, at the gathering.

Positive and Negative Experiences with Alcohol at Meetings

To start off, the best scientific conversations I have ever been a party to happened at the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Winter Conference in Park City Utah at the hotel bar after a full afternoon/evening of scientific talks. These discussions were, obviously, over pints of Guinness and I would not give those conversations back for anything, as they fundamentally changed the course of my science. I learned more those nights than I would have thought possible because the situation entailed a number of prominent behavioral neuroscientists and computational modelers having very animated discussions over who was correct about how the brain worked.

The worst scientific conversations I have ever had were at a Society for Neuroscience conference a number of years back, also involving a hotel bar. Unfortunately, this time instead of conversation being the premium and alcohol simply being present, the inverse was true. The other individuals involved were more interested in making it through their beers and getting another one that the science was clearly an afterthought, and in fact the conversation was not scientifically enlightening in the least. More to the point it was tedious.

So what was the difference? Beer, wine,and hard liquor were consumed on both occasions by all parties. There was conversation about science. The difference, to be entirely blunt, is my perception of the intent of those around me. In the first example, the hotel bar was just a place to go, sit down, and fill the hours of 10 PM until 1230 AM with scientific conversations. It just so happened that these seats were in the bar and there was much more talking and theorizing than drinking. To the best of my recollection, I would say, with only very few exceptions the alcohol was besides the point for everyone in the room. There was never inebriated silliness, carelessly inappropriate flirting, or uncomfortable exclusion of those not drinking.

The second example I give has an entirely different percept to me. I clearly remember a lot of increasingly loud, aggressive, almost tense conversations from people trying to beat others down with their points. There also were a lot of inappropriate tangents in the conversation as individuals became increasingly inebriated. In this case, not only by the nature of the interaction but the haste at which drinks were consumed, it was clear the point was to “party” and have fun, and alcohol was a doorway into that fun.

I look forward every time I go to this Winter Conference to these late night conversations I the bar. Whereas I have never put myself in the position I was placed in that SFN. I know that the invidious in the latter case were not out to exclude me or to offend. They were not the type of people that would engage in that type of callous and rude behavior on purpose. What they did not take into account was how their actions and speech would be seen and interpreted by others.

How Experiences have Shaped my Perception and Biases

So here is my perception of alcohol in science in anecdotal form: when I interviewed for graduate school there were a couple of programs that basically gave the graduate students carte blanche and a rather liberal alcohol budget, so the interview weekend was used as little more than an excuse to party. As a person that is more likely to drink water than alcohol in situations like that, what I saw from these students was abject humiliation on their parts. They were flirting with recruits, getting absolutely wasted, and basically avoiding scientific conversation of any kind like the plague. To say I was put off by this was an understatement. To be honest, I was offended at the lack of respect for me that was shown that weekend.

At another institution, the same general culture was present. However, seeing that I was from Utah and that I was a serious scientist already based on my CV, the head of the program assigned a couple of graduate student handlers to stay near me. It was not a dry weekend, there was plenty of beer and conversation. But, I distinctly remember calling my wife after the first night and remarking just how grown up and mature the program seemed to me. Graduate Students capable of sitting and drinking like sophisticated adults and having involved conversations about science. Their efforts to make sure I was taken care of made an impression. I still deeply respect these three graduate students that were assigned to me for their efforts and I was friends with them throughout graduate school.

However, after I was accepted to the program, I saw the “typical” drinking culture was present at the university and graduate program. There were lots of keggers and drinking parties, lots of debauchery, and a lot of awkward moments of students avoiding each other for a few weeks because things became “weird” at a party. The same went for the program retreats. The program provided alcohol so students (and faculty) would spend their time topping off their glasses of wine (note, I mean topping off, like to the top, not a 4 oz pour). After I had left for the evening, as I was told later, the Jack Daniels was broken out.

Now, as a person that desires to keep myself in control, I felt like the one odd duck in the room. Everyone it seemed was getting sloshed and I am watching them degenerate. Not good. Oh, did I mention I brought my wife to this retreat. You bet this made things worse. Importantly, I know full well not everybody was drinking and acting the fool. But I do not remember it that way.

I never truly participated in a retreat again other than one I was required to speak at…and then I only drove up the day I was presenting and left early.

Whats my point?

So here is my list of questions to the world. As scientists are we truly only as mature as frat boys? Why is it that in science it is “okay” for graduate students to get absolutely hammered at recruitment? Why do faculty members often get similarly wasted? What impression does that give? Why is it that there are program sanctioned gatherings that are clearly excuses to get drunk? Am I supposed to act like that to be accepted? Will I be ostracized if I do not “have fun” with the group? These last two are implicit, unintended pressures caused by our action. Did we actually know we are putting this pressure on others? Is this how we want to be perceived? Do we really even care?

I judge situations such as these very harshly and I have been called a “damn Mormon”, or a prudish Utahan for doing so. My answer to that is, good (actually, more to the tune of screw them), I made an active choice to never put myself in bad, stupid, or dangerous situations because I am cognitively impaired by drink. Fortunately I have a support system to help me out with this type of decision.


If science online or other conferences truly have a culture where drinking is bragged about and it is more about chilling with friends getting a buzz than the science, then it is clearly not the scene for me. If it is your scene! Great! To each their own! So long as I know up front that that is the case, I’m okay, I leave it up to my own devices to avoid uncomfortable situations. My worry is when a conference or a gathering becomes highly desirable but no effort is made for people that have made a choice not to drink (not to mention those that due to religious or cultural customs are prohibited from alcohol consumption). Not everyone is content with the decision to just not attend because they know they’ll be uncomfortable. Particularly if they have a social network that prizes attendance.

I guess my TL;DR point is this…it is not our intent or the effort we put into not offending that matters. It is the perceptions of others toward our behavior and choices that ultimately matters. There are a lot of individuals that view alcohol as a gateway to fun, others a gateway to a bad time. We need to take all of these opinions into account and grant them equal weight. Then we can act accordingly and, hopefully, not alienate a subset of our potential collaborators and friends before we have a chance to get to know them.

As always, I would be delighted to hear anyone’s opinion on the matter.


5 thoughts on “My Cultural Take on Alcohol at Scientific Conferences

  1. Michael Tomasson says:

    I’ve given this issue some thought given our effort and the fact that a couple of close tweeps do not drink. What is the difference between "good" alcohol culture and "bad?" I think you put your finger on it, it has to do with the primary intention. To discuss, to bond? Or to escape, to hide? Learned from Dr. 24Hours a good criteria is whether the drinking interferes with other parts of your life. If the alcohol interferes, it may be an addiction.


    • Ryan Hunsaker says:

      Thanks for the comment. I actually love your phrasing of it. I always go back into arguments about maturity levels, but really "what is this person’s actual intention" is perhaps a more productive way to approach the situation.


  2. Bashir says:

    I think that within a drinking culture the big thing is if people view it as an excuse to act out. Regardless of how much you drink it’s all about the attitude going in. During grad school a lot of people drank beer, but it was somehow more casual. None of this aggressively demanding that everyone get wasted and act ridiculous. I liked that.


    • Ryan Hunsaker says:

      I agree entirely with your comment.In my experience It has always felt like alcohol gets used as an excuse for bad behavior. So long as the intention of everyone involved is to have responsible fun, then there is likely not going to be a problem. The problem comes in to play when others use alcohol at a social gathering as an excuse to "relax and unwind". This class of situations resulted in my bad experiences. I truly hope moving forward as a scientific community we all keep our intentions clear in our behavior toward alcohol in public. Then we can, as a group, move past these issues.


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