And so the implicit content of many a conference paper is not, as one might think, “Here is my research.” Rather, it is: “Here am I, qualified and capable, performing this role, which all of us here share, and none of us want to question too closely. So let’s get it over with, then go out for a drink afterwards.
The main issue here is that attending conferences is simply not so useful anymore because communication appear to be one-way: you go to the conference to give your talk, but you have come not to expect feedback because feedback is rarely given. Well, at least, the question period after most talks is pretty shallow and you rarely see interesting discussions arise.
A related issue is the quality of the peer review which is definitively very low in many cases: you get a hastily written 3 lines as a review of your work. Whether these 3 lines are positive or negative is irrelevant, the point is that these lines were hastily written and often indicate that the reviewer didn’t have time to really read your paper, let alone check it for accuracy or do some research on the topic.
However, I don’t think this should be a major concern. Yes, conferences are becoming more of a ritual and less of a scientific communication hotspot. Yes, traditional peer review is falling apart. However, scientific communication is alive and well. Maybe it is even becoming more civilized in a way: flying a thousand kilometers to present some work, and being afraid someone might make fun of it, that’s not something we should fight for.
I remember a conference I attended a few years back. Several weeks before the conference, I read the abstracts and found out that one young student was presenting work that had already been done in a number of places. I sent a polite email pointing out additional references. As it turns out, the student decided to ignore my email and was publicly blasted… but the point is that email is one form of feedback that might have replaced the public humiliation some miss. Myself, and people I know, were told of mistakes in their papers through email. This seems like a very efficient approach. If you find mistakes in my work, or want to question it, I think the I would prefer it if you email me first… most people would.