I'm a graduate student in the Earth Sciences. The breadth of my departments runs the gamut from geobiology to geophysics and everything in between. As a result, a large number of the department seminars that get hosted are on topics that I have little or no background in and do not relate to my research field in any way.
The expectation seems to be that everyone should go to these type of events to stay abreast of major events and gain some breadth of knowledge, but whenever I go to one that is far outside my sphere of knowledge I end up resenting the wasted time. To me, it seems like a huge waste to sit through a 60 minute talk on something I don't have the background knowledge necessary to understand in even a rudimentary way. Sometimes this is the fault of the presenter for not preparing a talk for a broad enough audience, but with biology talks I know that the fault is my own. Don't ask me the difference between a protein and an amino acid; I have no idea!
So lately I've felt a strong temptation to blow off some of these events reasoning that it would be vastly better to get in another experiment that day than go sit through a lecture I'm not equipped to understand. But I'm worried that other people will think I'm being a slacker as a result.
Do you look down on colleagues who sometimes skip out on talks far outside their expertise?
And, Is skipping an event like this better or worse than showing up but discreetly reclaiming time during bad talks by studying on a smartphone? Obviously, whipping out a laptop during a lecture would be very rude, but flipping through flashcards on my ipod while sitting in the back of the hall would be a low-key way to reclaim some of that time during talks when I have no idea what they are talking about.
Well, there is no universal advice. In general, you should adopt the local policy. If it is really the expectation, then you should go. Try to ask your younger colleagues.
Of course there is an other aspect: usually you never know in advance whether the talk will be good and inspiring or not. Usually it is not, but sometimes there is a surprise. Most of us go to these seminars hoping for a miracle. Unfortunately, in most cases the talks are simply bad.
Finally, there is also the argument that later you will be also giving talks on similar seminars. It is somehow sad if nobody except your fellow buddy listens to your talk.