1403: Thesis Defense

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Thesis Defense


In the comic, Megan is presenting evidence on her thesis, a theory on the evolution of threat displays in mammals, in front of a panel of some people. To conclude her exposition she charges at the audience, shouting a battle cry, and brandishing a sword. The audience flinches. As the audience is composed of mammals and is responding to a displayed threat[1], we should assume that this response provides some key evidence about the threat displays in mammals.

This comic is a play on a thesis defense and the adage "The best defense is a good offense". The adage means that a strong offensive action will preoccupy the opposition and ultimately hinder its ability to mount an opposing counterattack, leading to a strategic advantage. A thesis defense generally involves an oral exam on the topic the candidate has chosen, and should involve no physical violence.

For added humorous effect, in the title text Megan extrapolates how she improved the state of the art, i.e. what she has added to her field of study, while screaming the word art.


[Megan runs towards a desk with two microphones on it, waving a broadsword high in the air. Cueball and one other sitting behind the desk are taken aback, while Ponytail standing off to the side holds an arm in front of her face protectively. A slide is projected on a screen behind Megan, reading "The evolution of threat displays in mammals".]
Megan: In conclusion, AAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!
[Caption below the panel:]
The best thesis defense is a good thesis offense.


  1. Milosevic and McCabe, Phobias: The psychology of irrational fear

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Sorry, but if your best defense is frightening counter attack a good offense will destroy you. The best defense is a good offense because a weakened or destroyed opponent can mount no offense. 05:58, 4 August 2014 (UTC)BluDgeons

Depends on type of counter attack. For example, the best defense against missiles is to fire anti-missile missiles, which may be seen as type of attack. Of course, the phrase is older than missiles, but I believe similar principles applied: not retaliation nor first strike, but attacking the enemy units which are trying to attack you. Alternatively, attacking enemy army supply lines may also force it to interrupt her attack on you. -- Hkmaly (talk) 10:22, 4 August 2014 (UTC)
No. Anti-missile missiles are an absolutely dreadful defense agaisnt missiles. Their success rate is well below 100% and has only recently risen above 0%. The actual best defense against missiles is to blow them up on the ground, before they are launched, i.e. An offensive attack. JamesCurran (talk) 20:12, 4 August 2014 (UTC)
You've clearly never heard of Iron Dome, Israel's missile defense system. It has crazy high success rates. I've seen it in action myself, it is glorious. --NeatNit (talk) 04:24, 6 August 2014 (UTC)
Israel has to fire two Iron Dome missiles ($50,000 dollars each) to intercept each Qassam rocket (roughly $500 dollars), so this is a terrible example as a well resourced attacker can easily overwhelm a defender. Maybe in another decade with lasers, cheaper interceptors and rail guns the equation might have changed. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
I would say that it's better to fire two $50,000 dollar missiles than to let the rocket explode, kill several people and demolish $200,000 building. -- Hkmaly (talk) 10:15, 6 August 2014 (UTC)
Adage might refer to guerilla/hit-and-run tactics, which are also mentioned in Sun Tzu's Art of War (cut off supply chain, is one instance). -Vorik111 (talk) 16:19, 7 August 2014 (UTC)
We should remember that a lot of Hamas’s missiles land into unpopulated areas. Blogbkx (talk) 17:20, 23 October 2019 (UTC)

The expression is based on a concept that is military and ancient, but I wonder if the expression itself, in English, originated with American football, sometime since the game's birth in the 1860s. It is so specifically applicable to this game, where a team's defense and offense are completely separate units, run separately and spoken of separately and yet an extremely effective way to keep the opponent from scoring is to maintain possession of the ball while the game clock ticks down. Wrybred (talk) 13:18, 4 August 2014 (UTC)wrybred

While it is applicable in most attacking sports, then I seriously doubt that it originated in American Football -- I has been some time since I read Sun Tzu's The Art of War which is one of the oldest texts in existence, but I suspect it may already be in there predating anything else Spongebog (talk) 22:05, 4 August 2014 (UTC)

May or may not also be inspired by Studio C: Thesis Defense http://youtu.be/Lrlro3YJ15o Teagan N (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Can anyone make out what's written on the board? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

No, probably not -- Spongebog (talk) 21:57, 4 August 2014 (UTC)
My best guess after resizing the image a few times is
[The|To] [F|Falcons?] [at|of] [T|Times?]
[D|Displays?] [a|is|its] [M|Moods?]
[by?] {illegible first name (short maybe Meg)} {illegible surname (long)
[C|{illegible}] [the] {illegible 1 short word 1 long word or only 1 long word}
{illegible mid size word} {illegible short word maybe is} {illegible short word a} {illegible} {illegible} -- Meerkat (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Looks to me like "The Evolution of [Thesis/Turtle] Displays & Moods" something illegible, probably her name, followed by "Candidate for [illegible]"
I read "The Evolution of Threat Displays in Murder" as the topic after lots of enlargement. 14:30, 4 August 2014 (UTC)
I'm with this reading. It's logical, too. Megan's actions, being about as far as you can go in the direction of Murderous Threat Displays, are a natural "conclusion" to her presentation.--Laverock (talk) 15:43, 5 August 2014 (UTC)
I think it says "The Evolution of Throat Dipthongs in Murder". I'm no linguist, but if "AAAAAA" is said in an undulating fashion, it would qualify as a dipthong. Thus the presentation is incomplete without the yell. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Going off on the poster above me and taking into account the topic of the comic, I think it is probably "The Evolution of Thesis Displays in Murder" 08:41, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

Thanks! Came here today for this, created account to say thanks :) Mathiastck (talk) 18:18, 4 August 2014 (UTC)

You'r welcome Spongebog (talk) 21:59, 4 August 2014 (UTC)

"In conclusion" suggests she's almost finished with her presentation. I wonder what the panel thought of her holding a sword many times thicker than her stick-body for the duration of her defense.Alanbbent (talk) 00:00, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

"In conclusion" is the APA style of creating a summary section -- hence she has just finished her presentation, and she is now moving on to the questions-answers with the examiners defending her thesis. 13:57, 5 August 2014 (UTC)

looks to me that this pretty complete -- remove the incomplete tag? Spongebog (talk) 22:50, 4 August 2014 (UTC)

It's still missing the presentation text. User:cDave -- CDave (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I don't think anyone can read it. 03:46, 6 August 2014 (UTC)
I'm surprised noone has referred to the transcript in the page source. It officially says, "The evolution of threat defence in mammals." 06:09, 6 August 2014 (UTC)
Excellent observation -- I have changed the transcript to use the words from the site itself -- the transcript sections has been lacking on xkcd.com lately, which is why people probably don't check them any more. Spongebog (talk) 19:01, 6 August 2014 (UTC)
I'm sorry, but I did revert this change because it was bad layout and the title text has not to be included. Right now I did find the transcript by Randall so I will update it again. --Dgbrt (talk) 20:47, 6 August 2014 (UTC)
Great find, the proper update to the transcript is done. This new statement has to be explained.--Dgbrt (talk) 21:00, 6 August 2014 (UTC)

The best defence is to own an empire. If it is big enough it never sleeps and if it is happy enough it will counteract any threat given enough time and resources. Big enough empires generally have enough time and resources. The problem with empires is the problem with all powerful entities: Power Corrupts. That is a different adage and comparing metaphors about defence and power can mislead or change the argument not resolve the statement "" the best defence.... etc".Weatherlawyer (talk) 18:46, 8 January 2015 (UTC)

Sad story: in 1996, a grad student actually did murder people during his thesis defense: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Diego_State_University_shooting 18:39, 10 December 2015 (UTC)

The title text may also refer to Stephen Sondheim's song "Putting it Together," in which the singer lists ad nauseum the minutiae of preparing and marketing a work of art, which is analagous to preparing a thesis and its defense. The final line is "and that is the state of the art", ending with a long, high note. 06:41, 4 January 2017 (UTC)

As an irrelevant aside, in Finland you get awarded a sword for a successful PhD... And a slightly less impressive hat 21:13, 25 April 2017 (UTC)