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Scientific Conceit.

10 December 2012

I have – usually by my sisters, but certainly not exclusively by them – been called conceited in my life. And it’s true. That’s only one of my many character defects. I can present myself as being absolutely certain of things. Certain that my opinions are facts, that those who would disagree are either stupid or uneducated. It’s a vile attitude, and one which I have come as an adult to choose to battle rather than embrace. There are simply too many variables for my opinion to always be correct. There are too many competing interests for my perspective to be untrammeled. And, most importantly, perhaps, was my realization that I didn’t really like people who acted like I did, but who had different opinions. But I also couldn’t see how they were different from me.

Science has an image problem. My experience is that non-scientists generally have one of two reactions when they discover that I am a researcher and an academic. They either are impressed and think I am probably a genius, or they think I am an arrogant, ivory-tower  egg head. I think most of the public (often distributed along political lines) takes one of these two attitudes. There are additionally a few who assume that scientists are the bought-and-paid-for nefarious operands of the Evil Corporate Overlords. And depending on whether their issue is bio-medical or global climate, they may be on either side of the political spectrum.

And this image problem is largely our own fault. If I may speak in generalities, you will find scientists who say that being a “genius” is not a job requirement, or that people far smarter than they never pursued academics. And those are true. But it is difficult to find a person anywhere who doesn’t enjoy being called smart. And academics have made a life out of being the best at being smart. I don’t bow to the silly stereotype that “so many of us were social outcasts” or “we sucked at sports”, so we now overcompensate by being conceited about our brains. Most of the scientists I know are socially adept and most are even sporty to one extent or another. The “nerd” trope is simply untrue. But we are happy to condescend to the little people who can’t fathom the massive implications of our utterly groundbreaking blah blah blah.

And it’s difficult. I get that it’s difficult not to condescend to people who are simply wrong and yet remain shrill in their promotion of falsehoods. Like Jenny McCarthy and her insane, murderous lies about vaccinations. Children are dying because of her, and her co-religionists. They tell lies on TV, and people who don’t know better believe them, and as a result, children are dying of measles and whooping cough who by rights should be living fat, pink little lives. That’s her conceit: the belief that she must know better than people who’ve dedicated their lives to eradicating disease. But I don’t know that we can fight lies with sneers.

There is also an enormous amount of conceit that we scientists direct at one another. Look at the advertisement for NatureJobs from a recent edition of Nature. (Thank you to @rxnm_ for alerting me.)naturejobs

The very idea that non-professorial jobs are “alternative” is ridiculous. For me, my search for a professorial position is my alternative job. My goal, while studying for my doctorate, was to become an operational engineer in healthcare, perhaps as a business owner. My path to a research position was an unintentional one. My skills as a simulationist in health care have turned out to be in less demand than I imagined – or I’m not so good at pointing out the need for it – and as a result, I have ended up in a soft-money research position. Doing the work I want to do may end up requiring several  years as a researcher until the industry side of healthcare catches up to the research side, and recognizes the value of what I’m doing. Though, of course, I’ve applied for a job doing exactly what I hope to do at PECMC. Hopefully, I won’t have to do too much more obscure academic work, and can set about making a difference in actual patients’ lives.

I see conceit over hours worked, and the assumption that a person who doesn’t win a bunch of grants or publish five papers a year is lazy. There’s luck involved. There are personal choices. I’ve seen conceit associated with having children, as if people serious about science (usually they mean, but won’t say, women) wouldn’t waste their productive years having babies. Or vice versa, condescension about children: the childless scientists are required to spend more time in the lab, covering for those who go home to take care of children. As if the time of people without progeny is less valuable to them than the time of a persons’ with children is to them.

We all want to be valued. We want to be seen as important, and making an important contribution. Science is competitive, and that forces us, in many ways, to set up hierarchies. It’s not dissimilar at all from sporting success. Except that we can’t really have head-to-head competitions. So we have all these proxy battles and metrics to separate us and hoard glory. Metrizable prestige. The absurdity of it would be laughable if it weren’t the guiding factor in people’s livelihoods.

The undercurrent of all this conceit and condescension is the fact that all of us, to a person, struggle with Imposter Syndrome. We fear so deeply that we don’t belong. We are ashamed of our best work in the same breath we’re proud of it. We look at others, we measure them, and we find ourselves lacking in comparison. I do. And thanks to our relentless obsession with measuring productivity and impact, I can prove it. I have an h-index lower than anyone else I know on twitter. Fewer citations. Papers in worse journals. I came to the academic side of science late. My first paper was published in 2006, my next in late 2010. I haven’t had a lot of time to accrue citations. Though, obviously, I’ve had time to accrue excuses.

I think the vast majority of us vascillate between feelings of brilliance and excellence, and feelings of shame and fear and outsider-status. And in that respect, I think scientists are very much like everyone else. All of us search for a place we feel welcomed, accepted, and part of the group. All of us fear from time to time that we don’t belong. I feel that way most of the time. And then, when we do find that group, we end up jockeying for position, trying to find exactly where we belong, and then figuring out how to ascend above the next person.

I hope that we can find ways to be mutually supportive that take priority over the ways we are self-interested. The twitter science community does a pretty good job of that. I’ve found more support there than anywhere else, when it comes to learning how to do science, and survive in the cutthroat world of academia. I hope that the public can see scientists as supporting each other, rather than undercutting each other. I hope we scientists and academics can let go of the idea that the only worthy goal of getting a PhD is to become a professor. That choosing another path represents failure in some way. Besides which, why on earth do we despise failure so much? Truthfully, failing is the best way I’ve ever learned.

When I look at myself, I see someone who still struggles with conceit. Yes, I want to be smart. I want people to know it. I want people to be impressed with my work and my efforts. And I want to then be humble about it, so that people are dutifully impressed with that grounding too. But I have abandoned the idea that I am always right. Because when I look at people who think they are always right, I don’t like what I see. So I assume that that’s what people feel when they see me acting like I’m always right.

And maybe this is its own sort of conceit, but when other people insist their opinions are facts, and that those who disagree must be stupid or uneducated, or evil, I assume that their behavior is driven by what mine was: fear; shame; pain. I became engulfed in the fear that I was nothing. The shame that my best efforts were worthless. The pain that I didn’t belong. So I tried to condescend my way out. It didn’t work. I think it can’t work. We cannot elevate ourselves by digging pits for others to fall into.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 December 2012 10:58

    Thanks for talking about this. My h-index is 11, I hope that helps 😉

    Three comments:
    1. Most of the scientists I know are not nerds: they even look down on those who are. It’s weird. I hear people saying “Well, yeah but that’s so nerdy,” and I’m sitting there thinking “Aren’t we supposed to be that way? Isn’t that what society expects of us?”

    2. Alternative careers: I think this is mainly narcissism. Often academic people think that for someone to be different from them is simultaneously stupid and needs saving. This includes considerations of when to have children, or have them at all. As if nothing other than academics were important, as you say.

    3. This scientific conceit extends quite far philosophically. Scientists like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne basically believe that people are not allowed to believe anything that can’t be verified by science. This is tantamount to suggesting that people should not trust their own experience; this is a gateway to controlling people. It’s dangerous.

  2. 10 December 2012 11:19

    h-index and other citation metrics are a function of your field to large extent. There is no point whatsoever to comparing with other people in very different fields. In your case I sounds like you are doing some novel, field spanning stuff anyway so you are going to be thin on cites. Not a reflection of your quality.

    Otherwise…great post.

  3. Syd permalink
    10 December 2012 12:51

    I didn’t live by any kind of indices regarding publications and grants. I would publish on average 2 peer reviewed articles a year. Some years were better than others. I do know that publications and grants mattered enormously when I was new in my career. I had to make a name for myself. And the net work back then didn’t have Twitter. It was through scientific meetings that we met, talked and developed collaborations. Also, there were many scientific societies where friendships were forged. I don’t think that anything can beat getting together in a room and talking science. And then there were the national committees and the other appointments that eventually came my way. I could spot the scientists on the shuttles because they seldom talked to other “regular” people, were bearded, and wore sweaters and jeans. I am glad that came into the field when it was strong and filled with many opportunities to do deep sea research which was my specialty. I had a great time for the most part. But I did not feel conceited and to this day, I don’t try to explain to people that the work I did wasn’t about dolphins or whales (a la Jacques Cousteau), but was spent in front of a computer analyzing mounds of data. I just let them think that it was all glamorous. And perhaps it was.

  4. 10 December 2012 18:42

    In the eternal, every so true, words of Monty Python: “I never wanted to do this anyway.”

    I never thought that I was going to end up a TT professor. Sure, teaching at a SLAC, possibly being someone’s tech, but never have I thought that I was going to go off and be the female equivalent of an academic greybead. I don’t have the drive.

    Of course, one could argue that me saying that I don’t have the drive is my own version of imposter syndrome, but honestly, and with every fiber of my being, I can say that I’m a scientist because I’m good at it, not necessarily that I want to be. That also may say that I’m by default a scientist, but I also think that it says that by default, and with a lack of drive for everything else, I’m by default nothing else.

    Maybe I didn’t make good choices. Maybe I’m hiding behind my drive or lack thereof. Maybe I never really figured out what I wanted to do in life. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. Maybe I’m just incredibly scared. Maybe I’m hiding.

    I was almost a math major, and a psych major, and for a very brief moment, a mortuary science major (yes, they have those). I went to grad school in journalism for a while. I’m back in school now for engineering. I look at everything, and while I’m scared that I won’t be good enough (and again, possibly not imposter syndrome, because it’s a common theme in my life), I want to do everything. Maybe I’m not satisfied. Maybe I’m indecisive. Maybe I’m not challenged. Maybe I’m a serial settler. I could be doing my own personal challenge with achieving the peter principle in multiple disciplines.

    For me, it’s not comparison to my peers or my mentors. It’s not a comparison of me with the current leaders of my field. It comparison with history. Issac Fucking Newton. Da Vinci. The Renaissance men. I sit and look as my personal knowledge becomes larger about a smaller relevant point in existence. I know nothing compared to those who’ve gone before me. And while this is preposterous to say: I want to know everything. My drive to know obscure things about a viral protein is nothing. My drive to ping pong along life and stay a while at the things that interest me is ever increasing. My heart and my brain cry out to be filled, and I think that I can only have one that includes the other. My heart breaks a little every time I lose an opportunity.

    As someone who isn’t in academia, I struggle to have peers that I don’t directly work with, after all, they are competitors. I miss being a grad student and being a post doc. I live vicariously through the academics on twitter, not because I think that they’re what I’m supposed to be doing, but because (for the most part) it’s a common language that I don’t have to be too worried about not knowing what’s going on, or worry about scooping someone, or just worrying in general. It’s like getting welcomed back to the womb. So while I don’t want to be in those shoes, I like to admire the shoes from the street, but I know that there’s no way I’m going to be able to walk in them.

    So, Monty Python to shoes. And my h-index is lower than yours. One first author paper in a shitty journal.


  1. Scientific Conceit Revisited. | Infactorium

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