Confessions of scientists

I get the sense that a lot of the general public sees scientists somewhat as caricatures, with cold, Spock-like intellects, genius IQs, and, unfortunately, an almost super-human ability to understand the natural world. Atheists, in particular, have a tendency to regard scientists as members of an infallible priestly class. But we are not. We are merely human, which means we are fallible and susceptible to the same limitations in our thinking and behavior as anyone else. As we’ve discussed here at SixDay, there is a structure built into science that helps overcome those limitations (see here and here), which is why the hard sciences, since the time of Copernicus, have had an impressive track record of helping to lift humankind out of ignorance.

Now, without tooting my own horn, I will admit that scientists are exceptional in a few ways. First, most of us love science, enough to devote our lives to it, and so we’re motivated to do it well. Second, we have an above-average ability to do science. That said, we are all-too-human in every way, as this confessional from a Ph.D. scientist (in biology) shows:

There are some things I need to confess. This isn’t easy to say, but after working as a real scientist with a Ph.D. for 6 years, I feel it’s finally time to come clean: Sometimes I don’t feel like a real scientist. Besides the fact that I do science every day, I don’t conform to the image—my image—of what a scientist is and how we should think and behave. Here’s what I mean …

He goes on to list several traits that show how he doesn’t conform to his image of a scientist. This list isn’t a confessional to the general public, but rather to his scientific peers, who pretty much all have their own images of how a scientist should think and behave. I think the big secret is that most of us sympathize with this biologist, and people not employed in the sciences can benefit from hearing about it.

What follows is a selection of his confessed points with my own perspective added:

I don’t sit at home reading journals on the weekend.

I don’t, either, unless I’m preparing to submit a journal paper. Not very many scientists enjoy reading journals. I know one well-respected scientist who admits that he can only read journals in front of the TV.

I have skipped talks at scientific conferences for social purposes.

I went to a conference in Honolulu a few years ago, and I think I attended a grand total of three talks, including the one on which I was a co-author. A lot of science conferences are held in attractive locations in order to draw more attendance, but sometimes I think they should hold these things in the middle of nowhere.

I remember about 1% of the organic chemistry I learned in college. Multivariable calculus? Even less.

I remember most of what I studied in college, because I either use it or teach it. That said, I have forgotten a significant chunk of what I learned in my grad courses, because a lot of it I simply don’t use. This is not unusual. I have heard some professors admit that if the more seasoned professors in any department had to take the qualifying exam, they probably wouldn’t pass.

I have felt certain that the 22-year-old intern knows more about certain subjects than I do.

Of course s/he does. Nobody can know everything about everything. Only a prideful fool doesn’t acknowledge it.

I have gone home at 5 p.m.

One of my professors told a story in class about a colleague of his, who was a student of a famous Nobel laureate. The Nobel laureate fit the caricature of a scientist in that he spent an inordinate amount of time working (yes, this is exactly the sort of person who wins a Nobel prize). One Sunday morning, the colleague got a call from his Nobel laureate advisor, who said, “I’m so sorry you’re not feeling well.” Not understanding his meaning, the student told his advisor he was feeling fine. “Oh,” said the Nobel laureate advisor sarcastically, “I just assumed the only reason you wouldn’t be in the office is that you were ill.”

Anyway, yes, I, too, have gone home at 5 pm.

I have asked questions at seminars not because I wanted to know the answers but because I wanted to demonstrate that I was paying attention.

I suspect a lot of scientists do this. Personally, I stopped doing it after I got my Ph.D. As a grad student, I had to take seminars for credit, and was expected to participate, i.e. ask questions that showed I was paying attention. These days, I figure if I show up and am not fiddling with my phone or falling asleep, everyone knows I’m paying attention.

I have never fabricated data or intentionally misled, but I have endeavored to present data more compellingly rather than more accurately.

I’m not sure how much this happens, and I guess I’m naive enough to assume that most of the time my peers are presenting their data in a responsible manner. This is an ethical issue I’ve discussed at length with my Ph.D advisor, and I have since adopted his style: present all of our data in one set of tables and graphs and then present a “select” sample in another set that more compellingly makes our case. Anyone reading our papers can decide for themselves if we’ve made our case.

I have pretended to know what I’m talking about.

All I can say is that I’ve not gone out of my way to draw attention to the fact that I sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about.

I sometimes make superstitious choices but disguise them as tradition or unassailable preference.

I’ve never consciously done this, but I know others who do.

When a visiting scientist gives a colloquium, more often than not I don’t understand what he or she is saying. This even happens sometimes with research I really should be familiar with.

This only happens with visitors who speak on topics outside of my area of research. In such cases, I only feel like a dope when a scientist in my field proceeds to ask intelligent-sounding questions of the visitor, which happens more often than I’d like to admit.

I have called myself “doctor” because it sounds impressive.

To paraphrase Dr. Evil, I didn’t spend all those years in grad school to be called “Ms.”, thank you very much. There are times I’ve forgotten I’m a “doctor,” and other times when I’ve milked it for all its worth.

I dread applying for grants. I resent the fact that scientists need to bow and scrape for funding in the first place, but even more than that, I hate seeking the balance of cherry-picked data, baseless boasts, and exaggerations of real-world applications that funding sources seem to require.

I don’t know a single scientist who doesn’t dread applying for grants. The process is unpleasant at best, and the odds that you’ll get funded get worse every year. That said, I don’t resent the fact that scientists need to ask for funding. There is no reason scientists should expect to get other people’s money without making a compelling case for why they should get it. It’s frankly unsettling that any scientists believe they are entitled to funding.

I have performed research I didn’t think was important.

This can happen for at least three reasons: you’re part of a research group and have to participate in certain projects; you’re beholden by stipulations in a grant or something; or if you are pressured to publish a minimum number of papers every year. Thankfully, I’ve never had to do this. I may be doing work that in reality no one else thinks is important, but I never take on a project unless I, personally, think it will add to the sum of knowledge in my area.

In grad school, I once stopped writing in my lab notebook for a month. I told myself I could easily recreate the missing data from Post-it notes, paper scraps, and half-dry protein gels, but I never did.

I once thought I could piece together what I did on a project by just remembering what I did — after all, it was so obvious at the time — and, boy, did that not work out well. A month later, I couldn’t recall half of what I did, and ended up doing the whole thing over.

I do not believe every scientific consensus.

Neither do I. However, that this is being confessed rather than proudly declared is of great concern. Not because this particular person feels this way, but because probably a lot of scientists feel this way, and they shouldn’t. See Surak’s recent commentary on this.

I do not fully trust peer review.

Neither do I, and nor should anyone fully trust it. Our peers are just as fallible as we are. But if you are in a field that’s devoted to the pursuit of truth, mostly proceeds without a lot of politicization and money and emphasis on consensus, then it’s probably good enough.

When I ask scientists to tell me about their research, I nod and tell them it’s interesting even if I don’t understand it at all.

I wonder how much this happens, especially when I’m asked about my own research. Personally, I rarely feign interest. If I don’t understand anything they’re saying, I try to identify something I can at least ask an intelligent-sounding question about.

I was never interested in Star Wars.

Sacrilege! Actually, I know quite a few scientists who have no interest in Star Wars, Star Trek, or any other sci-fi, but they tend to be older. Most younger scientists I know are big fans of sci-fi.

I have openly lamented my ignorance of certain scientific subtopics, yet I have not remedied this.

We all do this. There just isn’t enough time to pursue every subtopic of interest.

I have worried more about accolades than about content.

This is perfectly natural, and there’s nothing necessarily hideously horrible about it, unless a person is primarily motivated by accolades.

During my graduate-board oral exam, I blanked on a question I would have found easy in high school.

One of my friends, who is not a scientist, sat in on my doctoral exam and really enjoys reminding me of the very simple question I blanked on that even he knew the answer to. It happens. The stress of the exam, the exhaustion from writing your dissertation, preparing your presentation, cramming the week before, the committee members all staring at you with the intent of showing you that they still know more than you do, it’s easy to miss a simple question. I know a well-respected scientist who was so irritated about missing some easy questions on his exam that he claimed to have plotted the murders of his committee members for about a week before he finally let it go. It also happened to Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, and his committee almost didn’t give him his Ph.D. because of it. I figure we’re all in good company.

I have feigned familiarity with scientific publications I haven’t read.

Who hasn’t? The open secret is that a lot of scientists just read the abstract or a summary of the work written in another paper. Part of the problem is the sheer volume of publications coming out these days. My advisor recalls a time when he could sit down and at least read the abstracts of every single paper in the Astrophysical Journal, if not entire papers. These days that would be impossible; there are just too many papers, even in a subtopic, to keep up.

I have told other people my convictions, with certainty, then later reversed those convictions.

Me, too, and it’s a good thing. If this never happens, it means your convictions have petrified into dogma.

I have killed 261 lab mice, including one by accident. In doing so, I have learned nothing that would save a human life.

So has your average barn cat. I don’t really see this as a problem. A lot of science consists of “no result,” which is still a result. That being said, one of the nice things about being an astrophysicist is that I don’t have to kill anything, I don’t have to break anything, and I don’t have to create anything hazardous in a laboratory.

I can’t read most scientific papers unless I devote my full attention, usually with a browser window open to look up terms on Wikipedia.

Most papers in my particular topic I can read more casually than this. Anything more broad in scope, however, does require my full attention and some kind of reference material. I am not too proud to admit that I’ve gone back to undergrad textbooks to figure something out I read in a paper. One thing that really helped with this, ego-wise, was listening to one of the world’s greatest scientists at a conference talk about how he struggled with a particular math concept on his way to solving Einstein’s field equations, and that the only way he could figure it out was to study an undergrad textbook on the topic.

I allow the Internet to distract me.

This turns out to be a big problem for a lot of scientists. I have a colleague who keeps a sticky note on her computer monitor reminding her to stop surfing. When I find the Internet too distracting, I make a game out of not allowing myself to read my favorite websites until I accomplish a task, and then I limit the surfing to 10 minutes.

I have read multiple Michael Crichton novels.

Most of us have. Well, in my case, only one Crichton novel, but I have read my share of pulp fiction.

I have used big science words to sound important to colleagues.

Most of us have fallen into this habit.

I have used big science words to sound important to students.

A lot of scientists/professors do this, and I’m not sure why. Some jargon is unavoidable, and serious students have to learn it. However, we’re already in a position to be respected by students, and the focus should be on conveying ideas to them. Personally, it’s much more satisfying to see the light go on than to have students be impressed with me.

I sometimes avoid foods containing ingredients science has proved harmless, just because the label for an alternative has a drawing of a tree.

This made me laugh out loud. We’re all human. Marketing works. If it’s any consolation to my colleagues, it’s at least somewhat based on the science of human behavior.

I own large science textbooks I have scarcely used. I have kept them “for reference” even though I know I’ll never use them again. I intend to keep them “for reference” until I die.

So do I. I can’t bear to part with books, even ones I haven’t read and will probably never read.

I have abandoned experiments because they did not yield results right away.

We all have. Sometimes we go back to them, sometimes we don’t.

I want everyone to like me.

I’m not sure what to say about this one. Is he talking about personally or professionally? There are many scientists who, judging by their behavior, clearly couldn’t care less if anyone likes them personally. But I very much doubt anyone wants to be ostracized professionally.

I have known professors who celebrate milestone birthdays by organizing daylong seminars about their field of study. To me, no way of spending a birthday sounds less appealing.

I dunno. I like my field of study, and my colleagues, well enough that this does sound like a lot of fun.

Sometimes science feels like it’s made of the same politics, pettiness, and ridiculousness that underlie any other job.

It feels like it, because it is. There is nothing about science that removes human nature from the endeavor. That said, I have found the environment in academic science to be a bit less susceptible to this stuff—at least enough that I find my current job a lot more enjoyable than any other job I’ve ever had.

I decry the portrayal of scientists in films, then pay money to go see more films with scientists in them.

For me, at least half the fun is identifying all the ways the movie screws up the portrayal of scientists and science in general. And sometimes, the portrayal is a lot more fun than reality. Actually, most of the time. I remember being tickled by Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact. Her big discovery was portrayed very dramatically in the movie, but Carl Sagan, being a scientist, had written it much more realistically in the book—her pager beeped when an automated algorithm detected a possible signal, and she checked it out when she got back to the office.

I have worked as a teaching assistant for classes in which I did not understand the material.

Yeah, but that’s a great way to learn the material. I know a Nobel laureate who claims that whenever he wants to learn about a topic, he teaches a class on it.

I have taught facts and techniques to students that I only myself learned the day before.

Most professors have taught classes in which they are only one or two steps ahead of their students. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since, by the time we get to where we are, we have the ability to learn things quickly and disseminate them adequately.

I find science difficult.

If a scientist doesn’t find science difficult, he’s probably not trying hard enough. That said, if he finds it overwhelmingly difficult, he’s in the wrong field.

I am afraid that people will read this confession and angrily oust me from science, which I love.

Nah. Most people in science will read this and think, “Thank goodness someone else said it.”

I have felt like a fraud, not once, but with such regularity that I genuinely question whether anyone has noticed I don’t belong here. I am certain that one day I’ll arrive at work, and my boss will administer a basic organic chemistry test, which I’ll fail, and he’ll matter-of-factly say, “That’s what I thought.”

I felt like this through the first half of grad school, but after I finished my coursework and started producing some good results, I finally started feeling competent and like I belonged. I also realized a lot of other grad students and young scientists felt this way. I remember the shock I felt when one student, whom I regarded as particularly competent, said he felt like a fraud. A lot of us live by the motto “fake it ’til you make it.”

I know I have arrived where I am through privilege, good fortune, and circumstance. Anything I genuinely earned could not have been earned without those precursors.

Anyone born in the West, especially in the U.S. or Canada, at this particular point in history is extraordinarily fortunate. Privilege and circumstance? Not sure what he means by that. I was very focused about getting where I am today and worked pretty hard for it. Most people in the sciences did the same.

I can’t be the only scientist who feels like a fraud. But we don’t talk about it. No one volunteers to proclaim their inadequacies. In fact, scientists go to great lengths to disguise how little we know, how uncertain we feel, and how much we worry that everyone deserves to be here but us. The result is a laboratory full of colleagues who look so impossibly darn confident. They’re the real scientists, we tell ourselves. They can follow the entire seminar. They read journals for pleasure. Their mistakes only lead them in more interesting directions. They remember all of organic chemistry. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I’ll venture to guess that a lot of people in just about any profession feel the same way. But maybe the reason this hits scientists particularly hard is the near-deification of scientists in this increasingly post-Christian age. It’s a lot to live up to. I think it was easier for scientists to be at peace with their fallibility in decades and centuries past, because many of them believed that what they were doing was fulfilling a sacrament in discovering and revealing God’s Truth. This sounds lofty, but it’s actually a pretty humbling idea.

Maybe the idea of science is easier to love than the minutiae of science. Or maybe the veneer of professionalism is important to protect the integrity and authority of scientists. Or maybe that’s a cop-out.

It’s not a cop-out. First, the idea of anything is always easier to love than the details. This is as true of institutions and professions as it is of people. But I don’t think there is a mere veneer of professionalism in science—there is true professionalism, and that’s vitally important. It’s as important to science as manners are to civilization. It’s just that it’s not perfect, but when it comes to human beings, nothing ever is.

3 thoughts on “Confessions of scientists

  1. I’ve spent my life as both a molecular biology research scientist and as a physician. Modern society does worship science to large degree. The methodological naturalist worldview predominates and is evangelize through all our major institutions that define culture and educate our young. What folks fail to realize is that science and it’s methods are very, very limited to only a small part of all reality.

    It’s all God’s world and all God’s creation. That demands a radically nonconformist view that is opposed to the cultural zeitgeist. It was not always so bad. Science and it’s methods must be viewed in proper perspective. A scientist should be open to all truth, not only to the limited confines of the scientific method, which almost anyone, even small children can understand. The world is much bigger than that.

    What I perceive from this article is basically a sort of misguided confessional humility. Why is fitting in and making a certain appearance so important? That just strikes me as somewhat immature.

    BTW, most journals are such a waste. The grant making industry spawns mostly junk research and puts a muzzle on the great individual creativity of science in prior ages. That openness and creative exploration is what truly makes discovery a joy. While I explored my tiny niche (the control of DNA replication in viruses), I saw the need, early on, to be a generalist in the rest of my life. So I studied music, philosophy, history, and theology. I think that perhaps this author needs some balance and perspective.

  2. So I studied music, philosophy, history, and theology. I think that perhaps this author needs some balance and perspective.

    To be fair, he did claim to be interested in the liberal arts in one of the points I left out.

  3. “I have asked questions at seminars not because I wanted to know the answers but because I wanted to demonstrate that I was paying attention.” Try being in a division wide meeting for a big corporation. Same exact thing happens.

    In fact, his complaints can be applied to just about any field of human endeavor.

    Some of them are odd, one person cannot do or know everything. Pick your battles and stick to your convictions.

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