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Toward a culture of tolerating ignorance

June 13, 2016
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Lately I have seen an increasingly honest, and increasingly public discussion about the feelings of inadequacy that come with trying to be a scientist.

For example, here Anshul Kogar writes about the “Crises in Confidence” that almost invariably come with trying to do a PhD.

In this really terrific account, Inna Vishik tells the story of her PhD in physics, and the various emotional phases that come with it: from “hubris” to “feeling like a fraud”.

I might as well add my own brief admissions to this discussion:

  • More or less every day, I struggle with feeling like I am insufficiently intelligent, insufficiently hardworking, and insufficiently creative to be a physicist.
  • These feelings have persisted since the beginning of my undergraduate years, and I expect them to continue in some form or another throughout the remainder of my career.
  • I often feel like what few successes I’ve had were mostly due to luck, or that I “tricked” people into believing that I was better than I actually am.

I have gradually come to understand that these kinds of feelings, as dramatic as they seem, are relatively normal.  Some degree of impostor syndrome seems to be the norm in a world where intellect is (purportedly) everything, and where you are constantly required to “sell” your work.  And I should probably make clear that I am not a person who lacks for confidence, in general.  (If you asked my wife, she might even tell you that I am an unusually, perhaps frustratingly, confident person.)

I have also come to understand that there is a place for a person like me in the scientific enterprise.  I have very real shortcomings as a scientist, both in talent and in temperament.  But everyone has shortcomings, and in science there is room for a great variety of ability and disposition.

 

There is one practice that I have found very helpful in my pursuit of a scientific career, and which I think is worth mentioning.  It’s what I call fostering a “culture of tolerating ignorance.”

Let me explain.

As a young (or even old) scientist, you continually feel embarrassed by the huge weight of things you don’t know or don’t understand.  Taking place all around you, among your colleagues, superiors, and even your students, are conversations about technical topics and ideas that you don’t understand or never learned.  And you will likely feel ashamed of your lack of knowledge.  You will experience some element of feeling like a fraud, like someone who hasn’t studied hard enough or learned quickly enough.  You will compare yourself, internally, to the sharpest minds around you, and you will wonder how you were allowed to have the same profession as them.

These kinds of feelings can kill you, and you need to find a way of dealing with them.

I have found that the best strategy is to free yourself to openly admit your ignorance.  Embrace the idea that all of us are awash in embarrassing levels of ignorance, and the quickest way to improve the situation is to admit your ignorance and find someone to teach you.

In particular, when some discussion is going on about a topic that you don’t understand, you should feel free to just admit that you don’t understand and ask someone to explain it to you.

If you find yourself on the other side of the conversation, and someone makes such an admission and request, there are only two acceptable responses:

  1. Admit that you, also, don’t understand it very well.
  2. Explain the topic as best as you can.

Most commonly, your response will be some combination of 1 and 2.  You will be able to explain some parts of the idea, and you will have to admit that there are other parts that you don’t understand well enough to explain.  But between the two of you (or, even better, a larger group) you will quickly start filling in the gaps in each others’ knowledge.

A culture where these kinds of discussions can take place is a truly wonderful thing to be a part of.  In such an environment you feel accepted and enthusiastic, and you feel yourself learning and improving very quickly.  It is also common for creative or insightful ideas to be generated in these kinds of discussions.  To me, a culture of tolerating ignorance is almost essential for enjoying my job as a scientist.

 

The enemies of this kind of ideal culture are shame and scorn.  The absolute worst way to respond to someone’s profession (or demonstration) of ignorance is to act incredulous that the person doesn’t know the idea already, and to assert that the question is obvious, trivial, and should have been learned a long time ago.  (And, of course, someone who responds this way almost never goes on to give a useful explanation.)  An environment where people respond this way is completely toxic to scientific work, and it is, sadly, very common.  My suggestion if you find yourself in such an environment to avoid the people who produce it, and to instead seek out the company of people with whom you can maintain enthusiastic and non-scornful conversations.

I have personally benefited enormously from those kinds of people and that kind of culture. At this point in my career, I would hope that I could tolerate a colleague admitting essentially any level of scientific ignorance, and that I would respond with a friendly explanation of how I think about the topic and a declaration of the limits of my own understanding.

As I see it, ignorance to essentially any degree is not a crime.  There is simply too much to know, and too many perspectives from which each idea can be understood, to shame someone for admitting to ignorance.  The only crime is professing to understand something that you don’t, or making claims that are not supported by your own limited understanding.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2016 1:25 am

    The best thing I’ve read this year. Thank you.

  2. June 13, 2016 1:52 am

    Beautifully written. I could totally resonate with your thoughts and you perfectly articulated the main reasons I decided to stay away from academia. Keep sharing these topics in your blog. It will help both you and your readers.

  3. June 13, 2016 4:28 am

    I rush in, mid-hot Israeli siesta, to second your thoughts, to approve of your work-arounds for preserving deserved esteem, and also:
    To announce that in my opinion, your skills at explaining, with words, figures, and metaphors, the complex …are a wonder to behold and a gift for anyone who felt down about his incomprehension. Your every post here is a treat. From rows of little magnetic atoms yea unto basketball strategy. Thank you, Dr Brian.

  4. Brian permalink*
    June 13, 2016 7:30 am

    You guys are all very literally too kind.
    Thank you.

  5. June 13, 2016 12:50 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with this philosophy, and let me point out the temporal scheme to it. Those who openly admit ignorance give themselves the opportunity to learn, and that knowledge accrues over time. While the folks too embarrassed to admit ignorance fall further and further behind, the folks who embrace their weaknesses get further and further ahead.

    Let me add also the huge benefit I find this attitude has for team performance. When we admit that we are ignorant or weak, it opens up an opportunity for a team member or colleague to share knowledge or exercise a strength. I have been privileged to be a part of a team where the attitude of embracing ignorance was shared among us, and the resulting boost to group performance is superlinear. We are probably as effective as a group 10x our size that had the opposite attitude. Don’t underestimate the knock-on social impact of this attitude!

    • Brian permalink*
      June 13, 2016 1:13 pm

      Thanks, Michael. I have indeed found that the “better” physicists (those who have longer careers and more impressive accomplishments) are more likely to have this kind of philosophy. So every year of my career gets a little better, as the more negative people drop out at a higher rate.

  6. Brian permalink*
    June 13, 2016 1:30 pm

    By the way, one thing that I wished I had highlighted a bit more was Inna Vishik’s comment that “there is this absurd notion that passion is required to be a scientist, whatever that means”.

    There is indeed this mythology that in order to become a scientist you must have a all-consuming passion for science, which will keep you obsessing over your work at all times. It is not uncommon to be criticized by a superior for not being passionate enough about your work. (I got such criticism very directly from my PhD advisor.)

    My advice is to completely ignore that criticism. If you enjoy your work in science, then keep doing it, regardless of whether you or anyone else thinks that you are “passionate” enough about it. If you don’t enjoy your work in science, or if you see some other opportunity that you think you will enjoy more, then you should feel free to make the switch without feeling like it’s an indication of spiritual failure.

  7. June 14, 2016 12:16 am

    Reblogged this on mathematics matters….

  8. Orricl permalink
    June 14, 2016 5:17 am

    Very good teachings learning in this very moment.

  9. shilpb permalink
    June 30, 2016 1:29 am

    Nice article..

  10. August 16, 2016 3:46 pm

    One place I worked, we had a couple of plaques: “Stupid questions are better than stupid mistakes!” and “It’s not a stupid question if you don’t know the answer!”

    And there’s that great xkcd cartoon: http://xkcd.com/1053/

    I’ve long believed the difference between ignorant and stupid is the active desire to reduce the former as much as possible.

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