I'm so glad that Anne at Preventing Grace gave me this kind shout out in her piece If I Work Hard Enough I Win the other day:
... I am about to turn in all my school reports. And I have made a detailed book list for the fall. And two friends were chatting away about bullet journaling (which turns out not to be at all what I imagined). And then Bearing Blog wrote about how she divvies up her time and keeps her mental health always in view. (Oh how I love Bearing Blog and her calm, rational way of thinking.) And it reminded me that, when I’m in the thick of a school year, I do get into an ugly, constraining loop of not being able to stop working.
In fact, sometimes when I am on holiday I am not able to stop working. And sometimes, when it’s a nice, pretty day outside, I am not able to stop working. Last year I spent most of our sunny weeks away cleaning, picking up, and neglecting the stack of books I had brought to read....
So, obviously, as per usual, of course, necessarily, as I vow every year, I don’t want to do this again. I want to find The Perfect Organizational System that will remove entirely the existential gaping maw of failure. Because, of course, if I just do all the work, I won’t fail. Right. I mean, that’s what it comes down to. It’s me just working hard enough and not forgetting anything that is the difference between life and death.
I was going to leave a comment at Anne's blog along the lines of "You really should say, 'Bearing Blog wrote about how she TRIES to keep her mental health always in view,'" but then I remembered my own advice to myself in the linked blog post, the one where I resolved to blog before I get any work done or do anything else. Well, there was more to it than that, but anyway, I should blog before I write the key to the chemistry test, and if I leave the comment at her blog first, my thought will be spent.
(One of my problems is that my mental health is always in view. I am forever craning my neck to see over and around it.)
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At any rate, today I want to share a post from the excellent physics blog, Gravity and Levity.
Momentary digression. I first started blogging in 2005, not quite a year after I finished my Ph.D. in chemical engineering. It was probably right about the time that I was deciding to hang up the idea of switching to technical editing and developing a free-lance network. And I hadn't yet gotten to the place where I would accept that I wasn't ever going to get around to cutting and polishing the three publishable pieces of my thesis and shopping them to the appropriate journals, a place of acceptance that I wouldn't finally reach until my academic adviser passed away about two years later.
At the time, I thought that I might do quite a lot of science blogging, in between the recipes and the self-help, commentary on news articles and the like, and so I read some science blogs. But as time went on, I got bored with all but a few. It turns out that I don't have time to write commentary on all the Science News that passes by the world's eyes day after day, shining for a moment, inspiring a burst of chatter, then passing back into oblivion.
It also turns out that a steady diet of Science News is extremely irritating -- maybe not to everybody with research training and a grasp of mathematics and statistics, but at least to me. Oh my. I don't even want to go there right now, lest I lose the whole point of my post, but Science Journalism is bad. It's not all bad, but so much of it is very bad. And Science Facebook is also very bad. Painful, even. Ok, I don't want to get into this, but just so I can be a little less vague, the features that bug me the most are
- Identifying non-science (e.g., engineering, technology, and nature-education) as "science"
- The disturbing lack of a word other than "science" for fields in which reproducible experimentation is impossible, meaning that those fields' findings acquire an undeserved aura of certainty and universality that should be reserved for physical law
- Identifying the policy opinions of a person who is employed as a scientist as "science"
- Appeals to authority -- the logical-fallacy form, that is
- Ascribing magical certainty to anything called "science"
- Statistics deployed for any reason by people who do not understand them
- The entire system of publish-or-perish and peer review, which discourages negative results and which relentlessly pressures working scientists to get "good" results, thereby undermining the scientific method
There's also the problem of specialization. I only studied in depth one little tiny area in materials science and engineering. I can't comment with a post-graduate level of expertise on anything else, except for the general skills that one develops along the way (mostly math and procedure).
Anyway, the gist of that is that I don't read many science blogs anymore. I do read some scientists' blogs, though, because people who write generally and well and bring their perspective as a complete nerd to whatever interests them are the people I like to hang out with, virtually speaking.
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So, back to Brian's recent post at Gravity and Levity, Toward a Culture of Tolerating Ignorance. He begins with some words about impostor syndrome, and then dives into the practical advice, which I'll quote at length.
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:
- Admit that you, also, don’t understand it very well.
- 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.
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Of course, I have two general responses to Brian's post, which you should really go read in its entirety (if only so you can follow the embedded links -- they are also very good -- and read some of the comments).
The first response is the almost obligatory, "I wish I had read and assimilated this before I started graduate school."
High school, even. I emerged into adulthood with a defensive habit of pretending I knew things instead of asking dumb questions or even shutting up and listening, because I feared scorn. Even though I only had this habit in some contexts, not others, it didn't serve me well in the long term. (Being able to bullshit very well can be a lucrative skill, but I don't possess that kind, at least not in person. Maybe Anne's praise is evidence that I can do it in writing a little bit.)
The second response is that one does not have to be working in academia to put this advice into practice. Almost any collaborative community in which you find yourself is one in which people have varying levels of knowledge of the subjects at hand. You can use it at work, in your volunteer groups, in your teams, and in your family.
Ask questions. Honor questioning. The higher your position, the greater your responsibility. Answer questions. Eliminate scorn.
(The hardest part? Resisting the temptation to conversationally scorn for their ignorance people who are not present, including public figures in the news. And yet, if you wish to send the message "You are valued, unconditionally, and it is no crime to be ignorant," to impressionable and vunerable people around you, you must demonstrate to them that your tone will be the same even when the vulnerable people are out of the room.)
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There are so many things I didn't have figured out when I was starting out, things I realize now that I wish I could have known then. It was true about my brief time in academia, and it's true about my longer life making a home and raising children. But that's the nature of living in time: you get wiser as you go, and logically that means you must have started out pretty green. Embracing that logic really does relieve a lot of stress.
But that, too, is the sort of thing you get better at with practice.