Impostors, Underdogs, and the Status of Science

Over in Scientopia, SciCurious has a nice post about suffering from Impostor Syndrome, the feeling that everyone else is smarter than you are, and you will soon be exposed as a total fraud. Which is nonsense, of course, but something that almost every scientist suffers at some point. The post ends on a more upbeat note, though, when she thinks about fighting it:

The more I thought about ways to combat imposter syndrome, either by myself or in academia in general...the more I came up with nothing. Until today, when I was working out.

I'm doing circuit training, and as I worked my way through squat thrusts, Arnold presses and kettlebell lunges, I was thinking about how great I feel when I'm training and running and racing. Sure, I have as many bad days training and racing as I do in the lab, and I'm probably competing against WAY more people, but then, failure in running just doesn't seem to hurt as much, there's always the feeling in running that you can pick yourself up, work a little harder, come back a little stronger, and try again. Of course, there's the fact that this isn't my career, but still, even so, a bad race just doesn't mess with my head. It rolls right off, I feel bad for a day, and then I get back up driven to do better at my next one.

And then I realized why. It's because running, and sports in general, LOVE underdogs. We love to hear heroic tales of people who overcame great odds, who suffered staggering defeat, and then who worked hard, pushed themselves, and made it. You never read a profile of a great runner without reading about the hard times in their lives, the difficulties they had in training, the mental blocks, the personal troubles, whatever it was. The glory is in watching them overcome, and come back, and win, against the odds. Seeing people succeed after having worked so hard and dealt with so much is inspiring. We can believe that we can do it, too. We can come back, fight another day.

We love to hear about underdogs in sports, in media, in literature. But one place you'll never hear about them? Science. Academia.

It's an interesting point (and there's more to it-- you should go read the whole thing), and one that hadn't occurred to me before. Like any good blogger, of course, I immediately began thinking about how this ties into my personal hobbyhorses, in particular the question of societal attitudes toward science. This is something I'm spend a lot of time thinking about these days, and I think there's probably a connection.

In particular, I think it's interesting to look at the stock narratives regarding sports figures compared to scientists. When you read a profile or biography of a great athlete, as SciCurious notes, there's always a lot of material on their overcoming adversity. If their family was poor, there are stories about scrimping and saving, or learning to play with wholly inadequate equipment. If their parents split up or died, there's a bunch of stuff about how that affected their mental state. Even athletes who were pretty comfortably middle-class their entire lives get glowing things written about their "will to win" and the hours upon hours they spent honing their skills.

The stock scientific biography, on the other hand, is a story of the inevitable triumph of genius. Which is not to say that childhood traumas are glossed over-- that sort of thing is good copy no matter what-- but the emphasis always seems to be on the intrinsic brilliance of the future great scientist. If they breezed through school, much is made of that. If they have a spotty school record, they were bored because they were smart, or chafed at authority because they were so much more brilliant than average. You don't get a whole lot of talk about how they spent hours struggling to learn the tools and techniques of their future career through sheer diligence, a "will to science" as it were.

Having noticed this thanks to SciCurious, I think this is part and parcel with the general attitude toward science in our society. I'm not sure if it's case, effect, or a linear superposition of the two, but I suspect there's some relationship between the way we shrug off innumeracy and the way we tell stories about scientists.

The notable thing about this is that the stories we tell about sports are fundamentally inclusive while the stories we tell about science are exclusive. In both cases, we're talking about people who do things that are completely beyond the reach of the average person, but when we tell those stories about athletes, they're cast in a way that makes them seem different from ordinary people only in a quantitative sense-- they're a little taller, a little quicker, a little more disicplined. The framing invites the reader to imagine themselves at the center-- "If I'd only been a few inches taller, that could've been me," or "If I'd been able to spend a little more time working on my swing..."

The standard stories about scientists, on the other hand, are exclusive. They tend to emphasize the difference between the reader and the subject. Even as children, great scientists are often portrayed as qualitatively different, as people whose brains just work in a fundamentally different way. They either breeze through their education, or battle with administrative structures that are too confining for their genius. The framing encourages the reader to step back and gape in amazement at the subject.

There's something distancing about the way the stock narratives approach scientists compared to athletes. A sports figure is usually presented as someone who's just like you, the reader, but a little better. A scientist is usually presented as someone who's completely beyond you, better at what they do in ways that render them almost incomprehensible.

(I suspect that this probably stems in part from the fact that many scientific biographies are written by people who have little scientific training, while sports biographies are written by people who have a good idea how to play the games they write about, if not the ability needed to play at a high level. The two biographies of famous physicists written by other high-level physicists that I've read, Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss and Subtle Is the Lord... by Abraham Pais have much less of a distancing effect, and, indeed, tend to make the thought processes of Feynman and Einstein a good deal more comprehensible than other biographies (Genius by James Gleick, and bits of Walter Isaacson's book on Einstein). Krauss and Pais make their subjects vastly more human as scientists, despite spending much less time on their personal lives. I'm not that big a reader of biographies, though, so I can't claim a high degree of statistical significance here.)

This distancing effect is similar to the effect of "You must be really smart" as an initial reaction to meeting a scientist. It's a compliment to the subject, but it's a compliment with an edge-- the implication is that the subject isn't just a little bit smarter than the reader or speaker, but that they're different in a fundamental way. Were I more fond of humanities jargon, I'd probably use words like "othering" here.

So, I agree with SciCurious that I'd like to see more stories about scientists that are cast like stories about athletes. Talk more about the way they overcame adversity through hard work, or rose from humble origins (may I suggest Michael Faraday as a possible subject?), and how they're like the rest of us, not how they're fundamentally different from us. This can have benefits not only for the psyches of early-career scientists struggling with Impostor Syndrome, but for the status of science as a whole.


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It's interesting... athletic failures in school gym class actually did mess with my head in exactly that way, because I knew instinctively that, while I could get better, I was never going to get good enough to be as good as a normal person. I really felt as if I lacked an innate knack that made it possible for most people to catch a pop fly or do pull-ups, and that if I tried to make a serious effort at team sports, I'd be revealed as an impostor. (Uncontrolled bullying in my childhood PE classes probably had something to do with this; also, at least some tasks requiring visual-motor coordination really were impeded by my messed-up stereo vision.)

The thoughts in my head corresponded exactly to descriptions of math anxiety in people who have it.

These days, my physical exercise is all solo, generally done on machines, and it helps, because there's no sense of competition and I can choose not to do things I feel hopeless at. It's not what would work for everyone, but it's a workaround for my personal mental blocks.

I dunno, we're sort of trying to adopt an inclusive attitude of "You don't need to be a genius to major in physics" and, um, well, why don't you come by and grade some midterms? You'll see what I mean.

This is kind of strange to me. I don't think that's how the narrative of scientists is at all. Maybe because when I was a kid my Dad got all the scientist biographies from the 'childhood of young Americans' types of series?

The most interesting human (but interesting) portrayal of a scientist that comes to mind Natalie Angier's depiction of Bob Weinberg in Natural Obsessions: the Search for the Oncogene.
What I like about that book is that it discusses candidly a lot of the problems along the way to discoveries.

The thing is, Becca, that prior to the 20th century scientists of working-class upbringing were rare to nonexistent. Michael Faraday was perhaps the most prominent exception, but science in the 17th through 19th centuries in Europe (and the famous scientists of that era are the ones people are most likely to read biographies of in school) was generally the province of the well-off. In England, if you were doing science in that era you were generally either rich enough to do it as a hobby (Herschel or Lord Kelvin) or working at Oxbridge (Newton, among others) or working for the King (Greenwich Royal Observatory or Kew Gardens). Similarly in other countries: in France, Lavoisier lost his head in the Revolution because he had been a member of a royal commission. Tycho Brahe was a Danish nobleman, and Kepler was his assistant. Et cetera. And some of the stories tell of extraordinary abilities from a young age, e.g., the three-year-old Gauss hearing his father discuss the family business accounting and saying, "Father, the reckoning is wrong, it should be [the correct amount]," or Feynman's skill as a Depression-era teenager at repairing radios by thinking.

Sure, there are more recent scientists from humble backgrounds, but few of them are as famous as the big names from before the twentieth century. That's in contrast to sports: almost all of the well-known athletes are from the last 100 years, and the ones people are most familiar with are generally those who have played during their lifetimes. Coupled with a lack of other options (sports like soccer and basketball don't need much in up-front costs, and recognizable versions of things like baseball are only slightly more expensive, while trying to do science-like stuff costs money), that makes athletic excellence a likelier-seeming ticket out of the slum for many people, who have several role models to choose from. Coaches (in the form of older siblings or neighbors) are more readily available, too; few people on the wrong side of the tracks know anybody who actually does science.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 Apr 2012 #permalink

You seem to be assuming that this aspect of the narrative about great scientists is false. I disagree, I believe they really *are* different. You just cannot train intelligence, you either have it or you don't, if you are slow in making new connections between facts you will stay that way. If you are not born smart no matter how hard you work you won't match Einstein or Feynmann. Sure you may be a productive scientist, as most of scientific day to day work doesn't really require brilliance, but you won't become a great scientist.

While I don't read about athletes, from you description it seems that it's this narrative that is faulty if it assumes everyone can succeed at every pursuit if only they work hard enough. This idea is patently absurd. Certain in-born aspects of your body simply cannot be overcome.

You seem to be assuming that this aspect of the narrative about great scientists is false. I disagree, I believe they really *are* different. You just cannot train intelligence, you either have it or you don't, if you are slow in making new connections between facts you will stay that way. If you are not born smart no matter how hard you work you won't match Einstein or Feynmann. Sure you may be a productive scientist, as most of scientific day to day work doesn't really require brilliance, but you won't become a great scientist.

I agree that most people aren't Einstein or Feynman, but I disagree that there's a qualitative difference between them and ordinary scientists. The mythology of physics makes it seem that way, but when you really look into how they worked, they're only quantitatively different from the rest of us.

That was the really striking thing about the books by Pais and Krauss, to me. The mythology of physics makes Einstein and Feynman seem otherworldly, but when you look closely at the details of their careers, they're much more comprehensible. And they put in a good deal more work than the usual stories would have you believe-- Pais does a nice job laying out all the false steps along the way to general relativity, and Krauss makes clear that Feynman worked very hard in order to create the impression of being stunningly intuitive.

The notion that scientists think in a fundamentally different way than non-scientists is very flattering to the vanity of nerds, but I don't believe it. Scientists are incrementally better at some mental tasks in the same way that athletes are incrementally better at some physical tasks, and great scientists are incrementally better than ordinary scientists in the same way that great athletes are incrementally better than ordinary athletes.

Of course intelligence can be taught! Even if you define "intelligence" as "what's measured on an IQ test", there's research showing that schooling has a strong impact on this. For making connections between ideas, first you need a broad knowledge base. Then, there are games that rely on drawing connections between different things, which should certainly help. And you can teach cross-domain concepts like "exponential growth" or "networks".

The other thing is that we can talk all we want about people like Einstein, but most scientists aren't Einstein. Most scientists do solid but not earth-shaking work in some field that only their colleagues have heard of. Academic departments aren't populated with geniuses. Smart people, sure; folks who think on a completely different level from everyone else, mostly not.

academia ⺠science by 500 years
90% of major scientific discoveries â Academia
scientist â¡ someone who has made a scientific discovery
(someone employed by a university ÇÇ academic ) ⢠scientist