Thursday, October 7, 2010

Not So Social Scientists

Blogging is usually a welcome change of pace from work for me. But sometimes I need to do a lot of writing for work, and when I do, writing for fun will interfere. It becomes a distraction rather than a diversion. Don't expect a large volume of posts here for the next few weeks at least.

But there was a post recently about socially inept scientists that's pricked my interest. It's basically a good practical post about attending conferences if you're introverted or socially awkward. But one thing leapt out at me (and others commenting on this post):

A final point is to realize that scientists as a group tend to be more socially inept than other groups.

I don't think this is true, actually.

There are plenty of socially inept scientists out there of course. Insensitive bullies that trample everyone else in the pursuit of their career; desperately tongue-tied introverts that hide behind their desk in the far corner of the lab lest anyone actually approach them; oblivious monomaniacs that will drive people insane with their obsessions. People that look and act like their mom dressed them for their first day of middle school and haven't changed their style since. There are people that amaze you by being able to go through an entire workday without the guidance of an assistant or support person.

But the reason we remember these characters we meet in our labs is because they're not actually that common. They are the exception, not the rule. Most doctoral students and researchers you meet are normal, social people with a deep interest in their work. Don't confuse passion for your work with social ineptitude, by the way; it's two separate things. Inability to clearly explain your work is no sign of social clumsiness either. Explaining complex things for the non-expert is hard; that's why we need an entire separate profession - science writers and journalists - to do it well.

And consider of some other professions for a moment. Accountants. Industrial laundry workers. Payroll clerks. Chemical process engineers. Lawyers. Systems analysts. Vehicle pool maintenance personnel. Computer programmers. You will find withdrawn, introverted, awkward, rude and oblivious people in all of these jobs, and in many, many more. There's no reason to think that scientists have more people like that than any other group.

So where does this notion come from? There are a number of reasons, no doubt, but I think one reason is that science is a very social career. You collaborate with others - the lone scientist is a rare exception - and you interact with your collaborators more or less constantly. You may be teaching and mentoring students and PhD candidates, lead a team of researchers in a common project, or serve on committees and adminstrative posts. You change your workplace and coworkers often, and getting to know people and getting along with them is critical for finding people to work with and labs to work in.

And you are always, always presenting your results and yourself - in the form of journal papers, true, but also in conference presentations, seminars, workshops, meetings and informal discussions. Whenever you visit a lab, if only to meet one of their members, you're often expected to give a talk about your research. I've even heard of people mentioning where they're going on vacation, only to be roped in for a quick, informal three-hour seminar at a nearby university while they're in the neighbourhood.

Science is very social, so the scientists who aren't will tend to stick out. When you show some researcher on TV, you're asking them to take on the job of TV personality, and not everybody is up to the task. Every oddly dressed post-doc that stutters through an interview will reinforce the idea of the socially inept scientist. Accountants or meat packers are, on the other hand, very rarely asked to do any kind of public appearance. If they are introverted or socially clumsy nobody will notice. It's not that socially inept scientists are more common, but simply that they're more visible.

None of which matters of course. The image of the weird scientist will live on, together with the white coat, test tubes with multicolored liquids and all the other clich├ęs of this profession. Oh well, it could be worse. At least I'm not an accountant:

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