Convictions and the courage to match

When I am watching a lecture or talk, sometimes, something that the speaker says causes me to gasp inwardly. It is not what they are saying, but the strength with which they express their opinions. You can’t say that, I think, not without qualifying it, not without adding the subtitle:

IMHO

My GCSE English teacher used to chastise us if, in an essay, we made a habit of starting sentences with “I think…”. It’s bloody obvious that you think it, she used to say, you wrote it. Here at University, during a break in a viva, an internal examiner once nudged me to stop starting every sentence with “What I understand is…” or “The way I understand it is…”. To be more assertive.

In the former case, we were writing opinion pieces, which must have been mighty tedious for the examiner if certain phrases were over-used. In the latter case, I was, as one is in a viva, having the edges of my understanding investigated, and in the exam room those boundaries felt very fragile indeed.

Many people seem to have no qualms about expressing opinions at odds with current scientific thinking – I will let you pick your own examples of claim and counterclaim. But in an area where these is no consensus, I am repeatedly astonished at the courage of some people’s – some scientist’s – convictions.

I am able to hold my own when I’ve had a few glasses of wine I am discussing something I have studied – something I know. But when discussing something that is less generally accepted, I am careful to distinguish between knowledge and opinion, between my understanding and what is not yet known, not by anyone, and not yet.

Someday, not that long from now, I will, with hard work, a bit of good luck, and a following wind, have my own thesis to defend. I have a suspicion that not being convincing when I discuss my research, will not convince my examiners either.

Is the confidence to make assertions – this is the wrong way to do things, and this is the right way – in a realm in which there is not, or is not yet, a consensus, a function of experience, or of personality, or a combination? Is asserting my views a risk I should be taking already? Humility is an attribute of science and of scientists. I wait patiently for the day I have the nerve to publicly stick my neck out. You will see it here, first.

Probably.

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30 Responses to Convictions and the courage to match

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    Very interesting. I know that when I was at college I was a lot surer about nearly everything. Now, I realize that the vast majority of things have two sides, at least, and although when I do have an opinion I am certain of, I like to think that I defend and evangelize it with a little more consideration for other people.
    Humility increases with age; for me at least.
    Talking of age, happy birthday Erika!

  2. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    I agree with Richard – I question myself and my opinions much more than I ever did 5-10 years ago. I think the more you learn the more you realize that you don’t know everything. I have also become more sensitive to the opinions of others…you know, realizing they’re actually allowed to have them (something I was fully against in my early 20s when I thought I knew everything).
    So, I wouldn’t feel bad about not being opinionated. We can still share our knowledge with others without giving the impression that we think we know everything 🙂

  3. Erika Cule says:

    That is curious. I definitely feel that as I progress with my studies/career I am formulating opinions about things where there is not a (yet) a majority view or a “right” answer.
    I am also learning, that not everyone qualifies their opinions as such – and that some “facts” should be taken with a pinch of salt, even when put forward by someone reputable.

  4. Ken Doyle says:

    “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
    I do tend to question a lot more things than I used to.

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    Would someone tell my daughter, please?

  6. Elizabeth Moritz says:

    I agree with the comments made above. Especially now as I am writing my thesis, I find myself using awkward statements such as “These results most likely suggest…” or “It appears that protein X probably binds…”
    I think 😉 I just need to buck-up and make an unambiguous statement!!!

  7. steffi suhr says:

    Erika, I think (heh) that you are talking about two different things. One is having confidence and believing in yourself and your achievements/knowledge. In my case, that has definitely increased over the years. Although I still question myself. Sometimes a lot (ask my husbandj… or better not). But if you have that confidence, you can assertively express an opinion about something without couching it in too many ‘I think/I understand/maybeprobablylikely’. I find people who do this well very impressive – people who are assertive, but signal in a confident way that they invite discussion of their statements.
    The other is when someone boldly says things that nobody knows for sure… – that is called bullshitting. Please don’t learn that. Although, according to this post, maybe women should do a bit more of it…

  8. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Humility is an attribute of science and of scientists.
    Yes – on the whole. And is one of the things I like about this game. Although I’ve occasionally noticed how cranky they can be become if you question their interpretation of some data, no matter how diplomatic your approach. A lot of time and effort is invested and people become protective. I guess that the confidence, perhaps even arrogance of some (although that is often something perceived subjectively by others who disagree with the point being made, or somehow feel intimidated), is an important driver. But in science, ultimately, opinion doesn’t mean a jot.

  9. Richard Wintle says:

    I think (oh, sorry) that the best advice I got from one of my graduate committee members was never to say “I’m not quite sure…” or words to that effect. When responding to a question, she said, you either know the answer or you don’t. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know, and move on.
    Of course, statements like “I think” or “I believe that” are well-known argument tricks, since by definition they are hard (impossible?) to contradict.

  10. Cath Ennis says:

    My non-scientist friends start laughing now when I say something like “on the other hand” or “the other side to that story is” or “this is not a black and white issue”. I’ve tried to explain about uncertainty and science, but they think I just enjoy arguing so much that I like to argue both sides simultaneously (there may be some truth to that).
    My English teacher had the same response to “I think [X]”, by the way. But her biggest pet peeve was “Personally, I think [X]”.
    “HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT IMPERSONALLY?”, she would shout. I still cringe when I hear people say that…

  11. Ken Doyle says:

    I’d have to pick a nit with your English teacher, then. Thinking personally can be quite different from thinking professionally, for example 🙂

  12. Cath Ennis says:

    I think she would probably argue that you think personally in a professional capacity!

  13. Åsa Karlström says:

    Erika, this is so true 🙂 nice post about it. It’s hard to break habits…. and some people (like me) would need some more assertiveness when it comes to the “stating your research”
    Cath: I do that too. The two sides of one coin. It’s something engrained I think (;) ). I mean, if it is really true it should hold up to a simple comparison like that, right?

  14. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Would someone tell my daughter, please?
    Richard, the problem with that is she won’t believe anyone until she’s old enough to know it herself! 😀

  15. Lou Woodley says:

    Great post Erika! Steffi, I totally agree with your point about distinguishing between confidence and assertiveness. I think the problem is that confidence can be hard to build up when it relies on repeated positive reinforcement and that’s just not how science usually works. We’re meant to doubt, question and probe our hypotheses which is the antithesis of confidence-building behaviour!
    Another totally random thought: if confidence really is built up by positive reinforcement, do different people have different thresholds they need to pass before they feel confident about something? And can you transfer confidence e.g. if you feel really capable of doing X, does that make you feel more confident of trying Y?

  16. Kyrsten Jensen says:

    One other thing to remember, is that when scientific discussions are taken to the media, they are often presented in black and white (whether that is appropriate is another discussion), and if you don’t state strongly what you believe to be true, someone else will do it for you, eventually.

  17. Stephen Curry says:

    I think it’s fair enough to use ‘I think’ in speaking or writing since it distinguishes your opinion (which may not be based on a full understanding of the facts – and incorporates your personal value judgements) from purported statements of fact.
    Very interesting post – touching on several points. You will get your PhD thanks to hard work – luck will have nothing to do with it. On that you can rely. And it is likely to be a fillip to your self-confidence. But as others have noted above, don’t be tempted to become a bullshitter. For sure, some scientists are humble before the facts (and uncertainties of experimentation) but our profession also contains its fair share of blaggers with little respect for accuracy or evidence in their statements.

  18. Henry Gee says:

    Great post, Erika. As other have said, the older I get, and the more I seem to know, the less I seem to be sure about. Hilaire Belloc put it very well in his verse, The Microbe . There might be a distinction, though, between the caveats of a scientific discourse, and the conventions of rhetoric, in which one is invited to take a position and stick to it.

  19. Richard P. Grant says:

    Alyssa, very good point 🙂

  20. Åsa Karlström says:

    Stephen: I think (yeah yeah) that it is in part that “I think…” statements are more due to the speaker being a bit insecure and/or not wanting to sound like a know-it-all / misdirected humbleness which makes it sound like there is not facts but “thoughts”. at least that is how I used it for a long time…
    But I agree with you more than not though (just wanted to throw the other thing out there) and think it is valid to use it for seminars/talks since it might be a start for a hypothesis not all the way proven for example?

  21. Erika Cule says:

    Ooh! Lots of comments. (Does the novelty ever wear off?)
    @Steffi

    I find people who do this well very impressive – people who are assertive, but signal in a confident way that they invite discussion of their statements.

    I agree that this is an impressive skill. Such people typically do not fall apart when someone questions what they assert, something I have witnessed typically younger researchers do. This is in part what makes me think that this is a skill developed over time.
    @Lee

    But in science, ultimately, opinion doesn’t mean a jot.

    I don’t agree. Opinions should not be confused with evidence or with facts, but differences of opinion can be a huge driver for progress.

  22. Anna Vilborg says:

    Great post! I agree with that it can be difficult to sound so sure when you are writing about your data – I sometimes have the same difficulties with other people’s data and keep reusing phrases like “some reports show interaction between A and B” or “It has been demonstrated that A interacts with B” etc, when I could really just write “A interacts with B”.
    And I agree with the second part too – Nowadays I think it hard to have an opinion on anything until I have gotten round to some background reading 🙂

  23. Erika Cule says:

    @Henry
    That is a lovely poem. I was particularly tickled by the advertising round the edge of the link.

  24. Henry Gee says:

    Hah! When I clicked on it the adverts were all about bodybuilding. Singularly inappropriate for me, I thought, since my body is built to a degree that many consider more than sufficiently ample – but then you don’t strike me as the clairvoyant beads-and-scarf-wearing type. … 😉

  25. Lee Turnpenny says:

    Hi Erika.
    Opinions should not be confused with evidence or with facts, but differences of opinion can be a huge driver for progress.
    In my humble (and highly questionable) opinion, we do agree.

  26. Nicolas Fanget says:

    Erika, I had the same issue when writing my thesis and a report I had done for a big company. Thankfully I had great advice from my advisors (Hi Sophie! Hi Fiona!) that if I know something to be true according to my data, then I have to stand by it. This was even more important for the industry report, because all they wanted to know was “X is caused by Y, yes or no?”, and when you answer “well on the one hand…” the suits get agitated. So I basically wrote it saying what was found (which thankfully was what they expected/wanted), and put all the caveats in the annexes and the technical report, so that they are there for any more scientific reader to find.

  27. Joe Hill says:

    Interesting Blog Erika! I am PhD + 10yrs and I still have an issue that, when asked a question for the first time (for which I am positive of the answer), I respond with 98% confidence. If asked a second time for confirmation, I am reduced to 80% confidence, by the time I am asked ‘are you sure?‘ I am only 60% confident and this is where I stay. When reliving the conversation later, I kick myself for not having the courage of my convictions.

  28. Alejandro Correa says:

    Humility is an attribute of science and of scientists. I wait patiently for the day I have the nerve to publicly stick my neck out
    In Chile doesn’t exist.
    -I love Lou’s comment is true what she says.

  29. Heather Etchevers says:

    Great comment thread, so I won’t repeat what many have said above.
    My small addition is that sometimes the assertion of what ought to be qualified, is just a shortcut. It is still understood to be a controversial issue, and the person uttering the opinion-stated-as-fact is only really inviting the readers or the people in the amphitheatre to challenge them on it, if they were really following. Some people like that give and take a lot. I had a conversation like this recently with a person who tracked me down to discuss a point in a paper I had produced during my Ph.D. So it does happen! And I did what I would have had a harder time to do at the time – I made an assertion about that work, which would have been too qualified for the purpose ten years ago.
    Confidence comes with time, as does knowledge, but I am certainly among the numbers of those who have realized that as you know more, you understand that you know very little at all. But that’s okay – we’re all in the same boat, and luckily we know a lot among us all collectively.

  30. Erika Cule says:

    bq. sometimes the assertion of what ought to be qualified, is just a shortcut. It is still understood to be a controversial issue, and the person uttering the opinion-stated-as-fact is only really inviting the readers or the people in the amphitheatre to challenge them on it, if they were really following.
    It was an example of exactly this that prompted me to write this post. Indeed in the example I am thinking of, some members of the audience did challenge what he was saying. Although he stood by his opinions, the initial assertion of them was almost tongue-in-cheek, inviting discussion.
    I think this is the skill Steffi and I are talking about earlier, and it is something I would like to be able to do, once I have some convictions of my own.

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