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:
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.