The Humane Scientist

It was Philip Ball who drew my attention to the recent memoir by Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman. He said, over Twitter, that he thought it would resonate with me, and it certainly did. His review of the book can be found here. There is much that is factual – about her treks to study the so-called flood basalts in Siberia, for instance – and there is much that is tragic about her life, ranging from childhood abuse to cancer. But what struck me most was her determination to find a different way of doing science, in which every member of a team is valued, not merely a cog in a hierarchical power structure. She deplores the idea of a ‘hero’, as she puts it, at the top claiming the credit. Such a stance does indeed resonate with me.

Elkins-Tanton’s arguments explore how such a structure leads to an environment in which minorities are likely to suffer. A she puts it

“I have watched graduate students, particularly men, learn the practice of harsh contradiction instead of discussion, and I’ve watched them practice on each other, and on female faculty.”

This reminds me of what I heard from female early career philosophers, who told me how much they hated the so-called Socratic method of argument their discipline favoured. In this the dialogue is necessarily argumentative, one side contradicting the other (that contradiction, no doubt often being harsh), supposedly to tease out better answers but, in the process, leaving many feeling diminished.  In philosophy, undergraduate numbers of men and women may start near equal, but certainly don’t end up like that higher up the pecking order. There would seem to be a connection between method of teaching and gender outcomes.

No doubt there are those who believe that ‘harsh contradiction’ is simply toughening up the wimps, but I do not see it as such, but agree with Elkins-Tanton’s view that

“This practice does not indicate the depth of the person’s knowledge….it’s a way of saying, I am master of my field…And this practice does not lead to best learning and discovery.”

The need of some leaders to suppress anyone whose views do not accord with theirs, whatever the seniority of the other, can only be detrimental. At its worst, it can lead to lateral thinking and alternative hypotheses being cut down, so that someone’s dominant viewpoint can thrive: that can never be good for science. I am tempted to use the amyloid hypothesis as an example of this, where ideas take hold and are not challenged for far too long. In this field specifically, it has taken more than 15 years for what looks like fraudulent evidence supporting one version of the hypothesis to come under suspicion. With Alzheimer’s such a devastating disease, and much effort directed towards a target that may not even exist, the damage globally done by not allowing alternative ideas to be developed fully is impossible to quantify.

Elkins-Tanton is equally forceful about the damage that can be caused by ignoring those who bully or harass their colleagues. When she draws a particular person’s appalling behaviour to the attention of her institution’s leadership, she is met with rebuttal, including the argument of ‘the need to keep Chris because he brought in a lot of grant money’ and that he ‘should be forgiven because he was drunk when he did it’. She persisted, and ultimately the culprit left. The emotions I felt when I tried to draw attention to a senior professor’s harassment I have detailed before. I felt sullied and appalled that arguments such as “oh yes, he behaved like that with many female colleagues, that’ s just how he was, but he was immensely supportive of women” and that “it’s always gone on” were regarded as adequate to proceed with offering further honours to the individual, although I was promised the centre would look to see if there was further evidence of harassment on file. Of course, there wouldn’t be. It is a fearful business to make an official complaint, particularly when there seems little likelihood of anything being done to remedy the situation.

Similar situations arise far from the higher education sector. Recently this has been very clear in the allegations regarding Dominic Raab’s bullying in various Cabinet roles. As expressed in the Guardian

“Sources claim that while none of the officials wanted to make a formal complaint because they felt that working for the department was a privilege, they decided to inform McDonald [Lord Simon McDonald, now Master of Christ’s College here in Cambridge] about the alleged bullying.”

Civil servants, just like many in Higher Education, do not seem to have much faith in official processes.

Bullying may be hard to define formally (where do you draw the line between exhorting a student and being excessively demanding?), but it should be possible for an institution to put brakes on people who damage others, even without sacking them. Where a supervisor repeatedly demeans students under their care, surely it should be possible to ensure that they are not permitted to take on new students for a year or two while they learn the error of their ways and realise there are consequences of inappropriate behaviour. That someone, who I know has been investigated for bullying within a University, can still be in post and be described to me by a former researcher in their team as ‘neither a misogynist nor a racist, he just bullies everyone’ is an absolute condemnation of the system as it currently stands. Often it does feel as if an institution will support those who bring in the research cash, regardless of the devastation they may wreak on those in their teams.

In his review of the book, Ball remarks that

“Elkins-Tanton’s memoir joins a small group that is reconfiguring the way science is presented and framed: not as a triumphant march of discovery but as an intimate journey in which researchers navigate their own dilemmas, struggles and traumas at the same time as they try to expand our knowledge of the physical world.”

He also notes that these memoirs typically come from the pen of a woman. It is an interesting point. Do men not want to admit to the fact that they are vulnerable, and that the default way of doing science – constructed by white men over the last century and a half within universities – has its failings? If I compare the two books by E.O. Wilson (Letters to a Young Scientist) and, much earlier, by Peter Medawar (Advice to a Young Scientist), it is clear how much Wilson falls into the camp of believing in mastery and being self-serving in order to succeed, whereas Medawar comes across as much more humane. (I commented on this comparison previously.) However, Medawar’s own memoir (Memoir of a Thinking Radish) does not come across exhibiting much vulnerability at his core. We perhaps will have to wait longer for a memoir from a male scientist written with as much humanity, as well as interest and insight, as Elkins-Tanton’s.

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