Thursday, March 10, 2005

to convince or not to convince?

Maybe I am just PMSing, but I am having one of those weeks. Two days ago, my neighbor offered to make dinner for me to say thanks for feeding her (incredibly unfriendly) cat while she was out of town. Somehow I ended up stirring the risotto for quite a while, and feeling like I was making dinner for myself. And I would have made something else if I had been planning on doing the cooking!

Anyway, at some point during the evening, when my boyfriend wasn't around, she suggested she might give my name to some people to serve on a committee. And I asked what kind of committee, etc. and it turns out it has something to do with postdocs, but not with something particularly relevant to my experience or interests, and I don't really have time. Somehow, during the course of this conversation, she apparently felt it was her duty to give me a lecture on how I have to be diplomatic on this committee, and patient with these people, and not get fed up or be too critical. I've never been on a committtee with her, so I was really resenting the unsolicited advice, the implication that I'm so undiplomatic and so impatient that I would embarrass her if she recommended me without giving me this pre-emptive lecture, and wondering where she got off assuming she knows anything about how I behave on committees in the first place.


Of course I was too taken aback to say much at the time, except that I wasn't interested in her stupid committee. I'm debating whether it's worth saying something to her about how I didn't appreciate the lecture. I may wait and see if she tries to pull that kind of crap with me again. I swear, when you're not on guard, it's very hard to come up with something to say in response. And I never felt like I needed to be on guard with her before. Of course, it's also hard to get the impression that she ever listens to anything I say. She is one of those people, it's hard to get a word in edgewise. So defending myself was hardly an option, because her endless monologue continued before I had a chance to process, much less respond to, her little comments. Which reminded me of my mother, by the way.

So that was earlier this week. There's a reason I live nowhere near my parents. I'm not much for lectures on how I should live my life, how I should behave, etc. Especially since hypocrites tend to be the people most likely to be giving them!

Then today I mentioned something to my advisor about looking for jobs, and she said

"you could have any job I want if you can just convince the world that you're right (about this really long-term question I am asking with my research).

Well I thought that was the most ridiculous, and depressing, thing I had heard in a long time, because I think it could easily take the rest of my life to "convince the world" that I'm right, no matter how hard I try. We had this conversation where she said,

"well, you can't just discount your critics, you have to think about their concerns. You can't just 'bash them over the head with data', you have to convince them."

And I said, "well, some people are just charismatic and convincing, but I've never been that sort of person and I don't think you can learn how to be that way. "

And she said, "no no no, it's not personality in science, it's all about the data."

And I said, "you just told me not to 'bash them over the head with data'?" ???

Granted, this conversation made no sense, and she had to go so I didn't have time to find out exactly what she was driving at, so I'm guessing.

So my question for today is, do you have to convince all your critics?

I'm inclined to think that scientists are stubborn, and some people will go to their graves without changing their minds.

I'd like the think that scientists who are well-trained and open-minded will be convinced by the data, so long as I don't, as one person put it, "oversell" the model.

For the ones who are skeptical but convinceable, one might think that publishing a series of papers, all with consistent data supporting your model, would eventually win them over. One figure at a time.

And my advisor did say that this last one is what she does, and that I am doing the right thing, in that respect.

But I'm still not sure what she means, or if I am inclined to agree that I should spend a lot of time wondering and worrying about what my critics are criticizing behind my back. Especially when I know that some of their beliefs are just that- beliefs based on artifactual data, like religion. You can have faith if you want to, but you can't prove anything. And in my experience, there is no hope of convincing someone that their beliefs are wrong.

And who am I to tell people what to believe? All I can do is offer suggestions.

I was also thinking today how I have major problems with authority, always have, probably always will. And how maybe, had I gone to church or joined the army, I would have learned the hard way how to deal with authority. But don't you think it's strange there are more classes on leadership and none on fitting in with the crowd (aside from What Not to Wear)? On the one hand, our society supposedly values people who stand out, stick out their necks, make a change in the world, etc. On the other hand, our society does not make it easy for those people to live their lives and make a change in the world. There is always a lot of backlash.

Something about shining brightly and burning candlesticks on both ends, or something. Double-edge swords, etc.


At 2:06 PM, Blogger Junniper said...

I don't believe in having to deal with authority. Especially because most of the time those in authority really need to be dealt with.

It's one thing to show respect for people, but I HATE when those with authority think you should wipe their nose for them with a gold-encrusted hanky.

That's my four cents for the day. :)

At 8:18 AM, Blogger NelC said...

As far as your advisor goes, my guess is she's talking about the difference between just shovelling loads of data at the reader, and picking out a few nuggets and polishing them 'til they're nice and sparkly.

Obviously, you have to have all the data there, but the data by itself isn't the research, it's the sorting through the data for the relevent bits and presenting them so that others will see what you saw in the original data.

As to your neighbour, she's either making a guess about what you'd be like in a committee environment based on an average of everyone she's ever been on a committee with, or she's basing it on her own experience and what she had to learn. In the former case just take it as a warning about what other people will be like, and in the latter look upon it as an unintended insight into your neighbour's character.

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