Saturday, April 16, 2011

PhD 1.3: Critical Thinking - Don’t Be Stupid

I had this nagging fear all through my PhD studies. It haunted me continually. I worked around it the best I could, but it never left me. Not one day did I ever escape my fear completely. I could ignore it, bury it, and fake that it wasn’t there, but it was certainly always there. I had this fear that I would be outed as…stupid.

Sometimes I read articles I didn’t understand. Stupid. Sometimes I listened to presentations in which I had no idea what the presenter was saying. Stupid. There were theories I couldn’t grasp, methods beyond my immediate reach, and conclusions reported that I would never have come to in a million years – stupid, stupid, stupid. There were days, especially when I was tired or stressed or overwhelmed when I approached the experience of new knowledge as the outing of my stupidity. I felt naked in a room of people fully dressed and tried to carry on a conversation about important matters. I sipped my drink, nodded my head, gave a confident tone of voice – all as if i were not buck naked. People were being kind when they did not mention the obvious.

Not everyone who enters into doctoral studies has this experience, but a number of us do. We spend as much time and efforts over the multiple years of studies to reduce the stupid that seems so powerfully lodged into our minds as we do gaining useful tools for the benefit of humanity.

There are two main problems with using doctoral studies as a stupid reduction program.

1) It is inherently selfish. My own insecurity and self-consciousness and let’s face it, pride, kept me from understanding the process of learning better than I did. I learned a lot, but I learned less because I was using too much of my energy trying to evade other people’s opinions of me – opinions that were for the most part my own imagination. I wanted to be seen as smart, intelligent, brilliant etc. Well, note to self, science is all about the peer-review process – formally and informally. Thus, there is little room for exaltation in the Academy. I used my doctoral experience as a way to reduce how stupid I already felt. The irony was that the more I tried to de-stupidify myself, the more stupid I felt.

By the very nature of the context, there are a million ways to feel stupid in doctoral studies. Not knowing something, for me, was evidence of stupidity. Talk about a self-defeating game. Here are some things I learned about my own purpose for being in doctoral studies in relationship to my own selfishness.

  • It’s not about me.
  • Not knowing is not evidence for the existence of stupidity.
  • Not knowing is an opportunity for knowing.

2) It is dangerous. When I was so worried about my own stupidity, I never considered what I would think of other people who did not know what I knew. What if I accomplished an eradication of my own stupidity through the accumulation of tons of knowledge? What category would I place other people in who had not made the same accomplishment? Well, if I were honest, they would have to be stupid in my eyes. Suddenly, this problem can no longer by offed as some sort of humility or naivete. Now it is leveraged against other people. It is just wrong.

I did better on this front than I did the first one. I generally had a view of others as intelligent. But I confess there were a few times when I had a better question, better response, or better idea than another person and I silently whispered to myself, “that question was idiotic.” It is embarrassing to confess this, but it is true.

So, what began as an inferiority complex mutated into a superiority complex. Neither of these is all that useful in life in general, nor are they useful in doctoral studies.

There is huge risk in doctoral studies in situating someone as stupid. It can come out in all sorts of ways. If it is “I” who is stupid, then I end up taking few risks and deprive the world of the better contributions I could have made. If it is “you” who is stupid, then another approach is taken.

For example, people who do not arrive at the same conclusions as I do are stupid – right? But in science we do not call people stupid all that often – at least not that crudely. We find sophisticated ways to call someone stupid. Rather than say, “you’re stupid,” we shred their methodology section beyond recognition. We dismantle the underlying assumptions, the processes of data collection, the analysis techniques and leave it as rubble on the floor and in the end may have a subtle, but oh so smug smile when our questions outlast the answers. Sadly, we use our critical thinking skills for evil and not for good. We apply a level of rigor so stiff that it would impossible to satisfy. And we secretly hope no one does this to our work because we set a bar no one, not even ourselves, can jump.

This, my friends, is stupid. Having a knowledge deficit is not the same as being stupid. There is an easy fix to that. Being a mean and selfish and prideful person is an altogether different situation. A virtue deficit is not as easy a fix. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a new Master's student and I know exactly what you mean! When I got here, I had never heard of most of the things we would talk about in our group discussions. I often would have nothing to contribute and whenever someone asked me a question, a rarely knew what they were talking about. I imagined I was being judged every second by my colleagues, which was probably not the case. But this prompted me to get into overdrive and learn so much of every relevant thing that showed up in our discussions to the point that I surpassed most of my colleagues. It's a good thing that I learned all these things, but I think the motivation was wrong. The motivation was to elevate myself over everyone else so I could be the one doing the silent judging and not the other way around. I do believe one should at least catch up to the others he is doing science with, but science should not be a competition although I think a lot of scientists treat it as one. Doesn't it make sense to put our heads together rather than fight for credit?