Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hubris vs. Humility: Chemists' Inner Struggle

Hydrazide crystals, DCM solution at left
When the Royal Society's Chemistry World blog challenged the chemistry blogosphere to suggest "What makes a good chemist?," they inadvertently reopened a debate on the cultural and professional perception of scientists.  Editor Bibiana Seijo opined that problem solving, tenacity, flexibility, passion, teamwork, and communication skills were tops. Chemjobber's take on it?
"...I really believe in humility. [snip] Humility can keep a chemist grounded in the fundamentals of their field and it can give direction by showing what's yet to be known...another trait that chemists should be really good at: truthfulness. When I speak, it's my sincere hope that I can understandably convey the truth about chemicals and chemistry."
While several commenters reiterated the call for humility, some did not. I was among them.

In fact, when I submitted my first answer (Curiosity, honesty, industriousness, exuberance, and adaptability), I had taken great pains to leave humility out. Later, blogging stalwart @azmanam mentioned that I almost had a full acrostic, so I couldn't resist the chance to finish it:
"OK, OK: "Curiosity, Honesty, Exuberance, Mastery, Industriousness, Structured, Tenacious! 
All puzzle pandering aside, note that I've still left out humility. Not that I advocate being a puffed-up know-it-all, especially not around other, smarter scientists, but CJ's tongue-in-cheek Twitter hashtag #humblebrag springs to mind; quite literally, when one argues for his humility, he violates it at the same time.

My champion for respectful disagreement
Source: 3 Quarks Daily
Honestly, between us? I prefer the approach Richard Feynman advocates for in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: respectful disagreement. In this scene from the book, Feynman bluntly discusses physics at length with Niels and Aage Bohr, and learns the value of a little chutzpah:
"...Bohr said to his son, 'Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He's the only one who's not afraid of me, and will say when I've got a crazy idea. So the next time we want to discuss ideas, we're not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we'll talk with him first.'
I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics..."
Humility doesn't necessarily fund your grant, or publicize your research. It doesn't get young kids excited or engaged in learning. It also doesn't help you to advocate a new approach, or appreciate any hard-earned success. I feel like scientists, generally - and chemists, specifically - fight an ongoing, internal battle: hubris vs. humility. How can you take pride in your research and stay motivated, without alienating coworkers or sounding condescending?

My answer? Emphasize honesty and curiosity. The first trait makes sure you're constantly checking and validating results (which helps to keep you humble). The second helps smooth interactions with other scientists; you can learn a lot if you're genuinely interested and excited about another's field.

Fall leaf, or metaphor? You decide!
I've recently been reading The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn, a biology professor at N.C. State. Deep in Chapter 5, Dunn discusses mid-20th Century experiments with aseptic "bubbles," which bred lines of lab animals that were essentially germ-free. One problem, of course, rears its head with DNA-embedded viruses, which can later be expressed even under these sterile conditions. Deep in the narrative, he drops in a tiny asterisk, which draws the eye down to some miniscule text near the bottom - Dunn's take on mixing curiosity with a little dash of irreverance:
"Perhaps, in reading this, you are thinking, "I know how you could get those viruses out." If so, the urge you are feeling is the backbone of scientific innovation, a stew of can do, curiosity, obsession, and a little arrogance. It is the job of conservative, daily science to suggest that the problems are bigger than you might appreciate. It is your job on behalf of radical, innovative science to go write your own fifty-year plan."
 Sounds good to me!

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