Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Perfect Storm

This post continues the discussion of the Dunning-Kruger effect--a condition in which a person who is incompetent is unable to recognize their deficiencies and tends to hold an over-inflated view of their skills.  I contrasted Dunning-Kruger with the "imposter syndrome" in which the person is unable to internalize their accomplishments and fears being discovered to be incompetent or unqualified.  

Feminists have focused on the imposter syndrome as an unfortunate reaction suffered by some women working in fields dominated by men (although either gender may experience it, e.g., as students).  It occurred to me that the contrasting syndrome--Dunning-Kruger may also pose a problem for women in STEM fields.

As a woman in science (especially government science), I encounter people who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger syndrome--or something that seems very close to it. Their performance is woefully sub-standard, yet they exude supreme confidence in their abilities.  In the past, I was completely mystified as to how such people could maintain such an elevated opinion despite being told repeatedly that their performance was poor (these are the students who insist that they are "A" students despite scoring consistent "Cs" on exams).  I now understand that their overall gross incompetence includes the lack of skills needed to accurately evaluate their performance and that of others.  Once these people get into the workforce, they continue to over estimate their capabilities and contributions, as well as the performance of people they work with. Despite explicit evidence to the contrary (lack of progress on projects, inability to write or publish anything of substance, lack of creativity), some manage to get ahead (or at least avoid being fired), in large part due to their overconfident behavior and/or the inaccurate assessment by others who also lack the necessary skills to recognize their incompetency.

So how might someone with Dunning-Kruger, who is poor at assessing competence in themselves and others, have an impact on women in STEM fields?

Lacking the necessary cognitive skills to accurately judge competency, Dunning-Kruger sufferers look for other signals to guide their opinions of themselves and others.  One easy option is to put people into neat categories to which certain general attributes can be ascribed (race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status)...in other words, stereotypes. Stereotypes make it much easier for such people to judge people and their performance.  Gender X is good at skill A, but poor at skill B.  Younger people are better at skill C than old people. Members of a specific group may rate others of their group highly (because of their own high opinion of themselves). 

We can see this behavior in action among members of the "old boy network" (I don't for a second believe that this entity has gone extinct...only underground).  Implicit in the "old boy network" is the acceptance of other males as worthy of perks, recommendations, and support.  A male, who acts confident, is typically gauged to be competent--regardless of his actual performance. If one fails at a task, it's rationalized that he "just had a bad day" or that some external event caused the failure.  All the members of the "old boy network" talk in glowing terms about each other, further enhancing their self-images.  If a male newcomer is somewhat less grandiose in his self-diagnosis, the persistent back-slapping by other males may lead to a more pompous attitude ("if everyone thinks I'm so great, it must be so!").

The combination of coworkers who have overinflated views of themselves and superiors who cannot adequately assess other people's skills creates a "perfect storm" situation for a woman in science.

Someone unable to accurately evaluate other people's competencies may be more likely to make a mistake about the performance of a woman who is working in a non-traditional field.  Evidence as to her superior abilities may be completely ignored, because their erroneous perception is based on something else (e.g., stereotypes).  If she makes a mistake, she's automatically judged to be incompetent, because a single error is easier to focus on than putting it into the larger context of her overall skill set and previous performance.  If she has a tendency toward imposter syndrome, then this unrealistic treatment will greatly exacerbate her condition.  If she is surrounded by an old boys network, then she'll have to be very strong indeed to avoid feeling diminished and marginalized.

On the other hand, if this same female finds herself mostly surrounded by people who are skilled at assessing true capabilities, then she will likely be accepted as highly competent and will be less affected by those colleagues who hold exaggerated views of themselves. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Beyond the Imposter Syndrome

I came across a blog post at "On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess" in which the blogger, Isis, announces that the "imposter syndrome" is a scam.  In case you've not heard of it, this condition is one in which the person secretly feels like an imposter in their field, despite being highly competent and successful.  They are afraid that eventually everyone will find out that they are not a real scientist. Graduate students (in general) and women in STEM fields seem to suffer disproportionately from this problem.

Anyway, Isis expresses frustration over how many women are moaning about suffering from this condition. I think the concern here is that women will attribute any failure (to land a grant, to publish a paper) to this syndrome and this behavior will, consequently, enhance the belief that they are imposters.  I also suspect that those who have read or written a lot about the imposter syndrome have become weary of it and think that there is nothing new to be learned.

However, I think there is more to be understood about imposter syndrome and its opposite, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I think of as the "overinflated ego syndrome".  The Dunning-Kruger effect is one in which the person overestimates their abilities...and the more incompetent they are, the higher their level of confidence in their abilities. At first glance, it seems incomprehensible that people who constantly make mistakes or fail to meet performance expectations would paradoxically believe that they are competent or skilled. However, the mental skills required to be competent at any task (e.g., ability to assess what steps to take to accomplish the task, to gauge standards of performance) are the same skills needed to accurately evaluate one's own competence.

Kruger and Dunning summarize the key features of such people:
  1. They tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. They fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. They fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy

Thus, people who are generally incompetent are unable to gauge their own performance correctly and tend to over-inflate their performance (in their minds) relative to the performance of others.  Ehrlinger et al. provide the following example:

"..to produce a grammatically correct sentence, one must know something about the rules of grammar. But one must also have an adequate knowledge of the rules of grammar in order to recognize when a sentence is grammatically correct, whether written by one's self or by another person. Thus, those who lack grammatical expertise are not in a position to accurately judge the quality of their attempts or the attempts of other people. In addition, because people tend to choose the responses they think are most reasonable, people with deficits are likely to believe they are doing quite well even when they are, in reality, doing quite poorly."

Sufferers of the imposter syndrome are just the opposite.  In psychological terms, imposter syndrome is a condition in which the sufferer is not able to internalize his or her accomplishments and skills.  They are highly critical of themselves and tend to over-inflate the performance of those around them.  If we use graduate students as an example, we can see the dynamics involved in creating the imposter mindset.  Students are in a subordinate position from virtually every standpoint. They interact with people who are obviously competent and superior (professors) and who constantly tell the student (in various ways) that they are not yet competent at the skills required to succeed in their field of study.  When the student is thrust into a position of responsibility (they graduate and get a job), they may find it difficult to transition from the "incompetent" to the "totally competent" mindset.  They may go on to develop "imposter syndrome".

These two syndromes are neatly summarized in one of my favorite sayings: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." Charles Darwin.

Of course, these are two extremes along a wide spectrum of mental states. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, perhaps with more women toward the imposter end and more men toward the inflated ego end (I have no data, just more than 40 years of observations). We may shift between these mental states over time, depending on our history and new situations.  I recall feeling like an imposter right after attaining my Ph.D., but this faded with time and experience. I can envision someone taking on a job in a new field and initially feeling like an imposter...at least until some experience in the new position is gained.  You can probably think of many other examples.

So what does all this have to do with women in science and does this information lead to any insights as to how we may solve some of the "challenges" we face?  More in the next post.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hot Female Scientists

Just when we think we are making progress...toward a time when women are viewed as other than sex objects...we find that not much has changed.  Why do I say this?

I was recently reviewing the stats on this blog to see what people were most interested in. In the stats option, I can see what the top key phrase is that leads the most visitors to this blog. You guessed it: "hot female scientists".  Searching on those key words returns about 56 million hits.  My blog post (Are all female scientists white, skinny, and "hot"?) is number 9 on the hit parade.  One wonders what the guys who are searching for links to pics of hot women think of my post. I'm guessing they are puzzled for a brief moment and then click on the next link.

I did discover a post, in which a blogger apologizes for compiling a list of 15 sexiest female scientists (partly tongue-in-cheek...he included P.Z. Myers in the list). After readers complained, he took down the post and apologized.  His apology is eloquent and convincing--I recommend reading it. It affirms my impression that a lot of the sexist remarks and related behavior are perpetrated by guys who don't realize the impact of what they are doing. Not that that excuses them. It just puts them into a slightly different category from the misogynists who deliberately undermine women. I'm guessing that this blogger is young and inexperienced... and never stopped to think about what he was doing.

His reaction showed that we can change the minds and behavior of this group of men.  We can do this by not immediately jumping to conclusions about motives and taking the time to calmly explain the effect of their actions.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Nature Calling

The phone rings. You answer and it's a writer with Nature News who wants your opinion on an upcoming paper to be published in one of the Nature journals. You agree, and an embargoed copy is sent to you.

Upon reading the article, your first thought is, "How did this ever get past the reviewers?" You've never heard of the authors, who have never published anything of note on the topic.

Then you see that the authors have commented on an aspect (which they did not actually research) that is your area of expertise. Their statement goes something like this: "We know very little about Phenomenon X...due to the lack of research on the topic." They fail to cite your work or that of other researchers who have, in fact, published extensively on Phenomenon X.

Your response options:

a. Be gracious and compliment the authors for focusing attention on an important topic, endangered habitat/species, etc.

b. Be critical of the work and point out inaccuracies and false assumptions in the work that compromise the conclusions.

c. Ignore the findings of the paper and plug your own work.

d. Decline the request.

What would you do?

Whatever you do, you want to do it quickly if you wish your comments to be included in the news article. Journalists work on short deadlines, something that scientists often fail to appreciate. In this case, the news article is published by the journal that published the scientific paper. So they are likely not looking for extremely critical comments, which reflect badly on their decision to publish the paper. However, you want to provide an honest opinion--that's what they are asking for.

If you feel you cannot say anything positive about the paper, then option (d) is probably the best course of action. If you can say something positive, lead with this statement ("this work calls attention to a very important topic").  You can then say that there are still some aspects that need further research and/or that were not addressed in this paper. At this point, you may be able to mention your own work ("several researchers, including myself, are actively pursuing this aspect").

Another tip is to say something unusual or colorful. Such quotes are often used over more mundane ones. This all assumes, of course, that you wish to be quoted. There are advantages and disadvantages to being mentioned in a news article. You should carefully consider the consequences, depending on the situation. In this specific case I describe, the advantages usually outweigh any downside (commenter's profiles and links to their websites are usually included in Nature News articles).

Another option, not included in the choices above, is to write a rebuttal letter. This course of action is certainly one that would allow you to control what is printed as well as being able to fully expound on your criticism. I've never written a letter like this. However, I have written a "Reply" paper...one that was in response to a criticism of one of my papers (the journal published criticisms and replies in the form of short papers instead of letters). I described this experience in a previous blog post.

In general, however, I think there is a danger of critical letters to the editor sounding like "sour grapes". My reaction to a paper with which I disagree is to publish my own paper that addresses the points of contention.  It's a better use of your time and energy.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Awful Waste of Space

Remember these lines from the movie, Contact?

Eleanor Arroway (as a young girl): "Dad, do you think there's people on other planets?"

Ted Arroway (Ellie's dad): "Don't know, Sparks. But I guess I'd say if it is just us... seems like an awful waste of space."

The idea is that the Universe holds many worlds that support life, including intelligent beings. Carl Sagan, of course, was the scientist and science communicator extraordinaire who promoted this message. The concept is sometimes called the "principle of mediocrity", i.e., that Earth is a common rocky planet in a typical solar system, positioned in a typical galaxy...hence, there are likely many other such planets in many galaxies scattered throughout the Universe. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program featured in the movie Contact exists based on the assumption that someone is out there listening.  Of course, this message resonates with the UFO and alien abductee crowd (who never seem to question the wisdom of aliens who return these witnesses to Earth after their "physical exams"....and other illogical alien behavior).

I think something like 50% of Americans believe we have already been visited by aliens, despite the absence of a single piece of evidence.  A corollary belief is that when we finally deplete the resources on Earth, we will simply move to some other Earth-like planet...again, despite there being no evidence that such a planet exists. Hollywood (and science fiction) has contributed to these beliefs. Recent films such as Avatar create imaginary worlds so realistic that it's hard for some young viewers to separate fantasy from reality. The idea that there are many civilizations out there in the Universe has become ingrained in our culture.

In this post, I'd like to explore these ideas from the standpoint of how it influences our decisions about protecting the Earth and its resources. In particular, are there other viewpoints that would influence people to be more appreciative of what we have on our little planet.

In fact, there is an opposing hypothesis: the "rare earth hypothesis", which states the alternative that Earth is instead a rare anomaly in the Universe. I've just finished reading "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" (2000) by Ward and Brownlee. It's been around for a while, but I had never read it. The authors argue that the emergence of complex life, particularly sentient life, has a low probability due to the combination of astrophysical, geological, and evolutionary events required to facilitate it. Obviously, that rare combination can occur...here we are. The point is that life on Earth arose from a series of serendipitous events, without which, complex life would not have evolved or would have been extinguished prematurely (the probability of worlds with microbial-level life is higher).

There are convincing arguments to support both hypotheses. You can read Rare Earth or get the Cliffs Notes version on Wikipedia.  (For another viewpoint, see What Does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life).

However, what catches my attention about the rare earth hypothesis is the notion that life can be easily snuffed out by any one of a variety of cosmic occurrences. The geologic record documents at least 5 major events in the Earth's past in which mass extinctions have taken place. Some scientists estimate that 99% of species that once existed are now extinct. Some extinctions are attributed to cosmic collisions; others to huge climate swings. You see where I'm going with this...

At this point in time, we know only one planet that can support life--Earth. There may be others out there, but no evidence so far...and even if there are, we don't have the technology to reach them in the event Earth becomes uninhabitable.  We know that mass extinctions are part of Earth's history and that some were caused by climate extremes (Snowball Earth, Runaway Greenhouse).  We also know that human activities are altering the Earth's atmosphere and biosphere.

I'm sure that Sagan, in proposing the large estimate of habitable planets, was thinking mostly of supporting space exploration and astrobiology...not about the possible effect such a belief might have on how we view Earth and its resources.  Yet here we are facing some serious questions about climate change and other issues.

Hollywood movies typically have happy endings with groups of humans surviving apocalyptic events in subterranean shelters or some other ark-like system (Deep Impact, 2012), humans colonizing other planetary systems (Avatar), or more advanced alien civilizations sending blueprints for transport of humans across the Universe (Contact).  These are entertaining stories that convey a compelling message about human resilience and persistence.  We naturally identify with the survivors, not those unfortunate people who succumb to the meteor impact. Government plans for response to such events also send the message that these catastrophes are survivable.  However, one only needs to consider how we handled lesser events (Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, Japan tsunami) to see the reality that our current abilities are insufficient to meet a global-level disaster.

Are there people on other planets? Don't know. But I guess I'd say if it is just us... seems like we should treat our planet (and each other) better.

Image Credits: Film clip (introductory sequence) and modified stills from the movie, Contact (Warner Bros.)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

You Are Not in Kansas Anymore

I mentioned in earlier posts that I had been doing fieldwork recently in a remote location (think jungle, mosquitoes, scorpions, bucket latrines, no refrigeration, no TV or internet).  Spending time in a tropical forest and away from "civilization" is an experience that simultaneously makes one appreciate the variety and abundance of life on our planet as well as the comforts that we in developed countries tend to take for granted.  A single hectare of tropical forest may contain hundreds, even thousands, of species of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. Walking through the forest and stopping in front of a massive old tree, I was reminded of the movie, Avatar.

If you've been following this blog, you've read my previous review of Avatar and sexism in movies by James Cameron. I was pretty critical in those reviews, but there's another aspect of Avatar that I've wanted to explore.

In the months after the release of Avatar, a number of people began posting comments on various forums about how the movie affected them.  Some said it changed their lives and how they view the world. Others became sad or depressed, presumably because their lives did not live up to the fantasy world created in the movie. Some posters even stated that they'd contemplated suicide (it's hard to tell if these are real or fabricated statements). Although a lot of those who had strong reactions to the movie were very young and impressionable, some were adults.  Their words indicated that they yearn for the life of the Na'vi, the imaginary indigenous people of Avatar.  The depressed are being advised to shed modern conveniences that harm the environment and to live "closer to nature".  That way, they can take an active role in creating their own world (instead of sulking in a dark room in front of the TV or computer).

In case you haven't seen the movie, the Na'vi live close to Nature; they are 10 foot tall, blue, cat-like humanoids with "bones reinforced with carbon fiber", and have coming-of-age rituals in which the inductee acquires a flying dragon, which becomes their steed for life.  At the beginning of the movie, we see that life on Pandora is quite dangerous. The evil antagonist, Colonel Quaritch, eloquently describes the situation to new recruits:

"You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact every second of every day. If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R & R after a tour on Pandora. Out there beyond that fence every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes."

This message is driven home as Jake Sully, the human protagonist, is almost killed four times during his first day in the jungles of Pandora.  He survives, of course, to become one of the Na'vi, fall in love with a Na'vi princess, and ultimately shed his paralyzed human body for a new, Na'vi-like avatar body.  Later brushes with death are presented as exciting adventures, which only add to the fantasy of a perfect world. The movie experience thus yields a sense of adventure, wonder, and happy endings and never hints at reality.

Perhaps it's for the best.

Real life in the gritty, parasite-infested tropical forest is somewhat less pleasant than one would guess from watching Avatar. Most people I know would not last two minutes in the bush before they would run screaming back to air conditioning, iced drinks, bug-free manicured lawns, entertainment on demand, and all the other trappings of civilization.

What movies like Avatar do accomplish is to get young people excited about nature and about preserving the natural world.

On the one hand, I'm sad that it takes a fantasy world (patterned after the Amazon rain forest) to make people care about the only world we know that has life--Earth.  On the other hand, I'm glad that people are moved by the environmental message.  I'm with Cameron in believing that people don't get motivated by just talking or reading about Nature.  They need to vicariously experience it without all the danger and discomfort. People are especially affected by stories that touch them emotionally.

And Avatar accomplishes this.  

The technological breakthroughs that allowed the creation of a believable world populated by fantasy creatures are quite simply amazing.  The reactions to the movie reveal how effective such a story-telling approach is...especially with generations who never knew a world before CGI.

One might wonder if such fantasies simply set young people up for disillusionment.  However, I recall being excited and fascinated by the original Star Trek TV series. My imagination was fired up about what life might be like on other worlds and whether I might one day travel to those worlds and study the life found there.  And Star Trek had very clunky special effects; even I thought they were corny at the time. Nevertheless, the series influenced a generation of young viewers. Even though our original, idealistic expectations about space travel were never realized, some of us succeeded in achieving our dreams of becoming a different type of explorer--a scientist.

With its incredible special effects, Avatar may have a profound impact on the current generation.  

Avatar's success in this regard also has a message for those of us who are concerned about attracting young people (especially girls) to science.  People pay attention to compelling stories that 1) they can understand, 2) are memorable, and 3) affect them emotionally.  I'll bet young fans of Avatar can answer correctly more questions about the ecology of Pandora than about our Earth.  What do you think?   

Photo Credit: Avatar, 20th Century Fox; AnotherBigDamnTree, DrDoyenne