Outsiders, Imposters, and Aquatic Dinosaurs

Unbeknownst to most people, one species of tyrannosaur had iron bones and kept itself warm by steam.

Popular culture loves an underdog, an outsider, a maverick. We love stories of coming-from-behind victories and losers who become winners, and no wonder. If someone else can succeed against great odds, maybe we can too. I suspect we often see ourselves in these characters: in our minds, we’re Daniel-san, not Johnny; we’re the Rebels, not the Empire; Katniss, not President Snow.

However, being an outsider doesn’t always make your cause just or right. One of the hallmarks of crackpottery is claiming the rebel status, pointing out that many successful ideas came from beyond the mainstream. Common symptoms involve evoking Galileo, comparisons to Einstein, and generally grandiose claims—all with similar theme, that the person is an outsider with new ideas, and the community of science is too hidebound to accept anything new.

I’m most familiar with the physics variety of crackpot, but Brian Switek occasionally needs to deal with the paleontology subspecies: in the last few days, he’s taken on a cell biologist who claims dinosaurs must have all stayed in shallow water to support their bulk. The familiar symptoms are all there: an outsider to the field claiming to see something that the conservative establishment was unwilling to accept, and that was the narrative used by the BBC. (Even crackpot paleontologists aren’t immune to evoking Galileo!) At one point, it was pretty common to read that the biggest dinosaurs were swamp-living (that was true in a lot of the books I read as a kid), but by the time I was reading current stuff about dinosaurs, that view was pretty much dead. As Brian is swift and thorough in pointing out, there is strong evidence that dinosaurs were land-dwelling, and while at least some species evidently could swim, they couldn’t be called “aquatic” anymore than elephants can.

I am not immune to temptation when it comes to mockery.

I’ve written extensively about crackpots (including a long piece for Culture of Science), and given my penchant for repeating myself, I doubt I’ll be done soon. (I admit: it’s also fun to mock some of the worst crackpots, or unleash some righteous indignation. We must laugh sometimes to keep from bursting into tears.) Partly this is because I want to understand both how to reach more people effectively in communicating science: while scientists are deemed as a holy priesthood with secret mystical knowledge, at least some crackpottery seems inevitable. If science is seen an exclusive club, then joining that club is just a matter of learning the secret handshake: it’s not about study, or a way of thinking, but a matter of cracking the code.

However, that stereotype isn’t true: science isn’t a club, it’s not a priesthood, and at its best it isn’t exclusionary. Yes, some scientists do seem to think they are possessors of the True Knowledge, and are fond of lording that knowledge over others, which is highly frustrating. My fellow physicists seem especially susceptible to arrogant behavior; I’ve known a number of colleagues who will happily condemn global warming findings to the dustbin because they find climate scientists’ models to be “too simplistic”, or some other such jargon. Nevertheless, I am convinced that everyone can understand more science than they do, even if they won’t ever be fully able to calculate Feynman diagrams (which I could do at one point, but I’m rusty on now) or sequence genes (which I haven’t the first clue about). That’s why I take this blog seriously, and why I believe strongly in universal science education, and wish a lonely death upon the racist, classist “tracking” and “magnet” system that plagues American schools. But I digress.

Ironically, many excellent scientists are plagued with a sense of inferiority themselves. As Sci Curious eloquently relates, the Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that, despite extensive training, experience, and obvious successes in the field, that you don’t actually belong, and that any slight mistake means you’ll be found out and exposed as a fraud. I know this feeling well: I suffer from it strongly, especially during these hard times while I’m hunting for work. When I’m sending out the umpteenth application or receiving yet another rejection letter, it’s hard to remember that I have a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from a top research institution, a number of publications in reputable journals, and six years of full-time teaching under my belt. Even though paying gigs are few and far between, I have a lot of chances to write, which means at least some people think what I write is worth reading. (I list these for my own reassurance, not to boast.)

The irony as I see it is that scientists suffering from Imposter Syndrome (IS, to acronym it) are far from being “outsiders” in the normal sense: they are true scientists, hardly wannabes. While crackpots think there’s a magical key to science, those of us with IS know there isn’t, and that’s part of the frustration. Chad Orzel wisely points out that even scientists may be susceptible to the genius stereotype, the idea that a “real scientist” shouldn’t have to work at it, so if you’re struggling, you don’t have what it takes. Even though we know that Einstein struggled with math (though admittedly the math he did is pretty hard), and we know that Darwin wrestled with issues that delayed publication of The Origin of Species for years, we still are in such awe of their accomplishments that we still seem to believe they were handed their theories from on high.

So I appreciate Sci and others bringing IS into the light: if non-scientists see that we are as human as can be, maybe they’ll understand science a little better. Similarly, I think more scientists suffer from IS than are willing to admit it, for fear again that they will be “found out” or show weakness while in a position of vulnerability. Maybe if we acknowledge that it’s common, we can help each other pull through it.


6 responses to “Outsiders, Imposters, and Aquatic Dinosaurs”

    1. I should be thanking you – you started the conversation, after all!

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  2. i think prof. ford is partly right,i think t-rex hunted on land and water,and in shallower water i think it used those infamous front legs for stalking and anchoring itself on the bottom,then with those rear guns lunged out with mouth wide open,catching or killing its prey with one bite!similar to the nile crocodile.in essence,ithink t-rex acted like a giant killer frog.

  3. […] on the idea of Brilliance in academia, Chad and DrMRFrancis both built on the solitary genius idea: that many scientist biographies are written as though there […]

  4. Job hunters, represent!!

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