Thursday, September 5, 2019

Reflection, self-criticism, and audacity as a scientist

Today, I want to write a bit about me as a scientist, rather than about my research. It is about how I deal with our attitude towards being right.

As I still do particle physics, we are not done with it. Meaning, we have no full understanding. As we try to understand things better, we make progress, and we make both wrong assumptions and actual errors. The latter because we are human, after all. The former because we do not yet know better. Thus, we necessarily know that whatever we do will not be perfect. In fact, especially when we enter unexplored territory, what we do is more likely not the final answer than not. This led to a quite defensive way of how results are presented. In fact, many conclusions of papers read more like an enumeration what all could be wrong with what was written than what has been learned. And because we are not in perfect control of what we are doing, anyone who is trying to twist things in a way they like, they will find a way due to all the cautious presentation. On the other hand, if we would not be so defensive, and act like we think we are right, but we are not - well, this would also be held against us, right?

Thus, as a scientist one is caught in an eternal limbo about actually believing one's own results and thinking that they can only be wrong. If you browse through scientist on, e.g, Twitter, you will see that this is a state which is not easy to endure. This becomes aggravated by a science system which was geared by neoliberalism towards competition and populist movements who need to discredit science to further their own ends, no matter the cost. To deal with both, we need to be audacious, and make our claims bold. At the same time, we know very well that any claims to be right are potentially wrong. Thus enhancing the perpetual cycle of self-doubt on an individual level. On a collective level this means that science gravitates to things which are simple and incremental, as there the chance to being wrong is smaller then when trying to do something more radical or new. Thus, this kind of pressure reduces science from revolutionary to evolutionary, with all the consequences. It also damns us to avoid taking all consequences of our results, because they could be wrong, couldn't they?

In the case of particle physics, this slows us down. One of the reasons, at least in my opinion, why there is no really big vision of how to push forward, is exactly being too afraid of being wrong. We are at a time, where we have too little evidence to do evolutionary steps. But rather than to make the bold step of just go exploring, we try to cover every possible evolutionary direction. Of course, one reason is that because of being in a competitive system, we have no chance of being bold more than once. If we are wrong with this, this will probably create a dead stop for decades. Of course, it other fields of science the consequence can be much more severe. E.g. in climate sciences, this may very well be the difference between extinction of the human species and its survival.

How do I deal with this? Well, I have been far too privileged and in addition was lucky a couple of time. As a consequence, I could weather the consequences to be a bit more revolutionary and bit more audacious than most. However, I also see that if I would not have been, I would probably had an easier career still. But this does not remove my own doubt about my results. After all, what I do has far-reaching consequences. In fact, I am questioning very much conventional wisdom in textbooks, and want to reinterpret the way how the standard model (and beyond) describes the particles of the world we are living in. Once in a while, when I realize what I claim, I can get scared. Other times, I feel empowered by how things seem to fall into place, and I do not see how edges not fit. Thus, I live in my own cycle of doubt.

Is there anything we can do about the nagging self-doubt, the timidity and the feeling of being an imposter? Probably not so much as individuals, except for taking good care of oneself, and working with people with a positive attitude about our common work. Much of the problems are systemic. Some of them could be dealt with by taking the heat of completion out of science, and have a cooperative model. This will only work out, if there is more access to science positions, and more resources to do science. After all, there are right now far too many people wanting a position as a scientist than there are available. No matter what we do, this always creates additional pressure. But even that could be reduced by having controllable career paths, more mentoring, easier transitions out of science, and much more feedback. But this not only requires long-term commitments on behalf of research institutes, but also that scientists themselves acknowledge these problems. I am very happy to see that this consciousness grows, especially with younger people getting into science. Too many scientist I encounter blatantly deny that these problems exist.

However, in the end, also these problems are connected to societal issues at large. The current culture is extremely competitive, and more often than not rewards selfish behavior. Also, there is, both in science and in society, a strong tendency to give those who have already. And such a society shapes also science. It will be necessary that society reshapes itself to a more cooperative model to get a science, which is much more powerful and forward-moving than we have today. On the other hand, existential crises of the world, like the climate crises or the rise of fascism, are also facilitated by a competitive society. And could therefore likely be overcome by having a more cooperative and equal society. Thus, dealing with the big problems will also help solving the problems of scientists today. I think this is worthwhile, and invite any fellow scientist, and anyone, to do so.

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