Paranoia has been such a great inspiration for Art, including of course memorable song lyrics like these:
Girl, I want you here with me
But I'm really not as cool as I'd like to be
'cause there's a red, under my bed..
Paranoia, the destroyer
Paranoia, the destroyer
-- the Kinks
Everybody's coming to get me
Just say you never met me
I'm running underground with the moles
Digging in holes
-- Harvey Danger (original erroneous attribution corrected)
(Feel free to submit your favorite mention of paranoia in a song, poem, or other artistic venue.)
But what of the role of paranoia in our daily lives as scholars and teachers?
A reader wrote to me wondering: Is there a healthy level of paranoia that we should maintain to protect our work and, as advisers, the work of our students and postdocs? Or should we try to trust everyone as much as possible, despite occasional reminders that some people really are out to get us?
I have worked with extremely paranoid people from time to time, and I know that I don't want to be like them. I had one colleague for a while who did not even trust me to know everything relevant to the project we were supposedly working on together. He was very secretive, even lying at times to protect information he thought I would steal from him and .. well, I don't really know what he thought I would do with it, other than use it for the work we were doing together. He had no basis for not trusting me in particular; he was like that with everyone.
He was so afraid that people would steal our work (or something) that he constantly criticized me for telling other people "too much" about our research. We annoyed each other at approximately equal and elevated levels, wrote one paper together, and that was it for me. From time to time he has approached me about new projects to work on together, but I always say no. I have told him that our working styles are not compatible and I am too busy stealing other people's research.
I also have a daily reminder about another incident involving Paranoia. The lock on my office door is a special kind that was installed years ago because a postdoc was breaking into my office, stealing things, and hacking into my computer because s/he wanted to find out what I was doing/saying about him/her. Perhaps I was stealing the postdoc's research? Perhaps I was writing mean things about the postdoc in unsolicited letters to other universities? Alas, the lack of evidence for any of these activities did not assuage the postdoc's paranoia, nor did all the cute photos of my cats.
That situation was extremely unpleasant and could have resulted in my being permanently paranoid about postdocs, but in fact I have found that I do not assume in advance that all postdocs will break into my office. The only reason I haven't gone back to a standard lock is because I just haven't bothered. If I did go back to a standard lock, I am certain that I would not spend my days worrying that psycho postdocs were rummaging around in my office when I wasn't there.
But what about more usual situations, such as when we send papers and proposals out for review, or plan the content of a talk? How paranoid should we be? I know from experience that some people will use ideas from unpublished research and try to scoop the original authors, but, in my experience, these have been rare events. I try to put my absolute best ideas and data into manuscripts, proposals, and talks, preferring instead to communicate these things rather than worry about the potential actions of unethical evil-doers.
I have always done so; it's not just a tenured professor luxury thing. It is my preferred mode of working.
I can do this in part because my research has little to no immediate economic value (i.e., no patents will result), and that surely simplifies things for me. The decisions I make are therefore primarily influenced by (1) my relatively low level of daily paranoia, and (2) my wish to communicate my best research results as soon as I am confident about them.
And, except in the most egregious cases (some described in earlier posts), I let it slide even if I suspect that someone is pursuing research that was "inspired" by one of my proposals, or manuscripts in review, or talks about work in progress. We all get ideas from each other in various ways, and it's not worth spending time having paranoid thoughts about the competition. I'd rather just keep doing my work in the best (yet most efficient) way that I can, and confine my paranoid obsessing to a bit of ranting over a double espresso with a colleague now and then.
9 years ago