Thursday, July 01, 2010

Paranoia the Destroyer?

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

Paranoia, paranoia
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.

21 comments:

frakonomics said...

Oh my. I think it's a faux pax to admit to knowing something like this, but the second song was done by Harvey Danger.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flagpole_Sitta

AnonProf said...

I like your attitude. When it comes to research I do myself, I try to follow a similar approach.

However, one of my students got burned once, so now I try to avoid discussing in-progress research projects that I'm working on with my students with others outside my group (unless I trust them a lot). I feel bad being secretive, but I would hate to see one of my students screwed over. I have tenure, so I don't care if I get burned once or twice, but for my students, the job process is so competitive that it's a bigger deal to them if they get screwed once out of one good paper.

I don't feel good about it, but there it is.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

As an old proverb goes, "one shouldn't have the heart to hurt others, but one should have the heart to defend oneself"

Well, people say the best of academics verge on insanity and I suppose paranoia's one way of expressing it. I've had people steal my work, spread unfounded rumours, publicly humiliate me etc. and I'm not even post-doc yet. So, sometimes it's the previous environment that drives people to become paranoid. There's also the fact that paranoia is an expression of one's lack of confidence and fear of critique or just plain lack of self-preservation skills. Sadly, as I've been the target of hi-jack, sabotage and theft of ideas before I even started grad school my level of paranoia had developed healthily, if not world-crashingly (recovering PTSD sufferer!), so I have a system for self-preservation. Unless I have full confidence that I can trust a person I only present 50% of what I know, which sometimes gives the impression that I am a mediocre scientist, though when I present in public venues it is everything that's relevant. To date, this approach had silenced enough people to guarantee that I can have a relatively peaceful research experience within grad school. I can't wait until I get onto the tenure-track when I will finally get anything close to solitude!

mixlamalice said...

Black Sabbath, of course (Paranoid, 1970):
"Finished with my woman 'cause she couldn't help me with my mind
People think I'm insane because I am frowning all the time
All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy
Think I'll lose my mind if I don't find something to pacify
Can you help me occupy my brain?
Oh yeah
I need someone to show me the things in life that I can't find
I can't see the things that make true happiness, I must be blind
Make a joke and I will sigh and you will laugh and I will cry
Happiness I cannot feel and love to me is so unreal
And so as you hear these words telling you now of my state
I tell you to enjoy life I wish I could but it's too late"

I am usually pretty honest and trustful to colleagues. Well, I am sometimes disappointed and wish that I could be more careful, but you can't really change who you are.
And all in all I'd rather be f***ed because I was too nice than because I was a paranoiac prick.

Anonymous said...

One of my students sent his masters thesis to an investigator who requested it (in good faith). That investigator then published large chunks of his text (not his data, just large pieces of his introduction, methods and discussion). It was only discovered when this student went to publish their work and did a literature search ("OH MY! That's my introduction. What do I do?"). Prior to this, I wasn't paranoid at all and was quick to share everything. I still think I err on that side of things, but this experience gave me pause. Total bummer. I dislike paranoid collaborators/ colleagues. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Your second set of lyrics is from a Harvey Danger song (Flagpole Sitta), though often misattributed.

Personally, I'm convinced (deluded?) that no one's going to scoop me because I really am the best person to do my research - why would I want to pursue a line of inquiry that someone else could handle as well or better? Perhaps the opposite of paranoia, in academia, is narcissism.

Cherish said...

When doing my masters, I spent one year working on a project for a company that was based out of Silicon Valley. It was horrid. They would give us absolutely no information that they already had on the project. They wouldn't provide us with diagrams of any of the equipment they were using because they thought we were would leak all the info to their competitors.

We had a meeting with the VP of this company at the end of the project. He was a pretty open guy, especially relative to everyone else. When discussing the issues we saw, he noted on at least one point that we were right on the money. It sounded as if at least a chunk of our work was things they already knew.

It's been interesting seeing the difference in natural science research versus engineering. It seems like so much of what you do research-wise in engineering has to be 'sanitized' in order to get anything at all that is publishable. The work is fun, but it'd be much cooler to tell people, "See all this cool stuff we did!"

Anonymous said...

I agree with all your points. That said, I think it's not a great idea to give public talks about research that is years away from publication. If you're submitting in a few weeks, or even a few months, fine. But as you mentioned, there's nothing inappropriate about being "inspired" by other peoples' research, and if you inspire people to work on your topic and they happen to beat you to publication it's your own fault.

Anonymous said...

I hate to be nitpicky, but for quite awhile Flagpole Sitta was my favorite song, and it's not by Green Day, it's by Harvey Danger.

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flagpole_Sitta)

(And also, thanks for writing!)

mariksf said...

Clearly I am *not paranoid enough* if my postdoctoral peers feel the need to take such extreme measures as breaking into their advisors' offices...

On a serious note, sometimes I wonder how advisors trust graduate students and postdocs? I have been witness to more than one instance of a person choosing unethical action X over being honest for fear of disappointing (or upsetting, or whatever) their advisor.

I think that I would make a horrible faculty member because I would always wonder...

Anonymous said...

I have to point out that Green Day did not actually write those lyrics. The original song was by Harvey Danger, called "Flagpole Sitta", and it appears that at some point Green Day may have covered it and so it is sometimes erroneously attributed to them.

I know this because I loved that song in high school.

Anonymous said...

The Green Day song is actually a cover of Harvey Danger's Flagpole Sitta for correct attribution.

Nothing useful to add to the needed paranoia, other than the fact that someone breaking into one's office and hacking computers is really stepping up to the paranoid crazy plate for a home run.

Tamara said...

You are absolutely right. You can’t be paranoid about everything and everyone. We all get ideas from each other, that’s a fact. In my experience, if you want to progress in any area, you have to share and often, good solutions come from that moment of sharing. It can be at a restaurant, in a small talk in a corridor or around a coffee. These moments are essential to progress and sometimes, make new discoveries in an area we wouldn’t have thought on our own.

Rosie Redfield said...

I'm very un-paranoid, both because it makes life much more pleasant and because there really isn't anybody who might try to scoop me (other researchers either don't care about what I do or think I'm wrong).

So I post my grant proposals online as soon as they're submitted, and describe my day-to-day research in my blog.

The Lesser Half said...

I've had project ideas outright stolen from me by collaborators. I used to get mad. Now I just move on to the next thing. I'm not short on ideas. I feel sorry for the people who have to steal from others to keep their reputations.

Anonymous said...

My point of view is a lot like Lesser Half's- I have had ideas stolen from me (including a fully developed and written out grant proposal by a potential collaborator, who I guess liked it even though he decided not to collaborate with us, since he submitted it himself in another country). I used to get mad, but I don't want to waste my time, energy, or potential wonderful collaborations. When a major theft occurs (must be far beyond 'inspiration') I (1) pity the poor fool that has decided to become a scientist but needs to steal ideas, (2) do not work with said person again, and (3) rest easy knowing my problem isn't thinking up interesting things to do, but finding time to do all the interesting things I think up.

Kea said...

I will freely discuss my ideas with anyone who isn't too sexist, but of course that often leaves me accused of being paranoid or too mistrusting. In fact, I am not paranoid enough. But, yeah, it must be irritating working with someone who won't talk to you. I simply cannot work with such people.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that Pink Floyd's Paranoid Eyes could be well suited to academia if you look at it the right way...

Pink Floyd - "Paranoid Eyes"

button your lip don't let the shield slip
take a fresh grip on your bullet proof mask
and if they try to break down your disguise with their questions
you can hide hide hide
behind paranoid eyes
you put on your brave face and slip over the road for a jar
fixing your grin as you casually lean on the bar
laughing too loud at the rest of the world
with the boys in the crowd
you hide hide hide
behind petrified eyes
you believed in their stories of fame fortune and glory
now you're lost in a haze of alchohol soft middle age
the pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high
and you hide hide hide
behind brown and mild eyes

Anonymous said...

The odd thing about Sabbath's "Paranoid" is that it is obviously about depression rather than paranoia, though the conditions can be interrelated.

A more fitting heavy metal usage is "Time" by Anthrax:

Paranoia
Amped and wired
Life and death are fighting for my time
I can't seem to find the time

***

Paranoia's lost its hold on...
Paranoia's got no hold on me
Time don't have nothing to do with how high you can count

DrDoyenne said...

Here's the other side of the coin.

I was accused once by colleagues of stealing their ideas and getting funding in "their" topic of research. A colleague and I submitted a proposal to address a very specific RFP. We were both experts in the field (having published extensively) and proposed a logical approach and methodology.

We got the grant (only one was awarded for this specific program).

We were later approached by two separate parties who claimed that we 1)"stole" their ideas and 2) got funding for research that they should have gotten instead.

Pointing out to them that the approach and methodology we proposed were not that novel and in fact had been used by us previously seemed to have no impact on their opinion.

I also asked both of these people what they had proposed (thinking that they were upset that they failed to get funding for the same proposed approach). The answer was that they had not bothered to submit a proposal (!!!), but they still insisted that we should not have gotten this funding (I guess they thought the agency should have recognized their eminent status in the field and just given them the funds). One of them continued to snipe, whenever the opportunity arose, about how we cheated them out of these funds.

I agree that there are people who are unscrupulous and will take others' ideas without a second thought. However, I'm careful not to jump to conclusions without really solid evidence.

And now I'm paranoid about being accused of stealing others' ideas......

Helen Huntingdon said...

One of my committee said I wasn't paranoid enough -- I listened to what he had to say and realized it was probably valid advice. It wasn't remotely extreme.

When I started my doctorate, I did some major re-thinking of some issues, because I had previously firmly decided *not* to pursue a doctorate. I went forward with it because it wound up presenting me some unique opportunities, and the doctorate was just a side effect of getting to those. A big part of what I was concerned about was that the previous doctoral students I'd had any kind of close contact with had all gone more than a little funny in the head and abusive on top of it. I rounded up my friends who had witnessed the same things and made them swear that if I showed signs of heading in that direction, they would whack me upside the head and tell me to quit it.

It hasn't been an issue, partly because I made a goal of not turning into that, and partly because I just don't care to bother with competitive dynamics. I will if I have to in order to get something done worth doing, but mostly I prefer seeking environments and collaborators where we all pull each other upward, not where we worry about real or imaginary zero-sum games.