Thursday, October 24, 2013

Medieval Mind

Not long ago, I sat next to Distinguished BioMedSciProf at a luncheon meeting. We introduced ourselves (name, department, institution) and said a few slightly-more-detailed things about our areas of research expertise. I therefore knew what part of the human body/system he studied and he knew what aspect of the physical sciences I studied. We talked for quite a while, but I will mention three particular things that affected my conversational experience:

1. After explaining some basic aspects of my research, he asked, "Why hasn't all that been figured out already?" Several times in our conversation, he said things like, "Don't we already know all the important things about that?"

What does one even say to something like that? We non-bio scientists are just a bit slow? So how's it going CURING CANCER? What? You haven't done that yet?

2. Talking to him was like lopsided jousting, or like taking my oral prelims again. He fired questions at me and expected a certain answer. If he was not convinced by my response (despite having no expertise with which to judge my answers), he expressed his dissatisfaction ("That is hard to believe" etc.) and fired more questions. It was conversational torture (alert: hyperbole).

I was overall fine with this although I did not enjoy it as a conversational style. Is this one of those stereotypical male/female things in which men enjoy conversation-as-combat and women feel attacked? I didn't exactly feel attacked -- that's too strong a word -- although it was a bit exhausting. He mostly asked me questions about what he perceived I work on rather than what I really work on, but we made little progress in getting to a discussion of what I really work on. This could be because I was not a good explainer or because he was not interested in what I really work on. Either way, I think it is safe to say that he was not a good listener.

3. He said he thought he had met me before. I said I did not think we had ever met. It did not take much more exploration of this conversational thread to realize that he was confusing me with another female science professor in the physical sciences, at another university.

"No man can tell two of them apart, you see, and one name's as good as another.." The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Well, the quotation wasn't meant to apply to women, but from my perspective, I have very little in common with the other FSP. We are not similar in geographical location, appearance, personality, age, or research expertise (from a physical sciences perspective, anyway, but perhaps we are the same from a biosciences perspective). I know it doesn't really mean anything that he thought I was this other FSP*, but it was yet another strange little aspect of our "conversation".

* For example, in the class I am teaching now, there are 4 particular students who seem so similar that it took me 3 weeks to know them well enough to be able to distinguish them correctly and easily. I am sure it would shock them that I see such similarities; they very likely do not see any such similarities (even if they have the same hair/clothes and they have similar or identical -- in the case of two of them -- names).


Anonymous said...

I sometimes have a hard time telling students (or other people) apart—it is a disability that has not gotten better with age. It doesn't help that in a tiny class I have two students named John and two named Nathan.

I have often talked with people who I believe I ought to know, but whom I can't place—sometimes they turn out to be strangers and sometimes people that I really ought to have recognized. So I have some sympathy for the guy who made a mistaken identification.

I don't really understand the aggressive quizzing though—it may be a personal quirk brought on by only talking with his grad students and not with peers. Or it could have just been an attempt to show off the tiny bit of physical sciences he knew (or to avoid close questioning about his own work—a lot of biomed... guys farm out all the thinking and just do the grant managing).

Students with identical names are a big problem for me—I had to look up the records of one of the Nathans recently and it turned out that there were 8 Nathans with the same last name among our 15,000 students.

ESL said...

Hmmm... I've interacted with people like this, who seem to get pleasure out of arguing for the sake of arguing, and don't enjoy it either. I don't mind a good intellectual argument, but only when both people are equally knowledgeable on the topic, and recognize the need to argue it. Hope you don't have to sit by him again.

clodovendro said...

"Is this one of those stereotypical male/female things in which men enjoy conversation-as-combat and women feel attacked?"

Don't think so. I am male and I got into similar discussion several times during my career. As ESL wrote, there are a few people who just enjoy arguing for the sake of arguing. And there are other people who just can not accept that their preconceptions are not the Truth (with a capital T).
Discussing with either is usually a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

As a BioMedSci myself, I hate to think that your colleague's behavior is indicative of the mindset of the field. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the opportunities to hear about the work from other disciplines.

Have you asked colleagues from the department as BioMedSciProf? Perhaps this person has a reputation of being a "tool"?

GMP said...

Some people are disrespectful and full of themselves. The question is -- do you continue to waste your time talking to them, avoid them, or (I know FSP wouldn't but I would) try to tear them a new one.

I remember recently a similar situation at one of my student's PhD prospectus defense. The student is getting a PhD in a department different from mine, so their rules are such that one person from an unrelated field has to be on the prospectus cte. The guy we had was from a field (stereotypically and notoriously) populated by pompous self-important douches; he started basically asking my student why we were doing that and hadn't all that already been done. It's double douchey to do that to a student, ever, and especially at a public exam and knowing he could not really respond in kind due to the power dynamics. I tried to calmly explain that no, it has not been done, but I really wanted to communicate that the person asking was full of $hit and just because he posed as if he knew what he was talking about, it was not actually true. The problem is that, when someone attacks you, even if they don't have a point, it looks bad for you: if you respond aggressively, you look like you are flying off the handle, if you are calm you appear on the defensive and thereby give credibility to the original silly claims. With the student's defense I tried to calmly communicate that we in fact knew what we were doing, and that the aggressor had no point; there were others in the room, other colleagues and students, so a direct confrontation was not a good idea. In the case of FSP's conversation, I would have either left or would have been more aggressive and actually asked the equivalent of "Well, why haven't you cured cancer yet?"

Funny Researcher said...

"Is this one of those stereotypical male/female things in which men enjoy conversation-as-combat and women feel attacked?"

I don't think so. I recently had such an experience where a faculty member started talking to me about my research interests. His immediate response was "isn't that already done; what are you doing then?"

I calmly explained to him that it has not been ALL done and I know what I am doing. In my experience some people just try to trivialize your research based on few media reports (by uninformed media persons) they may have read or they may be full of it and would want to trivialize your research so that they can appear mightier.

Anonymous said...

Answers from the industry side of engineering from someone who has only a BSce and is guilty of EWF (engineering while female):

1a) "Hell no! There's new stuff every day! Doesn't that happen in your field?"
1b) No, do not, under any circumstances, give an inch.
1c) Ooooooh. Yeah, you could try that.
1d & e) Yeah, that, too.

2a) No, it is a stereotypical I'm-actually-a-deeply-insecure-person-despite-all-these-pieces-of-parchment thing. On your side, it is probably a I-hate-suffering-fools-and-I'm-stuck-here-through-lunch thing. And, yeah, he didn't give a rat's ass about what you work on. It would have been the same if you were male or if you were in his field. It probably would have been the same even if you were male, at the same rank, and a direct competitor for research dollars.

3) Ugh. Yup. Pretty likely.

As a general rule, I try to use humor however I can. Sometimes it gets an edge, but as long as I keep people laughing, it reins them in. (When humor fails, I get nasty, but, hey, I'm not perfect.) At a luncheon thing or other gathering, once I realize it is going to be boringly lopsided, I start including however possible, anyone around us in the 'conversation', 'cause then there is the likelihood of distraction, topic-change, and, too, the possibility that someone *else* will provide a suitable opening for me to talk about my work, too, if I still think that is more important than just extricating myself.

Anonymous said...

PS: I'd like to suggest another title for this article...Closed Mind, perhaps? Before I found my way to engineering, I had spent years studying mediaeval history. There's some great thinkers back there...Hildegarde von Bingen, Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji, Alcuin (about some things)...I'm not sure that they were *more* at risk of sexism than the Victorians of England.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's a female thing to not enjoy being grilled by an idiot. I'm female and actually quite like a bit of verbal sparring but that actually requires some real back and forth where the person suggests your wrong because they actually know something. What you've described sounds like lunch with a difficult 5 year old who's bent on disagreeing with you just because they need a nap but at least 5 year olds are typically cute.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be interesting to see how the person responded if you said 'you're right, everything is known in my field, I just thought it would be fun to waste my life proving that same stuff again'?

Anonymous said...

It is a male-female thing in that women are penalized a bit more heavily for such behavior, and so fewer women persist in doing it. But there are certainly a number of men and women who keep it up :)

Anonymous said...

Don't know about the gender aspect, but for the phyical/bio I always thought it was worse the other way around, as in this xkcd

stormatsea said...

"Don't we already know all the important things about that?"

I've heard that from people about my entire discipline: geography. "Don't we already know where everything is?"

Anonymous said...

Hyper-aggressive questioning is a tradition in some departments. In my field (computer science) MIT and Stanford are notorious for this, while (equally top-rated) CMU and Berkeley are not. Some communities develop a tradition that the way to check someone is on top of their field is to force them to defend themselves; if they fight back with conviction they are treated as clever, while if they fold under attack they are considered bozos.

Female Computer Scientist said...

Ugh, how awful.

In the past when men engaged in this verbal jousting with me, I used to get very defensive and feel the need to prove myself. Then I'd leave the conversation feeling crappy, because I'm really not cut out for fight-to-the-death matches. These days, I'll put a little effort into trying to diffuse the conversation, but if it doesn't work and the man wants to keep jousting, I walk away.

If it's not possible to walk away, I like the idea of including other nearby people in the conversation. That's very clever.

I'd be interested to know if he's an equal opportunity jerk. (i.e., he is just as cantankerous to men outside his field as he is to women). Sometimes that brings me solace after these kinds of things.

physica said...

I have a slightly different take on this. First, I strongly feel questions about someone's field should be respectful and with the intent of learning something new, rather than trying to put someone down. That being said, I think it is sometimes good for an outsider to ask "shocking" questions - Why are you doing X? Isn't it done before? What's new in your field? etc.

As scientists (BTW, I am a male, physical sciences post-doc), we rarely talk to people outside our field. Within a field, there is always a consensus that the field is very important and that it should be funded. However, the moment you step out of your field, say for a job interview, the person on the other side may ask some of these questions, or may have a preconceived notion of your field. In such situations, one needs to be able to justify one's research and one's field without getting defensive (or offensive).

There are research fields which over-specialize in something that most people would feel is not important. There are other fields which use questionable methods (some parts of evolutionary psychology). As scientists contributing to society, we need to be able to explain to anyone why what we do is important.

If that person still doesn't agree or is being a jerk, we can always end with "I think understanding the mechanism of X is important." or "Perhaps, you don't appreciate the complexity of Y, but if you gave it some thought and read some of our papers, you may be able to get a better sense."

EliRabett said...

Isn't everything known in the field?

No, it is in no way like yours.

inBetween said...

You just perfectly described almost every interaction I have had with faculty in our department of molecular and cell biology. The arrogance of those types is spectacular, but as a colleague of mine from a physical science department observed one day, it used to be physics professors that thought of themselves as the epitome of the perfect professor and all else as lesser-beings. Now, molecular and cell biology professors have claimed that throne.

Michelle said...

Working on an essay, I ran across this comic from XKCD which seems to capture this conversational genre:

Anonymous said...

I'm with anonymous 2:22!
Being in a chemistry and biochemistry dept I am so fed up by those p-chem types.... well exemplified by the cartoon!
MDs can have that attitude too- first of all we *select* them to be jerks since undergrads, second there's the MD aspect of "I'm saving lives"

app said...

It sounds to me (as a guy) that this is a typical example of a certain aggressive type of man indulging himself with an enjoyable little power trip by bullying someone he perceives as being weaker than himself. IMHO the only appropriate reaction to these cretins is dismissive contempt. Unfortunately, many women seem to think that they have to respond with `reasonableness' and sincerity when subjected to this kind of assault. And that is exactly what the guy is counting on, and why he perceives you as an excellent victim for his bit of fun.

I was once at a seminar by the eminent theoretical physicist Lisa Randall. At the end of her talk, an old git in the department who was too old and senile to be aware of Randall's reputation stature in the field, thought to himself "Hey, this chick thinks she's a big deal, I'm gonna put her in her place good and proper". He then proceeded to try to attack her with a bunch of inane questions. It wasn't so much what he was saying as the way he was saying it, if you know what I mean (and I'm sure you do). Lisa Randall didn't respond to him with `reasonableness', and she didn't respond with aggression either. She just dumped a short cold bucket of utter contempt on his head and moved on to the next question. It was beautiful to witness, and I'm sure everyone else there, guy or woman, thought so too.