Monday, June 23, 2008

More on growing up

I thought some more about the issue of immature behaviour in academia, which featured in my previous posting. Rahul S posted a comment wherein I agree fully with the first part (which is not related to academia however) but disagree with the second part namely: "As for academic people -- nerdiness is often associated with social ineptness, all over the world..."

I wasn't referring to social ineptness, but to the fact that people who are hired specifically to research the mysteries of nature and therefore trained in rational thinking fall prey to the most elementary confusion to which the (immature/untrained) human mind is subject, namely that "a person whose perception differs from mine is evil or motivated or at the least dead wrong." In my experience, this mistaken view causes resentment, anger and/or panic in younger scientists, while in more senior (therefore more powerful) scientists the same view gives rise to secretive behaviour and undemocratic or non-consultative functioning.

I believe this phenomenon is not evidenced to the same degree in all countries (I'm confining myself mainly to science circles, though will sometimes venture more general observations). And it has much to do with emotional insecurity, which is the elephant in the living room of Indian science. If scientists the world over are known for their egos, in India we seem to be known for the fragility of our egos. Person A makes one skeptical comment, preferably in the presence of others, and suddenly person B has regressed from a venerable 15-years-post-Ph.D.-with-50-research-publications to a pathetic six-year-old whose candy has been taken away and is ready to lash out at anyone and anything. Or else person B breaks off diplomatic relations with person A, sometimes forever.

I've seen British scientists in groups, and sometimes suspected that certain of them had a problem with certain others, but it was always hard to be sure. Though there may be exceptions, Brits would not normally be crude enough to raise their voice in an academic context or wash dirty linen in public. On the other hand, as many of us learned with delight on reading (or viewing) the Yes Minister series, there are ways for scores to be settled via subtle digs and even subtler jockeying for leverage - this is as true in science, I'm sure, as in politics.

While some may claim the British just conceal their true feelings under a stiff upper lip while we Indians are more open and "honest", I feel there is something superior in reflective and sober (even if malicious) behaviour compared with planting our joota on someone's face, literally or metaphorically.

I bring this issue up not to criticise or demean anyone but to suggest that if we (specifically Indian scientists) acknowledge the presence of a maturity problem, we might slowly try to improve our own behaviour instead of pointing fingers. Another constructive suggestion I'd like to make (and may expand on later) is that such things as faculty meetings - at least in my Institute - should be subject to very specific guidelines, including that comments be constructive, parliamentary behaviour be observed (eviction from the room for defaulters), and Minutes should be worded fairly to reflect all points of view and cover only what actually transpired at the meeting.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Well, by "social ineptness" I meant a bit more than not being able to make polite conversation. I meant a lack of empathy with other people, which in fact causes you not to see somebody else's point of view.

More concretely, many scientists, I suspect, would come out somewhere on the autism spectrum (mild Asperger's syndrome) compared to the general public. (Try this test for example. Usual caveats apply -- it is not a professional diagnosis, etc -- but I found the questions more revealing than the diagnosis of me, that is, what sort of things they think indicate Asperger's.)

Autism spectrum is also associated with a lack of empathy. Therefore my earlier comment.

Of course this does not excuse anything except in extreme cases. We are rational creatures and, even if we can't easily intuitively see another person's point of view, we should be capable, as adults, of thinking through it. Besides, I don't think Asperger's in any way explains the "cultural guardians" or "moral police" such as the example in your previous post.

Anonymous said...

Transpired...what do you mean transpired! I am told that one senior scientist practically accused a junior one of transpiring against him and his associates in one of our top institutes. (Of course the senior scientist with a fragile ego got confused between conspire and transpire).

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear Anonymous,

You wouldn't perchance be the sort of person who wants to express an opinion but not be responsible for it, now would you? That's what anonymous posting (which I have now disabled) implies. Otherwise, even if you're using the "anonymous" option on the site merely for convenience, you could always have signed your name at the end...

Maybe those who live in fragile-ego houses shouldn't throw stones!!