The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 7

May 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Expectations can be dangerous. How often have you had an experience that you were told or hope was amazing, and you’re looking forward to it, building up the anticipation, and you get there and it’s...

Okay.

Good, even.

It’s not a bad experience, but yet somehow, you’re left feeling disappointed.

In contrast, what about times you go into something cold, with no expectations at all? When someone drags you into a movie that you haven’t heard of, and it turns out to be good? That’s often an experience that you’ll tell other people about.

Now, I haven’t forgotten this is Moscow Rules for scientists, and I haven’t forgotten your spy music.

Rule 7.

Lull them into a sense of complacency.

The question of self-promotion came up a couple of weeks ago at the Experimental Biology meeting. For a full description and some discussion, read posts by Biochem Belle and Heather Doran. In brief, senior scientist who won big shiny gold medal said self-promotion - like blogging - is the “antithesis of science.”

When I read this, I did a double take. Networking! Impact factor! Presentations! Conferences! Professional scientists devote huge amounts of effort to promoting their own work.

Everything is under control.

Perhaps the key there is “work.” We’ve all met that person who is way into himself - or herself, as the case may be. Someone who only talks to you to let you know they got a grant. Someone who, on the first day of class, not only tells students they’re lucky to have such a good teacher, but al attaches photocopies of their teaching award to the syllabus, and makes their TAs come into class to tell the assembled students what a great teacher their boss is. (That’s a real example, by the way: I know someone who did that.)

The “I am so awesome!” style of self-promotion is smug and annoying. I am not saying, don’t be awesome. I’m not even saying, don’t think you’re awesome. Just don’t broadcast that you think you’re awesome. That sets up dangerous expectations.

It bears considering expectations when you think about how to promote your science. Don’t go around telling people that you’ve got a project that is surely going to end up gracing the cover of your favourite glamour mag. Because that might not happen, and you’ll look dumb if it does.

To put it another way, under promise and over deliver.

Here’s a great example of promising little and delivering more: the solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem, a math problem that had remained for over 350 years (from Cipra 1993; slightly edited):

Andrew Wiles had been quietly working on (Fermat’s Last Theorem) since 1986. He was equally quiet when he arrived at the Newton Institute to speak at a conference on number theory, but rumors of a breakthrough were starting to fly among the other participants - in part because Wiles, who normally doesn't ask to give lectures, had asked to give not just one, but three hour-long talks.

Wiles' audience could see from the beginning where his research might be heading. And during his first two lectures, Wiles said nothing about how far he had gotten.

"The excitement was increasing each day," says Rubin. Finally, on Wednesday, Wiles unveiled what Ribet calls "the endgame" and Mazur refers to simply as "quite a piece of magic." There was little need for Wiles to remind his audience of the implications, but he modestly noted that Fermat's Last Theorem was a corollary of his main result. After a moment of silence, the room erupted in applause for the historic announcement.

Now that’s taking out the target in a style that any suave spy would appreciate.

Reference

Cipra B. 1993. Fermat's Last Theorem finally yields. Science 261(5117): 32-33. DOI: 10.1126/science.261.5117.32 JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2881457

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