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Intelligence in Astronomy: The Fixed Mindset and the Cult of Smart

Image credit: here
(For my previous posts in this series see this handy compendium. In particular, if you missed it you should check out this post on fixed vs. growth mindsets)

The key feature of a fixed mindset is that intelligence is a fixed, inborn property that does not change in time for a given individual. Those with fixed mindsets tend to see outcomes such as success and failure as a result of these fixed, personal traits. "He didn't get the job because he's not smart" or "I didn't pass the test because I'm not smart" or "she's not a good scientist because she's not smart." I'm sure there are other personal qualities that people could focus on other than smartness, but in the realm of science for many people with fixed mindsets it comes down to who is and is not "smart."

I like to refer to this fixation on smartness as the Cult of Smart. Somewhat pejorative? Yes, indeed. Apropos? Big-time. Primarily because this stance is based more on faith than scientific evidence.

Members of the Cult of Smart can be found in all astronomy departments and, sadly, their voices are
"Nope! Not good enough."
says Prof. Cowell thoughtfully
quite loud. Whereas other people try to used nuance in explaining why others are excellent, or in predicting future success, members of the Cult are certain in their black-and-white evaluations. They're quick to use short, few-sentence evaluations that not only convey their point of view, but also tend to squelch further discussion by making everyone else in the room feel insecure.

"How about candidate A? He had a really interesting recent result that I---"

"NOPE! Not good. Doesn't even know GR. No way, not good enough."

"But, he gave a great talk at a recent conference I was at, and he really showed a deep understanding during the Q&A. What I particularly liked was---"

"Oh, come on! Seriously? Are you crazy? Where's the fundamental physics? This guy doesn't know anything."

(Note that this is not an actual conversation, but it is based on many real conversations I've been involved in over the years. It's similarity to the opinions of specific individuals is purely coincidental, but not unlikely.)

Why do people act this way? Well, think about their fixed mindset. To their minds intelligence is a fixed trait, and guess who has it? They do! It's their birthright and what sets them apart from everyone else. They're special, and there are only a chosen few who are like them. Unless the person they are evaluating exhibits the signs of the excellence they see in themselves, then those people aren't useful for much. They're not good now and they're not gonna be any better in the future.

Keep in mind that this is just one, particularly pathological manifestation of a fixed mindset. Even if you aren't a pompous blow-hard, as I'm sure you, dear reader, are not, you can still suffer from other side effects of a fixed outlook. If you believe that intelligence is innate and immutable, then what does facing an intellectual challenge tell you? If you're stuck working a tough problem, then what's the message? The message is fairly clear and not very positive: This is as far as you can go. You're not that smart after all.

After hitting this point and having those types of thoughts, students often drop out of contact with their advisors. "Oh no! I can't let the Prof. know that I'm stuck. She'll think I'm an idiot. Maybe I am an idiot! No! I can't let her know. Maybe if I sit here for a month or two the answer will drop from the sky. Maybe my intelligence is just temporarily suspended somehow." Weeks go by and the professor starts wondering where that bright-eyed, young student research went. Did they run off and join the Peace Corps? Did they get hit by a train?

This phenomenon of the disappearing student occurs regularly even at the most elite universities and research institutions. It happens with students who are smart by traditional definitions, and those who are not. It happens for students with good grades and bad, both high and low GRE scores.

Another manifestation of fixedness is a difficulty in taking criticism, whether constructive or not. This is how my fixed attitudes are manifested. When someone gives me specific yet critical feedback, rather than taking it for what it is---advice on how I can improve one specific aspect of my research or personal behavior---I sometimes take it as a global assessment of my self-worth.

Person: "You know, it would help to include a few more references on your slides."

Me thinking to myself: "What?! Doesn't this person realize how much work I put into this talk. Just who do they think they are, telling me that I don't give good talks. I cite so many people in my talks. Are they saying I'm a self-centered, selfish, ungrateful person? How dare they! Screw them and their crappy advice!"

A Smart crashing. Credit here
Okay, this is a little exaggerated. And to my credit, I've been consciously working on this over the past few years. I've even come up with a standard set of responses that I practice saying ahead of time. Things like, "Thank you very much for that feedback. I can see what you mean and I also see how that will improve my talk in the future." I'm actively countering my fixed mentality in certain areas.

But what about those judgmental people? Are they judging you as being smart or not smart right now? Yup, they sure are and they're not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. This is something that we all have to deal with, just like we have to deal with rainy days, bad drivers, rude people at the grocery store, crying babies on airplanes, etc. It's a part of life in general, and academic life in particular, that we'll be judged rather frequently, often by people with fixed mindsets.

The only question is: How will you deal with it. Is your identity and worth tied up in others reaffirming your inborn talent and intelligence? If so, it'll be rough for you in the coming years as those fixed-minded individuals in higher positions pass judgement on you. You'll waste precious brain-CPU cycles ruminating on what others think about you and your smartness. Every comment sent your way will run through a filter that transforms off-handed remarks into judgements of your personal worth. You'll have a tough time.

Or will you overcome your fixed-mindset tendencies and start marginalizing out the pompous blow-hards and start working with me to form a vocal contingent to push back on the old ways of thinking?


honestjournal said…
I like your point regarding the lopsided views on judging the intelligence of scientists. The people who hold the "old" views described in your blog do not seem to have much understanding on what qualities make a good scientist. They also appear to ignore two facts: (1) many students and professors who have perfect text-book knowledge on physics and maths turn out to be mediocre researchers. (2) gaps in knowledge can be usually filled up for a highly motivated person from intense learning, while an uninspired person with no "fire" for science, who could be equipped with all sorts of equations and knowledge, will never make a meaningful discovery.

Here is a story on gap in knowledge and science finding. In his ground-breaking discovery of the quantum tunneling effect, George Gamow encountered a simple integral. But he couldn't solve it because he didn't care about learning the tedious techniques of calculus in school. So he consulted a mathematician friend of his, who solved it for Gamow. He told Gamow would fail his college calculus class. (The mathematician was actually quite embarrassed later when asked later by his maths friends what he was acknowledged for in Gamow's paper.) Gamow may not have solved all the exercises in his college maths textbooks, but that didn't prevent him from making a discovery that would later lead to our understanding on how the Sun gets powered!

Such views may be related to a bad trend in the current research literature -- people try to make their papers appear to unnecessarily sophisticated as if the amount of jargons and equations used in the paper is a calibrator of its scientific values. Bohdan Paczynski used to draw a simple diagram dividing research works in four quadrants: x-axis: simple -> difficult; y-axis: uninteresting -> interesting. He himself like the works which are simple + interesting, while a significant research literature today fall into the opposite quadrant.
EB said…
I am more interested in the metrics regularly used by many academics to gauge whether someone is "not smart". I can recall many talks/lectures where the speaker will slightly misspeak or have an error on their slides (or a lack references on slides). Afterwards there are sometimes comments along the line of "what an idiot" that speaker is. I'm always struck by what a strange way to judge a scientist's worth that is.

Another is an over-reliance upon grades/GRE scores as a black-and-white evaluation for success. Ed Bertschinger has written that in the past he was discouraged from entering theoretical astrophysics by an instructor at Caltech, solely because he got a C as an undergrad ( ). This type of thinking is puzzling because surely every year departments can see the best graduate researchers are not necessarily those with the highest GRE scores/grades---it is certainly at least not a direct relationship. Independent research and acing your midterms utilizes fairly different skills.

It's slightly off-topic, but this post got me thinking about politics. I have never been a fan of the hypothesis that personality traits determine one's political inclinations, but I think if there is a counterexample, it is the "Cult of Smart". If a person accepts moral imperatives are based on in-born static characteristics, surely they would accept market outcomes are as well. I've certainly read that engineers are measurably more conservative than other academics, and based on (unreliable!) personal experience, such a mindset is strong among engineers. Sound reasonable to anyone? (Sorry to pick on the engineering department...)
mama mia said…
Hi John,
As an educator from the opposite end of the spectrum, Pre-K and kindergarten teacher, I realize how early these mindsets begin to take hold, growth or fixed. Hoping to foster resiliency in students, the courage to keep seeking improvement, and valuing "all kinds of smart" in themselves and their peers. This topic is fascinating to me.

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