Ok, maybe ruin is a strong word. But can learning how to think like a scientist make you a less likeable person? Certainly. Learning to think and analyze like a scientist has far-reaching side effects.
Pro: Learning to think like a scientist makes you very good at being a skeptic.
This is what your goal is right? To become someone who can get a good grasp on what is true, significant, and honest, and someone who recognizes when things seem dishonest, misleading, or false.
Like a recent PI I know and admire recently told a group of grad students, In order to learn how to do something right, you must first learn how to cheat so that you can recognize when others are cheating you. He was talking about forging digital images, but the message applies broadly. Scientists are trained to be skeptical and slow to trust. We question everything – you have to provide data to me before I can trust what you’re saying. In other words, being a scientist can often mean becoming a cynical person.
For this reason, thinking like a scientist has a side effect…
Con: Learning to think like a scientist makes you a jerk.
Not being able to “turn off” that mode of thinking around your friends can make you annoying.
Case in point – people post a lot of stuff on Pinterest and Facebook that simply isn’t true. I am constantly overwhelmed by my friends’ inability to Google something before posting a meme that is false and sometimes harmful if the reader were to believe it to be true. Detox shakes and baths, use cornstarch as a finishing powder for makeup, lose weight with these three simple rules, a heart-warming story about a student questioning his professor’s lack of faith in God that ends in the student being Einstein, dial 112 or #77 if you’re being pulled over by an unmarked car to verify it is an officer and not a rapist, another heart-warming story about an elderly lady Rose that graduates from college and dies a week later…
Photo by Charlie Riedel, AP. The above picture that is used with the “Rose” meme is actually the oldest (per Guinness World Records) college grad, Nola Ochs – age 101. She is still alive…
Do any type of simple research into any of these topics and you’ll find a flaw with the posts. Since I am a skeptical person through training, I do these searches before re-posting. I also sometimes tend to correct friends who post things that are undeniably false. It makes me come off as pretentious, but my intent is to make it so that my friends won’t believe something potentially harmful.
Pro: Learning to think like a scientist can make you a very trustworthy person.
When you know how to fact find, read complex journal articles, and extract fact from fiction, you often become the type of person that can be trusted when you say something. You also become someone to freely admit when something is out of your expertise – i.e. you feel you don’t know enough to answer a question, so you admit to it and say you don’t know enough about the topic. You become someone that can be trusted to not lead the listener or reader astray.
Con: Learning to think like a scientist can make you argumentative and cocky.
Scientists disagree and argue. All the time. All day long. We learn how to argue from watching our mentors arguing with other PIs. If you know someone is wrong and you have the data to back up what you’re saying, you are taught to make this known. It’s for the betterment of knowledge that everyone know what is true. Data can be misleading, and its their interpretation that can make the difference between a good and great scientist.
So when you know your friend/significant other/parent is wrong about something, at least in your perspective, you damn well let them know it. This can be a problem… many times in the world outside of science (and even times within the world of science and research) things are more subjective and up to interpretation than we’d like. So we argue because we think we’re right, and this can lead to real interpersonal problems.
Pro: Learning to think like a scientist gives you a greater understanding and respect for how complex and amazing the world is.
When I get sick or suffer a malady now, my mind whirls through what is happening to my body at the molecular level. Instead of yelling out , “Ow! Charley horse!” to a leg cramp that wakes me up in the middle of the night, I yell out, “My ATP! I’m dehydrated so my myosin is all ratcheted up my actin filaments and it can’t let go! I need water to hydrolyze my ATP!” That particular event happened to me while I was studying for my general exam last year. This can be good and bad. Because I understand (albeit at a fairly basic level) how disease works, I can offer advice to my husband or know what to expect for myself. At the same time, there are times when ignorance is bliss, and I’d prefer I not know how things inside me work.
In addition, I am in constant awe of the world around me. Because I have some understanding for how biological systems work, I really enjoy thinking about just how perfectly things have to had happen in order for our mere existence to come about. It has heightened my appreciation for the beauty and precision of nature and life.
Con: Learning how to think like a scientist makes you less likely to enjoy things like magic, and for some people – religion.
That sense of awe and wonder is kind of eroded away once you start to over-analyze everything. Now, instead of just sitting back and enjoying a nice magic show, you start to think almost naggingly, How did he do that? You can’t just enjoy it anymore – you have to figure out the trick. Your curiosity is killing you.
Image credit: Zachary Weiner
Similarly, a lot of scientists lose their religious nature. Once you realize the theory of evolution is a lot more convincing than a book full of supernatural miracles, it’s hard to go back. Don’t get me wrong – a lot of scientists retain their religious nature for moral and familial reasons. Religious communities serve as a great outlet for community service, nurturing the human spirit, encouraging moral/safe/healthful choices, building a community of friends, and a great place to discuss moral dilemmas and philosophical theory. But for lack of a better example – I find many of my Christian friends have to, in part, divide their life. They rely solely on hard proof at work when doing research, but allow themselves to wander into a more mystical world where strange miracles can occur when they enter their church to pray. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll save that for another post.
Pro: Becoming a scientist makes you an incredibly detailed-oriented and disciplined worker.
This is kinda like the chicken and the egg problem. It could be that detailed-oriented people are naturally attracted to science, or it could be that careful observation is taught to those that decide to become scientists. I think this varies for everyone, but for many students of science – you don’t go in with the same amount of discipline as you do when you come out as a full-fledged scholar.
Con: You spend so much time in the lab (because you are so disciplined and detail-oriented) that you forget how to interact with the outside world.
Another untold side-effect of working in science is you can spend so much time in the lab that you begin to forget how to socialize and have fun with non-science people. You spend all of your time reading journal articles, doing experiments, and thinking about the theories of your experiments that you eliminate your free time otherwise spent learning about the dating lives of celebrities. This could arguably be a good thing – but it also means you have no idea what the cashier at the local grocery store is talking about when she starts chatting with you about the recent news involving the Kardashians. Pop culture takes a backseat to your science, and consequently, you have less and less in common to chat about with people who are not in your field of science.
Luckily, the internet and Facebook has made it possible to keep up with pop culture while you wait for your next time point of an experiment. It’s just a matter of finding balance – I know plenty of people who find themselves unable to talk about anything at length but science even in a social party setting.
All of these challenges doesn’t mean a scientist won’t be any fun to be around – it’s just a matter of finding balance and how much one lets scientific thinking interrupt his/her normal relations. There are plenty of scientists I know that are loads of fun with very charismatic personalities… they also happen to be the most adaptable people I know. They are able to reason logically when at work, and able to let that slide and be a genuinely nice and comical person in a social setting. In fact, I think most of the successful scientists I know were able to find that happy medium between logic and fun.