Field of Science

Introverts, extroverts and modern science

Over at "In the Pipeline", Derek has a post that indirectly asks the following question; all other factors being the same, is modern scientific research more conducive toward introverts or extroverts?

The post was inspired by an Op-Ed in today's New York Times by Susan Cain, a social scientist who has an interesting book arguing that modern professional life's bias toward extroverted behavior may be stifling the kind of creativity engendered by introverts. Whether at home or at work, we are expected to constantly collaborate, interact, email and reach out and perhaps all this is turning a little obsessive. I haven't read the book yet but the author is suggesting that much of the modern workplace not only encourages but often demands constant collaborations, meetings (both offline and online) and social networking in ways that are stacked against quiet introverts whose valuable skills may be lost in the din.

It may be worth noting first that both introverts and extroverts have made monumental contributions to scientific research, although there could be an argument for certain types of research favoring one or the other kind of personality. If most of your research involves working out dense mathematical theorems or tracing the life histories of ants in the Amazonian rainforest for that matter, an introverted personality that isn't too fond of social interaction may be best for you. On the other hand, if your research involves tracking consumer behavior in supermarkets or evaluating the effects of political bias on brains using fMRI, you may be best off being an extrovert who likes to interact with other social creatures.

Notwithstanding this tailoring of certain kinds of personalities for certain kinds of research, it's pretty clear that there are lots of exceptions and that people with diverse temperaments have flourished in scientific research. Henry Cavendish who would probably have received two or three Nobel Prizes had his discoveries been made in recent times was pathologically shy and would fire his maid if she stepped in the same room with him. As a contrast, among modern scientists, Niels Bohr was famous for being someone who thought best by talking to people. In the words of his protege, the physicist John Wheeler, talking physics with Bohr was like playing a one-man tennis match, with the other person serving as a wall to relentlessly bounce off ideas. Bohr would often take his students and collaborators for long walks, sometimes for circular walks around the building with the intent of hammering out his thoughts. The mumbling and the perpetual refinements and revisions of his sentence constructions made the experience a little harrowing for the listener. As Bohr and his victim went round and round, ideas would spin off. In sharp contrast to Bohr, Paul Dirac was equally famous for being taciturn to an almost pathological degree, mostly remaining silent even when questions were asked. Another example is Fred Sanger, the two-time Nobel Prize winner who is one of the most self-effacing and introverted scientists that you can find. In his case his inward-looking personality led to a career-long life in the lab doing technical work with scant regard for interviews, publicity or even scientific writing. Sanger who faithfully retired at the relevant age and now tends roses in his garden says that he has always been good at doing, listening and talking, in that order.

But as far as the trend of modern research and the current emphasis on open science goes, James Watson and Francis Crick's collaboration may be a better role model than Bohr's peripatetic thinking-out-loud style. The two hit it off almost instantly at the Cavendish Laboratories. Watson was irreverent and not afraid to walk up to anyone and ask any question that came to him. Crick was notoriously talkative and loud to the point of being irritating. The two were ideally suited to constantly bounce ideas off each other and rattle off their latest brainwave without any thought of politeness or social etiquette. But the real reason their collaboration serves as an inspiration for modern research is because of their completely open style of approaching the DNA problem. The two would ask anybody, learn any technique, build any model, perform any calculation, read any textbook and consult any reference, all without abandon. Any person, printed source, experimental or theoretical technique was meat and drink to them, even if in one infamous case Watson used Rosalind Franklin's x-ray data without her knowledge. This practice of doing whatever it takes to solve a problem is cardinal to today's multidisciplinary scientific research and it will continue to serve us well.

Open science will indeed bring us enormous benefits but it may also inevitably cast out the valuable outliers. The book by Cain seems to argue that there can be such a thing as too much collaboration if it becomes enshrined in scientific practice as an inviolable rule, leading to those who don't fit the mold being ignored or even ostracized. The real problem is with implicitly or explicitly penalizing introverts who would rather work by themselves. I myself am someone who prefers a balance; I don't like to be secluded in a private office (as I was in a previous job) and certainly prefer an open work space with desks and cubicles. But I would also like to work on ideas in solitude both before and after I discuss them with others. If I were to criticize modern collaborative science, it would be in its tendency to convene meetings or telephone conferences to sometimes discuss even trivial matters. It would be in emphasizing a talent for teamwork so much that not perceiving someone as an extroverted team player almost automatically ejects him from the pool of job applicants in an interview. And it would be in criticizing or even bullying up on someone who does not instantly subscribe to the latest technological breakthrough in online collaboration and data sharing.

There's one more drawback which I think is inherent in this era of constantly collaborative science. It offers little opportunity to work for some time without preconceived notions. Sometimes the best ideas come from people who can think outside the box precisely because they are not already exposed to the conventional wisdom in the field. In some ways, the first few days in a new position offer the best chance to do independent thinking that is unencumbered by groupthink. Bringing a new researcher in your organization or group up to speed by instantly steeping him or her in the group's research philosophy may seem like a good idea, but it may deny you the chance to tap into fresh and original insight. It is important in my opinion to let a newcomer in a research organization take some time and offer his own way of thinking to others rather than have him fall in line with your preferred mindset right away. And then there's the currently unanswered question of how much a world full of distractions that include the internet, phones, email and co-workers is affecting productivity.

Part of the reason why Cain's outlook strikes a chord with me is because of the realization that scientific research has always benefited from personalities, working styles and mindsets that are as diverse as the discoveries they make. Science has had room for all of them; the introverts, the extroverts, the evangelists, the prophets, the quiet lab technicians, the soap box enthusiasts and the madmen. All of these have made modern science, and all of them deserve a place at the table, no matter how eager its inexorable march.

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