Interested or Interrogating? Explaining Inquiry Outside the Ivory Bubble

Damn right, Neil.
Doing it right.

By Ian Tingen

Over the weekend, I was perusing my Facebook news feed and came across this quip from a friend of mine:

“Philosophy taught me many things. How to find out more about what people believe without sounding like I’m interrogating them was not one of them.”

It stopped me in my tracks. As someone who is quite familiar with ivory tower life, I get it. There’s a certain mental edge that lots of post-grad education paths hone: you learn to not only dissect ideas, but destroy them. This is especially true of the ‘adversarial’ professions like the sciences and law – disciplines that force ideas into gladiatorial combat where only one can survive. As one might imagine, such devotion to that method of discourse might make the uninitiated uncomfortable. More than once or twice, I’ve been stopped by a friend or fellow discussant who asks if I’m interrogating them or am trying to exchange ideas with them. (God forbid if they know I’m a psychologist – that doesn’t help either.)  Those are just the forward people, too – I wonder how many more timid conversations I’ve unintentionally browbeat to death in my genuine zeal to understand others.

What brought these conflicts into especially sharp relief for me is that I will be teaching an introductory research methods class in the fall, and I’d love to teach it in a way that avoids setting students on the path to the ‘academic assholery’ I’ve described above. Psychology methods classes teach young scholars about the power of scientific inference: how carefully controlled experiments can be used to untangle the mechanisms behind human attitudes, behavior, and cognition. At its’ core, methods is a kind of rewiring of how to think – replacing the lay scientist within each of us with a more rigorous, empirically-minded experimenter. When I first learned about methods, it seemed that psychology could answer any of a number of pressing questions, ones that priests, parents, politicians, and pundits claimed were either unanswerable or should not be looked into. I’ve heard students over the years echo my youthful hope, but now I realize that it’s my responsibility as an instructor to ensure that the thrill of inquiry is tempered with the understanding necessary to communicate with a wide range of people.

It’s a skill that many of my peers lack, and one I recommend everyone with an advanced degree work on, myself included. Many of us wish conversations outside of the academy could take the form of this chart:

NOT FOR TALK RADIO
How to talk to a graduate or law student.

As smirk-inducing as it may be, real people don’t talk like that. Whether we want to accept it or not, scientists must be able to communicate in paths that do not exist in that illustration – the useful propagation of science depends on it. Many of my colleagues do not share the same perspective: Unless the above chart is more-or-less adhered to, they refuse to discuss their work. Sometimes it’s out of fear of being misunderstood, or out of frustration with going over the basics time and again, or out of exhaustion in interfacing with the public. All of these problems are understandable, and as a human being have fallen afoul of them at times myself.

Even so, we must soldier on. The responsibility of the scientist is to educate and illuminate, not to succumb to our own biases and tiredness. The power of science is great, but one that requires careful, patient discussion. It is not enough to say that we are scientists – we must explain why we are necessary, what the benefits of our methods are, and how everyone’s life can be made better by research. All scientists, especially social scientists, would do well to remember that what we do is rarely intuitive and often scary to those outside the lab. Acceptance can be a daunting proposition for those who aren’t in our shoes. Because of these facts, we need to talk about what we do in the language and cadence of those we are talking with, lest our exuberance and rigor be misunderstood as condescension and interrogation.

Special thanks to Peter Kovalsky for sending me the ‘Our Discussion’ flowchart.

A brief afterword:

You should all check out James Coyne’s blog. He’s a really smart skeptic and psychologist, one who provides plenty of food for thought drawn from decades of experience. I recently enjoyed his piece “On Cows in the Rain“. Stop by and say Ian sent you!

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