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The Cult of Genius

By Julianne Dalcanton
Feb 25, 2007 8:02 AMMay 21, 2019 5:58 PM


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While some physicists are known for their hearty support of atheism, even they can have some personal dieties. High in the physicist’s pantheon sits Richard Feynman, due not only to his obvious smarts and good work, but also to an outsized personality chonicled in a wealth of popular writings (and even a movie!). I’ve always had mixed feelings about Feynman as a cult figurehead, however. It’s nothing personal against Feynman in particular, but about the hero worship he represents. During high school or college, many aspiring physicists latch onto Feynman or Einstein or Hawking as representing all they hope to become. The problem is, the vast majority of us are just not that smart. Oh sure, we’re plenty clever, and are whizzes at figuring out the tip when the check comes due, but we’re not Feynman-Einstein-Hawking smart. We go through a phase where we hope that we are, and then reality sets in, and we either (1) deal, (2) spend the rest of our career trying to hide the fact that we’re not, or (3) drop out. It’s always bugged the crap out of me that physicists’ worship of genius conveys the simultaneous message that if you’re not F-E-H smart, then what good are you? In physics recommendation land, there is no more damning praise than saying someone is a “hard worker”.

Well, screw that. Yes, you have to be clever, but if you have good taste in problems, an ability to forge intellectual connections, an eye for untapped opportunities, drive, and yes, a willingness to work hard, you can have major impacts on the field. While my guess is that this is broadly understood to be true by those of us clever-but-not-F-E-H-smart folks who’ve survived the weeding of graduate school, postdoctoral positions, and assistant professorhood, we do a lousy job of communicating this fact to our students. I’ve always suspected that we lose talent from the field because people opt for Door #3 (drop out) when they face up to the fact that physics is frequently hard, even for very clever people. The idea that you have to be F-E-H smart to succeed gives little encouragement to continue when the going gets rough. (I have no idea if other fields have this same problem — my guess is that physicists are particularly prone to it, since we are trained early on to think that physicists are simply smarter than chemists or biologists. Those other fields are for the hard workers. We don’t put mathemeticians on this scale, because we secretly believe they’re smarter than us. Note to the biologist lynch mob: tounge is in cheek.)

Anyways, I’ve been thinking about this again in light of Po Bronson’s excellent article in New York Magazine about Carol Dweck’s research (which I read via Nordette in Blogher is coming out in a popular book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success). The article is focused on how to effectively handle praise for smart kids. The upshot (verified by a number of clever experiments), is that when you praise a kid for being smart in general, rather than for specific accomplishments or efforts, you risk paralyzing the kid with a fear of not looking smart, to the point where they will tend to shun challenges.

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure).

While Dweck is working primarily with preK-12 students, everything covered in the article rings true for what I’ve seen at the higher levels (both for myself, my colleagues, and students). Those of us who are fortunate enough to sail through high school often crumple when the stuff we’re allegedly good at finally becomes hard. Whether you “make it” as a physicist after that has a lot to do with how you respond at that moment. Do you take it as a sign that you’re not cut out for the game? Do you feel like a failure, and stop enjoying physics as a whole? Do you buck up and forge ahead? (Like a neutrino, you’ll probably wind up oscillating among the three mixed states for a while, before collapsing into one of them.)

I was most struck in Bronson’s article by a description of an experiment by Lisa Blackwell and Dweck on the impact on performance of how one perceives intelligence. In a science magnet school with low acheiving students, Blackwell studied 700 students, all of whom were taught a multi-session unit on study skills. One half of the group, however, also received a “special module on how intelligence is not inate”:

The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.

These studies have lots of implications for higher ed in the sciences. Physics, with its strong cult of genius, is probably the canary in the coal mine.

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