Becoming a professional doubter

Warning: this post contains pictures of spiders. Big ones. Please close this post now if this is going to totally freak you out.

One of the fun things about being Australian, especially when you travel overseas, is freaking out non Australians with stories of the huge spiders, lizards and snakes which occasionally wander into your house. Australians tend to affect casual un-concern at the gasps of horror which inevitably follow the telling of these stories to non-Australians, but don’t be fooled. Many of us are shit-scared of these creatures and react with fear and horror when confronted with them.

Interestingly, some of our wildlife that looks the most scary is actually not dangerous at all. Take the Huntsman spider:

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 10.42.40 AM

He’s big right? Yep. Mostly harmless to humans apparently, but just imagine finding one of these creatures walking above your head while lying in bed. The most common method to get rid of the Huntsman is with a glass and a broom, out of respect for their size (killing them is hard and gruesome work). I make Mr Thesis Whisperer deal with spiders with his size 10 boot.

I was forced to confront and re-evaluate my relationship with spiders late last year, when I moved into our new Canberra home. The logistics of a 500km move being what they are, I ended up ‘camping’ on the floor in one of the bedrooms for 5 weeks. I had my work clothes, bits and pieces of crockery and utensils, but no fridge, microwave, chair or table. I had to eat standing up and work sitting on the floor. The rental house (which we have nicknamed ‘The McMansion’) felt very big and empty, kind of lifeless and distinctly spooky at night. I felt edgy and I didn’t sleep well.

This situation was not helped by the spiders.

Spiders had been treating the vacant house as some kind of Spider Hilton. This Facebook update, which I posted the first night I spent in The McMansion, was posted while feeling proud of myself for killing a small black spider without the benefit of Mr Thesis Whisperer’s size 10 boot:

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While most of my friends laughed at my tale of spider-murder, some reacted with various degrees of outrage. Spiders, they claimed, are poor, misunderstood creatures. “Yeah, yeah, yeah” I thought to myself until my friend Dr Lynne Kelly chimed in.

Lynne is an expert on spiders (although her actual thesis is about pre-historic archeology) – she’s even written a book “Spiders, learning to love them” and blogs about their lives on the delightful, if somewhat freaky “Spiderblogger”, which she started as a cure for her own aracnaphobia. Lynne decided to re-educate me and out of respect for her I tried really hard to listen, but I still wasn’t convinced. Then next week, this happened:

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 11.15.01 AM

Basically this huge spider camping by my door was my worst spider fear made manifest. While I had a glass, I had no broom – I’m not even sure I could have used it anyway. Lynne and my spider loving friends, bless their hearts, took this opportunity to help me deal with my fear through knowledge. The Huntsman, Lynne pointed out is an amazing creature. Its life is hard: this one had lost a leg in the process. Lynne informed me that he was in his mating period now and I should just leave him be, he would move on of his own accord when he finds a spider lady friend.

My friend Andrew Buntine joined in to point out the advantages of the situation. True to their name, he said, Hunstmans hunt and kill other bugs. Given that I had also encountered a large cockroach that morning, I suddenly saw there might be something in it for me to exercise tolerance. This whole situation might, I mused to myself, provide an excellent opportunity to experiment with ‘living with otherness’ and besides I didn’t really have a choice. I didn’t sleep well knowing he was near me, but the next morning this happened:

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 11.34.01 AM

It seemed Lynne was right. Perhaps I had been unnecessarily freaking out about the Huntsman spider all these years? Maybe moving them on was a problem I didn’t need to own? But no such luck, as that very night…

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 11.37.00 AM

Clearly Mr Huntsman was unlucky in love and had decided to retreat to the Mc Mansion, but this time he had taken up residence on the door jamb itself, which meant I was forced very close to him to get in and out of the house.

This is where my ‘living with otherness’ experiment got hard.

I was over my initial screaming repulsion, but I experienced a slew of other emotions that swung somewhere between mild fear, annoyance and growing wonder. I managed to go in and out of the door without breaking into a sweat a couple of times. The idea that maybe, just maybe, I might be able to actually live with Mr Huntsmen started to take hold of me. Could I let go of my fear and let in some other emotions, like, I don’t know – affection?

Lynne recommended I just observe, so I worked at capturing Mr Huntsman’s behaviour in photos. I noticed that sometimes he liked to lurk behind the doorframe. I wondered why he did that – was he stalking something? I started to post updates on Facebook, giving him human emotions:

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 12.56.13 PM

I even briefly considered giving Mr Huntsman a Facebook profile so that he could start to ‘speak’ for himself. I started laughing to myself at some imaginary Mr Huntsman status updates about me (“human appears to have adjusted to my presence. I might not kill her after all.”).

Suddenly, mid laugh, I felt an odd kind of kinship with the spider.

Ok, you’ve stuck with my spider story for 1000 words now and are probably wondering: “where’s the thesis stuff Inger?!”. Well, this experience of living with otherness was a Threshold Moment for me. It made me really appreciate, viscerally, how the human urge to dominate, and drive out other species we don’t immediately see the value in, was entrenched in me, despite my pretentions to being tolerant and civilised.

I started to wonder in what other ways I might be kidding myself about my ability to deal with the Other. Let’s consider the phenonmenon of ‘confirmation bias’. Confirmation bias is the tendency psychologists have noticed for us to look for evidence which confirms what we already think. A good example of confirmation bias in action is politics: people will tend to attribute more negative motives to politicians that are on the ‘other side’.

Apparently most of us suffer from some degree of confirmation bias, even if we think we don’t think we are doing it. This is a real danger for researchers. Unless you are constantly alert to the possibility that you are seeking out evidence and information which confirms your opinions, you are not really researching at all, but writing a very long, thinly veiled opinion piece and Mullins and Kiley’s work reminds us that Examiners are quick to pick up on this.

Students who have come to their PhD after years in industry or public service can have a particular battle with confirmation bias. These students have encountered many problems in their work life and (rightly) see the PhD as a vehicle for a life’s work. Many have been ‘problem solvers’ all their working life and have trouble becoming ‘problem finders’. They think they KNOW what the problems are, and even some of the solutions, therefore they can get very frustrated with academics who suggest that the student might not know as much as they think they do, especially if those academics happen to be much younger.

The other variation of this problem in the humanities is people who get wedded to a particular theorist or theoretical approach, and pursue this, even if the data they are collecting and analysing might not be explained well using this theory. I get a bit hung up on using Actor Network Theory and I have trouble seeing my work as ‘really theoretical’ unless I use it. But sometimes it just doesn’t work. I’m not well equipped to know what the similar problem might be in the sciences, but I’m sure that the tendency to be comfortable with some techniques and methods at the expense of others must happen there too.

I sometimes get tearful emails from people who complain their supervisor has no respect for their opinion, or just doesn’t ‘get it’. I tell students who are feeling this way that it’s entirely possible that their supervisor IS wrong, but what if they aren’t? It’s difficult to confront the Other Opinion, the Other Theory or the Other method because it challenges us to put aside our confirmation bias and really attempt to reconcile ourselves with the Other. Professional researchers are, after all, professional doubters. We must doubt ourselves in order to do our jobs well – which leads to all kinds of other problems of course, which I have no time to deal with here unfortunately because I am WAY over my self imposed word limit and need to draw this to a close.

After my experience with this Huntsman I’ve started to think about Other Opinions and Other Theories as spiders. Sometimes we just have to live with the discomfort they cause us before we can start to appreciate what they might have to offer. Of course the temptation to fall back into our established ways of being is incredibly strong. Now the house is full of my family and my belongings, I have called on the power of Mr Thesis Whisperer’s boot many times. Mr huntsman never did return.

What do you think? Have Other Ideas and Other Opinions ever felt like spiders to you? Are you a student starting your PhD later in life – was it a challenge? What advice do you have for people about cultivating a tolerance for difference and new ideas which challenge our core values and assumptions?

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20 thoughts on “Becoming a professional doubter

  1. Nice down to earth example of the problem we all face as researchers. Those whose disciplines use quantitative data experience the problem in different ways from those of us whose work is based in messy wordy qualitative stuff, but they have a device that I have found useful when doing qualitative analysis. As soon as I think I am seeing a theme or a pattern in my data. I state a ‘null hypothesis’ like ‘no, there’s no theme of discontent with X’ or ‘there is no difference between the young and the old in regard to X’. Then I go looking to test out the null hypothesis. Because I have my full share of tendency to spot confirming evidence, I can more readily see the exceptions or the evidence contradicting my original idea when I have a null hypothesis statement guiding me. And whatever the outcome of my searching I win. Either I was right and there is no evidence as per the null hypothesis, or I am right in the original idea.

    • Hey Helen, I like your use of the null hypothesis – I am struggling with the same issues and I think I can use that approach. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post Inger. Maybe you could do a spider-free version for the arachnophobes, so they don’t miss the confirmation bias stuff?

  3. As a later in life PhD candidate, I have no problem with my supervisors poo pooing my ideas ( they do it so nicely) because I respect that they have much more experience in the area than I. I also view the world with a ‘no such thing as truth’ lens, there is only ‘what happened’ and your interpretation of that event from your viewpoint.

  4. A very effective metaphor, and you explain it so well – though I’m not so keen on your boot solution.

    I’m actually not afraid of spiders, but their webs mess up my house so if they don’t move on quickly I just relocate them. No stress. However if I switch the metaphor from spiders to creeping, crawling, hissing things like centipedes, millipedes, slugs and, god forbid, snakes. Ah yes, now I understand. The skin-crawling fear, the irrational terror, and the instinct to flee..

    How do I respond to the creatures that make me feel this way? No tolerance, If they’re small enough they’re swept up and thrown in the garbage. (can’t squish them, it’s gross). Large pythons make me close up the house, lock windows and doors, but everyone knows they can get into the ceilings, wait till you’re asleep then silently descend on your bed, coil around you then crush and eat you alive. Different strategy needed. Get out of the house, call snake catchers and have the snake relocated to another state, or New Zealand. (Yeah, no… I hate and fear them, but can’t be party to animal murder).

    How do I respond to my secondary supervisor’s feedback . Same deal: don’t read it, remove it from sight, run to the safety of primary supervisor’s warm fuzzy comments. Cry on her shoulder, there, there…, she’ll make him go away.

    Hm now I see, that was pretty stupid. As dumb as squishing a huntsman, really. I could instead talk to him, and learn to see my field from his theoretical perspective. It’s emotionally challenging and all my defences are up, but if I put the emotion aside I can start to think from a purely critical, theoretical, stance. It’s hard, but there’s reward for the effort. When I put aside the negative emotion and analyse my own work from a different theoretical position, I feel… l feel like ..I feel like.I’m actually being a real scholar. Not just a doctoral candidate with training wheels on, but a real, live, critically thinking scholar. I’m the Bindi Irwin of academia. I can observe the biting and spitting of opposite positions. I can see my world through their fearful eyes. I can understand their place in the wider ecosystem of my field, and appreciate that listening to them, and analysing my study from their perspectives is a habit that will make me a better researcher in future, and to write a better doctoral thesis now.

    This is a wonderful breakthrough. Please thank your huntsman for me..

  5. The easiest way to remove a huntsman is to use a large handkerchief or a tea-towel. Drape it over your hand (doubled over) and grab the huntsman with it. Then shake it out the window or door. Or over someone who you are annoyed with! (Supervisor? examiner?)

  6. Interesting angle. Thanks Inge. Have an irrational relationship to spiders myself. At the start of my career I taught at a South Australian country high school and was living by myself in the middle of nowhere. At times when I just didn’t have the inner resources to deal with a hairy huntsman in the house or a snake lurking in the garden I would just get in my car and return to work for a few hours. Often when I got back home the other guy had moved on, or I had enough strength to deal with him/her. Think this also happens a bit with unwelcome other views that emerge in my PhD journey. Sometimes what first seems horrid just needs to be left alone for a few hours or days. Mostly it never seems so bad when you return to it, and a way to build the other view into your argument seems possible, or whatever needs to be done can just be got on with. I try to forgive myself for needing to react first, cause then I can return in a more calm, thoughtful way later.

  7. Oh boy! My single greatest ick – spiders – combined with my current greatest challenge – a thesis! Talk about a flight or fight response…

    But how helpful. Thank you once again for a creative and thoughtful approach to tackling an important aspect of research. And life, really.

    This was timely for me, as I’m just wrestling some data into submission and wondering whether a theme is there because I want to see it, or it’s there because it’s there. Could be a bit of both, but looking at it each way through the lens of the confirmation bias helps. As you did with Mr. H., and I have done with my own fair share of spiders, I can simply pause, breathe, think, and approach it each way, taking the time to make explicit the assumptions, biases, and beliefs that contribute to a conclusion. You’ve just helped me with my argument!

  8. Very entertaining post. Thank you! I’ve dealt with a lot of flora and fauna around the world and some of it made me squeal with no pretense of dignity. I taught my grand daughter to address every creature as Mr., Mrs., Uncle, Aunt, brother or sister. Mr. and Mrs. Worm have certain requirements that must be observed to be good neighbors together. She lost her fear and replaced it with respect. She respects Mr. Snake and works hard not to frighten him into some unseemly behavior. I still get the willies though…

  9. Great piece loved the metaphor as lead in to confirmation bias. As one of the “Students who have come to their PhD after years in industry or public service can have a particular battle with confirmation bias” I found the article reassuring in that it once again has made me see that much of the torture to date has been pretty much self imposed. It takes a long long time to change ways of looking at the world and problem solving and to then endeavour to suspend judgement to consider the problem and reflect as critical to exploring what might really be going on. Thanks.

  10. What a great post – I particularly liked the reference to ‘a problem I didn’t need to own’. I often ask my clients whose problem is it? Surprisingly, they are often worked up about other people’s problems rather than their own. Would be interesting to do a stocktake on ourselves to see how many of problems we don’t have to own are hindering progress.

  11. Great post. Oddly enough, I just wrote a similar piece for another blog!

    For me, the issue is also tied to the fear of giving negative results. Noone really wants to have to write “I studied for four years and all I got was this lousy data” but the truth is that sometimes there is no correlation, the data is unclear and you don’t have an answer. It’s no wonder that people tend to see what they really want to see. Perhaps we need to look at systemic as well as personal solutions.

  12. Inger, Inger, Inger trying to surreptitously sneak in a case here for the social acceptance of spiders aren’t ye (throwing in that ‘cheesey mushy’ picture of Mr Man- hunter peering from behind the door frame)? No: Call me an orthodox ‘rightist’ or ‘gun-winger’, I remain down for a hunting season that uses dynamite, AR-15s, ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger Bazookas’, even drones, to kill spiders; sorry!
    We’ve got something similar to ‘confirmation bias’ in comparative law, its called ‘cognitive control’ (Gunter Frankenberg: Critical Comparisons 1985). A situation where the comparatist researcher imposes his/her(/its?) own notion of what the law is (or isn’t) on an examined society and then proceeds to compare, on the basis of this earlier skewered definition. The analogy usually is based on a ‘functional conceptualisation’ of law; having the effect of excluding every other form of ‘social fact’ (as defined by Geertz)- dysfunctional law for example- which doesn’t conform to his/her definition. Of course in such cases whatever result is obtained from such an analysis would be terribly skewered. I think the comparative law notion equally applies to PhD research. It is definitely something to be consciously weary of. It is to be confronted and accepted (as distinct from denied) if need be. Examining law functionally, in itself is not necessarily wrong- if why such an approach can be justified for instance- its just got various hermenuetical limitations. Stating that a research proceeds from a functional- and therefore limited standpoint- informs the reader that in this case certain things might not have been included. The therefore is not really adopting a particular research standpoint (where such can clearly be justified) it is arguing that the resulting analysis is ‘complete’ and all encompasive when in fact it is not.
    Hope you get to hear from Mr Man-hunter soon, cheers.

  13. ”Examining law functionally, in itself is not necessarily wrong- if why such an approach has been adopted can be justified for instance- its just got various hermenuetical limitations. Stating that a research proceeds from a functional- and therefore limited standpoint- informs the reader that in this case, certain things might not have been included. The problem is therefore not really adopting a particular research standpoint/paradigm (where such can be clearly justified) it is arguing that the resulting analysis is ‘complete’ and all encompasive when in fact it is not.”
    Sorry for the typos- where is that cup of coffee?!

  14. A quick comment relating to the spidery aspect of this post -
    I grew up in Canberra and had Huntsmans in the house A LOT. We called them all Nigel and left them be unless they decided that the ceiling above the bed was the right place to spend the night – then they got taken outside. So congratulations on your new Huntsman attitude! Give them a name, have conversations with them while you’re alone and you’ll learn to love them! :P

  15. i’m so sad i just now found your blog right as i’m about to graduate from nyu. i’ve always struggled with the executive functioning aspects of academics and you cover this sector with in an entertaining and very helpful way. you’ve got yourself a never avid reader!

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