Why are some scientists so inept socially and end up in struggles interacting with other people?
Yes, my theory is that many of the key events are traceable to kindergarten and more specifically to what future scientists failed to learn then even if they technically passed the class and moved on to first grade.
In a short book called “All I Need to know I learned in Kindergarten“, author Robert Fulghum explained how most of life’s important lessons were actually taught to all of us back when we were about 5 years old.
The book was published my freshman year at Reed College.
Back then when this book was originally published I never read it. Oops.
However, my mom made a point of telling me that she thought it was a very interesting book. In fact she summarized it for me, but sadly I don’t seem to recall almost any of the lessons. Crud. Maybe Reed filled up my brain with other info.
Fortunately, Fulghum summarizes some of the key lessons learned in kindergarten all on page 6 of his book.
The lessons he lists read like a set of bullet points of the social failures of quite a few scientists.
With kudos to Fulghum, here I go with his main life lessons from kindergarten and my take on how some scientists flunk most of them.
- Share everything. Many scientists are remarkably bad at sharing. They won’t share their published reagents as journals mandate. They won’t share knowledge. They won’t share their time. You can almost see the prototypic stereotypic scientist with a flask held up in the air yelling “mine, mine mine!” Most scientists are not this way, but enough are to cause problems.
- Play Fair. Some scientists often do not play fair. They engage in many kinds of unfair, even cut throat behavior. Check out the first six pieces in my “Seven sins of scientists series”.
- Don’t hit people. I’ve never witnessed a scientist hitting people, at least not literally, although I’ve heard of a few cases where it might have happened. But they do hit each other below the belt so to speak where it hurts in grant and paper reviews and in supposed letters of recommendation.
- Put things back where you found them. Ever seen a lab? Of course my lab people are very tidy, but in many labs gel rigs are left out, chemicals are strewn on balances, etc. Messy!
- Clean up your own mess. Speaking of messes, but more related to people not things….Ah, if only scientists would clean up their “people” messes, eh? Scientists are very good at making messes of things whether it is the people “chemistry” of their lab or making an enemy of a potential future paper and grant reviewer with ill-tempered comments or what have you. But scientists are not so good at saying “I’m sorry” or by other means cleaning up such social messes.
- Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. This one fits in nicely with #5 and #6. Many scientists as mentioned above seem unable to apologize. Perhaps it is ego or possibly it is a failure of social learning. It is rare to hear a scientist apologize for anything.
- Wash your hands before you eat. This is especially important in a lab where your hands could be crawling with synthetic bacteria, oncogenic viruses, chemicals, or radioactivity. However, during my career I’ve seen some people work in the lab, sometimes with no gloves, and then eat without washing their hands. It makes me shudder.
- Flush. It’s hard to really know how good scientists are at responsibly flushing, but 20 years of anecdotal “observation” sure suggest that they are better than the average person so for that reason I salute scientists!
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. I know some cardio scientists who would dispute this claim about cookies and milk based on hard data (cholesterol and all that), but it sounds yummy to me. However, scientists probably subsist more on luke warm vending machine food that should be cold and cold coffee that should be hot.
- Live a balanced life–learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Life balance is a huge problem in science. Too many scientists keep their brains only focused on one narrow area for years or decades at a time. From my own experience, some of my best, most creative ideas popped into my head while I was ostensibly not thinking about science and not in the lab or my office. Scientists also greatly benefit from time with their families and friends, but too often sacrifice that at the altars of the science gods cranking out the next grant or paper.
- Take a nap every afternoon. Scientists tend to be a sleep-deprived, cranky bunch of folks.
- When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Scientists often fail at this one. Team science is all the rage these days and some teams do amazing science it is true, but too often the opposite happens. Scientists rush into the “traffic” of the scientific world not holding hands, but looking back over their shoulders hoping to see a Mack truck run over their competitors. A better analogy might be scientists conducting themselves like they are playing Grand Theft Auto, where you get points for things like running people over.
- Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. I think Fulghum misses the mark here even with considering this is supposed to be a lesson from kindergarten. In fact, scientists do know why roots go down and the plant goes up. This is one of the few of his lessons that I think was a major screw up. There are wondrous things in the world that are hard to understand, but basic botany 101 was not the best example. However, my response to this point of Fulghum’s might illustrate nicely another problem of scientists: we are a bit impatient and ill-tempered when we perceive that others screwed up. Scientists also tend to have big egos.
- Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup–they all die. So do we. Scientists are fairly adept at accepting death of things around them. Cells die. Mice die. Plants die. I’m not sure scientists, however, are any better at accepting human death than anyone else. They also want their scientific legacy to be immortal.
- And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first words you learned–the biggest word of all-LOOK. Scientists are also pretty good at this admittedly. I like the scientific perspective on the world in fact. Not taking things at face value and looking deeply into how the world works, but unfortunately this doesn’t help scientists deal with other people…indeed, in the case of looking at other people and paying attention especially to those around them, scientists probably get an “F”.