Book Review: Scientists Making a Difference
As a kid, I heard countless grown-ups say the same odd thing when I asked how they’d chosen their careers.
“I had no idea I’d be a ceramics teacher,” they’d say. Or “wouldn’t have guessed in a million years back when I was your age that I’d be an accountant.”
It turns out that famous researchers, too, are often baffled by how they got to be where they are. In Scientists Making a Difference, many of the well-known contributors reinforce the same theme: what you set out to study may be quite different from what you end up discovering.
Many of the contributors to this anthology — which is comprised of about one hundred micro chapters —share the surprising ways they became experts in their field. Some confess their own vulnerabilities and insecurities, or their dependence on other scientists for leading them to an idea — a kind of openness that’s encouraging to student readers seeking guidance.
But many of the short chapters are lacking. Some employ an impenetrable or robotic voice, while others summarize a given scientist’s work in semi-technical terms without illuminating the path that led to it.
“One would like to believe that a career is linear in direction and straightforward in its execution, but it never is. Mine certainly has not been,” writes Robert J. Sternberg, one of the book’s editors.
Sternberg opens with a particularly compelling example of how unpredictable one’s life and career can be:
“When I was a young child in early elementary school, I performed poorly on IQ tests, so my teachers and I had low expectations for me. In particular, my teachers thought I was stupid, and so I thought I was stupid; my teachers were happy that I acted stupid, and I was happy that they were happy,” writes Sternberg.
But the young boy who had been perceived by many, including himself, as “stupid” wound up co-editing this Cambridge University anthology about scientists.
Sternberg went on to study and then teach at Yale. Inspired by his own experience as a child labeled stupid, he chose to research the idea of multiple types of intelligence. His story speaks to one of the main themes of the book; that big new ideas often come from unexpected places.
There’s also a second important lesson to Sternberg’s story: Our perception of who is bright and capable is often skewed.
Fear researcher Michael Davis emphasizes that discoveries can happen by chance — even while studying a subject that at first seems boring. Cognitive neuroscientist Martha J. Farah describes how learning about the lives of her daughter’s babysitters encouraged her to study the effects of socioeconomic status and child poverty. Social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo attributes much of his career’s course to his roommate in graduate school. And while memory researcher Henry L. Roediger, III, writes that his most-cited paper came about “completely serendipitously” because of another scientist’s offhand remark, affect researcher David Watson credits an “improbable series of events” that led to his specialty, including his then-girlfriend and now-wife’s Fulbright scholarship to Japan.
Something else struck me as I was reading, aside from all the serendipity to which these scientists attribute their careers. Of roughly 100 chapters, each written by a scientist whom the editors have deemed important, only one appears to be written by a scientist of color. According to a quick google search of each contributor, everyone else appears to be white.
Not only is that disappointing in a book meant to inspire future scientists, but it also throws that whole “serendipity” thing into question. Sure, life is wild and unpredictable, and that’s true for most humans. Many people I’ve met are surprised that a decision or chance meeting in their early twenties or thirties led them somewhere they didn’t expect decades later. But the idea of luck and chance fueling one’s career is different when you’re talking about white men from a certain era. Why? Because taking a chance on an idea or being in the right place at the right time is much harder if you’re facing systemic racism.
From writing my own nonfiction book on young women navigating health issues, I know firsthand that including a range of voices in a researched book takes thoughtfulness and an active attempt to get out of your own echo chamber. Even then, it doesn’t mean you’ll be as inclusive as you set out to be. (I have what we can call a wide-ish range of voices in my book, but by no means did I do a perfect job of including as many perspectives as I wanted to.)
The editors of Scientists Making a Difference didn’t just miss their goal of inclusivity by a little bit. It seems more like the thought didn’t even cross their minds. Even in a world where STEM fields are not as diverse as they should be, 99 chapters by mostly-male white folks is pretty inaccurate. What they present, then, is an absurdly off-kilter representation of scientists.
Can I put myself in the editors’ shoes? I can. And I can see that they wanted to include stories from renowned labs, from people who’ve been established within neuroscience or psychology for decades, and from people who have influenced more recent thinkers. Due to the way history and privilege have worked over the years, that vanguard of scientists is going to skew white, older, and male. I can also see that they included a sentence about how gender, religion, race, nationality, and ethnicity may lead to some scientists getting fewer citations.
Still, I wish they had made some effort. After all, one of the book’s main goals is to get current students excited about brain and behavioral science — or at least to find their own interesting ideas and test them out. By amplifying voices from one particular demographic at the expense of others, the book risks shutting many of those students out.
The editors do attempt to explain the methodology they relied on in choosing which researchers to include. Sternberg himself quickly defines a bunch of factors that he and his co-editors have used — namely impact, quality, quantity, visibility, and eminence.
But even contributor David E. Meyer, in his chapter, questions the methodology, especially the so-called measure of eminence. It’s troubling that the editors didn’t stop to wonder about the consequences of leaving out swaths of people, and the ways that might discourage budding researchers. It’s also troubling that although they briefly acknowledge it, they didn’t sufficiently consider the ways that each of their factors is inherently biased.
There are some satisfying glimmers throughout the text that may excite students, despite all these shortcomings. There are places where famous researchers let us see their early mess-ups and happy accidents, and places where readers can get a quick summary of theories they may have heard about. (For my part, I got a refresher on memory and learned more about how young kids approach the concept of counting.)
But overall, the book lacks a real spark. As the famous Roy Baumeister writes in his chapter, “The habit of looking where no one else is looking has stuck with me for much of my career.”
Perhaps the editors of this anthology could have looked a bit harder, too.
Scientists Making a Difference: One Hundred Eminent Behavioral and Brain Scientists Talk about Their Most Important Contributions
Robert J. Sternberg, Susan T. Fiske, and Donald J. Foss
Cambridge University Press
Hardcover, 536 pages
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Hirsch, M. (2017). Book Review: Scientists Making a Difference. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 17, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/book-review-scientists-making-a-difference/