dirk hovy

2017/09/19, 06:46AM
BLOG: Conference sizes in NLP are growing exponentially, which will likely affect how we review, organize, and experience conferences in the future. Some thoughts based on my observations at ACL and EMNLP.

2016/10/22, 04:59AM
BLOG: I had some time and analyzed the US presidential debates from a quantitative point of view. Turns out the candidates differ even beyond their messages.

“You may have thought you heard me say I wanted a lot of bacon and eggs, but what I said was: Give me ALL the bacon and eggs you have.”
Ron Swanson (Parks and Rec)


At very irregular intervals, you’ll find impressions, updates, and random thoughts about what I am doing. The blog does not claim to be complete, up-to-date, or meaningful. I tried to post all entries in both languages, and recently switched to English only, but there are some that are only available in one or the other language. In those cases, there was probably too little time, or I was just lazy and all that translating a hassle ;)

Science’s genius complex

(2016/07/06, 04:27PM)
In a recent article in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki outlined how, back in the 1960s, professional athletes considered strength training akin to cheating: either you were good at sports, or you weren’t―training had nothing to do with it. Practice was seen as just a way to stay in shape, not to get better. Today, this notion sounds quaint, naive, and a little bit stupid. We expect professional athletes (and any remotely serious amateurs) to have a rigorous training regimen, including fitness, nutrition, and rest schedules.

When it comes to scientists, however, we still think along the same lines as the athletes in the last century. Da Vinci, Einstein, Curie: We like to think that these people had an innate “gift”, a knack for science, that they were just brilliant and needed no training. Yes, they were extremely smart, but nothing could be further from the truth. Da Vinci and Tesla had sophisticated sleep schedules to maximize efficiency, Einstein arranged his personal life around his science (with no regard for the people around him), and Curie literally worked herself to death.

The notion of inherent brilliance, however, does not only pertain to the all-time greats. Scientists are generally portrayed as geniuses, who possess a preternatural insight and operate on a different plane from mere mortals. This is an overcome and elitist notion, and to perpetuate that stereotype is not only disrespectful to all the hard-working researchers, but also damaging to science.

Every great academic I know has indeed an unusually good understanding of their subject matter, but mostly, they do because they work a substantial amount. And the more accomplished they are, the more they work. None of them could get by on talent alone, neither to get where they are, nor to maintain that level.

There are of course no well-known training regimen for scientists (What is the equivalent of endurance training for researchers? How should one eat and rest to achieve maximum performance?)
However, many researchers I know exercise regularly, both to maintain their health, and as counterbalance to their academic routine. And while not many academics eat an athlete’s diet, many of them follow scrupulous caffeination rituals.

More importantly, though, the best researchers are constantly finding ways to identify and improve their weaknesses. And the only way to do so is by investing time. Lots of time.
A job at a prestigious university these days comes with the implicit understanding (from both sides) that you put in 80+ hours a week, not necessarily that you are brilliant. Work-life balance be damned.

This approach has some serious side effects, with alcoholism and burn-out unusually common among academics. Yet we still try to make it look easy on the outside, slave to the genius fallacy. We hope to convince people of our brilliance, while simultaneously fighting back the impostor syndrome, and wondering how the others do it so effortlessly. Truth is: they don’t.

This is even more infuriating since academia is already set up as a series of escalating training rounds, and would benefit from acknowledging that. The genius complex is holding us all back, devalues hard work, and makes it difficult for young researchers to accept their limits, to acknowledge that their accomplished colleagues got to where they are by years of hard work and scrupulous training, rather than by mere natural talent.

Sports and music have abandoned the genius notion in favor of dedicated training and hard work, and consequently, performance has improved across the board over the last few decades. And while the overall quality of science has improved by the same mechanism, we still cling to an overcome notion that brings more harm than good. It’s time we abandon it as well.

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