In early May I was surprised and honoured, as well as happy, to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. One of the best consequences of this so far has been that I was allowed the opportunity to give a speech to members of the department one afternoon at an informal celebration. Actually I had requested this occasion, following the admirable departmental tradition of celebrating successful PhD vivas etc., because I wanted to share with my colleagues some thoughts, which I’m writing down here in case they’re useful to others as well. First among these was to thank those who proposed me for the fellowship, and my bosses of the last 28 years, who recruited me into excellent research institutions and gave me the freedom to work on subjects which seemed useful and interesting to me.
It turns out that FRSs are human too. Nothing has magically changed since my election. There are still lots of things I can’t understand. I’m still worried that I won’t be able to think of enough good ideas. I still feel near to despair about the large number of things I want or need to do at work, and my inadequacy in tackling them. In fact for much of my adult life I have suffered from recurrent depression. Many of the thoughts that cause me difficulties are sometimes described as symptoms of imposter syndrome, which is a fear that you are in a position that you don’t deserve to have reached, and that any moment you might be unmasked as a fraud who has misled people into thinking that you are actually quite clever.
It is probable that some colleagues have similar fears, and it’s good to know you’re not alone. Most people need encouragement, I guess. I value my election as FRS because it’s an external recognition of climate science and the value of my contribution to it, and I’ll try to use this knowledge to help myself when I’m feeling depressed. It’s useful to remind yourself in those circumstances of positive things that others have said, and in fact I’ve compiled a list of them, to look at when in need. Because I know that positive remarks are useful to me, I advocate that we should all offer positive comments to our colleagues, staff and bosses whenever we think they’ve done something good. Positive feedback should not be lagged!
One of my jobs is to make such comments myself. My other important function is to ask questions that I feel stupid in asking, especially in group meetings etc. where there might be others who’d rather like to know the answers too but don’t feel confident to ask. It’s easier for a professor to do this job than a new PhD student, because (presuming that I am actually not altogether an imposter) I can have some confidence that I am not being unusually stupid if I don’t understand something. Actually ignorance is not the same as stupidity anyway. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing. Socrates said that he knew nothing except that he knew nothing, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the ruling party’s slogans is “Ignorance is strength.” Maybe that’s going too far, but ignorance can certainly be useful, because it avoids preconceptions. Asking questions when you feel that the answer ought to be obvious, but doesn’t seem to be, can be a way to change people’s thinking. In his book, The structure of scientific revolutions, in which he put forward the idea of paradigm shifts, Thomas Kuhn points out that radical progress is often made by people who are new to a subject, presumably for this reason.
If people seem blank when you explain something to them, it might just be because you haven’t been clear enough, but on the other hand it could be because the subject you are dealing with is not yet properly appreciated, and you’re speaking a new language. If a subject seems unclear and confused to you, it might be because no-one properly understands it, and everyone’s been skirting round it, thinking it’s someone else’s business. So perhaps it would be a good idea to head straight in that direction and see what there is to be discovered, because there may be unknown mountains hidden in the mists of ignorance, and amazing panoramas can occasionally be glimpsed through the gaps.