This weekend was Guy Fawkes Night, which is a yearly UK holiday. It commemorates a guy (named Guy) who tried to blow up parliament in 1605. To show that cruel acts of terror like this have no place in our civilised and peaceful society, we burn Guy Fawkes at the stake. Well, an effigy of him these days. Plus, there are fireworks. It’s one of the British holidays that I find it harder to relate to (as opposed to, say, Early May Bank Holiday, which is my favourite). Therefore I keep forgetting the date.
It is a nightmare: I am at university, and I have to pass a difficult exam. It is an oral examination, for which I have prepared, but probably not enough. I am nervous. The Professor’s office is in an old building, down a long corridor. Outside the room, a few students are waiting their turn. I go sit with them. I don’t know any of them. One of the girls greets me and says something. I don’t understand her. It sounds like what she is saying is “So, how many times have you tried this one?” I mumble something about this being my first time. (And hopefully my last! But I don’t even have the courage to say that. This, I feel, is no time for being over-confident.) I go through my notes, like everybody else does. After a few minutes, the door opens and out comes The Professor. I have never seen this man before.
It’s the first week of semester 1 of our new Biomedical Sciences degree programme, and the first cohort of students have been through their first few lectures and tutorials. They are wonderful young people, bright, optimistic, maybe a bit anxious, but nonetheless ready to throw themselves into this new adventure. These days, I think a lot of what it was like for me when I was in my first year of undergraduate. And about what I was like.
When I was a postdoc, my university had a biology reading course for undergraduates. It was structured as a small seminar, and any postdoc or faculty member could choose a topic and lead a discussion group, provided enough students showed up. Excited, I wrote up a proposal on one of my favourite topics and handed it in. Time passed. Zero undergraduates signed up. Zero. I talked to the professor overseeing the course about possible reasons. “Maybe,” she said, “you should have chosen a sexier title.” I was astonished. How is “Computational Models in Biology and Biochemistry” not sexy enough?
Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s an interesting psychological insight about how people’s actual knowledge and skill aligns with their perceived knowledge and skill.
People who are not very skilled at a particular task find it very hard to understand the level of skill needed to do that task well. As a consequence, they fail to recognise a truly skilled practitioner when they see one, and they tend to overestimate their own skill. As a people get better at a particular skill, they also get better at accurately estimating how good they are at it. This is true for a wide range of skills and knowledge areas, including grammar, logical thinking, and even humour. It was first described in a 1999 paper by Kruger and Dunning entitled Unskilled and Unaware of it.
Now, here is the problem.
Many biologists grew up liking animals. That’s why they became biologists. Not me. I never had a particular interest in animals, never had pets, never brought in animals from outdoors. My interest in the local wildlife only emerged after I had been working as a (molecular and computational) biologist for some time. Walking to and from the lab, you start to notice things.