Perseverance Over Prodigy: Why Success in Science Requires Effort, Not Genius

Selin Zeyrek 27 November 2018
Image Credit: Lauren Chan

If you hear the word ‘scientist’, what sort of image springs to mind? An introverted, lab-coated genius perhaps, holed away with little to no human contact, content with their science and their eureka moments.  Historically, this would not be far off from the truth: a couple of centuries ago, science was not a profitable enterprise, and only the rich were able to investigate the world around them. Leonardo da Vinci, the archetypal polymath, used the funding from his artwork and inventions to continue his observations of the natural world; Thomas Young, touted as the ‘last true polymath’ came from a wealthy family that allowed him to become a physicist, physician, musician and linguist simultaneously.

These ‘geniuses’ were able to emerge from the crowd mainly for two reasons: firstly, the majority of the population was poor and illiterate, and the rich were able to colonise new fields without the anxiety of being overtaken. Secondly, there was simply less information available in the past (eg the 1800s), so you could ‘know’ most of what there was to know about a topic if you had access to the necessary books and a logical mind. Despite this, the idea that brilliance is necessary to succeed in STEM subjects is still prevalent. It is wrong at best, and damaging at worst.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and becoming an expert is much harder. To know everything there is to know about vision, as Young did in the 1800s, takes a lifetime and possibly more – it requires intimate knowledge of physics and biology, and an ability to combine the two. The age at which Nobel Laureates complete the work that wins them the prize was higher by 6 years in 1998 compared to 1873. Making new discoveries first requires intensive study of what is currently known, and as areas of science become more and more niche it is clear that to become a ‘Renaissance man’ is simply no longer possible.

The most troubling consequence that emerges from this misconception is the issue that STEM continues to struggle with: representation. Fields that are considered to require innate talent, such as mathematics and philosophy, are dominated by men; those that are considered to require hard work, such as molecular biology and psychology, boast a respectable proportion of women. In recent years in the USA, half of all PhDs in neuroscience and molecular biology were awarded to women, compared to only a fifth of PhDs in physics and computer science. An explanation for this could lie in ‘stereotype threat’: drawing attention to the stereotype that women do not possess innate talent for mathematics, and highlighting the ‘masculine’ nature of the subject actually impairs their ability and interest in that field.

Those in positions of power may also have subconscious biases against women if they also consider their field to require innate talent: a study by PNAS showed that identical job applications to a science faculty were rated more highly if submitted under a male name rather than a female one. An extreme case is the recent story about Professor Strumia and his talk at CERN about how ‘physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation’. Aside from the fact that the data he presented was inaccurate and incorrectly interpreted, his presentation served only to strengthen stereotype threat and deter women from continuing in such a hostile environment.

Leslie et al. conducted an investigation on gender distributions in STEM fields and the reasons behind them, and their findings were striking. Comparing the fields, differences in hours worked, perception of the importance of systemizing versus empathizing in the job and the selectivity of the department had no significant bearing on whether women were well represented. The only significant predictor of the distribution of women was the extent to which genius was considered necessary to be successful in that particular field. They also found that women placed more importance on effort and dedication as opposed to innate talent, and this may offer a clue as to why fields lacking women value genius more – simply because they have fewer women, so a smaller proportion of that field places hard work over.Whether genius is actually required or not is a different question, but we can never know unless we improve access and observe the long-term effects.

Having established that an ‘all-or-nothing’ attitude to intelligence is unhelpful when it comes to scientific development, the question then becomes how does anybody break new ground? If keeping up with new developments is a career in itself, how can you possibly have time to investigate and experiment and move forward? The answer can be demonstrated simply by comparing papers through time to the present: teamwork. Open up any study done in any STEM field in the past 10 years, and you will see that not a single one of them was a lone effort. Most are written by five or so people; some teams can reach up to 30. As the previous president of the Royal Society says, ‘only a fool sets out to cure cancer’. Each scientist contributes a brick to the wall of information needed to make a breakthrough; these days, there is no such thing as a solo scholar.

Rather than being a cause for despair, this is actually rather wonderful. Even the structure of DNA, something that most would consider to be firmly within the realms of biology or biochemistry, requires the collaboration of multiple disciplines: molecular biologists to propose a sensible idea, physicists to develop the technique of x-ray crystallography in the first place, and chemists (specifically, Dorothy Hodgkin) to bridge the gap between the two. Science progresses not because one individual powers through all the experiments and single-handedly advances the field; instead, it is an ongoing process that requires contribution and disagreement and refinement and debate. These, at least, are skills that anybody can develop: dispel the myth of the (long-dead) genius, and consider what you could do and become.