How “Smart” Do You Have To Be To Do Science?

When I listen to noted scientists Steven Hawkings and Neil deGrasse Tyson, or try to comprehend the immense impact of the recently discovered gravitational waves, I quickly get overwhelmed by both the subject matter and its preceptors. I am in awe of the intense genius that came up with these ideas in the first place, the brilliance of those who disseminate it, and grapple with how far short my above-average mind falls. Scientists must be really, really smart, I think to myself. And if I’m thinking it, you can bet my students are too.

“I’m just not good at math,” they explain.

In the classroom, math mistakes result in low grades. At NASA, math mistakes such as not converting between English and metric units cost the loss of a $125 million dollar Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft. For both students with high aspirations and scientists alike, neither of these consequences is acceptable.

So, just how smart do you have to be to become a scientist?

The better question is, “How hard am I willing to work to become good at science and math?

There’s a belief in the United States that there are two types of people – those who are good at math, and those who aren’t. And yet, studies have shown very few, if any, genetic differences between a strong mathematician and someone “not good at math.” The reason is clear. Everyone has the capacity to be successful at math. However, by labeling ourselves from an early age as either “good at math” or “bad at math,” these labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Sure, on occasion, there have been extreme math geniuses in our midst, but for the most part, math skills are the direct effect of two things – diligence and confidence.

I used to teach in a rural largely Hispanic high school. Halfway through the year, a new student from China joined our Physics class. My students teased the class’s top student that he would now be relegated to second place. Clearly, they were invested in the Asian stereotype, even if they had never met an Asian person before. Joining a new school in the middle of the school year is difficult for any student, especially one with a poor command of the language. I sent everyone home with a new assignment that day, that built on a previous lesson. The new Chinese student asked me questions after class about the homework assignment, making it apparent that he had very limited prior content knowledge. Imagine my surprise when he returned the next day with the completed assignment in hand. It was all the more surprising when only one other student in the class completed the assignment, the “formerly” top student. To my students, the Asian myth was perpetuated, commenting in awe about the new genius in their midst.

From my vantage point, I saw something totally different. I saw a student, unfamiliar with the subject matter or the previous lesson, who did what was necessary to learn the new material and return to school prepared.

In the book Intelligence and How to Get It, Richard E. Nisbett writes about how Chinese, Japanese and Korean educational systems focus more on hard work than on natural abilities. Here are some of Nisbett’s findings.

Children in Japan go to school 240 days a year, as opposed to the 180 days our American students attend. Further, Japanese high school students in the 1980s studied at least 3 and a half hours a day, which is likely to have increased over time. American students, on the other hand, spend more of that time online, using social media and chatting with friends.

Asian students see intelligence as malleable, meaning that it can be acquired. American students see intelligence and aptitude as something you’re born with.

When Asian students perform poorly, they work harder at it. When American students perform poorly, they often blame the test, the teacher, or their own inabilities. Rarely do they attribute poor performance on lack of effort.

Finally, Asian culture values persistence in the face of failure, and criticism as a guiding force toward self-improvement. American students, especially the most privileged, are rarely allowed to fail, thereby lacking the valuable lessons that failure teaches, and ward off criticism as attacks on their fragile self-esteem.

The truth is, assuming you are not good at science or math is a much easier path than the alternative one of hard work. So, how smart do you have to be? Smart enough to know that the only way to get there from here is through hard work, persistence and the ability to pick yourself up after you fail, which is all but guaranteed.

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