Webinar on ‘The idea and consequences of a Scientific Genius’

Insights from a discussion with sociologist Gita Chadha and graduate student Shalini Mahadev on the idea of scientific genius.

By Sayantan Datta

Having pondered about what and how culture has shaped the practice of modern science, we at TheLifeofScience.com have realised how science is far from an objective framework, and inequalities exist and thrive in the sciences as they do in society. Some people seem to be better scientists (at least in terms of popularity, recognition and positions); this is not necessarily due to their superior indulgence in how science works. This observation raised certain questions in our minds: why are some people labeled as ‘scientific geniuses’? Who is a scientific genius? For that matter, what is a scientific genius? If it is a given identity, what does it entail?

At Pressing for Progress 2019 (a conference organised by the Gender in Physics Working Group), we got a few hints to look ahead when we heard Gita Chadha speak. She is sociologist at Mumbai University who using feminist science studies to look at science critically.  Gita, one of the few researchers in this country who are studying the construction of scientific genius, led an intriguing short session that, like any good talk, raised more questions than it answered.

Gita's talk at Pressing For Progress, 2019 at University of Hyderabad

The TLoS team, while starting out on our Season 5 journey, decided to see whether we could gather a few more answers. That’s how the idea for this webinar came along. Of course, we invited Gita, and to accompany her, we invited someone from the sciences to talk about the impact that such a construct has on her, especially as someone coming from the margins of society. Shalini Mahadev is a Ph.D student in neuroscience at the University of Hyderabad and a Dalit woman doing science. She studies ‘audition’ or hearing, one of the fundamental sensory systems, using the grasshopper Heiroglyphus banian as a model. Hosting this discussion in the form of a webinar also allowed us to experiment with our multimedia selves’. Not only were we new to the content of critiquing science itself, but also to the form! If you missed the webinar, you can catch up with it right here.

Gita spent the first ten minutes to help us understand the context of the debates surrounding the construct of the scientific genius. She brought in her knowledge of the history of science (it really is a ‘his’story) and used the framework of critical science studies to analyse the construct.

“The idea of the scientific genius is a hurdle in the project to make science inclusive,” Gita said. About what constructs the genius, she pointed out the perceived traits of “innate ability” and “inevitable eminence” that go on to construct the idea of scientific genius.

But who has the spotlight for displaying ‘innate ability’ and access to ‘inevitable eminence’? Shalini, our second panelist, used an experiential framework, where she drew upon instances from her own journey in science where the construct of the scientific genius has been discriminatory against her, given her caste-class background.

“The idea of the scientific genius is a hurdle in the project to make science inclusive” – Gita Chadha

The webinar was received way better than we could have expected (do check out this review of the session by science editor Vasudevan Mukunth). It wasn’t just what the speakers said, by the way. We gathered a lot of questions, some of which we did try to deliberate on during the webinar. The responses from the panelists point to how this construct of a genius is linked to caste-merit debates in the country, and how the media may have a role in creating this construct. One cannot claim to have answered everything that was raised, but we did send a few more questions to our panelists. They have kindly responded, and their answers along with the questions are as appended below.

“My genius is not going to be tested. The sciences have written me off.” – Shalini Mahadev

Before we conclude, we cannot help but wonder about what all have we achieved through this. We have not just started some conversation about this issue, but we have also spoken about fierce politics in science. We can only hope that the conversation keeps running. We thank Wellcome Trust-DBT India Alliance for generously helping us through this webinar. We thank our panelists, who worked with us at all stages of planning for the webinar and raised the level of dialogue to a far more nuanced level than it otherwise would have been. And, we thank all the attendees for being there as a part of the conversation, and raising some very important questions, many of which we did not have time to address during the session, so we are following up with them here as promised.

Answers to (some) questions, and further insights from our panelists

Firstly, a note from Gita: While the study of scientific genius is an important question in itself and might help us mark, classify and distinguish ability and potential in the human species, it is a crucial question for those of us involved in the process and project of making science just, inclusive and plural. We, as feminists, arrive at a critique of this idea of ‘genius’ and the consequent genius culture through the study of the experiences of women in science. In various documented and undocumented accounts of women in science, we find that the idea of ‘genius’ and the incumbent genius culture (as I call it) are expressions of hyper-masculinity, sometimes even toxic masculinity, that people in science either have to conform by or become complicit with. This masculinity flexes a six-pack brain; challenging it is hard and has consequences. More than often, we find that the ‘genius’ of men becomes the reason for giving them a clean chit in any unethical act that they might commit. In a culture where sexual harassment is rampant, the ‘genius’ of men becomes their getaway. As a sociologist, it is a disciplinary excitement for me to challenge the overly biological and psychological explanations of ‘genius’ and excavate the presence of the social in the making of the ‘genius’. It is also politically binding — for some of us — to critically analyse how societal hierarchies and power structures get played out and encoded in the idea of ‘genius’ and the practice of a genius culture in science.

Q. You mentioned a change in perspective to a wide-based one – can you de-abstract this and explain how it can help democratise the sciences? (by Shubashree  Desikan)

Gita: Some of what I have said in the note above answers your question. But let’s dwell on it a bit more.

First, I am suggesting that it is important to put the term genius in quotes. This will help us indicate that all is not quite right with how we understand and deploy the term. ‘Genius’ is a social construction that leads to various problems and mostly becomes a trope of the privileged. We need to problematise the term. The prevalence of the idea of ‘individual genius’ that will ‘shine and find success’ on the basis of ‘merit’ despite all structural hurdles puts too much burden on the individual and also erases the fact that the world of science is not a level playing field, that it is as “dirtied and sullied” by its context as any other social institution. In this sense, we need to see science as “impure” as opposed to being “pure”. We need to replace, reconsider and reimagine it sociologically.

In order to do this, I think that the “innate talent”–based discourse that is prevalent in science must be rigorously examined. I find that it is harmful for the well being of all individuals and almost dangerous for marginalised sections of society aiming to enter science. It leads to a set of practices that create multiple levels of exclusions, beginning with who gets to do science and who doesn’t, who is seen as having the ability, who is seen as worthy enough to pursue the “nobility” of science so on and so forth. What we need to ask honestly is: isn’t doing science a matter of individual volition? And a matter of having the opportunities for developing individual capabilities? Just like anything else is?

Moreover, this ‘genius culture’ extends to reproducing the ideas that some social groups have better/more talent for science. The assumption that men from certain religions, certain castes and certain regions are more likely to be ‘geniuses’ can lead to intellectual corruption and nepotism, apart from other things! The fact that some castes and communities are present in larger numbers in Indian science cannot be explained in terms of their genetic or ethnic superiority (that would be a poor explanation). Hence, this ‘genius culture’ needs to be challenged. The urgency to do this is naturally felt more by marginalised people, who are excluded from the power centers of science and the scientific establishments. I genuinely think transformational and critical movements have to inform science and scientists. A dialogue between science and social science will also contribute to the process of democratising science, making it more just, more inclusive and more plural.

The prevalence of the idea of ‘individual genius’ that will ‘shine and find success’ on the basis of ‘merit’ despite all structural hurdles puts too much burden on the individual and also erases the fact that the world of science is not a level playing field, that it is as “dirtied and sullied” by its context as any other social institution. In this sense, we need to see science as “impure” as opposed to being “pure”.

Second, we need to carefully look at the creative process in and of science to mark and validate the importance of collective and collaborative work in the making of scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge is produced socially by people who are a part of the society. This is not to take away the meditative qualities and aspects of scientific work that require individual solitude. But, the isolationist model of scientific creativity —which is related to the idea of a social, a political, a historical ‘genius’ figure — needs to be changed. In my own study of the creative process of individual scientists doing normal science (in the Kuhnian sense), I found that scientific work can be classified into three phases: the germination of an idea, the creative phase and the phase of going public. It appears that only the second phase is characterised by solitude. The other two phases are absolutely social. So, the process is fluid; it shows us that normal science works like any other creative work.

So, by laying emphasis only on 1) the shining individual ‘genius’ of scientists and 2) the ‘great’ and ‘exceptional’ science, we mystify science beyond social measure. In trying to make it aspirational, we make it inaccessible. We do this in the self-image of science and in the larger public discourse around science.

Q. Is it important for a Dalit woman in science to be recognised as a ‘genius’ instead of discarding it for being the concept that has only perpetuated injustices in science (admittedly by upper-class/caste men)? (by Mukunth Vasudevan)

Shalini: It is important and simple to be treated equally. It is important to respect lack of knowledge due to various social/structural setbacks or limitations and understand the basic fact that most unknown things can be learnt by anyone. Harping on this limitation being a great flaw in the design of what makes a scientist or a genius serves no purpose other than dampening anyone’s self-worth or self-esteem. This eventually affects your performance as a scholar in entirety, and ultimately, your will to continue in the field. So yes, despite knowing this fact you’ve mentioned since childhood and believing in it too, I’ve always been reminded of how it is not true in multiple ways, big and small. Some days are harder to believe in yourself and continue and yet there are other days when you are willing to try and flex your muscles. But why have these inconvenient and uncomfortable thoughts in the first place? It affects anyone’s mental, emotional, personal and social world. So, personally this prevalent genius concept feels like a quadruply burdened task that I must achieve. Without it, the target of being a scientist seems like a forlorn hope.

Q. How do the criteria for evaluating scientific progress contribute to the idea of scientific genius? (by Ipsa Jain)

Shalini: Scientific progress depends on many factors, it is progress of all kinds. It changes over time. However, the concept of scientific genius, I feel, has remained constant; it is what pushes hierarchies across institutions. It is also what drives this whole concept of who is trained better to work in which lab. This largely depends on accessibility, and therefore, on who gets to learn what. A simple solution I feel is setting a plan of action that enables anyone to work across any lab, provided you are willing to put in the efforts and try. This is the ideal where anyone feels free to imagine and bring in more wonderful works. I think feeling shackled or burdened is also inspiring in bringing similarly wonderful works, but it is also exhausting.

A simple solution I feel is setting a plan of action that enables anyone to work across any lab, provided you are willing to put in the efforts and try.

Gita: Yes, as I was saying earlier, we look at scientific progress as a product of an individual’s ‘genius’. But we look at scientific progress as the ‘genius’ of a national/group/racial stock. We begin to measure progress not so much in terms of how it helps the greater common good, or how it makes the world a better place to live in, but in terms of how much power human beings gain over nature, and nations over each other.

For instance, why does Robert Oppenheimer come to be celebrated as one of the greatest scientific geniuses of the twentieth century? Why does he become a household name in the U.S.A? Is it because of his science? No. He becomes the technocratic genius who invented, again apparently almost singlehandedly, the tools for war between nations, a war of destruction. Is this progress? Contrast this with what happens to Ettore Majorana around the same time in history. Pumped up as the ‘genius’ by people like his friend Enrico Fermi, Majorana leaves everything and disappears, at the age of 32! Some commentators say that it was suicide, because he suffered from the impostor syndrome. Others say he might have disappeared because he didn’t want to be a part of making weapons of war. A lot of the discourse around his action becomes centered around his mental health, rather than on the conditions and culture that might have led to it! It is very easy to put down his suicide/disappearance down to his mental health but frankly, we need to look at it more mindfully.

Ideas of scientific progress are too tied up with ideas of control and power rather than around the ideas of exploration and understanding. And individual scientists find themselves trapped in this bind. On both sides.

We begin to measure progress not so much in terms of how it helps the greater common good, or how it makes the world a better place to live in, but in terms of how much power human beings gain over nature, and nations over each other.

Q. Who is considered a genius – is it by testing? Is it a societal construct – high marks; studying in an IIT, then Stanford or MIT? (by Jai Sonwalker)

Shalini: Scientific genius, as it has been understood, is exactly what you have explained yourself. This elephant in the room has been in vogue for quite some time.

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – Audre Lorde

Gita: I am glad you ask who is considered a genius and not who is a genius? You are already conscious of the subjectivity in the assessment of genius. If we look at the historical and etymological roots of the term ‘genius’, we find that in Ancient Rome it was used to name forces — spirits really — that were thought to be between the realm of the human and the divine. These spirits helped persons, groups and places to beget what they were meant to beget and led them to shine and succeed. These spirits, the ‘geniuses’, were male. With the advent of western modernity and within the context of the enlightenment movement, we know that western civilisations moved to withdraw the realm of the human from other realms. This rupture, combined with the growth of utilitarianism, capitalism, growth of modern nation states — and, of course, Darwinism — led to the establishment of a form of individualism that became central at all levels of discourse. In this context, the idea of genius was dissociated from ‘spirit’ and became associated with human beings; it became seeded inside the human species, inside the individual, inside the nation. Predictably, it got seeded inside the idea of success.

Western feminist critiques of this history suggest that there was also the dominance of the Cartesian dualism between mind-body, reason-emotion, public-private, etc. They suggest, very persuasively, that in this quest for progress, all values and attributes associated with the cultural feminine/biological female were left behind and the opposites were privileged. Basically, the argument they make is that this history was deeply gendered. Though the times and its ideologies democratised things and privileged ‘individual’ rights, it did not do so impartially or evenly. That culture still persists today. I am arguing that the idea of genius is socially constructed within those ideologies, and that geniuses are not born but made. More importantly, I am asking ‘must they be made?’ I am not saying that people do not have different brains, and abilities and talents. If we say that, we will flatten our understanding of human ability. But what we need to foreground is that the abilities we see in individuals and nations/communities are not fixed by their innate superiority. Abilities, like skills, develop, evolve, and grow, depending on generations of exposure and opportunities. More importantly, they develop differently! Why, then, do we privilege mathematical ability over verbal and visual abilities? Further, how do we measure these? Are quantitative measures, like marks, adequate? Someone who cracks the JEE has slogged, mostly in conditions of privilege, and telescoped their abilities successfully. How does this measure creativity?

Those of us excluded out of this track and who aspire for it must be given fair opportunity to participate in it, no doubt. But honestly, if we do not critique it and reject it from the inside when we reach there, no one will. Remember Audre Lorde saying: For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Applies here somewhat.

Q. I am an educator working in school spaces. What are some ways you think one could engage with these issues? The baggage of ‘genius’ might start from an early age, right? (by Mrinal Shah)

Shalini: Yes, it does. Perhaps encouraging asking questions, is a primary change that is needed. I think making children realise that anyone can actually try doing anything they’d like is also a small step in slowly dismantling this genius concept.

Gita: Absolutely, it does start from early on and starts very traumatically, at the level of family and school, and then, higher education. What are the messages we give to children and young adults? Look at the work on how children perceive science and scientists. There is no diversity in their perceptions. The scientist is mostly male and in the laboratory and with spiked hair. This is a frightening stereotype we have generated. TheLifeofScience.com has done some interesting work to document this. We do not project the scientist as an ordinary person, or science as an ordinary activity.

There is an interesting problem here though. In trying to make science interesting and accessible to children, we have to use relatable language. This relatable language organically comes from our social contexts but also comes with the burden of social meanings. So then, what do we do? It’s a tricky one! Also, in trying to make role models for children, we magnify the individual and replay what goes on in the world of science. We teach relativity as Einstein’s theory, we teach laws of motion as Newtonian laws of motion. The pedagogic need to lend a face to an idea becomes counterproductive.

In trying to make science interesting and accessible to children, we have to use relatable language. This relatable language organically comes from our social contexts but also comes with the burden of social meanings. So then, what do we do? It’s a tricky one!

I’d like to add a final thought here. At our best systemic attitudes in science education, we try to develop a passion for science, instead of a simple interest. The romance that we build with science in order to make it come alive, the passion we instil at the school level often does not match with people’s experiences at home. In my own work on women in science, at least two narratives recounted experiences of being prodigious girl children who showed exceptional abilities in mathematics. Early experiences of taunting and alienation because of this ability marked their psyche and affected their self-esteem. This stayed with them all through their journey in professional mathematics. The early romance is difficult to sustain in institutions of higher education – or even at the frontlines of science. For anyone. But much more so, for marginalised people. As science becomes  professionalised, the magic fades. And, in most cases, we keep the magic alive by constructing the ‘genius’ narrative and its frightening incumbent – the genius culture. The struggle to belong to the world of science gets harder and harder on the unfortunate vertical ladder. It is important, therefore, to demystify science in education and also prepare young for the real world of science, which is as murky as any other.

Q. At the polar opposite of the ‘genius culture’ is the culture of ‘normalising overworking’ in science? How do you think the surge of a genius culture is feeding into and aggravating the rise of mental health, power imbalances, and unhealthy work culture in science? (by Siddharth Kankaria)

Shalini: According to me, overworking was always factored into the stereotype of genius culture in sciences, which is also why the marginalised largely fail to have a stronghold in sciences. High efficiency in a short span of time along with long working hours is again a quadrupled feeling of pressure to perform and excel. I think this is how the system fails everyone.

Gita: Are these two really at polar opposites? I see them as somewhat of a continuum. The genius culture and the normalising of ‘being at work all the time’ — in labs, on the computer, at workplace, in sleep too — come together in at least three ways that I can detect. One, the genius culture can become, as I said, Calvinist in some sense. Your work becomes your worship, the be all and end all of everything. There is no difference between work and leisure, then. So, if you are the ‘genius’ there is no overwork because everything is work and nothing is work, right? This is the theatrics of brilliance. Having a life outside of this theatrics makes you human and how can you allow that while playing god, no? So it is normal to ‘overwork’, as you say.

Two, as I said, the genius culture assumes that eminence and recognition are the marks of ‘genius’, the rewards so to speak. So, suppose you are not a ‘genius’, you can work the system up to acquire the markers of it, i.e. the rewards. And these come with some work and a lot of networks. In this scenario, the networking is a part of your work. At its worst, this can become a lot of dehumanising, manipulative hard work that drags you into power games. At its best, it can allow you to fashion the culture of science. You can, in principle, bring in ethical discourses in decision making at all levels. In this scenario, work is important, that doesn’t go away. Remember science is quite like capitalism; surplus value drives it. And because the signs of genius lie in gaining eminence, which can, in turn, be measured in terms of productivity, work has to be done. So you get others to do it for you, you build teams that are not real teams but are factories.

This theatrics of eminence blurs the boundaries between work and network. And three, if you don’t have it in you to either become the genius, or gain eminence, you still perform the theatrics of reality. For the family, for your school alumni association, and for the world. In this scenario, you keep working, keep producing while doing nothing else outside of this world, you don’t step out. Essentially, you dry up. And hang in there, helplessly, and submitting to all forms of brilliance and eminence in others. You tell yourself that you are making a realistic assessment, that you don’t have it in you to be either brilliant or gain eminence, so you will just keep working and doing nothing else. This is the saddest scenario. All three scenarios bring in a lot of pressures on individual scientists that lead to compromised sense of wellbeing. What do we need? I think we need the rest of ‘scientists’ in and out of science- the outliers and the dissenters – who refuse to fall into any of these scenarios. We need them to come together to bring in reflexivity and reflection on how to reimagine the ‘scientific genius’.

Your work becomes your worship, the be all and end all of everything. There is no difference between work and leisure, then. So, if you are the ‘genius’ there is no overwork because everything is work and nothing is work, right? This is the theatrics of brilliance.

Note: This piece is a part of Season 5 of TheLifeofScience.com sponsored by a grant from DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

By TLoS Team | Published on Jul 9, 2020 in Views

2 responses to "Webinar on ‘The idea and consequences of a Scientific Genius’"

    prabodh parikh says:

    rigeourus thought provoking well articulated.

    Sanjeevni says:

    Thank you! The genius culture is something I’ve struggled with. At home and school, it meant getting the best grades possible. So much so that a lot of my self-esteem was based on it. I think I am at a better place right now and this post has given me a lot to think about. Thank you for having this discussion!

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