Switzerland’s Stupidest Moment

One of the things I love about Switzerland is that every citizen can actively participate in shaping the future of the country. Every few months, I get a huge envelope with information on complex questions, and that I can give my opinion about things like: “Should the army buy new airplanes?” — “Or should we abolish the army?” — “Should we build a new tunnel through the Alps?”.

If the majority has a different opinion than myself, I can calm myself down by telling myself that the people have decided, maybe stupidly, but they will get what they want and what they deserve. We are not led by a government far away whose decisions we do not understand. The result of this is that many positive changes in the world — like the women’s right to vote — arrived embarrassingly late in Switzerland, but when they are finally here, they are truly backed up by the majority. The men in this country voted to give women the right to vote. It was not some government official who decided it. Ultimately, this is fantastic, although it is hard to handle sometimes.

Last Sunday, however, is the first time that I cannot get over losing against the majority in a popular vote. Because I am sure that the majority has made a horrible mistake that will hurt this country badly.

It was a huge mistake to accept the “initiative against mass immigration” by the right-wing nationalist party. I can believe that the Swiss majority will sometimes make mean, and xenophobic, and idiotic decisions. What I cannot fucking believe is that the xenophobia and meanness is even so strong that it leads them to vote against their own economic interests.

You would think that this must have happened with a huge amount of propaganda from the right-wing nationalist party who is responsible for this highly idiotic initiative. And there was a lot of propaganda over the years. But it was mild before the vote, as if the party was not sure if it wanted this initiative to come through.

There was something else going on: A mood, an atmosphere, a way of thinking has become more and more widespread in Switzerland in the last years.

Suddenly, several nice people that I know said things like:

“God how much I hate those fucking Germans”, when we were walking on the street and heard people talking in High German.

“There has to be an end to the economic growth. It cannot go on like this.”

“Those God-damned foreigners, building houses everywhere, destroying the landscape. Where will this end?”

So from listening to people I know it is actually true: People are sick of the current economic boom that is mainly owed to the immigration of highly-skilled foreign workers, and are wishing for a crash, in order to have emptier trains and streets and cheaper rents, and in order to hear less High German on the street. Apparently they also think it is a better thing to run the economy into the ground in order to stop the destruction of the landscape, instead of, you know, passing laws that directly protect the landscape, which would be easily possible.

And if they lose their job in the process, so be it, apparently.

The cost of this mistake will probably be very high. The EU has already stopped negotiations on crucial collaborations in science and infrastructure, which will hurt us really badly. The first companies and professors are already leaving.

I think one thing can be learned for this entire disaster: It is not for economic reasons that people fear foreigners, because this was clearly not an argument here. And, even more curiously, it is not even because the foreigners are hard to integrate into our society, because the ubiquitous German immigrants are obviously culturally very similar and mostly eager to integrate.

It is because people simply do not like foreigners. All the travelling to other cultures, and eating foreign food, and enjoying foreign music and foreign movies is just superficial. Truly, deeply, people want to stay amongst their own, like animals sticking to their herd.

That is the sobering thing about direct democracy: It makes you realize, again, how people really are, not how you would like them to be.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Six disadvantages of “guess” culture

This post that was linked on Captain Awkward has really taught me something new about life, that I will not forget soon. In short, the idea explained in those posts is that there are two kinds of people: “ask” and “guess” people.

An “ask” culture is a culture where people are allowed to ask for favours and say no to requests.

In a “guess” culture, both of this is seen as problematic. Instead, one drops hints and waits for an offer, or people guess each others wishes through empathy and observation. If someone asks for a favour, it is very rude to decline it, and so people can get very upset about being asked.

In my family, we follow a 100% “guess” culture. This comes with the following annyoing disadvantages:

  1. Conflicts mostly happen under the surface. An example: A member of my family wants something, drops a few very subtle hints, others misunderstand these hints or understand them right, and choose to ignore the wish. No word may have been uttered in these entire transaction. But it may well be that the person who had the wish is secretly fuming because the wish was denied, and the people having denied the wish are secretly fuming because they found the wish outrageous.
  2. We are all prone to being manipulated, because we are used to manipulation as the normal way of communication.  In my own family, the manipulation is mostly relatively well-meaning and simply a retarded way of communication. Outside in the wider world, manipulators are of course often not well-meaning, but we all have a tendency to fall into their traps, because we immediately feel at home with them.
  3. We are very bad at figuring out what we want. One consequence of not expressing your wishes openly is that you will also lose the ability to express wishes internally. I have noticed that I often censor my impulses when they are not even fully clear to me yet, and I take forever to make decisions, and I am always afraid that my decisions were wrong. Guess culture is a culture where the relationships and the community are valued higher than the individual. Therefore, wanting things is seen as inherently dangerous, as it might lead to conflict.
  4. We have social anxiety. When I spend time with my family, about 60 % of my brain power at any time is spent on trying to decipher the hints that the other family members might be dropping, and I am always anxious to miss something and thereby offend or hurt someone. It is very hard to switch that off when I am with people outside of my family, but at the same time, it is much harder to read unfamiliar people, and this can make me very nervous. Another problem is that I get very nervous if I have to tell people what I want from them, because I have learned early on that telling people what you want is aggressive and frowned-upon. In my case, I find it hard to go to a shop and ask for something complicated; my sister is afraid of making business phonecalls. I also find it very hard to say no.
  5. We often are run over by “ask” people. Of course, saying what you want clearly, saying no, and not being afraid of conflict and disagreement is a huge advantage in any career. People who have learned that already in their families will probably always be ahead of us. And so everyone in my family was not able to exploit their potential and has a job that lies below their ability.
  6. If someone in the family is not doing well, others might get upset at them. I tend to admit openly when I have a problem in my life.  Others in my family then get angry at me and see me as selfish for talking about it, because they feel so intertwined with each other that one’s person unhappiness is a real threat to the entire system. I haven’t figured this part out completely, and it is the most painful one for me. Maybe this is an aspect where I am not as an extreme “guess” person as the others. If someone talks about their problems, this does not bother me in the least. The rest of my family tends to see it as an act of aggression (maybe because they understand it as a request that they have to help me?).

I hope that I will continue to become more of an “ask” person. And if I ever have children,  I will try to make the environment more “ask” and less “guess”, to prepare them better for the real world. I am very grateful for the people that posted about this, since it has really helped me to understand myself and my family better.

Posted in Psychology, Manipulation, Anxiety, High sensitivity | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Too easy explanations

I spent a lot of my final years in academia being really angry about how ridiculously uncritical many of my fellow scientists are, and how little they actually care about the truth. Here is why:

The goal of my subfield is to understand and describe in detail how a number of phenomena work.
These phenomena have zero actual relevance to people outside of my subfield — it is extremely likely that no human will ever be affected by them directly.
We study these phenomena because we find them fascinating and beautiful and important in a big-picture “where does everything come from”-sense.

But we all know that the models and explanations we fabricate in our subfield will probably never have to stand the test of people outside our own field actually trying out if it works, which would of course be different if we studied semi-conductors.

So what that means is that we make the models and explanations in our subfield, and we test and assess them ourselves. From time to time something that happens in our subfield goes to the media, normally totally distorted and wrong, but in this way the wider population of people on the planet notices that we exist and also remember that the phenomena we study exist, which is nice, because the phenomena are indeed beautiful.

Now I think that there is a huge problem in my field that models and theories become canonized too quickly.
The transition from “We have no clue how phenomenon X can be explained, maybe it has to do with Y” to “It is generally accepted that Y causes X” happens at an astonishing speed.

The reasons that this happens are among others:

  1. People, even scientist, don’t like uncertainty.
  2. Funding agencies like it even less, unless one can argue a breakthrough is imminent (which is usually a lie)
  3. As the phenomena we study have zero real life applicability, it does not actually matter to anyone outside of our subfield if we have found the final explanation for a phenomenon, or if we have fooled ourselves. Humanity may perish with the experts in my subfield wrongly believing in our explanation, and no harm will have been done. People are aware of this and so they do not feel too bad about suppressing their doubts about a certain explanation.
  4. Once a certain explanation becomes fashionable among influential people, everybody works hard to find even more evidence it is correct, instead of evidence that it might be wrong.

I personally love mysteries and open questions, and the search for truth, even if it has zero real life applicability. This is why I went into research. So I was annoyed to find that people were claiming things in my field were more or less figured out. Consequently, and for purely selfish reasons, all I did in the last years was trying to poke holes in the existing explanations. Also, I am naturally critical of authority and I was not as ambitious about my career as others. So it was more a matter of my character than of a conscious decision that I started to question previous work.

To my surprise, this was ridiculously easy. Wherevere I looked, I found problems and inconsistencies in the existing explanations and most of my papers are about them. They are cited well, I have had an easy time to find good postdoctoral positions and I have received plenty of praise for them.

However, from the start, I have also upset people and several senior people have critiziced me for being destructive instead of creative, and warned me that I was making enemies in the field by pointing out mistakes in other people’s work.

And by now I do think that my way of doing things ended my career.
Once I applied for more advanced positions, I tried to convince outside experts that

1. My subfield is interesting
2. There are problems in the widely used theory in my subfield
3. I want to explore those problems in more detail

This did not go down well.
Talking about problems in a field is not what funding agencies want to hear, especially if they do not know much about the field in the first place. They want a different story: They want to hear that the field is in a super-great state and the next big insight is just around the corner. Critical people will not get funded.

Unfortunately, by now I have become so annoyed by the naive way in which many people in my field believe everything that a famous person says that I am really unable to give a talk claiming that the field is extremely dynamic and close to a major breakthrough.
It isn’t, because there is a huge overhead of too easy, too early explanations, which we first have to destroy to create progress. It isn’t, because many people in my field are totally uncritical.

What worries me sometimes is that similar things are obviously going on in fields that have actual relevance for humanity, like medicine and economics.
My dream job would be checking up on important papers in various fields, and finding problems with them. I think this would be super-easy, at least if I was allowed to spend a few weeks per paper. If you don’t believe me, see this example in economics or this example in positive psychology.

Who wants to fund me?

Posted in Academia, Physics | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Should you do another postdoc?

Here is yet another article about the negative effect that having to do 2-3 postdocs before being able to apply for tenure-track positions has on people’s life, which has been widely shared and discussed on my facebook.

I left academia after 2 postdocs only 3 months ago, but already now I feel a greater clarity is coming over me regarding the topic. People are forever questioning themselves whether the postdoc lifestyle is still worth it for them or whether they should leave. I have asked myself the same question for 6 years almost every day.

Now I think the situation is much, much simpler than I thought.

In truth, there are only two reasons why you should not quit your postdoc tomorrow and find another job:

(i) You like living abroad and having to change country every 2-3 years. You think this lifestyle has clear advantages to living in one place.


(ii) Your big life goal is to become a professor. If you think about what being a professor is like in real life, which you can easily observe around you, you start smiling. No other job has this appeal for you. Plus you believe this goal is reachable for you.

For most people I know, neither (i) nor (ii) is the case. They don’t really like the postdoc lifestyle and they don’t really want to be professor or they know well that it is unlikely that they will manage to reach this goal.

Invalid reasons to stay in science:

(i) Thinking that jobs outside of science are less interesting, motivating and satisfying. The world is much bigger than academia, and there are so many different jobs and so many different ways of being motivated and satisfied.

(ii) Feeling committment to your PhD advisor and collaborators and ongoing projects. This feeling will never just go away; you have to act despite of it.

(iii) You started as a confused PhD many years ago. Now you know how everything works, you have acquired some status, you are praised. How can you throw this away?
The truth is there are other jobs where you will be successful and gain back status quickly. You will likely be one of the smarter persons in your next job, and people will notice.

(iv) You see that there are people less smart and less dedicated than you who are staying or even getting good positions for whatever reasons and this seems unfair to you. How can you give up the fight? This way of arguing means that you think academia is the only place where you can make worthwhile contributions and where success is possible. What if you can have a much greater impact on people outside of academia?

(v) You look down on people outside of academia. You would find it horribly depressing to leave that elevated position and go mingle with the lowly normal people. I have felt this way, and I am not proud of it.
Weirdly, people in other jobs do not see themselves as placed in the bottom. They do not think about academia as the greatest human endeavour possible. Many academics are extremely proud of their jobs. But to society, many other jobs are at least as important and influential: inventors, writers, journalists, teachers, architects, doctors, engineers, physiotherapists…

(vi) You love your topic of research or resarch itself. I wish this was a valid enough reason to stay, but it isn’t. You have to love yourself and your future happiness too. And just loving what you do does not make up for not having a secure position and not having a stable lifestyle in the long run. Many people are not particularly good in looking out for themselves and caring about themselves as they would care about a friend, and not having this ability is particularly dangerous in a job that is borderline exploitative, like academia.

Nothing changes the fact that is really painful to leave a job that you deeply care about, and it is really tempting wanting to postpone the difficult decision and difficult transition period into the future. I have done it for long and exactly this postponing, that I knew on some level was happening, made me feel depressed, hopeless, and very trapped. I wish I had left earlier.

In the end, I managed to leave only because I half-consciously, half-subconsciously manoevered myself in a position where I had no other choice. I now manage to keep up this decision and not be lured back into science because of several reasons. The most important one is perhaps this:

Being in science favoured some parts I have inside of me, made them grow and flourish. But I have always been aware that there are other parts of me that are hungry for growth and attention, and they have often visited me in my dreams and complained about being mistreated. In my case, this included a part that wants to care for others, a part that would have liked to study literature or psychology, a part that is interested in people and in many things outside of science. I am trying to seem my leaving science as a chance to make this other parts wake up and grow.

And I think this is really the advantage of any big change in life, however painful they might be: it will give room to parts of yourself that you maybe forgot you had, and it will make you a rounder person. Also, it is fantastic to see the options in my life opening up again, even if the loss of status and of investment is sometimes painful. Science is necessarily a very narrow endeavour, where you work hard on a very tiny part of human knowledge, and to be totally honest, I was getting bored, although it took me years to admit it. It is so tempting to plunge into the project instead of thinking about this decision carefully.

I feel sorry for all my friends who will have to leave science too and still do not admit it to themselves, because this kind of denial of the obvious is really bad for one’s health and happiness.

Posted in Academia | Tagged , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Class dynamics

A month ago, I took over 2 maths classes which were both not in a good state: their previous teacher had been giving unsatisfactory marks the entire classes, and they were discouraged with maths and generally in a bad mood. The first class was loud and complaining loudly, the second quiet, sulky, their complaints more bitter.

Now I have given the classes away again, and I am still thinking a lot about what happened in the lessons.

In the first one, the loud one, I think I managed to achieve a small progress with a very simple trick:

We had an exam, and after I had returned it, I let the students demonstrate the solutions on the blackboard. For each part of the exam, I picked the weakest student who had still managed to solve it.

The effect was astounding: the class was totally silent listening to a weak student explaining an exercise that part of them had not been able to solve. The weak students suddenly looked taller, even those that I had not asked to solve exercises, and they all started to participate in class and volunteer for solving exercises on the blackboard. It was a huge surprise to me. Somehow it turned around the entire dynamics of the class. One of the weakest students, who I had praised for being the only one to see a second solution in one of the exam exercises, later surprised me with making up a difficult exercise for the class herself, and solving it flawlessly on the blackboard. Perhaps not unexpectedly, all of these weak students who suddenly improved had been girls, who are likely to be better at maths then they seem. What I learned from this is how hungry the students are for praise, even they look disinterested.

Of course, at the same time, I have to admit, the strongest (male) student of the class started acting up, disrupting the class by laughing loudly or making stupid comments, which is probably not surprising: he’s role as alpha student was being questioned.

With the second class, I am less happy and still thinking about what I could have done better. There was a really strange piece of dynamics going on. Whatever I tried to explain, there were two girls at the back of the class, let’s call them Rita and Sina, clamouring loudly and in very annoyed voices that they did not understand, asking stupid questions, and urging me to explain the thing again and again. Rita was especially bad, her face was angry and bitter, her questions especially repetitive.

I remained patient and tried to explain again and again, until another math teacher told me that they sometimes use this trick to slow down the class, so that less material can be covered. I was not fully convinced of this though, because the two of them looked really, really desperate and angry at me for not explaining it better. But in the end I had to tell them that I could not explain the same thing four times.

In any case, in the exam, Rita achieved the maximum score, although she was acting up during the exam, bothering others and annoying me.

Sina, on the other hand, was by a large margin the weakest student of the class. So apparently what both of them had communicated turned out to be Sina’s lack of understanding and frustration; Rita apparently had understood everything perfectly well.

Somehow, instead of managing to explain some things to Sina, Rita supported Sina in her anger and frustration, and gave her the feeling that it was not hers, but the teacher’s fault if she could not follow.

After the exam, Sina came to me teary-eyed, saying that this had been her worst mark yet, and begging to repeat the exam. I said this would be the decision of her next teacher.

I am still wondering what I should have done to break this dynamics, or what a good teacher would do next. Probably those two should stop sitting next to each other, because it is damaging Sina. I just do not understand why Rita is not able to help her even a little bit. Maybe, solving the Rita/Sina problem would put the entire class  in a better mood and make them less sulky.

It is weird how much the faces of the students are still with me, even now that I know I won’t see them anymore. Especially Rita’s cold stare is still following me and I am still trying to figure out why she used this tactics. There was also a guy in the first row, who also wrote a very good exam, but had such a sad, resigned face that it is hard to forget it.

Posted in Teaching | Tagged | 8 Comments