I’m scared of writing about physics. There, I said it. For the past year, you might have noticed a suspicious lack of activity here on my blog and a lack of science communication posts on my Instagram page. In fact, the last time I made an explainer-style post was June of last year.
I’ve been microblogging on Instagram since winter 2018, shortly after I started my PhD, and I’ve noticed that as my audience has grown, I’ve posted less and less about physics concepts and focused more on talking about my PhD experiences. I do think that it is important to blog about lived experience — sharing lessons learned, tips, and advice is extremely valuable and I will continue to cover these topics regularly. But I’m a physicist and I love thinking and talking about physics. So much so that I even decided to name my blog ‘notes from the physics lab’. So why can’t I get up the courage to publish any physics posts?
The ‘expert’ problem
It’s not because of a lack of ideas. My draft folder is overflowing with over 150 half-finished blog posts and about half of these are focused on exploring physics concepts related to my research. So clearly I do have things to say and that I want to talk about. And I don’t think it’s because of the pandemic’s impact. Sure, it has affected my mental health and energy severely, but this feels like a different problem. The problem around the perception of expertise and how that intertwines with imposter syndrome.
I’m scared to be perceived as an expert in my chosen subject. This sounds so silly — I have a 4-year integrated master’s degree in physics and over 3 years of experience as a physics researcher, so I do have some expertise in my subject and specific research niche. Granted, not as much as professors and researchers who have been studying physics since before I was born (and I will always listen to those more experienced than I). But compared to the general population I think I can be categorised as someone with physics expertise to some extent. I think that I should still share my understanding of physics with people, even though I am still very early on in my career because I won’t get any better at communicating science without practising.
This is by far the main reason why I have lost my confidence when it comes to posting informative posts about physics. When I write about my day-to-day experiences I can’t be wrong. That’s my lived experience so it’s completely objective and though people may doubt it (especially when I talk about things related to being autistic), I know that my experience is real and true so it doesn’t impact my confidence. But when I make a post about a physics concept, then it follows that it is only true within our current knowledge of the subject and the papers that I cite in the post will reflect that temporality. I’m sharing my current understanding of physics and I’m aware that in 10 years time we may have new theories and evidence that contradicts that knowledge. After all, that is how the scientific method works.
Public trust and understanding of science
In the past year, there has been a lot of discourse around public trust in experts and in science, particularly in the context of COVID-19. I do think that this has weighed heavily on my mind and increased my hesitancy to write about physics. I know that there will be people who distrust what I write and my people-pleasing side doesn’t want to risk someone disliking me. But I suppose that is just me being a coward! There will always be people who disagree with me, and that’s okay. I like to engage in healthy debate as long as everyone is respectful of each other. The problem is that people on the internet are often not respectful of others with differing opinions. I’ve never experienced harassment of this kind myself, but I have witnessed many scientists who have and that scares me.
I do think that laypeople tend to have a gap in their understanding of how science research happens and the scientific method (this is part of why I’m so passionate about science communication- I think that everyone should have the opportunity to learn about these things and understand science). There isn’t really such a thing as ‘scientific truth’. Science is an ever-evolving body of knowledge that we develop as we gather new evidence. I certainly feel that as a scientist, I can never proclaim that our theories are truly the best way to describe the world around us. I do think that we have many excellent theories that sufficiently approximate the world (such as quantum theory), allowing us to make predictions and develop useful technology. But who knows, maybe in 100 years there will have been a huge paradigm shift and we have a new, better theory. This is how science has developed historically.
Am I an imposter?
Like many people, I would say I have pretty bad imposter syndrome a large percentage of the time. I think that the concept of expertise is tied up in this. How can I be an expert if I’m an imposter? The answer is that I’m not an imposter, but that doesn’t stop my brain from believing that it’s the case. Especially if I realise I have made a mistake- that’s just proof that I’m a fraud and don’t know what I’m talking about! I need to remember that everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of being human and the process of learning. It’s also part of being a researcher and a scientist, so it should be something that I embrace rather than hiding from it.
Blogging as a testing ground
The whole point of blogging (in my opinion) is as a testing ground for writing and exploring ideas through sharing them publically with others. A blog should be a place where you can air your ideas and engage in discussions around your writing in the comments. It’s not about being right, it’s about sharing your thoughts in a communal space so that you can learn and grow.
Even in the case of ‘explainer’ type posts which may appear more authoritative on the surface. What you write is always going to be a reflection of your understanding at that moment in time. And that’s okay. I need to allow myself this space to communicate my current understanding without fear of repercussions from people who have differing opinions on how physics is interpreted. The only way I’m going to get better at science writing is by doing it and practising the craft.
I think that this is a problem that a lot of people who want to start doing science communication and those of us starting to teach have. We feel like we don’t know everything (and I think this persists throughout one’s teaching and research career) so it can stop us from communicating or teaching altogether. But that doesn’t help anyone. If we can encourage critical thinking in our audience and students, then it doesn’t matter if we don’t know everything. In fact, I would hope that these activities would make us think, challenge, and develop our understanding as we interact with others about the knowledge we share and discuss.
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