Confessions of a PhD Student (10): “I question authorities”

Have you ever noticed how some gurus in your field are never questioned? Have you ever noticed how some blindly accept as truth whatever authorities in your field say?

Dr. X is the director of the Super Great Institute and a professor at a very important university. He has a PhD in Y and has done research for a zillion years. His studies, experience and reputation back him up.

You probably know someone that fits this description. Have you ever got a chance to talk to this person? I have. And I know I am supposed to feel honored that I am being the recipient of such wisdom…

I do enjoy talking with academics in my area. I love it. I love sharing ideas. But I do question authorities if I do not agree with their ideas. They could be wrong, couldn’t they?

When my parents finished their PhDs, they told me something they had learned: A PhD does not make you any less stupid.

I have found this to be very true. Having academic credentials and lots of research experience can help people to stay closer to the truth. But it is no guarantee of anything. People are bound to make mistakes. I can make mistakes. Dr. X can make mistakes.

I have found that some gurus feel uncomfortable when I do not immediately accept their ideas and instead, I ask for the evidence that supports them. Some even get upset if I am not convinced by their arguments…

However, others do not mind being questioned, challenged. They even enjoy it! It can result in great academic conversations.

Even if it might be annoying for some, I think that questioning authorities is ok, whether you are a colleague of Dr. X or a simple PhD student.

– Brenda Padilla

Leave a comment



     /  September 19, 2011

    While I agree with the sentiment of questioning authority, I cannot avoid questioning your questioning of authority. Perhaps I’m lucky, because I’ve met very few people like Dr. X, even when many Drs seem to be like him at first. What I’ve found is that when researchers publish and talk about their work, they are sharing something that is valuable to them. So take what they are sharing as if it was a gift.

    Sometimes Dr. M is merely someone who chose researching as a career path and got to the point where (s)he is well known and well paid for it. And (s)he seldoms says something like “this is what it is” because, being a scientist, (s)he has learned to say “this is what I observed, under this conditions, in this specific population, and this is my explanation, and it matches the explanation of B, C, and D but contradicts A and E.” However, since Dr. M is still a human, I would understand if (s)he gets upset when someone says “that is not so” before actually listening to him/her.

    I would be careful before hurrying to question and challenge someone before listening or reading what he or she has to say. I do not like raising hostilities. While I can tolerate that, I would rather keep my mind and my doors open to collaboration and discussion.

    I believe discussion is not saying “Dr. M was wrong”. Actually, if I did bother to listen or read to what Dr. M was saying, I might be able to, instead, say something like “Hey, Dr. M. remember when you said so and so in 2009? Well, I did this in 2011 and this other guy in this other university did this in 2010… and it seems we need a better explanation of what’s going on, because what you said isn’t happening.” This kind of questioning is, in my opinion, a lot more enjoyable and inviting than the “Oh, really? Where’s your evidence?”.

    Don’t miss out on the opportunity to learn something new and see the world under new perspectives only because you are set on being a smart *ss and proving you are right or that someone else is wrong. To me, science has been more about making sense than being right or wrong.

    (Yes, I admit I have been influenced a lot more than the humanities than by science, and perhaps that is why I am more interested in being a human than in being a scientist.)

    (Yes, I also admit I abuse the first person and words like “perhaps”, “in my opinion”, “most likely”, and “reasonably”.)

  2. bdra

     /  September 20, 2011

    I loved your comment, and I agree with pretty much everything you said.

    One can question authorities after listening. I didn’t mean to imply that one should say “Dr. X is wrong” (he might be right!). I didn’t mean to imply that one should be rude (one should not!). One can listen, be polite and still have a critical attitude towards the ideas that are being shared.

    – Brenda Padilla


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