The conversation goes like this:
Random Person: Can you show me how to do this (fill in math problem, science problem, etc , etc)?
Goes through entire process to show how to set the problem up and get the answer.
Random Person: Wow, can I just have your brain? You’re so smart!
It sounds like a complement, right? I mean, in a way it is. They are clearly impressed by what I am able to do. So what’s the problem?
Well, more often than not the person who is talking to me is also smart. And honestly, I’m not that smart. No, seriously, I’m not. I’ve never taken an IQ test but I don’t see myself blowing anything out of the water. I am not Mensa level.
Let me address both of these things. We’ll start with the fact that I’m not that smart. And I will immediately brag on myself. I took lots of math in college – Calculus (3 levels, in fact), Linear Algebra, Statistics, as some examples – and science classes too – basic Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Earth Sciences and then some more advanced Chemistry and Physics classes. I also took a long list of general education classes spanning from Economics to Theater. I earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemistry. I completed a semester long research project under the supervision of my advisor. Clearly, I’m not dumb. However, I’m no smarter than any of the other people that I took those same classes with. There were a lot of us. I will say, I was one of the few females in most of those classes. That doesn’t and shouldn’t matter though. So why does everyone think I’m smart because of this?
Honestly, I think the answer is two fold (and will lead to my addressing the other point there about those other people also being smart). First is that those classes are not easy. Nobody has ever accused a chemistry class of being easy. Or a physics class. Or most math classes. People will often refer to things like psychology as easy though. What’s the difference? Well, it has a lot to do with how you have to think about these things. Science and math demand that you think critically all the time. Very early on, you learn how to deduce things from information that you don’t have in order to make educated guesses. If you can’t do that, you probably won’t do well because those classes are dependent on that skill. In psychology classes, most people can get away with a very basic understanding of what’s going on and never really put much thought into the deeper connections at work. You can memorize your way through psych class to a passing grade. You can’t do that with science and math because it’s not about memorizing. There’s no way to predict in the real world what numbers or situations will present themselves.
Now, this is also very true in psychology. People who go on to higher levels need to learn how to take the basic knowledge and use it to develop critical thinking skills. Nobody ever walked into a psychiatrist or therapist’s office and said “You know, I think I have some PTSD going on. Tell me how to fix that.” Instead, the professional needs to talk to the person and get a deep understanding of their past and what could be going on before they can begin to think about diagnosing a problem. That’s critical thinking.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that most college majors don’t need to critically think. It’s more about how much critical thinking needs to happen at any given level. Scientists have to be able to think critically like that from day one. Often, people can take an introductory psychology class and never think critically once (this isn’t the teacher’s fault, by the way and I’m sure they intend for their students to think critically).
The other issue at work is this idea that win order to do math or science, you have to be “smart” and if you struggle with it, you’re not “smart”. Some of us have those things come to us more easily than others. For example, I can not spell. I rely on spell checkers heavily and sometimes still have mistakes slip through. My brain works in images and pictures and while I can visualize an atom in my head, that means that I see words that way too. The word dog brings an image to my mind and not letters. While dog is pretty easy to spell, there are much more complicated words out there and the letters elude me. A lot. Nobody would say that makes me not smart. And yet when the same is true for someone who can’t visualize molecules like I can, they feel not smart. That’s silly.
We also have a heavy stigma around women and their abilities to do math and science. I am a woman and society says, I shouldn’t be able to do math and science well. Yet I do, so I must be really smart. Except I’m not. I do, however, work very hard. Effort is what got me this knowledge, not some random gift bestowed upon me that makes me different from everyone else. I will admit that I have some skills that make parts of this easier for me, but that’s not true for everything. I still have nightmares about trying to derive Schrodinger’s wave equation (look it up). I kept at it until I learned how to do it though.
Some of this may be because people see applications for psychology more easily than they see applications for science. Ot perhaps it has to do with the fact that dealing with people is easier than abstract concepts. Either way, the fact is that a lot of people walking around seem to think they’re not smart with regards to critical thinking skills.
So, please, stop calling me smart. Take credit for what you know. Give me credit for the work that I do/did to understand these things. We can all do this, if we’re motivated to do it. I have confidence that you can do it. You’re smart.
Until next time lovely readers.