Research confidence and being dangerous with a gun.

There are two very different ways to be dangerous with a gun: to know what you’re doing, and to only think you know what you’re doing. Tweak “dangerous” a bit, and research is the same way. I draw from many disciplines, and in the course of every new project I end up having to become conversant in some new unfamiliar field. I dig in, root around, and build up my sense of the lay of the land, until I can say with confidence that I know what I’m doing. But I don’t try to kid myself that I know which kind of dangerous I am. I don’t think it’s possible to know, and even if it is, I think it’s better to resist the temptation to resolve the question one way or the other. Better to just enjoy the feelings of indeterminacy and delicacy. That may seem like a very insecure and unsatisfying way to experience knowhow, but actually it takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence to admit to ignorance and crises of confidence in research. Conversely, an eagerness to be confident communicates to me a grasping impatience for answers, a jangling discomfort with uncertainty, or a narrow desire to be perceived as an expert. The last is especially awful. My society understands confidence as a quality of expertise. It’s a weakness that we mistake for a strength, and everyone loses.

Crises of confidence are a familiar feeling in interdisciplinary research. Pretty much every project I start involves some topic that is completely new to me, and I always have to wonder if I’m the outsider who is seeing things freshly, or the outsider who is just stomping loudly around other people’s back yards. Interdisciplinary researchers are more susceptible to facing these questions, but the answers are for everyone. I think the tenuousness of knowhow is inherent to all empirical research, the only difference being that when you work across methods and disciplines, it’s harder to deceive yourself that you have a better command of the subject than you do. That’s two more benefits of interdisciplinary practice: it keeps humility in place in daily scientific practice, and it makes being dangerous less dangerous to you.